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Michael D. Aeschliman on C. S. Lewis and Scientism

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

Michael D. Aeschliman wrote The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism in 1983. It was praised as a remarkable achievement upon its arrival by eminent writers and thinkers including Russell Kirk, Malcolm Muggeridge, and George Gilder. Discovery Institute Press published an expanded and updated edition of the book in 2019, and a recent ID the Future podcast episode featuring Aeschliman piqued my own interest in the book. 

Aeschliman writes on the advent of “scientism,” the belief that science is the only viable path to knowledge and should therefore be esteemed above all other disciplines. Such a view leads to the reckless moral relativism and “will to power” that arguably brought about the bloodbaths of the 20th century, such as Stalinism and the horror of the Holocaust. Aeschliman observes how technological progress and scientific mastery, when it isn’t wedded to virtue and moral knowledge, wreaks havoc. 

Fighting the Tyranny of Scientism

C. S. Lewis was perhaps the most eloquent author of his time who wrote, across multiple genres, on the tyranny of scientism in defense a transcendent moral order. Along with other writers like G. K. Chesterton, John Milton, and Dante, Lewis championed the sacredness of the human person and the need for a wholistic understanding of the world that included the spiritual. Without the guardrails of morality and a defense of rationality in the classical sense, Lewis argued that technology and science would end up destroying human life and relationships. It would lead to what he called “the abolition of man.” 

Aeschliman writes, 

As Dr. [Samuel] Johnson fought the impiously excessive rationalism of the eighteenth century, Chesterton and Lewis fought the excessive naturalism that has pervaded — and blighted — much of the twentieth century. For both writers, satirical essay, romance, and prose apologetic were their main literary forms and their enduring legacies.

Scientism claims that science alone dictates the truth, although Aeschliman shrewdly notes that this system of thought depends on non-scientific reason to come to such a conclusion. It “undercuts” itself. Lewis realized this in his day and age, too. Scientistic thinking harms genuine scientific inquiry since it reduces human beings to objects, mere aspects of nature alongside rocks and salamanders. The old idea of humans having been made in the image of a benevolent Creator is trampled beneath the chariots of scientism. 

Aeschliman continues, 

Lewis insisted that the human person was not a thing, but an essence, a soul, and that it ill profits a man (or modern human beings) to gain the whole material world at the expense of the elementary self-knowledge that tells him that he is a soul qualitatively distinct from and superior to mere material things. Persons are ultimate ends and ought never to be treated only as means; they always have the character of “thou” and ought never to be treated merely as “it.” 

Aeschliman quotes Winston Churchill, who witnessed the technological progress and ensuing horrors of World War II: 

“Science bestowed immense new powers on man and, at the same time, created conditions which were largely beyond his comprehension and still more beyond his control. While he nursed the illusion of growing mastery, and exulted in his new trappings, he became the sport and presently the victim of tides and currents, whirlpools and tornadoes, amid which he was far more helpless than he had been for a long while.” 

Aeschliman also notes how Lewis encountered the dark side of technological power firsthand in the trenches in World War I, where he was seriously wounded. In his inaugural address at Cambridge, Lewis even went so far as to say that the “birth of the machines really is the greatest change in the history of Western man.” If technology and science depart from moral constraints, devastation ensues. 

Human Exceptionalism 

We are Homo sapiens, not Homo “sciens,” Aeschliman writes. The fact that we’re able to use the scientific method in the first place is a testament to human exceptionalism. In addition, Lewis affirmed the goodness of the material world, avoiding the over-spiritualized worldview of the ancient Gnostics, who saw matter as evil and the enemy of spiritual progress. Nonetheless, the challenge in Lewis’s time, and in our own as well (perhaps even more so) was the idea that matter is the sole and fundamental reality, and is responsible even for the illusions of consciousness, moral values, and religious experience. It was this materialistic worldview that Lewis soundly opposed and wrote against in The Abolition of Man as well as fictionally in That Hideous Strength. Prioritizing matter above everything ends up denigrating matter itself. 

Aeschliman also writes about how scientism leads to moral relativism. Since there is no reliable way to validate moral knowledge, morality becomes subjective, and personal preference and desire reign in its stead. We become utilitarian hedonists, instrumentally exploiting others for the sake of personal pleasure and power. Today, as a result, we have a culture that prizes the ephemeral and sensate over the eternal and transcendent. Lewis, however, resisted the popular tide and “bowed to the constraint of truth and thus climbed its ladder.” We need more courageous men and women to herald the light that Lewis and the many before him did. 

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.