A Skeptic in Elfland

wallup.net

“We need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”[1]

The morning fog hung heavily about me as I waited for my appointment to arrive. He was late. “Miracles,” I thought to myself as I examined the surroundings. I had been in this part of London before, but something seemed new. The tall trees that lined the long street looked like hairy-headed giants or crowned kings in the morning mist, frozen in a sort of dignified expectation for the arrival of something or someone. Everywhere was gray and dull as the light from the early sun struggled to penetrate the air, deciding instead to let the fog win. I stood by the entrance to a gated park, the insides of which were completely obscured by the gloom. It was one of many such parks in London, but it was new to me. I had never recognized it here. It must be private for the gate was locked.

My essay on miracles was the reason for the meeting. The hurried letter that requested the meeting had caught my attention:

WILL YOU KINDLY MEET ME AT THE PARK ON BEACON HILL TOMORROW MORNING AT EIGHT? I WANT TO DISCUSS YOUR ESSAY ON MIRACLES. YOU ARE WRONG ABOUT THEM, YOU KNOW. DANGEROUSLY WRONG. I WANT TO SET YOU STRAIGHT AS I AM TIRED OF TRYING TO SET THE CHILDREN OF YOUR IDEAS STRAIGHT.

An unaccountably odd curiosity had overcome my disinclination to revisit an argument that was irrevocably settled in my mind.

“Oh, blasted,” I said, growing impatient at the tardiness of my appointment. “I’m such a fool for doing this, allowing an irrational inquisitiveness to get the best of me. This must be a practical joke of some sort.”

“Sorting jokes, yes, that’s what they often do, they sort!” a voice laughed, disembodied by the fog. “‘A joke may be exceedingly useful for it is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact.’[2] Very practical, indeed!”

“I do not care for jokes. They are undignified,” I replied in my exasperation.

“Aw, yes, ‘joking is undignified; that is why it is so good for one’s soul,’” replied the speaker as he came into view.[3] At first glance, I thought that one of the giant trees had come alive to take me to task over my disgust of frivolity. A tall, bushy-haired man skipped out of the morning mist, shaking with laughter and mumbling something about Wells getting the last laugh with his stories about time travel.

“Mr. Hume, I presume,” he said, eagerly shaking my hand. “Mr. G.K. Chesterton at your service.” He was unusually dressed, not at all the fashion of the day. He had on a black coat and trousers of some sort and a rounded black hat, all of which were incredibly wrinkled as if he’d been lying in bed in them. He carried a cane, but only as an afterthought.

“David Hume,” he said, almost to himself, as he looked at me intently. “Puts me in mind of a kingly dance in a linen ephod, it does. Do you dance, Mr. Hume?”

“I do not dance,” I replied, wondering what the devil dancing had to do with miracles. I was growing impatient by the moment. I decided to get to point of the meeting in order to hasten its end.

“‘However, I do flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument … which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.’”[4]

“Indeed!” Chesterton laughed with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, that’s quite the coincidence for I’ve been delighted, to say the least, to have stumbled upon a place (well, stumbled back into it really), which will, with the humble and wise, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitions (or prideful self-deceptions, psychologically speaking), and consequently, will be as useful for maintaining wonder and sanity for as long as the world endures!”

“Good heavens, you ramble about your point, don’t you?” I exclaimed. “A place, you say? Not an argument? This is strange. Where is this place? Can you tell me and do try to quickly get to the point, will you? I am a very busy man.” I replied.

“The point? Yes, there is a point, and that’s the point. It’s real, not some illusion. This place can be found in every nursery in England (well, not in the poor Gradgrinds’s nursery, I’m afraid). At this moment, it’s most likely being expounded upon by any nurse here in town, that ‘solemn and star-appointed priestess.’[5] In fact, it forms the basis of all certainty, without which, we have none.”

“Really?” I said. “This is quite another coincidence for I have my own idea about certainty. Give me the facts about this place. What have you observed there?”

“You have an idea about certainty? Are you sure of this?” he laughed.

Typical rationalist response, I thought to myself. He must be one of those.

“Come now, give me the facts about this place,” I demanded.

“Facts about this place… hmmm,” he continued. “Yes, there are those, of course, but those can be found anywhere, even here. Just ask the old maid down the street. Old maids are full of facts. It’s the old wives’ tales that are really interesting. It’s what they do with the old maids’ facts. These tales are at the roots of certainty and sanity.”

“Tales? You mean delusions,” I said. Chesterton must be some sort of strange rationalist with a penchant for superstition.

“Ah, I have a theory about those for they are inextricably linked to a universal human weakness,” I continued. “My argument seeks to cut right through such nonsense once and for all. I am quite certain it does, in fact!”

Chesterton replied, “Hmm, all these facts and certainties. I wonder if what you call nonsense, I’d most likely call common sense.”

“What is common is usually nonsensical.”

“Really?” he laughed once again, but then continued more seriously. “Mr. Hume, I think we should begin our journey, and quickly. We’ve not much time. Come now, follow me and on the way, let us discuss this argument of yours,” he replied as he tried to open the gate to the park, but it was locked.

“Gladly! Please, tell me of this land of sanity, too.”

“Words do it little justice and even less so the kind of propositional statements you are used to. What keeps us sane is best expressed in stories. Fairytales, in fact! The best philosophy starts (and, quite frankly ends) with them.”

“Fairytales!” I exclaimed. Practical joke, indeed.

“Yes, Fairytales. I find that these get the essence of things. Indeed, they are at their best when it comes to epistemology.”

“Fairytales and epistemology? I can’t imagine what the two have in common,” I responded.

“Well, let’s get inside to taste and see. You are an Empiricist, after all,” he laughed, rummaging through his pockets in search of something. “Now where is that key? It’ll be a miracle, you know, if I can find it in my pockets for ‘if once anything slips into those unknown abysses, I [usually must] wave it a sad Virgilian farewell.’ Let’s see, there are tram tickets (enough to fill a fairy’s library), my pocket-knife—that modern version of Feudal Sword (which I prefer to call my secret sword)—matches, a piece of chalk (which reminds me of an essay I once wrote) …goodness, I need to write an essay on the wonders I’m finding in my pocket!”[6]

How this Chesterton rambles! I exhaled loudly in my impatience.

“I cannot begin to tell you, Mr. Hume, all the wonders that the contents of my pockets bring to mind. I can tell you what I can’t find in them, though. The key to this gate!”

In utter frustration, I leaned on the gate he was alluding to and it swung open.

“Of course!” Chesterton laughed, this time uncontrollably. “You’re the key!”

The fog suddenly cleared as we stepped inside, revealing that the morning sun had given way to a noonday splendor, shining high overhead, illuminating the park with blinding ferocity. My eyes were bewildered by the sudden brightness, having grown accustomed to the foggy gloom. Had we really been talking all morning?

I looked to Chesterton to see that he was eying me closely. He seemed unperturbed by the blaze and unaware of the passage of time.

“Is there a library or institution inside this park where we will find the source of this sanity?” I demanded, squinting my eyes. I heartily hoped this was the case for a dark room or even a blasted cave would do for me at the moment. The sun’s brilliance was addling my brain.

“The light will give me a splitting headache,” I complained.

“Yes, it is your head that splits,” said Chesterton, “or the heavens must shrink to fit. You are a logician, Mr. Hume. Tell me, do you write poetry?”

“Poetry? I don’t see what this has to do with miracles. Tell me, Chesterton, what did you mean when you wrote that you were tired of setting the children of my ideas straight?”

“Your ideas have had some rather unruly children and I wonder if you had seen them coming, you might have doubted your doubts. Especially, your doubts about miracles, for, quite frankly, those are some of your worst.”

“Worst?” Chesterton must be one of those dogmatic super-naturalists, after all.

“Really, Mr. Chesterton,” I began, ready to do battle, but I was stopped by something I spied over his shoulder, as my sight had finally begun adjusting to the light. I was stunned by what I saw: a tree with what looked like giant candlesticks growing all over it!

“This, Mr. Hume, is Elfland, and this is where I began my own journey towards sanity years ago … well, years ago in my time,” Chesterton said. “Go ahead, touch it!” he continued, noticing that I was bursting with curiosity over this new form of tree.

As I approached the tree, I was astonished to find that instead looking less like candlesticks, the flowers began to take the undeniable shape of shiny gold bases with long, wax candles inserted in them. Chesterton followed and, using his matches, lit one of the candles. This must have been some sort of switch for all the candles lit up in an instant.

“Like a burning bush!” he laughed. My mind began to swirl. I must be ill, I thought, for this is a feverish hallucination, if ever. Trees simply do not grow candlesticks.

“Yes, Elfland,” Chesterton continued, almost to himself. “‘The sunny country of common sense.’[7] This is where ‘I felt in my bones; first, that [the] world does not explain itself. It may be a 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.’”[8]

Perplexed at this digression, I decided that unless I began steering the conversation, it would continue to journey into strange waters. The sooner I could set this man straight with respect to my argument against miracles, the better. I had an uncanny feeling that the world was turned upside down in here and Chesterton was perfectly at home in the topsy-turvydom.

“Back to my essay on miracles, Mr. Chesterton. Let me explicate my reasons for concluding that we do not have a rational basis for believing in them.”

Chesterton smiled and preceding to sit down on the grass, invited me to continue. I began but was again stopped by another oddity. A patch of green grass quickly and noiselessly gathered itself up to form a sort of cushioned pillow for him. Dizziness struck me again as I tried to adjust my eyes to the incredible sight. I leaned back uncontrollably, but felt a hand steady me, keeping me from falling.

“Why don’t you take a seat, Mr. Hume? The grass here is uncommonly comfortable,” Chesterton gently remarked. With his support, I sat down, not caring to notice if the grass was as accommodating for me as it just had been for him.

“I must get a grip on these hallucinations,” I thought to myself. After a few moments, my passions were subdued. My old skepticism returned. I continued.

“First, no miracle in history has ever had ‘a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves,’” I began. At the sound of my argument, my mind steadied.[9] I forgot about the candled tree and cushioning grass.

“Mr. Hume, no event in history could be believed given such stringent constraints.”

“But I am not referring to just any event. Miracles touch on a particularly unhealthy need men have to be astonished at something. We cannot trust man’s testimony because ‘the passion and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards belief’ in them regardless of their veracity.[10] It encourages the opposite of skepticism, and without proper doubt, passions will disorder the mind.”[11]

“I also agree that men like astonishing tales,” he replied, “but the motive for doing so is perhaps more mixed than your simple dismissal. Why do we need to be astonished? Have you ever wondered why we need wonder? I believe we are drawn to the miraculous for the same reason we are drawn to fairy tales – ‘because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.’[12] Especially today, Hume. Especially after materialists have reduced the world to a tiny box, ‘painted inside with the sun and stars,’ filled with necessary causes and dead, inevitable facts.[13] We need wonder, Hume, and I mean it in the positive sense. Wonder that has a ‘positive element of praise.’[14] Why? Because the world is wonderful, of course; ‘this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps.’[15] The best philosophy starts with wonder, after all.”

“You seem to denigrate facts, but these are how we make sense of the world, Chesterton. Would you have people believe falsehoods because, as you say, they have some sort of innate need to be astonished?”

“I would have people see that the facts themselves are astonishing! Yet, ‘it is almost impossible to make the facts vivid because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men, it is often true that familiarity is fatigue.’”[16]

“Let me explain myself, Mr. Hume. You may find that you agree with me when it comes to our perception of causality. I think you might call it the difference between ‘relation of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact.’[17] This is where your philosophy is quite in line with that of fairyland.”

I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this strange man. I motioned for him to continue.

“Mr. Hume, ‘It might be stated this way. 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.’”[18]

“Matters of fact,” I said.

“Yes, and ‘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.’”[19]

“Who is Haeckel?” I asked.

“One of those unruly children. Yes, ‘cold reason decrees it from her awful throne’ that these ‘matters of fact’ as you call them, must be ‘and we in fairyland submit.’[20] But scientists and philosophers 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.’”[21]

A shiver ran up my spine at the mention of the candlestick trees. I resisted the temptation to look again at the blaze. I found myself forcefully directing all of my attention onto Chesterton. Who knew what else I might see in this strange park?

“‘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.’”[22]

He was right, this was very close to my empiricist views, yet that he was not a complete skeptic about the supernatural? By definition, the supernatural violates the regular course of events we experience, therefore, from a purely probabilistic standpoint, we must doubt them.

He continued. “‘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 marvelous 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.’”[23]

“Yes, but since we’ve observed these things over and over again, they do amount to a kind of law, don’t they?” I asked. “This idea is intimately associated with my critique of miracles. I define a miracle ‘as a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience have established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined … There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise, the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.’”[24]

“But this is where, Mr. Hume, we begin to diverge towards different conclusions, because frankly, I stay on the well-lit road through fairyland and you go off into the fog. It has to do with our starting points. I begin from the deeper roots of wonder, and an intuition that this world is astonishing and wholly unnecessary. I end in joyous praise. It is important that you see the difference between what you call the ‘relation of ideas’ and what I see as the connection of marvelous facts. In your reduction of the particulars, you have ceased to see the deeper impossibility of the entire system and this has led you to skepticism.”

He continued, “I define a miracle as an exception, not a violation. There are no laws here to violate! You are not consistent either, Hume, for at one point you call these merely probabilities, but then your entire case against miracles rests on an assumed uniformity of nature. Elsewhere, you deny that we can truly inductively know this uniformity.”[25]

“Yes,” I said, “I proved that we cannot prove the general uniformity of nature from the premise of observed uniformities in fact for ‘all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities.’ You cannot prove the uniformity of nature by arguments from experience, for all arguments from experience presuppose the uniformity of nature.’”[26]

“Hume,” said Chesterton, “I want you to see that while I agree that we do not truly know the nature of the relations between events, it is not because of any limitations upon our own perception, it is because the events themselves are contingent and not inevitable.”

“Fairy-tales show us that certain facts could have been different,” he continued. “Trees could have grown candlesticks rather than apple blossoms. There are certain facts that are not inevitable in a rationalist, Cartesian sense, even if they are repeated. It’s more the repetition of ‘an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again.’[27] You see, Hume, in my skepticism, as I looked at the world, ‘the grass seemed signaling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.’”[28]

“In a word, Hume, ‘the repetition of Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.’[29] Instead of being dead and mechanical, it is ‘something personal … as in a work of art’ and the repetition led me to believe that ‘whatever it meant, it meant violently.’[30] What you call probability, I call Personality!”

“Personality? An Artist?” I asked, trying to clear the air of all this wild talk. I was struggling to keep up and was not sure where he was going. I needed to know, for I had a nagging suspicion that it was a place I did not want to go.

“This is precisely what I cannot believe, Chesterton. The facts themselves do not point to this Artist as clearly as you think. I can have faith in a Creator, but reason and experience alone will never get me there.”

“Tell me, Hume, is it not an act of faith to say that your reasoning faculty has any relation to reality at all?” he asked.

“Yes. But that is categorically different. I assert that ‘if we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school of metaphysics for instance; let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’”[31]

“‘There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped,’” Chesterton said with a pity that was palpable.[32]

“Hume,” he continued, “you hate dogmatism, but we all must dogmatically assert this faith in reason if we are to place any confidence in our conclusions, even our doubts. You choose to be dogmatically skeptical, but this is unwarranted and, as a starting point, it ends in absurdity. You seem to think that disbelieving in miracles makes you free from dogma. But, ‘the fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.’[33] You are not consistent in your empiricism. Centuries from now, the final consequences of this skeptical doctrine of yours will have been birthed and Reason herself will sway on her throne, not just religious dogma. ‘In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved.’”[34]

“My ideas were supposed to free men, to awaken them from their dogmatic slumber!” I said with passion.

At this, Chesterton’s face fell. All the greatest artists in the world would not have been able to capture the shade of sadness that darkened his jovial features. I rose to take my leave, seeing that we were at an impasse. As I did, a tiny egg rolled out from under the grass at my feet. I couldn’t resist picking it up for, bespeckled as it was, it glittered in the bright sun as if covered in jewels. In the warmth of my palm, the egg began to crack and within moments, it burst open. I hardly remember what happened next for the dizziness returned, sweeping a veil of blindness across my eyes. I could only sense the far-off sounds of fluttering wings and laughter and the feel of the steadying arm supporting me, once again.

My room was shrouded in the darkness of evening when I awoke in my bed. The dying embers in the fireplace cast shadows on the ceiling overhead. I gazed at these, struggling to get my bearings. How had I made it home from that strange park on Beacon Hill? Had it all been a dream?

The shadows overhead danced like fairies in some sort of silent revelry. A memory struggled to the surface of my thoughts, but I quickly suppressed it.

It must have been a dream, I decided. I got up and made my way to my writing desk in the gloom. On it sat the letter that began this strange affair. I contemplated burning it in the remains of the fire.

Crepuscular_rays_in_ggp_2

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 5.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The G. K. Chesterton Collection [50 Books] (Catholic Way Publishing, 2014) loc. 2126-2128.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Hume, “Of Miracles: From An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” The Portable Atheist, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 32.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 44.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in My Pocket,” In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton, ed. by Dale Ahlquist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 37-8.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 44.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] David Hume, 36.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 48.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Ibid., 4.

[16] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 10.

[17] Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Hume, 117.

[18] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 45.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 46.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 47.

[24] David Hume, 35.

[25] C.S. Lewis notes this in his treatment of Hume’s arguments in Miracles.

[26] Peter Kreeft, 132-3.

[27] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 54.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 55.

[30] Ibid,. 59.

[31] Peter Kreeft, 217.

[32] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 28.

[33] Peter Kreeft, 192-3.

[34] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 29.

One thought on “A Skeptic in Elfland

  1. Pingback: Wonder and the Philosopher | Along the Beam

Comments are closed.