XFiles Weekend: Toxic faithSeptember 19, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(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!