Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Growing Reed

The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and forever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality.

Even what we call our material desires are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyze a pork chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyze any man’s wish for a pork chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love for the beautiful.

The man’s desire for the pork chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folklore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy.

You can no more be certain in economic history that a man’s desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint’s desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science.

Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.

GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – Another fine chapter from the man, worthy of the price of the book. He is specifically responding here to the kind of anthropology of folk lore fashionable in his day, which indeed tended to treat human beings (and especially, not to emphasize this aspect too much, human beings of darker skin tone and southern latitudes) as strange alien subjects to be studied under strict laboratory conditions. 
The idea that the scientist can possibly distance himself, dehumanize himself, in the study of man and his ways, and that this would actually be a movement towards deeper insight and understanding of man and his ways—this is what GKC is critiquing.

And I am firmly and utterly in agreement with him on this matter. The specific kind of anthropology he critiques has had its day, more or less, in part because of the precise criticisms Chesterton made of it, in part because there was in fact quite a bit of genuinely nasty racist sub-text at least implied if not always exactly intended in this kind of ‘scholarship’.

But the attempt to put man and woman under the microscope and treat humanity as a subject of scientific research continues. Perhaps it is needless to say that we are not talking here about medical science and all that: of course the workings of the human body are as much a matter of scientific research as the study of any other body, living or dead.

It is the workings of the human mind and its mysteries—this is not a matter for science, properly speaking. I realize that Chesterton’s position (which is mine, too) is unconventional, but I think it is true. And it think it can be borne out simply by studying the history of anthropology/sociology/ history/psychology. Theory has succeeded upon theory in each and all of these fields. Each theory has been advanced and argued upon rigorous scientific grounds. Arguments and research and the most scientific tests have been exercised in producing the latest theory about… oh, education, or sexuality, or economic behavior, or the causes of revolution, or... name it.

And ten years later, another bunch of scientists come up with a completely contradictory theory, bolstered by all the same type of research and scientific tests and studies and… well, something is very wrong with this picture, isn’t it? If I boil water one day under strict laboratory conditions and it boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and the next day using the same methodology it boils at 78 degrees, then either something is badly wrong with me, with the instruments, or with the water.

Yet this is exactly what has happened over and over again in all the attempts to ‘scientifically’ study humanity, and yet we remain inclined to uncritically accept whatever the latest batch of theories are that come from these (admittedly) brilliant men and women and their (granted) hard work.

The truth is, the best way to study what a human being is and why we do what we do is to attain the best possible knowledge of the one human being who is available to you for intense study at all hours of the day. In other words, look to your own heart and know what is going on inside yourself, and why. ‘Know thyself’, the inscription on the Delphic temple said, and you will know the mysteries of the universe. The Greeks knew a thing or two, as did the wise monks of the desert and the cloister of our Christian tradition, as did the common folk and the common sense of humanity.

We might consider taking that route of understanding and knowledge of humanity, out of which grew the vast and wondrous thing we call ‘civilization’, rather than the pseudo-scientific approach decried here by GKC, which has yet to produce any great result and which has at least accompanied the decline of civilization into the neo-barbarism of our times.

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