Science in Christian Perspective



C. S. Lewis on Science
W. Jim Neidhardt
Physics Department
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ 07102

From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 221-222.

When the distinguished medieval scholar, C. S. Lewis, came to the realization that not atheism, but only "mere Christianity" was capable of truly resolving life's ultimate dilemmas, he committed his whole being, his great intellect as well as his heart, to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Out of such a perspective of commitment, armed with a deep understanding of both human nature in its frailty and greatness and the intellectual climate of the modern world, Lewis challenged in his writings as a Christian layman (as he thought of himself) modern man's indifference and hostility toward the Christian Gospel with its ability to heal, reconcile and integrate into a whole the moral, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of existence. Lewis, while not a scientist himself, was a wellread and thorough student of all human endeavor; accordingly his thoughts on science are well informed and make a distinctive contribution toward integrating scientific understanding into a unified, Christian perspective.

In May, 1971 the Metropolitan New York Chapter of ASA was extremely fortunate to have Mr. Henry Noel, a founder of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, present a talk in which he ably synthesized Lewis' major thoughts on science. As I have not seen this material collected elsewhere and know that it will be of great value to all in the scientific community interested in C. S. Lewis' unique contributions to Christian thought, I have received Mr. Noel's permission to allow the following summary of his May, 1971 talk to be reprinted now.

As Mr. Noel pointed out, the central insights of C. S. Lewis on the nature of scientific understanding are contained in the epilogue of The Discarded image, a classic study on the image of the world that Medieval people had and which now has been discarded. A brief summary of these key ideas is now presented.

In the 19th century scientists still believed that by inferences from sensory observations (and instrumental extensions thereof) one could know ultimate physical reality in the same way as by a map a stranger to a country, skilled in the art of map reading, could know the actual hills, rocky ascents, and pleasant valleys of the country itself. In both cases, the truth would be a sort of mental replica of the thing itself. Mathematics was already becoming the language of the physical sciences. But it was not doubted by most scientists that there was a concrete reality clearly distinguishable from the math symbols and operations. The mathematics was a symbolic description of physical reality itself. Through mathematics we can gain knowledge of the physical world, not merely mathematical. Scientific theories in their statements are analogous to the contour lines of a map which symbolically point to real hills, rocky regions, and flowered valleys; these map symbols enable us to get nearer to actual reality.

Physicists of the 20th century in their detailed study of both the very small and the very large in the universe have found that concepts developed by the human imagination from ordinary sensory experiences, represented in mathematical language, are no longer adequate. With respect to the analogy of a scientific theory as representing a map of reality many scientists now believe that the map's contour lines are the nearest to reality you can get. All the ideas about "real" rocks, hills, etc., are taking one farther away from rather than nearer to the fullest understanding of reality possible. The ideal of a real rock (in analogy to scientific statements) is really a metaphor or parable permissable to help those who cannot understand the contour lines themselves (the math symbols and operations thereof); it is misleading to take the parable literally. The mathematical symbols and operations that the physicist uses in describing the properties of an electron are reality itself and the picture of a spinning ball or a wavepacket a non-literal representation, a concession to the fact that the world of our common sensory experiences is one of baseballs, ocean waves, etc. Modern physics often speaks in terms of mathematical models but such models are no longer to be thought of as "smallscale" replicas of reality (like a model ship) but they are at best analogies and often only suggestive of aspects of the physical world. In a similar manner, the sayings of mystics are suggestive of the nature of God. In summary, many physicists of the 20th century believe that the mathematical description is the nearest to the actual reality we can get; anything we can imagine based solely on ordinary non-mathematical conceptions is misleading in describing physical reality. Mathematics, far from being the avenue by which we can approach physical reality, is all we can know of physical reality itself.

Biological science has also undergone a revolution in the way it views reality; the biological model of reality which pictures life in terms of all perfect things preceding all imperfect ones has been replaced by an evolutionary model in which the starting point is always lower than what is developed. Lewis argued that this revolution was brought about not by the discovery of new facts but by the whole cultural climate being conducive to a new interpretation of biological facts. As a boy, he believed that Darwin discovered evolution and that the radical and even cosmic developmentism now present in all popular thought came about as a superstructure resulting from the implications of a purely biological model. He later came to realize that almost the reverse was the case: the whole cultural climate of the 100 years before Darwin in its revolutionary and romantic temper was conducive to an evolutionary world-view and this led to the seeking of purely biological evidence to support an evolutionary rather than a devolutionary model of the origins and complexity of living organisms. Lewis examined the historical setting in detail to sup port this thesis. In the biological revolution that has occurred the old models were not shattered by the discovery of new phenomena; almost the reverse is true. When changes in the human mind were sufficient to be incompatible with the existing model, the scientific community began to ask new and different types of questions than before of Nature. In such a way supporting phenomena for the biological model were discovered. Nature has ample phenomena 'in stock"; the questions scientists put to her determine much of what they discover. The kinds of questions they ask are, in turn, certainly affected by the over-all cultural climate the scientific community is immersed in. Lewis concludes that it is possible that new facts could cause us to modify the present evolutionary scheme for biology but he believed it is more likely that massive and far-reaching changes in the cultural climate will lead to new questions being asked and answers received; thus, leading the scientific community to adopt a new biological model. To directly quote from Lewis:

"... The new model will not be set up without evidence but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence, but Nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends upon the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not indeed solicit falsehoods from an honest witness but in relation to the total truth in the witness' mind the structure of the examination is like a stencil, it determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest."

As scientists, we may not entirely agree with this somewhat unflattering view of the nature of science. But before we dismiss his views, we would do well to remember that Lewis was a scholar with abiding interests in history and philosophy as well as a Christian with deep personal involvements. He therefore understood human nature and was well-qualified to judge how science actually comes about as a human activity.

The current relevance of C. S. Lewis' thought on science is now considered by commenting briefly on some areas of current concern.

The 1972 Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, August 21 -24, at York University, Downsview, Ontario, had as its theme "Presuppostions of Science: A Christian Response." One common insight of many of the talks and responses was that embedded in scientific activity are beliefs or presuppositions that cannot be proven by science but which guide and motivate scientists in their work. These presuppositions were argued to be dependent on the historical development and general cultural climate in which scientists live. It was also pointed out at that convention by Richard Bube that science is ambivalent: it is characteristic of not only science but all human endeavor that as we strive to accomplish something, it is inevitable that we should produce both good and bad, desirable and undesirable results. This is true both when we fail upon acting from bad motives and when we have good motives and succeed. Both insights of the meeting were clearly recognized by and of great interest to C. S. Lewis.

In an article entitled "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate?" (Science, 19 November 1971, Vol. 174, No. 4011) the biologist, Leon R. Kass, argues that the possibility of "human engineering" and manipulation made likely by the biological revolution forces us to reconsider the nature of the scientific enterprise. Whereas science was once thought of as purely the understanding of Nature, moderns view science as power, as control over Nature. We like to speak "figuratively about 'Man's power over Nature' because it obscures an upleasant reality about human affairs. It is in fact particular men who wield power, not Man. What we really mean by 'Man's power over Nature' is a power exercised by some men over other men, with a knowledge of Nature as their intrument." Note that the misuse or the abuse of power is not an issue. Power grows and is unavoidably the power of only some, and the number of powerful persons decreases as power decreases. Kass credits C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man for clearly calling attention to the significance of this issue and developing the arguments that Kass uses.

Lastly, let me point out that Lewis in The Abolition of Man saw the great dilemmas of modern man stemming from his rejection of absolute values. He pointed out that:

"Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the Universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous to it believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. - . St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections to which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it."

Moderns have rejected the objective nature of such sentiments. Traditional value judgments are merely a consequence of subjective, emotional states. Lewis defended the validity of objective values and argued that there is a sole source of all value judgments whose basic principles can be found in what was taught by the great teachers of all human cultures. This set of principles he labeled the Tao from the Chinese, who saw the Tao as "the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar." Common to all cultural forms of the Tao is something we cannot neglect.

"It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not... And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognition of objective value or responses to an objective order, there emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking but cannot feel it).''

The Tao is furthermore the sole source of all value judgments. 

"If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radical new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they call them) 'ideologies,' all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and it alone such validity as they possess... If justice is a virtue, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree; if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves (It should be pointed out here that Lewis does believe that further development and modification of values is possible from within the framework of the Tao-parenthesis mine)."

The unity of wholeness of the Tao can be seen from the elements Lewis sees it to be composed of. They are rules of general and special beneficience; the laws of justice; the laws of good faith and veracity; the laws of mercy; and the laws of magnanimity. He gives examples of these elements from a wide spectrum of cultural teachings. It would seem appropriate to reconsider the validity of these concepts in the light of the anthropological data that have been collected since Lewis wrote on the Tao. Can an example be the concern for justice found in all human cultures? If evidence is found that such a concern exists, would it not be worthwhile to work out the consequences of accepting it as a "gift of nature" rather than as something to be reduced to a psychological or physico-chemical explanation.?