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Off the top

A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Man's power over nature

The first three installments of my review of C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man can be found here, here, and here.

We now enter the third and final chapter of this book, of the same title. Lewis has established that there is no value to be found outside of the Tao; therefore, the only alternative to a viewpoint which disregards the Tao is one which discards value altogether.

Lewis begins with this statement: “'Man’s conquest of nature' is an expression often used to describe the process of applied science." Yet he does “not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as ‘Man’s conquest,’ much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible.” But, he hastens to ask, “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?”

He considers three examples, using them to show that “Man is as much the patient as the possessor” of power over Nature. “What we call Man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

Lewis says that though it is “commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the power that science has given them,” he is not speaking of “particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure,” but rather “considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be.”

He then describes the way Man’s power over Nature affects the future of mankind, something that he claims that those who write on social matters do not always do:

Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, insofar as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. (emphasis mine.) This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we have put wonderful machines in their hands we have preordained how they are to use them.

Puts a twist on "progressive" thinking, doesn’t it?

But I’ll admit that, although I can see what Lewis is saying, it seems to me that men dream up new things to do that prior generations could not conceive of. Each generation may discover new ways to use the machines they have inherited as well as ways to reinvent them. So, while each generation may be limited via bequest, I would think that, through invention, they could gain back some of the power thus lost.

Lewis says something like this himself, though he means something different: “And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors.”

He goes on to say that the nearer man gets to extinction, the less power those latter generations will have, as the numbers of their progeny will be so few. I don’t quite follow this, as population increase may factor in somewhat, and Lewis considers power gained or lost in terms of a break from tradition and influence on future generations rather than in terms of the power of invention.

Yet I think he is right in saying that the realization of the scientific dreams of a few hundred will result in power over billions and billions of others.

Lewis is not yet considering whether this is in fact a good or bad thing, he says, but rather painting a clear picture of the final stage of Man’s conquest over Nature:
The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the the last part of nature to surrender to man. The battle will then be won. We shall...then be free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.

There is one requirement for such a result, however: total brainwashing. Otherwise, there will still always be those who resist. I’m also sure that any current idea of “perfect applied psychology” will never remain so for long; currents will shift, and thinking will shift with them.

But Lewis claims that the future which has abandoned the Tao will have two novel features, both involving increased power: the “irresistible scientific technique” of the social conditioners, enabling them to “cut out all posterity in the shape they please,” and, more importantly, the control that these social conditioners will now exercise, since they no longer obey what has been passed down. “Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.” “They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce."

This would seem to me to go against what is written in Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun.” I wonder, can we really escape the Tao? I would submit that we can’t. I guess I just wonder if the pendulum would ever really swing all the way in any one direction and stay there.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Next, we will look at how the Conditioners, as Lewis calls them, might go about choosing a new, artificial Tao.

2 Comments:

  • Bonnie,

    Hooray for C.S. Lewis! Abolition is truly an excellent book. Thanks for your review!

    You might be interested in recent posts on my blog REAL PHYSICS on Lewis's (and others') concept of nature.

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,

    MJ

    By Blogger Lawrence Gage, at 1:11 PM  

  • Thank you, MJ, I will certainly consider your posts.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:12 PM  

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