C.S. Lewis and Materialism

“You say the materialist universe is ‘ugly,’” wrote C. S. Lewis to a young skeptic in 1950. “…If you are really a product of the materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there?”

Nearly half-a-century later, Lewis’s question still resonates. Modern society continues to operate largely on the materialistic premises of such thinkers as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Yet few today feel at home in the materialist universe where God does not exist, where ideas do not matter, and where every human behavior is reduced to non-rational causes.

C. S. Lewis spent much of his life debunking the sterility of materialist thinking; and his insights are as relevant now as when they were first offered, because our culture remains dominated by four of materialism’s most deadly legacies.

Rejection of Reason and Truth

Materialism’s first deadly legacy is the rejection of reason and objective truth. Nineteenth-century materialists depicted our thoughts as the irrational products of environment or heredity or brain chemistry. As a consequence, the intellectual classes became convinced that only the reality was material, and thus the only true explanations were reductive. If you wanted to explain a flower, you described its cell structure, not its beauty. If you wanted to explain human beings, you looked not to their greatest achievements, but to the raw materials that made them up. This sort of reductionism permeates contemporary society, from politics and the social sciences to literature and the performing arts.

Lewis’s first sustained attack on reductionism came in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress in the early 1930s. In a section of the book titled “Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim” (literally, “through the darkest abode of the Spirit of the Age”), Lewis’s pilgrim is arrested by the flunkies of a giant who symbolizes the materialistic reductionism that was the Spirit of the Age. The pilgrim, named John, is subsequently jailed, leading to a nightmarish sequence. Lewis relates that the eyes of the giant had the property of making whatever they looked on transparent: “Consequently, when John looked around into the dungeon he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror.… A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins… And when John sat down and drooped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the working of his own inwards.…”

John is rescued from the dungeon by a towering woman in blue–Lady Reason, who slays the giant with her sword. She tells John that the giant had deceived him about the real nature of human beings: “He showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible… But in the real world our inwards are invisible.“

“But if I cut a man open I should see them in him,” replied John.

“A man cut open,” returned the Lady, “is, so far, not a man: and if you did not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly: but the giant made you believe that life is ugly.”

Lewis’s point was that reductionism really does not explain that which is human at all. In fact, in the name of explaining man, reductionism explains him away.

In a 1956 essay titled “Behind the Scenes,” Lewis articulated his own view of the relation between man and his material components. He likened life to a stage play. In one sense, nothing in the play is real; it is all imaginary. The only “realities” are the sets, costumes, and lighting. The play is “appearance” and the sets are “reality.” Yet, as Lewis points out, “in the theatre of course the play, ‘the appearance’, is the thing. All the backstage ‘realities’ exist only for its sake and are valuable only in so far as they promote it.”

The materialist may scoff at this approach, but as Lewis relished in pointing out, the materialist has his own problems: The materialist who debunks everyone else’s ideas as the subrational products of their brain chemistry or environment cannot avoid being debunked himself. If he is honest, says Lewis, the materialist will have to admit that his own ideas are merely the “epiphe-nomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process.” If all thoughts are merely the products of non-rational causes, this includes the materialist’s own thoughts. In other words, there is no reason according to materialism for materialism itself to be regarded as true.

Debunking of Objective Morality

Closely related to materialism’s attack on reason is its debunking of objective morality. Materialists early in our century denied the existence of objective standards binding on all cultures, claiming that environment dictated our moral beliefs. Such relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Lewis attacked moral relativism in his opening chapters of Mere Christianity, where he pointed out that all people–even criminals–appeal to a universal standard when trying to excuse their own behavior. Even those who claim that right and wrong are mere conventions will hotly protest when wronged.

In Abolition of Man, Lewis made this argument in more detail, pointing out that we cannot escape making moral judgments. Every action presupposes a goal toward which the actor acts, and the goal (no matter how clinically it is expressed) represents a judgment of value. We cannot exist without making moral judgments, argued Lewis. The only question is what those judgments will be. Speaking within the western natural law tradition, Lewis proposed that at the foundation of all moral judgments is one set of ethical first principles known intuitively by all human beings. These first principles include obligations to treat other people justly and to keep one’s promises. All other moral judgments and ethical systems are derived from these principles.

Lewis added that the major civilizations agree almost wholly on ethical fundamentals (such as extolling honesty and kindness and reproving treachery and injustice). To be sure, there are “blindnesses in particular cultures–just as there are savages who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos–that no outline of universally accepted value shows through–is simply false.…”

Denial of Personal Responsibility

If materialism has been hard on reason and morality, it has been equally destructive of personal responsibility. By claiming that human thoughts and actions are dictated by our biology and environment, materialism undermined personal responsibility. The results can be seen in our criminal justice system, our civil justice system, and our welfare system. Ever since sin entered the world, human beings have sought excuses for their behavior, but materialism handed us an inexhaustible supply of excuses. No matter what we do, it can be attributed to a cause other than our own choices: our social environment, subconscious drives, or brain chemistry.

Against this modern ethic that no one is responsible, Lewis strove to make people aware of just how responsible they really are. Lewis countered this mentality not so much by direct disputation, but by trying to place a mirror in front of us that would cause us to recognize the evil in our own souls. This is most apparent in his fictional works, where there are key moments of self-revelation when major characters realize that they are really to blame for the fix they are in.

In the novel That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is a young sociologist who has spent his life cravenly currying favor with others in order to promote himself. When he subsequently finds himself in the middle of a totalitarian conspiracy, he first wonders what bad luck put him there. “Why had he such a rotten heredity?” he complained. “Why had his education been so ineffective? Why was the system of society so irrational?” Finally hitting bottom, he suddenly sees with brutal clarity who he really is and how his choices led to the mess he was in.

One cannot read Lewis’s fiction without being convicted of the fact that we are more accountable than we would like to think. Lewis calls us to responsibility by reminding us that every action has a consequence, and that no wrong choice–however small–is insignificant.

Proliferation of Coercive Utopianism

The final legacy of materialism is coercive utopianism. Although the belief that all thought and behavior are predetermined by material causes would seem to deny the power of human beings to reshape their world, materialism in fact inspired a fierce strain of coercive utopianism. Claiming either that they were merely the servants of the forces of materialism–or with Nietzsche, that they could overcome materialism by a sheer act of will–materialist reformers tried to create secular utopias in Russia and Germany. In America, meanwhile, significant parts of the cultural elite began to believe that we could engineer the perfect society through social science and planning.

The coercive utopians in Germany and Russia were both targets of Lewis’s scorn. But fascism and communism were far from the only forms of coercive utopianism about which Lewis was concerned. He also feared the modern welfare state, which he thought would become ever more intrusive as government planners allied themselves with the tools of materialist social science.

According to Lewis, if people act because of environmental and biological necessities, the government no longer need deal with them as free moral agents, and preemption replaces punishment as the preferred method of social control. Instead of punishing you for making the wrong choice, the state simply eliminates your choice.

Lewis painted a grim portrait of this kind of despotism in his novel That Hideous Strength. There the spirit of modern social science becomes incarnate in something called the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments—NICE, for short. Of course, there is nothing nice about NICE; its social scientists are exactly the type of technocrats that Lewis feared. In the name of science and humanity, they claimed the right to remake society without bothering to obtain its consent.

While we are a long way off from the nightmare vision depicted by Lewis in That Hideous Strength, we certainly should be able to understand some of what he is getting at. Public policy decisions in America today are made increasingly by the type of technocrats that Lewis talked about, as legislators have transferred much of their authority to a vast array of independent regulatory agencies staffed by unelected experts.

Lewis did not dispute that technocrats have plenty of knowledge that may be necessary for good public policy. But it is not sufficient. Political problems are preeminently moral problems, according to Lewis, and technocrats are no better equipped than any other citizen to function as moralists.

A New Natural Philosophy

At the end of The Abolition of Man, Lewis called for a new natural philosophy that would understand human beings as they really are. “When it explained,” said Lewis, “it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.”

Lewis was not quite sure what he was asking for, and–being a realist–he certainly was not convinced that the revolution would actually come about. Yet during the next decade it just might. We live during an era of tumultuous change, and nowhere is this fact more evident than in the sciences. Recent developments in biology, physics, and cognitive science are raising serious doubts about the most fundamental assumptions of materialism. In biology, scientists are discovering such irreducible complexity in biological systems that the only reasonable explanation seems to be a non-material designer. In physics, our understanding of matter is becoming increasingly non-material. In cognitive science, efforts to reduce mind to the physical processes of the brain have failed repeatedly.

In other words, for perhaps the first time since the materialist onslaught we have an opportunity to bring about the collapse of materialism and to re-found both science and culture along the lines envisioned by C. S. Lewis more than half-a-century ago.

This essay was originally published in Religion and Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 6.