Dominic Russell (@historytalker) recently posted a couple of pics clipped from the Coventry Evening Telegraph. This included two of C.S. Lewis’ short pieces from 1945, including “Work and Prayer” and this clever piece, “Religion and Science.” In a smoking room dialogue, Lewis challenges the naivety of those who accept a certain imaginative construct of the past and call it “science.” Sort of a “what do they teach them in these schools?” kind of moment. Here Lewis is clearing the table rather than setting it, but a nice short essay.
‘Miracles’, said my friend. ‘Oh, come. Science has knocked the bottom out of all that. We know that Nature is governed by fixed laws.’
‘Didn’t people always know that?’ said I.
‘Good Lord, no,’ said he. ‘For instance, take a Story like the Virgin Birth. We know now that such a thing couldn’t happen. We know there must be a male spermatozoon.’
‘But look here’, said I, ‘St Joseph –‘
‘Who’s he?’ asked my friend.
‘He was the husband of the Virgin Mary. If you’ll read the story in the Bible you’ll find that when he saw his fiancée was going to have a baby he decided to cry oft the marriage. Why did he do that?’
‘Wouldn’t most men?’
‘Any man would’, said I, ‘provided he knew the laws of Nature – in other words, provided he knew that a girl doesn’t ordinarily have a baby unless she’s been sleeping with a man. But according to your theory people in the old days didn’t know that Nature was
governed by fixed laws. I’m pointing out that the story shows that St Joseph knew that law just as well as you do.’
‘But he came to believe in the Virgin Birth afterwards, didn’t he?’
‘Quite. But he didn’t do so because he was under any illusion as to where babies came from in the ordinary course of Nature. He believed in the Virgin Birth as something super-natural. He knew Nature works in fixed, regular ways: but he also believed that there
existed something beyond Nature which could interfere with her workings – from outside, so to speak.’
‘But modern science has shown there’s no such thing.’
‘Really,’ said I. ‘Which of the sciences?’
‘Oh, well, that’s a matter of detail,’ said my friend. ‘I can’t give you chapter and verse from memory.’
‘But, don’t you see’, said I, ‘that science never could show anything of the sort?’
‘Why on earth not?’
‘Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything “outside”. How could youfind that out by studying simply Nature?’
‘But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.’
‘How do you mean?’ said I.
‘Look here,’ said he. ‘Could this “something outside” that you talk about make two and two five?’
‘Well, no,’ said I.
‘All right,’ said he. ‘Well, I think the laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.’
‘Half a moment,’ said I. ‘Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?’
‘Of course’, said he, ‘provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.’
‘Ah, but that’s the whole point,’ said I. ‘The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws
of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get
what the scientist predicted.’
‘No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey-tricks like that.’
‘Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely
Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.’
‘These are rather niggling points,’ said my friend. ‘You see, the real objection goes far deeper. The whole picture of the universe which science has given us makes it such rot to believe that the Power at the back of it all could be interested in us tiny little
creatures crawling about on an unimportant planet! It was all so obviously invented by people who believed in a flat earth with the stars only a mile or two away.’
‘When did people believe that?’
‘Why, all those old Christian chaps you’re always telling about did. I mean Boethius and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Dante.’
‘Sorry’, said I, ‘but this is one of the few subjects I do know something about.’
I reached out my hand to a bookshelf. ‘You see this book’, I said, ‘Ptolemy’s Almagest. You know what it is?’
‘Yes,’ said he. ‘It’s the standard astronomical handbook used all through the Middle Ages.’
‘Well, just read that,’ I said, pointing to Book I, chapter 5.
‘The earth,’ read out my friend, hesitating a bit as he translated the Latin, ‘the earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point!’
There was a moment’s silence.
‘Did they really know that then?’ said my friend. ‘But – but none of the histories of science – none of the modern encyclopedias – ever mention the fact.’
‘Exactly,’ said I. ‘I’ll leave you to think out the reason. It almost looks as if someone was anxious to hush it up, doesn’t it? I wonder why’
There was another short silence.
‘At any rate’, said I, ‘we can now state the problem accurately. People usually think the problem is how to reconcile what we now know about the size of the universe with our traditional ideas of religion. That turns out not to be the problem at all. The real
problem is this. The enormous size of the universe and the insignificance of the earth were known for centuries, and no one ever dreamed that they had any bearing on the religious question. Then, less than a hundred years ago, they are suddenly trotted out
as an argument against Christianity. And the people who trot them out carefully hush up the fact that they were known long ago. Don’t you think that all you atheists are strangely unsuspicious people?’