Heretics – Chapter 11: Science and the Savages


I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.

Science is amazing! Without that monastic like study of the world we could never have the innovations, and inventions we treasure today. Now with the faith/science divide in our culture we have neglected one if not both of the upper and lower stories. Even though the most religious Americans do not see a conflict between science and religion it is stated that it is there and the people who are the most non-religious claim there is a conflict.

Heresy exposed: Making the self inhuman to study humans

Summary of Chapter:

The divide that we see in our culture was in Chesterton’s as well.  We could argue that there is nothing new under the sun we see a resurgence of people claiming that science can answer all. This scientism actually destroys our humanity as mankind is not just physical but also has a soul (if a soul is defined not as ‘something spiritual’ like some people today but as it was by the church: mind, passions, will). When a scientist studies something be becomes an expert in that field. That is a very good thing! I want my scientists to be experts, but I also want them to still be human. The same sort of methodology will not work for incompatible fields such as the humanities. A yard stick is not a appropriate tool to measure the volume of the ocean, but a man can know a man if he stays a man.

For the study of primitive race and religion stands apart in one important respect from all, or nearly all, the ordinary scientific studies. A man can understand astronomy only by being an astronomer; he can understand entomology only by being an entomologist (or, perhaps, an insect); but he can understand a great deal of anthropology merely by being a man. He is himself the animal which he studies. Hence arises the fact which strikes the eye everywhere in the records of ethnology and folk-lore–the fact that the same frigid and detached spirit which leads to success in the study of astronomy or botany leads to disaster in the study of mythology or human origins. It is necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to a microbe; it is not necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to men.

The greatest discoveries are found when we try to know ourselves. Socrates was right when we wrote about the Delphic maxim of ‘Know Thyself’ as that is the greatest mystery we can ever face. When we know ourselves (at least some part) we can understand other men.

An ignorance of the other world is boasted by many men of science; but in this matter their defect arises, not from ignorance of the other world, but from ignorance of this world. For the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be best learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by travelling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart.


The man of science, not realizing that ceremonial is essentially a thing which is done without a reason, has to find a reason for every sort of ceremonial, and, as might be supposed, the reason is generally a very absurd one–absurd because it originates not in the simple mind of the barbarian, but in the sophisticated mind of the professor. The learned man will say, for instance, “The natives of Mumbojumbo Land believe that the dead man can eat and will require food upon his journey to the other world. This is attested by the fact that they place food in the grave, and that any family not complying with this rite is the object of the anger of the priests and the tribe.” To any one acquainted with humanity this way of talking is topsy-turvy. It is like saying, “The English in the twentieth century believed that a dead man could smell. This is attested by the fact that they always covered his grave with lilies, violets, or other flowers. Some priestly and tribal terrors were evidently attached to the neglect of this action, as we have records of several old ladies who were very much disturbed in mind because their wreaths had not arrived in time for the funeral.”

The things that makes us human: free will, rationality, emotions are all outside the realms of naturalism. If we believe that the material world is all there is then we become not only inhuman but also incapable of studying anything that is human. We can still study fields using a careful methodology but we cannot study things that are only ‘useful illusions’ or ‘noble lies’ because they would be not real. We can study what the lie does or it’s impact but that is not studying the thing itself. It would be like using a hammer to carry water. Besides when Paul preached against a noble lie when he went to Athens and by confronting it with the Truth changed philosophy. Truth always wins over falsehood because no one will knowingly live or die for a lie but they will for the Truth.

The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and for ever 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 analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse 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 of 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 folk-lore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy.

The biggest problem however is when ‘science’ operating under a naturalistic assumption explains things away. In Chesterton’s time and ours one of the big ones is that researchers would claim that people attribute human characteristics to non-human things to ease their fears of the unknowns. This god-of-the-gaps would explain why a natural cause seemed to preform in unnatural ways. This was and still is claimed to ease people of lessor minds. In reality, however making things human makes them fighting. What ancient Greek wanted to be noticed by the powerful beings on Olympus? The whole point was to appease the gods and not to be ‘loved’ by them (To draw from the record of Hesiod and Homer, if the gods of Olympus took a personal interest in you, things would not end well). Anthropomorphism does not ease fears, in fact it does the opposite.

Possibly the most pathetic of all the delusions of the modern students of primitive belief is the notion they have about the thing they call anthropomorphism. They believe that primitive men attributed phenomena to a god in human form in order to explain them, because his mind in its sullen limitation could not reach any further than his own clownish existence. The thunder was called the voice of a man, the lightning the eyes of a man, because by this explanation they were made more reasonable and comfortable. The final cure for all this kind of philosophy is to walk down a lane at night. Any one who does so will discover very quickly that men pictured something semi-human at the back of all things, not because such a thought was natural, but because it was supernatural; not because it made things more comprehensible, but because it made them a hundred times more incomprehensible and mysterious. For a man walking down a lane at night can see the conspicuous fact that as long as nature keeps to her own course, she has no power with us at all. As long as a tree is a tree, it is a top-heavy monster with a hundred arms, a thousand tongues, and only one leg. But so long as a tree is a tree, it does not frighten us at all. It begins to be something alien, to be something strange, only when it looks like ourselves. When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.


We need to remember that science is a gift from God. A good definition of science according to Johann Kepler is ‘Thinking God’s thoughts after Him’. There is no divide between knowledge and belief. In fact it can be argued that knowledge is justified true belief. It is the justification and the truth that we crave on both sides. We also need to remember that it was a Judeo-Christian worldview that brought about Western science. The antagonism between ‘science’ and ‘faith’ is also something that was created.

Here is the issue itself, the word ‘science’ is equivocal. That means that it has different meanings but the same word. To some it means a specific methodology, to others it means a world where only natural things can exits. The issue is that the word ‘science’ could be either one. I do not think anyone (except for the most hardened irrational people) would be against the idea that the science as a study is bad. However when people hold the second view: naturalism or scientism then they need to be addressed, assumptions challenged, and implications addressed because they will try to explain away what makes us human.


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