When people talk about “the progress of applied science,” they often refer to it as “Man’s Conquest of Nature.” In this lecture, Lewis explores in what sense humanity can be said to hold power over Nature. He begins by considering three examples: “the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive.” In reality, each of these things is something held by certain people and sold or withheld for use by others. And in the case of the first two—the plane or the radio—human beings could be said to be the subject as much as the possessor of these technologies. One can, after all, be subject to both bombs (from warplanes) and propaganda (over the airwaves).
Lewis questions his society’s assumptions about humanity’s position relative to nature. In the midst of the 20th century’s rapid technological progress, people often assume that there is no stopping such progress. But if one looks more closely at the “power” involved, it is not an equally distributed power, or an unqualifiedly good one. This will become the basis for Lewis’s argument that so-called “power over nature” can take a decidedly sinister turn.
In the matter of contraceptives, there’s a sense in which all future generations are subjects of a power already being wielded by the current generation. In such a case, humans’ power over nature is simply “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
Lewis is not necessarily attacking contraception outright. His point, rather, is that there is power involved here, too—one generation is able to determine the existence of future ones. This point parallels the examples of the radio and the airplane, both of which give some groups of people power over others.
Lewis does not wish to argue that increased moral virtue would cure certain abuses, but to consider what people’s “power over nature” essentially is. Although we are adept at, for instance, recognizing the exercise of power by majorities over minorities, we don’t sufficiently recognize Time as a dimension in which such exercise of power occurs. But it is true that each generation exercises power over its successors, and that later generations try to resist or modify what has gone before. This complicates the common assumption that society is steadily progressing away from tradition.
Lewis argues against a simplistic view of either progress or decline by pointing out that one generation’s actions affect another’s, whether for good or ill. This contributes to his argument that “power over nature” is not a straightforward thing; in a practical sense, it’s often more like some humans having power over others.
If a generation finally attains the power to manipulate future generations into exactly what it desires, then the next generation will inevitably be weaker, even though it will have inherited powerful tools from its predecessors. And the longer this goes on—the closer the human race moves toward extinction—the fewer people there will be. So it is nonsense to speak of the human race growing steadily stronger.
Lewis imagines a world in which science is used in order to impact the number and characteristics of future generations. Not only is this an example of power being exercised by the many over the few, but it further undermines the narrative of inevitable forward progress.
It makes no sense, then, to really speak of humans having power over nature. According to modern scientific planners, it always ends up meaning “the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.”In other words, any advance by humanity inevitably involves power over other human beings. The final stage will come when, by means of things like eugenics and propaganda, humanity will have obtained full control over itself. But when humanity has won the victory of making itself whatever it desires, what has it really won?
Lewis essentially argues that the phrase “power over nature” is a misnomer; it is really talking about the rule of a small number of powerful people over those with less power. When such power reaches its summit, it just means that a small number of human beings will have succeeded in shaping the rest in a way that the few have deemed desirable.
The power of humanity to shape itself at will inevitably includes the power to modify others at will, too. While this has always been true to some degree, nowadays the technological and political power to do so have dramatically increased. In addition, in the past the attempts to mold humanity were guided by the Tao; the mold, in other words, was pre-cut. If values are just natural phenomena, however, then the Tao as a motive for education will be missing. Any value judgments will be produced by education, but will not be its foundation. When human nature has been conquered, things like conscience, for example, are at the discretion of society’s conditioners. Conditioners will impose an artificial Tao.
In Lewis’s view, today the small group of “conditioners”—those with power to shape other people at will—have unprecedented resources to impose upon nature and hence on other people. They are also unburdened by the Tao’s restraining influences. Whereas past generations would have had the goal of producing human beings according to the Tao’s teachings, today there is no guiding motive for those who shape future generations, which makes the power some exercise over others all the more troubling.
At first, the “conditioners” might retain some sense of the Tao as something they have a duty to preserve. It’s now up to them to decide if they wish to instill this same sense of “duty” in other people. And in time, they will view the Tao as one more natural process over which they can exert control—a tool, not an innate motive.
The Tao, in Lewis’s view, won’t die out immediately. Its influence will linger long after its objective status has been abandoned, but the difference will be that society’s conditioners will use it to promote their desired ends, instead of being shaped by it.
Lewis claims he is not assuming that the conditioners would be “bad men.” In a certain sense, they aren’t really “men” at all. This is because they have sacrificed the sense of being part of traditional humanity in order to decide for themselves what “humanity” really is. By “[s]tepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void,” and their final conquest over nature proves to be, in fact, “the abolition of man.”
Lewis’s point isn’t that the “conditioners” of society are morally compromised. It’s that such people have ventured outside of traditionally recognized categories of what’s “human,” because they’re trying to shape humanity from the outside instead of living within it. Finally the meaning of the “conquest over nature” becomes clear—it’s the elimination of humanity, at least as humanity has long known itself.
Without the Tao, the only motive that remains to the conditioners is their emotional sense. When there is no longer any objective sense of “It is good,” all that remains is “I want.” This means that the conditioners are motivated only by their own pleasure. When there are no objective measures of value, then conditioners cannot value one emotional impulse over another, except by the impulses’ relative strength.
The Tao serves to regulate people’s desires, according to Lewis. With the Tao abandoned, there is no stable basis for people’s motives. Everything comes down to the strength of someone’s felt impulses—which renders everyone subject to the strongest whims of the people with the most power.
While we can’t assume that the rejection of the Tao would strip away all “benevolent” impulses, Lewis is inclined to believe that history does not show many examples of people who stepped outside of traditional moral structures and then used their power benevolently. He thinks it is more likely that the “Conditioners will hate the conditioned,” because the conditioned at least can maintain a pretense of meaning in their lives. The conditioners will lack any basis for promoting good impulses in the conditioned, but will rely instead on irrational behaviors.
Again, the rejection of the Tao isn’t the same thing as the elimination of all of humanity’s positive aspects, but Lewis believes that such benevolence won’t survive alongside the unchecked exertion of power. Without a stable limiting influence—namely, the Tao—the situation is ripe for oppression of the many by the few.
So when Man achieves victory over Nature, it really means that most people are subjected to the irrational impulses of a very few. This means that, ultimately, “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” In other words, when we thought we were subduing nature, we were actually being led by nature.
Lewis restates the argument he has been driving toward—that, paradoxically, the quest for so-called domination of nature turns out to be a reversion to natural impulse unrestrained by rational impulse.
It turns out, then, that every conquest over Nature actually strengthens Nature’s reign. To a certain extent, this process might produce great gains. But when it reaches the point that human beings, too, are reduced to mere Nature, then the same “being who stood to gain” has become “the being who has been sacrificed.”
Domination over certain aspects of nature—such as power over deadly disease—is desirable. But Lewis’s point is that, without the Tao, this process progresses too far, destroying those things that have traditionally been considered intrinsically human—in particular, rational thought and behavior, as guided by the Tao.
This process, then, is trying to have it both ways. Lewis says that this is impossible—we must either be rational spirits which are subject to the Tao, or we are raw material to be manipulated at will by select masters who are subject only to their natural impulses. The Tao alone—belief in objective value—can save us from “a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
For Lewis, there are only two choices, both of which rest on humanity’s relationship to the Tao. He argues that any choice that isn’t acceptance of the Tao as a whole inevitably tends toward dehumanization and totalitarianism, since the alternative is allowing certain powerful people to dominate everyone else in whatever way they want.
While some will accuse Lewis of hereby making an attack on Science, Lewis denies this. In fact, he even believes that a cure might be found in Science. He argues that Science and Magic actually arose at the same time, born of the same impulse during the 16th and 17th centuries. What was this impulse? Both science and magic sought to “subdue reality to the wishes of men,” by means of various applied techniques. In this way, both the scientist (like Bacon) and the magician (like Faustus) have the same goal. Though the founders of modern science certainly had certain good motives, it might be that the love of power has too often exceeded the love of knowledge for its own sake.
Lewis categorizes science and magic—both early modern phenomena that emerged as part of humanity’s quest to subdue nature—as essentially the same kind of thing. Bacon refers to Francis Bacon, an English philosopher who developed the scientific method; Faustus refers to Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, in which Faustus masters the arts of magic, ultimately at the price of his soul. While science won out over magic and has had many positive outcomes, Lewis notes here that this good, though real, constantly competes with the desire for mastery and power.
Lewis questions whether a better approach to natural philosophy—one that explains without explaining away—is possible. Such a science would need to “conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.” Perhaps analytical understanding must always be a “basilisk” that only sees by killing.
Lewis returns to the point that perhaps science contains within itself a remedy for the problems he has diagnosed; however, he does not articulate possible remedies here. A basilisk is a mythological snake-like creature which kills what it sees. For Lewis the basilisk is symbolic of a scientific approach that lethally dissects what it tries to understand (such as human nature).
Lewis argues that this kind of “seeing” comes at too heavy a price. The whole point of seeing through something, after all, is to see something through it. One looks through a window in order to see the street or garden beyond. Similarly, it makes no sense to try to see through first principles. A world in which everything is transparent is an invisible world; thus, seeing through everything is the same thing as not seeing at all.
Lewis concludes his lecture series by restating the importance of objective first principles, claiming that trying to get beyond these principles (namely, the Tao) results in the destruction of society as we know it. When we think we are seeing through foundational principles, we are actually losing our ability to see wisely at all.