One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things 

like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.[1]

–George Orwell


Several years ago a group of leading naturalist philosophers and scientists convened a workshop titled “Moving Naturalism Forward.”[2] The participants included a number of heroes of the atheistic pantheon, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, and Alex Rosenberg. They gathered to discuss “the very difficult questions raised by replacing folk psychology and morality by a scientifically-grounded understanding of reality.”[3]

“Folk psychology” is what philosophically and scientifically untutored “folk” — your Aunt Edna, for instance — tend to believe about human psychology. Most people naturally think of themselves as selves, i.e., unified, enduring, conscious subjects of their experiences, and they believe that they have at least some measure of free will sufficient for their choices to count as their own. And they take themselves to have minds with beliefs, desires, and other ‘mental contents’. “Folk morality” refers to the widespread belief that, for instance, it really is wrong, generally speaking, to strangle babies or to light cats ablaze for entertainment. It involves, that is, the conviction that there is a real distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, so that moral values are objective features of the world. One question of the workshop, then, is whether anything the folk believe remains once we have come to embrace a view of reality that is grounded in science. The answer to that question, according to many or most of the participants, is “Precious little.” Indeed, philosopher Don Ross discussed his book, Everything Must Go, in which he makes it clear that he means what his title says.

A shared assumption of all of the attendees was that any scientifically untethered philosophical speculation–especially when it appeals to anything like common sense intuitions–is worthless. Daniel Dennett did not mince words.

I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang … that are going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy of mind with relish and eagerness, and it’s just sickening because their work isn’t worth anything, and they lure in other people to do it. It’s cute, it’s clever, and it’s not worth a damn.[4]

Throwing Granny From the Train

Dennett’s nausea — induced by his retrograde colleagues — is chronic, going back decades. In 1991, he reviewed Colin McGinn’s The Problem of Consciousness, in which McGinn argued that the problem of consciousness is essentially unsolvable by bears of little brain such as ourselves. Dennett found the claim to be “ludicrous” and “embarrassing” from the standpoint of philosophy. McGinn, it seems, “has figured out our limits from first principles” and “without direct examination.”[5] As McGinn philosophized in his armchair, just down the hall was a noisy band of cognitive scientists who, by employing the new brain-imaging technologies and computer simulations–wholly unavailable, of course, to either Descartes in his stove or Leibniz in his mill–were considering hypotheses that those earlier philosophers would have declared to be “inconceivable.” Dennett concludes his review by agreeing conditionally with McGinn: “Armed only with the methods and concepts of traditional philosophy of mind, one cannot explain consciousness.”[6] He adds, “But we’ve known that for a long time.” And he implies, “So much the worse for traditional philosophy of mind.”[7]

In his 1991 review of a collection of essays on the work of philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor, Dennett declares that the guiding principle of all of Fodor’s work is What is good enough for Granny is good enough for Science. That is, Fodor opposes various materialist doctrines that would “make his Granny exclaim, ‘Well I never!’ and lurch alarmingly in her rocker.”[8] To use the language of the workshop, Granny still clings to the Manifest Image, which includes the common sense beliefs of Folk Psychology, and takes little or no stock in the Scientific Image, which precludes many of those beliefs. Of Fodor, Dennett says, “If he has to choose between Granny and science, he has made it clear that he’ll choose Granny.”[9]

The majority of the workshop attendees would forsake Granny for what they suppose are the clear implications of science. Indeed, Ross and Rosenberg explicitly defend scientism, the view that science is the “only way to acquire knowledge.”[10] Ross complains of those philosophers who prioritize “armchair intuitions about the nature of the universe over scientific discoveries.”[11] In short, neither the philosopher in his armchair nor Granny in her rocker are, in their appeal to their own common sense intuitions, likely to arrive at an even remotely accurate account of the nature of reality. Science, and science alone is our source for any knowledge of either nature or human nature, intuitions — and Granny — be hanged.

In this next section I lay out some of the more striking conclusions that Rosenberg draws from his commitment to a purely scientific approach to the nature of reality. I’ll then turn to what I think Chesterton would say in reply. Chesterton would most certainly champion the legitimacy of an appeal to certain “first principles” in assessing the insistence that we must supplant the Manifest Image with the Scientific Image. The intended result is a Chestertonian ‘defence’ of armchair philosophy.

Enjoying Life With Prozac: A Formulary for Atheists

Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality provides us with a striking example of the view of reality that results from “taking science seriously” — to the point of embracing outright scientism — and insisting upon a rejection of “armchair philosophy.” Evidently, a commitment to scientism requires such a rejection, partly because the methodology precludes it, and partly because the resulting “scientistic” view of reality ultimately allows for the existence of neither armchairs nor philosophers.

The Atheist’s Guide has the subtitle, Enjoying Life Without Illusions, and the “illusions” in question are the beliefs of folk morality and folk psychology. Rosenberg opens by declaring his commitment to scientism, which means “treating science as our exclusive guide to reality, to nature — both our own nature and everything else’s”– which he then wields like a razor (Ockham would be proud) to slice away the illusory flesh of the Manifest Image, leaving only the bare bones of the Scientific Image.[12]

One by one the illusions are dispelled. The usual suspects — God, the soul, and immortality — are, of course, eliminated right off the bat. Rosenberg is a naturalist, after all. And few will be surprised to learn that he embraces moral nihilism — the view that there is no real difference between right and wrong. Of course, we all believe that there is a real difference between right and wrong, but that is an illusion “foisted off on us by our genes” so that we would behave in ways that encourage reproductive fitness. And according to Rosenberg’s scientism, “physics fixes all the facts,” and in a world in which this is so it is “hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.”[13]

To say that physics fixes all the facts is just to say that whatever is true at the most basic physical level — the level of fermions and bosons — determines everything that is true at the higher levels, including chemistry, biology, and even human psychology. “Scientism commits us to physics as the complete description of reality,”and this is to say that there is not a smidgen of reality that is not physical stuff abiding by physical laws.“[14] All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.”[15]  It is physics, not turtles, all the way down, and this yields some rather disquieting results.

Bertrand Russell said that “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[16] It turns out that my decision to order a pizza is also the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving. The rejection of purpose or design – teleology — at the cosmic level is a widely recognized implication of atheism.[17] But scientism implies that there is no purpose, planning, or design at any level, including that of the human mind. In a universe where physics fixes all the facts, everything that happens is the result of “pushes and pulls of bits of matter and fields of force,” including the happenings in each brain that produce this thought or that act.[18] Free will is an illusion. After all, the mind just is the brain, and the brain is physical stuff running a physical system that obeys the laws of physics and is a part of an unbroken causal chain stretching back through the natural history of the world. My thoughts and beliefs, whatever they happen to be, are the inevitable links in this chain, and they were made inevitable by physical events that occurred long before any of us turned up in the universe. Our seeming conscious decisions are just “downstream effects” of prior physical processes taking place in the brain. The true causes of our thoughts and behavior are those physical processes and never our conscious choice. Scientism thus seems to entail epiphenomenalism, the view that there is no “mental causation.” The causal arrows run only from the physical (e.g., the brain) to the mental, and never the other way around. Consciousness plays no causal role, but is more like a computer display, which merely represents, in a user friendly way, what is going on down in the machine where the real work takes place. It seems to me that I lifted the book from the shelf because I consciously chose to do so, but this is an illusion. What seems to be my conscious decision is the effect — a user-friendly representation — and not the cause of what my brain is up to. The brain is where the action is, and consciousness, one of the effects of the physical processes in the brain, is “just along for the ride.”[19]

Scientism also precludes there being such a thing as the self in any form. Though it seems obvious to me that I have — or am — a self that is the subject of my experiences and the thinker of my thoughts, “The self is just another illusion.”[20] Of course, the self as an immaterial mind or soul is ruled out, but scientism also precludes any sort of unified, enduring, substantial material self. “There is no self in, around, or as part of anyone’s body.”[21] There is only the physical system that is the brain with no one there to run it. I have no more of a self than does my smartphone. All we are is fermions and bosons in the wind. There are no persons, really — at least not in the way the folk believe. Even the private, subjective, first person point of view — the “what-it-is-like” to be you — is an illusion. It might seem that the experience of pain — what some have called the “ouchiness” of pain — eludes description with talk of tissue damage or whatever a brain scientist might observe through imaging (as regions of the brain “light up”), or observable behavior (e.g., hopping up and down, swearing, putting a smashed finger in one’s mouth), but everything about your conscious experience is in principle describable in the third person language of neuroscience — with no information left out. [22] Were it not so, physics would not be the complete account of reality.

Our universal idea that our thoughts are about stuff is also an illusion and is, in fact, the “parent” of some of the others. We do not think about anything, and our “thinking” is radically different from what we suppose it to be. This is because our brains are clumps of physical stuff and our thoughts are physical processes, and no one physical thing is about any other thing. Bananas, beets and bowling balls, being the physical stuff that they are, are never about anything; they just are. And brains, made of soggy matter, are no different. It follows that no one ever really plans or has purposes, because this would require thinking about the future, which is impossible. Once we see that thoughts are never about anything we will be in a better position to abandon the idea that our thoughts require a thinker — a self — to have them.

In fact, nothing is ever about anything — not even the sentences that you are reading — and therefore, nothing means anything, since the meaning of a statement is found in what the statement is about. We might have taken Rosenberg to be attempting to persuade us to believe the various statements in his book to be true. But scientism precludes even this. “This book isn’t conveying statements. It’s rearranging neural circuits,”[23] he says, harking back to an earlier discussion of conditioning experiments on sea slugs. Through conditioning experiments, sea slugs can be taught new tricks, but it involves the release of proteins that open up channels among neurons so that other chemical molecules may pass more easily, carrying electrical charges between neurons, resulting in short-term “memory” in the slug, resulting in new habits. But the sea slug “does not learn and store any information that could be expressed in thoughts about stimuli.” Rather, it has acquired a new habit as the result of neuronal rewiring.[24] It appears that the sort of “persuasion” in which Rosenberg is engaged is a form of conditioning, employing noises, ink marks, and pixels,  aimed at the rewiring of his readers’ circuitry, resulting in the acquisition of new behavioral habits of mind — i.e., brain — that the folk would call “being persuaded that scientism is true.” This reading of Rosenberg is reinforced by his discussion of the difference between his preferred therapy – drugs — and “talk therapy.” If the latter works at all, it does so through rearranging brain circuitry literally as the result of words as emitted sounds and their behavioral associations, but not because of their propositional content.

Your therapist talks to you. The acoustical vibrations from your therapist’s mouth to your ear starts a chain of neurons firing in the brain. Together with the circuits already set to fire in your brain, the result is some changes somewhere inside your head.[25]

This appears to be persuasion naturalized, so that philosophical conversion, as happens when one comes to be “convinced” by argument, is not essentially different from neuronal changes that may be effected through chemicals. Convincing readers to embrace scientism is much like teaching new tricks to sea slugs.

Rosenberg knows that the picture he paints of reality and our place in it is bleak — depressing, even — and quite literally disillusioning. Human existence has no meaning or purpose, and human life has no intrinsic value. Death has the final word. Morality is an illusion. There is no free will or even any sort of self to enjoy it. We are simply pushed along by impersonal physical forces beyond our control. We are deceived when we think that we have purposes and plans that we carry out. Even love, which seems to give so much meaning to life is not what we have supposed it to be, but is merely an evolutionary adaptation — an “irrational” one at that — selected for the role it plays in ensuring and increasing reproductive fitness.

That’s a lot of disillusionment packed between the covers of one book. And so Rosenberg closes with this advice:  “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them until they kick in.”[26]

The Preternaturally Stupid Pretensions of Scientism

G.K. Chesterton quipped that it was not the arguments of Christian apologetics that nudged him away from his paganism and agnosticism and in the direction of Christianity. Rather, it was the “scientific and sceptical literature” of his day. “As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’”[27]  Had Alex Rosenberg’s work been available to the young and inquisitive Chesterton, the effect might have been magnified; he might have taken a vow of poverty or entered a monastery or even mounted a pillar and achieved historical fame under the name Gilbert the Stylite. The older and wiser Chesterton would have regarded The Atheist’s Guide as the ravings of a mind grown morbid.

Rosenberg espouses many “heresies” that would have earned him at least a chapter in Chesterton’s Heretics. He embraces moral nihilism and declares that there is no real difference between right and wrong. Yet Chesterton recognized the precept, “Babies should not be strangled” as a “mystical dogma” — mystical because it is neither established nor impugned by reason, but known immediately — and dogma because it is a settled and authoritative truth. Rosenberg insists that the self is an illusion, to which Chesterton would reply, “You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.”[28] To Rosenberg’s insistence that “Scientism commits us to physics as the complete description of reality,” Chesterton might reply, “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete.”[29] The madman who insists that he is the King of England is not hindered by the observation that the King is on his throne and revered by the nation. This, you see, is all a part of the plot against him. All seemingly contrary evidence is assimilated into his mad theory.

Where Rosenberg insists that free will is an illusion and that our every thought and deed is the inevitable outcome of a “chain of prior events,” Chesterton would observe that, “It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being.”[30] The man who “disbelieves in the reality of the will” is not even free to “say ‘Thank you’ for the mustard.”[31] How much less is he free to expect his readers to weigh the arguments in his book, to deliberate, and offer a rational assessment of their merits? If my every thought is an inevitable link in a chain of physical events stretching back into and beyond a dim and prehistoric past, then whatever verdict I reach was already in the cards before Adam took to wearing fig leaves. For every thought and every act, “We are either unable to do things or we are destined to do them.”[32] If I am unpersuaded by Rosenberg’s arguments, well, then, whatever ‘reasoning’ led me to my conclusion cannot have been up to me. “Nothing was up to me. Everything — including my choice and my feeling that I can choose freely — was fixed by earlier states of the universe plus the laws of physics.”[33] But then neither was the writing of The Atheist’s Guide up to the author. Each and every sentence that wound up on those pages was chosen — by no one — before the foundation of the world. The thoughts in Rosenberg’s brain are the products of configurations of physical stuff that was once the stuff of stars. Each molecule had an appointment with destiny, to be in precisely that configuration to give rise to precisely that thought just as surely as the various travelers were each predestined to gather on the Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Rosenberg insists that the physical universe is “causally closed” and that “we are all just a part of a physical universe.” Chesterton would reply that if so, then it is also locked, like a vast cosmic prison, and “the machinery of this cosmic prison is something that cannot be broken; for we ourselves are only a part of its machinery” and “if the mind is mechanical, thought cannot be very exciting.”[34] One might add that if the mind is mechanical and operates as it does because its own gears are engaged with the “omnipotent but blind” machinery of the physical universe, then the mechanism ultimately responsible for my beliefs would appear to be quite indifferent to the matter of whether those beliefs are true.[35] Rosenberg’s universe is a prison “empty of all that is human,” and this includes human reason.[36]

To Rosenberg’s repeated insistence that our thoughts are never about anything, Chesterton might reply, “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”[37] If our thoughts are not about anything, then they are not thoughts, for aboutness is essential to thinking. If our thoughts are never about anything then we never believe (or disbelieve) anything — such as the many seeming assertions in Rosenberg’s book — for beliefs are essentially about propositions and what they say about reality. It is a good thing, then, that Rosenberg tells us that he is not saying anything that he wishes us to believe. His claim that the book does not convey statements amounts to the claim that the sentences — the black squiggly characters on the pages — do not express propositions.[38]  But all and only propositions have truth value, which is to say that all and only propositions are either true or false. And so Rosenberg tells his reader, in effect, that the apparent claims made in his book are neither true nor false. We might imagine Chesterton replying, “Well, then, it follows that nothing said in your book is true.” And he would be right. But then why should the reader submit his brain to Rosenberg’s efforts at “neuronal rewiring” if the result is not a matter of replacing false beliefs with true ones? In fact, it is hard to see how Rosenberg has left himself with the resources for telling us it is true that “Physics fixes the facts” because this would amount to saying that that proposition describes the way the world actually is. But this requires that the proposition be about the world, and we have been assured that nothing is ever about anything. In the immediate vicinity of his statement that he is not making statements, he avoids speaking of “true” or “false” beliefs and instead speaks of “accurate” and “inaccurate” information. But even that language seems to require that the “information” be about stuff so that it either accurately or inaccurately represents things as they really are. What else can it mean? (And elsewhere throughout the book he lapses into folksy talk of true and false beliefs.)

So far, we have seen reason for thinking that Rosenberg’s scientism leaves no room for rational deliberation, beliefs, propositions, or even truth. Scientism is indeed a “thought that stops thought.  One of Rosenberg’s concerns is to “close down the wiggle room”that would allow for “compromises with theism.”[39] He writes, “If Darwinian biology allows a few exceptions, it won’t be able to keep the floodgates closed against intelligent design, special creation, or even biblical inerrancy.”[40] In his discussion of “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton observes:

In the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.[41]

Now, all of these untoward conclusions are the natural fruit of scientism. Why, then, embrace scientism? Rosenberg’s answer, put variously throughout his book, is the success story of science as physics over the last several centuries.

The phenomenal accuracy of its prediction, the unimaginable power of its technological application, and the breathtaking extent and detail of its explanations are powerful reasons to believe that physics is the whole truth about reality.[42]

He appeals to this success as a way of dismissing arguments to the contrary as they have been offered by mere armchair philosophers, such as Descartes. “Even before you hear them, science provides a compelling argument that they must be all wrong.  One has only to weigh the evidence for scientism — 500 years of scientific progress — and the evidence against it — including those cute conundrums. It’s clear which side has the weightier evidence.”[43]

Now we might see Rosenberg’s 500 years of scientific success and raise him 50,000 years of human consciousness of the sort that his scientism denies. Rosenberg’s assurances to his readers that the first-person experiences that they are having — even as they are reading him — are not real is reminiscent of “Baghdad Bob” — the Iraqi Information Minister who, in 2003, assured the international press that U.S. forces were nowhere near Baghdad, even as U.S. tanks were seen just over his shoulder.

In the Q & A portion of his debate with William Lane Craig, Rosenberg was asked whether his claim that “sentences have no meaning” was just incoherent. He prefaced his answer with, “I ain’t so stupid as to contradict myself in the puerile way that you are suggesting.” Had Chesterton been present, he might kindly have ventured a different opinion.

That same suppression of sympathies, that same waving away of intuitions or guess-work which make a man preternaturally clever in dealing with the stomach of a spider, will make him preternaturally stupid in dealing with the heart of man. He is making himself inhuman in order to understand humanity.[44]

Here is Chesterton’s direct challenge to scientism as well as to the standard defense of scientism. Our scientistic philosopher reasons that physicalist assumptions and the scientific method have worked so well for understanding the digestive functions of arachnids that it is a seamless move to apply those same assumptions and methods in seeking to understand the wellsprings of human thought and emotion. Yes. And because the pressure washer has worked so well on the siding, the deck, and the driveway, we should also use it for cleaning out the dog’s ears. As they say, to the man with a Large Hadron Collider everything looks like a proton.

One might imagine Chesterton updating his examples to involve Rosenberg’s sea slugs, as the move from mollusks to minds runs along the same rails as inferences from the inner workings of spider stomachs to the inner workings of poets and philosophers.

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.[45]

As such, the anthropologist — who is also an ἄνθρωπος[46] — is capable of studying himself from the inside out. Perhaps this is why Chesterton once observed, “I prefer even the fancies and prejudices of the people who see life from the inside to the clearest demonstrations of the people who see life from the outside.”[47] Tell the regulars at The Drunken Duck that there is no such thing as “what-it-is-like” to be themselves, that they never think about anything, and that they never make plans — and that this is because your theory of reality does not permit it — and they may reply that, having thought about such claims, there is such a thing as “what-it-is-like” to think that you are an idiot, and you should plan to go back to where you came from. And they will have the advantage of the argument.

Unless his mind has been fettered by an ideology like scientism, our anthropologist has immediate and privileged access to the most relevant data for theory construction, i.e., the data of his own conscious experience. He will see that the assumption that human thought is the same kind of thing as ‘thought’ in sea slugs — so that we must deny everything of the former that is denied of the latter — is absurd. And he will regard the suggestion that we must abandon those very features of human cognition that are essential for doing science — and that we must do so in the name of science — as incoherent.

Our argument is not that we are warranted in rejecting just any scientific claim that strikes us as “counterintuitive.” Recall that the entomologist is “preternaturally clever” partly because he waves intuitions away and does science. H.G. Wells observed:

The universe at that plane to which the mind of the molecular physicist descends has none of the shapes or forms of our common life whatever. This hand with which I write is in the universe of molecular physics a cloud of warring atoms and molecules, combining and recombining, colliding, rotating, flying hither and thither in the universal atmosphere of ether.[48]

Who would have thought that a punch in the nose resembles a collision of galaxies? Chesterton took exception to much that Wells said in that paper, but not to this. The world may be stranger than common sense alone may have led us to guess, but common sense learns to accommodate such unexpected facts. And common sense bows to science, not to the a priori deductions of the armchair philosopher, as our means of learning the nature of the physical world — so long as the claims of science stay within the lines of logical coherence. Chesterton’s objection was to Wells’ central thesis, namely, that we cannot trust our reason — “the instrument” — as a reliable guide to truth. Common sense can no more accommodate this claim than it can accommodate married bachelors, for the claim is incoherent, as are the several claims of scientism.

Chesterton was emphatic that with humanity something qualitatively different from the rest of the natural world arrived on the scene. “It is not natural to see man as a natural product. It is not common sense to call man a common object of the country or the seashore. It is not seeing straight to see him as an animal. It is not sane.”[49] It is not seeing man “as he is” when seen in the broad daylight, “the solid thing standing in the sunlight,” and not through the lens of some theory.[50] He imagines an alien mind coming to observe the natural — non-human — world for the first time, and declares that such a mind would be wholly unprepared for the first man. Just as he was beginning to think that one species shades off imperceptibly to the next, he would be startled by this wholly new thing. It would be “like seeing one cow out of a hundred cows suddenly jump over the moon or one pig out of a hundred pigs grow wings in a flash and fly.”[51] “Man is not merely an evolution but a revolution.”[52] “The more we look at man as an animal, the less he will look like one.”[53] We have found prehistoric cave art where an early ancestor used ochre to draw reindeer. But we have yet to find a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.[54] Of these primeval and subterranean masterpieces, Chesterton observes that “Art is the signature of man.”[55] We might amend this by noting that the arts and sciences are the signature of man, for we are gifted with both imagination and reason that have no precedent — not even in sea slugs.

Materialists and Madmen

Chesterton adds that this, i.e., the startling uniqueness and  qualitative difference between beast and man, “is the sort of simple truth with which a story of beginnings ought really to begin.”[56] Having begun there we shall refuse any theory that denies the clear facts for the sake of its own consistency. This is armchair philosophy at its finest. If we keep this image of humanity — man the artist, man the dreamer, man the comedian who, “alone among the animals … is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter,” man the logician and metaphysician — fixed before our eyes and then attempt to explain him, then we shall have a wild tale to tell.[57] “He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.”[58] It is no wonder — or perhaps it was with great wonder — that Bertrand Russell observed that it was “a strange mystery” that nature has “brought forth at last a child … gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.”[59] Scientism would seek to diminish the mystery by downplaying the strangeness. This way lies madness.

It is often said that the madman is the man who has lost his reason. But Chesterton insists that the madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.[60] What he means is that the madman begins with a view of things that defies the obvious, such as P.G. Wodehouse’s Duke of Ramfurline, who is “under the impression — this is in the strictest confidence — that he is a canary,” and then is relentless in carrying out all of the logical and practical implications of the axiom.[61] This, of course, would explain the cuttlebone, the swinging perch, and the merry whistling at sunrise. His reason is not the problem. He is a perfect Spinozan in deducing the cuttlebone. It is his starting point that is off.

Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.[62]

The trouble is that he is “in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea,” and it is a prison without windows that would permit him to see the world as it is in the light of day.[63] He has employed his reason well enough, taking that “one idea” and explaining everything in its light, but it is “reason without root, reason in the void.” He has gone mad because he has begun his thinking “without the proper first principles,” and these are the principles of Common Sense.

An example of the sort of belief that arises from proper first principles is “I am a man and not a canary.” Another one is “Babies should not be strangled.” Yet another is “I have first-person conscious experiences.” Still another is, “I sometimes think about stuff.” Chesterton discerns this same “reason in the void,” this same prison of one idea in various ideologies or philosophical theories, such as materialism. As a theory it shares with madness that same combination of “an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.”[64] It is exhaustive in that it pretends to explain everything. It is contracted in its fixation on “one thin idea” as the complete explanation. As such it 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.”[65]

His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.[66]

Rosenberg’s scientism leads him to latch on to the idea that “physics fixes all the facts,” and he is quite sure that physics tells the complete story of all of reality. He is a materialist — like Chesterton’s materialist — but his resulting view of reality is madness — like Chesterton’s maniac. He has made himself inhuman in order to understand humanity, and he has done so by insisting that physics and physics alone explains everything and then casting aside anything that physics cannot, in principle, explain. Those who insist that reality includes such things as selves, each with their own first-person point of view (and that this is obvious to each of us), he deems “mystery mongers.” But Chesterton observes that “Mysticism keeps men sane.” This is because there are things that we know without demonstration, and these the healthy man embraces as First Principles. And it is only with these laid down as bedrock that demonstration, including scientific demonstration, begins.

The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. 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.[67]

Scientism is an especially striking example of “reason without root,” and it is madness.

Rosenberg recommends Prozac to his readers in order to counter the complications from embracing scientism. Chesterton prescribes a much more “desperate remedy.” In dealing with the madman, who thinks he is a canary or that his head is a pumpkin, doctors and psychologists are “profoundly intolerant.”

Their attitude is really this: that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living. Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation.[68]

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped,” he has said.  If your project is wrongheaded — having the wrong head or starting assumptions–and if a wholesale rejection of the Manifest Image results in manifest absurdities, scrap it for something more likely to allow you to see things as they are. ‘If thy head offend thee, cut it off.’”[69]

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Citation Information

Mark D. Linville. “A Defense of Armchair Philosophy.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 95-130.

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[1] George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism,” The Orwell Foundation, accessed November 21, 2019,

[2] Sean Carroll, “Moving Naturalism Forward,” YouTube, accessed November 21, 2019,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Daniel Dennett, “Review of McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness,” Tufts University, accessed November 27, 2019,

[6] Ibid.

[7] That same year Dennett’s book with the promising title Consciousness Explained was released.  But critics observed that Dennett “explains” consciousness by explaining it away and focusing instead upon the brain science side of the alleged equation.  This led Mary Midgley to quip, “Suggestions that Dennett should be prosecuted for his title under the Trades Description Act are attractive, but might call for action over too many other books to be practicable” Mary Midgley, The Ethical Primate (Abington: Routledge, 1994), 186.

[8] Daniel Dennett, “Granny’s Campaign for Safe Science,” Tufts University, accessed November 27, 2019,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), 20.

[11] James Ladyman and Don Ross, Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 10.

[12]The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, 8.  Emphasis added.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 21.

[16] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” University of Notre Dame, accessed November 27, 2019,

[17] “There is absolutely no foresight” involved in these processes.”  Atheist’s Guide, p. 55.

[18] Ibid., 25.

[19] Ibid., 210

[20] Ibid., 224.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Even if current brain science is incomplete and as yet unable to provide full description.

[23] The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, 193.

[24] Ibid., 182.

[25] Ibid., 285.

[26] Ibid., 315.

[27] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 288.

[28] Ibid., 240.

[29] Ibid., 222.

[30] Ibid., 228.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 265. I have altered the tense of the original sentence.

[33] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide, 236.

[34] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 265.

[35] Bertrand Russell’s language in “A Free Man’s Worship”.  See Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 108.

[36] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 265.

[37] Ibid., 236

[38] “Statement” and “proposition” are synonymous — or treated as such by Rosenberg.  See 192.

[39] Atheist’s Guide, 53.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 237.

[42] Rosenberg, Atheist’s Guide, 25.

[43] Ibid., 227.

[44] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works, vol. 1, 115.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Anthropos, i.e., human being.

[47] Orthodoxy (elfland)

[48] H.G. Wells, “Scepticism of the Instrument,” Mind, vol. xiii. (New Series), No. 51.

[49] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 168.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 169.

[52] Ibid., 158.

[53] Ibid., 159.

[54] Ibid., 165.

[55] Ibid.  166.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 168.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 107.

[60] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 222.

[61] P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2007).

[62] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 222.

[63] Ibid., 225.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., 231.

[68] Ibid., 224.

[69] Ibid.

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