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C. S. Lewis:

There is something which unites magic and applied science [=technology] 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.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft calls this “the single most illuminating three sentences I have ever read about our civilization.” He writes:

Technology is more like magic than like science.

If you are surprised at this statement, you do not understand the essence of technology. Heidegger does: it is the fulfillment of the Nietzschean “will to power” as the new summum bonum, greatest good, or meaning and end of life.

To see this point, imagine an experiment. Children are often given boxes to sort things in, and the observer can tell much about the children’s minds by how they classify things. For instance, if a child is told to put a baseball, a basketball, a baseball bat, and a basketball net into two boxes, the “structuralist” or “static” child will put the two balls in one box and the two other items, which are not spheres, in the other box; the “functionalist” child will put the baseball and the bat in one box, and the basketball and its hoop in the other.

Now suppose you are asked to classify four things—

  • religion,
  • science,
  • magic, and
  • technology

—and put them into two categories. Nearly everyone would classify science and technology together, and religion and magic together. There is a point to this classification: science and technology are limited to the empirically verifiable and the scientific method; religion and magic are not.

But there is a deeper classification, and Lewis uses it. Science and religion both aim at conforming the mind to objective truth, objective reality (science conforms our mind to the nature of the universe, and religion conforms our mind to the mind of God and our will to the will of God).

Magic and technology, on the other hand, try to conform objective reality to the human will. That is why they both arose at the same time—not the Middle Ages but the Renaissance, not the Age of God but the Age of Man. Both are Faustian, Promethean. The difference is, of course, that technology works while magic doesn’t (usually). But their end, their goal, the purpose behind them, the human values and desires and state of soul that set them in motion, are the same.


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3 thoughts on ““The Single Most Illuminating Three Sentences I Have Ever Read about Our Civilization””

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    I might suggest that the goal of applied science is too often a patent which can be used to exploit and extract money from people via products of dubious nature and to get better at killing and controlling. Of course, applied science has also helped us in various ways. The Turing machine, the internet, GPS, exploration, etc.

  2. Cédric says:

    Why would technology (or subduing reality to the wishes of men) be new, unwise or ungodly?

    One of the oldest command we’ve from GOD in Genesis 1:28 is:

    God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth AND SUBDUE IT”.

  3. John Sullivan says:

    Cedric’s comment beat me to it.

    Why not say – Technology was originally meant to be a way humans subdue the earth to glorify God and serve fellow man.
    The wheel being one of the first inventions.

    But man in his fallenness uses technology (and any power/control given to him by God) for his own selfish ends.

    But I can see how the idolatry of technology and magic are similar idols.

    (However – you could argue – stoicism is also a form of “subduing the soul to reality” which can be its own idolatry a la Colossians 2).

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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