The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism

The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism

by Michael D. Aeschliman

A trained philosopher and intellectual historian as well as a writer of genius, C. S. Lewis was one of the most lucid, profound, and eloquent critics of the reductive scientific materialism that has helped make the twentieth century so destructive and confused.

The Restitution of Man examines the conflict between scientific materialism and the Christian

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A trained philosopher and intellectual historian as well as a writer of genius, C. S. Lewis was one of the most lucid, profound, and eloquent critics of the reductive scientific materialism that has helped make the twentieth century so destructive and confused.

The Restitution of Man examines the conflict between scientific materialism and the Christian philosophical tradition as it has taken place since the seventeenth century. It examines Lewis�s role as inheritor of and spokesman of this tradition and as an articulate opponent of reductive naturalism and "the abolition of man" that materialistic ideologies always entail.

In probing the breadth of Lewis�s writings, Michael Aeschliman shows why Lewis�s apologetic for the Christian view of man is a precious resource for the transmission of human sanity, ethics, and wisdom in an age that has frequently ignored or obliterated all three. This revised edition of Aeschliman�s acclaimed study includes a new foreword by George Gilder and a new afterword by the author.

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Editorial Reviews

First Things
Aeschliman neatly draws together the antiscientistic thought of numerous others in the rational theistic tradition to produce a compelling argument for, in Lewis's terminology, the Tao.
The Wanderer
"In The Restitution of Man..., Aeschliman provides a readable and erudite overview of a problem already recognized 450 years ago by Rabelais: "Science without conscience is simply the death of the soul.""

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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ONE hundred years after his birth and thirty-five years after his death, C. S. Lewis remains one of the best-selling writers in the English language and continues to attract readers around the world. (Handsome new Italian editions of various of his works are on my desk as I write, and a few years ago I was invited to contribute an article on him to a French reference book.)

Lewis's argument against scientistic reductionism and nihilism is now a matter of concern among a wide range of scientists, philosophers, moralists, and humanists. In their fine, widely used anthology and college text Philosophy and Technology, Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey present a substantial portion of Lewis's Abolition of Man alongside selections from Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Richard Weaver, George Grant, and Hans Jonas, among others. In recent years, numerous distinguished scientists and philosophers have made virtually the same argument that Lewis did, often explicitly condemning the dynamic, scientistic nihilism that Lewis rationally dissected in philosophical works such as The Abolition of Man and satirically depicted in That Hideous Strength. Noteworthy among such critics have been Nobel laureate brain scientist JohnC. Eccles, molecular biologists Erwin Chargaff and Gunther Stent, psychologist Viktor Frankl, Nobel laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz, historian of ideas Allan Bloom, literary historian Erich Heller, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, linguistics expert Noam Chomsky, historian and philosopher of science Stanley L. Jaki, playwright/prime minister Vaclav Havel, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and sociologists Daniel Bell, Peter Berger, and David Martin.

It would be hard to assemble a more impressive list of contemporary intellectual authorities, and the list does not even include spokesmen for religion such as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who devoted his 1988 Fisher Lecture at Cambridge University to a defense of natural law with special reference to Lewis's ecumenical, uninvidious formulation of it as "the Tao."

Even some apologists for science who had previously given short shrift to worries and criticisms such as those of Lewis have apparently had second thoughts. In his recent Science and Anti-Science Harvard historian of science Gerald Holton made a salutary point: "The term anti-science can lump together too many, quite different things that have in common only that they tend to annoy or threaten those who regard themselves as more enlightened." What biologist David Ehrenfeld calls "the arrogance of humanism"— meaning naturalistic humanism— is here briefly but deftly identified.

By contrast, the basic arguments and beliefs of traditional humanism — Christian humanism— have always constituted the core of Western civilization, to the extent that it has been a civilization and not merely an aggregate of competitive, ruthless, domineering individuals, institutions, groups, or nations. The vanity of reason unhinged from ethics was apparent to St. Paul— "scientia inflat, caritas aedificat" (1Cor. 8:1) — knowledge inflates, but charity edifies, the human person. But in our century it has given us what Raymond Aron called the experiences of "total war" and "totalitarianism," in which the human person himself has come to be treated as "construction material" by "technical science gone mad."

Concerned as Lewis was with the destructiveness of science without ethics or conscience — what Daniel Bell calls "instrumental rationality ... as a servant to power" — he was always aware of a converse danger and temptation. If we are most in danger of "deifying" science, we can also be seduced into "defying" it, as does the neo-romantic "New Age" movement, a variant of the gnosticism that Lewis understood and opposed in the occult quest of W.B. Yeats and the anthroposophy of his own close friend Owen Barfield.

But in the era of cloning, genetic engineering, environmental degradation, technological manipulation, and a contemptibly toxic entertainment culture, the greater, now global, menace is surely the deification of science and technique at the expense of traditional, ethical reason. In perhaps the most important work of moral philosophy published since World War II, Alasdair MacIntyre writes in defense of the traditional, Aristotelian conception of reason that largely gave us Western civilization in the first place and whose undermining has brought us to our present confusion: "...anti-Aristotelian science sets strict boundaries to the powers of reason. [This] reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of [moral] practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent." Thus does a civilization turn into a mere aggregation of competitive individuals and groups; a "res publica" such as the United States turn into a mad hedonistic-commercial mêlée; a gemeinschaft turn into a gesellschaft. "Progress" it isn't.

As MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum has written, this invasive, totalizing "instrumental reason, triumphant technique, and unbridled science are addictive"; they comprise an ideal ensemble of tools to serve the nonmoral will to power that has been the chief political-social-commercial reality of much of our century. Along with Aldous Huxley and French Protestant Jacques Ellul, Lewis has done more than any other writer of our era to resist this dehumanization, to insist that its logic is not only bad, but false.

Harvard philosopher Charles Larmore recently wrote that "Basically, Plato was right," because "moral value is something real and non-natural." If we do not trust and apply reason in the traditional way deriving from Plato and Aristotle, as mediated by Christianity, then philosophy is only a pretence:

Either we must admit that the world is more than the natural world and that it comprises not only physical and psychological reality, but normative reality as well, or, like the sophists, we must abandon reason for persuasion.

Radical nihilists such as our academic deconstructionists are happy with this, and so are libertarian nihilists such as our commercial entertainers and advertisers; both employ highly paid and sophistical ingenuity to loot and ruin our "res publica," that body of beliefs, truths, behaviors, traditions, and achievements which is the patrimony of every decent, reflective human being. "La science pour aller vite, la science pour jouir, la science pour tuer!" wrote Léon Bloy ninety years ago: "Science to go fast, science for enjoyment, science for killing."

There was a stoic element in Lewis, who knew what combat was, having been a badly wounded veteran of World War I: He could "keep his head when [nearly] all about him were losing theirs," as Kipling put it in "If." A civilization is not kept alive and transmitted by absent-mindedness, "going with the flow," and popularity polls — by quicksilver intellectuality or narcotic commercial consumerism. It is kept alive by faith, reason, and will, by doggedness and decency. Deny, neglect, or sneer at these normative terms and realities — deny the full, traditional scope of human reason — and you get the nightmare of modern "progress." Berkeley molecular biologist Gunther Stent notes that "the most meaningful [contemporary] definition of progress can be made from the purview of ... the will to power.... [But] it is a totally amoral view of progress, under which nuclear ballistic missiles definitely represent progress over gunpowder cannonballs, which in turn represent progress over bows and arrows."

This kind of utilitarianism has exercised an enormous appeal in the West ever since Bacon and now is at the heart of "globalization." Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of the enduringly great satirical attacks on it. In our time works such as the early novels of H.G. Wells, Huxley's Brave New World, Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz, and the satirical novels of Walker Percy have augmented a long history of specifically philosophical critiques of its internal contradictions. In his essay "The Decadence of Scientism," Stent argues that "the claim of scientism that the positive methods and insights of science are valid for the entire sphere of human activity not only lacks philosophical merit but is ... dangerous," and goes on to add that "science cannot itself provide a foundation of ethics."

But can a perversion of reason that avoids or actively eliminates ethics as a category be called "progress" to any sensible, self-aware person, especially at the end of this century? Has such a development not obviously stultified itself? Lewis thought so, and so do distinguished scientists such as Stent, Chargaff, Eccles, and Weizenbaum, the last of whom entitled the final chapter of his book Computer Power and Human Reason, "Against the Imperialism of Instrumental Reason."

Like his countryman the pope, the Nobel laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz lived through much of the horror of our century in his native Poland before emigrating to France and then to the U.S.A. One of the greatest poets and critics of our time, he has written hopefully that he believes the years since World War II "have brought home a growing awareness" to many people that the dangerous potentialities of unethical, ungoverned science and technology "have revealed their finished form not only in the means of massive physical destruction, but also in their ability to pollute the mind." To counteract this pollution — a culture that oscillates between the toxic and the trivial — the culture of the Word is needed: not only philosophy, ethics, and literature at their deepest and best, but religion at its best too. Like Swift, Lewis was neither ethnocentric nor sectarian; his "Tao" is not his own invention but the priceless possession of all decent, reflective persons. In the faithful, judicious encyclicals and ecumenical and international initiatives of the present philosopher-pope we have a living example of the transmission of the Word without which human life is subhuman and the human experience is without its proper measure.

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