XFiles Weekend: It’s all so simple!December 12, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, book II chapter 2, “The Invasion”)
When I was young, I happened to encounter a layman’s version of Occam’s Razor, which told me that, other things being equal, the simpler explanation was more likely to be correct. I was skeptical at first. It seemed too good to be true, like some kind of magic was going on to make life easier for humans to understand. And how could the blind forces of nature know what a human would or would not find easier to understand?
The answer, of course, is that the forces of nature don’t know. Nevertheless, the Razor is right, because the difference between truth and falsehood is that truth is consistent with itself, whereas falsehood is not consistent with the truth. Any false explanation will therefore produce further inconsistencies that require additional explanation, thus making the false explanation inevitably more complicated than the true one. Q. E. D.
The catch is that the Razor is a tool for making comparisons between two competing explanations, not a tool for assessing the validity of one explanation taken in isolation. In this week’s installment of Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis takes two approaches to try and dull the edge of the Razor: he uses last week’s rationalization to arbitrarily dismiss atheism in toto so that we have no alternatives to choose from, and he then argues that it’s not wrong for a religion to be, in his words, “complicated.”
Last week, you may recall, he claimed that atheism was “too simple” because it failed to explain where justice came from. Or rather, he tried to make that claim—his argument started to fall apart the farther he got, and he ended up appealing to the superstitious idea that “meaning” must be created by some kind of god. But whatever. Atheism is “too simple,” and we’ll just have to take his word for it.
Meanwhile, let me share with you some writing that is really quite good.
[R]eal things are not so simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of—all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain—and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of… If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.
Marvelously clear thinking from Prof. Lewis, and it’s too bad he didn’t put this at the front of his book instead of trying to reduce morality to a simple list of rules that people are just supposed to follow no matter what. But alas, while I can praise the clear thinking that Lewis put into the above discussion, I can’t praise his application of it, because the only reason he brings it up is to dismiss the concept of “simple religion.”
[A]nother view that is also too simple…is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption…
A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not—and the modern world usually is not—if you want to go on and ask what is really happening—then you must be prepared for something difficult.
The problem with Christianity is not so much that it is complex, but rather that it embodies the accumulated inconsistencies and contradictions of literally millennia of myth-building. Mix a tribal blood-sacrifice cult with Zoroastrian monotheistic dualism and a mish-mosh of pagan ideas about the afterlife, and you end up with a God Who loves us enough to become one of us and die for us, and yet Who finds associating with us so distasteful and onerous that it’s presumptuous to even notice His failure to show up in person in our lives. And that’s just the first sip of an ocean of Christian “difficulties.”
Lewis tries to brush off this problem by painting critics (and liberal believers) as silly critics who are trying to make Christianity too simple. In fact, he takes it even further. In a passage that must surely be quoted in the Fox Employee Handbook, he writes:
Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity.
OMG, it’s a conspiracy! Having read the first part of Mere Christianity, I’m almost tempted to call that a confession, because Lewis is certainly insisting that Christian morality requires a much simpler explanation than the real-world is willing to support. But perhaps “projection” would be a better word than confession. Lewis doesn’t come right out and admit that he’s sinning against the truth, but he has no trouble charging others with his own tactics. For example, here’s how he describes people who object to the inconsistencies (or “difficulties” as he calls them) in Christian teaching.
You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time.
Yo, dude, I so have been there. (Hi, cl! 🙂 )
Unconscious irony also abounds. Having railed against those who expect simplicity in a world where the truth is more complicated, it turns out that it’s really very simple, after all, to know that that Christianity is true. Yeah, really. Reality itself tells us.
Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect…
Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.
Quick, out of Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism, Pastafarianism, Scientology, and Fred Phelps’ church, which of them is the religion you would have guessed? Amazing, isn’t it, how only one religion is actually false, and all the rest are true? I would never have guessed that this was the truth about religion. Hey, that means that must be true too! I would never have guessed it would all be so simple…
What Lewis is doing here, of course, is trying to create at least a feeling of having addressed (sorta) the inescapable “difficulties” that arise when you try to treat Christianity like it was the truth about the real world. Christianity is never the simplest explanation, and thus by a trivial application of Occam’s Razor it is an obvious falsehood. To rationalize his refusal to accept this conclusion, Lewis first isolates Christianity from its most potent competitor (atheism), and then attempts to downplay the value of simplicity in determining which explanation is more likely to be true.
Lewis is superficially correct in stating that reality is often more complicated rather than less. Where he fails to be intellectually honest is in treating simplicity as an issue to be addressed in a vacuum, rather than as a criterion for comparing two competing explanations. Rationalization has an infinite capacity for extending the complexity of the “explanation” as each new falsehood introduces new inconsistencies that require additional explanation. It’s no good claiming “reality is complicated” as an excuse for preferring a rationalization over the simpler, self-consistent truth.
But Prof. Lewis is damn well gonna try, even if—despite everything he has just said—his attempt requires oversimplifying the problem and artificially excluding reasonable alternative explanations. Stay tuned.