If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.
In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”
Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”
I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?
Probably, but then why?
Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.
The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?
But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?
But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”
At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.
Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?