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John West: C. S. Lewis and the “Human Fallibility of Science”

Photo: C. S. Lewis, via Asar Studios/Alamy (Photo by © Norman Parkinson Archive/Iconic Images/Getty Images).

John West had a great conversation on the Pints with Jack podcast about his book The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. Dr. West reminds listeners of an insight of Lewis’s that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because it comes in the Epilogue of the last book Lewis completed, the fascinating The Discarded Image. It’s not his Lewis’s most widely read work. The subject matter is not what everyone associates with him — not fantasy, or science fiction, or apologetics, but an account of the Medieval mental picture of the world.

Neither Fiction Nor Fact

In the Epilogue, he turns his focus on the “Models” that we all bring to bear in understanding our world. Medieval Europeans had one. We have another. These Models, which are neither fictional nor fully objective or factual either, dictate a certain understanding of nature, among other things. In Lewis’s view, “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.” Ask different questions and you will get different answers.

From The Magician’s Twin:

Lewis recalled that when he was young he “believed that ‘Darwin discovered evolution’ and that the far more general, radical, and even cosmic developmentalism… was a superstructure raised on the biological theorem. This view has been sufficiently disproved.” What really happened according to Lewis was that the “[t]he demand for a developing world — a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper” had developed first, and when it was “full grown” the scientists went “to work and discover[ed] the evidence on which our belief in that sort of universe would now be held to rest.”

Lewis’s view has momentous implications for how we view the reigning paradigms in science at any given time — including Darwinian evolution. “We can no longer dismiss the change of Models [in science] as a simple progress from error to truth,” argued Lewis. “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy… But… each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge” Lewis added that he did “not at all mean that these news phenomena are illusory… But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.”

Recognizing what West calls the “human fallibility of science” is even more important today than it was in 2012 when he edited his book, or in 1964 when Lewis wrote his. The spirt or psychology of the day gives us the science we wished for. This makes it highly fallible, and potentially dangerous. The notion that science is our guide to morality, policy, and beyond is called scientism. The idea is ripe with possibilities of totalitarianism. But it’s what Americans and other Westerners seem to want.