I wrote the following page a few years ago to accompany GKC’s article “Philosophy for the Schoolroom” included after. It was an answer to a friend’s comment acknowledging doubt as a normal scientific attitude. As a cradle Catholic I never really saw a divide between faith and reason but it seems it has to be explained even to a pious Catholic convert. It was probably a remnant of former agnosticism or Protestant fundamentalism, or both. The philosophical comments inspired from Maritain were written more recently and reworked until now.

 Faith and reason

There is a widely spread state of mind pretending that faith and reason exclude each other and that being skeptical on everything is a fundamental scientific attitude. But, on the contrary, doubting everything is not at all scientific thinking. Science has to question everything, especially its postulates, but a true scientific mind does not doubt everything in the first place. I learned this from the works of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Then I read recently the following article by G. K. Chesterton.

It is a characteristic piece of British humour and irony, GKC affirms plainly that doubting everything is madness and that sanity demands we hold true at least a small number of basic assumptions. Chesterton uses absurd logic to prove the necessity of these basic assumptions while saying they cannot be proved. In quite a different style, Maritain would say that such assumptions, which are in fact the first assumptions of common reason or common sense, cannot indeed be proved like mathematical propositions, but they are universal and self-evident: their truthfulness is just unavoidable, or nothing at all exists or has any consistency, even the thinking being who is pondering these questions.

God’s existence comes immediately to mind after these first assumptions. John Henry Newman, the 19th century famous Anglican priest and theologian who converted to Catholicism wrote: “I believe in God because I believe in myself”. It is simple logic: I exist and I didn’t create myself or anything else and I know of no one who could have, so there must be a God that did create all the beauty and order that exist. This is the simple answer to the first philosophical question, the one where common sense gives way to speculative thought: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I also read in Maritain that science lives on truth. Looking for the truth in its particular field is what every science is about, so it is very important for any scientist to know what he holds true, and what are his postulates on which all the rest is built.

We have a proverb among theologians that a bad philosopher cannot be a good theologian, from which we conclude that in order to be a good theologian one must have sound philosophical bases. Moreover, these philosophical bases must be in harmony with faith and sound Christian doctrine. The same could be told about other sciences and it reminds me of this Christian proverb from Rabelais: “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.”

For further reflection on the subject, we may refer particularly to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Faith and Reason (Fides et ratio).


Philosophy for the Schoolroom

by  G. K. Chesterton

Daily News, June 22, 1907

What modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking. And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid geometry, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard. And I think it might be taught in some simple and rational degree even to the young, before they go out into the streets and are delivered over entirely to the logic and philosophy of the Daily Mail.

Much of our chaos about religion and doubt arises from this – that our modern sceptics always begin by telling us what they do not believe. But even in a sceptic we want to know first what he does believe. Before arguing, we want to know what we need not argue about. And this confusion is infinitely increased by the fact that all the sceptics of our time are sceptics at different degrees of the dissolution of scepticism.

Now you and I have, I hope, this advantage over all those clever new philosophers, that we happen not to be mad. All of us believe in St. Paul’s Cathedral; most of us believe in St. Paul. But let us clearly realize this fact, that we do believe in a number of things which are part of our existence, but which cannot be demonstrated. Leave religion for the moment wholly out of the question. All sane men, I say, believe firmly and unalterably in a certain number of things which are unproved and unprovable. Let us state them roughly.

  1. Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.
  2. All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, “I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered downstairs, but I am going to sleep.” That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.
  3. All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self, or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount “I” is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.
  4. Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action.

Surely it might be possible to establish some plain, dull statement such as the above, to make people see where they stand. And if the youth of the future must not be taught any religion, it might at least be taught, clearly and firmly, the three or four sanities and certainties of human free thought.

Commentary on GKC’s four points inspired by Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain’s reflections on being and the first metaphysical axioms in A Preface to Metaphysics: Seven Lectures on Being (Sheed and Ward, 1939, translated from Sept leçons sur l’être et les premiers principes de la raison spéculative, 1934).

1. Principle of identity or, in logic, non-contradiction – reality of being: “Being is being” or “What exists exists”. “Being is not non-being”. The transcendental* “Being”, the first and most universal object to be conceived, can be shown as self-evident, as are all first principles, by reducing the contradictory assumption to impossible – or absurd. This is precisely what Chesterton is doing in this article.

* Transcendentals (passiones entis): being, unity, truth, good, beauty. Convertibility: transcendentals are convertible, as they are the being itself considered under different aspects.

2. Principle of sufficient reason and principle of finality : ”Whatever is, is intelligibly determined”. “Whatever is, has that whereby it is”. The principle of sufficient reason considers the being as transcendentally true. Transcendental truth is being as it confronts the intellect. The intellect presents to the will what it sees as good. Transcendental good is being as it confronts love, will and finality. “The principle of sufficient reason plays no more magnificent part than its part in making possible the freedom of the will”. As well as the free will, the moral obligation (“do good, avoid evil”), which is the first self-evident principle of practical intellect (moral conscience), can be derived from the first principles of speculative reason.

3. Principle of identity or non-contradiction : “Every being is what it is” or “Every being is of a determinate nature – or essence”. “Being cannot be non-being.” To deny the principle of identity is to deny the reality of being, but “every attempt to eliminate the being refutes itself”. We can say that the philosophers who attempt to do so “vanish in their thoughts” (Rom 1:21 translated from the French version of the Bible). Chesterton plainly calls them mad. But such misuse of reason is not found only in the new philosophers, as hinted in this quote from Cicero : “There is no absurdity in the world that wasn’t sustained by at least one philosopher” (translated from French).

4. Principle of causality : every free agent is the cause of its own acts, thus responsible for them. The line of causation logically leads to a first efficient cause, a first free will, a necessary being not caused itself. Even chance, which is produced by the accidental intersection of two or more lines of causation, supposes predetermination (every single cause in the lines is determined to its effect). We may even say that chance relates more directly to the First Cause than any other effect. Indeed, chance events do not have sufficient reason to be considered as beings, strictly speaking; they are accidental encounters in the flow of events arising ultimately from the First Cause.