Scientism, Metanarrative, and the Power of “Elfland”

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Mural at MINOS Far detector cavern by Joseph Giannetti. From

“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.” (“Ethics of Elfland” from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy)

* * *

Do you remember the media frenzy surrounding the so-called “God particle” back around 2010? I do. I was 15 years old and fascinated by quantum physics. Quarks and gluons, spin and charge, particles and waves; the mysterious allure of dark matter and dark energy; the standard model, string theory…few things filled me with more wonder through my high school years. My first introduction to this wild field of study was 2,300 feet underground at the bottom of the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. My family annually vacations in northern Minnesota every summer, and touring the mine had been a regular outing for us on cold, rainy days. Fermilab had set up a massive laboratory on the lowest level of the mine in 2005 to research neutrinos. Depending on the day, mine tours were allowed to visit the lab, too.

I was likely no older than 11 years old the first time I toured that laboratory half a mile underground. I couldn’t begin to understand the math or science behind the experiment they were conducting, but a few things captivated my attention enough to want to understand. First, I was amazed at how hot the lab was. I had been on mine tours before, and the air temperature that far underground stayed at a consistent 53°. The lab, however, required its own air conditioning system to compensate for the heat all its machinery gave off. Even then, the lab was more than 20° warmer than the rest of the mine. Second, the idea that a canon was shooting a laser beam more than 450 miles through the earth directly at my position was mind boggling. Third, and most importantly, the lab had commissioned the painting of a mural along the entire face of one of the cave’s walls (pictured above). It must have been more than sixty feet long. The cross of such a colorful, spectacular work of art directly next to such a complex machine struck a cord with me. In some small way, that mural forever linked science and beauty in my mind.

To me, learning about quantum physics was an act of worship. I was in awe of how intricately God created the cosmos, from the scale of the gigaparsec to the Planck length. Needless to say, when I first caught wind of a popularly dubbed “God particle,” I was enthralled. 

The “God Particle”

It didn’t take long to realize the given name was a total misnomer. The Higgs Boson isn’t responsible for the creation of all mass in the universe as many articles falsely reported. In fact, physicists were far less concerned with the Higgs Boson itself than the field it would prove to exist. This universal Higgs Field would explain why certain bosons (which are usually massless) seem to gain mass at particular energy levels, providing a necessary addition to support the Standard Model of particle physics. In 2013, CERN reported that the Large Hadron Collider had detected something extraordinarily “Higgs-like,” which was more than enough for Peter Higgs and others to win the Nobel Prize for Physics that year. Decades of research, billions of dollars, and the collaboration of some of the greatest minds of the last 100 years paid off. Even as an ignorant observer, I was caught up in the hype. I felt like I was a part of that movement. The excitement was electric. 

In hindsight I can see that my early fascination for physics and cosmology slowly grew into its own sort of field—one that, like the Higgs, was all-pervasive in my head, subtly interacting with my understanding of the world and my outlook on life. It was an essential aspect of my worldview that I hadn’t detected. Feynman, Heisenberg, Einstein, Fermi, and Higgs would be no help in finding this field. This required geniuses of a different sort: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; Walter Fisher; John the Apostle, Jesus Christ Himself, and others. 

Now obviously, it’d be foolish to say that the Higgs Boson and field were discovered by one man in one paper. Higgs himself refers to the field as the “ABEGHHK’tH mechanism,” with each letter corresponding to the name of a pivotal colleague who contributed to its discovery. Alas, history has a chronic habit of giving one man the credit for the accomplishments of many, and so we remember Higgs. For the detection of my field of thought, that one man is G.K. Chesterton and that one paper is the fourth chapter of his book Orhodoxy, which he titled “The Ethics of Elfland.” In a single chapter, Chesterton perfectly explained my subconscious worldview, casually dismantled it, and cheerfully offered his own. 

I was a Junior in college, and though I had already completed half of my Philosophy degree, it wasn’t until I took the class “C.S. Lewis and Myth” and read this chapter that I truly became a Philosophy major—not to say that it all clicked at once. In truth, my first attempt at understanding the chapter was an utter embarrassment. I was accustomed to reading textbook that were written like Lego manuals. Chesterton’s writing was almost poetic. Moreover, his content was so foreign to my way of thinking that I hardly had categories to process it all. It might as well have been written in German. It took me four read-throughs and no less than four hours to translate what I read into a language I could comprehend, and even then I fiercely resisted his position. He was advocating for things like “magic” and “miracles.” He seemed more willing to look to a fable for truth than an encyclopedia. I was practically offended. Three years later, I finally get it. 

I’d like to share with you how I moved from Chesterton’s opponent to his advocate. Summarizing and communicating three years worth of worldview reconstruction will be no short task. Many books, articles, discussions, and quiet times nurtured me along the way. Chesterton’s work wasn’t even the first significant contribution chronologically; the paradigm shift was so jarring that I retrospectively saw how previous ideas and experiences perfectly conformed with his claims. Since, however, his was the work that opened my eyes to this new way of thinking, I’ll begin with him. My first goal is to explore Chesterton’s “ethics of Elfland” and chart out how it confronted my scientistic worldview. 

Up front, I want to note the difference in my use of “scientific” and “scientistic.” I am not at all arguing against the practice of science. The fields of cosmology, biology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, and all the like are valid and important. What I have come to disagree with is the field of thought I described above. It’s a worldview, a metanarrative, a mental framework. Henceforth I’ll refer to it as Scientism, and describe it or things pertaining to it as scientistic. “Scientist” will be used as a technical term for those who adhere to Scientism. Hopefully I can show how one can be a specific scientist (i.e., a biologist or physicist) without buying into Scientism. I have personally found this to be true in my own field, even though I’ve shifted from cosmology to theology. In my experience, theologians are just as prone to Scientism as anyone else who studies an -ology. 

“The Ethics of Elfland” 

I highly recommend reading Chesterton’s work in full on your own time, but for the sake of making myself clear I’ll give my own explanation of the chapter. Feel free to follow the link below to read the chapter for yourself.

At the core of Chesterton’s work is the difference between what is “necessary” and what is “imaginary.” The former refers to all things that are necessarily true—things that cannot possibly be untrue. “All bachelors are unmarried men” and “Two apples added to one apple makes three apples” are examples of the necessary. Modern philosophy often refers to such things as a priori. Chesterton holds the necessary in contrast against the “imaginary,” which encompasses everything else. That chickens hatch from eggs, or that apples drop to the ground when they fall off their tree branch are both examples of the imaginary. His word choice is fiercely intentional. Chesterton writes: 

“They [those who are scientistic-minded] 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.” (3)

He takes things a step further when he asserts that “cause and effect” is no law, and scientists are foolish to draw necessary links between two observed facts. Causes lead to effects but not because they have to. He continues: 

“They [scientist-types] 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.” (4)

Rather than “laws” of nature (the philosophical connection of strange physical things) Chesterton asserts “magic.” This is a technical term, but again, his word choice is highly intentional. 

“We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.” (4)

By not tagging the imaginary with “necessity,” magic allows for exceptions; laws cannot be broken, but magic allows for “miracles”—yet another technical term meaning that things could be other than they are. For Chesterton, that instills a deep sense of both wonder and gratitude. Because fruit trees don’t necessarily grow fruit and could just as conceivably grow tigers hanging by the tail, it’s worth celebrating whenever they do grow fruit. It’s within this mindset that “fairy tales” gain their value. Fairy tales remind the reader that the real world is surprisingly wonderful by highlighting surprisingly wonderful things in the fairyland. A reader might marvel at the account of a shining golden apple, but the fact that Elfland’s apples are golden heightens the surprise and joy that our apples are green or red. Elfland, then, is another technical term. It transcends any one fairy tale and becomes a name for the worldview Chesterton is outlining. 

In addition to Chesterton’s gratitude was obedience to the order of Elfland, both humble and firm in conviction. Elfland operates according to the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Fairy tales often hinge on a specific magical “cause and effect.” If the princess kisses the frog, it will turn into a prince. When the clock strikes twelve at midnight, the carriage will revert back to a pumpkin, and the horses will again be mice. To Chesterton, this isn’t unreasonable or unjust—it is simply the way things operate. He does no better to question the set conditions than the relationship between fruit trees and fruit. They require only submission, not explanation. Chesterton summarizes thus far:

“I have explained that the fairy tales rounded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which, crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.” (8)

The “modern world” here is the same as our aforementioned Scientism. The first sentiment Chesterton found was that scientistic fatalism attacked the inherent delight in finding the world as it was. Fatalism says that the apple is green and not golden because it has to be green according to the laws of science and there was never any chance that tree could have grown anything else; it was decided before. Elfland counters that each apple from the tree has the possibility to be golden or green, or even furry and striped and growling, operating by the principle of magic and miracles. 

Scientism counters that by pointing to the unyielding repetition observed in nature: millions of apple trees have been observed over hundreds of years, and never has an apple tree in our world grown a golden apple or a tiger. To the scientist, that counts as proof that the apple tree cannot do otherwise: it has no choice in the matter. Chesterton argues from an entirely different perspective. He suggests that repetition is a sign of joy and satisfaction. Repetition in nature might not be caused by a predetermined course of nature but instead by God who delights in having things always repeat the same way. He writes: 

“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” (9)

Repetition in nature isn’t necessary and mechanical, but rather it’s God calling for an “encore.” The magic by which the world operates according to the ethics of Elfland is directed by a Magician who is delighted in doing the exact same trick more often than not. 

The second sentiment Chesterton found was that Scientism asserts an infinite expanse of an unbreakable reality. Scientists at the turn of the 20th century declared the universe was massive, dwarfing man and even man’s ancient invention: God. Yet, this massive universe was largely homogenous, cold, and empty. The most regrettable claim Scientism asserted was that the universe was one and only. By being “one” Chesterton means that it is uniform like a “prison,” predetermined and mechanical, cold and lifeless. By “only” he means that there is no way the universe could be other than it is; there is no possibility of changing the Law of Nature. Chesterton writes:

“The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it…the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could not be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery. We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them.” (10) 

This completeness, or at least complete knowledge, leads to a perceived smallness and blandness. Chesterton masterfully pokes that “If you can make a statue of a thing you can make a statuette of it” (10). Scientists not only reduced the universe to an infinite insignificance, but were brazenly indifferent about it. They seemed to be as cold and lifeless as the universe they asserted. Chesterton, on the other hand, was filled with passion toward his cosmos. The reality that the world is as it is, in spite of the possibility of it being otherwise, gave the world precious value. It was as if all the good things in this real world we live in were salvage from a shipwreck of endless other possibilities.

Chesterton closes his chapter with the following paragraph:

“I felt in my bones; first, that world does not explain itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology.”

A Scientist’s Objection: Is the Imaginary Necessary? 

Let’s unpack some of this. Chesterton says that there’s a distinct categorical difference between necessary truth and imaginary truth. Some things really are logical laws, like mathematics and definitions. One and three makes four. A bachelor is an unmarried man. Other things, however, are not laws but rather are “magic.” That goose eggs hatch into goslings is a wonderful mystery, not a scientific inevitability. Breaking necessary laws is impossible. Miracles are incredible—rare, spectacular, highly improbable!—but still possible. 

I see where one might start to grow suspect of Chesterton’s reasoning here. I was highly suspect myself, but I think if we can peel back enough layers, we might find that Fairyland’s magic triumphs over the “laws of nature.” First, the objection. 

At first, I could understand this distinction between the necessary and the imaginary, but I wasn’t sure if I totally believed it. One might be tempted to believe that the imaginary is no rule at all, and that the things which “appear” to be related truly are related. In other words, an apple falling from a tree and then dropping to the ground might actually be necessary. To me, cold deterministic gravity seemed far more likely than “magic.”  The only reason we might assume that the relationship is imaginary is because we can’t see it, but our lack of understanding or observation doesn’t rule out the possibility of the necessary relationship’s existence. Perhaps there are core necessary laws in nature that dictate the unfolding and operation of all imaginary relationships. Scientists today seem to believe in such a reality. All phenomena can be explained if observed and studied and tested thoroughly enough. 

One significant hole in the scientist’s perspective is that the supposed “laws of nature” we currently have aren’t necessary laws at all—they’re broken all the time. Newtonian physics, once the bastion of a mechanical universe, were suddenly and violently razed with Einstein’s curving and relative space-time continuum. What was once fact is now false, or better said, inaccurate. That’s an important philosophical shift that’s occurred in the century since Chesterton wrote “Ethics of Elfland.” The hubris of the scientist has been executed on the altar of quantum physics and inflation and galaxy rotation curves. Enlightenment thinkers thought Kepler and Newton had escaped the cave, seen the real sun, and returned to free other likeminded critical thinkers. Scientists today admit they haven’t seen the allegorical sun yet, but Newton and Kepler (and later Einstein and Heisenberg, and now Hawking and Higgs) were enough to convince them that the sun is certainly out there somewhere. Newton’s “laws” have been succeeded by Einstein’s “theory” and the standard “model” of particle physics, but the models and theories still prophesy about the true laws. 

Chesterton emphasizes the idea that while necessary relationships operate according to laws, which cannot be broken, imaginary relationships operate according to magic, which allows for “miracles.” As he writes, “We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception” (4). If he were alive today, I’m inclined to believe Chesterton would applaud science’s shift from “laws” to “models,” but what would he say to that tenacious pursuit of the real necessary Laws of nature? Science hasn’t abandoned its faith that even exceptions have explanations—and Higgs has done his part to corroborate that. 

For the sake of discussion, let’s give the scientist exactly what he wants: the real necessary Law of Nature, in its perfect, unified entirety! Every anomaly accounted for, all “exceptions” dispelled, all mysteries solved; the origin of everything explained, every effect traced back to its causes as far as the genesis of existence itself, and simultaneously every future effect predicted with absolute certainty. This is the allegorical sun. This is the scientist’s pursuit. Science fully realized is nothing less than omniscience. How literal! Chesterton refers to this when he writes against the “solid world” of modern Calvinism (I’ll get back to this) and scientific materialism. The Law of Nature we’ve lent to the scientists is all-encompassing for our universe, and the universe thus known would in fact be one and only. 

Now, whether or not the Law of Nature actually exists—and I believe it does, though I prefer to call it by another name—it’s obvious that the scientist could never grasp it. The finite mind can comprehend the infinite no better than a fraction can express π. Approximations come tantalizingly close, and newfound approximations come increasingly closer, but a rational fraction can never contain the entirety of an irrational number. Scientific models will get better and better but can never reach the real Law. For the sake of discussion, however, we’ll pretend this scientist can grasp the entirety of the Law of Nature. In that case, we might want to capitalize the “S.” You can even call him “God” if you like. What then would we make of Chesterton? Is there still room for the ethics of Elfland?

Unfortunately, no—not in the mind of the Scientist, at least. The omniscient Law of Nature presupposes that all that happens is necessary in the same way that definitions and mathematics are true. At the very least, all that happens is derived from necessary truth, like how properties of math are derived from the necessary way numbers interact with each other. Because that which is necessary cannot be other than it is, this would in fact invalidate the existence of other worlds. The one and only world of the Law of Nature is the only “real world.” Omniscience would render other worlds meaningless in the same way π itself strips its approximations of their worth. 

However, we cannot escape the reality that omniscience is unobtainable for mere humans. This hypothetical Scientist cannot go by any name other than God. To Him alone (again, assuming He is real and the Law of Nature is as well) is the fullness of His will known. Those who lack the totality of omniscience are stuck with approximations. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Rather, I find this to be spectacularly beautiful. This is where Chesterton’s fairy stories shine! Here in our ignorance is where the ethics of Elfland reign. Fairy stories don’t remove us from reality, nor do they reduce, deny, or rebut the real. If anything, fairy stories provide evidence for the Law of Nature. 

 * * * 

There is much left to be written on all this, and I have every intent of writing it one of these days. Consider this the first part to a multi-part series on myth, metanarrative, Scientism, and Christianity. In my next part, I hope to explore a handful of exchanges between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Both men were great lovers of myths or “faerie stories,” and seemed to have duel citizenship with Elfland (perhaps this series will help my Elfland visa get approved). Eventually I’ll tie in Walter Fisher’s excellent work on what he’s called the narrative paradigm. To wrap everything up, I look forward to borrowing from the likes of John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and Tim Keller. 

About Giannetti painting the mural:

About the Higgs Boson:

Ethics of Elfland:  

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