One increasingly popular interpretation of the scientific study of man is that, just as physical scientists have discovered the principles and causes of matter that have enabled engineers to create faster, more efficient machines, sociobiological scientists will someday discover the basic principles and causes of human thought and action to enable engineers to create better, more efficient human beings—the “new man.” In this paper, David Rozema investigates how both C. S. Lewis and Fyodor Dostoevsky (a) expose this as a false analogy, (b) show that the scientific (“outside-in”) approach to man’s transformation is self-contradictory and (c)provide cases in their novels of transformations that work in the opposite direction: from the “inside-out.” Mr. Rozema is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
In the opening paragraph of his book, Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, has this to say:
One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of God stuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and our shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don’t really have “free will” and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.1
As Dennett observes, it is not easy to give up the idea of the soul, but he is willing to do so if, as he says, this idea has lost credibility in light of the implications of natural science. His willingness to give up an old idea once it has been shown to be intellectually untenable is admirable and exemplary. At the same time, he is intelligent enough to see that whatever it is that replaces the soul in the new scheme of things must not eliminate or abrogate the importance, the relative worth, of his difficult choice and his exemplary attitude. The very act of writing his book presumes that his progressive view—the materialist or “naturalistic” view—will commend itself to readers. For it to be appealing or persuasive or even to explain adequately what we are, it must not explain away our capacity to choose and the value of choosing rightly. He goes on to say,
We don’t have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.2
The “regularly misidentified threats to freedom” Dennett has in mind are people like himself: philosophers, scientists and a whole host of others who believe in the explanatory power and practical wisdom found in the scientific study of Man and Nature. Dennett himself is reasonable and sensitive and even optimistic when he speaks of the future of mankind. He has confidence in the promise of science, and he is just as certain that that future will be utterly different from the past:
The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the “self-made man,” but now that we are learning actually enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting to tradition, than look around to see what is about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it’s the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it’s much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.3
In the critique that follows, I will primarily be using several works of fiction, but I begin by quoting Dennett because I want to emphasize that the critique is not of a straw man. There are intelligent, serious people who hold this view, who are just as serious in their efforts to act on it. They believe in the power of scientific social planning and genetic engineering. They believe that the next step in evolution is intentional—man creating a new man. Furthermore, these people are often people of integrity; eminently reasonable people; people with a vision and hope for the future. They are sincere. And they are excited. A new mankind, created in our own image! We can, at last, talk about the creation of Man—by men!
But Dennett also provides a point of departure for my contention that the optimistic hope that naturalistic materialists have in the salvific powers of science is itself deeply misguided. While Dennett may be correct in saying that science itself is often misidentified as a threat to human freedom, he is certainly mistaken if he supposes that no scientists—or naturalistic philosophers, or social planners—can be a threat to that freedom. As he himself admits, the complete commitment to a naturalistic metaphysics “can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time.” Dennett’s own good will (I give him the benefit of the doubt in presuming him to have good will) and pleasant experiences with his colleagues might be what precipitates his assumption that a genuine scientist cannot be a nihilist. But, as I will argue, “it ain’t necessarily so”: the commitment to—and the practice of—rigorous scientific naturalism is neither a guarantor nor a preservative of moral virtue or good will.4 This is precisely the problem C. S. Lewis discusses in the last section of his book, The Abolition of Man: if moral values are socially and/or naturalistically constructed and therefore subject to either accidental or intentional change (intentional when men have evolved enough to take evolution into their own hands), then what values will guide those who are involved in intentionally (re)making the change? They may hold to the“traditional” values (what Lewis calls “the Tao”), but they need not: after all, the“tradition” is just a convention—and an outdated one at that.5
But in order to make the case that the optimistic hope that naturalistic materialists have in the salvific powers of science is misguided because of the presumption that a genuine scientist cannot be a nihilist, I would like to employ the help of two authors who can show us, in existential terms, the consequences of these misguided ideas: C. S. Lewis and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Both authors give us characters who live (and die) by the ideas Dennett and others expound, getting us to see and to feel the appeal and the consequences of these ideas.
In Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength, a junior fellow of sociology at Bracton College, Mark Studdock, is recruited by Lord Feverstone to join the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). From the beginning of the story, we see that Mark’s ambition is to be “on the inside,” to be one of the movers and shakers. This is why he has taken up with the Progressive Element at Bracton College, and why he curries favor with G. C. Curry, the Sub-Warden of the College and spokesman for the Progressive Element. Implicit in Mark’s ambition is the desire for power and control over others. But when Feverstone shows up and offers Mark a N.I.C.E. position, he eagerly jumps at the chance. The appeal is obvious in the very description of the N.I.C.E., given here by the Bursar of Bracton, James Busby:
It’s the first attempt to take applied science seriously from the national point of view. The difference in scale between it and anything we’ve had before amounts to a difference in kind. The buildings alone, the apparatus alone—! Think what it has done already for industry. Think how it is going to mobilise all the talent of the country; and not only scientific talent in the narrower sense. Fifteen departmental directors at fifteen thousand a year each! Its own legal staff! Its own police, I’m told! Its own permanent staff of architects, surveyors, engineers! The thing’s stupendous!6
But where Curry and Busby are impressed by the administrative and technological marvels of the new Institute (including the extraordinary sanitation system), Mark understands the real innovation underlying the N.I.C.E.
I think that James touched on the most important point when he said that it would have its own legal staff and its own police. I don’t give a fig for Pragmatometers and sanitation deluxe. The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past. One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old free-lance science did; but what’s certain is that it can do more.7
Curry and Busby, Mark learns, are mere puppets of an inner circle far more“progressive” than the Bracton Progressive Element, with a social program that extends, eventually, to the whole human race. Feverstone explains:
It sounds rather in Busby’s style to say that Humanity is at the cross-roads. But it is the main question at the moment: which side one’s on—obscurantism or Order. It does really look as if we now have 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. If it doesn’t—well, we’re done.8
With Mark already nibbling hard because of the exhilarating sense of being “really inside,” Feverstone finally hooks him with this:
“Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest—which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.”
“What sort of thing have you in mind?”
“Quite simple and obvious things at first—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 todo about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to bio-chemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain . . .”
“But this is stupendous, Feverstone.”
“It’s the real thing at last. A new type of man: and it’s people like you who’ve got to begin to make him.”9
Stupendous indeed! It is clear that Feverstone himself is no true believer: his motive is to “cash in on it as soon as one can.” But when Mark is taken to the Institute he meets the “true believers”: John Wither and Professor Frost and Miss Hardcastle—“The Fairy”—and Straik—“The Mad Parson.” And, as Feverstone indicates, the plan for making the new man involves both “psychological” and“biochemical” conditioning. Wither exemplifies the psychological approach, while Frost wears the clothes of the biochemical theory.
Professor Dennett, too, thinks both approaches are needed. He hypothesizes that cultural traditions have evolved as products of natural selection. The passing on of cultural habits and traditions from one generation to the next functions analogously with the physical transmission of genetically determined traits. He says,
There is one species, Homo sapiens, that has made cultural transmission its information super highway, generating great ramifying families of families of families of cultural entities, and transforming its members by the culturally transmitted habit of vigorously installing as much culture as possible in the young, as soon as they can absorb it. This innovation in horizontal transmission is so revolutionary that the primates that are its hosts deserve a new name. We could call them euprimates—superprimates—if we wanted a technical term. Or we could use the vernacular and call them persons. A person is a hominid with an infected brain, host to millions of cultural symbionts, and the chief enablers of these are the symbiont systems known as languages.10
At the risk of embarrassing myself, I must admit being confused by the last sentence. The reason for the potential embarrassment in admitting this is because there is a very subtle, almost a “natural” (pun intended), mistake being made here—subtle and natural enough to make me wonder if it is a mistake at all. The kind of mistake I have in mind is a mistake about the meaning of terms that are thought to be (or taken to be) synonymous. It occurs when we fail to see that the substitution of one term for another supposedly synonymous term radically alters the meaning (or use) of the expression in which the term occurs, rendering the expression either senseless or absurd. Wittgenstein calls this sort of mistake a “grammatical mistake,” because, like an ill-formed sentence, it stems from a failure to use terms in an intelligible manner and results in confusion about what the expression means. Unlike the obviously ill-formed sentence, however, there are more subtle grammatical mistakes: sentences and expressions that are nonsense disguised as sense. This is the sort of mistake Dennett makes. By redefining persons as “euprimates” and languages as “symbiont systems,” Dennett has found a way to categorize both—persons and languages—within the framework of Evolutionary theory. “Euprimates” and “symbiont systems” are “technical terms,” and therefore supposedly more accurate than their “vernacular” counterparts, “persons” and “languages.” But the connotations of these terms are completely different, and the exchange of the former set of terms for the latter holds the possibility for some very dangerous consequences. For “euprimate” identifies (and is used in connection with) a biological category, a species; “person” identifies (and is used in connection with) a moral category, an individual agent, capable of rational judgment and action. Similarly, a “symbiont system” connotes something mechanical or formalistic, like a computer language, used primarily (if not solely) for the transmission of information; but a language, like its speakers, is alive (“organic,” some might say), with qualities that make its use more like an art than a science, and it is used for far more purposes than the transmission of information—for the expression of reflection and feeling; for asking questions and giving commands; for crying out praise and sorrow; for asking deep questions about the purposes of our lives and our pursuits (including science), and articulating comprehensive philosophies of life. Mixing up the grammar of these expressions, however, might easily result in a dehumanizing ethos and a demeaning language. At the very least, it will produce confusion. One indicator of whether or not this kind of grammatical sleight of hand (or slip of the tongue) has taken place is to ask if you find it ridiculous or nonsensical—or even somewhat offensive—to define a person as “a hominid with an infected brain, host to millions of cultural symbionts.” Despite his efforts to be clear, Dennett’s grammatical confusions end up bewitching his (and quite possibly our) intelligence.
Just like listening to Wither. As anyone who has read Lewis’s novel knows, Deputy Director Wither is the consummate manifestation of Newspeak, of non-sense disguised as sense. His presence in and around the Institute is not unlike that of Big Brother. Wither ’s words and manner of speech do to those who hear him just what his name implies—they wither the mind and the spirit. When Mark first speaks with the Deputy Director, he is frustrated: Wither seems to be making sense, but Mark comes away having learned nothing, with none of his questions answered. The longer Wither talks, however, and the more used to his manner of speech Mark becomes, the less it bothers him. Wither ’s way of speaking has a dispiriting, mind-numbing effect. For example, when Mark makes several attempts to find out from the Deputy Director exactly what he will do at the institute and receives only pleasantly vague replies,
He [Mark] did not ask again in so many words what the N.I.C.E. wanted him to do; partly because he began to be afraid that he was supposed to know this already, and partly because a perfectly direct question would have sounded a crudity in that room—a crudity which might suddenly exclude him from the warm and almost drugged atmosphere of vague, yet heavily important, confidence in which he was gradually being enfolded.11
After Mark makes one final attempt to get a straight answer and does not,
he had no further chance of bringing the Director to the point and whenever the slow, gentle voice ceased, he found himself answering in its own style, and apparently helpless to do otherwise despite the torturing recurrence of the question, ‘What are we both talking about?’”12
Ironically, it is just this sort of “cultural transformation” by means of a new “symbiont system” that Mark finds himself supporting—his task at the institute is to write articles for the press that will make the institute’s work seem both noble and necessary. How? Primarily through getting the public into the habit of speaking differently. As Feverstone tells Mark,
it does make a difference how things are put. For instance if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end.13
Fairy Hardcastle makes the same point:
You’ve got to get the ordinary man into the state in which he says “Sadism” automatically when he hears the word “Punishment”… And that’s where you and I come in, Sonny. There’s no distinction in the long run between police work and sociology. You and I have got to work hand in hand.14
As the Fairy’s remark indicates, when the sciences of Man become applied, the goal is the same as that of “police work”—control of the population. Only the “method” is different. The “methods” used by the Fairy’s N.I.C.E. police are brute force and fear; the “method” used by Wither (and by Mark) is largely a re-invention of the language.15
But this so-called “real education” is not the whole story: there is also the biochemical side. Like Professor Dennett, Professor Frost professes his commitment to materialism. Professor Dennett says “the various phenomena that we call consciousness… are all physical effects of the brain’s activities.”16 Professor Frost tells Mark that, “Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. Social relations are chemical relations” and, “A circle bound together by subjective feelings of mutual confidence and liking would be useless. Those, as I have said, are chemical phenomena. They could all in principle be produced by injections.”; “Friendship is a chemical phenomenon; so is hatred.”17 And, like Professor Dennett, Professor Frost is sure that this commitment to the truth of materialism will result in an improvement. He tells Mark:
Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products. You are merely wasting your time by considering them. When you have obtained real objectivity you will recognize, not some motives, but all motives as merely animal, subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them. Their place will be supplied by something else which you will presently understand better than you do now. So far from being impoverished your action will become much more efficient.18
So, what is this “something else” that Professor Frost supposes will take the place of motives once one has obtained “objectivity”? What are the “real causes” of action?
Let me return to this question. First, I want to bring in Dostoevsky. Or, rather, to notice that he has been here all along. Dostoevsky, it could be argued, was the first prophet to speak out against the dehumanizing effect of the scientific study of Man. In the midst of the fashionable fervor for the materialist theories of John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, Dostoevsky raises a lone voice of skepticism and warning against the utopian dreams of the scientific socialists. In The Diary of a Writer he calls these utopians
socialistic and positivistic dreamers boosting science and expecting everything from it, that is, a new communion of men and new principles on which the social organism should be founded—for once, mathematically secure and immovable principles. However, science, from which so much is expected, is hardly in a position to tackle this task forthwith. It is difficult to conceive that it should possess such a thorough knowledge of human nature as to devise unmistakably new laws for the social organism.19
This is but the opening sally in Dostoevsky’s attack on social science, however. In all of his novels, Dostoevsky paints at least one character who holds to the ideals of a scientifically constructed society and the “new man” who will make up that society. In Crime and Punishment this belief is manifested in the main character, Rodion Raskolnikov, who expectantly thinks of himself as a prototype of this “new man”—one of the “extraordinary” men for whom a crime is not a crime; to whom the laws and obligations of morality do not apply. Raskolnikov believes the theory, but he agonizes over whether he, himself, is capable of living it out. A more profound manifestation of the view is the character of Arkady Svidrigailov. This truly despicable man does live as an “extraordinary” man. But his inhumane attitude and treatment of others ultimately extends to himself, and, in the end, he shoots himself—calmly, deliberately, almost as an experiment.20 In The Brothers Karamazov, the view is manifested in the character of Mikhail Rakitin, an ambitious graduate student who hopes to become a professor of Literature. In a passage from the chapter entitled A Hymn and a Secret, the imprisoned Dimitri Karamazov tries to explain Rakitin’s ideas to his brother Alyosha:
“Imagine: it’s all there in the nerves, in the head, there are these nerves in the brain (devil take them!)… there are little sorts of tails, these nerves have little tails, well, and when they start trembling there… that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes, like this, and they start trembling, these little tails… and when they tremble, an image appears, not at once, but in a moment, it takes a second, and then a certain moment appears, as it were, that is, not a moment—devil take the moment—but an image, that is, an object or an event, well, devil take it—and that’s why I contemplate, and then think… because of the little tails, and not at all because I have a soul or am some kind of image or likeness, that’s all foolishness. Mikhail explained it to me, brother, just yesterday, and it was as if I got burnt. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! The new man will come, I quite understand that… And yet, I’m sorry for God!”“Well, that’s good enough,” said Alyosha.
“That I’m sorry for God? Chemistry, brother, chemistry! Move over a little, Your Reverence, there’s no help for it, chemistry’s coming! And Rakitin doesn’t like God, oof, how he doesn’t! That’s the sore spot with all of them! But they conceal it. They lie. They pretend. ‘What, are you going to push for that in the department of criticism?’ I asked. ‘Well, they won’t let me do it openly,’ he said, and laughed. ‘But,’ I asked, ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he said. And he laughed. ‘Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,’ he said.”21
In this passage we hear the voices of both Wither and Frost, and we also see in Rakitin the same sadistic hunger for power over others as was evident in the Fairy. And it is the rejection of any transcendent moral principles that opens the door to this hunger and feeds it. But this denial of moral principles is the logically necessary consequence of seeing man as an object of scientific study. Insofar as human beings are studied under the rubric of science, individual persons and particular societies are seen as objects of nature; and their values, beliefs, desires, reasons and actions are seen as natural phenomena. Furthermore, science deals only with what is empirically observable—and since the soul is not observable, it, too, gets reduced to something more scientifically viable, such as “an infected brain, host to millions of cultural symbionts.” Such a reduction becomes all the easier to make when we also forget that the usual use of the word “soul” is not in reference to some object capable of study, but rather in connection with reminding us of a person’s ultimate value or worth. Thus, the scientific approach to the study of Man provokes an “outside-in” view of others—looking for causal explanations for human behavior. But when persons are reduced to natural objects (“euprimates”) and the moral principles by which they live are reduced to mere phenomena, the implication is that the researcher, the social scientist, has transcended the merely human; gone beyond good and evil; disassociated himself—more or less intentionally—from his fellow men. The logical result of this outside-in viewpoint is moral relativism (at least) or nihilism (at last).
Rakitin, Svidrigailov; the Fairy, Frost, Wither—for all of them it is this consequence, the willful denial of moral value, that lies behind their acceptance of the scientific, outside-in approach to man. They are the ones who so quickly and eagerly draw the analogy between natural science and social science. Thus, it is no surprise to find that the characters in both Lewis’s and Dostoevsky’s stories who expose this as a false analogy are precisely those characters who are not possessed by this hunger and who do have a sense of the inherent dignity of man. In The Brothers Karamazov it is Alyosha and Father Zossima who most clearly demonstrate these qualities, loving and gently encouraging even those whom they have every reason to despise. They both have a clear and consistently lived-out idea of the freedom and duty each person has to discover, to form, and to choose his way of life. There is no desire for controlling or conditioning others. A human being is not an object; values, beliefs, reasons and actions are not phenomena. In contrast to the outside-in view of Man, these characters see their fellows as fellows: as persons of worth and responsibility, capable of both giving and receiving love, and, most significantly, fellow subjects to something morally higher than themselves.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis—with masterful irony—exposes the false analogy of social science with natural science through the character of William Hingest, who is a bona fide professor of chemistry, and who, for reasons of conscience, has decided to leave the institute.
“I came here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it’s something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I’m too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn’t be my choice.”
“You mean, I suppose, that the element of social planning doesn’t appeal to you? I can quite understand that it doesn’t fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology—”
“There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again.”
“I think I do understand the sentiment that still attaches to the small man, but when you come to study the reality as I have got to do—”
“I should want to pull it to bits and put something else in its place. That’s what happens when you study men: you find mare’s nests. I happen to believe that you can’t study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything that makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors.”22
Despite his comments about his decision to leave being a matter of taste, Hingest’s objection here is a moral one. He lets Mark make up his own mind, but at the same time he is honest and clear about what is going on, the character of the people he has been working with—and about the pretensions of Sociology being a science. He pays for his integrity with his life.
Note that Hingest acknowledges that the study of human nature will reveal all sorts of problems, and will naturally lead the studier to “want to pull it to bits and put something else in its place”—a “new man.” This outside-in approach to man is the attempt to discover the natural laws and forces that cause human behavior. And these causes are supposed to be “natural,” “scientifically viable” causes—which is as much as to say that reason, choice and even passion do not ultimately count. These would have to play only an intermediate role: the “real cause(s)” cannot be so small and so subjective. Have we not all been told, over and over again, that we are “products of our environment,” that “you are your DNA”? But Hingest also recognizes that any studier of Man is a man too, and to study men as objects is to cut yourself off from your fellows; to suppose yourself to be part of a group of “extraordinary” men, immune from the supposed forces that determine the thought and behavior of all the “ordinary” folks. And since this view implies that moral principles are also mere phenomena caused by socio-biological forces, these “extraordinary” men will also be immune to the compulsion of those principles. Lewis explicates the self-contradictory nature of this “outside-in” approach to the study of man more fully in The Abolition of Man:
The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. But how are they going to be motivated themselves?…They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison. [Some] critics may ask, “why are you supposing that they will be such bad men?” But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men at all.23
Again, this is exactly what we find in That Hideous Strength: Wither and Frost are not men at all. They (barely) retain the appearance of men, but neither of them is motivated by any rational thought or human passion. They are worse than animals, who at least seek pleasure: they are monsters, possessed by they-know-not-what. In what is perhaps the most shocking chapter in Lewis’s novel, we read,
Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so—since he had been initiated—he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion that still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men.
A few minutes later, with “that tiresome illusion, his consciousness, screaming to protest,”[Frost] walked back into the Objective room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not offer the cure to the illusion of being a soul—nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that.24
Is it not supremely ironical that Frost dies with this intense hatred in his heart—a thing that Frost’s own theory says is just a chemical phenomenon? Lewis could hardly have shown more clearly the existential contradiction inherent in the materialistic, scientific approach to man.25
Dostoevsky, too, brilliantly demonstrates this existential contradiction in that unforgettable character, the Underground Man. Dostoevsky prefaces his Notes From Underground with the observation that, even though
the author of these notes and the “notes” themselves are, of course, imaginary… nevertheless, such persons as the writer of these notes, not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, considering those circumstances under which our society was in general formed.27
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky more subtly indicates this existential contradiction. It turns out that Rakitin, whose theory ought not to countenance the importance or the efficacy of motives, has motives for holding his theory. Dmitritells Alyosha,
“Rakitin knows. Rakitin knows a lot, devil take him He won’t become a monk. He’s going to go to Petersburg. There, he says, he’ll get into the department of criticism, but with a noble tendency. Why not? He can be useful and make a career. Oof, how good they are at making careers! Devil take ethics! But I am lost, Alexei, I’m lost, you man of God! I love you more than anyone. My heart trembles at you, that’s what. Who is this Carl Bernard?”
“Carl Bernard?” Again Alyosha was surprised.
“No, not Carl, wait, I’ve got it wrong: Claude Bernard. What is it? Chemistry or something?”
“He must be a scientist,” Alyosha replied, “only I confess I’m not able to say much about him either. I’ve just heard he’s a scientist, but what kind I don’t know.”
“Well, devil take him, I don’t know either,” Mitya swore.
“Some scoundrel, most likely. They’re all scoundrels. But Rakitin will squeeze himself in, he’ll squeeze himself through some crack—another Bernard. Oof, these Bernards! How they breed!”
“But what’s the matter with you?” Alyosha asked insistently.“He wants to write an article about me, about my case, and begin his role in literature that way, that’s why he keeps coming, he explained it to me himself. He wants something with a tendency: ‘It was impossible for him not to kill, he was a victim of his environment,’ and soon, he explained it to me. It will have a tinge of socialism, he says. So, devil take him, let it have a tinge, it’s all the same to me…”28
And now I must return to the question I tabled earlier: what is the “something else” that Professor Frost supposes will take the place of motives once one has obtained “objectivity”? According to a thorough going materialism, what are the “real causes” of action? Rakitin’s motive, we learn, is fame, and perhaps fortune. Raskolnikov’s is the desire to be “extraordinary”—that is, to be god-like in authority over others. Mark Studdock’s original motives are to be “on the inside,” to be one of the Controllers. As Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, these are not rational (nor rationally chosen) motives; they are “impulses.”
By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses as they come, from chance. And Chance here means Nature. It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the (random) association of ideas that the motives of the Conditioners will spring. Their extreme rationalism, by “seeing through” all “rational” motives leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behavior.29
The Underground Man sees that he ought not to have any motives at all, and so that, paradoxically, becomes his motive: to act capriciously, from no motive at all. Frost, as we saw earlier, is supposed to have reached this state. What we see in reviewing these cases is an existential progression, if you will, of a life increasingly manifesting a belief in the materialistic, scientific approach to man. From the initial rejection of moral values as a motive for action, a person will at first be motivated by the irrational pursuits of pleasure, possessions, prestige, or power, and live impulsively; but as the materialistic idea becomes more and more realized in the person’s life, he will become detached even from these impulses. Finally, like Frost, his actions will be simply “what happens”; the actions will be those of some “object,” not those of a person. The person will be gone.
But in that passage, if you remember, Lewis indicates that Frost has “controllers”—the “Macrobes” (as they are called by the leaders of the N.I.C.E.) or the “dark eldils” (as they are called by Ransom and his group). As Lewis makes clear, these “dark eldils” are the allegorical counterparts of demons, or fallen angels. It seems that in Frost’s “progress towards objectivity” he opens the door for anything—anything at all—to become a cause of his behavior. Here again, we find Dostoevsky. In his novel, The Possessed, he portrays just such a situation as we might find it in a community. The two main characters of that story, Peter Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin, are the sons of parents who have rejected any sense of morality, and, consequently, failed to propagate any sense of conscience to their sons. When these young men grow old enough to have an effect on their community, they and their disciples wreak havoc—murder, rape, slander, thievery and hatred—and all “for no reason.” It is a hard novel to read, and not just because of the wickedness of the characters. It is hard because there is no rhyme or reason, not even a twisted rhyme or a selfish reason, for all the chaos and destruction. These men are “possessed,” and they are legion.
There is, of course, an obvious difference between Lewis’s portrayal of possession—where the leaders of the N.I.C.E. become the instruments of destruction for existing evil beings—and Dostoevsky’s portrayal of possession—where Stavroginand Verkhovensky (and others) are possessed not by evil beings, but by various forms of incurable viciousness. One reason for this difference is that Lewis’s story is, as he says in the preface, a “fairy-tale,” a work of fantasy literature, while Dostoevsky’s novel is a work of realistic fiction. We should expect there to be invisible beings in a fairy tale (both evil and good ones), but they would be out of place in a work of psychological realism. Despite this (metaphysical) difference, both forms of possession have the same cause and the same outcome: the emptying of the soul (both heart and mind) of good and rational motives, resulting in the destruction of the self and society.
In all of this I am reminded of Christ’s teaching:
When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes in and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.30
What makes this road to possession possible is spiritual blindness. And what is that? Earlier in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky gives this description of Rakitin:
He had a restless and covetous heart. He was fully aware of his considerable abilities, but in his conceit he nervously exaggerated them. He knew for certain that he would become a figure of some sort, but Alyosha, who was very attached to him, was tormented that his friend Rakitin was dishonest, but decidedly unaware of it; that, on the contrary, knowing he wouldn’t steal money from the table, he ultimately considered himself a man of the highest integrity. Here, neither Alyosha nor anyone else could do anything.31
Well, what can you do with such a “true believer” in the science of Man? Not much. Perhaps the most help you can give him is to portray him, along with the consequences of his idea, and hope his eyes will be opened to himself. This, of course, is just what Lewis and Dostoevsky do. Is it enough? Will the showing of these things result in a transformation of the one who accepts (or is inclined to accept) the materialistic, pseudo-scientific idea of Man? And, if the outside-in approach to the study of Man rests on a false analogy, resulting in an existential contradiction, what is the alternative? Here, too, both Lewis and Dostoevsky have much to show us.
I realize that so far, this essay has been all darkness and no light. But there is plenty of light in the novels of both these authors. Over against (and high above) Belbury there is St. Anne’s—shining in the sunlight above the fog. Over against Frost and Wither there is Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, and Merlin. And over against the Underground Man, Svidrigailov and Rakitin, there are Liza, Sonia Marmeladov and Father Zossima. Over against the legion of demons and Beelzebub their chief, there is Christ and His angels. And there are transformations: Alyosha, Raskolnikov (at the very end), Jane and Mark Studdock. These people are transformed in such a way that their freedom, their agency—their humanity—is preserved and, indeed, enhanced. They are not conquered, made the “victims” of some brutishly superior force or forces. They are not simply the products of a new environment or a biochemical alteration. Rather, they are “won over” by another person. This is a truth that cannot be overemphasized: it is not an impersonal force or cause that creates the transformation of these characters, but a person who sees each of them as a person. For Alyosha, that person is Father Zossima; for Raskolnikov, that person is Sonia; for Jane, Dr. Ransom; and for Mark, the indication at the end of the story is that it will be Jane.
But, of course, in each case there is a Person behind the person. Behind (or above) each of these persons is the New Man, the Firstborn of which each one of them is a reflection, and through whom they are each a new creation.
Cite this article
- Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves (New York: Viking, 2003), 1.
- Ibid., 6.
- Since Dennett is a champion of Evolutionary theory, it is ironic that the commitment to—and the practice of—rigorous scientific naturalism also does not guarantee or necessarily contribute to the survival of the species.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1944). For a discussion of how this concern of Lewis’s is portrayed in his novel, That Hideous Strength, see R. D. Stock, “The Tao and the Objective Room: A Pattern in C. S. Lewis’s Novels,” Christian Scholar’s Review 9(1979): 256–266.
- C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 37.
- Ibid., 38
- Ibid., 40–41.
- Ibid., 42.
- Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 173.
- Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 54.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 69–70.
- In his excellent study of Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, Planets in Peril (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), David Downing makes a similar point. Referring to theBabel-like scene of the Banquet at Belbury (chapter 16 of That Hideous Strength), Downing points out that, “All of these who habitually misuse language have their powers of speech taken from them.” (99) For the similarity with Orwell’s portrayal of the abuse of language, see Peter Schakel, “That ‘Hideous Strength’ in Lewis and Orwell,” Mythlore 50 (Summer1987): 36–40.
- Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Back Bay Books, 1991), 16.
- Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 255, 257.
- Ibid., 296.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer (New York: Olympic Marketing Corp., 1979), 252.
- For an excellent discussion of how these characters exemplify the liberal materialist phi-losophy so prevalent and popular in nineteenth-century Europe, see Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky:The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Also, see Rob-ert Louis Jackson’s “Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment” inTwentieth Century Interpretations of Crime and Punishment, Robert Louis Jackson, ed.(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974).
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky(New York: Vintage, 1990), 589. Eliseo Vivas shows how Rakitin, along with Ivan, Smerdyakov,Miusov and young Kolya, is a version of the type of individual who professes a philosophyof liberal materialism. See his “Two Dimensions of Reality in The Brothers Karamazov,” inDostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, Rene Wellek, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall, 1962).
- Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 70–71.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 72–73.
- Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 357–358.
- The contrast between Hingest on the one hand, and Frost and Wither on the other, illus-trates the distinction between those who practice science itself, seeing it as one avenue todiscovering truths about the world and universe we live in, and those who admit of no othersources or avenues to truth. J. B. S. Haldane, the famous Cambridge biochemist and contem-porary critic of Lewis, accused Lewis of being “anti-scientific” in his review of the Ransomtrilogy, “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.” (Modern Quarterly 1 [Autumn 1946]). Lewis’s response (“Replyto Professor Haldane,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, Walter Hooper, ed. [NewYork: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982]) makes it clear that his attack is not against science,but against its misuse under the guise of the philosophical view being discussed here, some-times called “naturalism,” but also known as “scientism.” For further discussion, see PaulHolmer, C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1976);Michael Collings, “Science and Scientism in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength,” in HardScience Fiction, eds. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Uni-versity Press, 1986), 131–140; Jeannette Hume Lutton, “Wasteland Myth in C. S. Lewis’s ThatHideous Strength,” in Forms of the Fantastic, eds. Jan Hohenson and Howard Pearce (NewYork: Greenwood Press, 1986); Bruce R. Reichenbach, “C. S. Lewis on the Desolation of De-valued Science,” Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review 4 (1983): 14–26.
Why “must” such a man exist? Because the “circumstances under which our society was in general formed” predict it? You see, even in his prefatory note Dostoevsky pre-figures the absurdity of the science of Man! But there is a double meaning in this “must”: it is also a logical “must.” Dostoevsky sees that if the materialistic, scientific approach to man is to have any practical outcome, it will necessarily produce some man who tries to live his life as simultaneously both subject and object: both studier and the thing studied, all at once. The Underground Man calls this existential state “hyperconsciousness.” It results in a man who is “nothing”; a man rendered absolutely powerless, passionless, humorless and ridiculous.
Not only could I not become spiteful, I could not even become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything and that only a fool can become something. Yes, an intelligent man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be preeminently a characterless creature: a man of character, an active man, is preeminently a limited creature.26Ibid., 5. For a thorough and insightful interpretation of the Notes From Underground, seeJoseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), ch. 21.
- Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 588.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 76.
- Luke 11:24–26, New International Version.
- Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 85.