Editor’s Note: Honoring the upcoming 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, November 22, we are pleased to present excerpts from Center for Science & Culture associate director Dr. John West’s book The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. The selection below is from Dr. West’s Chapter 1, “The Magician’s Twin.” West asks, now that the “age of scientocracy” of which Lewis warned is here, “We need to figure out what to do about it.”
C.S. Lewis provides a hint as to what will be required to overcome scientism in his Narnian story The Magician’s Nephew. Despite its title, there are actually two magicians in the story. The first, Uncle Andrew, embodies the longing to fuse science with magic. Although a magician, Uncle Andrew is also a scientist. He has a microscope, and he experiments on animals.83 By pursuing power over nature without regard to ethics, Uncle Andrew sets in motion a train of events that ultimately brings a far greater magician, Queen Jadis, into both Earth and Narnia, which she thereupon threatens to enslave. Jadis previously destroyed her own world, Charn, after using her knowledge of “the Deplorable Word” to liquidate the entire population of the planet. The “Deplorable Word” was a secret formula “which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it.” Previous rulers of Charn had pledged never to seek knowledge of the formula, but Jadis violated her oath, and when faced with defeat in battle, she decided to use the word.84
Jadis is ultimately thwarted in her effort to take over new worlds, not by the actions of a fellow magician, but by the repentance of a young boy, Digory. Digory’s unconstrained curiosity previously had brought Jadis out of a deep sleep. In order to undo the harm brought about by awakening Jadis, Digory promises Aslan, the Creator of Narnia, that he will journey to a garden on top of the mountains where he will pick a magical apple and bring it back to Aslan. When Digory arrives at the garden, he finds Jadis already there, having gorged herself on one of the apples despite a sign forbidding people to take apples for themselves. Jadis then urges Digory to disregard his promise to Aslan and take an apple for his dying mother, assuring him that the apple will heal her of her illness. Even when Jadis accuses Digory of being “heartless” for not being willing to save his own mother, Digory rebuffs the temptation to break faith with Aslan. As a result of Digory’s unwillingness to cooperate with her evil scheme, Jadis and her evil power are kept in check for many centuries.85
The Magician’s Nephew was written during the 1950s, the very period when Lewis’s concerns about an “omnicompetent global technocracy” continued to grow. Jadis clearly represents the dangers of scientism. Her use of the “Deplorable Word” in her own world is perhaps a commentary on the age of nuclear weapons and our own efforts to develop ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction. After Aslan says that humans should take warning from the destruction of Charn, Digory’s friend Polly says: “But we’re not quite as bad as that world, are we, Aslan?” Aslan responds: “Not yet. But you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things.” Aslan then tells Digory and Polly that “before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the empress Jadis. Let your world beware.”86 Since The Magician’s Nephew is set in the early 1900s, Aslan is undoubtedly referring to the two world wars and subsequent “Cold War” that loomed on the horizon, all of which would be accompanied by horrifying new uses of science and technology to kill and manipulate humanity.87
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis expressed his hope that a reformation of science could be brought about by scientists. But he made clear that the task was too important to be left to them alone: “[I]f the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.”88 In a free society, scientism requires the cooperation of scientists and non-scientists alike to prevail, and it requires the cooperation of both scientists and non-scientists to be defeated.
Like Digory, people today need the courage and independence of thought to stand up to the magicians of scientism. They need to be willing to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and defend a broader view of rationality than that permitted by scientific materialism. Whether the issue is climate change, embryonic stem cell research, genetic engineering, evolution and intelligent design, or something else, it is not enough to simply acquiesce in the current “climate of opinion” in science or anything else, as Lewis himself well knew. “I take a very low view of ‘climates of opinion,'” he commented, noting that “[i]n his own subject every man knows that all discoveries are made and all errors corrected by those who ignore the ‘climate of opinion.'”89
At the end of The Abolition of Man, Lewis issued a call for a “regenerate science” that would seek to understand human beings and other living things as they really are, not try to reduce them to automatons. “When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation.”90
Lewis was not quite sure what he was asking for, and he was even less sure that it could come to pass. Yet in recent decades we have begun to see glimmers. New developments in biology, physics, and cognitive science are raising serious doubts about the most fundamental tenets of scientific materialism. In physics, our understanding of matter itself is becoming increasingly non-material.91 In biology, scientists are discovering how irreducibly complex biological systems and information encoded in DNA are pointing to the reality of intelligent design in nature.92 In cognitive science, efforts to reduce mind to the physical processes of the brain continue to fail, and new research is providing evidence that the mind is a non-reducible reality that must be accepted on its own terms.93 What George Gilder has called “the materialist superstition” is being challenged as never before.94
Fifty years after C.S. Lewis’s death, we are facing the possibility that science can become something more than the magician’s twin. Even in the face of surging scientism in the public arena, an opportunity has opened to challenge scientism on the basis of science itself, fulfilling Lewis’s own desire that “from science herself the cure might come.”95 Let us hope we find the clarity and courage to make the most of the opportunity.
(85) Ibid., 14-149.
(86) Ibid., 159-160.
(87) Chapter 1 of The Magician’s Nephew says it was set when “the Bastables were looking for treasure in Lewisham road.” Ibid., 1. The Bastables were characters in stories published, by Edith Nesbit starting in 1899.
(88) Lewis, Abolition of Man, 90.
(89) Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 134.
(90) Lewis, Abolition of Man, 89-90.
(91) See discussion in West, Darwin Day in America, 373-374.
(92) Ibid., 370-373. Also see Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, second edition (New York: Free Press, 2006); Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009); Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, editors, The Nature of Nature (Wilmington: ISA Books, 2011).
(93) West, Darwin Day in America, 274-375; Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
(94) George Gilder, “The Materialist Superstition,” The Intercollegiate Review, 31, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 6-14.
(95) Lewis, Abolition of Man, 87.