C. S. Lewis, Science, Technology, Meaning and Freedom
Fifty years ago (November 22, 1963), three famous men died, but the death of one greatly overshadowed the death of the others. The assassination of President John F Kennedy made world news, so that the deaths of Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis on the same day received almost no coverage in comparison.
While the influence of JFK as the leader of the free world has been great, it can be argued that even greater has been the influence of the other two men. Both were thinkers, writers and novelists, and their prescient works of warning still stand with us today.
Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World was a very important work, alerting us to where we were heading in the West. But Lewis also wrote some very important works warning us where unbridled technology and amoral science might take us. His works were prophetic in nature and are still so important today – even more so.
He rightly foretold a ruling class of technocrats and well-meaning experts who would seek to conquer nature and its ills, only to end up conquering man. As he said in his 1947 volume, The Abolition of Man: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
He continued, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”
And of course his third volume in his space trilogy was all about rogue science and unethical technocrats. That Hideous Strength (1946) was a clear warning about coming coercive dystopias. Francis Schaeffer once said of it, “I strongly urge Christians to read carefully this prophetic piece of science fiction.”
The evil organisation N.I.C.E. is of course the villain in the novel. The National Institute for Coordinated Experiments is a government bureaucracy established to help mankind – aren’t they all? It of course does nothing of the sort. One cannot say too much more about this book, lest it spoil things for those who have yet to read it.
But this 500-plus page thriller clearly shows the deep concerns Lewis had about where unethical science and unconstrained technocracy can take us. And his vision of a dark new world has certainly proven to be quite accurate. Eugenics certainly did not die out with the Nazi experiments but is alive and well in the West today.
Of course Lewis’ concerns here are part of a much bigger worldview issue. As a Christian apologist he long battled against naturalism and the reductionistic view of man it entails. If man is not in fact man in God’s image, but is simply a product of the chance collision of atoms, then there is no basis for human freedom and dignity.
As he said in “The Funeral of a Great Myth” in Christian Reflections, the modern theory of evolution has far too many problems, and ends up decimating reason and humanity in the process. Said Lewis: “To reach the positions held by the real scientists — which are then taken over by the Myth — you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute.
“But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true.
“If my own mind is a product of the irrational — if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel — how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect: ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from bio-chemistry which results from physics.’
“But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’: The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one’s suspicion that we here touch a radical disease in their whole style of thought. But the man who does see it, is compelled to reject as mythical the cosmology in which most of us were brought up.”
Scientism, the idea that only that which science can deal with – only the empirical – is real was a constant bogeyman for Lewis. Morality, truth, love and freedom are all unable to exist in such a narrow worldview. At least there is no proper grounding for them in such a worldview.
As he wrote in his 1943 essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” (also found in Christian Reflections): “The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.”
But without this transcendent moral law which we are all subject to, the social engineers and the activist scientists can all be tempted to use the new technologies to enslave mankind – all for their own good of course. As he wrote in The Discarded Image, “Always century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we can only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too. And where we ‘go from that’ is a dark question.”
We insist that mankind is nothing more than a collection of atoms in an empty and meaningless universe. Yet we expect of humans moral virtue, acts of meaning, and a hope to exist. As Lewis also said in The Abolition of Man:
“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our [educational] situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [hearts] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
The scary bit here is that so many of these reductionists and scientific utopians think they are doing us all a favour. They really think they are helping mankind. Yet they are to be feared the most. As Lewis said in the Preface to the 1959 edition of The Screwtape Letters:
“I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
As good as Lewis was in his non-fiction warnings about these matters, it is fiction which especially delivers the knockout punch. So as we remember his departure 50 years ago, why not grab a copy of That Hideous Strength and see what a prophetic book that really was.
Like the other two volumes in his trilogy, it is a real page-turner. And given how much worse the scientific technocrats are today at dehumanising us and taking away our freedoms, that is all the more reason to read Lewis again – or for the very first time if need be.
10 Replies to “C. S. Lewis, Science, Technology, Meaning and Freedom”
Bill, I didn’t know of this pending momentous anniversary. I read “Brave New World” as a young agnostic and ” That Hideous Strength” as a new Christian and was forever marked by both. Thank you for the reminder and well-quoted encouragement to honour them and to revisit their works.
Interesting book relaying a hypothetical conversation between these three men and their worldviews.
Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley by Peter Kreeft.
Thanks Julian. Yes it is a good book.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Saying thank you to Mr Lewis does not quite cut it.
But its all ive got.
Mere Christianity is a must read for all – especially new converts. I am half-way through “The Most Reluctant Convert” by David C Downing. Lewis and Muggeridge would have to be English literature’s greatest contributions to Christian apologetics in the 20th C.
Philip Murray Impey
What a mind. Lewis said so much about today in a little 6-page essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought” from ‘Present Concerns (Ethical Essays)’. Are these essays available nowadays?
Thanks Terry. Yes most of these collections of essays are still in print – or now online.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thank you for this CS Lewis book review. I have read most if not all he has written, though most of it a long time ago. I found “Till We Have Faces” the most awesome (in the original meaning of the word) of his books, though that book is on a very different subject, viz the need and time and willingness for us to change in order to meet God face to face.
Thanks again. I get great blessings from your blog.
If you want to read some rantings of the academic morally subjective, check out the bloggers on this site and note the treatment the Christian blogger gets.If this is an example of the product of our universities I agree totally with Muggeridge’s comment- “We have educated ourselves into imbecility”.
Philip Murray Impey
A random proof that scienticsm is flawed, subjective and relative: I have just watched a television documentary showing previously unseen images and rare archive footage, on one of Hitler’s greatest delusions – that the Aryan “master race”was a scientific fact. It documents the search, led by Heinrich Himmler, for the lost Aryan civilisation from which they believed all Nazis were descended and it revealed the atrocity of the Nazi attempt to make precise anatomical measurements to define what made somebody Jewish and therefore non Aryan, killing people for the purpose of what was called the skeleton experiment. The programme presenter summed up with words to the effect that their story is a warning that science can be corrupted and great evil can happen if people can first be persuaded of the necessity to commit the crime of genocide.
I am sorry to even mention this heinous crime against – humanity which is universally condemned. I am reminded of the prophecy of Isaiah, which speaks of justice and objective truth when he says “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse…He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”.