Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chesterton's Uncertainty Principle?

(subtitled, "the Story - Preparation for Miracles")

Happy Feast of St. Joseph!

Here's a riddle for you: How is St. Joseph like a detective novel? And what does that have to do with miracles? Or, if you don't care for that one, how about this: What good is counterfeit money? Oh, that's tricky. Hee hee.
St. Joseph, husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, is the silent witness to the greatest miracle that ever occurred: the incarnation of the divine Word, which we shall celebrate next Wednesday. And so it is very fitting that we spend some time today with three very powerful and deep paragraphs from Orthodoxy about miracles...

(( click here when you are prepared... ))

Last time we concluded with this lovely cliff-hanger:
...there is another argument that the unbeliever may rationally use against miracles, though he himself generally forgets to use it.
Remember GKC's main argument for miracles "is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America." [CW1:355] And I pointed to stories like "The Trees of Pride" (in CW14) or "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" in The Incredulity of Father Brown, which is well worth your time in reading (or re-reading), for seeing the context of these incomparable words:
"But I thought you believed in miracles," broke out the secretary.
"Yes," answered Father Brown, "I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don't see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them."
Ah: "If I want any miracles, I know where to get them." We might pray that as an antiphon at Mass. And this, perhaps even more striking: "Lying may be serving religion; I'm sure it's not serving God." Which gets to the heart of the issue. In that last paragraph (and in the stories I have mentioned, GKC points out that serious court cases, trials for vast sums, or even ending with death sentences, are based strictly upon the testimony of ordinary people - who are trusted to tell the truth. Yet, there is an issue about this "truth", when it comes to the testimony of an ordinary person - even of a trained observer. (See Jaki's God and the Sun at Fatima or Carrel's Journey to Lourdes for more on that.) But the evidence... is there something that has been overlooked there?

Yes - in Scholastic manner, GKC voices yet another rational argument against miracles:

He may say that there has been in many miraculous stories a notion of spiritual preparation and acceptance: in short, that the miracle could only come to him who believed in it. It may be so, and if it is so how are we to test it? If we are inquiring whether certain results follow faith, it is useless to repeat wearily that (if they happen) they do follow faith. If faith is one of the conditions, those without faith have a most healthy right to laugh. But they have no right to judge. Being a believer may be, if you like, as bad as being drunk; still if we were extracting psychological facts from drunkards, it would be absurd to be always taunting them with having been drunk. Suppose we were investigating whether angry men really saw a red mist before their eyes. Suppose sixty excellent householders swore that when angry they had seen this crimson cloud: surely it would be absurd to answer "Oh, but you admit you were angry at the time." They might reasonably rejoin (in a stentorian chorus), "How the blazes could we discover, without being angry, whether angry people see red?" So the saints and ascetics might rationally reply, "Suppose that the question is whether believers can see visions - even then, if you are interested in visions it is no point to object to believers." You are still arguing in a circle - in that old mad circle with which this book began.
Hmm, it is the feast of St. Joseph, yet we are in Lent - the season of preparation for Easter - this is a very curious junction of ideas here.

Even more so, (as AMBER reminds me) because it joins with what for the pleasure of the pedantry I shall call the Chesterton-Tolkien Theory of Story, as GKC stated in his important essay on Secrets:
There are three broad classes of the special things in which human wisdom does permit privacy. The first is the case I have mentioned - that of hide-and-seek, or the police novel, in which it permits privacy only in order to explode and smash privacy. The author makes first a fastidious secret of how the Bishop was murdered, only in order that he may at last declare, as from a high tower, to the whole democracy the great glad news that he was murdered by the governess. In that case, ignorance is only valued because being ignorant is the best and purest preparation for receiving the horrible revelations of high life. Somewhat in the same way being an agnostic is the best and purest preparation for receiving the happy revelations of St. John.
[GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:524]
Remember, being agnostic is not a denial - an affirmation of the negative of a statement - it is rather a state of the lack of knowledge. But, as we see so dramatically in the story of St. Joseph, it is a state which is very hard to endure, and which cries out for light, for revelation... However, to keep within the context of the Theory of Story, GKC is saying it is very pointless to say "the mailman did it" or "the murderer used a vacuum cleaner" or "the horse was stolen by its trainer" or whatever the secret of the detective mystery may be - if you haven't read the rest of the story, the secret itself tells you NOTHING, and so is not even a secret. I might as well tell you that the system password at my second job was "CAMRY". It is a key to no lock. It helps explain that moving line in "O Little Town of Bethlehem", about "the hopes and fears of all the years"... if we do not understand the story of the Jews, from Abraham to Moses to David and all the rest, it is very hard to see the point of Bethlehem - or of Calvary.

Now, there is something more to this issue. GKC comes at it rather sideways, but it is a very striking insight, and touches on a very interesting part of modern physics:
The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for "scientific conditions" in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, "I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiancé a periwinkle or, any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists," then I shall reply, "Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it." It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.
What is a periwinkle? It's a "trailing evergreen herb" with flowers - there are several kinds. One type is called myrtle in the U.S. I seemed to recall that GKC used it in an important context, and was rather amazed to find it appears only three times in AMBER, and the other two are indeed important, so I shall give them to you:
The greater and stronger a man is the more he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle.
[GKC Heretics CW1:68]

The interest in race, the interest in genealogy, which were professed by the ancient aristocratic world, were not bad things; they were in themselves good things. It is, at least, as reasonable to investigate the origin of a man as to investigate the origin of a cowslip, or a periwinkle, or a prairie dog; the herald with his tabard and trumpet holds his perfectly legitimate place beside the botanist and the conchologist and the natural history expert.
[GKC Daily News Nov 28, 1902 in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks]
Remarkable... these lend a very deep mystical ornamentation to our feast. It is one of the lesser biblical mysteries to ponder the two long genealogical lists, often called the "begats" which give the family tree of Jesus. One explanation might be grasped by recalling a very famous line of Chesterton:
"A Social Situation."
We must certainly be in a novel;
What I like about this novelist is that he takes such trouble about his minor characters.
[from GKC's "Notebook" quoted in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 63]
Again this is an enrichment of our Lenten study: in thinking of St. Joseph, we learn how Jesus consented to have this long list of nobodies and criminals recorded as His family. But then as St. Paul tells us,
Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.
[Philippians 2:5-8]
Which of course is not too far away from the topic GKC mentions, of communication between the dead and the living... But I am going a bit far from the topic.

I wonder whether anyone has looked into the connection - from this very scientific insight of our Mr. Chesterton, to the famous "Uncertainty Principle" formulated by Heisenberg in 1927. I have not as yet found anything on it by Jaki, though he brings up some very important points, since it gets into issues of philosopy beyond its relevance for physics. For example Heisenberg ought to have called it "the principle of imprecision of measurement" [Jaki, Catholic Essays 159] But as I read this excerpt it certainly (hee hee) seems that GKC has anticipated Heisenberg. (Whew... another project for another time.)

I have brought up physics - and so (to my surprise) does GKC...
As a common-sense conclusion, such as those to which we come about sex or about midnight (well knowing that many details must in their own nature be concealed) I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it. I suggest the Regalvanisation. But the strongest of all is the dilemma above mentioned, that these supernatural things are never denied except on the basis either of anti-democracy or of materialist dogmatism - I may say materialist mysticism. The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed. For I hope we may dismiss the argument against wonders attempted in the mere recapitulation of frauds, of swindling mediums or trick miracles. That is not an argument at all, good or bad. A false ghost disproves the reality of ghosts exactly as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence of the Bank of England - if anything, it proves its existence.
On the hint about "concealing" I have already quoted that important essay on secrecy. There is also an echo from a previous essay:
No conceivable number of forged bank-notes can disprove the existence of the Bank of England.
[GKC ILN Apr 14, 1906 CW 27:164]
If you find yourself thinking that GKC was in any way opposed to Science, you ought to read Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science, especially the chapter called "Antagonist of Scientism". There's a big difference. It's not opposing Science to expect a scientist to act, speak, and write "scientifically" - that is, with a healthy amount of reason, thought, and care for making sense. And yes, sometimes scientists (good ones, too!) say things that are quite senseless, and need someone to grab the sleeve of their lab coats and show them their error. Let me give just one example, which resonates with this bit about ghosts:
Mr. Edison as reported does not say much about whether we "live again," but in a few well-chosen words he disposes of the soul: "My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it. What a soul may be is beyond my understanding." So far, so good; all right; amen. But I ask the reader to remember this agnostic statement in considering what follows. He then goes on to deal with the origin of life; or rather, not to deal with it. The following statement is of such fearful intensity and importance that the interviewer prints it all in italics, and I will so reproduce it. "I believe the form of energy that we call life came to the Earth from some other planet or at any rate from somewhere out in the great spaces beyond us." In short, there will henceforth be branded upon our brains the conviction that life came from somewhere, and probably under some conditions of space. But the suggestion that it came from another planet seems a rather weak evasion. Even a mind enfeebled by popular science would be capable of stirring faintly at that, and feeling unsatisfied. If it came from another planet, how did it arise on that planet? And in whatever way it arose on that planet, why could it not arise in that way on this planet? We are dealing with something admittedly unique and mysterious: like a ghost. The original rising of life from the lifeless is as strange as a rising from the dead. But this is like explaining a ghost walking visibly in the churchyard, by saying that it must have come from the churchyard of another village.
[GKC ILN May 3 1924 CW33:321-2]
Which somehow brings up one of GKC's famous quotes, the solution of which I think is in its context:
Atheism is, I suppose, the supreme example of a simple faith. The man says there is no God; if he really says it in his heart, he is a certain sort of man so designated in Scripture. [see Ps 13(14):1] But, anyhow, when he has said it, he has said it; and there seems to be no more to be said. The conversation seems likely to languish. The truth is that the atmosphere of excitement, by which the atheist lived, was an atmosphere of thrilled and shuddering theism, and not of atheism at all; it was an atmosphere of defiance and not of denial. Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving lord. After this first fuss about the merely aesthetic effect of blasphemy, the whole thing vanishes into its own void. If there were not God, there would be no atheists.
[GKC Where All Roads Lead CW3:37-8]
But we need not belabour this, as we have already heard GKC say "let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist." [CW1:343]


  1. Dr. Thursday: A periwinkle is also a mollusk. (Castaway on the islet of Earraid, David Balfour subsists on a diet of periwinkles -- which he notes is the English name for what the Scots call "buckies.") That GKC has "periwinkle" in parallel with "conchologist" suggests that he was thinking of the shellfish and not the herb (at least in that passage). BTW, the color takes its name from the flower, not the mollusk.

  2. A propos the Uncertainy Principle -- Stratford Caldecott told this joke at the banquet concluding an ACS Conference a few years ago:

    Werner Heisenberg, out for a drive, was stopped for speeding.

    OFFICER; Do you know how fast you were going?

    HEISENBERG: No, but I know exactly where I am.

  3. From what translation did you get this quote from Philippians?

    "Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross."

    I have always heard this verse said as "did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped" which seems to have the exact opposite literal meaning of what your translation says. Is there some significance to this?


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