Victor Reppert has recently posted this quote from C.S. Lewis on his Dangerous Idea blog:
“The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. 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 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. But the matter does not rest there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls” or ‘selves” or “minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods, that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a “ghost,” an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our habit of personifying men; a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items which the Subject had lost. There is no “consciousness” to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is “not the sort of noun that can be used that way.’”
This is Lewis at his most pretentious, making sweeping, grandiose, grandiloquent pronouncements about the Whole Entire History of Everything. Such declamations are full of sound and fury. Maybe they do not signify nothing, but they don’t signify much. When you deflate the Olympian bombast, what really is he saying? He seems to be bewailing the progression of thought that has led in to the shocking conviction that trees are not conscious. Yes, the terrible truth is that we modern materialists regard strings, sealing wax, cabbages, and some kings as devoid of mind. Also, we no longer believe in ghosts. Why, we even think that we are not ghosts in machines; rather, we think that we think, feel, imagine, desire, etc. with our brains. We still believe that we have souls, only we think that our souls are constituted of billions of tiny organic robots (i.e., neurons).
Lewis, however, seems to think that the inevitable result of this whole way of thinking is that we end up denying that humans are conscious, but this is clearly not the case. Pick up any recent textbook on the philosophy of mind and you will find a plethora of individuals who would describe themselves as naturalists, materialists, or physicalists, but who take consciousness for granted. Is there some inconsistency here? Is matter insufficient for consciousness? Ah, but to argue this will require very detailed and very rigorous arguments, not the sort of breezy, orotund speechifying to which Lewis is prone.
Lewis bemoans the “empty universe” we now live in, one far removed from the “rich and genial” world of our pagan ancestors, a world filled with gods, demigods, nymphs, and dryads. Let’s recall though that the animated universe was not always genial. It was a world of jolly satyrs and seductive nymphs to be sure, but it was also a world of demons, goblins, trolls, ghosts, witches, and capricious, vindictive Homeric gods. Recall that comets used to engender stark terror. These horrible harbingers blazed a warning of famine, pestilence, and war across the heavens. Now it may be a lot less romantic to think of a comet as a dirty snowball than as a supernatural portent, but it is also a lot less terrifying. Unless a comet is aimed right at you (highly unlikely) you have nothing to fear. We can enjoy the spectacle of a comet now rather than cower under our beds. The emptied universe is emptied of many superstitious terrors.
Lewis’s comments also call to mind the biblical verse about removing the beam from your own eye before removing the mote from your neighbor’s (Matthew 7:5). After all, it was Christianity that displaced the paganism of Lewis’s ancestors. True, for pagans, the sacred was everywhere. The sky, the sun, the earth, indeed every river, stream, and grove of trees was the abode of gods. Pagans are natural pantheists. For them the gods were everywhere and in everything. It was Christianity that took the sacred and put it under lock and key. Christianity removed the sacred from the world and put it far, far away and made it accessible only through the rites and rituals of the Church. Once Christians took over, freelance spirituality, like dancing naked around an image of Pan, could get you burned at the stake. Of course, Christian prelates realized that they had gone too far in depriving people of their local, nearby deities, so they ripped off the gods of paganism and turned them into saints. Freya is gone, but St. Cloaca will listen to your prayers.
Who, besides the Christian Church, is responsible for “emptying” the universe? Well, obviously, natural science has been the biggest perpetrator: Lightning is a massive discharge of static electricity, not the terrible weapon of Zeus. The sun is a massive ball of mostly hydrogen, not Helios driving his flaming chariot. Epidemic disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, not Apollo discharging his arrows of pestilence. The seasons change because the earth’s axis tilts 23 ½ degrees with respect to its plane of revolution about the sun, not because Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds in Hades. Psychosis is caused by brain malfunction, not demon possession. The diversity of organic life is due to evolution over eons, not special creation during a six day period. Hawaii’s volcanoes are caused by hotspot mantle plumes, not Madame Pele’s anger. The villager’s sudden death was due to a myocardial infarction, not a witch’s hex.
So, has natural science emptied the universe? No, on the contrary, science has filled the universe with a superabundance of wonderful things. Nothing in mythology is as bizarre as a black hole. Deinonychus was far more terrifying than the monsters and ogres of myth. The planets of our solar system offer environments far stranger than Middle Earth or Narnia. The battles of gods and giants were less fierce than the battles between pathogens and antibodies. How can we not be in awe at a universe where the number of stars exceeds the number of grains of sand in all the world’s deserts and beaches? Science does not impoverish our experience but vastly enriches it. If you would experience awe and wonder, close thy C.S. Lewis and open thy Carl Sagan.