December 7th 2013

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Abbott and the Indonesia espionage row

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Australia's enemies at home and abroad

AGRICULTURE: Fighting to keep families on their own land

SCHOOLS: Economy held back by lack of skilled tradesmen

LIFE ISSUES: Tasmania widens scope for abortion, restricts free speech

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Middle-class families struggling on two incomes

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Joe Hockey and the ADM takeover bid for GrainCorp

POLITICAL LANGUAGE: Defending the indefensible by sugar-coating killing

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China takes leading role in new 'scramble for Africa'

CULTURE: 'Tis the season to give the imagination free play

LITERATURE: How George MacDonald's fantasy fiction illuminates reality

BOOK REVIEW When science poses as a religion

BOOK REVIEW Family decline behind loss of religious faith

CINEMA: Nostalgic retrospect on Sixties radicalism

LETTERS Why it matters who owns Australia's GrainCorp

LETTERS Expatriate Australian intellectuals

LETTER Practical fuel-reduction tip to prevent bushfires

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When science poses as a religion

News Weekly, December 7, 2013



C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism and Society

edited by John G. West

(Seattle: Discovery Institute Press)
Paperback: 348 pages
ISBN: 9781936599059
RRP: AUD$49.90

Reviewed by Brian Coman

The enduring popularity of the works of C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago, is remarkable. I can think of no other modern author who has managed to produce long-term bestsellers in so many genres.

Lewis is famous for his children’s books, his books on theology and philosophy, and his science-fiction trilogy. This by no means exhausts his fields of interest, for he also wrote on history and upon philology. As well as the books themselves, his writings have spawned a large number of commentaries, and the book under review here is one of those.

The Magician’s Twin is, as the subtitle indicates, an examination of Lewis’s views on modern science and, more particularly, on the uses and abuses of what might be called “the scientific worldview”. It consists of a collection of 13 essays by prominent American academics, each covering some relevant aspect(s) of Lewis’s literary output.

The book’s title is significant because it is not only a play on the title of one of his Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, but refers to a particular idea (by no means the main one) contained in The Abolition of Man, perhaps Lewis’s most important publication. Drawing upon his detailed knowledge of the history of both science and magic, Lewis concludes that they share many similar features.

The 16th and 17th centuries were the “high noon” of magic and, also, the beginnings of the modern scientific era. As the opening essay in this current volume explains, both science (or, rather, scientism) and magic can offer a sort of alternative to religion: both give a promise of power over nature, and both require a peculiar lack of scepticism.

This last claim may appear counter-intuitive but one only has to think of the “scientific” writings of people like the British communist academic J.D. Bernal to understand the force of the argument. Scientific theories are often extrapolated (that word is too kind!) to give what might be termed cosmological explanations — theories that explain everything, including meaning and purpose in life, origins of the universe, and ultimate human destiny.

Other essays deal with Lewis’s views on science as a threat to freedom (one immediately thinks of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), on the uses and abuses of reason, and upon mistaken modern notions concerning the history of science, especially in the medieval period.

A persistent theme throughout the book is the question of the relationship between science and religion. I have already alluded to the propensity for science to present itself as a religion, and from this often arises the notion that religion is, in some way, in competition with science. The falsity of this claim is outlined in the book.

One important topic dealt with in this essay collection is that concerning the philosophy of science. Lewis was especially good at drawing out the logical consequences of certain types of scientific belief. The most famous of his arguments in this regard was the so-called “argument from reason” concerning naturalism (the idea that scientific theories about nature can explain everything).

In its simplest form this argument goes somewhat as follows: If everything in the cosmos, including human life, arose as a result of blind, irrational processes, we have no real claim to suppose that we can think rationally. As various authors in this essay collection show, this argument has been greatly expanded since Lewis’s time and its force has in no way been diminished.

I note, for instance, that the distinguished American philosopher, Thomas Nagel (a non-believer), regards a version of this argument as compelling (see Mind and Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 2012, reviewed by Bill Muehlenberg in News Weekly, December 22, 2012).

The same is true for the English philosopher Mary Midgley, and she is worth quoting in this regard. She argues: “Science cannot stand alone. We cannot believe its propositions without first believing in… the existence of the external world, the reliability of our senses… and the validity of logic. If we do believe in these things, we already have a world far wider than that of science” (Science as Salvation, Routledge, 1992).

But by far the most impressive achievement of this collection of essays is the ability of the various authors to bring together all of Lewis’s published work, including the children’s books and the science-fiction trilogy, to show just how consistent and all-pervasive was his generally philosophy. Lewis always writes with some moral purpose in mind, and this, more than any other single attribute, explains his continuing popularity.

The Magician’s Twin is an impressive achievement. For anyone interested in the so-called debate over religion and science, it is essential reading. This is especially the case today when the anti-religious zealotry of science popularisers, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is so eagerly devoured by the media pundits.

Brian J. Coman, PhD, is a former research biologist. He is also a widely published author and essayist. His book, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, is available from News Weekly books.

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