In order to understand the relevance of Tolkien’s story to us today, and in order to better understand how technology has taken such a prominent place in our society, we will now need to examine another myth, a myth which wants us to take it a little more ‘literally’. I call it a myth because every worldview is part system and part story: They are systems because they try to show how the various dimensions of reality are related; they are stories because they try to make sense of human history using language that is inescapably associated with a socio-historical context, and because they make choices that can never be severed from subjective value judgments.
We have a choice of what myths, what visions we will use to help us understand the physical world. We do not have a choice of understanding it without using any myths or visions at all. Again, we have a real choice between becoming aware of these myths and ignoring them. If we ignore them, we travel blindly inside myths and visions which are largely provided by other people. This makes it much harder to know where we are going.
The myth we will now be examining is the worldview produced by unrestrained scientific inquiry and assertions –a way of defining the universe that, when taken in its extreme form, reduces the universe to merely quantifiable material substances. This worldview has taken on various nuances and labels, yet I will be using the term ‘scientific reductionism’ to describe it. Scientific reductionism is the belief that all that exists is ultimately reducible to rationally explicable, mathematically quantifiable materials and laws that can best be discovered and exploited through the scientific method of apprehending reality. While I will not recount here the history of how this worldview came to be so prevalent and so radically misappropriated, its primary point of origin was the Enlightenment’s placing of reason above all other sources of truth.
Wendell Berry, critiquing one of the most recent and comprehensive attempts to promote this radically materialist worldview, O.N. Wilson’s Consilience, notes in his poignantly titled book Life is a Miracle: An essay against modern superstition that
Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along a series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply.
A glance at any newspaper (or out most windows) confirms this image of leapfrogging in the dark –drugs that turn out to have devastating side effects; factories that destroy the environment; machines that end up diminishing or creating barriers between relationships; social ‘programs’ that end up dehumanizing people; technologies that promise to bring happiness but only bring temporary entertainment –these and many other examples confirm Berry’s image. We are dramatically confronted by the many problems caused by our previous ‘solutions’, and yet oddly enough more and more scientific ‘miracles’ are advertised, believed in, sold, and all too thoughtlessly consumed. It’s as though we are addicted to technological ‘fixes’ and yet in denial of this addiction and its destructive consequences.
Yet without recognizing these consequences and without admitting the limits of this scientific myth, we have brought about serious problems; problems which may mean a temporary freedom for science, but which actually result in great loss of freedom for the world. Berry puts it so:
Our present idea of freedom in science is too often reducible to thoughtlessness of consequence…In both science and art there is a principled resistance to any suggestion that the specialist, within his or her work, might be subject or subordinate to anything. And so the freedom of the originators and exploiters has become, in effect, the abduction and imprisonment of all the rest of us. Adam was the first, but not the last, to choose for the whole human race.
Freedom was never meant be mean the ‘freedom’ to do whatever one desires; it comes when the boundaries and limits drawn by love are respected. Our choices have consequences, and as we have seen, many of the choices of the scientific-political-technological powers-that-be have resulted in a great loss of freedom for many.
A further problem with this myth is that by reducing the known universe to mere lawfully determined, quantifiable material, we abandon any meaningful belief in the wonderful realities that make life worth living –wonders like free-will, the human spirit, and love. Berry reminds us that, left to itself, this limited way of knowing “would impose the scientific methodology of reductionism upon cultural properties, such as religion and the arts, that are inherently alien to it, and that are often expressly resistant to reduction of any kind.”
Since reductionism believes that everything can ultimately be explained, these mysterious realities can only be perceived as puzzles yet to be solved, illusions and superstitions yet to be discredited, or territory waiting to be conquered, quantified, and used. Yet in believing this we deny the mysterious nature of the very realities that enable us to discover and proclaim that any ‘truth’ might exist in the first place. In his book “The Abolition of Man”, CS Lewis illustrates this point well,
But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
It is worth noting that one interesting magical property of The Ring is that it makes its wearer invisible. At first, it seems as though these pictures clash –a ring that makes its wearer invisible and a worldview that makes everything else invisible –but in the end, they are the same. For when we attempt to have power over others, denying their ultimately mysterious nature, we begin the process of dehumanizing them, and we too begin to fade from all that makes us truly human.
Obviously we do not literally disappear (though with foolish creations like the nuclear bomb, the metaphor becomes frighteningly befitting) but that which makes us truly human does. Wendell Berry tells us that by accepting the reductionist worldview, we adopt the idea “that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation” In essence, this way of perceiving the world leads us to see the human as just one more machine –and not a very ‘efficient’ one at that (depending on one’s values). Berry notices that
This machine business may once have had meaning. It may have been a way of asserting a belief in the integrity of Creation and the physical coherence of creatures; it may have been a way of insisting on the indispensability of part to whole. The machine, in other words, had a certain usefulness as a metaphor. But the legitimacy of a metaphor depends upon our understanding of its limits.
Surely one of the ways of describing life is as an integrated system –there is nothing wrong with that –yet this metaphor has limits that urgently need to be recognized. Taken by itself, the scientific way of knowing is ironically more of a limited and limiting myth (for it reduces reality) than the more traditionally ‘mythic’ ways of knowing –like the artistic work of Tolkien or a more traditional religious worldview –the very spheres that many scientists so often try to discredit in our present age. We now turn to look at the link between scientific reductionism and the technologies that it produces.