C.S. Lewis, the celebrated Oxford don who created Narnia and Mere Christianity, is best known as a storyteller, scholar, and defender of Christianity. But the new book and documentary The Magician’s Twin makes the case that Lewis had a lot to say about the growing impact of science on society.
We recently caught up with John West, editor of the book and director of the film, to talk about Lewis, science, and scientism. Formerly a professor at Seattle Pacific University, Dr. West is currently a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His previous books include The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, The Politics of Revelation and Reason, and Darwin Day in America. A free chapter on “C.S. Lewis and Intelligent Design” from The Magician’s Twin book is available for download, while the film version can be viewed on YouTube.
Where did you get the title for the book and film, “The Magician’s Twin”?
From a comment Lewis made in his book The Abolition of Man where he claimed that “[t]he serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins.”
Science and magic are twins? Doesn’t that seem like a stretch?
I think Lewis was trying to be intentionally provocative. But I think he had a point. Like magic, science can be treated by some people as tantamount to a religion. Like magic, science can spawn gullibility among non-scientists, when they shut down their critical faculties and simply accept certain claims because they think “science says so.” And like magic, science can be a quest for power over the world. Lewis was particularly concerned about that last point: Science as power. He understood the power of science to be used for good. But he also realized science could be twisted for evil. In his own time, he saw that happening in places like Germany and his own country with the eugenics movement, the effort to breed a better human race based on Darwinian principles.
Did Lewis pay much attention to science?
I think people might be surprised at just how interested Lewis was in science, especially its relationship to faith, ethics, and society as a whole. Lewis’s personal library included more than three dozen books and pamphlets on scientific topics, many of them dealing with evolution. Several of these books were marked up with underlining and annotations, including Lewis’s copy of Charles Darwin’s Autobiography. Lewis’s interest in science shows up throughout his writings. He ultimately wrote nine books, nearly 30 essays, and several poems that explored science and its cultural impact. In fact, the last book he wrote, The Discarded Image, critically examined the nature of scientific revolutions, especially the Darwinian revolution in biology.
Was Lewis anti-science?
Absolutely not. Lewis appreciated the insights of modern science. What he opposed was scientism, the misguided belief that science gives us our only real knowledge of the world, and the corollary that because scientists are the ones with true knowledge, they should have the right to rule over society, ethics, and religion.
Are Lewis’s concerns about scientism outdated?
Rather than being outdated, I think Lewis was prophetic. By the end of his life, he worried about growing efforts to replace democracy with “scientocracy,” a society ruled by those claiming to speak for science. Lewis thought these efforts were subversive of the principles of a free society. In The Magician’s Twin book and film, we explore just how relevant Lewis’s warnings are for today, when the banner of “science” is being increasingly misused to attack people of faith. If you raise questions about embryonic stem cell research, you are attacked as “anti-science.” If you oppose eugenic abortions, you are supposed to be “anti-science.” If you criticize healthcare mandates on religious organizations, you are told that “science” demands the mandates. Some climate scientists even argue that we need to suspend democracy in order to make progress on climate change; other scientists and philosophers among the “transhumanist” movement argue that we need to evolve a new human race through genetic engineering. Lewis was amazingly astute in foreseeing the dangers we are now facing from proponents of scientism.
What would C.S. Lewis say about comments made by Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and other popular spokespeople for science who assert that the Bible contradicts science or that science proves atheism?
Lewis didn’t think the Bible was a science textbook, so he wouldn’t have aligned himself with efforts to try to read the Bible scientifically. However, he had plenty to say about scientists (and those purporting to speak for science) who insist that science proves atheism. Lewis thought the claims of these scientific atheists during his own day were nonsense, and he even satirized their claims in his science fiction novels Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. So I have no doubt that he would skewer similar claims being made today by Dawkins, Hawking, and company.
One of the hot-button topics you deal with in the book and film is Lewis’s view of evolution. Today Lewis is often described by Francis Collins and other theistic proponents of evolutionary theory as a big supporter of evolution. Is that right?
It’s important to define your terms. “Evolution” can mean many different things. As I write in The Magician’s Twin, Lewis addressed three kinds of evolution in his writings: evolution as common descent (the idea that we came from one common ancestor); evolution as a Darwinian process of unguided natural selection acting on random variations; and evolution as a social philosophy that explained away religion, morality, and human dignity. Lewis didn’t object in principle to evolution as common descent (evolution #1), although he placed some important limits on the idea, and by the end of his life he grew more skeptical of this claim due to things like the Piltdown Man hoax. At the same time, Lewis clearly rejected unguided natural selection (evolution #2) as sufficient to produce both the human mind and the kinds of exquisite functional complexity we see throughout nature. In fact, he believed that Darwinian accounts of the development of human reason undermined our confidence in reason. Lewis also rejected Darwinism as a social philosophy (evolution #3), especially efforts to promote eugenics (trying to breed a superior race) and efforts to debunk morality as merely the product of survival of the fittest.
Did Lewis think there was any positive connection between Christianity and science?
In his book Miracles Lewis argued that the Judeo-Christian worldview, far from being anti-science, helped inspire modern science. In Lewis’s words: “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” Lewis also discussed in The Discarded Image how the Christian Middle Ages helped give birth to scientific reasoning.
What surprising things will people learn from The Magician’s Twin?
I think people might be surprised at how much Lewis actually said about science in his writings. I also think they may be intrigued to learn about the notes and underlining Lewis did in the science books in his personal library. As far as I know, our book is the first place scholars have reported on those unpublished comments. We also cite some previously unpublished letters by Lewis. Another surprise may be the story of how Lewis came to have serious doubts about unguided Darwinian evolution while still an atheist while recovering from shrapnel wounds during World War One.
Who are the experts featured in the film version of The Magician’s Twin?
We were fortunate to film interviews with several of the contributors to The Magician’s Twin book, including Michael Aeschliman, author of C.S. Lewis and the Restitution of Man; Victor Reppert, author of C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea; Jay Richards, co-author of The Privileged Planet; and Jack Collins, author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? We also were able to talk with the wonderful Angus Menuge, who is not in the book, but who edited another great collection, C.S. Lewis, Lightbearer in the Shadowlands.
What was the most enjoyable part of The Magician’s Twin documentary to work on?
The segment about evolutionary religion from H.G. Wells to Richard Dawkins was a hoot. We set the visuals to hyped-up gospel music, and I think the sequence makes the point effectively about how some people treat evolution as if it were a religion. I also enjoyed being able to explore past predictions about the future. We were able to find clips from old newsreels purporting to show scientific utopias of the future, including a clip from Disneyland in the 1950s.
What’s up next?
The Magician’s Twin book is out, but only the first part of the documentary is available, which explores Lewis’s views on scientism and society. Right now we are in the midst of editing the next two installments. Part two will focus on Lewis’s view of evolution and be released early in 2013. Part three will explore Lewis’s journey from the “argument from undesign” to intelligent design. All three parts will be available for free at our C.S. Lewis channel on YouTube.