Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Testing Your Imagination: the Sunny Country of Common Sense, and the Decrees of Cold Reason

In one week, Chestertonians will be meeting in Minnesota to eat together, buy books, talk, drink various liquids (Petta wine... ah, and perhaps homebrewed beers) talk, laugh, play games, and other things. They may even get to listen to talks about the book we have been examining here on Thursdays... I understand there are to be talks on each of its chapters, and if you wish to know more about this great book, I strongly urge you to go to the conference if you can - I cannot. But if you cannot go, you may purchase the talks on CD for your own listening pleasure. It's just like a blogg, except you won't be able to post comments. This may be the next big project once we figure out how to stop using 2,2,4 trimethyl pentane. (That's that stuff you feed your automobile with.) Ahem.

But let us proceed to the next part of our chapter. We are in "The Ethics of Elfland" - as GKC says, "I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales." [CW1:253]

Much to the lit'ry folk's dismay, however, and to the scientist's glee, this chapter is one of the most bold, and richest sources of what we could call GKC's philosophy of science. I do not have room to elaborate on this today - you can find it in Fr. Jaki's wonderful Chesterton A Seer of Science - he calls it "one of the most penetrating discourses on the nature of scientific reasoning that has been so far produced." [CASOS 13] And, if you read that book, you will learn where this chapter was once excerpted - one of the most surprising places any Chestertonian can imagine finding GKC...

I will tell you if you click here.

On page 14, Fr. Jaki tells us that "about one-third of chapter 4 of Orthodoxy, "The Ethics of Elfland," was "reprinted in 1957 in, of all places, Great Essays in Science, a title in the Pocket Library. A typical first printing of titles in that series was in the tens of thousands, and copies were available not only in all bookshops but also at many newsstands in the 1950s and 1960s. There was Chesterton in the company of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Henri Fabre, J.R. Oppenheimer, Arthur Stanley Eddington, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell, so many giants in mathematics, physics, and natural history. Chesterton was also in the company of such prominent interpreters of science as John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and even T. H. and Julian Huxley."

I believe I have mentioned this before, but now that we are here, you need to hear it again. That volume was edited by Martin Gardner, who had his own comments to make on why he put GKC there, but we are talking about GKC, not Gardner or Jaki. I must, however, here briefly quote Jaki about GKC, for Jaki's own prowess as a philosopher and a critic of GKC is important to our task of grasping GKC's work - and to bolster our confidence that we are truly on the high road of Truth:
A summing up of the selection is not an easy task, as it is never easy to give a concise and systematic outline of any of Chesterton's philosophical chapters and books. A philosopher of tremendous incisiveness, he is never discursive.
[Jaki, CASOS 15]
I have used the analogy of a hike for our tour of this book - you must recall that hikes are often strenuous, and even dangerous in places; they tax you, and are sometimes inconvenient - but they give you views which you cannot acquire on the highway, or stuck in your office or your home. Also, they do another thing, something which brings me to today's excerpt: they take you to your destination.

Now, you are whining again. People don't go on hikes to get somewhere, sort of like Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem to get there by April 15... er - you know what I mean, that's what I get for saying this was "taxing", hee hee. The typical hike seems to be a loop - you start here, go out for a while and come back to where you started (home, your car, whatever). So what's the point?


That is the point. (remember GKC talking about discovering England???) Think about it, and once you've started your thought machinery, take the next paragraph:
If I were describing them [fairy tales] in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast"; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.
OK, some notes may be helpful here.

"Jacobin": a member of a political group during the French Revolution.
"Jacobite": a Scottish supporter of King James II (around 1688) James is the usual English rendering of the Hebrew name Jacob.
"exaltavit humiles": Latin for "He has lifted up the lowly" this is from Mary's "Magnificat" - see Luke 1:52.

Wow... How many other bible scholars have connected "Cinderella" with the Magnificat? There you go.

Also, in my own copy of the book I have a cross-link to another essay of GKC, which I give for your own reference. It shows that GKC had been working on this matter for some years before 1908:
Fairy tales are the only true accounts that man has ever given of his destiny. ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ is the embodiment of the first of the three great paradoxes by which men live. It is the paradox of Courage: the paradox which says, ‘You must defy the thing that is terrifying; unless you are frightened, you are not brave.’ ‘Cinderella’ is the embodiment of the second of the paradoxes by which men live: the paradox of Humility which says ‘Look for the best in the thing, ignorant of its merit; he that abases himself shall be exalted’. And ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is the embodiment of the third of the paradoxes by which men live: the paradox of Faith - the absolutely necessary and wildly unreasonable maxim which says to every mother with a child or to every patriot with a country, ‘You must love the thing first and make it lovable afterwards.’
[GKC's essay for Sept 27 1904 in The World, excerpted in Maycock's The Man Who Was Orthodox]

Now, of course, the lit'ry people are all happy; they have a Latin quote, and some history and all that. The scientists are bored. Now, as usual with these hikes, we flip. Which means it's time for a humour break:

Q. "How far can a dog run into the forest?"
A. "Halfway. After that, he's running out."

Yes... for the next paragraph begins the "penetrating discourse" on science that Jaki sees in GKC. Please read it carefully. Warning! This is an uphill leg, and shall continue for some time - We - and the elves - are now going to DIG into the great matter of logic and of math and of science - and find out - well, we will find out something akin to our discovery that our hike takes us home. Ready? Proceed:
... There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened - dawn and death and so on - as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.
We are going to investigate more on this Chestertonian view of "law" and "necessity" - yes, and "miracle" - and find out that while we get much higher, the climb gets easier. You note, of course, that GKC continually gives us parables - or examples - we are not dealing with equations or meticulous philosophical terms and links. Nevertheless, the ideas are clear, they are not irrational, or unreasonable.

But! here we have the rich troves where all the departments of the Kingdom of Wisdom may cavort and rejoice. The hedge of the elves - try poking your own head over it. People are commonly of the opinion that "imagination" means dragons or stuff like that, and is great for writing fantasies or maybe video games. But actually, there are few fields of study which need imagination more than the hard sciences - yes, and even mathematics.

You may, of course, realize that GKC is talking about some profound philosophy here: the ideas of causality, of reason, and of imagination - and perhaps you think this is a height the untrained hiker ought to avoid! Oh, no. There is a famous line from the Gospels, where Jesus tells the apostles on Peter's little ship, "Set out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch". [Lk 5:4] The Latin has Duc in altum. Huh - it sounds like "altitude"? Yes, the same word is both "high, height" and "deep"! You must set out, even in your little boat, that you may have a good catch...

(Yes, I know, it's a mixed metaphor: hiking, fishing... well, I do what I can. Mix well.)

But let us see just one more paragraph today, which mixes apples and ogres, physics and fantasy...
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn, and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.
Again, splendid! Such guides ought to be posted in every laboratory, in every research facility... How much further would we go, how much safer would we be, how much less would we waste, if we understood. And you - you lit'ry people - do you not see how you should be seeking to guide the scientists? No, not by your own brand of pompous technical obfuscation - but by bringing your splendid gifts to aid them! They give you your lights, your paper, your ink, your computers, laser printers, and web-search tools - what do you give them? Essays on the esoteric meaning of some play or poem? Dull! Why not give something like this rich harvest of deep thought? Please, both sides ought to be working on that bridge. (That is GKC's "bridge between science and human nature".)

Then, we can stand together and poke our heads "over the hedge of the elves", and rejoice at the wonders we see.

OK... if you think this was a rough journey with all the elves and philosophers and scientists fussing over causality, wait till you see what's coming! Next week, we'll have even more fun when the Law gets involved. "Woe to you lawyers!" [Lk 11:46] Hee, hee. Unless you're at the conference - let's hope the Law doesn't get involved there too.

--Dr. Thursday


  1. Doctor, this is from a lit'ry man, not a scientist.

    Speaking of falling apples, or apples and the Fall, it has always seemed to me ludicrous that physicists are intent on finding "gravitons", or whatever they call those things that they say communicate gravity. It is as if they are thinking that by lining up a bunch of little things pushing or pulling other little things, the push or the pull is explained away. If everything is a machine, there is no ghost.

    Or is my lit'ry imagination just a rotten apple in this case?

  2. Dear Kevin,

    Every lit'ry man must be a scientist - every time he treats of the real world - as real. Every scientist must be a lit'ry man - every time he speaks or writes. There is a bridge, but too many of us ignore it.

    Now that I've got that said...

    I can't speak about gravitons now, but the idea of "explaining" is perhaps sometimes exalted beyond what it really means. GKC has a famous line about amber - we don't really know more about electricity because we call it by that name -which only is Greek for "the strange thing amber does". And I bring up electricity intentionally, because the whole guess that was made by the early researchers - that the "excess" of the stuff (whatever it really was) was to be found at what they labelled the POSITIVE side - turned out to be backwards! The "excess" stuff is electrons, which are at the NEGATIVE side, and go towards the POSITIVE, just backwards of what they all "felt" it was. So we must be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions about the evidence.

    Also: some of this matter gets back to the long-discounted views of some - uh - ancient Greeks... but rather than elaborate here, please wait until the next episode of our hike, and some of the issue ought to be clarified. I sure hope so.

    In the end, we're going to learn that it's magic, and we're living in a fairy tale - but I think you knew that. Or, to put it another way: The rock group "Rush" quote that famous English playwriter: "All the world's a stage"... but some of us are intent on meeting the Set Designer, the Props Manager, and the Playwright.... as GKC says, He takes such care of His minor characters....

    --Dr. Thursday


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