XFiles Weekend: How to get lost inside your own head

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law”)

Christian apologetics is a quest, a search for something in the real world that leads reasonably and logically to the conclusion that the Christian God exists. So far, no such Grail has turned up, which is why more modern apologists, like Lewis, keep trying different approaches. Lewis’ attempt is as doomed as the rest, though, because his preconceived conclusion keeps interfering with his ability to think reasonably and logically about the evidence he’s trying to use.

Today’s section is a good example. Lewis began his argument by trying to tell us that “just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law — with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.” Right away his thesis is in trouble, because he wants to suggest that there is some kind of Moral Law, on the same level as the law of gravity and other natural laws, and yet the very first and most obvious observation one makes about morality is precisely that it is not like the laws of nature at all.

In today’s reading, Lewis returns to this sore point, and tries to make sense of it in some way that does not involve admitting the fundamental error in his basic premise. It’s rather a jaw-dropping exercise in rationalization and self-befuddlement, despite Lewis’ clearly superior intellect.

Lewis begins by reviewing what we already know: that the true laws of nature are categorically different from what he wants to call the Law of Human Nature, the Moral Law, the Law of Right and Wrong, etc.

When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do’? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground. You only mean that, in fact, it does fall… The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean ‘what Nature, in fact, does’. But if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behaviour, it is a different matter.

Which is what we have been observing all along. He wants there to be a Law of Human Nature, i.e. some fundamental principle akin to the laws of physics and biology and all the other natural laws. Scientific laws, however, describe a universally consistent pattern in the way things behave in the real world. Our subjective and unreliable perceptions of “right” and “wrong” do not. At this point, it ought to be clear to Lewis that he’s barking up the wrong tree. There is no Law of Human Nature such as he imagines.

Sadly, though, he does not acknowledge this, and proceeds instead to try and find some rationalization that will reconcile the discrepancy between what he wants the truth to be, and what the truth actually is. He starts by looking at some of the difficulties we face in trying to use some simple principle to explain our perception of right and wrong.

For instance, we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean … that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you. But that is simply untrue. A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first.

He uses a similar example of a man who accidentally trips you versus one who intentionally tries to trip you and fails. You blame the second, even though he failed to hurt you, but not the first, even though he did hurt you, thus proving that we do not define right and wrong in terms of simply hurting someone. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but let’s add one more example just to follow this through a little further than Lewis did.

In the early part of the movie Gandhi, there’s a scene where Gandhi is thrown off a train in South Africa, because he was “guilty” of being in a first-class car despite not being white. How do we define “right” and “wrong” in this case? To the white conductor, Gandhi was wrong, because he was a “colored” man sitting in what was legally a whites-only carriage. To Gandhi, he was right to be there because the railroad had sold him the more expensive ticket without a qualm, and besides, he was a British citizen, not a native South African.

Is it wrong to break the law? Is it wrong to break an unjust law? Or to us another of Lewis’ examples, during a war, is the traitor a good guy or a bad guy? Can you even answer the question without knowing which side he betrayed?

These are complex issues, and not the least because there is no underlying Law of Nature that spells out for us what is right and wrong in every combination of circumstances. As I mentioned before, it’s not even possible for such a law to exist, because not every combination of circumstances has a “right” outcome. And even if it did, no law could enumerate all the Right choices, because there would either be innumerable exceptions to the law, or the law itself would consist of so many special cases that it would get lost in its own details, and thus be effectively useless.

But I digress. The point is, we can’t reduce “right and wrong” to some clear, universal principle precisely because there is no clear, universal Law behind it. Once again, Lewis is correctly observing the problem, and then totally failing to grasp the significance of what he has observed. He ought to have noticed by now that the data just does not fit the framework he’s trying to force it into. But he can’t, because he’s an apologist, and thus everything must somehow relate to his goal of making the Christian God sound like part of the real world.

Let’s move on. Lewis drives home his point by raising the ultimate ethical question.

If we ask: ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it is good for society,’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ — which simply brings us back to where we started.

Sounds like a nice rebuttal, and the way he says it does expose a fallacious logical circle. But here again, Lewis misleads himself by making wrong assumptions. He assumes that (a) you ought indeed to be unselfish and (b) you ought to care what’s good for society even when it does not benefit you personally. I’m going to disagree on both points.

It is “selfish” to eat healthy foods, get some exercise, and practice good personal hygiene. That is, these are things we do to benefit ourselves. It doesn’t particularly help you when I avoid superfluous calories, it just makes life better for me, myself, personally. “Selfish” by itself is neither bad nor good, we simply call it wrong when we perceive that someone is profiting at someone else’s expense. (And even then we don’t always call it wrong—sometimes we call it “a free market,” for example.)

Likewise, we care what’s good for society because it benefits us personally. Indirectly, sometimes, but it still concerns us. The caveat is that there needs to be a balance between what society demands of the individual and what the individual demands of society. It’s too easy to enslave a nation by appealing to the idea that everyone must sacrifice their own individual benefit “for the good of society.” Without a certain rebellion against the idea of blind “unselfishness,” individual liberty will whither and perish.

And now we get to the part where Lewis really jumps the track. I promised you jaw-dropping, and here it is: Lewis has confronted again and again the fact that our perception of right and wrong doesn’t really fit the pattern of Things Governed By Universal Principles, and yet he still insists that Right and Wrong are governed by a Universal Principle. And how does he rationalize the conflict between his claims and the actual evidence?

[T]his Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing — a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves… It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real — a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

Did you catch that? The real world clearly fails to fit the picture he’s trying to paint, and yet he’s not admitting that his idea of a Moral Law is actually incorrect. No, he’s insisting that it is a Law, and that the glaring discrepancies between the laws of nature and the Law of Human Nature are conclusive evidence that there is more than one kind of reality!

Wow. Lewis makes a claim. The facts are inconsistent with the claim he is making. Therefore there must be another reality above and beyond this one, so that this “Law” can be consistent with the other reality instead.

I’m just going to leave that where it is for now. Any comment I could make here seems pretty superfluous. I have to say, though, that I can’t wait to see where he takes this carefully-planted seed in Chapter Four.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: How to get lost inside your own head”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Yea, well, the only people who are going to find that reasonable are his intended audience, Christians.

    I guess it is some kind of bait and switch because he seems to be insisting that he can bring us to a reasonable conclusion that this Morality Law is similar to the Law of Gravitation, which if successful goes a long way to demonstrating a Morality Law Giver, but then he concludes with this lame sauce spiritual reality nonsense.

    He’s trying to compare prescriptive law with descriptive law then failing miserably at this he switches to comparing this ‘spiritual’ Moral LAW with societal legislation.

    The Christian readers likely hardly noticed the switch, or wished that they could do as subtle a job of it.

  2. Arthur Says:

    I just overheard a bit of interview with Stephen Breyer about a book he’s written, and he said something about originalism amounting to a wish for a “historical computer” to give them the answers to all possible legal questions–to take the thinking process of individuals out of the process of judging cases (that’s my lousy paraphrase, and that’s assuming I understood the gist correctly).

    Is this all the same thing? A desire to have questions of right-and-wrong answered with certainty by some extra-human source? A suspicion that, if it’s just people thinking about stuff, then morality (or constitutionality) isn’t real?

  3. Hunt Says:

    The conflation between prescriptive and descriptive law seems to be all over Christian apologetics. Dan Barker has been particularly astute in calling Dinesh D’Souza on his equivocation of the two meanings in their debates. D’Souza appears to have finally got it, but you can bet it hasn’t permeated the rest of apologetics. It’s a very entrenched tactic.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    I think it would be hilarious if it weren’t so insidious.

    Lewis boldly declares that there IS an absolute moral law and compares it to gravitation. Small problem, they are bad analogies of each other.

    No problem for Lewis, who gets round this by ‘grand-fathering in’ the very notion, that there IS an overmind in a hidden reality, which he is using the absolute moral law idea to point at.

    I think that the technical term for this is ‘sneaky-deeky’.