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Mind over matter

C.S. Lewis foresaw the corruption of the university

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Just as Leviticus is the graveyard of many a Bible reading plan, That Hideous Strength is the Waterloo of many a C.S. Lewis fan. “I can’t get through it!” they say. I get it; the last volume of Lewis’ space trilogy can be perplexing and frustrating. The trilogy began with a straightforward sci-fi tale of a university professor kidnapped and transported to Mars (Out of the Silent Planet). In Perelandra, the same professor is conveyed—voluntarily this time—to Venus, where he participates in a replay of the original temptation story.

But That Hideous Strength begins with a dissatisfied graduate student and her social-climbing husband in a stuffy academic world resembling Oxford. Professor Ransom is nowhere in sight; petty professorial politics consume the opening chapters. What gives?

Even though the story takes longer than it needs to connect the dots and start building tension, in my opinion it’s worth the effort. Lewis foresaw the corruption of the university, the rise of the expert class, and the marriage of science and politics.

Supercomputers will know more about us than we know about ourselves—what we think, how we feel.

But some of his narrative devices seemed far-fetched in the early 1980s when I attempted a second reading. The university becomes host to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE), whose ultimate goal is to eradicate organic life processes. This amounts to eradicating organic life itself and replacing it with something cleaner, leaner, and more manageable.

If anything, American culture in the ’80s reveled in organic life, especially where blood and guts and sex were concerned. But subtle forces were at work even then that are oozing out of the many cracks in our social order now.

Mind over matter might serve as shorthand for the anti-humanist aims of the NICE. It’s represented by a literal “mind,” which they have reanimated in the head of an executed criminal. The scientists believe they have created a functioning brain that thinks and speaks: their first step toward “taking charge of our destiny.” The real facilitators of the project know that the Head is the unthinking host to a supernatural entity. They aim to unite science and magic to produce unprecedented power.

Not so far-fetched after all, when “science” foresees unprecedented power around the nearest corner. “History began when humans invented gods and will end when humans become gods.” So says Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who has made a name for himself as a philosopher and futurist. He predicts that within 200 years what we call “human” will be unrecognizable as our species. Humans will become the product of intelligent design—not God’s, but ours.

He builds that disturbing prospect on neuroscience, which he believes will master the human brain in a few decades, reaping an unimaginable wealth of data. With this information, supercomputers will know more about us than we know about ourselves, predicting—and eventually controlling—what we think, how we feel, and what we do.

Harari calls this “hacking humans,” and admits it makes him uneasy. Who will own the data? So far, big tech companies do, and that’s not ideal. Big government would be no better, and the scientific community is too fractured and disorganized to take charge. When pressed to give an answer at the 2018 World Economic Forum, Harari had to say, “I don’t know.” Which may be the only response to the problem as he posed it.

Harari, and the fictional scientists of the NICE, make one huge assumption: that matter in motion explains everything. Things that seem immaterial, such as human consciousness, are in their view the invisible products of physical processes in the brain. But there is no direct evidence for this. It’s a prior assumption of the sort that makes thought possible (for every thought begins with an assumption). Given humanity’s spotty record, no thinking materialist could be sanguine about its power to hack the human psyche.

But here’s more prior knowledge: that the materialistic, deterministic future predicted by Harari is in the hands of One who laughs at its presumptions. And has the final say.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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