Reading Orthodoxy: The Ethics of Elfland and The Flag of the World

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapters 4-5 are this week.

So, The Ethics of Elfland! I liked it so much I will probably not get to The Flag of the World. It has hugely influenced how I think about science and the world.

As I mentioned in my kick-off post, Hume’s critique of any necessary connection between cause and effect really struck me. Surprisingly, not even a probabilistic inference (the sun will probably rise tomorrow because it rose every morning for the past 10,000 years) is valid. His critique was unassailable, and it shook my faith in what I had thought of as the firm things of the world[1].
To my astonishment, Chesterton took this same sentiment (the lack of any real connection between cause and effect) and ran with it: “It is no argument for unalterable law that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it”
But where he moves next is not to despair but to wonder, in a move so obvious in retrospect I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of it that way. How magnificent it is that the world is so regular and predictable! We have no reason to expect it to be so, or even to expect it to be so tomorrow, and yet it is.

Chesterton has somehow maintained the sense of wonder that you find in very young children. As he says, “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” My favorite part of having an infant is getting to observe the wide-eyed wonder with which they regard ordinary things. Everything is new to them, everything is exciting, everything is fascinating. Having children really brought home to me the degree to which we enter the world with no notion at all of what it ought to be like. I think of “how to drink from a cup” to be pretty intuitive, but my one-year-old thought the best way must be to smash his face into the cup.

We’re habituated by long experience to expect the world to be the way that it presents itself to us, and to stop being amazed. But there is no rational basis for this expectation. “When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn…. 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”.

Here I should say something about what a scientific explanation actually is, because an obvious objection is that we do have a scientific explanation for “why does an egg turn into a chicken”. We certainly know a lot more about the process than we did 100 years ago when Orthodoxy was written, but Chesterton’s is no God-of-the-Gaps critique; it cuts too deep.

This is the point: when we say that science has “explained” something, we like to think that it has told us something about the “why”, but this is false. If I answer the question “why does water boil” with a response about heat causing molecular motion, and matter state changes, and atmospheric pressure, I have only described water boiling in other terms, and in greater detail. I have not answered any “why”questions, I have only relocated them – “why do molecules move faster when they are heated?”, etc. And an answer to that question would still be vulnerable to “why?”, on and on. It follows that no matter how much I increase the detail of the explanation, I cannot answer those fundamental “why” questions[2].  At bottom, we accept the world as we find it, just like an infant does. And (via Hume) our association of experience with necessity is not a rational one.

This is not as bad as it might sound at first; but it does inject a note of humility into science. In spite of all the (very real) scientific advances we have made, the world is still a fundamentally strange and wonderful place that we have not tamed and do not understand.

In fairness to scientists, the ones I know have a healthy sense of wonder in their work. I remember a grad-school professor of mine telling us about his work in Biology: “Whenever I’ve gone wrong in my career, it’s because I wasn’t thinking wildly enough” (emphasis his). And physics, of course, has submitted to the bizarre reality of quantum mechanics since Chesterton’s time, which has mostly killed the physical determinism he describes. Gödel's incompleteness theorem, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the halting problem have contributed to a sense of the limitations of human knowledge[3]. Chesterton would have welcomed all of these developments.

The result is that we live in wonderful and contingent world, made more wonderful precisely because it could have been otherwise. Chesterton conveys a unique sense of enjoyment in these features.

[1] By the way, Hume’s critique of miracles in the last chapter of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is totally incompatible with his dismantling of cause and effect earlier in the same book; so much so that it is fairly common to enlist Hume on cause & effect to critique his own argument against miracles; C.S. Lewis does this in Miracles, and Chesterton takes it to be obvious.
[2] Although a good theory will reduce the number of "why" questions that we have, by explaining phenomena in terms of fewer concepts. For instance, relativity explains why mercury is a liquid, why gold is yellow, and a great many other things.
[3] I can’t pass over the topic without highly recommending Logicomix, a fascinating graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and the search for absolute truth; complete with an examination of the relationship between logic and madness!