Thursday, October 02, 2014

Excerpt: C. S. Lewis on Science and the Problems of the "Machine"

A slightly modified excerpt from my new book...

C. S. Lewis had criticisms of a certain scientific outlook and the inherent connection, historically, between the rise of science and the search for magic. He concluded that both arose as means to control nature and to make it what human beings want.

[W]e see at once that [Sir Francis] Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘spouse for fruit’ not a ‘courtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when Man shall have been raised to the performance of “all things possible.”[i]
Lewis believed, along with the medieval mindset, that the goal of human life is to conform to nature. When, in contrast, we seek to use science or nature to bend it to our will and to make it in our image, then we raise enormous problems and we deceive ourselves.

As a result, Lewis lamented the growth of the Machine, of the technological progress that distanced us from nature. This, in fact, represents one more sub-crisis, that of living in a technological world that has distanced us from true and good human values and thus from nature. The reader of Lewis’s fiction finds this exemplified in N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, from That Hideous Strength (a depiction I find telling but somewhat overwrought). A better example can be found in one of his most notable poems, “The Future of Forestry,” where Lewis describes a world that has forgotten the beauty of the forest and thus of nature in its headlong pursuit of technological advances such as roadways. (I am reminded of the work of Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, who placed in the hands of Saruman, the evil wizard, the destruction of the forests for the sake of production.)

How will the legend of the age of treesFeel, when the last tree falls in England?When the concrete spreads and the town conquersThe country’s heart . . .[ii]
All these problems derive from scientific materialism, the assertion that this world is all there is and that science has demonstrated this fact. Lewis looked toward a re-enchantment of the world through myth and story to bring us to a place where we can find joy.

[i]. C. S. Lewis, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, The Oxford History of English Literature Series (Oxford: Clarenden, 2002), 13–14.
[ii]. C. S. Lewis, Poems (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), 61.

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