C.S. Lewis' views on Science and Scientism

This talk was given at the Round Church, Cambridge, UK to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. David Illman, Christian Heritage's Director of Apologetics, introduces the two speakers, Dr James Le Fanu and Dr John West. Dr Le Fanu gives a brief, 5 minute introduction to the background of scientism before Dr West presents his 45 minute talk on 'Science and Its Proper Boundaries: The Legacy of C.S. Lewis'. This is followed by 10 minutes of Q&A.

Brief notes on the talk

Even before he was a Christian, C.S. Lewis displayed some scepticism concerning the claims made in the name of science. In 1925, he wrote to his father to say that philosophy showed "that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word."

In 1932, after his conversion to Christianity, he wrote to his brother on publications by the Rationalist Press claiming that science debunks the claims of religion. He wrote that he was reminded him of a comment by another writer: "A priest is a man who disseminates little lies in defence of a great truth and a scientist is a man who disseminates little truths in defence of a great lie."

Lewis was not anti-science, but was opposed to 'Scientism', which may be defined as the "wrong-headed belief that modern science supplies the only reliable method of knowledge about the world and also … that scientists should be the ones to dictate public policy and even our moral and religious beliefs simply on the basis of their scientific expertise."

There was a similar relation between science and culture when Lewis lived to our own. Then as now, there were:

1. claims that science provides a view that refutes the traditional religious view.

2. claims that someone is anti-science if they are sceptical of certain claims made in the name of science.

3. claims that public policy should be guided or controlled by an elite class of scientific experts.

Science has many positive aspects. To many, the abilities of science seems almost magical. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis claimed that serious magical endeavour and serious scientific endeavour are twins. Although this seems strange, there are some key similarities (as well as differences).

Science and magic both have the ability to function as an alternative to religion. Eg. H.G. Wells' cosmic evolutionism.

Science ultimately encourages a lack of scepticism. There is a difference in trust between scientific and historical knowledge. Many would say that we can know more about pre-historic man, because science provides that information, than we can know from historians about historic man, such as Julius Caesar or Napoleon. Scientism fuelled gullibility is illustrated by Freud' materialistic reductionism and also by Evolutionism. Lewis did not object to the evolutionary process in itself, but had little patience with the view that it was a blind unguided process. He lamented that "the modern mind accepts as a formula for the universe the principle 'almost nothing' may be expected to turn into 'almost everything' without noticing that the parts of the universe under our direct observation tell quite a different story."

Lewis noted evolutionism's fatal self-contradiction on human mind: "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?" Darwin had similar doubts, expressed in his Autobiography, which Lewis had read.

Lewis also commented on the blind acceptance of eugenics and other later-debunked 'scientific' views by many scientists. If even scientists show such credulity, then as the general public increasingly defer to science, they are even more susceptible to unquestioning acceptance of what is presented as 'science'.

Science as power is the most dangerous aspect of science's similarity to magic, which threatens the future of civilisation itself. The critical difference between science and magic is that science 'works'.

In discussing the tendency of science towards reductionism, Lewis noted that: "As soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere nature, the whole process is stultified.... By treating human beings as the products of blind non-rational forces, scientific reductionism eliminates man as a rational moral agent. Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man." Reductionism opens the door to the manipulation of human beings, with no effective limit on such manipulation because scientism undermines the authority of the ethical principles needed to justify those limits. Lewis demonstrates this in his science fiction trilogy. It is interesting to note that during World War 2, Lewis wrote not about the dangers of fascism or communism but about the danger of scientism.

Lewis' view on the generally held opinion: "I take a very low of view of climates of opinion. Every man knows that all discoveries are made and all errors corrected by those who ignore the climate of opinion."

Lewis hoped that the challenge to scientism could take place on the basis of science itself. His desire was that from science herself, the cure might come.

© 2013 Christian Heritage

Kenneth Allen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This resource is reproduced by the kind permission of Christian Heritage, Cambridge, UK.
For further Christian Heritage talks, see their Media Library.
To find out more about Christian Heritage events, visit their Events page.