“I was born and bred in a paradox patch!”

I’ve been writing a series of posts on the intellectual attraction I’ve felt to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and some Christian theology generally.  There will be a major update in that series tomorrow, but, in the meantime, here’s an overview of my biggest problem with Chesterton.

In my life as a debater, there’s a particular rhetorical trick that I live in fear of.  Picture this:

Armed with knowledge of your opponent’s principles, you construct a reductio ad absurdum argument.  Careful to leave your opponent no avenue of escape, you make sure that the chain of reasoning from the premises to the untenable conclusion is adamantine.  Once he makes the argument that slots into the first step of your deduction, you spring your rhetorical bear trap.<

And then you watch in horror as your opponent pulls a Br’er Rabbit.

Your interlocutor are delighted that you finally understand.  In fact, you might have gone farther!  What you thought of as an absurdum is in fact only another step towards the transcendent vistas visible from the Cliffs of Insanity!  This bear trap would really be improved with more spikes and a tigher hinge!

This is tends to be my experience when reading Chesterton.

Chesterton loves paradox.  For just one of the many quotes backing this up from Orthodoxy, see below:

“As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness we may well take the cross as the symbol at once mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds, it is a signpost for free travellers.”

Chesterton’s Christianity rests on paradox.  His theology gives him a framework that requires some tenets of his belief to remain unexplained except by divine revelation, and then he takes these mysteries as his foundation. Or, as he would put it,

“The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”

I can’t help but rebel at this idea.  There’s no way to disprove or question his paradoxical precepts, since he will be the first to admit he doesn’t understand them, but he has found them to be self-validating.  Once he accepts them, everything else in his life just seems to work, and the more he commits to these ideas, the easier it becomes for him to live as a good man.

I’d like to mock his epistemology, but I know I’m guilty of all the same tricks. Aren’t I a scientist who can’t help but use the language of dualism when I talk about human beings?  Aren’t I an atheist who argues not only that I should behave well, but that I ought to reforge my character so that I am the kind of person who naturally serves the Good.  And don’t I have no legitimate reason to capitalize that ‘g’ in Good or to talk about morality as a transcendent property at all?

Like Chesterton, I find myself unable to adequately defend these ideas except by saying that once I admit them to my metaphysics, everything else slots into place and starts working.  Without them I don’t have any language to talk about oughts and duty and character, and, lacking that language, I don’t have any reason to live or to act or to love.

If someone has an out, I’d love to hear it, but for now, I’m stuck in the same brier patch that Chesterton loved.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • dbp

    It should be noted that Chesterton's paradoxes are not in general necessary, logical contradictions so much as apparent contradictions. Some of these apparent contradictions are just simple unexpected reversals (e.g. he might say of St. Francis, "by becoming poor, the mendicant friar conquered the rich"– not really contradictory at all, and even perhaps foreseeable if you were looking for it, but not at all what one would intuitively expect).Others address actual mysteries of the faith, in which case the apparent contradiction seems almost to be a logical impossibility. But in most cases Chesterton, I think, would not consider them to be so. Take, for instance, the Incarnation: the eternal Creator God is born and lives a temporal life. It seems ridiculous, and some might even consider it a logical contradiction. But the truth is that we simply don't understand our premises enough to say whether it is a logical contradiction or not. We do not understand timelessness, or for that matter existence-in-time; we do not fully understand spirit or how it interfaces with the visible universe. We do not understand even the nature of a human person in its entirety.It's like quantum mechanics: no one can really understand what it means, but it's a necessary consequence of the math that apparently runs the universe. It's just true, and we have to live with it even though it contradicts everything we normally assume about reality.So, the Incarnation is a paradox: it seems impossible on its face, but cannot be logically proven one way or the other. It certainly would not be the sort of thing anyone would expect. The only reason people believe it is because it has been revealed (or they think it has been revealed) to be true.But the funny thing that happens, as you have discovered in your half-step toward your own Mysteries. Accepting the truth that is bigger than yourself– that you cannot comprehend and bring into intellectual submission– you find your intellectual horizons broaden and your moral landscape spring into bloom. This isn't because the contradictory truths are contradictory but because they are true.The rational framework we choose defines the thoughts we can think; it's like a box we live in. Atheism builds a box that is completely within our understanding. Problem is, what if the universe is bigger than that box, or any we can build ourselves? It sounds like you already don't fit inside the atheism box.We didn't build Christianity's box, and we don't completely understand its architecture. But it stands just fine, and it's extremely comfy– and by the way, there's plenty of room for you here, if you ever get interested. I'm just sayin'. ;)

  • The Masked Chicken

    I have to say that, as someone who has done extensive work in the application or misapplication of paradox theory to humor, I do not see that Chesterton actually uses paradox all that much. This is a legend. He does used mixed-level encoding, which has confused many a person into thinking something is a paradox when it is not. The two antimonies are actually skewed to each other. I wish I could draw a diagram to show what I mean.There is no way out of a genuine paradox, but for escape from quasi-paradoxes, local and global embedding works. For instance, A and not-A give rise to a paradox only if they exist at the same time, in the same space, on the same discourse level, and are singular.Various embeddings to consider: A can be embedded in a superset not containing not-A A and not-A can both be embedded into a superset admitting bothA can be divided into parts B, C, and D (say) and the antimonious part restricted from the conversation setA can be moved up to a higher discourse level not admissible to not-AA can be reduced to a discourse level not admissible to not-AA and not-A can both be level-jumped to a higher level ( if they are composite) that removes the accessibility of the antimonious subset.There is a lot to say, but if I live long enough I will write a book on the subject. Logically, there are different types of paradoxes and we do not understand them very well. Tarski's T-theorem gives an analysis for first-order logic, but we hardly understand any of the semantics or quantification. Paradoxes, in the Tarskian sense, can be overcome by metalogical statements, which, interestingly enough, is why the Church, as an organization empowered by God to make meta-statements, can define what is in Scripture, but Scripture cannot define what is in Scripture, nor can it say that it is the sole rule of faith (amazingly, Sola Scriptura is paradoxical in the strong sense).In the end, the only ways I know of to get out of a genuine paradox is by altering one of four things about the antimonious utterances: Their shared spaceTheir shared timeTheir shared discourse levelTheir shared componentsOne classic way to test for a genuine paradox is to look for truth content. There is no definable truth content in a genuine paradox. The paradox stops the entire communicative structure. This, by the way, is one if the classic signs that humor does not exploit actual paradox, but something related. So does Chesterton. He does not actually use paradox, but something that looks like paradox. We don't really have words or strong classification of these sorts of near-paradoxes. Mostly what I see in Chesterton is level-jumping.Hope that whets your appetite for thinking about paradoxes. If you could be more specific in what you think is a Chestertonian paradox, I will examine it in more detail.The Chicken

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    It's like quantum mechanics: no one can really understand what it means, but it's a necessary consequence of the math that apparently runs the universe… So, the Incarnation is a paradox: it seems impossible on its face, but cannot be logically proven one way or the other.There's a fairly large problem with your analogy, dbp, which is that the equations of quantum mechanics, even if we can't easily comprehend what they imply about the nature of reality, make precise predictions that have been borne out to astounding accuracy. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation doesn't give us any comparable insights into the nature of reality.The rational framework we choose defines the thoughts we can think; it's like a box we live in. Atheism builds a box that is completely within our understanding.That doesn't follow at all. Nothing about being an atheist requires the universe to be completely comprehensible by human beings. (You may be confusing that view with the one that science is the best way for humans to understand the parts of nature that we can understand, but even that doesn't necessarily follow from atheism.) Being an atheist requires only the conviction that there's no good reason to believe in any such beings as gods.

  • dbp

    Ebonmuse:I understand your objection, and don't expect to be able to convince you otherwise, which is fine. But you should know that lots of people accept religious doctrine precisely because it does give (or at least promise) insights into reality. Those insights just don't have anything to do with how a photon will behave when presented with a beamsplitter.If you go back and reread Leah's posts, you will see a perfect example of what I mean. She is unsatisfied and searching, not because of her boyfriend or as a mere intellectual curiosity, but because she finds things about reality– in its fullness, including moral reality, and not just measurable empirics– that fit and are explained by Christianity but not by atheism as far as she has so far been able to ascertain (not that she has given up, of course). It seems that her central consternation is that in this respect, Christianity is the worldview with the explaining power, rather than atheism.I freely admit that this kind of explanation is categorically different than scientific explanation, but that's the whole point. In denying the validity of such categories because they don't fit into a materialist worldview, you're like sola scriptura Christians, reaching conclusions from premises much of the world does not share. This is preventing you from seeing the many ways Christians do find their religion to illuminate truths that would otherwise be inaccessible, truths which are as relevant to daily life as the Golden Rule.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    @dbpIt would be awfully silly to believe that atheism as an axiomatic position would explain, in any way, moral reality. Atheism is merely a position on the truth value of propositions regarding God's existence.There are, however, very satisfying moral theories that need not invoke any religious concepts in order to explain the assigning of moral value. In fact, they arguably have much more explanatory power as they are not logically contradictory and need not rely on spooky ontological existences of things like souls, demons, angels and the like.Also, accepting materialism as an axiomatic claim is far, far, far, far, FAR from sola scriptura Christians. Materialism need not require circular logic, nor does it rely on the validity of a book written thousands of years ago by a barbaric, pre-scientific people prone to misjudgments about the conception of reality.

  • http://zyx.posterous.com Roger3

    "Like Chesterton, I find myself unable to adequately defend these ideas except by saying that once I admit them to my metaphysics, everything else slots into place and starts working. Without them I don't have any language to talk about oughts and duty and character, and, lacking that language, I don't have any reason to live or to act or to love."Flaws in your metaphysics have precisely 0 relevance to flaws in someone else's. That you recognise that you have them puts you way ahead of most people.As for Chesterton – well, ask yourself the question: What follows from a contradiction? It's hardly surprising that 'everything slots into place' considering that he begins with contradictions. It's safe to say that his philosophy is rendered rather useless from the point that you realise this. The only thing left to do is "go through his pockets and look for loose change," in the interesting thoughts and insights that one can glean and successfully separate out from the miasma. I'd like to reiterate: that your philosophy may or may not (Matt above pretty much knocked that one out of the park) be based upon the same type of flaw has precisely 0 relevance to whether or not some other philosophy is valid. I think you're selling the idea of logical consistency way too short here.

  • dbp

    Mr. DeStefano,I assumed it was clear that I was discussing atheism as Leah has often used it, in contrast to the "dictionary atheism" you're referring to as a mere axiomatic position. In other words, I was writing about materialistic systems of atheistic thought, taken as whole worldviews.You talk of 'satisfying' moral theories, and I'm entirely prepared to take you at your word that you are satisfied. Many, including apparently Leah, are not. They don't find that the moral theories on offer satisfactorily explain their own experience as moral beings. That's the whole point of many of Leah's posts, and it's one issue which makes lots of people take religion more seriously (although Leah, who seems steadfastly atheist, may not be inclined to a similar result).What I meant by the sola scriptura comment, which you will note began with "In denying…" is this: materialism in itself does not require circular reasoning any more than Christianity does, but like some Christians some atheists get so caught up in their own worldview that they wind up making completely useless arguments, as we saw to a certain degree in the transubstantiation debate. Such people won't accept any of the premises or even terminology of their opponents, but still insist on debating conclusions anyway. It's every bit as silly as me attempting to refute you because your position is incompatible with the Bible.In other words, it isn't silly for you to reject those categories for yourself, but to reject them for me and assume you can thereby force me to some logical conclusion is exactly as untenable as for me to accept the authority of Scripture on your behalf and try to compel you to belief.And by the way, both your preference for materialist moral theories over spiritual ones because you find spirits spooky and your rejection of the Bible based on its age and the scientific sophistication of the people of its age are illogical. The first is appeal to emotion and the second is an ad hominem argument. Neither is particularly useful, though both are extremely common in many atheists' arguments.


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