Thursday, 30 April 2009

Science and C. S. Lewis

Watching a TV programme "The Narnia Code" (about Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia, which I reviewed very favourably in LibraryThing), I was struck by a couple of passing comments.

Despite his ability to write science fiction, I have tended to regard C. S. Lewis (half-consciously) as something of a scientific illiterate, simply because he says hardly anything about biology. However, it was made clear that Lewis was a keen follower of the astronomy of the day, and fully aware of the demands that its findings make of the religious believer. (As Ward said on the programme) Lewis somewhere stated the almost inevitable opinion that any serious religion must be cosmic in scope, and take into account the whole of the universe as perceived by modern science.

There was a nice little analogy from Polkinghorne. Why is the kettle boiling? Science can offer a good deal along the lines of "because the water is undergoing a change from the liquid to the gaseous state...", but the answer might also be "because I want a cup of tea: would you like one too?"; and here science has nothing to say. Science is successful not because it can answer all the questions, but because scientific method effectively selects questions of the type to which it can give answers.

The modern materialist, it was noted, begins from the existence of matter as primary, and the arising of our delusory personhood is seen as something weird and anomalous. Lewis, by contrast, asks why we cannot start with what is obvious to us, and view consciousness as primary.

I thought of a scientific analogy comparable to Paley's watch (so perhaps ultimately as misleading). Some non-believers point to the Earth's marginal position in the physical universe as somehow confirming its cosmic significance, the majesty (or the sheer brute size) of the galaxies being so much more what the cosmos seems to be about. Why should the meaning of the universe be focused on a small, dim planet? However, if you found a building full of very large and complex pieces of equipment such as electricity generators and cooling coils, you wouldn't be correct to presume that these are therefore the truly important things, and that the small screen in a side room on which scientific observations are displayed is insignificant because it is small and not placed in the middle. To make a very small but important scientific observation, it may be necessary to construct a very large laboratory. To make a very small but important sentient species, it may be necessary to construct a very large universe.

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