The Blind Monkey Theorem, or What Ayn Rand Got Right

Even a blind monkey, it is said, finds a banana every once in a while.

I was reminded of that bit of wisdom some time ago when Left Blogistan was enjoying itself celebrating the nasty marginalia Ayn Rand wrote in her copy of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. The joke, of course, is that both have become idols of the not-too-bright elements of the American Right, despite the fact that they agreed on roughly nothing.

In general, Rand deserves her followers, while Lewis emphatically does not deserve his. (I can just imagine Lewis’s reaction had he lived to see Ollie North (!) living in a mansion called “Narnia.”) Lewis was a superb writer of persuasive prose (I’d put him in the Orwell class) and, on average, a far clearer and more original thinker than Rand, whose “philosophy” is mostly Nietzsche-and-water. You don’t have to be a Christian to admire the brilliance of Screwtape, or its insight into some aspects of moral psychology and of bureaucratic life.

I live in the Man
agerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

Still, Lewis’s version of Christianity – and perhaps even more, his Aristotelianism – involved him in deep, deep hostility to science. You can see that in the Out of the Silent Planet/Perelandra/That Hideous Strength trilogy, where a character into whose mouth Lewis puts the words of J.B.S. Haldane is the leader of a (literally) diabolical conspiracy, with another character clearly based on H.G. Wells as its pompous, clueless front man.

Partly this is just an echo of Berkeley making fun of Newton as a way of getting back at science for proving that the actual world isn’t consistent with what had long been Christian doctrine; partly it’s an expression of the resentment of literary intellectuals toward the prestige enjoyed by scientists, as described by C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures.

But at a deeper level, it has to do with two different approaches to dealing with suffering: the religious view that accepts it as the Divine will and invites sufferers to turn their misery to spiritual benefit and the scientific/technological view that asks how knowledge can be harnessed to the task of reducing the volume of suffering in the world. It would be too harsh to say that Lewis would prefer prayer to medicine as a way of addressing the problem of disease, but “too harsh” is not the same as “inaccurate.” After all, a life saved my medicine – unlike a soul saved by prayer – is not saved for eternity.

More fundamentally still, there is an almost ineradicable tension between the stance that seeks for truth in the traditions of the past and the stance that seeks it in new inquiry, which Lewis exemplifies by “digging up and mutilating the dead.” (See Popper’s “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition” for an attempt to reconcile traditionalism with critical thought.) Lewis’s preference for manuscripts over laboratories came from the same roots as his commitment to revealed religion.

Below are some of the passages on which Rand commented rudely. Her comments aren’t worth paying attention to, but the passages themselves say much ruder things about Lewis than Rand could ever have managed to say.

I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scien­tific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people

There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who fol­lows the triumphal car.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. 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 and mutilating the dead.

If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’ In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things pos­sible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scien­tific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.

Note the elision from Faust’s desire for personal power to Bacon’s desire to create knowledge that would be useful to humankind. As to goals, what Lewis says is half-true: Jenner didn’t especially want to understand smallpox; he just wanted to prevent it. (Galileo and Newton, whom Lewis doesn’t mention, were in a different business.) But if Lewis believed that preventing smallpox was a good thing, he somehow neglected to say so.

My purpose here is not to condemn Lewis; I have learned much and had great pleasure from reading his books. A non-Christian who wants to grok what Christianity is about could do much worse than Mere Christianity plus The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But Lewis’s anti-scientific and anti-technological bias comes as part of the package, and Rand wasn’t wrong to call him out on it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.