Thursday, January 22, 2009

"The Abolition of Man"

This is probably the most difficult C.S. Lewis piece I have ever read. I had a hard time understanding a lot of it the first time I read it through because the content is so thick with meaning and philosophical thought. Reading this really impressed me. As Professor Paulo Ribeiro suggested during class, I feel I could read this a hundred times over and still learn more from it.

The foundation on which Lewis builds this essay is the argument that in our mission of conquest of all of nature, humans are, in the process, ruining themselves. He explains this further by showing that as we learn to control more and more of nature, we also increase the domination of man over himself – we are dehumanizing ourselves. I thought that the analogy Lewis uses of the contraceptive was an especially good way to help us understand what he means. He says that on one hand, the discovery of contraceptives was a huge conquest of nature. We now understand a lot more about all of the science behind pregnancy and what causes and prevents it. On the other hand, however, we are faced with the fact that we can now almost selectively breed a new generation. We have a new dominance over people in the future by influencing who is born now. Also, when we discover more and more about how contraceptives and other things in nature function, we tend to see ourselves and others as less human and more as just glorified test tubes: nothing more than containers housing various chemical reactions.

Lewis argues that as we conquer nature further and further we are only digging humanity a hole. He says that as the general public (the conditioned) loses more and more of its humanity, the Conditioners (a select number of scientists, teachers, political leaders, etc.) will become more and more able to manipulate our natural moral law (the Tao). This means that the Conditioners will have increasing power over all of humanity until, “They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the conquest of Man.”

I agree with Lewis when he says that our new discoveries in science and our new uses of nature are often dehumanizing and lead to our demise as thinking and independent beings. I was especially struck in class when we talked about some of the dehumanizing changes in language which have taken place as our scientific knowledge and conquest of nature has increased. One of these “euphemisms” which has always bothered me is calling an unborn baby a fetus. We make the practice of abortion (“pro-choice”) something seemingly more acceptable by denying the humanity of the new life which is growing inside a mother.

As I read this essay, I couldn't help but think about some of the conversations I've been a part of in some of my science courses over the past year and a half at Calvin. We've talked about our responsibilities as God’s image-bearers on earth towards the physical world around us. God created the physical world and it was good. When he called us to rule over the earth, he called us to care for his creation. While subduing nature includes using and studying nature, it also includes trying to preserve and restore some of the original goodness with which it was created. This is where I think I disagree with Lewis. I do not want to understate the problem of dehumanization which is a definite presence in society. But I believe that another part of our problem is that we not only are underestimating the value of man by “making” him into nature; we are also underestimating the value of the nature into which we are making him.

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