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CS Lewis, atheists and the 21st century

November 27th, 2013

CS Lewis

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?

Philosophical arguments

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.

Moral argument

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.

References

Photo: Wikipedia.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t know if Lewis is being misrepresented here but surely conclusions have nothing to do with causes, irrational or otherwise. A conclusion is what results from the correct application of logical rules to agreed premises. Causes are not required.

    Again if this article truly represents Lewis on morality it completely fails to answer the evolutionary argument for its existence and therefore represents his treatment of the subject as shallow.

  2. Again if this article truly represents Lewis on morality it completely fails to answer the evolutionary argument for its existence and therefore represents his treatment of the subject as shallow.

    That morality has an evolutionary origin is irrelevant to the moral argument. The problem with an evolutionary mechanism is that it doesn’t justify the contents of our ethical beliefs. An ideology of selective murder might on a naturalistic view just as well be the next phase of evolutionary progress. Then moral judgments are baseless. Choose your pick.

  3. @IgnorantiaNescia

    I’m afraid your comment reveals that you don’t understand the full implications of the evolutionary explanation either, (not that I’m an expert).

    Briefly, the evolutionary purpose of a common moral code of conduct within a group is to promote co-operation between group members. A co-operating group can achieve so much more than any number of rugged individuals. So co-operation improves the chances of the survival of the shared genes of the group. It’s very difficult to see how “an ideology of selective murder” could improve the survival of shared genes or the level of co-operation in a group.

    I don’t know where you get your ideas from but I think you need some study.

  4. I don’t know if Lewis is being misrepresented here

    Hi Gordon, thanks for commenting. I think I haven’t misrepresented Lewis, but I have very briefly summarised him. So you are right that I haven’t expressed his argument very strongly. But the general lines of his argument are hopefully clear.

    surely conclusions have nothing to do with causes, irrational or otherwise. A conclusion is what results from the correct application of logical rules to agreed premises.

    I think this point is worth exploring. How do we correctly apply logical rules if our cognitive faculties are non-rational? If a computer is programmed in a non-rational way, how could we expect it to function correctly? Garbage in, garbage out.

    And how would we know our conclusions are correct? If all we were doing was simple arithmetic and syllogisms, we might be able to agree certain answers were correct. But our conclusions about the world, or about God, are based on complex interactions of evidence and reasoning, and clever people can come to very different conclusions. If our brains are using non-rational physical processes, how could we know what was a “correct application”?.

    the evolutionary purpose of a common moral code of conduct within a group is to promote co-operation between group members

    Natural selection can explain why we, and other animals, behave in certain ways – why wildebeasts run in herds, or people behave altruistically sometimes. These things are in a sense bred into our genes and our group behaviour.

    But Lewis is trying to explain morality, which isn’t about what we actually do, but what we think we ought to do, even though we often don’t do it. And why we almost universally think that some things are truly right or wrong, even though natural selection has not bred them into us strongly enough that we do them instinctively.

    In other words, natural selection can explain what is, but not what ought to be.

    It’s very difficult to see how “an ideology of selective murder” could improve the survival of shared genes or the level of co-operation in a group.

    Surely this is clear. If the “ideology of selective murder” is expressed towards outsiders to our particular group, it may well benefit our group’s genes. Lions prey on wildebeasts, homo sapiens may have committed genocide on neanderthals. But we wouldn’t consider such genocide “moral” today.

  5. I’m afraid your comment reveals that you don’t understand the full implications of the evolutionary explanation either, (not that I’m an expert).

    Hi Gordon, I can see why you’d think so but they don’t reveal that to the extent of this discussion, I was well aware of that evolutionary explanation.

    The thing is I think that not all evolved phenomena have been selected, though I do think all have developed via naturalist processes. I’m not sure that we can rule out that some key innate beliefs in modern human moral instinct originated as a byproduct or from a biochemical fluke. In that case they have a function, but even less a purpose than naturally selected traits. So I am not willing to accept that our morality has an evolutionary purpose. But I should add that I accept concepts like group selection in the evolution of prosociality.

    After all, evolution also shows us pathways to very different types of ethics. Male lions will kill juveniles in a recently conquered pride, some female spiders eat the male partner after mating, some human tribes practice cannibalism or at least did so until recently and who knows what extraterrestrials might consider moral. It is difficult to accept that our morality is anything but contingent on naturalist grounds.

    So in other words, evolutionary theory may one day go very far in explaining the origin of our ethics, but they cannot justify ours any more than the other ones. Doing so would be the naturalist fallacy.

  6. @unkleE

    How do we correctly apply logical rules if our cognitive faculties are non-rational?

    We can’t. But that does not mean that causes have anything to do with conclusions.

    And how would we know our conclusions are correct?

    We can only have confidence in our conclusions to the same degree that we have confidence in our premises if we are certain of our use of logic. Using words like “correct” implies some sort of absolute correspondence between what we conclude and actual reality. We can never be sure of that absolute correspondence.

    But our conclusions about the world, or about God, are based on complex interactions of evidence and reasoning, and clever people can come to very different conclusions.

    The reason that different people come to different conclusions are simple in theory, either they are using different premises or they make logical errors. The fact that different people apply different weights to the same evidence is just a manifestation of using different premises. Logical errors are also common. You used the inference that all effects must have causes to make the “first cause” argument. But cause/effect cannot hold good in a situation where time does not exist. Effects always follow causes in chronological terms.

    But Lewis is trying to explain morality, which isn’t about what we actually do, but what we think we ought to do, even though we often don’t do it. And why we almost universally think that some things are truly right or wrong, even though natural selection has not bred them into us strongly enough that we do them instinctively.

    If you believe that morality is what you think rather than what you do we will have to agree to differ. What goes on in your mind can only affect your fellows if you turn it into action. The fact that you don’t necessarily always follow the common code of moral conduct for selfish or other reasons does not affect this.
    The fact that some moral tenets are almost universal does not make them “truly right”. A particular instance of action is only “right” if it advances the common wellbeing compared to alternative courses in the circumstances.

    In other words, natural selection can explain what is, but not what ought to be.

    I have news for you. Nothing can explain what ought to be in all circumstances. Looking for absolutes will not lead you to become more moral.

    Surely this is clear. If the “ideology of selective murder” is expressed towards outsiders to our particular group, it may well benefit our group’s genes. Lions prey on wildebeasts, homo sapiens may have committed genocide on neanderthals. But we wouldn’t consider such genocide “moral” today.

    Your thinking, despite being misguided, is a great compliment to Western civilisation. In reality those outside a group which shares a common moral code of conduct are not entitled to its protection nor are they expected to conform to it. Actions towards non-group members cannot be judged moral or immoral because the shared moral code of conduct does not apply. The stories of mayhem in the Old Testament are neither moral nor immoral because the people treated so barbarically were not part of the in-group.
    In the modern world, in the West, we have extended our in-group to include every human being and even animals that suffer to some extent. This extension of our in-group is too vast for the evolutionary inculcated social instincts and emotions to cope with. So this extension really only applies to sins of commission rather than sins of omission. It is still OK for us to allow millions of children to starve on the other side of the world while we wallow in luxury. Our feelings of empathy simply never evolved to operate so far in geographical and cultural distance. Someone who did feel empathy towards everyone to the same degree as they feel it for their own child would quickly suffer some form of overload and mental breakdown.
    Nevertheless, even the extension of the in-group that has occurred is a great thing and has allowed people like you to believe that such considerations don’t or shouldn’t and perhaps never should have affected the operation of morality. So are you able to assume that outsiders are included in moral considerations.

  7. @IgnorantiaNescia

    The thing is I think that not all evolved phenomena have been selected, though I do think all have developed via naturalist processes. I’m not sure that we can rule out that some key innate beliefs in modern human moral instinct originated as a byproduct or from a biochemical fluke. In that case they have a function, but even less a purpose than naturally selected traits. So I am not willing to accept that our morality has an evolutionary purpose.

    I have to confess straight away that the few biology lessons I ever had dealt with solely human reproduction.
    Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that social behaviour in social animals, including humans, is not a single trait but an accumulation of many. I therefore suggest that such behaviour is overwhelmingly selected for rather than being an accidental biproduct of some other advantageous mutation.
    All evolved traits that have been selected for have the same ultimate purpose – gene survival. That you accept the principal of natural selection but deny its consequence seems completely irrational to me.

    But I should add that I accept concepts like group selection in the evolution of prosociality.

    I understand that the idea of group selection is controvercial. In any case it is not a necessary idea in understanding how or why moral behaviour has been selected for.

    After all, evolution also shows us pathways to very different types of ethics. Male lions will kill juveniles in a recently conquered pride, some female spiders eat the male partner after mating

    I suggest that because other species evolutionary route to gene survival is anathema to you is not a good reason to reject the logical consequences of natural selection in your own species.

    some human tribes practice cannibalism or at least did so until recently

    Cannibalism probably didn’t involve killing and eating members of your own tribe. It was therefore not a matter of morality.

    evolutionary theory may one day go very far in explaining the origin of our ethics, but they cannot justify ours any more than the other ones. Doing so would be the naturalist fallacy.

    In evolutionary terms a particular moral code of coduct is justified at a particular time and place if it leads to the survival of the genes of the group operating the code. In less theoretical terms it is justified because it makes society more successful in the longer term.

  8. Hi Gordon, I’m sorry, I have read your response but I don’t think it answers my (or Lewis’) questions. Here’s how I understand your responses to the two arguments Lewis uses (and please correct me if I’m wrong):

    1. You say we can’t be certain we are totally rational (which I agree with), but it isn’t clear to me whether you think we can be rational at all, and if so, how that rationality arises from non-rational antecedents.

    2. You seem to resolve the moral dilemma by saying there are no objective ethics, but then you seem to contradict this by proposing one ethical absolute: “if it advances the common wellbeing compared to alternative courses in the circumstances”.

    Can you clarify please whether my understanding of your views is correct, and how you resolve the dilemmas I mentioned? Thanks.

  9. @unkleE

    I have read your response but I don’t think it answers my (or Lewis’) questions.

    My answer to Lewis’ argument from reason, (If Lewis really made that mistake) is that causes, rational or otherwise, have nothing to do with conclusions. His argument is therefore invalid.

    My answer to Lewis’ moral argument, which seems to be an accusation of circularity – moral judgements can only be justified by other moral judgements, is that moral judgements are justified by the effects they have on the group exposed to them.

    In evolutionary terms the positive effect of good moral judgement is the improvement of the possibility of shared gene survival. It is reasonable to translate this into the general long term wellbeing of the group operating the particular moral code of conduct.

    So Lewis’ contention that moral judgements can only by justified by other moral judgements is just plain wrong. They are justified by outcomes. I agree that there are problems with this justification:

    It may be impossible to measure long term outcomes
    In evolutionary terms the “desired” outcome is not a conscious rational one. Nobody makes moral decisions to improve the survival chances of shared genes.

  10. causes, rational or otherwise, have nothing to do with conclusions

    Hi Gordon, I’m sure you don’t mean that if you had a choice of doctors to do an important operation, one of whom had an unblemished record, and the other had been investigated for incompetence, you would choose the second to do the operation (i.e. be the cause for the effect you want) because causes don’t matter. So I can’t understand what you do mean.

    The doctor (and the team) produces the result; the computer program, faulty or not, produces the output; the evolutionary process from non-rational matter leads to the brain and its thinking, so how can the brain’s thinking be counted on to be rational?

    I’m sorry, but just saying causes have nothing to do with conclusions doesn’t explain anything to me, when those examples appear to show that causes have a big effect on conclusions. Can you explain in more detail please?

    Lewis’ contention that moral judgements can only by justified by other moral judgements is just plain wrong.

    No, Lewis is saying that moral judgments cannot be justified by other moral judgments, but by a moral code, just as good engineering can be judged by comparison with a Code. It is you who seem to be making the circular argument, as the next point shows.

    moral judgements are justified by the effects they have on the group exposed to them

    But this can only work if we have already made a moral judgment about the effects on the group. If we believe the benefit of the group is “good”, then we “ought” to work for that benefit, but that is justifying one moral judgment (working for the group is “good”) in terms of another (the benefit to the group is “good”). But if we don’t believe benefitting the group is good, then we have no reason to think we “ought” to try to achieve that result. There’s the circularity, and it’s one that Lewis discusses at length.

    In evolutionary terms the “desired” outcome is not a conscious rational one. Nobody makes moral decisions to improve the survival chances of shared genes.

    Then I would say that you are not dealing with a moral judgment at all, but an instinctive or unconscious one. Would you agree?

  11. @unkleE

    Hi Gordon, I’m sure you don’t mean that if you had a choice of doctors to do an important operation, one of whom had an unblemished record, and the other had been investigated for incompetence, you would choose the second to do the operation (i.e. be the cause for the effect you want) because causes don’t matter. So I can’t understand what you do mean.

    Even in your example I would come to a conclusion without considering any cause for anything irrational or otherwise. I merely make a choice based on the premise of relative competence of two doctors and my desired outcome of the important operation. The fact that enacting my conclusion after I have made my conclusion a cause/effect set of actions will result is neither here nor there.

    how can the brain’s thinking be counted on to be rational?

    The fact that our thinking processes may or may not be rational will certainly affect the outcome of our deliberations but any conclusion we come to will not be affected by causes unless claims about causes are part of the premises upon which our deliberations were based. (Most premises are claims about reality which the proposer of the argument hopes others will accept without further debate).

    I’m sorry, but just saying causes have nothing to do with conclusions doesn’t explain anything to me, when those examples appear to show that causes have a big effect on conclusions. Can you explain in more detail please?

    OK here is a web page called “Building Logical Arguments (for dummies)”:
    http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/building-logical-arguments.html
    You will see conclusions are the result of arguments and only premises and logical steps are involved in reaching conclusions. Causes not required.

    Lewis’ contention that moral judgements can only by justified by other moral judgements is just plain wrong.
    No, Lewis is saying that moral judgments cannot be justified by other moral judgments, but by a moral code, just as good engineering can be judged by comparison with a Code. It is you who seem to be making the circular argument, as the next point shows.

    I’m sorry I missworded this I should have said:
    Lewis contention that any attempt to justify or explain our moral judgments calls on other moral judgments unless we reference “some moral law that is really true” is wrong. We can justify moral judgements by reference to their outcomes.
    When I say we can reference their outcomes Lewis would say “but you have to express a moral preference for a particular outcome”. But I would say the “right” outcome is one which will lead to improved chances of the survival of shared genes compared to other choices that might have been made. The fact that it is difficult to know this and that it is not my subjective preference is unfortunate but it does not invalidate the claim that it is the “right” outcome according to evolutionary theory and morover it is objective in the sense that it is no-ones subjective choice. It is certainly more objective than trying to work out what a God would have wanted. On the other hand I accept that in practice we make moral choices on different criteria, and we will only be able to tell in the very long run if these corresponded, on average, to good evolutionary choices by noting the long term health of society.
    Personally I think we can map improved gene survival chances to long term societal wellbeing and make our moral judgements consistent with improved wellbeing. Ideas of what constitutes long term societal wellbeing can be fine tuned over time.

    In evolutionary terms the “desired” outcome is not a conscious rational one. Nobody makes moral decisions to improve the survival chances of shared genes.
    Then I would say that you are not dealing with a moral judgment at all, but an instinctive or unconscious one. Would you agree?

    Your idea that moral judgement can’t be instinctive is wrong. We are gifted with social instincts and emotions of which we make heavy use in moral decision making. This is perhaps not as frightening as it sounds. For most of prehistory the social animals from which we evolved had little access to rationality. The social instincts and emotions brought them through a very long school of extremely hard knocks. The fact that we are here today to discuss it testifies to the efficacy of our social emotions and instincts.
    As long as the collective value of the moral judgements of all the members of a group promote gene survival morality will have fulfilled its evolutionary imperative. As individuals, one of the things we can do when considering a moral choice is whether it will improve societal harmony. More effective societal co-operation is what morality is all about.

  12. Gordon, I think we are at cross purposes again. My reference to choosing a doctor was not an analogy. Let me go over it again.

    If you knew one doctor had been shown to have inadequate knowledge, you would go to him because you know that the process by which he produces a diagnosis is faulty or limited, and so you would have less trust in the diagnosis. Agree?

    So, in the same way (by analogy), if the process that produces our thoughts is faulty, or not based on rationality, why should we trust it either?

    but any conclusion we come to will not be affected by causes unless claims about causes are part of the premises

    Are you saying a person with a brain impaired (say) by drugs or a mental illness will come to correct conclusions just as easily as if they had no impairment?

    You will see conclusions are the result of arguments and only premises and logical steps are involved in reaching conclusions. Causes not required.

    So are you saying that we cannot describe brain activity in terms of electrical and chemical causes?

    I was going to say more, but I think it best to get the matter of causes out of the way (if we can).

  13. @unkleE
    You would seem to be right, we do seem to have been talking at cross purposes.

    if the process that produces our thoughts is faulty, or not based on rationality, why should we trust it either?

    There are two reasons why we must trust our own deliberations, (given some effort to verify we are dealing with the facts):
    We don’t have much choice in the matter. What else can we do?

    We are often in a position where we do not have enough data to make a decision but must make one anyway. We go with our instincts and experience. As I have said elsewhere. Instinct, especially social instincts, are more influential than you might think and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

    So are you saying that we cannot describe brain activity in terms of electrical and chemical causes?

    No, I’m not saying that the decisions are not subject to causation. I thought that was your claim when we discussed free will. However, the conscious mind does not have to consider such underlying processes when coming to a conclusion. It merely needs to consider the facts and operate on them with logic as best it can.

  14. We don’t have much choice in the matter. What else can we do?

    So you seem to be agreeing that, if naturalism is true, we don’t have any reason to trust our thinking, but we are under a compulsion to act and believe as if we could? That is the very point I am making, so perhaps we are agreed on that aspect after all.

    the conscious mind does not have to consider such underlying processes when coming to a conclusion.

    Aha! I think this is the key to this discussion. Of course, when we are living day-to-day we won’t always be considering whether our thinking is rational. But we are not talking about what we do day-to-day, we are sitting back from the day-to-day and examining our thought. And then, for the reasons I have been giving, we will need to consider whether our thinking has causes that make it non-rational. Can you agree on that?

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