XFiles Weekend: Toxic faith

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

We come now to Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, and I’m going to steal a little of Lewis’ thunder by giving away the plot. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Lewis wants to claim that there exists some sort of “real” Moral Law which he can then attribute to an invisible, magical Being, or Lawgiver. Trouble is, if we take any sort of rational and objective look at the actual evidence, we find that it’s fundamentally inconsistent with his claims. Instead of admitting that the facts don’t fit, however, Lewis argues that this glaring discrepancy is proof that multiple realities exist, and that his so-called Moral Law must come from the other one.

In making this argument, Lewis has implicitly thrown reason and science out the window, but in Chapter 4 he goes on to make this more explicit. Appealing to the age-old expedient of declaring that this new “truth” lies beyond the reach of science, he declares that we must reject and ignore any sort of reasonable, scientific evaluation of the “evidence” he tries to use to back up his claims. The problem with abandoning science and reason, though, is that it becomes very difficult to make a coherent argument without them, as Lewis is about to demonstrate.

He begins by taking a very peculiar position with regards to what is and is not real.

When you say that nature is governed by certain laws, this may only mean that nature does, in fact, behave in a certain way. The so-called laws may not be anything real—anything above and beyond the actual facts which we observe.

Here Lewis is either hopelessly confused about the nature of reality, or else he is flatly wrong. The “so-called laws” of Nature are simply those properties of the real world which constrain the way it works. As properties of the real world, they are, by definition, real. It would be rather difficult to imagine a reality whose attributes were not real, after all! But being properties of the natural world, they are also “above and beyond” the specific, individual instances we observe as facts.

That’s a bit abstract, so let’s take a more familiar example. As we all learned in geometry class, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is π, or approximately 3.14. This fact is almost too trivial to call a law, but we’re going for simplicity here, so let’s use it anyway. The thing about π is that it’s not a number we made up ourselves. We couldn’t, in fact, because it’s not humanly possible to know exactly what π is. We can get better and better approximations of π, but we’ll never know the exact value to the last decimal place because it doesn’t have a last decimal place.

The thing is, π is more than just what Lewis calls the “actual facts which we observe.” You can observe that this circle happens to have a diameter of 1 and a circumference of about 3.14, and that circle has a diameter of 2 and a circumference of 6.28 (approximately), but these individual observations are not, themselves, the “Law of Pi.” Even if you observed a million circles of different diameters, these observations would not prove that the next circle you observe might not have a diameter of 10 and a circumference of 50. That would be the way to bet, granted, but that wouldn’t be the natural law.

The “Law of Pi” is simply a manifestation of an inherent property of the mathematical nature of reality itself. We do not arbitrarily define π, nor is it merely a summary of the circles we’ve observed thus far. That’s why we can calculate π without constructing and measuring actual circles. π is a natural constant, an inherent property in the real world itself, and therefore we can use the appropriate branch of science (mathematics) to study it.

The real world has certain self-consistent properties, and these properties govern the ways in which natural phenomena can manifest themselves. These are real properties, or real laws, above and beyond the specific natural manifestations that they govern. And because truth is consistent with itself, we can use science and reason to dig backwards from the outward manifestations to the underlying real properties that give them their distinctive form.

This isn’t all that hard a concept to grasp, especially for an Oxford don, so I suspect that Lewis is either deliberately trying to fool us, or else has sadly deceived himself. The real world isn’t telling him what he wants to hear, and consequently he is tempted to abandon science and reality-based reason in favor of a more self-pleasing alternative. Denying the reality of natural laws is merely a way of opening the gates to superstition and subjectivism.

Needless to say, you can’t discover genuine truth by running away from the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Whatever warped and ambiguous definition of “real” Lewis is using for the laws of nature, it’s clear he cannot apply the same standard to his own so-called Moral Law. And he doesn’t.

The Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong, must be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behaviour. In this case, besides the actual facts, you have something else—a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.

Now, suddenly, it’s so easy for a “law” to be real that it no longer even needs to be an accurate description of anything! How cool is that? So natural laws, which reliably describe real conditions, are not real themselves, because being right all the time means there’s nothing there except all the facts that you’re so tediously right about. But “Moral Law” is real, because it is obviously unreliable when it comes to describing actual conditions, and therefore there must exist some Higher Reality in which dwells a God Who Disapproves of our “disobedience.” QED. Or something.

This is what I mean by “toxic faith.” Lewis is a modern, educated, intelligent man, but his faith is telling him to embrace a rather crude, self-centered and primitive superstition. It’s a toxic faith, not in the sense that it immediately destroys his mind, but “toxic” as in “intoxicated”—a more subtle poison that distorts the mental processes while at the same time convincing its victim that he’s being remarkably clever and insightful. And thus he ends up convincing himself, in all sincerity, that natural laws—the properties of reality itself—are not real, and that some cocked-up, subjective, and self-righteous “Moral Law” is.

It’s all the worse for Lewis being both a gifted thinker and a gifted writer. He has a great mind, but intelligence is no defense against a desire to surrender to superstition. In this case, the believer turns his own intelligence against itself, and finds subtle and devious arguments to use as rationalizations. Lewis was good at a lot of things, and here, sad to say, he is at his best.

His next argument tries to set up an artificially-constrained version of materialism to use as a gulag for scientific thinking, but that’s going to take more room than I have left in this post, so we’ll end it here this week. Stay tuned!

 
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Posted in Superstition, Unapologetics, XFiles. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Toxic faith”

  1. Hunt Says:

    I think it’s possible that what’s going on here is a semantic confusion and Lewis and you may actually be on the same page. Lewis’s use of “law” is more in accord with “traffic code,” and not the Law of Gravitation. It gets back to the whole dichotomy over descriptive/prescriptive law that pboyfloyd mentioned. Is a law something that can describe nature as we see it, or is that a misnomer? Or is the only true use of “law” as a prescription for behavior. Lewis appears to be sticking to the latter, hence he rejects the idea that “law” can be applied to materialism. It’s the “is/ought” thing expressed a little differently. Laws apply to the “ought” side of the spectrum only for Lewis, and that’s why e.g. for him the law of a constant pi ratio is not “real.”

    That is my take, anyway.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I think there’s probably several conflicting dynamics going on at once. Your take is certainly one that has merit in the context of what Lewis says at least some of the time. On the other hand, he’s also the one pushing the notion that this “Moral Law” ought to be something akin to a law of nature. It’s no accident that he keeps referring to it as “the Law of Nature” or “the Law of Human Nature.” He wants to borrow that sense of universal, absolute and unchangeable decree that we associate with the unbreakable laws of nature. So he ends up trying to use a definition of “law” that makes them both the same (so as to borrow the authority of science for his own “Moral Law”), while at the same time using different definitions for “law” in a way that ought to make it very clear that the laws of nature are categorically different from what he calls “the Law of Nature.” It may not be a conscious equivocation, but it certainly messes up his thinking. It has to: if he ever took a consistent approach to what a “law” is, his whole thesis would fall apart.

  3. Hunt Says:

    Yes, I agree it’s mostly due to lack of precise definition. That’s what a remember from reading MC a few years back. He claims solid conclusions from very shaky foundations, then builds on them. That’s why at a fairly early stage, the rational reader must bid him bon voyage as he switches off the rails into never never land.

    To read people like Francis Collins or Donald Knuth is to get the perfect impression of faith intoxication. These are great scientists, but to accomplish it they have to be able to compartmentalize faith away from science in a rigorous manner. When that division fails the result is embarrassing. As Sam Harris said, “The Language of God” can only be described as an act of intellectual suicide. Knuth did marginally better in “Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About” because he took a largely agnostic approach and merely drew analogies between mysteries in computer science and the alleged mystery of Christianity. In other words, he managed to maintain the appearance of dignity by not saying anything concrete.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    I think these apologists know exactly what the problem is, as you said, that their God isn’t real, so they take logic and reason(albeit as slanted in their favour as possible) as far as it will go, then back their ‘conclusion’ into it.

    Sort of like the cartoon where the scientist points to the middle of a formulaic process which says, “.. and then a miracle happens.” and chastises his collegue that that point needs a little more work.

    Problem with believers is that they’re accustomed to the notion that miracles are a perfectly reasonable bridge between reality and their beliefs.

  5. Len Says:

    Sorry if this has been brought up before, but I think that one way to look at it is to see what changes over time.

    All other things being equal, gravity is not exactly well known for changing (except when related to cats, who often view it more as a suggestion that a law). Pi is also not different every week (or year or millenium). But morals change, based on what society deems normal or acceptable at that time.

    For example, many years ago in America it was normal for white people to own black slaves. The (white man’s) morality of the time had no problems with that. The “Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong” seemingly had no problems with that. But today we view things very differently.

    How can a “law” that comes from a higher power (and should therefore not be affected by anything we puny humans do) change over time? Unless it’s just a reflection of what is normal or acceptable in society. That is, it does not originate from any supernatural being or other realm.

    An apologist may argue that people back then were not properly in tune with the “Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong”. But they seemed to suffer no cognitive dissonance at keeping slaves – it was the normal, acceptable practice. Are we in tune with that “law” now? Who can say? And who can tell what things we will consider normal and acceptable in 200 years, that may be frowned upon today. Is the “law” changing again?

  6. Hunt Says:

    I was thinking about this topic again today and it occurred to me that little is made about any other absolute evaluations outside morality. The example that struck me is that of “authority.” Why do people not question the proposition that there can be no authority without an absolute touchstone authority? How is it we can recognize police or fire or medical authorities without predicating that on an ULTIMATE police, fire, or medical authority? I think it should give one serious pause that the moral arguments for absolutism are rendered pretty absurd when analogies are taken.

  7. mikespeir Says:

    Actually, Hunt, they kinda do:

    Rom 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. (And the rest of the chapter.)

    As as Christian, I was taught all authority devolves from God. Which, by the way, is why I can only smirk when I drive down the streets of this one-horse, north Texas town and see the good Christians here speeding, running through stop signs, and not signaling. Because, you see, it also says this:

    1Pe 2:13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
    1Pe 2:14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
    1Pe 2:15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:

  8. Hunt Says:

    But it’s still the case that God doesn’t have to chair every committee, lead every fire brigade or police raid, or perform each surgical operation, though I’ve heard there have been surgeons who thought Jesus was “guiding their hands.” The point is these processes exist without reference to an absolute anchor stone. We all accept the imperfection of authorities without questioning the very ontological status of “authority,” as a thing. Morality is one of the few things people contest as a legitimate concept without an absolute referent.

  9. cl Says:

    I agree with Hunt. Excepting the whole “what’s real” bit, it seems to me Lewis and DD agree:

    Lewis: When you say that nature is governed by certain laws, this may only mean that nature does, in fact, behave in a certain way.

    DD: The “so-called laws” of Nature are simply those properties of the real world which constrain the way it works.

    The “laws of nature” are just language conventions. They, themselves, are not real [in the objective sense]. The objects they refer to are. A law of gravity refers to objects [any with mass]. A law of morality also refers to objects [sentient beings].

    DD,

    Where is it that you and Lewis actually disagree?

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:

    It depends on what you mean by “the laws of nature.” The description of a thing is not the thing itself, so if by “law of nature” you mean a verbal description of what Nature must do (as in a divinely-ordained Book of the Laws of Nature), then I agree that no such verbal description lies behind the actual constraints that govern how Nature behaves. The constraints themselves, however, are most definitely real, as are the other properties of the real world. In fact, it is precisely because they are objectively real that they qualify as genuine laws. We can discover them, test them, and verify them, because there is, in fact, something objectively real for us to discover. It’s not a question of what this or that investigator might prefer, or of the fashion of the day, or of political expediency. The laws are what they are, and we can either understand them and accept them and be right, or we can confuse ourselves and deny them and be wrong.

    To be a genuine law, Lewis’ so-called “Moral Law” ought to have the same properties. He himself frankly admits (and almost boasts!) that it does not. Not only does it fail to accurately describe the objects (sentient beings) that it refers to, it is impossible even to produce a consistent description of what sentient beings should do, as (again) Lewis himself admits. He glosses over the inconsistencies, but he can’t deny that they are there.

    There is no Big Rule Book of the Right and Wrong Thing To Do In Every Individual Circumstance, nor can there be. Not all situations offer a Right alternative, and even if they did life is too complex to write down every possible situation and what you should do in each case, and even if you could, the result would be such an incomprehensibly large number of such narrowly-defined specifics that it would be impossible to use. Thus, whether you mean law in the descriptive sense or law in the prescriptive sense, there is no Moral Law such as Lewis describes. There is only a lingering and misunderstood regret over outcomes that weren’t as good as one might have hoped—a subliminal perception that Lewis is manipulating to try and lead us into superstition and gullibility.

  11. cl Says:

    DD,

    It depends on what you mean by “the laws of nature.” The description of a thing is not the thing itself, so if by “law of nature” you mean a verbal description of what Nature must do (as in a divinely-ordained Book of the Laws of Nature), then I agree that no such verbal description lies behind the actual constraints that govern how Nature behaves. The constraints themselves, however, are most definitely real, as are the other properties of the real world. In fact, it is precisely because they are objectively real that they qualify as genuine laws. We can discover them, test them, and verify them, because there is, in fact, something objectively real for us to discover. It’s not a question of what this or that investigator might prefer, or of the fashion of the day, or of political expediency. The laws are what they are, and we can either understand them and accept them and be right, or we can confuse ourselves and deny them and be wrong.

    I don’t disagree with any of that, and – correct me if I’m wrong – but I don’t see anything provided that would indicate that Lewis disagrees with any of that.

    To be a genuine law, Lewis’ so-called “Moral Law” ought to have the same properties.

    I tend to agree with you there, but I think you might be overlooking a very important difference that would logically entail some differences in the properties we ought to expect. As used in common discourse and science, “natural law” means something like what you described: predictable, testable courses of action that apply to objects in the real world. We can set an apparatus up and test for, say, a certain behavior of the electron, and since electrons are “objects” we should expect them to be amenable to such testing, and consistent, per methodological naturalism. Right?

    However, when we approach the topic of moral law, we’re fraught with a major problem from the outset of our research: per consciousness, sentient beings are more than mere objects that mindlessly follow laws. I think this observation remains salient even if we grant the hardest determinism. As opposed to an electron that would seemingly have to act consistently because it has no say in the matter, even give some “natural law of morality,” any human would retain through their consciousness the ability to violate said law. So, to me at least, that not all humans adopted the same moral law is not inconsistent with Lewis’ claim that a moral law actually exists.

    He himself frankly admits (and almost boasts!) that it does not.

    I’m not sure I see anything that would support that in the OP. If you’d care to explain, I’m interested. If not, thanks for the clarifying you’ve already done.

  12. Deacon Duncan Says:

    However, when we approach the topic of moral law, we’re fraught with a major problem from the outset of our research: per consciousness, sentient beings are more than mere objects that mindlessly follow laws. I think this observation remains salient even if we grant the hardest determinism.

    Consciousness is certainly a complex phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it fails to follow the law of cause and effect. Think about it: if there were no cause for our actions, that would mean we did things randomly, for no reason. Such a situation would mean that consciousness is not really real—it’s merely an illusion created by random chance. Personally, I’m glad that our consciousness is subject to natural laws like the law of cause and effect, because that means there is meaning and purpose in the things we think and do.

    As opposed to an electron that would seemingly have to act consistently because it has no say in the matter, even give some “natural law of morality,” any human would retain through their consciousness the ability to violate said law.

    If it can be violated through conscious decision, then it’s not a natural law. That’s the defining characteristic of a natural law: it’s a description of a constraint that’s inherent in the nature of the thing itself, which we discover by observing the limits of what the thing is able to do. Any time some object does “X”, it does not violate any true natural law regarding the object, it merely documents that “X” is not a violation of the natural law.

    So, to me at least, that not all humans adopted the same moral law is not inconsistent with Lewis’ claim that a moral law actually exists.

    Ok, so we don’t observe any such universal “moral law” in nature, and we don’t observe any such universal “moral law” in people. So in other words, Lewis is proposing the existence of a universal “moral law” that, as far as we can tell, has no basis in real world fact. So far so good then. ;)

    He himself frankly admits (and almost boasts) that it does not [have the same properties as a scientific natural law]

    I’m not sure I see anything that would support that in the OP. If you’d care to explain, I’m interested. If not, thanks for the clarifying you’ve already done.

    You realize that your preceding argument is a defense of the idea that the moral law shouldn’t have the same properties as a natural, physical law, right? Why would you assert that there is “a very important difference that would logically entail some differences in the properties we ought to expect,” and then profess ignorance of how I could say the two do not have the same properties? I think you’re trying to troll me here.