“The Abolition of Man” – Science and Abstractions

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“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

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9 thoughts on ““The Abolition of Man” – Science and Abstractions

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

  2. “In the beginning,” Genesis tells us, God created the heavens and the earth.” The heavens and the earth, theologically speaking, go together. But since the development of the natural sciences since the 16th century, the “heavens and the earth” have taken on a very technical, mathematical nature and have been, for the most part, severed from the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel in the last five centuries. From the Copernican Revolution to Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis, to the advent of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, nature – the heavens and the earth – have since little to do with Christ and His glory any longer. The sciences and all their accompanying technical apparatus, have come to dictate how the universe is to be interpreted. There is nothing wrong with science per se. It is rather the strict materialist conclusions which are drawn from the observable data and conclusions about what cannot be observed that are problematic. The telescope, for example, as historian Daniel J. Boorstin writes, “short-circuited the priest’s appellate jurisdiction over the heavens.” Technical applications of scientific knowledge slowly became the new high priests to which man appealed for knowledge about himself and his place in the universe. But the telescope literally forced the astronomer to close one eye. And for the next five hundred years, man looked at the universe quite myopically, through the singular lens of science. As our technologies increased, the layperson’s daily interaction with the cosmos greatly diminished. Who among laypersons today has access to the powerful telescopes owned by universities and major aerospace conglomerates? The heavens have essentially been cordoned off from the average person and are now in the hands of a scientific elite with their own special language, ritual and initiation rites all of which have led to a very reductionist view of the cosmos; one which has diminished the grandeur and beauty of the universe with complicated scientific abstraction, compartmentalizing the glory into subatomic mathematical minutiae to such an extent that everything in the universe has quite literally come to, well, nothing.

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    • I am reminded of something that Lewis wrote in “That Hideous Strength”: “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time. Evolution means species getting less and less like one another. Minds get more and more spiritual, matter more and more material. Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”

      Everything is drawing further and further apart in our world, even the universe, if scientists are correct that its expansion is actually accelerating rather than slowing down.

      And this rapidly accelerating expansion is occurring amongst us, isn’t it? “Human intellect is incurably abstract,” wrote Lewis. Human relationships are becoming incurably abstract as they move further and further apart. Relationships are reduced to bits and bytes, posts and tweets.

      Meanwhile, the heavens declare that we are all moving apart, becoming more ourselves and less “other”.

      Lord have mercy on us.

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      • Expansion, I believe is going to be proven incorrect. Even Hubble was a little nervous about postulating the speed at which the most distant galaxies seemed to be traveling.

        Much of the theory of expansion seems to entail a proper interpretation of redshifts. Yet the idea that something as massive as a galaxy would be traveling on some kind of invisible fabric that moves faster than the speed of light seems to beg a completely different explanation.

        They’re terming the fuel for this mysterious fabric as “dark energy” but really it is a huge void in cosmological theories. No one has a clue what it is.

        The very fact that these galaxies are so ridiculously far away should give us pause regarding what we can know about them. Who knows what lies between us and them?

        And its interesting how the “tools” of science continue to influence the kinds of questions we put to the universe, i.e. we think the James Webb Space Telescope is going to answer more of our questions – but the telescope itself is already a kind of presupposition about the nature of the universe – that we can know all there is to know “by sight.”

        I’m sure the telescope – if it works – will reveal some scary looking stuff, but for every mysterious photon it uncovers, it will raise far more questions than it will answer.

        Gets back to the myopic nature of modern cosmology. They’ve turned a blind eye to the unseen world, even though their current theories are basically shouting at them that there is much “unseen” which is responsible for what is seen.

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      • The long and short of it is, that despite what the cosmologists are telling us, for all we know, “expansion” is just as illusory as Aristotle’s crystal spheres (and probably is, given the ever-changing nature of science). A fixed earth at the center of the universe was THE cosmology for 1,800+ years! We have only assumed “expansion” since 1929, not even a hundred years!

        Lawrence Krauss has gone before Congress asking them for more funding for astronomy and cosmology because – he predicts – the universe is expanding so rapidly that it will soon disappear!

        Just keep that in mind. Who is a cosmologist to predict what the UNIVERSE is going to do in a few centuries? Krauss, however, does not have the slightest idea what I am going to have for dinner tomorrow. God’s questions to Job are fitting here. “Can you guide the Bear and her cubs?” “Can you bind the Pleiades or loose the chains of Orion?” No and no. Where was Krauss when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy?

        But the LORD assures us that the “fixed order” will not depart from Him. The heavens also are not going to “disappear” as Krauss suggests, but be dissolved with fervent heat.

        Let us not whole-heartedly ingest secular cosmologies – they have a tendency to turn our minds away from Christ, as Lewis’s thoughts you provide so lucidly show. Never forget that many of the brilliant minds of science have turned their backs on God and do not retain the knowledge of Christ in their theories. The devil wants to rend the heavens, trample them down, soil them and trample their glory. He’s not done taking men up to the mountain and tempting them.

        George Smoot thinks its all a simulation. The late Victor Stenger as well as Lawrence Krauss believed the laws of physics and the universe itself came from nothing. God is a math problem for Einstein and Hawking. Sagan thought the cosmos eternal and that man was merely a thin film within it.

        Make no mistake that even with Kepler and Newton, the cosmologies of the last five centuries have been inherently anti-Christ. Newton denied the Trinity, remember.

        “How the heavens go” became more important in the 17th century than “how to go to heaven.”

        They go together though – the heavens and the earth – on earth as it is in the heavens – as Scott Bolton said of Jupiter this past summer – “the king and His disciples.” We need once more an imaginative but faithful integration of the heavens and the earth.

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  3. Perhaps the mathematical abstractions set forth by Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton contributed to the silencing of the Church’s voice within the new burgeoning cosmologies of the 16th and 17th centuries. Physicist Werner Heisenberg once wrote that “It may be argued that certain trends in Christian philosophy led to a very abstract concept of God, that they put God so far above the world that one began to consider the world without at the same time also seeing God in the world.” These pioneering astronomers unintentionally shelved God and His sustaining grace of the universe. According to Postman Copernicus and company “put in place the dynamite that would blow up the theology and metaphysics of the medieval world. Newton lit the fuse. In the ensuing explosion, Aristotle’s animism was destroyed, along with most everything else in his Physics. Scripture lost much of its authority. Theology, the Queen of the Sciences, was now reduced to the Court Jester.”

    The Fool (1 Cor. 1:18ff).

    “Worst of all,” Postman says, as a result of theology being reduced to diminutive foolishness “the meaning of existence itself became an open question.” Though attempting by all means to stay faithful to their religious convictions, the new cosmological pioneers of the 16th and 17th centuries unintentionally relegated God to a disinterested machinist who was so far above His creation, He seemed to have little or nothing to do with it any longer. The heavens and all the newly acquired mathematical descriptors became the source and fount of all knowledge and wisdom rather than God Himself. Any divine meaning of the universe died away as mathematical law became the standard for understanding the universe. “And how ironic it all was!” Postman says. “Whereas men had traditionally looked to Heaven to find authority purpose and meaning…Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo…looked not to Heaven but to the heavens.”

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  4. Last night I watched the “supermoon” rise. I walked up to the hay barn where there is a spectacular view of the eastern horizon. As I arrived in the near darkness I could see the cows all quietly settling in for the night. A gentle breeze and the smell of fresh hay enveloped the hilltop. Venus glistened in the twilight over the pasture behind me. Then off in the distance a remarkable sight – something I will never again see in my lifetime. The few clouds that lay across the horizon gradually began to reflect a soft orangish glow, as if the sun were rising. Then the top of the lunar disc appeared, though somewhat obscured by the clouds. As it slowly rose, the size of it took my breath away.

    It. Was. Huge.

    Silently, gracefully, this luminous orb climbed into the stillness of the evening sky, bigger than the rising sun, soft as a night light in a newborn’s nursery. The streaks of cloud cover made it look like the planet Jupiter for a few minutes. As it rose higher, it became more yellow in color but still was partially streaked by clouds. I turned to look in the pasture behind me to see Venus once more, then back to the rising moon, then to the cows contentedly resting in the hay. The beauty of the entire scene, the serenity, the peace, was overwhelming.

    As I started to walk back along the pasture fence line from the barn to the house, I gradually went downward into the meadow. The view of the east soon became covered by a forest of trees across the road. The moon appeared just above the treetops. The wispy clouds which surrounded its glowing surface made it look as though the trees were on fire. As I made my way down the sloping pasture, the moon seemed to be following me. The scene instantly reminded me of one of my favorite children’s stories, Owl and the Moon, by Arnold Lobel. In this wonderful tale of friendship I see myself and my relationship with Jesus.

    As the story opens, Owl, like myself, is spending a quiet evening contemplating the moon by the seashore. As it gets later, Owl eventually starts back home. He quickly notices that the moon seems to be following him. “No, no, moon,” says Owl, “it is kind of you to light my way, but you must stay up over the sea where you look so fine.”

    Yes, Lord, do go away and shine elsewhere, please. It is not necessary to follow after me. I’m good.

    After walking a little longer, Owl turns to see the moon “coming right along with him” and is perplexed by this strange state of affairs. Lord, why are you still following me? I have other more important things to do. You do not need to light my way. I am fine.

    Owl tells the moon that he should not come home with him. “My house is small,” he says, making excuses. He does not see how it could possibly “fit through the door.” As Peter says to the Lord, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Yet even if the moon could somehow fit into Owl’s humble abode, Owl still tries to prevent it, “I have nothing to give you for supper.”

    Yes, Lord. Do not come to my house. It is a mess. I am a mess. I do not have anything to give you.

    But as Owl kept walking, “the moon sailed after him over the tops of the trees.” Yes, that is exactly what happened to me last night and what seems to happen to me all the time. Surely goodness and mercy have indeed followed me all the days of my life, even when I have not wanted Him to. The moon “following me” last evening made me smile, even chuckle a little. God is reminding me that I am Owl; one who is constantly complaining about everything. From small inconveniences to the nature of heavenly light, I too tell Jesus to go away and light up someone else’s darkness. Mine is too great.

    At this point in the story Owl (like me), in Job-like fashion, protests the heavenly luminary. “Moon, I think you do not hear me.” So here Owl gets himself to the top of the hill and decides to shout. “Goodbye Moon!” he says and starts walking away.

    Lord, likewise. I do not think you hear me. So I either stop trying to talk to You or, like Owl, I shout at You to leave me alone and I try to walk away. Herein is atheism 101. Get yourself up on a high hill and shout “Goodbye!” to God. It is at this point that God, like the moon in our story, suddenly disappears behind some clouds. Herein also is a childlike glimpse of Calvary.

    The Hill of the Skull is where human foolishness and divine “foolishness” meet on the cross. “Goodbye Jesus!” we shout, and inexplicably, so too does the Father in all of His wrath. Utterly alone and abandoned, Jesus cries out from the top of the hill, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

    And how often I find myself saddened by what seems to be God abandoning me, forgetting about me or giving up on me. In these times, like Owl, I look for God, but do not find Him and become sad in the loneliness and darkness of my bedroom, thinking no one, not even God, cares about me.

    But Jesus knows. And a lot of times He uses the heavens to preach to me in the midst of my darkened unbelief.

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    • Praying for you. Every day. The Love that moves the sun and the other stars loves you, too. May you find His hand in the darkness.

      “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

      And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year; “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

      So heart be still:
      What need our little life
      Our human life to know,
      If God hath comprehension?
      In all the dizzy strife
      Of things both high and low,
      God hideth His intention.

      God knows. His will
      Is best. The stretch of years
      Which wind ahead, so dim
      To our imperfect vision,
      Are clear to God. Our fears
      Are premature; In Him,
      All time hath full provision.

      Then rest: until
      God moves to lift the veil
      From our impatient eyes,
      When, as the sweeter features
      Of Life’s stern face we hail,
      Fair beyond all surmise
      God’s thought around His creatures
      Our mind shall fill.

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