“The Abolition of Man” – Science and Abstractions


“Perhaps I am asking impossibilities.  Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and sees by killing.  But if scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.  What I most fear is the reply that I am “only one more’ obscurantist, that this barrier, like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed … There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis –incommensurable with others- and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey.  To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind.  Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost.  But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.  You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever.  The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.  It is good that the window should be transparent because the street or garden beyond it is opaque.  How if you saw through the garden, too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.  If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”  [1]

I found this passage from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, to be particularly powerful.  Lewis raises an important question that hits me hard as a former scientist.  Earlier in the book, Lewis alludes to the consequences of studying Creation through the lens of reductionistic naturalism.  To illustrate his point, he uses the example of the desensitization process that must occur when we “cut up a dead man.” [2]  This is an example with which every first-year medical student can relate.  And though it is particularly dramatic, it can be applied to the entire heavens and earth to some degree, I think.  If we had ears to hear, something cries out to us from the things we reduce and abstract in order to study.  There is a price to be paid and we pay it every time we try to cram some piece of Creation into the box of naturalism.

What this does to the human heart (or chest) is a concern, too, because that is the organ that pays the biggest price, I think.  Of greatest concern is when we apply this principle to first things or first principles, like the Tao.  As Lewis argued, trying to confine the Tao in the chains of naturalism only imprisons mankind and strips us of our humanity.

Why do we do this?  I believe we have a weakness for confusing studying with mastering.  There is a fine line between the two that in our sinfulness, we cross without effort.  I think it goes back to the original Garden and the temptation that led to that perfect place being lost to us, not unlike the invisible garden from the passage above.  “[And] you will be like God”[3] echoes down through the ages from our transparent Eden home and tempts our hearts.

In science, abstraction seems necessary to some degree.  Yet, we cannot simply go on turning real things into abstractions without hurting ourselves in some way, can we? How do we keep from missing the forest for the trees?  How do we keep from destroying the trees because the forest is immeasurably complex for our finite minds to comprehend?

Perhaps it’s the attitude with which we approach the process of learning where we find the answer to Lewis’s question.  Our motives might be part of the problem.  Could it be that the answer was given in one of Jesus’s teachings on how we should approach His Kingdom?  “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [4]  Fighting to retain a childlike, Garden of Eden reverence for God and His works might be our best protection.

Wonder and awe are not only necessary for worship.  Wonder and awe are our best defense against abstracting ourselves into oblivion.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 91.

[2] Ibid., 81.

[3] Gen. 3:5, NIV.

[4] Matt. 18:3-4, NIV.


Realms of the Mind

One thought on ““The Abolition of Man” – Science and Abstractions

  1. Pingback: On Chesterton’s “The Maniac” | Along the Beam

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