Tag Archive | Fiction

C.S. Lewis on Scientism in Out of the Silent Planet

Have you ever heard of C.S. Lewis’ book series, The Chronicles of Narnia? It’s good. But, Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy is even better. And one of the reasons for that is because he confronts scientism.


Scientism exalts the natural sciences as the only fruitful means of investigation. In the words of Wikipedia: “Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.” In short, scientism is the view that says science, and science alone, tells us what is right and true.

Science, of course, is different. It is the study of the natural world through systematic study (observation, measurement, testing, and adjustment of hypotheses). Scientism goes beyond science and beyond the observation of the physical world into philosophy and ethics.

How can observations about the natural world tell us how to think and live? How can science tell us how to best do science? What can be said about the problems of scientism? C.S. Lewis gives us a few things to think about, and in a very enjoyable way.

Out of the Silent Planet on Scientism

Weston, one of the main characters in C.S. Lewis’ book, Out of the Silent Planet, holds to a form of scientism and belittles other ways of acquiring knowledge. Unscientific people, Weston says, “repeat words that don’t mean anything”[1] and so Weston refers to philology as “unscientific tomfoolery.” The “classics and history” are “trash education.”[2] He also says that Ransom’s “philosophy of life” is “insufferably narrow.”[3]

When science is the sole means of knowledge then we are left without theology, philosophy, and ethics. We are left to decipher ought from is. And it can’t be done. Or not in a way that prevents crimes against humanity. “Intrinsically, an injury, an oppression, and exploitation, an annihilation,” Nietzsche says, cannot be wrong “inasmuch as life is essentially (that is, in its cardinal functions) something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely inconceivable without such a character.”[4]

Weston concurs. He is ready and willing to wipe out a whole planet of beings. He says, “Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system… Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.”[5]

It is about life. Looking at life, looking at survival alone, leads us to think that alone is the goal. My life versus your life, Weston’s life versus the Malacandrian lives. That’s what we get when we derive ought from is. “Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute.”[6] And so, if it would be necessary, Weston would “kill everyone” on Malacandra if he needed to and on other worlds too.[7] Again, Weston finds agreement in Nietzsche: “‘Exploitation’ does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function.”[8]


Is Weston’s view correct? No. And we know it. That is the point C.S. Lewis makes. He offers a narrative critique of scientism in Out of the Silent Planet as well as through the whole Ransom Trilogy. He shows the havoc that scientism sheared of theology, philosophy, and ethics can unleash.

The answer is not to discard science, however. That is not what Lewis proposes either, though that is what some protest. The answer is to disregard scientism. Science is great and a blessing from God, but science on its own is not enough as our guide. We cannot, for example, derive ought from is. We cannot look at the natural world around us, at what is, and find out what we should do, how we ought to live.



[1] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), 25.

[2] Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet 27.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals.

[5] Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, 135.

[6] Ibid., 136.

[7] Ibid., 137.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond God and Evil, par. 259.

Quotes on Literature

“When we are at play, or looking at a painting or a stature, or reading a story, the imaginary work must have such an effect on us that it enlarges our own sense of reality.”

~Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

“Students value literature as a means of enlarging their knowledge of the world, because through literature they acquire not so much additional information as additional experience.”

~Marie Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration

“Literature… serves to deepen and to extend human greatness through the nurture of beauty, understanding, and compassion. In none of these ways, of course, can literature, unless it be the literature of the Christian faith, lead us to the City of God, but it may make our life in the city of man far more a thing of joy and meaning and humanity, and that in itself is no small achievement. Great literature may not be a Jacob’s ladder by which we can climb to heave, but it provides an invaluable staff with which to walk the earth.”

~Roland M. Frye, Perspectives on Man: Literature and the Christian Tradition

“Art is one of the means by which man grabbles with and assimilates reality.”

~Ralph Fox, The Novel and the People

“The primary job that any writer faces is to tell you a story of human experience—I mean by that, universal mutual experience, the anguishes and troubles and gifts of the human heart, which is universal, without regard to race or time or condition.”

~William Faulkner, Faulkner at West Point

“A poem… begins in delight and ends in wisdom [and]… a clarification of life… For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew… There is a glad recognition of the long lost.”

~Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”


See Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination 

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