Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Science and the Magician (a fragment)

[I'm doing some work on an upcoming class on C. S. Lewis, as well as the manuscript that I'll finish at the end of 2013, C. S. Lewis in Crisis. Here's a brief excerpt of today's reflections.]

Lewis had criticisms of the Scientific Outlook that are worthy of note—the inherent connection, historically, between the rise of science and search for magic, both as means to control nature and make it what human beings want.

Francis Bacon saying, "Lewis, you're right"
[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 ‘curtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when Man shall have been raised to the performance of ‘all things possible.’ 

Lewis believed, along with the medieval, 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. In one of his most notable poems, “The Future of Forestry,” Lewis describes a world that has forgotten the beauty of the forest, and thus of nature, in its headlong pursuit of technological advance. (I am reminded of the work of Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, J. R. R. 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 trees

Feel, when the last tree falls in England?

When the concrete spreads and the town conquers

The country’s heart;…

      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 the place where we can find joy.


John said...

I feel like scientific materialism/faith is a false dichotomy.

Scientific materialism talks about what it can talk about.

Faith talks about what it can talk about.

You can believe that rain comes from a cloud, as well as a window in the sky. Just don't confuse the role of each explanation.

GCootsona said...

Essentially, I agree, but there are some who practice science--and thus properly look at the world naturalistically for the sake of explanation--who then say the material world is all there is. There are, of course, notable examples, such as Richard Dawkins. So, in this sense, scientific materialism is antithetical to faith.

Anonymous said...

Greg, you wrote:
"Lewis believed...that the goal of human life is to conform to nature."

This seems not only counter to scripture, but I see Lewis saying something different. Rather it is conforming to "virtue," or "the Tao" in a form of wisdom. Lewis writes:

"`Nature' is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain...The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature... as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified..the magician's bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us..I have described as a `magician's bargain' that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power...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...The regenerate science ... would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life...There are progressions in which the last step is...is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost."-Lewis

I think one of the dangers of scientism, and how it can be like magic, is in it's pursuit of "nature" so as to "compel natural forces limited to impersonal conceptions of the natural world." It presumes to measure reality without adequately explaining it's own "mechanisms" or precepts. In this it becomes authoritarian. Like magic, it evades ultimate causation with preference to demonstrable causation.

Rodney Stark points out that magic,
"typically does not offer explanations even of it's own mechanisms , let alone profound matters..." and magic is, "all efforts to manipulate or compel supernatural forces without reference to God or Gods, or to matters of ultimate meaning...magic is limited to impersonal conceptions of the supernatural, what the celebrated Bronislaw Malinowski described as 'mystic, impersonal power.'"

It is conformity to our Creator, not "nature" that redeems our humanity and begets true science.

-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

M Fitzpatrick said...

I agree that the "conform to nature" basis for ethics and science is problematic. It seems to trade one extreme for another. John Stuart Mill wrote in "On Nature" that all technological advancements that allow us to manipulate nature are good, and that nature has no value besides its utility. This is one extreme. But the other is to think that whatever has been created is good and we should simply conform to it. Of course, conformity here might just mean truth (conformity to reality in our belief), but then that creates an asymmetry on the practical question (one side is about epistemology, the other about ethics).

I don't think we are to conform to nature or merely manipulate it. Rather, as Bill said, we are to "put on the mind of Christ," to develop God's heart and eyes for the world. This allows us to both conform to nature in understanding, and then utilize nature in ways that are relational, not unilateral, and that are cosmopolitan, not egocentric. Not all technology is bad, and not all nature should be conformed to. We need a practical ethic that helps guide us to when we should and should not make use of the possibilities of our world.