To the modern mind, religion and magic are related. Both are based on superstition, and both have been proved false by science. C.S. Lewis thought otherwise: Magic is more closely related to science. Both function as alternatives to religion, both lack skepticism, and, most importantly, both desire to control the world. Science, not religion, is magic’s twin.
These are the basic themes of this book, which is a collection of 13 pieces written by scholars in law, the liberal arts, theology, and journalism. The book is divided into four parts, examining Lewis’s views on the relationships of science to scientism, evolution, reason, and society.
The first section begins with a chapter on Lewis’s critique of scientism—the desire to apply the scientific method to every domain of life. Lewis believed the application of reductionist scientific laws worked well in the material realm but created havoc when applied to people and society. Lewis spent much of his later career, beginning in World War II, decrying the misapplication of science to society, an error he believed would lead to the “abolition of man.”
M.D. Aeschliman’s “C.S. Lewis and Mere Science” underscores Lewis’s belief that science is a subset of reason. Lewis warned against the tendency of people to view science as existing outside the realm of reason, an error that leads to two problems: It either deifies science or denies it. Lewis perceived the latter error in the work of certain romantics. As Aeschliman notes, it is now widespread among pantheists and ecofeminists, who view science and technology as the cause of all modern environmental and social ailments. But Lewis was more troubled by the deifiers who turned science into dogma, which could easily be politicized to become a tool of oppression.
In “A Peculiar Clarity,” C. John Collins further explores Lewis’s ideas on the relationship between science and religion. Lewis recognized that both are imperfect, reflecting human reason. But the limitations in one are complemented by the strengths of the other. Lewis noted that the limitations of religion were widely discussed, but not those of science. He himself observed several, the most important of which is that science cannot account for free will, or any sense of value. Thus science must be complemented by another type of reasoning—the moral reasoning found in religion—to establish the ethical codes for its proper uses. And Lewis makes a more important point still. Because science seeks to understand the laws and regularities of the physical world, it is incapable of making valid judgments about the nonphysical one. It cannot address the miraculous or the spiritual, let alone the existence of God. Lewis was equally critical of religion when it attempted to use Scripture or theology to make pronouncements on the physical world. Accordingly, he chastised William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) as an example of misguided theology, arguing that it is impossible, as Paley tried to do, to deduce the God of the Bible from physical processes alone.
The book’s second section, on evolution, examines this theme further. It contains two lengthy pieces by the editor, who is also the president of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank devoted to, among other things, research on the theory of Intelligent Design, which holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are better explained by an intelligent cause rather than merely random natural selection. Mr. West notes that Lewis never opposed evolutionary theory as such, including the idea of common descent (that humans evolved from lower life forms) on the ground that, at some point, man must have been created. Nor did Lewis doubt the creative process of natural selection, which lies at the heart of dogmatic evolutionist arguments. What alarmed Lewis was the evolutionists’ claim that random variation alone can produce complex biological organisms. He was most critical of the notion that the human mind could be the product of such variation.
Lewis’s central argument is that dogmatic evolutionists are not scientists but metaphysicians. And their metaphysics is rooted in the Enlightenment. Lewis goes on to argue that dogmatic evolution is really a 19th-century construction, in which biological observations were forced into the same progressive vision that guided social and political thought.
Lewis makes the important epistemological observation that scientific hypotheses can never become dogma. One cannot “believe” in evolutionary theory: One can only fail to reject it. Every student of introductory statistics learns this. But somehow evolutionary dogmatists have not. Their obvious error reveals the underlying goal of much of the scientific community: to turn science into a dogmatic metaphysical system to replace traditional religion.
West notes that Lewis recurs to the fact of human frailty, the incompleteness of human reason especially. He believed that both science and religion represent partial understandings of the world. The result should not be pessimism, undermining human reason and its achievements, but a healthy skepticism that could detect human weakness and hubris wherever they occurred. Science and religion, to gain a better, though never perfect, understanding of life, should compliment each other.
In another essay, West examines the relationship between Lewis’s ideas on evolution and Intelligent Design, which developed after Lewis’s death. Lewis was not a scientist, never desired to enter scientific debates, and was a respecter of sound science. However, as a literary man, he made it a point to expose the inconsistencies, contradictions, and sloppiness of scientific language, especially when applied to metaphysics. John G. West, although a declared proponent of Intelligent Design, follows the same strategy. He does not use Lewis’s ideas to prove Intelligent Design. Rather, he shows that there are enough inconsistencies in dogmatic evolutionary theory to render it inadequate to describe every facet of life. Lewis himself was one of the first to understand this, without forcing science back into the straightjacket of theology. He would hardly subscribe to the evolutionist-creationist dichotomy that too often defines debate on this topic today.
The section on science and reason begins with Jay Richards’ “Mastering the Vernacular,” which examines Lewis’s criticisms of naturalism. Lewis argued that naturalism—the belief that life comprises material forces alone—is incoherent and raises many new questions. Could anyone trust human reason if it were simply another material phenomenon? Why elevate human minds over the minds of fish? Why should the idea of dogmatic evolution be any truer than those of dogmatic religion, if both are the result of random selection? Richards reiterates Lewis’s point that dogmatic evolutionists, by privileging their own dogma, are actually making metaphysical arguments. They will accept truth, but only that which is derived from scientific assumptions and theories. Richard ends by stating Lewis’s belief that reason—the Logos—exists before matter. And reason is given to man not through evolution, but revelation.
The book’s final section, on science and society, is the most compelling and relevant for the general reader. It begins with James Herrick’s essay, “C.S. Lewis and the Advent of the Posthuman,” on transhumanism—the efforts of science and technology to “enhance” humanity. Transhumanism is becoming a major ethical problem today, one predicted by Lewis in the 1940’s in The Abolition of Man. Lewis recognized that the absolute power of science and technology would establish new moral absolutes. Many of these new absolutes were evil ones, and Lewis saw belief in them as tantamount to devil worship. Here the similarities between magic and science again become clear.
Herrick argues that the transhumanist revolution is already upon us and will usher in a new form of totalitarian rule. It will not be the rule of the cold, insensitive bureaucrats produced by the steel and coal age. The new controllers will be sanguine technologists, creatures of the infinitely pliable world of plastic and silicon. The culture war of the future, Herrick predicts, will extend beyond current political antagonisms. It will be a broader metaphysical conflict between transhumanists and Christians.
The concluding essays discuss Lewis’s critical role as a defender of the humanities. M.D. Aeschliman argues that great civilizations have always had to defend traditional philosophy against radical assault. Lewis recognized as the new radicals dogmatic scientists who politicize science to gain power and social control. Lewis thought their efforts terribly misguided and destructive. Authentic science does not desire rebellion against, and autonomy from, the humanities; it should cooperate to enhance both the human condition and human understanding of the world. Science must serve humanity. Until such an arrangement is established, division and conflict will continue to the mutual detriment of science and the humanities, and indeed to all of society.
Practical solutions lie beyond the scope of this book. But the final essay by Michael Miller offers a proposal to counter the deleterious effects of scientific dogmatism, or “scientism.” Miller argues that people must again, actively and publicly, cultivate virtue. They must learn to recognize the differences between good and evil, ugliness and beauty, and devote time to prayer and reflection. Most importantly, however, there must be a return to reason. Lewis thought that scientific dogmatism and reductionism were unreasonable. Reason must be freed from these shackles to recognize other dimensions of life—the spiritual and moral—which have been stunted by the absolutism of scientific (and scientistic) rationality. Faith and reason, as Pope Benedict has said, must be reunited. The time for reunification is now.
[The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, Ed. by John G. West (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press) 347 pp., $24.95]
Leave a Reply