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A New Natural Philosophy: Implementing the Vision of C. S. Lewis

By October 1, 2016March 22nd, 2023No Comments

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Though I have not finished reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, its contours already feel intimately familiar. Many science fiction stories since then seem to have borrowed either slightly or generously from that 1932 cautionary tale. Movies such as Logan’s Run (1976), Gattaca (1997), or The Island (2005) each sprung to mind when I began reading Brave New World. Huxley’s book appears to have provided the central plot for this genre; other stories just fit into its serial installments. The commendation of euthanasia for the good of the collective or because there is no hope is described not only in Logan’s Run but occurs in movies like Soylent Green or Children of Men. The ability to overcome mankind’s weaknesses through eugenics as in Gattaca and/or through proper conditioning has been a theme since Plato’s ‘noble lie.’ But not until the twentieth century did innumerable stories presume the government would one day raise every child as ‘a bastard in a bureau’. And the crude depiction of the human body as mere instrumentality to support disembodied souls (wills?) with wholly interchangeable parts finds creepy expression in The Island although movies like The Matrix and Inception brilliantly explore the more general theme of disembodiment. C.S. Lewis described this genre well, “the author criticizes tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out to their logical limit. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four leap to our minds.”1

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis was published in 1943 just eleven years after Brave New World. The book had caught his attention as Lewis referred to it thrice in his short essay “On Science Fiction”. In Chapter Three of The Abolition of Man Lewis’ description of the problem overwhelmingly resembled the world Huxley described, that of the conditioners and the conditioned. Lewis identified that what is meant by power over nature more typically means the power of some men over others through the control of nature. His innocuous point is that in the world of the 1940’s not everyone had access to a radio or could enjoy air travel. His darker observation is that in the 1940’s these technologies were not primarily used for mere leisure but for the devastation of World War II. The question then of how to escape the inevitable outcome of technology becoming the power of the few over the many was only one of the challenging questions Lewis had asked in this final chapter. His real concern was, I think, not to halt technological advances but to clarify that power over nature does not amount to real knowledge of nature, nor does it lead to wisdom. 2 For that, another side of nature calls for our attention and perhaps even submission—not that we might impose our will upon her (and upon others through mastery of her), but that she might impress her categories upon us. Lewis said, For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious such as digging up or mutilating the dead.3

For Lewis it seemed that modern man’s conception of nature (his ontology) and the science it had begotten (his epistemology) were the primary culprits in shaping the Brave New World. Today these show few signs of letting up.

At the end of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis asked his readers to, “imagine a new Natural Philosophy.” He warned that “if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.” Lewis called science to repent and held out hope that, “from science herself the cure might come.” To honor and heed Lewis’ call for a repentant science, the 2015 “Recovering the Nature of Science” SCL preconference introduced three themes: a holistic curriculum, an incarnational pedagogy, and an interdisciplinary approach. By attention to these themes our schools may orient their natural science programs to the promotion of Lewis’ “New Natural Philosophy” under the Lordship of Christ. Implementing these distinctives can help our science curricula move from fostering scientism and skepticism towards faith in the incarnate Word; from materialism and idealism to hope in the resurrection and new creation; from determinism and domination to love in covenantal charity. These themes can guide natural science again towards the pursuit of wisdom and virtue.

A Holistic Curriculum

The first theme regards the curriculum: how can it be made more holistic and not habituate a scientistic or reductionist mindset in students? In previous generations, besides natural science, natural history and natural philosophy were also taught. What are these other curricular categories and do they need to be recovered? Moreover, in addition to the liberal arts, attention was given to the common arts and the fine arts as well. How might these all play a role in our recovery of nature?

The Liberal Arts Tradition written by Kevin Clark and me detailed the need to teach natural science within the context of natural philosophy. But the book did not speak explicitly of the role of natural history within the Western curriculum. Since the time of Aristotle there have been two impulses within natural philosophy.4 The first was natural history, a focus on the observation of phenomena. The second was natural science, a demonstrable knowledge of the causes of phenomena. Harvard historian of science, Steve Shapin in his book The Scientific Revolution notes that natural history observed three things: the ordinary course of nature, nature’s irregularities or monsters, and nature contrived to act by the artifice of man (experiments).5 While contemporary schools encourage or demand their natural science classes to have a robust laboratory component, where are students being asked to observe nature in her ordinary course? When are they to keep track of nature’s surprises? Natural history has been all but lost as a discipline even though Darwin himself considered his vocation that of a natural historian. The lost emphasis on observing nature in the raw has left our students with a false impression of what nature really is, a false ontology. We only conceive of her through artificial experiments and then ask the students to attend to only the natural phenomena that are highly regular and predictable.

According to James K.A. Smith, the impressive Christian thinker Charles Taylor “suggests that those who convert to unbelief ‘because of science’ are less convinced by the data and more moved by the form of the story science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality=maturity).”6 Thus it is critical that natural science teachers attend to the “form of the story” that they tell and not merely to the content; for they are the front line storytellers. One easy way schools can do this and reintroduce a natural historical element into classrooms without disrupting the many goods of natural science is by having students use sketchbooks to observe nature both in her ordinary course and in her surprises as well as in crucial experiments. Recall Mary Shelley’s kindly Elizabeth who attended to “the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded [her] Swiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains; the changes of the seasons; tempest and calm; the silence of winter…[and] contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things.” It was Dr. Victor Frankenstein who merely “delighted in investigating their causes.”7 Drawing may then offer another way to see and to contemplate that allows nature to impose her categories upon the student, helping “conform the soul to reality.”

A holistic curriculum ought not to recover only the liberal arts but the common and fine arts as well. The Liberal Arts Tradition described how all seven of the liberal arts provide the tools of learning, both the arts of language and the arts of mathematics. Recapturing the significance of these arts for contemporary education is of crucial importance. But since the 12th century, Hugh of St. Victor had identified the common arts as important for education as well (these are sometimes called the vulgar or servile arts). The common arts, i.e. agriculture, architecture, cooking, blacksmithing, et al, are the skills needed for civilization by all men everywhere throughout the world. Note that these common arts help man to provide food, clothes, shelter, and safety to his family or town. During the scientific revolution these activities, like blacksmithing or navigation, became more appropriate for natural philosophers to investigate. For example, the longitude prize awarded in England in the 18th century for new navigation techniques energized many of the brightest minds of the time.

While the medieval list of common arts need not constrain the examination of later technologies such as lens-grinding, steam engines, or even microchips, it does offer an instructive trajectory. Note that one motivation for better optics and lenses (hence microscopes and telescopes) was to improve navigation, and the steam engine was invented by those within the metallurgical tradition of the blacksmiths. Consider the transformational role attention to a garden and a few farm animals could have on the students’ understanding of nature. Introducing the skills needed for the other common arts such as spinning, weaving, and sewing for tailoring; or threshing, millery, and butchery for cooking; or tracking or trapping for hunting provides extensive exposure to the details of physical situations which then provoke wonder and curiosity about the natural world. One can build a mobile foundry to melt aluminum for about $10, and the contemporary ‘maker’ subculture offers innumerable projects for teachers to explore. Gameboys, cell phones, and drones operate only by magic for students, and without pressing on to the rigors of electrical engineering and computer science, students will likely never uncover the inner workings of these. In contrast, the curiosity aroused by the common arts is the kind more likely to sustain investigations into the causes of the phenomena which students encounter in high school natural science. By attending to these they might also develop an entirely new vision of the role techne (art) and technology play in a civilization. Consider the lament of Professor James Taylor, author of Poetic Knowledge, when he considered the plight of contemporary college students, “an entire preindustrial culture was missing from these students’ experience, and in its place was our familiar modern life, artificial and insulated more and more from direct experience with nature and reality.”8 In order to cultivate a proper vision of nature and the role of human art and technology within it, our natural science curricula should build from a basis in the common arts as well as the liberal arts.

An Incarnational Pedagogy

In addition to a holistic curriculum, an incarnational pedagogy calls teachers to appreciate the nature of the child and avoid a kind of mere technique in education. Christ became like us and laid aside his prerogative that he might live among us. The Word became flesh. This is the same disposition that teachers ought to have towards students. Attending to the nature of the children, body and soul, involves shaping loves, midwifing ideas, and cultivating practices. Shaping loves is most important to keep kids from the exasperation warned against in Ephesians 6:4.
All learning occurs within a network of relationships. Relationships with peers, with parents, with God, and with teachers all matter, and love must be cultivated in these. How could homework assignments such as, “go on a family picnic and identify five wildflowers,” change the family dynamic around homework? Moreover, the teacher can hold out beauty inherent in the subject. Causing students to wonder at the order in nature is truly having them marvel at the incarnate Logos, the second person of the Trinity. This beauty begets a love that can sincerely be directed towards Christ in whom all things hold together.

Midwifing ideas is the Socratic ideal for teaching. Natural science teachers tend to use lecture and laboratory as the only two pedagogical modes. These are appropriate at times, but do the kids understand themselves more broadly as pursuing great and significant questions
during these moments? Moreover, do they feel like they are arriving at the ideas themselves? Are the ideas being born from them or are they just repeating what they have been told? A pedagogy that focuses on following the question through the interrelationships among observation, reasoning, and assumptions within communities of faith and practice provides a richer pedagogical experience—a kind of global guided inquiry. Finally, what practices do we cultivate among the students? The observation of nature with a sketchbook and the recovery of the common arts are soul-shaping practices. Are there others? Reading the great discoverers unearths many more practices for the students. Perhaps some students will conclude they should pray more fervently upon encountering Pascal’s prayer life. Tracing Galileo’s interactions with the Duke
of Tuscany may embolden some to consider how natural science and leadership or politics intermingle. Certainly the 20th century interplay between technology and war offers an interesting case study. By reading the histories of the great scientists, practices are suggested to students that can disciple them unto wisdom as well as genius.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

The last theme of the Recovering Nature project is an interdisciplinary approach. I have written previously in the SCL Journal about “Science and Poetry,” detailing how Tennyson’s phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” preceded Darwin’s theory by nearly ten years.9 I did not mention though how a theory of the multiverse and one of evolution date back to the ideas of the ancient Greeks, not to mention heliocentrism as well. The Presocratic thinker Anaximander suggested that men evolved from fish (or a fish-like common ancestor?) and also claimed an infinite number of universes as continually coming into existence and passing away. I do not mind natural scientists talking about the multiverse, so long as they recognize that they are participating in the very ancient discourse of natural philosophy. The question then arises whether they are doing such philosophy well or poorly. Too often it seems that natural scientists gloss over the foundational questions of their discipline, adopt simplistic dogmatic stances prematurely, and then surmise that their conclusions are certain and indubitable no matter how unconventional or bizarre. Scientists blithely extend the idea of deterministic mathematical law ever outward to prove notions that then undermine the very possibility of such a law. It strikes me as more prudent to consider the consequences of such extensions before spending decades working out the mathematical complexities. This is especially true in an era in which so much research has been regarded as of dubious quality.10 Moreover, if many of these theories have been discussed for generations, though in slightly different garb, then history is an essential discipline for the natural scientist. Thus, at the bare minimum, natural science must explore its interdisciplinary boundaries with literature, mathematics, philosophy, and history if not for the sake of helping the students integrate their knowledge, then for the sake of true understanding in natural science itself.

Moreover, as Christians confess that in Christ all things hold together, theology becomes an indispensable discussion partner. By continuing to hold up the deep questions of natural science before the light of Christ, much is illuminated. The wave-particle duality of quantum physics is famously suggestive of the Trinity. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle and chaos theory raise questions about causality and determinism—these mirror questions regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. And the mind-body problem has, since at least the Nicene Creed, resembled the mystery of the Incarnation. Truth does not exclude mystery but embraces it. Faith in the incarnate Word, hope in the resurrection and new creation, and love in covenantal charity are important virtues by which we may tether our investigations of the natural world to the mystery of Christ. Thus theology as the queen of the sciences still has a crucial role to play in the study of natural science and natural philosophy.

A New Natural Philosophy

Why then must science repent? At one level, “If the scientists themselves cannot arrest the process… then someone else must arrest it,” before it abolishes man and leads to one ‘brave new world’ or another. At a second level, the implementation of a holistic curriculum and an incarnational pedagogy allows the students to develop habits that are more life-giving and humanizing. And finally if we wish our students to grow wise, then we simply must appreciate that natural science is not a merely ‘positivistic’ discipline isolated from all others. On the contrary, it grows by attention to poetic knowledge as gained by communities of faith and practice; by engagement with literature, philosophy, and history; and by submission to theology, the queen of the sciences. Thus we do well to give the students structures which embrace a holistic curriculum, an incarnational pedagogy, and an interdisciplinary approach. For all these reasons it is time to heed Lewis’ call. This is not an easy project. But let us pray that by God’s grace Christian Classical Schools may become a source of renewal for the “New Natural Philosophy” that Lewis imagined.


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