Scientific Determinism

One of the defining marks of the 20th century has been the triumph, especially in the social sciences, of the theory of determinism. The theory holds that all or most of a man’s life is determined for him by factors beyond his control, be they the environment, heredity, or a host of other external forces that play upon him. The concept of free will, when it is considered at all, is relegated to an insignificant place in the make-up of the human person. The theory when applied frees man from those responsibilities which have always been respected by, even dear to, his forebears, those to God, to his family, to society, to the state, and perhaps most importantly, to himself. For if one’s own will cannot play upon the world at large, then surely one is not responsible for what happens in it. The result of the determinists’ victory has been nothing less than catastrophic for man, and his planet.

At the beginning of this century, G.K. Chesterton emerged as a public figure in debate and opposition to this very theory. He remained embroiled in this particular battle through his life, and it is one of the defining characteristics of his work. The opening pages of his Autobiography sum up his attitude with his usual succinct wit: “I regret that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am. I am not clear about what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault.”

And for further reading in Chesterton’s works, see especially The Blatchford Controversies, CW, I; Chapter 2 and Chapter 4 of Orthodoxy, “The Maniac” and “The Ethics of Elfland”; and “The Real Danger” in Utopia of Usurers.