Transcending Naturalism in Literature

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Jeffrey Thayne

Today, I would like to consider two different genres of fiction: fantasy and science fiction. The way in which I talk about them will probably be different than the way a literary expert would talk about them; I make no claims to any serious research in this post, but rather I would just like to share some personal thoughts I have had when comparing the two genres.

Today, we live in a world where it is assumed that everything that happens has a “scientific explanation.” This means more than that everything is explanable; it means that everything is understandable and accountable in terms of matter governed by mathematical laws. If anything out of the ordinary happens, we simply assume that it can be explained scientifically, even if we don’t exactly know how yet. This modern perspective is often called scientific naturalism. This perspective is intricately connected with determinism, which is the assumption that all events are predictable, if you know all of the antecedent circumstances. In other words, whatever happens, happens inevitably.

Scientific naturalism hasn’t always been the prevailing assumption in society. In the past, and even in places today, people often used “teleological” explanations to account for the world, rather than mechanistic explanations. The Greek word “telos” means end, or purpose. In this world view, things in nature act with a purpose, for a specific end, in an agentic kind of way. Aristotle, for example, often accounted for events in nature in teleological ways. It is in a teleological worldview that we anthropomorphize (ascribe human characteristics to) trees and rocks and “mother earth”, etc., as we often read in older literature or modern fantasy. Even the idea of human agency or free will is a teleological explanation of human behavior, and is seen by many scientists as an “artifact of the past,” as all human action is believed by them to be reducible or explanable in terms of neurons interacting in the brain. Human teleology is one of the last surviving links to this more archaic mode of explanation, and we are rightfully most reluctant to let go of it, although it is growing more and more popular to do so among the biological and psychological sciences.

Fantasy is considered a “genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.”1 One reason fantasy literature attracts me is this: in a world saturated with scientific naturalism, fantasy invites me to “suspend” the assumption that all events are scientifically reducible and explore the possibilty of things that transcend the scientific realm, such as spirits, magic, and even free will. The idea that the material constituents of the universe have a form of life and act with a purpose (rather than being dead, inert molecules bumping into each other in random—or even predictable—ways) is refreshing in a world where everything is assumed to be part of an underlying mechanistic reality. Personally, it seems almost arrogant for me to believe that man is the only purposeful being in an otherwise deterministic universe; that we alone break the rules of mechanistic causality and act agentically. While order and mechanicity are often the fundamental substrates of the science fiction world, life and purpose are often the fundamental substrates of the universe in a fantasy world.

I hope my readers do not see this as a scathing criticism of science fiction—I am a science fiction fanatic. I grew up on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. However, science fiction, although enjoyable to read, does not require me to suspend my naturalistic assumptions about the world. Although the events that happen in science fiction are often impossible within our scientific framework, it is nonetheless assumed by the reader and the characters of the story that in the fictional science fiction world, all events are scientifically reducible (to whatever scientific, deterministic realities exist in that world). To the extent that a science fiction story moves beyond this naturalistic framework, it ceases (in a sense) to be science fiction and becomes something more.

Here is a practical example: The original three Star Wars movies, I believe, had elements of fantasy. They certainly had elements of science fiction as well, but what was interesting was that “the force” did not seem to be something that was scientifically reducible or explainable. It was mysterious, elusive, and perhaps had a kind of life of its own, and had a kind of spiritual quality to it. The Jedi were seen as a kind of sage (with military training, or course). However, in the newer Star Wars movies, the Jedi were treated as having a kind of “genetic advantage” over their peers (almost like the X-Men) because of a higher number of “midichlorians” in their bloodstream. The force was just another physical phenomena like gravity or electromagnetism. Whereas in the original three Star Wars movies, the force almost had a nature and purpose all its own, in the newer Star Wars movies, the force was caused by something measurable and observable. The force was safely explained. Whatever fantastical elements the original had were stripped away, turning it into a purely science-fiction story.

Elsewhere, a reader named Clayton astutely commented:

Popular fantasy literature as it exists today does not inherently escape scientific naturalism, it often just provides a alternative version of it. For example, the wizardry of Harry Potter is really nothing more than an more advanced science, an alternative methodology but still a methodology, one the wizards for some reason hide from the rest of us. In this way, the fantasy genre can be misleading. It tells us that the only alternative to science is more science. The religious version of this: God is out there we just need more science to see him. I think ideas like creationism and intelligent design are attempts to do this.2

In other words, many self-styled fantasy books in many ways portray humans methodologically manipulating an inert world for instrumental purposes, a kind of bizarre science fiction—referencing a different kind of technology, but a technology nonetheless.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Why is it so hard for us to believe in things that are scientifically irreducible?” We see today a growing trend to reinterpret even scriptural accounts of miracles in terms of modern science, and assume that God himself cannot transcend the scientific realm. If we believe in human agency, we already believe in at least one thing that can transcend a deterministic, scientific framework; that is, at least one thing that acts with a purpose, and is not reducible to the mechanistic interactions of inert matter. Might there also be others?


1., “fantasy.”
2. Thinking in a Marrow Bone


  1. Interesting thoughts. What you say here, as well as Clayton’s comment, reminds me of the last section of “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis (which I consider among his greatest) where he compares the Magician to the the Scientist:

    “And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

    There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

    If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. `All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and `a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”

    The contrast between Magical/Scientific power in the sense that Lewis describes, which I call Mathemagical Power, and the Priesthood is instructive. Mathemagical power is virtue agnostic, it can be used for good or ill.

    The Power of Priesthood on the other hand, is inseparably connected to the power of Heaven, and can only be used virtuously. It is power though relationship. The Ordinances aren’t magical formulae which if performed with technical precision magically remove our sin, they are symbolic rites that bring us into a relationship with God and his Christ, and it is through that relationship we are relieved of sin.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I love that quote! Thanks! I appreciate your comment, and hope to hear from you again.

    In the end, I like how you connect everything with our relationship with Christ. Scientists envision us being able to do everything based upon technical skill; I think, however, it is more likely that true power comes from our relationship with deity.

    In fact, if I remember correctly, in C. S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew,” The magician/scientist was in the wrong for thinking power lies in technical skill.

  3. I remember even when I was a little kid, noticing that in so many movies, the action and outcome usually revolved around a relic or power-granting article. If the bad guy got it, things turned out bad, but if the good guys got it, things went back to being OK. I remember thinking, how scary would it be if the universe really were governed at heart by an amoral relic (or formula, or set of knowledge) that could be used for either purpose.

    I always felt that the supreme, most overarching powers in this universe were inherently good, and it brought me a lot of stability and comfort. I believe Heavenly Father has his powers because he is good, not because he has mastered the amoral formulas that “really govern things.”

    And I don’t know if that has anything to do with your conversation, but you made me think of it. 🙂

  4. I think the transcending magic in the universe is redemption. I love any story, whether it is Star Wars, Ground Hog Day, Holes, Nicholas Nickleby, Fifth Element, Bruce Almighty, or Peter Pan 2004 (to name a few of my favorite movies with redemptive themes). (I went with movies, but of course, written stories too.)

    While I loved your thoughts, for me in the end it doesn’t matter whether it can be explained or unexplained in terms of a mechanistic universe. I like explaining redemption in terms of atoms, in fact.

    But the fact that redemption exists, that it is our reason for being souls, that it is our beginning and end of souls, that it is given for love (for no other reason) from a Man named Jesus Christ (and His Father). That evil has a hard time existing, because it keeps getting annihilated by a redemptive universe. Ha ha. It’s not that we can be good or evil by choosing (so much), it’s that we can take the evil in us (what we did and others did to us) and we can bring it to a weary-less Savior, and he touches us (like he did the sixteen small stones) and we are re-born: we receive good from any evil (harm, damage, lostness, hardness). Like the stones we are transformed into light: reborn.

    Redemption is the magic, Jeff. *winks*

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