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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Friday, May 13, 2005

From the qualitative to the quantitative

This is Part VII of a review of The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis. (See Part VI for links to Parts I-V)

Continuing with the notion that something has to be overcome before we can “reduce it to the level of ‘Nature’,” Lewis gives examples of instances in which a “price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture.” (emphases added)

But beyond that loss of innocence, that “discovery that the real world is different from what we expected,” is not the fact that the greatest modern scientists feel sure that the “Natured” (or de-natured, as I would say, but that’s changing Lewis’ definition) objects are nevertheless “wholly real,” it is that the lesser scientists and their followers may think so. “The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.” (Aha. In other words, the ones who are truly smart enough to be great scientists are also smart enough to realize what they are doing when making such artificial abstraction, meaning, there is disregard, or denial, going on among those who refuse to acknowledge it.) The purpose for this abstraction, of course, is that these things may be “conquered.” Yet “every conquest over Nature increases her domain” in that the “wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature.”

“As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.”

In other words, by stripping things of their true nature, of their true identity, and reducing them to mere quantitative substances (Nature), we lose them; we give them up. We do the same with ourselves.

Lewis calls this the “magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.” (emphasis added.)

This is so profound it hurts. It is just a staggeringly cogent illustration of the fact that we simply cannot own what is not ours. If we try to take it and make it our own and use it for our own purposes, we ruin it in the process. I don’t believe that Lewis is saying that we shouldn’t use boards from trees to build our houses, but rather that we should appreciate the seriousness of the charge of stewardship, and respect the board for its true properties and origin. (This is also not to suggest that we hug trees instead of making boards from them. How many tree-huggers really shun all tree products, anyway?) “It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will.”

This is ultimately how a person with a naturalistic philosophical bent must view him- or herself, if he/she is to be completely honest and consistent. And how awful this is -– how demeaning, how disenfranchising, how empty! The only way such a person can find meaning in life is through hedonism. What other purpose could there be for living? “To leave the world a better place than I found it?” How, exactly? By good works? What about all one’s bad works (which are there whether “counted” or not)? The reasonings and justifications simply descend into a pit of contradictions and fallacies. To say that one finds meaning in bettering the lives of humans via “improvements” is to admit to one’s quantitative, not qualitative, view toward one’s own life and the lives of one’s fellows!

“...if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite...dehumanized...”

“We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible.”

The answer? “Only the Tao* provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” Of a tyranny in which people are reduced to quantitative matter to be exploited (in the name of “improvement”), a tyranny of obedience which is really a subservience to manipulation. An obedience which is slavery to some quantitative goal, under the guise of being a qualitative one.

In how many ways do we make our lives quantitative rather than qualitative? In what ways do we think we are being qualitative when in fact we are actually being quantitative? Even as Christians? In what ways do we try to earn brownie points rather than honor the qualities of our Lord and Saviour, and, thereby, our own qualities and the qualities (the Tao) of everything and everyone around us? The implications are far-reaching and staggering. Think about the implications for bioethics, for reproductive- and stem-cell technology. For abortion. For sexuality. For the way we live our lives! I daresay that such introspection and analysis would be revealing for any of us.

Says Lewis, “I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment [referring to Communists, political Democrats of the time, and Fascists]. The methods may at first differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.”

Wolves in sheep’s clothing.

*This is explained in Part I


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