Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Man’s Pursuit of Utopia
In “The New Atlantis,” Francis Bacon gives us a picture of the ideal state of humanity. In this ideal state, men possess the highest of moral qualities. The people of this Baconian community are devout, virtuous, and upright. In this utopia, science is the cause and ground for why man has been able to attain such happiness. Here, science is practiced perfectly and because the right method of science is employed, sound science is the result. And the product of sound science is the natural elevation of man to his proper place of absolute autonomous rule and reign over the physical world. In such a utopia, man acquires unimaginable cooperation, unsurpassed peace, and unceasing harmony.
Since men have existed, they have been in pursuit of the summum bonum. Bacon is clearly no exception. The problem with such lofty goals is that the manner in which each man defines the highest good differs almost to the man. What is humanity’s highest good? Philosophers have offered a number of alternatives for the highest good over the years and that is just the beginning of the problem. The answers have ranged from hedonism to rational eudemonism to ethical pluralism and many others. Bacon believes, as do many of his ardent students, that science has or is the solution to man’s problems. Not only can science define the highest good, it can carve out the path to this wonderful utopia.
In his book, “That Hideous Strength,” C.S. Lewis uses a fictional novel to expose the naïve belief that scientific materialism can actually deliver the utopia it promises. For modern readers, we cannot help but envision the same experiment guided by communism. One of the main characters of the novel, Mark Studdock, from the very beginning, is moved about like a pawn without any regard for what he might hold as the highest good. The arrangement at the N.I.C.E. is deliberately vague, slippery, and impossible for Mark to quantify or understand. The leaders of the N.I.C.E. clearly place little value on Mark as an individual. They only see him as a means to an end. In time, Lewis reveals that this is how the N.I.C.E. operates. This is their core philosophy. What matters is the ideal, not the person. Individuals are depersonalized and valued only for their ability to achieve the ideal. If they are deemed unhelpful, they are quickly disposed of in short order. Additionally, the N.I.C.E. seems to operate upon a purely pragmatic ethic. What is moral and just is that which promotes the ideal. If murder promotes the ideal, then murder is moral. If lying promotes the ideal, then lying is moral. If torture and false arrest and imprisonment promote the ideal, then these things are moral. One does not have to read about the N.I.C.E. for long before they realize that this utopia is indeed the strangest utopia one could ever imagine.
What Lewis is getting at is that thing which Bacon never seemed to consider. One man’s utopia is another man’s nightmare. One man may consider unrestricted access to another man’s wife whenever he pleases as utopia while for couple; such a scenario is much closer to hell. The modern ISIS group is a perfect example. Recently, ISIS terrorists that do well on the battlefield are rewarded with female slaves to do with them as they please. For these godless terrorists, such an arrangement may very well represent utopia. For the female slaves, it is sheer hell.
When man is the measure of all things the most natural question in the world is, “which man?” Utopian thinking requires criticism of the current state of affairs. One has to ask what the basis is for such criticism. How does one man look at the world and see deficiencies? Where does this idea that things ought to be better, originate? It is the myth and folly of rational thinkers to suppose that science can answer that question. It is not a scientific question. Moreover, it seems equally implausible for one to consider that a rationalist could provide a cogent answer. In that question, the question of the highest good, the summum bonum, is bound up a mystery, a puzzle that neither science nor pure rationalism can solve. Indeed, the solution rests someplace else.
The motives and values of the N.I.C.E. are clearly a very different set of values held by those of St. Anne. Who is to say, if man is the measure, which set of values ought to be preferred. How can we appeal to science to settle such a dispute? How could we appeal to logic to settle the matter? Indeed, an appeal must be made and that appeal must be made to that which stands over humanity, that which transcends humanity. There is no other way to address the riddle that is utopia.