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The Abolition of Man: Reflections on Reductionism with Special Reference to Eugenics

By Peter S. Williams*

    “What will happen when our technological achievements give us Promethean powers— powers once thought the exclusive province of God—just when most of those in charge have ceased to believe in anyone or anything like God?”
    —George Gilder and Jay W. Richards

C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (first published in 1943) is one of the most prescient books of the twentieth century, ranking alongside Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in its continuing relevance to life in the twenty-first century. Indeed, Lewis’ thinking is all too relevant to spend this paper merely appreciating his thoughts and arguments. The best way to appreciate Lewis’ thinking is to apply it to the contemporary world, thinking through Lewis rather than merely thinking about him. Therefore, this paper will build upon Lewis’ insights into reductionism and “the abolition of man” reductionism threatens as a vantage point from which to critique the contemporary debate about genetic engineering as exemplified by the writings of Gregory Stock and Francis Fukuyama.

The Astonishing Hypothesis

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the helical shape of the DNA molecule, gives voice to the culturally dominant philosophy of our age when he advances an Astonishing Hypothesis:

    your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their assorted molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[ii]

Crick’s hypothesis is advanced in the name of science and in opposition to the religious view “that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one’s bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being.”[iii] But can science disprove the existence of the human spirit (which, by definition, is scientifically un-detectable in itself)? And can it do so without having to pay any attention to the queen of sciences, theology, or her handmaiden philosophy? After all, how much store should we set by a hypothesis advanced by nothing but a pack of neurons?

Crick’s hypothesis is reductionistic in that it offers an explanation of what it is to be a human being that reduces human nature from the traditional but complex belief that man is a purposefully constructed combination of mind and matter made by God in the image of God, to the untraditional but simple belief that man is, like everything else, “nothing but” an unintended arrangement of matter. The driving force behind Crick’s reductionism is the assumption of a naturalistic worldview that only admits one explanatory category (the material) to which all reality must therefore be reduced. As C.S. Lewis explains in Miracles:

    What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t get behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord. Inside that total system every particular event (such as your sitting reading this book) happens because some other event has happened… The Naturalist believes that a great process… exists ‘on its own’ in space and time, and that nothing else exists – what we call particular things and events being only the parts into which we analyse the great process or the shapes which that process takes at given moments and given points in space. This single, total reality he calls Nature.[iv]

In advancing his astonishingly reductionistic hypothesis, Crick is facilitating the terminal chapter of what Lewis described as “that great movement of internalisation and that consequent aggrandisement of man and dissection of the outer universe, in which the psychological history of the West has so largely consisted.”[v] It is more important than ever to understand that Crick’s widely shared ‘astonishing hypothesis’ is the inevitable result of an intellectual habit that defines metaphysical naturalism, that this habit is a bad habit, and that the continuation of this bad habit promises to close the book on mankind for good. Lewis warned that this habit, where reductionism is applied to values (“values are nothing but subjective beliefs or feelings in the human mind”) and then to human nature (“the human mind is nothing but neurons”), has predictable results: “The Abolition of Man.”

The Habit of Reductionism

Lewis examined reductionism in “The Empty Universe”[vi]:

    At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object.[vii]

This is what Lewis means by “that great movement of internalisation and that consequent aggrandisement of man and dissection of the outer universe…”[viii] However, said Lewis, the habit of reductionism doesn’t stop with the outer universe: “The same method which emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls”… to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to trees.”[ix] This is precisely the announcement made by Crick. The problem with pushing reductionism to this, its logical terminus, is that it conceptually reduces away the reducers:

    While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as “things in our own mind”. Apparently we had no mind of the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing…[x]

Lewis thinks this is a common sort of mistake:

As Paul K. Moser and David Yandell warn, naturalists, who begin with an a priori commitment to explaining everything in terms of material reality: “must attend to the risk of neglecting genuine data and truths resistant to a monistic explanatory scheme. What monism gains by unification of multiplicity in data may be lost by neglect of genuine recalcitrant data. Explanatory unity may be a virtue, but it will be virtuous only if pertinent truths and data are not excluded for the sake of theoretical simplicity.”[xii] Reductionism is a bad habit because the legitimate search for the simplest unifying explanation is pursued with such dogmatic commitment that the demand for explanatory simplicity outweighs the primary requirement that explanations must be adequate to the nature of the data they are meant to explain. The facts are reduced to fit a single, simplistic, inadequate explanation, rather than explanation being expanded or multiplied to fit the facts. When the demand for simplicity outweighs the demand for adequacy, explanation becomes “explaining-away” as data is dismissed as being “only apparent” on the grounds that if it were genuine it wouldn’t fit the explanation! Crick’s hypothesis is truly “astonishing,” because it really doesn’t seem to fit the data of human nature. But Crick’s naturalistically motivated reductionistic habit naturally takes precedence over the inconvenient data of everyday experience.

The Abolition of Man: Conceptual and Actual

The Abolition of Man opens with Lewis observing how the reductionistic habit naturally treats all talk of values as subjective (dependent upon the subject) rather than objective (independent of the subject). The naturalist’s view of reality has no room for objective values, as Peter Kreeft explains: “Modernity, confining itself to the scientific method as the model for knowing reality, deliberately induces in itself what Lewis calls a dog-like state of mind, full of facts and empty of significance.”[xiii] Whereas “The Empty Universe” traces the internal logic of reductionism to the conceptual abolition of man (pointing out a philosophical problem with reductionism, a problem elaborated upon by Lewis elsewhere as his anti-naturalism “argument from reason”The Abolition of Man traces the internal logic of reductionism from the present abolition of objective values to the actual abolition of man (pointing out a practicalproblem with reductionism). Kreeft explains the structure of Lewis’ argument:

    Part I, “Men without Chests”, points out that our educational systems are already producing… the “men without chests”, men without operative organs of apprehending objective values, or natural law, or the Tao… After part 2 defines and defends the Tao, part 3 widens our focus by asking the question: Into what kind of society is this new education now being inserted? What is the social context of the new moral Subjectivism? The answer is: a society with a new summum bonum: applied science… or “Man’s conquest of Nature.” …The first chapter (“Men without chests”) is the negative one; the second (“The Way”) is the positive one, and the third (“The Abolition of Man”) is the prophetic one. The first is the present, the second is the past, and the third is the future, if we keep sliding down the slippery slope.[xv]

Men Without Chests

In “Men without chests” (which Charles Colson calls his favourite essay of all time[xvi]) Lewis relates how an English textbook he calls The Green Book, and whose authors he names “Gaius” and “Titus”, discusses a story about the poet Coleridge and a waterfall. Two tourists were present besides Coleridge, one called the waterfall “sublime”, the other said it was “pretty.” Coleridge “mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust.”[xvii]Gaius and Titus comment:

    When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.

This confusion, say Gaius and Titus, is common: “We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.”[xix] Hence, Lewis observes, beauty is reduced to nothing but subjective feelings: “No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only.”[xx]

Gaius and Titus have adopted (and propagated under the guise of English education) a reductionistic philosophy of value represented by Scottish Philosopher David Hume, who argued that:

    All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always right, whenever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, a real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard… Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.[xxi]

According to Hume: “beauty is nothing but a form which produces pleasure.”[xxii] If masochistic acts produce in me a feeling of aesthetic pleasure, then masochism is “beautiful,” for me. Beauty depends upon my pleasure, and is thus relative to me as a subject. No aesthetic judgements can be false, because no one can be mistaken about their own subjective aesthetic reactions: “Sublimity… does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind.”[xxiii] The end result of this ugly view of beauty, as Lewis saw, is that “the emotion, thus considered by itself, cannot be either in agreement or disagreement with reason… the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront each other, and no rapprochement is possible.”[xxiv]

The particular example of values reduction highlighted by Lewis concerns aesthetic value, but the same points apply to moral value. In each case, what the reductionistic habit of naturalism rejects is belief in that Natural Law which the Chinese called the Tao (the Way): “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[xxv]

The Way

The theory of value adopted by Hume, Gaius and Titus looks very much like putting the cart before the horse. After all, aesthetic value, like moral value, is experienced as a reality beyond ourselves that impinges upon us. Which should we trust, our experience of beauty, or the subjective theory of beauty? We can’t do both: “when we call a sunset beautiful,” admits Anthony O’Hear, “we unreflectively take ourselves to be speaking of the sunset and its properties. We do not, as Hume [and his followers] maintain, take ourselves to be speaking about nothing in the object, or to be merely gilding and staining it with projected sentiment…”[xxvi] As Lewis’ contemporary, C.E.M. Joad wrote: “Beauty belongs, prima facie, to things. It is not emotions which are beautiful but that which arouses them.”[xxvii] This objective view of beauty represents the common sense presumption of human tradition, as Philosopher E.R. Emmet (himself a subjectivist) admitted:

    There is not much doubt that the view [of beauty] that has been most strongly held by philosophers in the past, from Plato onwards, has been the objective one—that is that beauty in a sense is something that is there, that whether an object is beautiful or not is a matter of fact and not a matter of opinion or taste, and that value judgements about beauty are true or false…[xxviii]

Lewis begins his counterattack on the subjectivism adopted and propagated by Gaius and Titus by pointing out that: “the man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings… The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings, but feelings of veneration.”[xxix] The correct “translation” of the tourist’s assertion, if a translation must take place, would be “I have humble feelings.”[xxx] Otherwise we would end up translating assertions such as “You are contemptible,” as “I have contemptible feelings,” which is ludicrous. The subjectivist confuses their pleasurable experience of beauty with the beauty that they experience as pleasurable. While the pleasurable experience of beauty is obviously “in the eye (or ear) of the beholder” it hardly follows that the beauty thus experienced is similarly subjective. As Douglas Groothuis says, “Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder.”[xxxi]

If a “humble” feeling of “veneration” prompts Coleridge’s agreement that the waterfall is sublime, we may ask whether that feeling was an appropriate response to its object. In other words, aesthetic delight may be appropriate or inappropriate relative not to the person doing the appreciating, but to the nature of the object being appreciated. Lewis explained:

    Until quite modern times all… men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval… The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more “just” or “appropriate” to it than others… the man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.[xxxii]

Lewis draws upon Augustine’s definition of virtue as ordo amoris, appropriate love: “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”[xxxiii] Hence: “because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason… or out of harmony with reason…”[xxxiv] As G.E. Moore argued: “the beautiful should be defined as that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself… the question whether it is truly beautiful or not, depends upon the objective question whether the whole in question is or is not truly good.”[xxxv] Alvin Plantinga explains: “To grasp the beauty of a Mozart D Minor piano concerto is to grasp something that is objectively there; it is to appreciate what is objectively worthy of appreciation.”[xxxvi] Or as Lewis wrote: “To say that the cateract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion…”[xxxvii]

Since ancient times, it has been recognized that aesthetics and ethics go hand in hand because goodness is a beautiful thing and beauty is a good thing. Therefore, if moral values are objective, it would be reasonable to think that aesthetic values are likewise objective. As Anthony O’Hear argues: “so central a feature of human life as aesthetic appreciation could not be locally insulated from standards with wider application.”[xxxviii] J.L. Mackie made it clear that his rejection of objective values included not only moral goodness, but ‘non-moral values, notably aesthetic ones, beauty and various kinds of aesthetic merit,”[xxxix] because “clearly much the same considerations apply to aesthetic and to moral values, and there would be at least some initial implausibility in a view that gave the one a different status from the other.”[xl] Hence we can argue for the objectivity of beauty by analogy with the objectivity of morality.

The commander of the Belsen concentration camp, observing the Holocaust, may have found himself aesthetically pleased by what he perceived—somewhat, we may suppose, after the manner of a pyromaniac. However, most people would agree that the Holocaust was not a beautiful event, because (to put it mildly) it was not a good thing. Indeed, most people would agree that helpless and innocent victims being systematically slaughtered must be an ugly affair, because it is an evil affair.

Just as Hitler may reasonably be supposed to have approved of the Holocaust as a good thing, while yet leaving us with the intuition that the Holocaust was a bad thing, so the fact that someone finds something “pleasing when perceived” leaves us with the intuition that this fact alone cannot settle the matter of whether the thing in question really is beautiful or not. The concept of aesthetic value is inextricably linked to the concept of moral value, and the objectivity of the one guarantees the objectivity of the other. To return to the Belsen commander’s supposed approval of the Holocaust, I suggest that, whether moral or aesthetic, his approval says little about the truth of his assertion that the Holocaust is good or beautiful. While aesthetic utterances certainly have a subjective aspect, assertions of the type “That waterfall is sublime” or “This Holocaust is beautiful” are matters of objective truth or falsehood (the first assertion was probably true, while the second is certainly false). This seems to me to be the most natural analysis of such utterances, an analysis I do not believe we should reduce or attempt to “explain away,” One can see that explaining away the ugliness of the Holocaust by reducing it to nothing but a subjective feeling of revulsion in certain minds would stultify the attempt to rationally condemn any human act of any nature whatsoever. The practical consequences that would follow from adopting such a Humean subjectivism could be quite as momentous as the moral consequences.

How, it is asked, can beauty be an objective quality when people obviously disagree about what is and is not beautiful? This objection to the objectivity of aesthetic value parallels the common objection advanced against objective moral values, that such values must be subjective because different people hold different moral beliefs. However, the moral objectivist may accept that different people and cultures have different moral beliefs, without needing to capitulate over the existence of objective moral values. If the objection from differing opinions can be met with regards to moral value, then parallel responses will prevail in the case of aesthetic value. Lewis noted: “some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But this is not true… if anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans., what will really strike him will be how very like that are to each other and to our own.”[xli] Some people may simply be wrong about what the standard of morality actually is “just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune”[xlii]; the fact that not everyone agrees about what is right and wrong does not prove that there is no ultimate standard. Besides, we are not here concerned with the recognition of particular ethical rules, but with the general and objective distinction between right and wrong.

Indeed, that people disagree about ethics indicates, not that moral values are subjective, but that they are objective. People disagree about matters of objective truth, such as whether moral values are objective or not. When it comes to subjective truths, people don’t disagree. Unless you had reason to think I was teasing or lying, you would not disagree with my claim to prefer Pepsi to Coca Cola. I subjectively prefer Pepsi Cola to Coca Cola. My claim is not the Pepsi Cola is objectively better than Coca Cola, but simply that I, subjectively, prefer it. It would be very odd to disagree we me about this claim! The fact that people disagree somewhat about moral values is therefore actually evidence that moral values are objective. To the parallel argument advanced against the objectivity of beauty we can make parallel responses: Differing subjective opinions about aesthetic matters does not prove that aesthetic assertions have no objective content. No one disagree with the assertion that rainbows are beautiful, and says instead that they are ugly! In other words, aesthetic disagreement is not all that widespread or divergent. Moreover, disagreement about aesthetics indicates not subjectivity, but objectivity.