A Cancer in the Universe

“I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics 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.” – C. S. Lewis, responding to a letter from Arthur C. Clarke

My back was turned completely to the classroom. I sat atop a stool behind the lectern, with trademark white wires fashionably dangling from each ear-bud in route to my iPod. I was also scanning a book, obviously multi-tasking!

Outwardly absorbed in the music and the text before me, I pretended not to notice as about thirty-five students shuffled incrementally into to my introduction to philosophy class on the first day of a new spring semester. Though I knew the lecture hall had filled up, I turned around on my seat and pretended to be surprised by a classroom full of students. I was too electronically pre-occupied to notice!

With a newfound presence of mind, I proceeded with regular, first-day formalities: a cordial welcome, a Scripture reading and prayer (I teach at a Christian university), then the class roll, followed by an overview of the syllabus… only to be interrupted by a planned call and a bogus text message on my cell phone, the advent of both signaled by appropriate electronic sounds. My wife was texting me to remind me about the delinquent electric bill, and a friend phoned me up to talk about Tiger’s miraculous triumph at a PGA event the day before. At least that’s what I told the class, fingers crossed behind my back!

In my effort to stimulate interest and get students’ attention, I was trying to demonstrate how technology affects our lives and impacts our relationships, often without our awareness. They began to catch on to my antics, slowly but surely. At a propitious moment, I passed out a one-page handout on a philosophy of technology with a succinct definition and few themes briefly summarized, as I explained that a chief goal of our class was to move from a state of pre-reflectivity to reflectivity, from unexamined to examined lives! The response, I must say, was gratifying!

Perhaps it’s megalomania, but I think C. S. Lewis would have appreciated this pedagogical gimmick of mine and here’s why: he believed that the most significant line of division in Western history occurred between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the reason was because of the rising prevalence of science and the application of technology to everyday life!

This was a main point Lewis made in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture titled De Descriptione Temporum (Latin: “A Description of the Times”) when he was installed as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in 1954. Lewis was suspicious of dividing history into time periods, even though he saw them as useful historical tools. Quoting Cambridge historian G. M. Trevelyan, Lewis declared: “Unlike dates, periods are not facts” (DDT, p. 2). Thus, Lewis disputed with those who wanted to draw the thickest line of demarcation in occidental culture in the seventeenth century “with the general acceptance of Copernicanism, the dominance of Descartes, and (in England) the foundation of the Royal Society” (DDT, p. 6-7). To be sure, science and its technological offspring were making great strides during that transitional century, but had yet to become socially pervasive. Science, Lewis stated, was “like a lion-cub whose gambols delighted its master in private; it had not yet tasted man’s blood” (DDT, p. 7). Up to this point, science dealt mostly with lifeless nature and slung out a few technologies. However, it was not yet the business of humanity because humanity was not yet the business of science (DDT, p. 7, paraphrased). But when human persons became the scientific target — between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — everything changed: “When Watt makes his engine, when Darwin starts monkeying around with the ancestry of Man, and Freud with his soul, and the economists with all that is his, then indeed the lion will have got out of his cage. Its liberated presence in our midst will become one of the most important factors in everyone’s daily life” (DDT, p. 7).

Point well taken! But is this progress?

For Lewis, the answer is depends upon what one means by “progress.” Lewis was no Luddite, to be sure, for he recognized and appreciated that humankind had made significant scientific and technological advances throughout history. At the same time, he was in no way, shape or form convinced that such scientific discoveries and technological innovations entailed the perfection of humanity and the move to a better world. In fact, he saw the amoral, if not immoral, foundations upon which human knowledge and power were advancing as positively dangerous, and potentially, if not actually, idolatrous!

Why did Lewis hold to this outlook? The answer is not hard to fathom. It stemmed from his Christian worldview. This outlook stood in sharp contrast to the Greek perspective on history as a “meaningless flux” or “cyclic reiteration” and had become a “discarded image.” Nevertheless, Christianity, building on the Hebraic notion of history as the revelation of God’s mighty deeds and purposes, “makes world-history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment.”

History for Lewis, ever an Augustinian, was ”a story with a divine plot” (DI, p. 176) that culminated apocalyptically in judgment. Consequently, it was contrary to modern, secular notions of human perfectibility and the creation of an ideal world. As Lewis wrote in The World’s Last Night,

The doctrine of the Second Coming is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly toward perfection, something that “progresses” or “evolves.” Christian apocalyptic offers no such hope. It does not even fortell … a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain wrung down on the play — “Halt!” To this deep-seated objection I can only reply that, in my opinion, the modern conception of Progress or Evolution (as popularly imagined) is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatsoever.

If history, by divine design, was scheduled to end in an apocalyptic manner, then optimistic views of science and technology as the source of unstoppable human progress was a dangerous deception. It gave false psychological hope to people who placed serious faith in an ever-increasing knowledge and in the advent of more effective machines as the solutions to personal and cultural problems.

Again, Lewis was never against science or technology per se; but he was against their idolization. In criticizing science, Lewis realized he was in a lose/lose situation. Nothing he could say or do would ever offset the false impression that he was anti-science or anti-technology. But it was scientism, not science that he opposed. He objected to both the denial and the deification of science, and his task was to seek a golden mean between these two erroneous extremes. Michael D. Aeschliman explains Lewis’s case against scientism and his mediating perspective of “mere science” in these words:

[Scientism is] radical empiricism, materialism, or naturalism — an implicit or explicit rejection of all nonquantifiable realities or truths, including the truths of reason. Its logical terminus is determinism or “epiphenomenalism,” T. H. Huxley’s notion that the brain and mind are fully determined by-products of irrational physical processes…. Lewis knew that science was one of the great products and capacities of the human mind, but he insisted that it was a subset of reason and not simply equivalent to it. Scientific reason, if accurate, was valid, but it was not the only kind of reasoning; noncontradiction, validity, truth, value, meaning, purpose, obligation were necessary presuppositions of the scientific method but not themselves scientific phenomena.

Lewis viewed this excessive valorization of science and its highly prized technological progeny as a “cancer” in the universe. If unchecked by a higher authority and a true, knowable moral vision, this cultural malignancy could prove to be fatal. In Lewis’s mind, the West, in its selfishness, had come to value science and technology too highly. To be sure, science and technology were real goods, but they must be subordinate ones…subordinate to first things.

In an important essay titled “First and Second Things,” written in the midst of World War II, Lewis affirmed, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” For Lewis this raised the logical question: “What things are first?” As he noted, this question is not just a question for philosophical types, but for all people, everywhere. It is the question of the summum bonum or greatest good for human beings.

What, then, has Western civilization been putting first for many years? The answer, Lewis said, is plain to see: itself. “To preserve civilization has been the great aim; the collapse of civilization, the great bugbear. Peace, a high standard of life, hygiene, transport, science and amusement — all these, which are what we usually mean by civilization, have been our ends” (FST, p. 281). Lewis anticipates people saying that it’s natural and necessary to put civilization first, especially since it is in such grave danger. But why is civilization in such grave danger? Because it has been putting itself first! What “if civilization is imperiled,” Lewis asks, “precisely by the fact that we have all made civilization our summum bonum? Perhaps it can’t be preserved in that way. Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more that we care for it” (FST, p. 218).

This is a point that’s worth more than a moment’s reflection. Reflection. Oh yes. That’s what I was trying to get my introduction to philosophy students to begin to do when I was intentionally ignoring them on the first day of class with my iPod!

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Dr. David K. Naugle is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University where he has worked for seventeen years in both administrative and academic capacities. He earned a Th.D. in systematic theology, and a Ph.D. in humanities with concentrations in philosophy and English literature.

Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), which was selected by Christianity Today magazine as the 2003 book of the year in the theology and ethics.

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Notes

For many of these reflections, I am greatly indebted to Timothy J. Demy’s excellent doctoral dissertation on “Technology, Progress, and the Human Condition in the Life and Thought of C. S. Lewis,” Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island, 2004.

– Quoted in Ryder W. Miller, ed., The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis (New York: iBooks, 2003), p. 40.

– C. S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1969). Subsequent references to this essay are identified as DDT with the appropriate page numbers in parentheses.

– C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964; reprint, 1967), p. 174. Subsequent references to this essay are identified as DI with the appropriate page numbers in parentheses.

– C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1960, reprint 1973), pp. 100-01.

– Michael D. Aeschliman, The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 364-65. Also see Aeschliman’s “C. S. Lewis on Mere Science,” First Things 86 (October 1998).

– C. S. Lewis, “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 280. Subsequent references to this essay are identified as FST with the appropriate page numbers in parentheses. In a 1952 letter to a friend, Lewis affirmed this essential principle: “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” See C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and memoir W. H. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966; reprint: New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), p. 228.

 

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