In the previous century, the language wars were fought over adverbs; at issue was discipline of thought and speech. How many thousands of readers of The Elements of Style felt that mixture of shame and delight when they read what Strunk and White had to say about “hopefully”? “This once-useful adverb meaning ‘with hope’ has been distorted and is now widely used to mean ‘I hope.’ Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly.”
Oh, for the good old days.
To be sure, Orwell was there to remind us about the dangers of newspeak. But as the century ground to its weary end, the Communists were in worldwide retreat, and it seemed as though words were returning to their proper meanings.
How shocking these last few years have been. Suddenly, pronouns and possessive adjectives are on everyone’s minds. “To each their own” is ubiquitous. Today one takes a stand by using the constructions we found so cumbersome in the 1980s, “he or she” and “his or her.” Whence this strife over words? What are its deep roots? How is sanity to be defended amid these battles?
Michael D. Aeschliman’s The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism, an updated edition of a work first published in 1983, has the answers.
There is a double surprise in store for Aeschliman’s readers. It is alarming to learn how the rise and growth of a scientific culture has been linked with the most blatant subjectivism. It is a joy to be introduced to the “great central tradition” of witnesses to the true meaning of words and defenders of human reason, a tradition culminating in a man here fittingly characterized as its “trustee,” the redoubtable “Jack” Lewis.
As to the first, in The Restoration of Man, Aeschliman ably chronicles how the culture associated with the new science of the 17th century began poorly and became worse. It was four long centuries ago, after all, that Francis Bacon declared, “There is nothing sound in the notions of logic and physics: neither substance, nor quality, nor action and passion, nor being itself are good notions; much less heavy, light, dense, rare, wet, dry, generation, corruption, attraction, repulsion, element, matter, form, and so on; all fanciful and ill defined.” And just three years later, Galileo followed up with “I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness.” The new science began with an assault on the human race’s immemorial habit of expressing its experience of the world in ordinary language. On Bacon’s and Galileo’s principle, even a statement as simple as “The brown horse ate the red apple” would need to be called into question.
In the intervening centuries, the rejection of what we know to be the case through seeing and touching has become more and more troubling and perplexing. Darwin, for one, mused in his notebooks that thought might best be understood to be a “secretion of the brain,” without stopping to ask himself who then would be doing the understanding. Badly do we need witnesses such as Lewis and the philosopher Thomas Nagel to remind us that “scientific materialism is,” in Aeschliman’s words, “internally inconsistent and false.”Read More ›
The Galileo myth posits that the great astronomer’s story illustrates the near-inevitable conflict between science and religion — or “faith and fact.” As science historian Michael Keas explains, the story is actually more complicated, nuanced, and interesting than the myth would have it. In Unbelievable, Professor Keas explores seven myths about the history of science and faith. It’s a great read. Read More ›
Scientists love to tell stories about the quest to understand the universe — stories that often have profound implications for belief or disbelief in God. These accounts make their way into science textbooks and popular culture. But more often than not, the stories are nothing but myths. Unbelievable explodes seven of the most popular and pernicious myths about science and religion. Read More ›
A recurring theme of the 1994 book Pale Blue Dot, by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, is that we are insignificant in the cosmic scheme. In one memorable passage, Sagan pushes this point while reflecting on an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 from some four billion miles away. He writes:
Because of the reflection of sunlight … Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
You might think that Sagan had an eccentric, melancholy personality. But his sermonette actually expresses an idea popular among modern scientists known as the Copernican Principle. Its proponents trace the history of the principle to its namesake, Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543). According to the popular story, Copernicus demoted us by showing that ours was a sun-centered universe, with Earth both rotating around its axis and revolving around the sun like the other planets. He dislodged us from our place of centrality and, therefore, importance. Scientists since Copernicus have only reinforced this initial dethroning. Or so the story goes.
Open virtually any introductory astronomy textbook and you will read some version of this story. It has a single, decisive, problem: it’s false. Historians of science have protested this description of the development of science for decades; but so far, their protests have not trickled down to the masses or the textbook writers.
The real story is much more subtle. We can only sketch its outlines here. The pre-Copernican cosmology was a combination of the physical and metaphysical vision of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), and the observations and mathematical models of Ptolemy (circa 100-175 AD) and other astronomers. The universe they envisioned was a set of nested, concentric spheres that encircled our spherical, terrestrial globe, a model that nicely explained a whole range of astronomical phenomena in the pre-telescope era. The crystalline spheres were thought to connect so that the movement of the outer, stellar sphere of the stars moved the inner spheres that housed the planets, Sun, and Moon. This model gave order to the east to west movement of the Sun and the Moon, the celestial sphere encircling the celestial poles, and the perplexing and somewhat irregular paths of the known planets.Read More ›
God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?By John LennoxLion Hudson, 192 pages, $14.99 A friend recently put it to me that the Church has a Galileo Complex. Terrified by the historical narrative of the Church’s resistance to and persecution of science, Christians are averse to challenging “scientific” claims. “Complex” is an apt description, too: a group of unconscious impressions, not a Read More ›
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