CS Lewis was the most influential writer or teacher in my early christian faith, but it has become fashionable among both atheists and some christians to minimise his contribution and worth.
How do his arguments for christian belief stack up today?
CS Lewis used two significant philosophical arguments, the argument from reason and the moral argument. Neither of them “prove” God exists, and attempted refutations don’t disprove the arguments. But I consider that these two arguments make a strong case for God’s existence.
Argument from reason
This argument is based on the idea that if a conclusion arises from irrational causes and for irrational reasons, then we cannot trust that conclusion. So if naturalism (the belief that only natural, as opposed to supernatural, laws and forces operate in the world) is true, then everything is explicable in terms of natural objects and processes, ultimately, in terms of fundamental particles.
But fundamental particles are not a rational cause, so we have good reason to doubt the rationality of our thinking – including belief in naturalism. So, Lewis argued, something other than nature must exist if we are to reason truly, and the most logical super-natural cause is God.
Since Lewis first presented the argument in his book Miracles, it has been much discussed. Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued against some of Lewis’ formulation of the argument, leading him to re-write it. Since then, philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert have developed strong versions of the argument. Not everyone is impressed, but the argument remains convincing to many.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis began with the observation that we all make moral judgments; in fact, civilisations and cultures all over the world have always made moral judgments. And we don’t always live up to the moral standards we believe in.
He points out that any attempt to justify or explain our moral judgments calls on other moral judgments which we just have to assume. In other words, there must be some moral law that is really true, just like the law of gravity, except in this case we don’t always obey the law.
He concludes that all this only makes sense if there is something, a rational mind, ‘behind’ the universe.
Lewis is not the only one to use this argument (e.g. William Lane Craig regularly uses it in formal debates), but his version has probably been more widely-read. The main attempted refutations are (i) arguing that our moral judgments are subjective, and (ii) raising Euthyphro’s dilemma, which asks
Is a moral value true because God commands it, or does God command it because it is true? – which doesn’t refute the argument, but does pose a difficult question.
I have analysed the moral argument in some detail.
Jesus and the trilemma
In Mere Christianity, having used the moral argument to suggest God exists, Lewis goes on to consider the life and teachings of Jesus, especially those things he said and did that implied his divinity. He poses his famous (or notorious) ‘trilemma’ (though it was not original with him):
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
This argument has been much criticised, for it assumes that the gospels, and the christian understanding of them, are historically correct, something that many wouldn’t concede today. So critics say the whole story of Jesus could be a legend, or perhaps the claims to divinity were added later.
Nevertheless, the argument can be modified, based only on teachings and actions of Jesus that secular historians generally accept. The argument may thus be persuasive to anyone who accepts the findings of current historical scholarship.
Bulverism and other logical fallacies
“Bulverism is a logical fallacy in which, rather than proving that an argument in favour of an opinion is wrong, a person instead assumes that the opinion is wrong, and then goes on to explain why the other person held it. It is essentially a circumstantial ad hominem argument.” (Wikipedia).
CS Lewis invented the term “Bulverism”, named after his invented character Ezekiel Bulver, because he saw the fallacy being used so often, sometimes in an attempt to discredit his arguments by discrediting his (assumed) motives.
Ad hominem attacks continue to be used against Lewis. A few years ago, Victor Stenger attempted to dismiss Lewis (and his influence on biologist Francis Collins) by calling him “an author of children’s literature ….. not highly regarded today by either theologians or philosophers”, this despite the fact that Lewis was much more than a children’s author, is one of the few scholars to earn three firsts at Oxford (English, history and philosophy) and remains influential half a century after his death.
Stenger’s mean comment is technically the logical fallacy of “poisoning the well”, very close to Bulverism, as he doesn’t address any of Lewis’ arguments, and misrepresents his reputation – many philosophers, including the late Antony Flew, Norman Geisler, the late Basil Mitchell, Mary Midgely and many others, have spoken very highly of him. I suppose it depends on who you ask.
But the last word on this matter can go to Lewis, replying to another put-down: “when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits.”
Science and scientism
Lewis accepted current science, including the science of evolution. However he opposed “scientism“, the view that science (in principle) answers all meaningful questions, and is thus the most important, or only, way to know things.
Lewis was concerned that scientists can sometimes claim too much authority, not for their science, but for their views on ethics, philosophy and politics. In the worst case, scientists might abuse their position and undertake inhumane experiments or promote inhumane policies, as unfortunately occurred in Nazi Germany. It is possible to see some disquieting ideas expressed today by believers in scientism.
Scientism is generally reductionist, that is, complex experiences, thoughts and emotions such as love, ethics, rationality, consciousness, etc, are reduced to physical and chemical processes, and so ‘explained away’ – as for example, in the writings of philosopher Alex Rosenberg.
I think most people today, despite their general respect for scientists, would be alarmed at these conclusions.
CS Lewis today
So CS Lewis continues to assist, encourage and instruct people, and his books are selling in greater numbers than in his lifetime. He is criticised by both atheists and conservative christians, surely a sign that he can’t be all bad! 🙂 The fact that so much of the adverse comment is directed at him personally, and not at his arguments, is regrettable, but significant.
- CS Lewis: Science and Scientism by Henry F. Schaefer III.
- Victor Stenger quote from The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, p77.
- Alister McGrath‘s assessment of CS Lewis.
- Comment on ‘mud slinging’ from Wikipedia.