Culture & Ethics
C. S. Lewis, Science, and Science Fiction
Editor’s note: Published on August 16, 1945, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a dystopian novel that eerily reflects the realities of 2020, putting into a memorable fictional form ideas expressed in Lewis’s non-fiction work, The Abolition of Man. To mark the former book’s three-quarter century anniversary, Evolution News presents a series of essays, reflections, and videos about its themes and legacy.
James A. Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI. His books include The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition.
This post is adapted from Chapter 10 of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West. See also
It would be easy to read the third lecture of The Abolition of Man as an attack on science, a view that appears to receive support from other works by Lewis. But, was Lewis an enemy of science? The apparent answer to this question is no, for he followed scientific developments and spoke respectfully even of scientists with whom he disagreed, such as J. B. S. Haldane. Lewis was curious about and sought to grasp contemporary scientific theories, and was willing to embrace what he took to be legitimate scientific insights. He corresponded for a time with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, himself a scientist. Lewis also fashioned the tough-minded physical chemist Bill Hingest in That Hideous Strength to represent a “real scientist.” Bill “The Blizzard” has no patience with science as modern magic or social programming, a position for which his colleagues at the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) label him a reactionary, and for which he is murdered.1
In short, Lewis respected scientific work that pursued knowledge of the natural world. Science, for Lewis, was a means of seeing and thus of appreciating nature, and the inviolability of nature was the principal value guiding its investigations. By contrast, the new science, or scientism, developed out of an impulse to see through nature by deconstructing its processes until everything in it — including the human being — was explained as a matter of mere physical causality. Scientism’s ultimate goal is placing all of nature under human control.
The Rise of Scientism
Because he feared the rising influence of scientism, Lewis maintained a deep suspicion of some scientists, some scientific projects, and all centralized scientific planning. These suspicions are evident in several of his essays and letters, and in his three science fiction novels. The villainous genius in the first two of these books is a diabolical scientist with the suggestive name, Weston, while a cabal that includes scientists works its devilry in That Hideous Strength. Weston exports murder and other sins to Mars in Out of the Silent Planet (1938), and becomes the devil incarnate in Perelandra (1943), seeking to provoke a human fall from grace on Venus. These are not subtle literary gestures on Lewis’s part, and each targets scientists and scientific programs.
In a letter to Clarke written in 1943 — the year he delivered the lectures that became The Abolition of Man — Lewis makes clear his antipathy toward the hubris-driven scientific agenda he saw emerging in the West:
I don’t of course think that at any moment many scientists are budding Westons: but I do think (hang it all, I live among scientists!) that a point of view not unlike Weston’s is on the way. Look at Stapledon (Star Gazer [sic] ends in sheer devil worship), Haldane’s Possible Worlds and Waddington’s Science & Ethics. I agree Technology is not per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of it[s] own forces & technology with complete indifference to either does seem to me a cancer in the universe. Certainly if he goes on his present course much further man can not be trusted with knowledge.2
“A Cancer in the Universe”
Lewis’s reference to “a cancer in the universe” seems aimed at the human race rather than the scientific caste that he says he lives among. But, Lewis perceived a link between the two, a bridge spanning the gulf separating academic science and the general public. Again, it was not scientific research that concerned Lewis but modernist philosophical convictions scientists had adopted to guide their work, notions such as naturalism, evolutionism (evolution as incremental improvement), and technological determinism. Of even greater concern to Lewis was the ethical error of thinking that objective moral principles can be discovered in an absolute external to the Tao. To pursue such a possibility was to place oneself outside the universal Tao, to sever one’s connection to human moral history, and thus to cease to be a fully human.
Lewis was not principally concerned to answer other academic figures in his polemical writing. Unlike most intellectual leaders of his day, he was acutely aware of the power of popular narrative and mass media to mould public conceptions of science and even to shape political policy. His unlikely entry into the science fiction arena was an effort to address, in a genre slighted by literary scholars, ideas he considered dangerous enough to attack by direct argument in The Abolition of Man. Ongoing human evolution and the inevitable conquest of space — two popular ideas that concerned Lewis deeply — had been advocated for decades in engaging novels by H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Lewis perceived a spiritual threat in such entertainments, a tendency toward heresy following the avenue of the imagination. Not only did science fiction promote dubious technological goals such as propelling a fallen human race into space, but it also suggested omnipotence and omniscience outside of God, redemptive prospects other than the Crucifixion, and a future determined by human motive rather than divine will.
Moral Absolutes from Science?
According to Lewis, the greatest threat to public attitudes was the mistaken view, often implicit in science fiction, that moral absolutes could be discovered within the scientific enterprise itself. The science fiction with which Lewis was familiar portrayed in vivid narrative a Western scientific project that was ethically self-justifying. To answer such errors would require fashioning similarly compelling narratives in which scientism was exposed as a dangerous moral fraud, and in which transcendent values external to science were ultimately triumphant. Lewis’s three works of science fiction represent a sustained and perhaps unprecedented effort by a major intellectual figure to participate in a public controversy by answering opponents in their chosen medium of popular fiction.
The Abolition of Man articulates the intellectual basis for Lewis’s fictional assault on dogmatic science: Over all human enterprise across the millennia stands the moral unity of the Tao, a timeless and universal expression of value reflecting the moral nature of God himself. The Tao is not exclusively expressed in a single spiritual tradition, but reflected in all enduring religious and philosophical traditions. Each generation bequeaths the Tao to the next; we might ignore it or seek to reason it out of existence, but we are not free to alter it. To seek to operate outside of its influence is to retreat to fallible reason following dangerous ideologies. Lewis warns readers of a day in the near future when institutionalized science, ignoring the Tao, decides on the basis of the dangerous moral presumption that it is preserving humanity, to change human nature.
Lewis’s treatment of the moral devolution of science is carefully nuanced. The impulse to preserve and propagate the human race is not itself evil, but morally insufficient, an enduring fragment from a fractured memory of the Tao. In Out of the Silent Planet the Oyarsa or governing angel of Malacandra tells Weston that the one component of the Tao the devil — or Bent One — has allowed him to revere “is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one.”3 Extending the presence and influence of the human race without regard for other complementary and restraining moral precepts is the catastrophic error of the scientist Weston, and of the Western scientism he represents.
A number of writers of his own and the immediately previous generation contributed to Lewis’s concerns about this “cancer in the universe,” the forceful extension of human influence without regard for nature or individual rights. In the 20th century’s opening decades the rising yet critically maligned genre of science fiction provided a narrative laboratory for testing ideas such as space travel and continuing human evolution. H. G. Wells (1866-1946), a prolific and popular writer, contributed more than any other figure to the vision of the future taking shape in the public mind. Space exploration, human evolution, technological progress and dangerous alien life-forms were prominent themes; conquest of the universe was human destiny. “But for Man, no rest and no ending,” wrote Wells in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Evolution and determination will carry us as a conquering force out into the cosmos:
He [mankind] must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.4
Wells had a deep connection to turn-of-the-century evolutionary science, having studied as a youth at T. H. Huxley’s school in London where Darwin himself — a close associate of Huxley — was an occasional visitor.
Eugenics and Life-Extension
The great playwright G. B. Shaw (1856-1950) proposed state-sanctioned eugenics programs and advocated radical life extension. In the five plays comprising the Back to Methuselah series (1921) Shaw imagined a superior human race to follow the present one, a product of eugenics and technological advancements. Lewis mentions Back to Methuselah as reflecting an objectionable view of biological progress in which the individual was expendable in pursuit of a new race. Contemporary Christian writer and friend of Shaw, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), wrote: “If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man.”5
Stapledon and the Future-Human
Of more urgent concern to Lewis, however, was the philosopher turned science fiction writer, Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950). A legendary figure in the history of the genre, Stapledon made the future-human a central theme of his fiction.6 Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) projected human evolution into the distant future. Stapledon also maintained an earnest interest in eugenics and deep admiration for Galton. “Columbus found a new world; but Francis Galton found a new humanity,” he wrote.7 Galton’s eugenics narrative appealed to Stapledon: “In time it may be as possible to breed good men as it is possible to breed fast horses.”8
Other statements by Stapledon undoubtedly attracted Lewis’s attention. “Darwin showed that man is the result of evolution. Others have shown that he may direct his evolution.” Suggesting the religious nature of his commitment to evolution, Stapledon posed the provocative question: “Why is it sacrilegious to use direct means for the improvement of the human race?” Human beings “have been given wherewithal to climb a little nearer to divinity.”9 Stapledon influenced writers of the next generation, including Clarke whose classic Childhood’s End (1953) imagines an evolving, collective human consciousness merging into a divine Overmind. Despite his deep misgivings about Stapledon’s philosophy, Lewis — always willing to acknowledge true talent — referred to him as an author he could read “with delight.”10
Wells, Shaw, and Stapledon wrote popular narratives reflecting the emerging scientific mythologies of evolving humanity and limitless technological progress.11 But actual scientists also concerned Lewis, as is clearly evident in the sinister character of Weston in both Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Lewis was familiar, for instance, with the visionary works of famed Irish scientist J. D. Bernal, a proponent of governmental scientific planning, space exploration and human enhancement technologies. In books such as The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929) and The Social Function of Science (1939), Bernal brought his ideas to the public. Typifying for Lewis the emerging Western scientistic value system, Weston may be based on Bernal. One scholar has argued that Lewis satirized Bernal and his proposal for centralized tracking of scientific research in That Hideous Strength as well.12
Bernal possessed a flair for provocative prose and a willingness to shock his readers with outlandish narratives of the future. In The World, the Flesh and the Devil he affirms that the brain is the essentially human part of the person, an idea Lewis skewers with gruesome realism in That Hideous Strength. Bernal approached self-parody in his more extreme proposals:
After all it is brain that counts, and to have a brain suffused by fresh and correctly prescribed blood is to be alive — to think. The experiment is not impossible; it has already been performed on a dog and that is three-quarters of the way towards achieving it with a human subject.
Such a preserved brain would want to communicate with other persons, however, for “[p]ermanently to break off all communications with the world is as good as to be dead.” Science held the solution to even this problem:
[T]he channels of communication are ready to hand. Already we know the essential electrical nature of nerve impulses; it is a matter of delicate surgery to attach nerves permanently to apparatus which will either send messages to the nerves or receive them. And the brain thus connected up continues an existence, purely mental and with very different delights from those of the body, but even now perhaps preferable to complete extinction.
Enhancing the Human Body and Mind
An early enhancement advocate, Bernal envisioned other alterations to the body and mind. In one passage he provided readers something of a shopping list of posthuman qualities:
We badly need a small sense organ for detecting wireless frequencies, eyes for infra-red, ultra-violet and X-rays, ears for supersonics, detectors of high and low temperatures, of electrical potential and current, and chemical organs of many kinds. We may perhaps be able to train a great number of hot and cold and pain receiving nerves to take over these functions; on the motor side we shall soon be, if we are not already, obliged to control mechanisms for which two hands and feet are an entirely inadequate number; and, apart from that, the direction of mechanism by pure volition would enormously simplify its operation.13
Bernal was not alone in advocating radical biotechnological alterations to the human being. Though no longer a widely recognized name, J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) — identified as a threat in a Lewis letter to Clarke — was another popular scientific writer of whom Lewis harbored profound suspicion. Like Bernal, Haldane preached space colonization and enhanced evolution.14 In Possible Worlds (1928) he envisioned humanity evolving into “a super-organism with no limits to its possible progress.” There was “no theoretical limit to man’s material progress but the subjugation to complete conscious control of every atom and every quantum of radiation in the universe.”15 Civilization’s technological advancement was a religious conviction for Haldane.
Haldane Responds to Lewis
This dispute between Haldane and Lewis took a personal turn when Haldane responded in print to what he took to be Lewis’s attack on science and scientists. Lewis wrote a reply to these criticisms which amounted largely to arguing that Haldane misconstrued the argument of The Abolition of Man and of his science fiction. Lewis affirms that “‘scientists’ as such are not the target.” The real problem is “philosophical, not scientific at all” for, as Ransom says in Out of the Silent Planet, “the sciences are ‘good and innocent in themselves’… though evil ‘scientism’ is creeping into them.”16 Thus Lewis can write that “under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning.”17 Insisting that under such circumstances “devil worship is a real possibility” Lewis adds, “I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others.”18
Ideology Becomes Religion
When an ideology acquires religious stature, a social order taking shape around it will be inclined toward evil. Theocracy of any type was thus for Lewis “the worst” form of government. “A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion is a bad sign” because such an outlook “forbids wholesome doubt.” And, as a political perspective can never be perfect, religious rigidity is particularly dangerous in governmental planning. A secretive party with access to power and religious certainty about its cause is highly dangerous.19 Add to political power fervent belief in an inevitable force — technology or evolution — and the rule of law itself is at risk. Under such conditions “revolutionary methods” will be justified, for “necessity knows no law.”20
But Lewis, author of The Screwtape Letters (1942), discerned deeper and more sinister springs of human evil. As already noted, he stated in a letter to Clarke that Stapledon’s Star Maker ends in “devil worship.” Demonic influence is associated with science or scientists in all three of Lewis’s works of science fiction. If, as he claims, the phrase “devil worship” does not usually mean that someone “knowingly worship[s] the devil,” then to what is Lewis referring with his repeated references to devilry? And, what does this allegation have to do with science? When a group comes to venerate “as God” an idealized state of affairs whose perfect instantiation would result in evil — disregard for the individual, the violation of nature, destruction of the Tao — then the accusation of devil worship is warranted. Lewis refers to this eventuality as worshipping one’s own vices. “It is clearly in that sense, and that sense only, that my Frost [in That Hideous Strength] worships devils.” For Lewis, the scientist Frost symbolizes “the point at which certain lines of tendency already observable will meet if produced.”21
A Warranted Accusation
Lewis identified two such tendencies before his unfinished reply to Haldane breaks off. The first such line, writes Lewis, “is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons… [T]he general character of modern life with its huge impersonal organizations may be more potent than any philosophy.” Clearly, Lewis viewed anonymous bureaucracies with suspicion, a conviction expressed in the stinging satire of The Screwtape Letters where devils inhabit an elaborately organized and labyrinthine “lowerarchy.” Moreover, reverence for the collective was corrosive of individual rights; when “the individual does not matter…we really get going” and “it will not matter what you do to an individual.”22 Lewis’s foundational concern is the tendency of collectives toward “the abolition of persons.” When the cure for selfishness is, as Haldane had suggested, removing from language words such as “my” or “I,” then the elimination of individuals has been brought a little closer.
The second tendency is “the belief of [an organization’s] members that they are not merely trying to carry out a programme but are obeying an impersonal force,” particularly one to which members attribute inevitability. “The belief that the process which the Party embodies is inevitable, and the belief that the forwarding of this process is the supreme duty and abrogates all ordinary moral laws.”23 Evolution, or the gradualist rendition of Darwinism Lewis referred to as evolutionism and developmentalism, was just such an inevitable force. So pervasive was developmentalist philosophy that “evolution” had become an account of any gradual change over time, and incremental change over time always meant improvement.24 Scientism adopted evolutionism as the cosmos’s own narrative, an account of everything that we experience, and the story of our inevitable future.25
Tomorrow, “C. S. Lewis and Contemporary Transhumanism.”
- Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 56-58, 70-72, 77-83..
- Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis (New York: iBooks, 2003), 40.
- C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (San Francisco, Harper Collins: 2005), 137.
- H. G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (London: Penguin Classics, 2005).
- G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: John Lane, 1905), 66. Chesterton understood the progressive eugenic view of his day as having taken on a religious quality. “But the sensation connected with Mr. Shaw in recent years has been his sudden development of the religion of the Superman.” 62.
- Sam Moskowitz, Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction (Westport CT: Hyperion Press, 1963), 261.
- Olaf Stapledon, “The Splendid Race” in, An Olaf Stapledon Reader, ed. Robert Crossley(Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 145, 146.
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 147.
- Lewis, Abolition of Man, 25.
- On the idea of mythologies of science, see my Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
- Dale Sullivan, “C. S. Lewis’ Satirical Portrait of J. D. Bernal’s The Social Function of Science,” paper presented at the 95th meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago IL (November 2009).
- J. D. Bernal, The World, The Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1969). Also available at http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Bernal/, accessed May 10, 2012.
- J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937), 301.
- Ibid.,, 304.
- C. S. Lewis, “Reply to Professor Haldane,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 78.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 80-81.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 83-84.
- Ibid., 84.
- C. S. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 82-93.
- See also: Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London: Routledge, 1985). Midgley refers to evolution as “the creation myth of our time” and uses the phrase “the escalator myth” when describing continued human evolutionary development.