The Technocratic Illusion

Perhaps the greatest (and least known and read popularly) book by C.S. Lewis was the one he wrote for the Oxford History in English Literature Series.  It was originally titled, “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)” and has since been renamed, “Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century”.  This book took Lewis about 15 years to write and during the process he read EVERY SINGLE BOOK of Sixteenth Century literature in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest part of Oxford’s massive Bodleian Library.  (Yes, you read that correctly – every single book)

The most readable part of this book is it’s long introduction – “New Learning and New Ignorance” – which surveys the intellectual history of this period.  One of the subjects which he treats most in-depth is the rise of experimental science during this time frame.  He puts this rise in the context of other developments of this period – which include the explosion in worldwide exploration and the beginnings of European colonization of the New World (with the corresponding mushrooming of international trade), the fracturing of Western European Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the flowering of interest in magic and the occult during this time frame as well.  In fact, Lewis makes the historical argument that interest in magic and science were related and that Francis Bacon (the leading figure in the rise of experimental science) was aware of this affinity and thought the aim of the magicians was “noble”.  Lewis argues that during this era Europe was “haunted by dreams of power”, an argument that even a cursory examination of the historical events surrounding the exploration of the “New World”, the theological food fights of the competing Reformations and corresponding political chaos would tend to confirm.    Lewis makes the same point in “The Abolition of Man” when he states, “the serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour were twins:  one was sickly and died, the other was strong and throve.  But they were twins.  They were born of the same impulse.”  What was that impulse?  Consider his further analysis.

“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.”

If one thinks hard enough about some aspects of modern science (experimentation on animals – injecting disease into lab rats and the like – or using embryonic stem cells – discarded human tissue – for the development of medical treatments – not to mention the environmental side effects of the mass production of energy necessary to fuel an industrial economy) it does certainly seem like some kind of Faustian bargain for “Progress”.  I am certainly not ungrateful for the positive effects of the modern science and technology  (such as the computer I am typing this post on or the allergy medicine I took this morning).  But the sense of power and progress that these achievements tend to give are certainly not an unadulterated good, free from any dangers or harmful side effects.

Consider also the “science” of economics.  In our political and economic climate one of the arguments that divides is the proper marginal tax rate for the top earners (or “the rich” depending upon your political persuasion – which is a funny description considering that by world or historical standards most of us are wildly rich).  In the past 60 years we have seen top marginal tax rates ranging anywhere from 91 percent to 28 percent (with stops at 70, 50, 39 and 35 at various points in between – the current top marginal rate is 35).  Setting aside the fact these rates often have very little relationship to the actual effective income tax rate is that an individual taxpayer may actually end up paying (once deductions, government transfers and the skills and knowledge of one’s tax preparer is taken into account), one thing that hasn’t changed during all of these years is that we have a relatively small number of incredibly high earners, a vast pool of earners in the big middle and a considerable number of poor people.  Depending on what side of the political divide one finds themselves on, arguments are made that if we just raised the top marginal rate – then income inequality would be reduced and more “fairness” would result or that if we would just lower the top marginal rate – job creators would be unshackled and explosive growth would result.  Both of these arguments depend upon essentially technocratic assumptions (by technocratic I mean the belief/practice that experts can exercise some level – generally thought of as a high level – of control of economic and social conditions by enacting preferred policies).  If tax levels are set correctly, things will automatically be better.  Whatever one’s preferred economic outcome (fairness or growth) is will magically come about.  I am not arguing that tax policy is irrelevant, but I wonder if the Armageddon-like pronouncements of doom if the proper changes aren’t made aren’t just a bit overblown.  If one wants to wander deep into the weeds of economic policy, one will find these kinds of arguments made about much more than tax rates.  But the same assumptions apply, if preferred policies are enacted – preferred outcomes will magically appear.

I am not arguing against the reality of cause and effect (in economics or any other field for that matter).  But the assumptions that we bring into the equation shouldn’t go unexamined.  The biggest assumption present is that we can exercise a large amount of control over very complex matters despite the inability (in most, if not all cases) to know all factors involved.

The Technocratic illusion is not limited to experimental science or matters of public policy.  Perhaps the most salient example that we experience personally is in matters of faith.  If we are not careful, we can mistake faith for a technique.  Whether it is in mistaking correct doctrinal formulation for living faith or praying in a formulaic way (saying the correct words in the correct way) as a means of guaranteeing preferred outcomes, a counterfeit faith can be practiced as a clever disguise for maintaining or grasping for control.  The biggest issue is thereby sidestepped.  That issue is the conforming of one’s soul to reality – the ultimate reality of the Kingdom of God.  Who is in control of our lives?  That is the ultimate question of faith.  It isn’t merely what we believe, but who we yield to.  And make no mistake – we are yielding to someone.  Control is almost always an illusion.  Think of the facts of our lives that we have no control over.  We didn’t choose when we were born, who our parents are, what our gender is or our geographic or ethnic location.  We were born into a station in life – we were assigned a place, whether we like it or not.  But while we do not have control – we do have choices.  The idea of a station in life offends our modern sensibilities precisely because so much of modernity is build upon the assumptions of and the desire for control.  But ironically, it is only when one accepts and embraces one’s station that life’s possibilities really open up.  Jesus said that when we lose our lives for his sake and for the gospel’s, we find it.  It is only when we give up the struggle to be someone that we are not that we can actually be all that we really were made to be.  The wisdom of old hasn’t changed.  Knowledge, self-discipline and virtue are still the only way.  But it is knowledge of God, submitting to the discipline of genuine discipleship and the adding of virtue to the foundation of faith that can actually conform the soul to reality.  We are not in control, but we do have a choice.



  1. When I think of the word technocratic, I usually think of McNamara and his “whiz kids” from the Vietnam War. Never thought of tying in a technocratic illusion to matters of faith. A good read.

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