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Several commenters on this post object to my characterization of C.S. Lewis’s views of modern science in The Abolition of Man . I wrote that Lewis “explicitly compared modern science to demonology” and then, at the end, reduced this to the more streamlined statement “science is demonic.” I seem to have struck a nerve.

Here is what Lewis wrote:

Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come.

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. 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. In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it, was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have-been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.

Some observations:

1) On the one hand, he is careful to say he is not attacking “science” as such. However, he is clearly attacking “modern science,” “applied science” and “the serious scientific endeavor,” all of which terms he uses interchangeably, as such. He is not (as my critics would have it) attacking only some aspects or elements of modern science. He believes the totalitarian impulse is intrinsic to modern science.

2) “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.” Strong stuff, that.

3) Although he admits “some” of the early modern scientists were actuated by good motives, he clearly thinks they were the minority; “the temper of that age as a whole” was demonic. It was this minority that made the movement efficacious, for “in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements.” But the bad elements clearly predominated; otherwise it would not be the case that they determined “the direction the efficacy takes.”

4) He admits that it “may” not be the case that modern science was tainted from birth, but it’s clear he thinks it became tainted so quickly and fundamentally that it makes little difference. Throughout his remarks he condemns not the direction modern science ultimately took, but modern science as such.

5) The contrast with Kuyper, which I invited at the end of my last post, stands out all the more starkly to me now. Lewis and Kuyper agree that the progress of science must represent the progress of man’s knowledge of God, and that this is good in itself, and that the perversion of this good for evil ends is inevitable and lamentable, and that the remedy we desperately need is what Lewis calls “regenerate science.” The fundamental point of their disagreement is really one of attitude. Kuyper welcomes the good development by basking in the glory of God, and sets to the work of correcting what needs correction with godly optimism and a spirit of diligent service. Lewis seems to feel like he lives in a universe run by demons, where the good must be grudgingly acknowledged but then as quickly as possible we must make sure to point out that of course it was immediately spoiled beyond repair and we are now all hurtling full speed towards the furnace.

Perhaps for a man writing in the middle of World War II, to talk as though Satan rules the world is a forgiveable error. But seventy years later, with the Berlin Wall smashed to a million souveniers, we really ought to allow that not everything has gone as uniformly badly as Lewis predicted it would. Yes, the dangers he identified are still with us, but the hopeful movements and accomplishments that he failed to predict are a part of the picture, too.

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