XFiles Weekend: Thinking matter?

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

Last week, C. S. Lewis led us down a rather strange path, in search of some kind of supernatural “reality” that would be more consistent with his “moral law” than the reality we observe. He started off by offering us a hamstrung science incapable of any analysis or observation beyond taking note of what he called the “observed facts” of the natural world. Then he suggested that, if there were a (supernatural) power behind the observed facts of Nature, it could not be any of those observed facts, in the same way that an architect cannot be one of the walls of the house he’s designing. That brought us to the conclusion that we must rely on our own inner feelings, and our subjective interpretations of those feelings, as the sole available guide to whether this supernatural power exists. (It also ruled out any possibility of Biblical miracles being true, but that’s one of the occupational hazards of trying to prove the supernatural, and it’s customary to ignore such trifles.)

So where does all this lead us? Let’s let Prof. Lewis give us his “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking” speech.

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears to me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.

He has, in other words, brought us nearly to the point of believing in primitive, superstitious animism as the reason for our subjective feelings of guilt. So far so good, eh? But there’s a catch. In order for animism to work, you need more than just a supernatural law. You need an thinking, purposeful supernatural Being to drive it. And that’s the next leg of our journey. Just what is this supernatural power anyway?

I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know—because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. But of course it need not be very like a mind, still less like a person.

Somehow I’ve got more than just a hunch that Lewis is going to “discover” his mysterious supernatural law creator is very much like a Person indeed, don’t you? He may not be “within a hundred miles” of his destination, but given the care with which he has eliminated not just the possible alternatives, but the scientific means of even looking for other alternatives, it’s pretty clear where he’s headed.

But what about his assumption here—that “you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions.” Is that reasonable? Does Lewis even realize what he is saying? Granted, he was writing in the 1940’s, and DNA was discovered in the early 50’s, so he could not have been aware of how marvelously its particular molecular structure manages to provide living organisms with a complete set of instructions for assembling themselves out of simpler molecules.

But even so, beer existed even back in the 1940’s. Take anything we know of, that could reasonably be called an instruction, and it’s quite plain that the instruction originated in a bit of matter, aka “the brain.” The brain gives out instructions all the time; drink enough beer to shut down the material functions of the brain, and the thinking stops too. All the instructions we know about are instructions that were originally given (as far as we can detect) by a bit of gray matter.

Now, you can speculate that there exists some kind of supernatural spiritual mind “behind” the material brain, and that this immaterial mind is the ultimate source of the instructions. But the point is, we have never observed any such immaterial, disembodied intelligence. It is mere superstition to ascribe neurological functions to what is essentially a magical power. What we actually observe is thinking matter. We don’t have to imagine it, we observe it, every day. Ordinary beer is sufficient to demonstrate that thinking is a material process that can be influenced by material substances, as well as by material injuries, environmental conditions and so on. Instructions that originate in matter are the only instructions we’ve ever seen or heard of, at least in the real world.

What Lewis is doing, of course, is sidestepping that whole problem by assuming that the real thinking is being done by the presumed supernatural, immaterial mind. An educated man, let alone an Oxford don, ought to be able to recognize how very foolish it is to assume the existence of the supernatural in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. By assuming that all thinking is being done by supernatural/immaterial minds, he ensures that his conclusions will reflect the same premises he started with, regardless of whether or not any of them are true. But Lewis doesn’t let that bother him. In the same calm, common-sense tones, he just tells us he assumes the moral law must originate in a mind, because you can’t imagine thinking matter.

At this point it should be apparent that Starship Lewis has left the realms of observable, objective reality and is blasting off into some kind of subjective fantasy with no particular connection to real life. Where the facts are not in line with his intended destination, he simply steers around them and replaces them with superstitious assumptions. It’s a foregone conclusion that he’s going to “discover” the God he set out to prove, and never mind what scientific and even theological cargo needs to be jettisoned along the way.

In this edition of Mere Christianity, Chapter 4 ends with a kind of footnote/addendum having to do with the original question of materialism versus animism (what Lewis calls the Materialist view and the Religious view). It turns out that, in Lewis’ mind at least, there was also a third view being proposed by some of his contemporaries. This view Lewis dubs “Life Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution.”

People who hold this view say that the small variations by which life on this planet ‘evolved’ from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the ‘striving’ or ‘purposiveness’ of a Life-Force.

Kind of a 1940’s “New Age” precursor, sounds like. As any biologist will tell you, there is no long-term goal to evolution. Life tends to survive because things that endure longer end up playing a greater role in the ecosystem than things that don’t, and things that reproduce themselves tend to endure longer than things that never pass on their unique characteristics. This unguided interplay of natural forces happens to have produced us, but that was never its “goal” or “purpose.” In a sense, then, Lewis is right to critique this view, because it does have flaws. Then again, so does Lewis’ critique:

When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then ‘a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection’ is really a God, and their view is identical with the Religious. If they do not, the what is the sense in saying that something without a mind “strives’ or has ‘purposes’?

Bear with me while I play devil’s advocate and argue with myself, because in a way, it almost does make sense to say that mindless Nature “strives” to accomplish certain “goals,” and has (apparent) “proposes” in many of its natural mechanisms, including evolution.

Think for a moment what we mean when we say that a mind has motives and purposes. What do these motives and purposes consist of, and why does the mind have them? We could say that the mind is responding to attractions (positive forces) and repulsions (negative forces). In other words, whatever state we are in now, there are a number of alternative states we could be in. Some of these states represent a positive change in our condition, and these are the conditions we are “striving” to obtain. Others represent a negative change in our condition, and these we try to avoid. Our “propose,” then, consists of navigating a sequence of states so as to maximize the “desirable” levels and minimize the “undesirable” ones.

My language may be rather stilted and contrived, but I think perhaps you see my point. The complex interactions of relatively simple natural forces tend to form patterns roughly similar to the function of a mind choosing between “desirable” and “undesirable” circumstances. All it takes for Nature to manifest something that looks like purpose is for current conditions to allow for a number of alternative changes in state, such that some changes are favored by the natural forces involved, while others are not. And indeed, it becomes easier and more intuitive for us to understand these complex interactions if we express the transitions from one state to another in terms of this mechanism being “designed” to cause that result. Nature, like thinking minds, responds to changes in “pressure” by making some outcomes more likely than others. In minds, we call that “preferring” one outcome over another, or “making choices.” It makes sense to refer to Nature in the same terms.

Thus, though Nature does not actually have genuine intentions and purposes, it has functions that are very similar, not to say analogous, and therefore it’s not entirely wrong to speak of design in nature (just as it’s not entirely wrong to describe the sun as rising and setting). Lewis, of course, takes a different tack: he claims that the reason people propose a Life-Force philosophy is because they want “much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.” In other words, the little heathens just want a license to go sin. This self-indulgent little slander lets him dismiss the likes of George Bernard Shaw with what may turn out to be the most ironic question in the whole book. In fact, let’s close with that. Here is how Lewis ends Chapter 4.

The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

There are some questions a Christian apologist should never ask, for fear of getting honest answers.

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Posted in Science, Unapologetics, XFiles. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Thinking matter?”

  1. JohnMWhite Says:

    I have on occasion been referred to Lewis’ work as a terrific example of thorough and reasonable Christian apologetics, in the hope it would lure me away from my wayward heathen path (the path that led me to think and act with more compassion than I could ever muster as a Christian). In all your time reading and critiquing apologetics… is this honestly the best they’ve got?

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I can’t say definitively that this is the best they’ve got, but I’ve never seen any better (and I spent 30-some years, as a Christian, looking). It does seem a bit unlikely that Lewis’ work would have obtained the reputation it has, if some other book did a significantly better job.

  3. Swimmy Says:

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that whatever an optimization process optimizes for is the “purpose” of that process, even if that process isn’t a mind.

    Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robert Wright discuss whether the universe itself could be said to have such a purpose here. Wright seems to think that the universe might have the “purpose” of creating beings like us, whereas Eliezer thinks purpose should be left to processes that produce high prior unlikelihoods (like the mechanistic workings of a fox). I can’t explain it any more clearly than that in a short comment, but you might find it interesting.

  4. Tacroy Says:

    A railroad spike was driven through Phineas Gage’s brain in 1848. He survived, but with a much altered personality.

    If C. S. Lewis had cared to actually put his contention that “you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions” to the test, I’m pretty sure he could have found the story of Phineas Gage relatively easily – if it wasn’t the matter giving instructions in that case, his personality would not have changed.

    Or what about the exceptionally well-known fact that as people move into old age, their cognitive facilities generally deteriorate? If it’s not matter giving the instructions there, what exactly is going on?

    Or how about the (again) well-known fact that a bump to the head will can cause you to lose memories? How can something that resides in the immaterial soul be so affected by something that can only affect matter?

    The whole idea is simply unsupportable, and I don’t understand at all why people believe in Cartesian dualism to this day.