Ten Miles Square


June 03, 2013 11:00 AM The Blind Monkey Theorem, or What Ayn Rand Got Right

By Mark Kleiman

Even a blind monkey, it is said, finds a banana every once in a while.

I was reminded of that bit of wisdom some time ago when Left Blogistan was enjoying itself celebrating the nasty marginalia Ayn Rand wrote in her copy of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. The joke, of course, is that both have become idols of the not-too-bright elements of the American Right, despite the fact that they agreed on roughly nothing.

In general, Rand deserves her followers, while Lewis emphatically does not deserve his. (I can just imagine Lewis’s reaction had he lived to see Ollie North (!) living in a mansion called “Narnia.”) Lewis was a superb writer of persuasive prose (I’d put him in the Orwell class) and, on average, a far clearer and more original thinker than Rand, whose “philosophy” is mostly Nietzsche-and-water. You don’t have to be a Christian to admire the brilliance of Screwtape, or its insight into some aspects of moral psychology and of bureaucratic life.

I live in the Man agerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

Still, Lewis’s version of Christianity – and perhaps even more, his Aristotelianism – involved him in deep, deep hostility to science. You can see that in the Out of the Silent Planet/Perelandra/That Hideous Strength trilogy, where a character into whose mouth Lewis puts the words of J.B.S. Haldane is the leader of a (literally) diabolical conspiracy, with another character clearly based on H.G. Wells as its pompous, clueless front man.

Partly this is just an echo of Berkeley making fun of Newton as a way of getting back at science for proving that the actual world isn’t consistent with what had long been Christian doctrine; partly it’s an expression of the resentment of literary intellectuals toward the prestige enjoyed by scientists, as described by C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures.

But at a deeper level, it has to do with two different approaches to dealing with suffering: the religious view that accepts it as the Divine will and invites sufferers to turn their misery to spiritual benefit and the scientific/technological view that asks how knowledge can be harnessed to the task of reducing the volume of suffering in the world. It would be too harsh to say that Lewis would prefer prayer to medicine as a way of addressing the problem of disease, but “too harsh” is not the same as “inaccurate.” After all, a life saved my medicine – unlike a soul saved by prayer – is not saved for eternity.

More fundamentally still, there is an almost ineradicable tension between the stance that seeks for truth in the traditions of the past and the stance that seeks it in new inquiry, which Lewis exemplifies by “digging up and mutilating the dead.” (See Popper’s “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition” for an attempt to reconcile traditionalism with critical thought.) Lewis’s preference for manuscripts over laboratories came from the same roots as his commitment to revealed religion.

Below are some of the passages on which Rand commented rudely. Her comments aren’t worth paying attention to, but the passages themselves say much ruder things about Lewis than Rand could ever have managed to say.

I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scien­tific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people
There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who fol­lows the triumphal car.
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the prac­tice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious - such as digging up and mutilating the dead.
If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’ In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things pos­sible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.
The serious magical endeavour and the serious scien­tific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.

Note the elision from Faust’s desire for personal power to Bacon’s desire to create knowledge that would be useful to humankind. As to goals, what Lewis says is half-true: Jenner didn’t especially want to understand smallpox; he just wanted to prevent it. (Galileo and Newton, whom Lewis doesn’t mention, were in a different business.) But if Lewis believed that preventing smallpox was a good thing, he somehow neglected to say so.

My purpose here is not to condemn Lewis; I have learned much and had great pleasure from reading his books. A non-Christian who wants to grok what Christianity is about could do much worse than Mere Christianity plus The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But Lewis’s anti-scientific and anti-technological bias comes as part of the package, and Rand wasn’t wrong to call him out on it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.


  • Pierre Corneille on June 05, 2013 7:43 AM:

    I don't have much to argue about when it comes to your interpretation of the long passage you cite toward the end of your post. But I don't see Lewis's science fiction trilogy to be anti-science so much as it is "anti-things done in the name of science," with an added tinge of anti-academia, especially in That Hideous Strength. Of course, I suppose the fact that the people doing bad things in all three books are scientists and not non-scientists can be interpreted as somewhat "anti-science." So you'd have a point there.

  • Kal Lis on June 05, 2013 10:37 AM:

    One minor aside, I find it interesting that J.K. Rowling seems to have paraphrased Lewis's thought when she has Hermione Granger call electronics "substitutes for magic" in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. Given Rowling's popularity, one wonders how many accept at least a wisp of the science equals magic idea.

  • Rick B on June 06, 2013 12:14 AM:

    I wonder what Lewis would have thought of Clark's third law "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    I wonder how Lewis would have responded to the books The Storytelling Anima: How Stories Make Us Human and the discussion of how language creates the human cognitive abilities in "ouder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning?

    Put those together with social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley's theory called "the Looking Glass Self" and George Herbert Mead's Symbolic Interactionism and you have a comprehensive explanation of what it means to be human within human society.

    The problem (and advantage) of stories is that they have no real way of limiting themselves to what reality requires. Religion itself is a cultural phenomenon based on the traditional stories of a given culture. Any review of the Old Testament (and of Greek "Homer") demonstrates that. The sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that very clearly. "God" or gods are symbolic personifications which attribute the rational working out of the interactions of the universe to some sentient being, but at its essence any god is just a story-telling device for attributing the rational way the universe works to some human-like decision-making entity.

    Such an attribution is required in storytelling because of the "Bounded Rationality" of the human mind. The logic of narrative requires such godlike entities to "explain" events which are in fact based on facts and logic which are simply not available. Every story must have a beginning, middle and end or it is simply unsatisfactory. The human mind will create such "satisfactory" story-telling explanations.

    I'd suggest that Lewis is a storyteller who resists putting limitations and boundaries on his stories. Science is a set of human tricks and techniques used to build models of the universe which are limited to the facts humans are capable of sensing. The two disciplines do very different things. They can be placed in conflict only if you do not know what each discipline is intended to do for humans.