C. S. Lewis: Science and Scientism

By Henry F. Schaefer III*


The origin of this lecture, first given at the University of Tennessee, was with my friend Dr. Terry Morrison. Terry has a Ph.D. in chemistry and was a faculty member at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, reaching the rank of full professor in 1972. However, in 1974 Dr. Morrison left Butler University to (eventually) become Director of Faculty Ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. One of Terry’s many activities in recent years has been to organize an annual C. S. Lecture at the University of Tennessee. Terry asked me to give the Fifteenth Annual C. S. Lewis Lecture, and the event took place on April 7, 1997.

Furthermore, Dr. Morrison had the temerity to assign a particular title for my C. S. Lewis Lecture, namely the title given here. I protested that this was a subject matter with which I was not terribly familiar. Terry responded glibly “Not to worry. I can give you a couple of unpublished dissertations that will get you started. I’m sure you can take it from there.” One of these dissertations, the 1971 Texas A&M Master’s Thesis of Faye Ann Crowell, turned out to be extremely helpful to me, and I will shamelessly use material from her work. To my knowledge, Faye Ann Crowell’s thesis has not been published, and I hope that my lecture has given, and this essay will give, due attention to what I consider an excellent scholarly work. The title of Faye Ann Crowell’s thesis is “The Theme of the Harmful Effects of Science in the Works of C. S. Lewis.”

A short book with a title somewhat similar to the present is Michael D. Aeschliman’s The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Although the titles are related, the concerns of my essay are different from those of Aeschliman. As an active scientist with a vigorous research group of 30 people, it is probably inevitable that I would not take as ambiguous an attitude toward science as Aeschliman. I have a strong love—indeed, passion – for science, and have devoted my entire professional career to its pursuit. Perhaps it should be added that the present essay has changed a bit since its original presentation as a lecture in April 1997. This is largely because in August of the same year I began to teach a freshman seminar at the University of Georgia in which Lewis’s two books Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength are required reading. Although I had read the entire Lewis space trilogy (of which these are the first and last books, respectively), I am now much more familiar with the two books, having made up examinations on them for each of the past five years.

This is not the place for an introduction to the writings of C. S. Lewis. For those desiring such an introduction, I will note that I have thoroughly enjoyed Walter Hooper’s 940 page C. S. Lewis Companion & Guide, published in 1996 by HarperCollins. Lewis spent most of his life as a student and faculty member at Oxford University. For the last eight years of his career, he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. Lewis is considered the most widely read and influential serious Christian writer of the 20th century. Although I would disagree with him on many smaller points, I find Lewis’s writing to be largely (OK, I really zone out on the last 30 pages of Till We Have Faces) very insightful and am happy to be a member of his fan club. I also consider C. S. Lewis to be the best example we have for constructive engagement by a Christian scholar with the secular world of the university.

What are the questions we hope to address in this essay? First and foremost, what did C. S. Lewis think about science and scientism? Second, is scientism alive and well in the twenty-first century? When this material is presented as a stand-alone lecture, a third question is addressed, namely, do nearly all scientists believe in scientism? In the present book, however, that third question is treated in the introductory chapter, entitled “Scientists and their Gods.”

What Was the Attitude of C. S. Lewis toward Science and Scientism?

Let us begin with Webster’s standard dictionary definition of the word “scientism.” C. S. Lewis liked to use this word, but it is unfortunately less frequently employed today than was the case 50 years ago. Webster’s first definition of scientism is “the methods, mental attitude, doctrines, or modes of expression characteristic or held to be characteristic of scientists.” This is not the sense in which C. S. Lewis uses the word. Webster’s second definition fits Lewis’s usage well; “a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences: a belief that only such methods can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge.”

It is well to note that at least two other terms carry meanings related to the one Lewis intended by the word scientism. The first is “logical positivism,” a system of thought that became popular in the 1920s. The second is “reductionism,” a more recently accepted word that is becoming rather common, particularly among philosophers of science. Taken to the limit, reductionism claims that human behavior is simply a matter of neurons firing in the brain, and the latter can be further reduced to atomic physics. In such a purely reductionist worldview, human responsibility does not exist. Although popular in three different eras, the three terms scientism, logical positivism, and reductionism are sufficiently closely related that distinctions may be subtle. They represent a belief system toward which C. S. Lewis was not receptive. As a more specific example of scientism, consider my relationship with my wife, to whom I have been happily married for more than 30 years. Scientism tells us that if one could make enough accurate scientific measurements on myself and on my wife, the resulting analysis would fully explain my strong attraction to her in preference to all others.

Although C. S. Lewis had no training in the sciences, he conceded that his atheism, up to the age of 30, was due to his false perception of the sciences. This is stated perhaps most clearly in Lewis’s autobiography of his early life, entitled Surprised by Joy. Therein, Lewis writes “You will understand that my (atheism) was inevitably based on what I believed to be the findings of the sciences; and those findings, not being a scientist, I had to take on trust—in fact, on authority.” In other words, some authority figure had told him that science had disproved God, and Lewis unquestioningly believed that person.

In my opinion, Lewis’s views on science and scientism are expressed most effectively in his space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938; Perelandra, appearing in 1943; and the concluding That Hideous Strength, produced in 1945. Although some would disagree, I consider That Hideous Strength to be Lewis’s masterpiece of fiction. I concede that the juxtaposition of the scientism theme with Lewis’s take on the 1500-year-old King Arthur/Merlin legend can be a bit confusing on first read. However, the second time through (Lewis was convinced every good book was more enjoyable upon a second reading, and I concur), the two threads fall perfectly into place. In his May 21, 1946 review in the New York Times, Orville Prescott hits the nail on the head in stating: “That Hideous Strength is a parable (concerning) the degeneration of man which inevitably follows a gross and slavish scientific materialism which excludes all idealistic, ethical and religious values.”

Faye Ann Crowell’s summary statement (Texas A&M Master’s Thesis, 1971) is equally perceptive: “C. S. Lewis feared what might be done to all nature and especially to mankind if scientific knowledge were to be applied by the power of government without the restraints of traditional values. These fears are presented dramatically in the space novels. To Lewis the possibility was great that men would not survive as men.”

Lewis’s writings have been quite incorrectly viewed by some as trenchantly anti-science. For example, Philip Deasy wrote in 1958 (“God, Space, and C. S. Lewis, Commonweal, page 422, July 25) that the “total and unrelenting attack on science was for many readers . . . . . an insuperable stumbling block.” It is difficult for me to believe that Deasy read That Hideous Strength carefully. The hero of the early part of the novel is William Hingest, affectionately called “Bill the Blizzard” in admiration of his formidable intellect. Dr. Hingest is a physical chemist (a noble profession!) and the only fellow of Bracton College with an international scholarly reputation. Although Hingest is most regrettably murdered about a fifth of the way through That Hideous Strength, he is the only character at that stage of the book to resist the scientism that C. S. Lewis so opposes.

Faye Ann Crowell clearly recognized the truth of the matter in stating “Many writers have referred to elements in the (space) trilogy which they think show that Lewis was completely opposed to science, but those who knew him personally and/or who have made the most detailed studies of his works—Chad Walsh, Clyde Kilby, Richard Cunningham, and William Luther White—have insisted that it was not science which Lewis was attacking but certain ideas held by people usually not scientists.”

Chad Walsh, author of the first book-length study of Lewis’s works and ideas, published C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics in 1949. From his personal conversations with Lewis, Chad Walsh concluded quite correctly that Lewis “had noticed that the ‘pure sciences’ seem to have no dehumanizing effect on those who study them, but that the closer a science approaches to human affairs the more it tends to strip its specialists of their humanity; sociologists and psychologists are in greater peril than chemists and mathematicians.”

The main character of the science fiction trilogy (1938, 1943, 1945), the hero Elwin Ransom, is a theist who embraces the values of pity, kindness, honesty, and respect for individuals. In striking contrast, the villain Professor Weston in the first two novels (he is killed by Ransom in Perelandra after a Herculean struggle) is a brilliant physicist who believes there are no absolute truths. Weston is willing to sacrifice anyone or anything to his goal of propagating human life into other parts of the universe. In the third novel, That Hideous Strength, the leaders of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE) exhibit the ruthless disregard for people that Lewis feared would begin to appear in those who rejected Christian values.

The fictitious Elwin Ransom is a Cambridge University faculty member, and most particularly a philologist. Philology is commonly defined as the study of literature that includes or may include grammar, criticism, literary history, language history, systems of writing, and anything else that is relevant to literature or to language as used in literature. However, as pointed out by Thomas Lessl, philology is much more influenced by science than is literature. Some historical implications seem inevitable, as Lewis’s close friend J. R. R. Tolkien was a philologist. In Lewis’s own academic specialization, literary studies, philology was disdained by many.

Faye Ann Crowell’s analysis picks up on Ransom’s activities beginning in the second chapter of Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of the space trilogy. She notes that the partially drugged Elwin Ransom hears a conversation which reflects both Dick Devine’s selfishness and his lack of concern for life, and Professor Weston’s lack of compassion as well as his zeal for wrong goals. Weston is perfectly willing to sacrifice a mentally retarded boy because he was “incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.” The physicist does not like the idea of kidnapping Ransom (for the journey to Mars) because he is “human.” Conceding the latter, Weston argues with himself that Ransom is “only an individual, and probably a quite useless one.” Weston had in Chapter I dismissed Ransom’s work in philology as “unscientific tomfoolery” which was “wasting money that ought to go to (scientific) research.”

In defending his view of planetary colonization, the physicist villain Weston tells Ransom “You cannot be so small-minded as to think that the right or the life of an individual or of a million individuals are of the slightest importance in comparison with this.” Lewis’s hero the philologist Ransom in turn expresses his contempt for “the off chance that some creatures or other descended from man as we know him may crawl about a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.” Weston is unimpressed, countering “It would be easier if your philosophy of life were not so insufferably narrow and individualistic . . . . . even a worm, if it could understand, would rise to the sacrifice . . . . . all educated opinion—for I do not call classics and history and such trash education—is entirely on my side.”

The narrator of Perelandra, the second book of the space trilogy, makes a statement that undoubtedly reflects Lewis’s own view of the above debate. Perelandra notes that Professor Weston “was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientifiction,’ in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by intellectuals, but ready, if the power is ever put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God’s quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome.”

In the concluding book of the space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis’s horror of the forcibly planned society appears as the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE) is introduced. The NICE is glowingly described by its advocates as “the first fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many people base their hopes of a better world.” The bursar James Busby, a member of the Progressive Element which controls Bracton College, expresses the popular notion of the purpose of the NICE: “It’s the first attempt to take applied science seriously from the national point of view.”

The aims of the NICE, according to Lord Feverstone (who was Weston’s co-conspirator Dick Devine in the first book of the space trilogy) include “sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including prenatal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.” Lewis was certain that a union of applied science and social planning with the power of government would result in the loss of freedom and individuality.

Lord Feverstone continues in That Hideous Strength as follows: “It does really look as if we now had the power to dig ourselves in as a species for a pretty staggering period, to take control of our own destiny. If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal . . . . . Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest.” Note again that Feverstone is the same Dick Devine, who helped Professor Weston to kidnap Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet.

The evil forces in That Hideous Strength mostly reside at Belbury, a florid Edwardian mansion built for a millionaire who admired Versailles. Belbury is set in the English countryside, perhaps 15 miles from the fictitious University of Edgestowe, home of Bracton College. Belbury is the site of the NICE, a government-supported organization supposedly scientific, with a physiologist (Professor Filostrato) and a psychologist (Augustus Frost) as important but evil characters.

Some critics have incorrectly regarded That Hideous Strength as an attack on science. In this regard Faye Ann Crowell correctly draws attention to Lewis’s unpublished (in his own lifetime) reply to Professor J.B.S. Haldane’s highly critical review. Lewis answered Haldane’s criticism by explaining just what he was attacking: “Firstly, a certain view about values: the attack will be found, undisguised, in The Abolition of Man,” Lewis’s 100-page work of nonfiction on the same subject. The latter essay addresses the dangers Lewis saw in the twentieth century abandonment of traditional, objective values. Lewis’s second aim in That Hideous Strength was to illustrate the folly of devoting one’s life to gaining the power and prestige of belonging to a ruling clique or inner circle. Finally, Lewis continued, he was attacking not scientific planning, as Professor Haldane had thought, but the kind of planned society which first Adolf Hitler and then European Marxists had instituted: “the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy.”

Some attention in the above context should be drawn to J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964). There can be no question that Haldane was gifted with a brilliant intellect, studying physiology and genetics at Oxford University. At the tender age of 31, Haldane became a Reader (at the time a highly distinguished faculty appointment) in Biochemistry at Cambridge in 1923. Haldane became Professor of Genetics at University College London in 1933. Haldane was well known as an atheist; during the 1930s he was an outspoken Marxist and served for a time as chairman of the editorial board of the London Daily Worker. Haldane eventually left the Communist Party, disillusioned by the fame that Russia accorded to the bogus biologist Trofim Lysenko. Haldane emigrated to India to join the Biometry Research Group in Orissa in 1957. He became an Indian citizen in 1961 and died of cancer there at the age of 72. Today Haldane is best known generally as the co-author of the largely discredited Haldane-Oparin mechanism for the origin of life. This subject is discussed at length in my essay “Climbing Mount Improbable.” Along with a British contemporary, the crystallographer J. D. Bernal, Haldane continues to be something of an icon to some Marxists and atheists in the sciences.

C. S. Lewis almost certainly reflected some of what he perceived as the qualities of Haldane in the space trilogy character of Professor Weston. Particularly relevant to Lewis’s space trilogy is the last chapter of J. B. S. Haldane’s 1927 collection of essays entitled Possible Worlds. There Haldane states that if the human race were to continue to survive and progress, mankind would have to colonize the planets. On November 15, 1948, Haldane spoke in Lewis’s presence at the Oxford Socratic Club on the topic “Atheism”. He departed abruptly without answering questions.

The most negative statement about science in the space trilogy is that of the narrator of That Hideous Strength, toward the end of Chapter 9, entitled “The Saracen’s Head”. The passage reads as follows: “The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already, even in Ransom’s own time, begun to be warped, had been subtly maneuvered in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result.” Lewis is addressing his concern that some scientists had abandoned the historic Christian view of a rational universe. Although the above narrator’s language may be a bit overblown, I would agree with Lewis that science is endangered when it fails to understand why the universe is intelligible.

In the above-cited unpublished response to J. B. S. Haldane’s criticism of the novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis wrote: “If any of my romances would be plausibly accused of being a libel on scientists it would be Out of the Silent Planet. It certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called ‘scientism’—a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers. It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom.” [Source: Of Other Worlds, Editor Walter Hooper; indirect source, Faye Ann Crowell.]

One of the most revealing characters in That Hideous Strength is the highly regarded physiologist, Professor Filostrato. Filostrato would prefer artificial trees made of aluminum, with artificial birds which would sing at the touch of a switch, thus eliminating feathers, eggs, dirt, and decay. Filostrato tells the wimpy sociologist Mark Studdock (husband to the book’s heroine, Jane Studdock) what he sees as the true purpose of the NICE. “It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life, which sheltered the babyhood of mind, the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.”

The fact that Lewis is not negative about science per se is seen in his treatment of sociology and psychology in That Hideous Strength. When Mark Studdock uses the phrase, “sciences like sociology” in a conversation with Bracton College’s most outstanding scientist, William Hingest, the physical chemist interrupts him with, “There are no sciences like sociology.” Mark goes on to speak of studying “the reality” of the ordinary man, and Hingest interrupts even more abruptly, analyzing what happens when sociologists study men: “I should want to pull it to bits and put something else in its place. Of course. That’s what happens when you study men: you find mare’s nests. I happen to believe you can’t study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.”

In a posthumously published (Cambridge University Press, 1964) essay contained in the collection The Discarded Image, Lewis continues his argument that the problem is not with “the pure sciences.” He states “In our age . . . the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education . . . . The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences.” This statement seems to reflect Lewis’s embarrassment that he was an atheist for many years, in part because someone who knew little about science told him authoritatively that the latter had disproved God.

Faye Ann Crowell notes that although the space trilogy was completed in 1945, C. S. Lewis did not alter the concerns expressed therein. In 1963, the year of his death (on the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated), Lewis wrote: “If we encounter in the depths of space a race, however innocent and amiable, which is technologically weaker than ourselves . . . we shall enslave, deceive, exploit, or exterminate; at the very least we shall corrupt it with our vices and infect it with our diseases. We are not fit yet to visit other worlds . . . . Must we go to infect other realms?” (“The Seeing Eye”, in Christian Reflections, Eerdmans, 1967).

Lewis directly addresses those who accuse him of being an enemy of science in The Abolition of Man. He writes therein “Nothing I can say will prevent some people as describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge.” Let the reader note that the term “natural philosophy” was used in the 19th century to describe science. Referring in That Hideous Strength to the excesses of some contemporary scientists, Lewis’s narrator states “You could not have done it with nineteenth century scientists. Their firm objective materialism would have excluded it from their minds; and even if they could have been made to believe, their inherited morality would have kept them from touching dirt.” Lewis of course is referring indirectly to the Christian convictions of Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, J. J. Thomson, Lord Kelvin, and so many other great pioneers of the physical sciences.

Lewis also touches on these matters in The Screwtape Letters (1942), probably his most widely read book after Mere Christianity. Screwtape, an experienced demon, advises his nephew Wormwood, at work on a “patient” in England, “Do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology . . . . But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation.’ ” Once again we see an allusion to Lewis’s personal experience, his unsuspecting absorption of the false premise that science had disproved the existence of the God of the universe.

Lewis was concerned that the modern rejection of absolute standards and objective values would leave mankind with no defense against what some persons might do with the powers of science. His love of individual freedom and his appreciation for people as creatures made in the image of God caused him to fear what might be done to humanity if science, without Christian standards to restrain it, were to be given the power of government to enforce what a few persons might plan for all the rest.

Lewis reminded his readers that naturalism, determinism, and rigid empiricism all view man as a biological accident with no meaning and no unmeasureable qualities like soul or spirit. These philosophies presuppose that there is neither a God nor absolute truth of values. The study of humankind by sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists has reduced persons to things having minimal dignity or worth, having little or no individual responsibility for their choices and actions. In explaining nature and man, scientists have “explained away” his value and meaning.

Is Scientism Alive and Well in the Twenty-First Century?

The answer to this question is certainly “yes.” C. S. Lewis’s concerns in this regard remain valid. The most famous statement of belief in scientism of the last century is still fresh in the minds of most educated adults in the USA: “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” This statement is the opening salvo in Carl Sagan’s famous television series “The Cosmos.” How curious for a program supposedly concerned with science to begin with a statement of atheistic faith! But so it was with Sagan to the end. On his deathbed, Sagan instructed his wife to give a full account of his final moments, that no one might conclude he had stopped shaking his fist at God. Not to worry. C.S. Lewis liked to say that deathbed conversion experiences were rare, and that he did not feel like thinking about spiritual things when he had a toothache.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher/sociologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a model reductionist work and represents precisely the sort of scientism that so concerned C. S. Lewis. Dennett writes therein “My own spirit recoils from a (personal) God in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me. Safety demands that it be put in a cage. Safety demands that religions be put in cages, too . . . . . We just can’t have the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism.” Although C. S. Lewis did not live to read Dennett’s book, Dennett is precisely the sort of person that Lewis would not want to influence society—namely, a philosopher who writes about science from a reservoir of ignorance on the subject. A less successful expositor of the same scientism as Dennett is Michael Shermer, a sometime adjunct professor at Occidental College with two psychology degrees. A bit more will be said about Shermer in my short essay “The Nondebate with Steven Weinberg.”

Even my own research area of molecular quantum mechanics has not entirely escaped the phenomenon of scientism. C. S. Lewis never sought to pick a fight with evolutionists, and that is not the purpose of this essay either. However, sometimes evolutionists cannot seem to avoid putting their foot into scientism. For example, in the 1977 Symposium Issue of the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, Andrew McLachlan provides an example of the consequences of indiscriminate naturalistic evolutionary thinking. McLachlan states “Living systems are wonderfully well-suited to their purpose, but the design is shaped by blind evolution instead of imaginative intelligence.” The notion that God does not exercise “imaginative intelligence” is clearly offensive to anyone who believes in a higher power.

Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, is the very ideal of a modern materialist reductionist. It has been noted above that the word “reductionism” serves the purpose today that “scientism” played in the 1940s. Let me attempt to give just a flavor of Dawkins’ worldview. For example, he describes love as “a product of highly complicated… nervous equipment or computing equipment of some sort.” Free advice to young people: this is not likely to be an effective way to win the heart of that person with whom you are infatuated. If you do feel that way about your sweetheart, it may be better to keep the conviction to yourself. When asked if such a worldview is depressing, Dawkins responds “I don’t feel depressed about it. But if somebody does, that’s their problem. Maybe the logic is deeply pessimistic, the universe is bleak, cold and empty. But so what?” Dawkins is without question the most influential apostle of scientism on the planet. My essay “Climbing Mount Improbable” deals with Dawkins’ views in more detail.

Is there resistance within the academic world to the scientism of Sagan, Dawkins, and Dennett? Of course. Among more than a thousand Berkeley faculty colleagues, one of the two most brilliant for the 18 years I served as a professor there was Professor Phillip Johnson of the Boalt School of Law. For more than a decade, Phillip Johnson has been challenging the philosophical underpinnings of scientism. One of his best essays on this subject was invited by the Wall Street Journal and appeared there on May 10, 1993. Professor Johnson writes “But how tolerant do the triumphant scientists plan to be toward those who don’t think that reductionist naturalism is a rational philosophy? Many well-educated people think that there is an intelligence behind the cosmos, and that life and consciousness cannot be explained in terms of physics and chemistry alone. Such people may want to dispute undemonstrated reductionist claims about such subjects as the origin of life and the reducibility of mental life to chemical reactions in the brain. May these persons obtain a fair hearing?”

Johnson concludes his essay in this manner: “Naturalistic metaphysics relegates questions like how we should live or what we should value to the realm of subjective opinion. It provides no sacred common ground, other than a supposedly value-free science, to unite differing human groups and give them a foundation to reason from. It is any wonder that the great universities that are permeated by this philosophy are themselves being torn apart by groups that demand separate academic departments to promote their ideologies?”

Reductionists who purport to be consistent are obligated to try to explain away all nonscientific aspects of human experience. From the consistent reductionist perspective, Beethoven’s music really is just meaningless vibrations in the air; the Mona Lisa really is just an improbable collection of specks of paint of readily determinable chemical composition. It is hard to exaggerate the implausibility of this limited view of reality. All that is most profound, and all that makes human life worth living, is devalued and discarded, sacrificed to an unjustified scientific imperialism. One needs to go a bit further in this reduction of scientism to the absurd. The consistent reductionist must argue that torturing children is neither right nor wrong. Our society’s decision not to torture children is just a conventional agreement to see things this way. The reductionist similarly has no definitive basis for his or her decision to greet or to eat a stranger. Such a worldview should be resisted, as Lewis did so well. I know, as surely as I accept Coulomb’s Law (like charges repel; opposite charges attract), that love is better than hate, and that the truth is better than a lie.

Do Nearly All Scientists Believe in Scientism?

The clear answer to this question is certainly no. The first chapter of the present book deals decisively and at length with this question. The average Ph.D. scientist is not likely to be more attracted to scientism than your average truck driver. Perhaps the simplest way to display this fact is by listing just a few of the great scientist Christians of the past and present.


Francis Bacon

Robert Boyle

Charles Coulson

Michael Faraday

Lord Kelvin

Johannes Kepler

James Clerk Maxwell

Isaac Newton

Blaise Pascal

William Henry

Michael Polanyi

Arthur Schawlow

George Stokes

J. J. Thomson


Richard Bube

David Cole

Francis Collins

Robert Griffiths

Chris Isham

Norman March

Donald Page

William Phillips

John Polkinghorne

Perkin John Pople

Allan Sandage

Marlan Scully

John Suppe

James Tour


First, we should ask, is C.S. Lewis’s critique of scientism valid today? In the broad sense, yes. There may be somewhat less enthusiasm among intellectuals today for proliferating human sinfulness to other planets than was the case in 1938. However, one would not come to that conclusion based on Roger Highfield’s November 16, 2001 story in The Telegraph. In that article Stephen Hawking, the most famous scientist in the world, is quoted as saying “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.” The apparent lack of introspection in Hawking’s words is a concern. He seems to naively assume that the readers of The Telegraph will unanimously view the achievement of space colonization as something about which to feel good. My opinion is that it would serve Professor Hawking well to study C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. Also sobering in light of the space trilogy are the continuing popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek, not to mention the tragic suicidal demise of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult.

Second, scientism is indeed alive and well in the 21st century. There can be little doubt that C. S. Lewis would have been as skeptical of the modern reductionist Richard Dawkins today as he was of J. B. S. Haldane in 1938. Further, Lewis almost certainly would have some reservation about state-supported research on frozen human embryos. Lewis would not likely have been supportive of the use of human genome research to terminate the lives of fetuses that were less than genetically perfect. His opinion on human cloning is equally predictable.

Do most scientists believe in scientism today? Not according to a poll of 3332 members of the scientific honorary society Sigma Xi. The November 7, 1988 issue of Chemical & Engineering News reports “Scientists are anchored to the U. S. mainstream. Half participate in religious activities regularly.” Moreover, as I have documented, many distinguished contemporary scientists have found the truth claims of Jesus Christ to be intellectually compelling. My challenge to those of you who are not familiar with C. S. Lewis’s writings is to read his classic Mere Christianity and consider the claims of Jesus.

*Henry F. Schaefer III is Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. This article is re-printed with permission of the author from chapter 7 of the book, Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence?