The Fragile Foundation of Our Unculture

Book Review: The Restoration of Man, C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism, by Michael D. Aeschliman

We are taught — it is drilled into us in the media constantly, and taught unrelentingly in schools — that there are no virtues and vices, only values.

And yet there has never been more hate directed at people with different values. But if all values are equal, how can this be?

Logical inconsistencies are everywhere. We never stop hearing about the latest technological breakthrough that will finally make our lives perfect. But for every problem it solves, technology seems to create ten new ones.

As Michael D. Aeschliman points out in his book as he discusses the philosophy of C. S. Lewis,

“Science is a good servant but a bad master, a good method for investigating and manipulating the material world, but no method at all for deciding what to do with the knowledge acquired thereby.”

There you have it: The fragile foundation of our unculture in a nutshell. It doesn’t matter what is being creating, as long as it’s created at maximum speed. The latest is the greatest. As science advances, so does humanity. Science is supreme; if you can’t see it and measure it, it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as morality. If it feels good, do it. Science exists to make our lives easier, to give us more pleasure, however we define pleasure to be, and that’s all there is to it.

Aeschliman’s book, ostensibly about C.S. Lewis, is really, I think, about the whole tradition of Western thought so well represented by Lewis, a tradition that rips to shreds the notion that science can be the foundation of culture and individual existence. Aeschliman quotes extensively from great thinkers past and present, and provides a very clear argument that anybody can follow. An excerpt worth pondering:

“This is the core of rational Theism — Platonist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim — that a person can apprehend the Good and try to live by it. It does not bring philosophy, science, literature, and the other realms of human culture and activity grinding to a halt with a grand climactic resolution of all problems. We see through a glass darkly, but we do see enough to fare forward — the ‘we’ including every person of good will and honest reflection. Faith in the rational Good stands firm between the extremes of premature closure and narrow-mindedness on the one hand, and interminable indecision and ‘broad-mindedness’ on the other.”

Stated more directly, the author says:

“There is a transcendent pattern of truth, beauty and goodness which the human person by means of rational effort or inspiration is capable of knowing and experiencing.”

If these statements are true, then all “values” are not equal, nor is the goodness or badness of values determined by humans. Instead, the goodness or badness of values exists outside of ourselves, and it is our job to discern the truth, or get as close to it as we can.

Here is the argument stated more directly still, with no words at all.  Look at this painting:

The painting, much admired by Tolstoy, is What is Truth? by Nikolai Ge. Pontius Pilate exudes confidence. He represents the relativistic, material culture of Rome that was in full control at the time. He mocks the idea of objective truth (“What is truth?”) — while he is staring Truth right in the face!  Pilate, like many cultural elites today, thought it was within his power to destroy the idea of objective truth, though this arrogant belief was decisively disproved three days later.  Pilate thinks the world is his oyster, but he should really clam up and pay attention. Good advice for us all.

But to return to the book, the worldview represented by Pilate is dangerous in the extreme — not to truth, which it cannot alter, but to us. Science without purpose gives us sweatshops, slavery, concentration camps, weapons of mass destruction, poisoned food and a scorched earth. We can easily become lab rats in someone else’s experiment, as anyone who has read Elie Wiesel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn could tell you.

Aeschliman is quick to point out that scientists themselves, by and large, are not the cause of such problems — many of the world’s most accomplished scientists have, in fact, been stout proponents of science in the service of a greater good.  The real culprit, the driver of scientism, is gotten at it in this passage:

“The triumph of personal desire over objective validity as a standard of behavior creates what is tantamount to a moral vacuum into which will rush disordered passions bloated in their abnormal freedom from constraint …”

This observation goes a long way toward explaining why the public discourse is so heavy on emotion and so light on logic. What is the point of arguing … when there is no point? Sound bites, memes, emoticons, video clips and tweets sway people emotionally. It takes much more effort to build a consistent set of beliefs that harmonize science and purpose, that instill a sense of order and consistency in the world and also in our individual minds and souls. Philosophers such as C.S. Lewis have been leading the way in this effort since before the time of Plato, and continue to soldier on despite cultural obstacles of unprecedented magnitude. If you read The Restoration of Man, you’ll understand why you should be paying attention.

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