Skeptics and Black Swans

GK ChestertonThere is in modern discussions of religion and philosophy an absurd assumption that a man is in some way just and well-poised because he has come to no conclusion; and that a man is in some way knocked off the list of fair judges became he has come to a conclusion. It is assumed that the skeptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of skepticism.

I remember once arguing with an honest young atheist, who was very much shocked at my disputing some of the assumptions which were absolute sanctities to him (such as the quite unproved proposition of the independence of matter and the quite improbable proposition of its power to originate mind), and he at length fell back upon this question, which he delivered with an honourable heat of defiance and indignation:

“Well, can you tell me any man of intellect, great in science or philosophy, who accepted the miraculous?”

I said, “With pleasure. Descartes, Dr. Johnson, Newton, Faraday, Newman, Gladstone, Pasteur, Browning, Brunetiere—as many more as you please.

To which that quite admirable and idealistic young man made this astonishing reply—”Oh, but of course they had to say that; they were Christians.”

First he challenged me to find a black swan, and then he ruled out all my swans because they were black. The fact that all these great intellects had come to the Christian view was somehow or other either a proof either that they were no great intellects or that they had not really come to that view. The argument thus stood in a charming convenient form: “All men that count have come to my conclusion; for if they came to your conclusion they do not count.”

–G. K. Chesterton


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