Against a Mechanistic View of the Universe

Randall Paine has written a wonderful book on the philosophy of G. K. Chesterton titled The Universe and Mr. Chesterton (Sherwood Sugden & Company 1999). While Chesterton was not a “professional” philosopher, he had a comprehensive view of the world that makes him more of a proper philosopher than many “professional” ones today. Chesterton’s gift of wonder has been previously noted on this blog. He saw the world through the eyes of a child. It’s not without coincidence that our Lord says unless we become like children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). Here is an excerpt by Paine contrasting Chesterton’s view of the world versus the commonplace mechanistic view of the world:

… Poetry begins with delight, but it ends in wonder.

It is philosophy that begins in wonder. But this is no longer the merely curious wonder at an observed phenomenon whose behavioral laws one seeks to describe. This concern with the “how” is interesting and at times imperative, but its answers are such that they lay wonder to rest. One may admire the order and regularity of the Newtonian cosmos, but you really have no warrant to further wonder, so long at least as you stay within the framework of the mechanist’s questions. If you begin instead of asking questions like, “But what is gravity anyway?”, or, “Whence does this cosmic order come?”, or quite simply, “What does it all mean?”, you will find yourself settling down into a chair and beginning a long and maybe never-ending meditation. Bacon will be furious, because you have taken up the “sterile” business of traditional philosophizing. You will probably have little time left over to make steam engines or plan lunar expeditions. Should plans for embarking upon such projects steal into your mind, one of your philosophical questions will promptly take the wind out of their sails: “Why?”

Few people in the ancient and few in the medieval world made machines. There seem to have been a few medieval Muslims who tinkered with mechanical technology, but their only purpose, we note with a smile, was to make toys for entertainment (much like the traditional Chinese use of gunpowder only for fireworks, and not for guns.) This is a complex topic, and I am not (nor was Chesterton) advocating a Luddite solution to technological excess. I should like, however, to defend pre-modern simplicity in the area of technology as not always deriving from mere stupidity, or from an atavistic inability to make gears and burn petroleum. There could be another reason why they did not become industrialized: it could really be that they chose not to. True wonder can make a man at least hesitate before reaching out to manipulate a universe.

This reminds me of the question, “why is the sky blue?” There are two motives for asking this very legitimate question. One is strictly a materialistic/scientific motive. What quantitative data causes the sky to be blue in color? The other motive is philosophic in nature. Why is the sky blue? Not what makes it blue, but why is it blue? Why shouldn’t it be green or white? Who decided it should be blue?

The first motive is exhaustive. Once the answer is found, the wonder is vanquished. The second motive is open ended. The answer is not concrete. It stirs the imagination, and elevates our heart and mind toward the Logos of the Universe.


So why is the sky blue? Here’s the scientific answer. Exhilirating, isn’t it? Now try asking the same question philosophically. Sure, sure. I know what makes the sky blue. But why blue? This is not to play science against philosophy. Rather, we should not only ask the one question (what makes the sky blue?) but the other as well (why blue?).


5 Responses to “Against a Mechanistic View of the Universe”

  1. 1 ratbag August 10, 2008 at 2:36 am

    “The first motive is exhaustive. Once the answer is found, the wonder is vanquished.”

    ## Surely not. Theology withers without a sense of wonder; scientific knowledge nourishes this sense. The capacity for wonder allows those with it to wonder at the most “obvious” things, scientific or not: maybe this is a source of Chesterton’s remarkable gift for epigrams; maybe there is a connection between wonder and creativity in theology – if so, that might be why C.S. Lewis has been so influential.

    IMHO, what quells wonder is not science, but routine – just as routine converts the Living God into an item to be studied, anatomised, analysed, as though he were not the Living God.

  2. 2 Mark August 10, 2008 at 11:16 am


    Quite right and a very good point. I should clarify that when I say the first motive is exhaustive, I mean science taken in itself. As with all philosophical discussions, I suppose we should define our terms here. When I use the word “science” I speak in the strict sense – gathering data, quantifying the data, making an hypothesis, verification, etc. When we ask the question – what makes the sky blue? – and the answer comes back: because of the way particular wavelengths of light filter through the atmosphere – the danger is that the question is asked, the answer is given, and further inquiry is no longer necessary.

    I certainly do not intend to disparage science or put it at odds with philosophy (or theology). I firmly believe the two are complimentary, serving different functions. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement about the dangers of theology. It’s just as easy to turn God into an object of study, much like we turn the sky into an object of study. I think the point Chesterton and Paine are trying to make is that we shouldn’t turn such glorious subjects (whether it be the Almighty God or the sky) into objects to be merely examined and then go no further. Our inquiry must acknowledge that a string of facts about an object do not exhaust the essence of a that object. We must have that sense of wonder along with our scientific and theological explorations. It is here that I think we are all in agreement.

    Thank you for your insight. It is much appreciated.

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