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Interesting article-

I love Chesterton. When I first read Orthodoxy, I expected a conservative, mildly boring, exposition on Christian orthodoxy. Instead I found it witty, engaging exposition, and more concerned with fairy-tales, democracy, and the good life. Now, I think Chesterton, and Lewis after him, cherry-picked Christianity to support their visions of it, but they're definitely two of my most important influences.

Anyway, I agree with your two caveats. It's no more fair to accuse all skeptics of pathological disbelief than it is to accuse all believers of pathological belief.

I too agree with your two caveats. But this article in today's Guardian illustrates Chesterton's point precisely:

The article itself - which concerns the spiritual experiences of those undergoing torture - will, I think, be of interest to those who follow this blog. But it's the response of some of the bloggers that illustrates for me perfectly the distinctions Chesterton drew in the piece quoted by Michael.

I think what Chesterton was referring to in regards to his "disbelievers in miracles" are those who, *despite any evidential phenomena whatever* were too programmed by their materialist upbringing/education/whatever to allow themselves even the slightest paradigmatic shift into the objective. I don't think he ignores evidence of fraud at all and that is exemplified in the excerpt regarding fake bank notes.

I am not a Chesterson expert by a long shot. Hell, I've read more about the man than I have his actual writing. All I do know is that he was quick, thoughtful, whimsically profound, and happened to be the model for Neil Gaiman's "Fiddler's Green."


It's not always the case that "the disbelievers in miracles deny them ... because they have a doctrine against them." Sometimes they deny miracles because they have found actual evidence of fraud, or have reasonable grounds for suspecting fraud.

One may disbelieve that a particular event is miraculous on the basis of evidence, which is what your example of Randi addresses. However, it appears that Chesterton is speaking of those who disbelieve the possibility of any miraculous event taking place -- and that cannot be rationally concluded on the basis of evidence -- it is necessary conclusion based on a belief in a theory (to avoid the value-laden term doctrine).

On the basis of evidence (a long history of discovered fraud and error for other such claims) one can conclude that it is highly unlikely that any particular apparent miracle will prove to be so upon examination. One might even conclude, given a sufficient history) that it is very unlikely that anyone has ever observed an event that would have proven to be a miracle if sufficiently investigated. This is just a matter of probabilistic inference.

But, of course, absolute statements of generalities on the basis of a finite amount of evidence (classical inference) is logically unjustified. However many white swans you have seen (having not visited Australia) you are not justified in concluding that all swans are white (that there are no "miraculous" black swans). But it only requires one unmistakable observation of a black swan to be justified in concluding that that particular "miracle" is possible.

(I know that I'm preaching to the choir here, but it seemed worthwhile to bring it up in this context).

You can only take induction so seriously.

Here are some additional quotations I've found in the same book (Orthodoxy)

It is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.

The more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up.

The more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence.

Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment.

Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland.

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.

And here's one more in a similar "vein":

“Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”

—Dracula by Bram Stoker

Thanks, Roger. I especially like the last of the Chesterton quotes. Guess I'll have to read that book.

Dracula is a really good novel, one of my favorites. I once read a bio of Bram Stoker - a very interesting man, whose life was mainly devoted to the theater. He was a stage manager at the Lyceum Theatre when a play based on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde was put on. The play's run coincided with the start of Jack the Ripper's murders, and some Londoners believed that the "horrible" play inspired the killings. (This is most unlikely, of course, and speaks to Victorian naivete about pathological psychology.) Stoker spent much of his life as the personal assistant to famed actor and stage impresario Henry Irving, a man who was larger than life, elegant, and cruel, and who may have served as the model for Dracula.

BTW, the Kindle edition of Orthodoxy is available for free.

One Amazon review provides another quote from the book:

"(Skepticism) discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation."

Not entirely fair, of course. But it made me smile.

Also this:

"It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything -- even pride."

See the book "Gilbert, The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton" pages 49-52 by Michael Coren for Chesterton's experience with the ouija board. I don't think he was so much "open" to spiritualism as he took it seriously enough to be disturbed by it.

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