XFiles Weekend: Lewis vs Behe, Dembski, et al

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

Last week, we watched a rather sad spectacle, as Prof. C. S. Lewis, Oxford don, tried to convince us all that science can never answer any questions beyond certain basic, elementary observations (e.g. “at such-and-such a time, I saw so-and-so through my telescope,” or “when I heated this substance to such and such a temperature, it melted”). Why would an intelligent and educated man be so eager to blindfold science, and to deny the existence of the various analytical, theoretical, and experimental techniques that define what science is?

Rhetorical question, I know. Lewis wants to persuade us to believe in something that hasn’t got a chance of withstanding any sort of scientific scrutiny, so he’s anxious to get science out of the picture, and to propose an alternative “reality” beyond the reach of science. He wants to make sure we have no way of verifying the truth of what he claims, so that we have to just take his word for it, prompted and consoled by our own (carefully manipulated) subjective feelings and biases. That may not sound very intellectually honest, but you can’t deny that, in marketing terms, it has proven to be extremely effective.

There’s a certain natural pattern in the process of fleecing the gullible. First, you sow doubts and suspicions about the reliability of anyone or anything that might expose your hoax. Then, when you’ve got people wondering whether there’s really anything they can trust, you offer them your exciting new system, that they can trust 100%, and that they can verify by examining it in the light of their own feelings. (You might recognize this pattern, for instance, if you’ve ever spoken with Mormon missionaries for any length of time.)

Lewis follows the same pattern: he spends most of the beginning of Chapter 4 trying to make us doubt that science can answer any kind of “why” questions about the real world at all. That means we’re ready for step 2.

Now the position would be quite hopeless but for this. There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.

Slick, eh? Take that, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists! Science doesn’t know anything about Man, because science can only make “external” observations, and report what it observed. But we know more than science does about Man because we are men. I notice that he doesn’t claim that because we are men, therefore we understand women! Funny, that. Perhaps he might have overstated his case here just a bit.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that, in fact, most of what we know about men does indeed come from external observation. I don’t really know what it is like to be you, and you don’t know what it is like to be me. I know what it is like to be me, but even then, it is a very rare individual who truly understands even himself. Lewis is mistaken: we don’t know Man, and we don’t know as much as we’d like about the one person we do know “from the inside.” And that’s not really a good basis to go on, at least not for this type of question. We might as well say, “Let’s just be superstitious and self-centered” and leave it at that.

Notice, too, the subtle psychological manipulation going on here. Lewis wants us to trust in his biased interpretation of our subjective feelings. He’s priming us with the notion that, whenever we’re unhappy with our choices, and feel some kind of nameless dread regarding present or future consequences, the name of this vague disquiet is “guilt.” All through the book thus far, he’s been planting the suggestion that we should be interpreting our ambiguous feelings within the framework of a supposed “moral law” that we have intentionally violated. And now he appeals to that suggestion, which he himself planted, as being our own personal, subjective, inner validation of the existence of such a moral law. We’re “in the know,” you see, and therefore we should trust this (manipulated) subjective impression as being more reliable than science in determining certain types of “truth.”

Let’s look, once again, at this idea that we know there is a moral law and that we’ve deliberately violated it. Consider, for example, the 98-pound weakling who says to himself (with a certain amount of dread), “Gosh, I should never have let the quarterback’s girlfriend kiss me.” I submit to you that the emotion the weakling feels is the very same feeling that Lewis is calling “guilt.” If we wanted to mess with the weakling’s head, we could tell him that there is a “moral law” that says wimps are not allowed to compete with jocks for girls, and that he is now feeling guilty for violating that moral law.

The truth, of course, is that he’s just worried about what kind of vengeance the 240-pound bully will exact. He did not actually do anything immoral, but he’s feeling the same feelings. And they’re fearful, anxious feelings that are not all that hard to manipulate. Give the poor kid a copy of Mere Christianity, and he’ll identify right away. This is easy stuff. And Lewis has no compunctions about using it.

Mind you, this isn’t to say that people never have any reason to feel truly guilty. Bad behavior does lead to bad consequences, and if the bad consequences haven’t happened yet just because you haven’t been caught yet, then guilty feelings are entirely appropriate and accurate. But the point is, the actual feelings themselves are an anticipation of the negative consequences, not a reflection of some kind of secret knowledge of some kind of moral law that we’ve knowingly and deliberately violated. This “law” is just a superstition that Lewis attributes guilty feelings to, instead of identifying actual, real-world causes.

Let’s move on.

The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason, or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that power, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put it the other way round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.

Isn’t it fascinating how coincidentally the only way we could detect Lewis’ alleged metaphysical reality just happens to be the specific case he is arguing right now? Funny old world.

One of the hazards of trying to reject science wholesale is that there’s no way to anticipate just how many babies are going to go out with the bathwater, and I think Lewis has missed a rather large preschool here. The goal he’s after is to propose that there’s an important body of knowledge that can only be detected by explicitly rejecting the scientific method and putting your trust exclusively in your own subjective (and possibly manipulated) feelings and emotions. In the process of pursuing this goal, however, he has declared that it is impossible for there to be any valid scientific approach that can tell us whether or not the universe is the product of an Intelligent Designer.

I’ve never heard Bill Dembski or Mike Behe or any of the other luminaries at the Discovery Institute try to address this argument, but it clearly pulls the rug out from under their whole enterprise. The whole point of ID, and indeed of creationism in general, is to try and claim that there exists scientific evidence that the universe was created by a Person. Lewis, in Chapter 4, is categorically denying that such a thing is even possible. It has to be impossible in order for his whole “moral law” argument to work.

After all, if it were possible for science to examine the evidence and draw verifiable conclusions about this moral law, and whether it comes from some other “reality,” then Lewis would be in trouble, because the evidence comes nowhere near supporting his claims. It doesn’t support his claims regarding what this “moral law” even is, let alone backing up his argument that it must come from a supernatural source.

Considering that two of the most popular arguments for Christianity right now are Intelligent Design and “moral law,” it’s a bit ironic that they contradict each other so strongly, don’t you think? But it goes even deeper than that. Notice that Lewis says that this supernatural power “could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe”—part of his argument against allowing science to get close enough to examine his evidence. That fine, but did you notice he just threw out the entire Bible? None of those supernatural powers can show up as facts of the universe, so miracles, prophets, incarnations, resurrections, and so on, are all frauds. God’s only possible interaction with the real world is via some kind of secret, inner knowledge that makes us feel guilty. The Bible stories thus can only be lies. Oops.

It says in the Bible that God is not mocked, and that’s true, except the God is Alethea, not Jehovah. When you take up arms (or arguments) against the truth, God will not be angry. She’s never angry. But She will get even, and the loser will be the one who challenged Her. So sorry, Prof. Lewis, but I think in this case God has had Her revenge.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Science, Unapologetics, XFiles. 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Lewis vs Behe, Dembski, et al”

  1. Susannah Says:

    I’m really enjoying this series, as someone who swallowed the whole thing, hook, line and reel, once upon a time. Thanks!

    “There’s a certain natural pattern in the process of fleecing the gullible. First, you sow doubts and suspicions about the reliability of anyone or anything that might expose your hoax. Then, when you’ve got people wondering whether there’s really anything they can trust, you offer them your exciting new system, that they can trust 100%, and that they can verify by examining it in the light of their own feelings.”

    I’m stealing this, if you don’t mind, for use in a discussion with an anti-vaxxer.

  2. Tacroy Says:

    Hey wait a minute – if God’s only interaction with us is through a secret inner knowledge that makes us feel guilty, shouldn’t we be doing all sorts of bad things so that God interacts with us even more?

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    I just don’t ‘get’ how they can be sincere about this. I ‘get it’ that they’ve been brought up into it, it’s their ‘schtick’.

    But it seems to snowball into xenophobia, which can’t be a plus for a reasonable person. If you think that your guilty feelings point you at GOD, imagine how much MORE guilty you think that non-believers are?

    It becomes a given that non-believers are disgusting god-haters, “What are you, some kind of Atheist???”

  4. mikespeir Says:

    When I was in Turkey I knew a young Turkish man who had converted to Christianity. Intellectually, he believed he had done the right thing. Emotionally, his conscience bothered him about it. Because conscience in a product of conditioning, what we know to be right and what we feel to be right are sometimes at odds.

    I’ve been on the lookout for some book that would explore the subject of defectors–say, Cold War defectors–in this light. Communist defectors to the West knew in their heads that they had done the right thing, and I suspect most of us here would agree. But I wonder if sometimes at night, all alone, in the privacy of their own homes and thoughts if they didn’t drink themselves into stupors because their consciences wouldn’t leave them any peace about betraying country, people, and family.

    Anyway, “feelings” are clearly not always reliable guides to moral issues.

  5. Hunt Says:

    Your paragraph that Susannah quotes is certainly apt. There is also the fact that we have all been duped into believing that the “moral landscape,” as Sam Harris calls it, is exclusively the domain of religion. Even if we are individually skeptical about this, religious people are pretty damn sure they’ve got that one sewn up, and they’re alway ready to level charges of “scientism” at anyone who questions it, without ever making clear why “scientism” is so bad. The word “eugenics” will often come up shortly thereafter.

  6. Scotlyn Says:

    “The goal he’s after is to propose that there’s an important body of knowledge that can only be detected by explicitly rejecting the scientific method and putting your trust exclusively in your own subjective (and possibly manipulated) feelings and emotions.”

    cf: Richard Feynman:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Science. The Anti-Fool.

  7. Hunt Says:


  8. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    The other interesting thing about his supposedly universal moral law is that it really does nothing to address the existence of psychopaths…

  9. exrelayman Says:

    By way of preface, I appreciate this blog very much and agree with 99.9% of everything you say. And have nonetheless a nit to pick with something asserted in this post. I have done things that I knew I would never pay any consequence for and yet felt guilty about. So I take issue with your equating guilt with fear of consequences (per 98 lb weakling example). Have I misunderstood? Would you care to clarify or revise? This is not meant to be argumentative, but constructive.

  10. mikespeir Says:

    I see guilt as a pre-rational response. It doesn’t nag at us because our reason tells us we’re likely to be caught. It nags at us at some lower level because we’ve done something that could get us into trouble if we were to be caught. There doesn’t have to be any real likelihood of retribution.

    The thought certainly isn’t original to me, but it makes sense: conscience is our remembrance of all the voices we’re heard during our lives telling us, “No, no!” In fact, it might be said that we feel guilty because we’ve “caught” ourselves, i.e., we’ve failed to lived up to the expectations of those whose opinions of us matter. We know it even if they don’t.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi exrelayman, welcome and feel free to pick away. Morality is a complex subject, and I certainly don’t expect a few blog posts to explore it fully, so there will be aspects of it that I don’t delve into unless someone brings them up. That means comments like yours are particularly welcome.

    I suspect the situation you describe has more to do with some similar emotion than with “judicial” moral guilt. We all occasionally have nameless, unpleasant feelings, and the name we end up giving them can owe a lot to mood, environment, culture, autosuggestion or whatever. We can feel guilty about things that aren’t really guilt. People who survive some sort of disaster, for example, sometimes have a strange guilty feeling, knowing that other people did not survive. Not only will they never be punished for what they did, they never did anything wrong in the first place. What they’re really feeling is something else, but since it’s roughly the same “color” on the emotional spectrum, they call it guilt.

    Other things can cause false positives as well. For example, if you give in to a temptation that you felt you should have resisted, you may experience disappointment in yourself, and/or a fear that you have weaknesses that will cause you problems someday. Either of those could feel like what we might call guilty feelings, and some people would actually encourage you to think your conscience was bothering you, even if your temptation really did no one any harm. And in fact, that’s more or less what Lewis is doing in Mere Christianity—conditioning people to jump to the conclusion that their conscience is nagging them about some sort of moral law they’ve broken.

    Guilty people are suggestible, so prompting people to feel guilty is just good marketing, whether you’re selling dandruff shampoo or gods. There’s no shortage of reasons for having spurious guilty feelings, and no shortage of salesmen promoting them. But that has nothing at all to do with where real morality comes from.