XFiles Weekend: Dueling with dualismDecember 19, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, book II chapter 2, “The Invasion”)
According to C. S. Lewis, we have a problem.
What is the problem? A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless.
In the real world, this is hardly a problem: meaning is inherent in the law of cause and effect, because it creates predictable (and therefore meaningful) connections between causes and effects. Likewise, meaning is inherent in the fact that truth is consistent with itself: the self-consistency creates relationships between truths, and these relationships are what we call “meaning”. Lewis’ problem is simply that he has a superstitious answer to sell, and therefore he needs to manufacture some sort of question he can respond to.
Predictably, he recognizes only two possible explanations for this “problem.” One is the Christian view that the world is a good creation gone bad, and the other is Dualism, “the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad,” each one believing itself to be the “good” god. No non-superstitious explanations need apply, apparently. Everything has to be “explained” in terms of magical, invisible beings. Oh well.
It might be interesting, given Christianity’s ancestry, to explore the conflict between Lewis’ beliefs and classical dualism. Unfortunately, Lewis makes a very serious strategic mistake: he attacks dualism from the perspective of asking what makes the good deity good and the bad deity bad. In a way, it’s a natural extension of his rhetoric in book 1, but it’s a fatal error nonetheless.
Lewis praises dualism for being, in his words, “the manliest and most sensible creed on the market,” though he doesn’t explain why he thinks so. I presume it has something to do with the fact that Christianity is also dualistic, except for the part about the good deity and the bad deity being co-equal and co-eternal. So what’s not to like, eh? Here’s Lewis explaining what he sees as being “the catch.”
[W]hat do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer one to the other—like preferring beer to cider—or else we are saying that, whatever the two powers think about it, and whichever we humans, at the moment, happen to like, one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself as good. Now if we mean merely that we happen to prefer the first, then we must give up talking about good and evil at all. For good means what you ought to prefer quite regardless of what you happen to like at any given moment. If ‘being good’ meant simply joining the side you happen to fancy, for no real reason, then good would not deserve to be called good. So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right.
But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God.
If you just experienced a loud bang, a sudden flickering light, and a noisy crash, that was C. S. Lewis shooting down his own Moral Law argument in flames. The strategic error Lewis made here is in attacking one of the many areas that dualism has in common with Christianity. In book 1, Lewis made the claim that the universe was created by a “good” God; here in book 2, he points out the flaw in that reasoning. Dualism’s “evil god” is irrelevant, because with or without a dualistic alternative, the crucial question remains: what does it mean to call God “good”?
Lewis points out the two ways we could answer this question. We could say that God simply chose whatever He preferred, for no particular reason, and called it “good” (and arbitrarily imposed that definition on us as well). Alternatively, we could say that “good means what [He] ought to prefer,” and therefore God demonstrated His goodness by defining “good” according to that standard.
In the first case, it is meaningless to call God “good,” because He’s just doing whatever He happens to fancy, for no real reason. In this case, His self-professed “goodness” is only an arbitrary, selfish, tyrannical “good,” with no true moral merit. On the other hand, as soon as you say God was only doing what He ought to do, you are putting into the Universe a power greater than God, a Being who made a standard that even God has to measure up to. That being would have to be the true God, and for Lewis’ Moral Law argument to work, He would have to be a good God as well. But what does it mean to call this new God “good”?
Such is the trap that superstition lays for the naive and shallow-minded. God cannot both be “good” in any meritorious sense of the word, and also be the Author of the standard of what “good” is. Either “good” is entirely arbitrary and up to whatever God’s whim is at the moment (in which case it doesn’t deserve to be called good), or else there is some greater power than God, and that greater power is setting standards that even God has to obey. But if that greater power is to be called “good” in any meaningful sense, then there must be an even greater power above that, and so on ad infinitum.
Lewis has dug himself into a hole he cannot dig himself out of, but there are actually two ways a more rationally-minded person could escape this dilemma. One is by acknowledging that Alethea must be the Ultimate God: Reality itself is the supreme power that imposes standards which even gods (lesser gods) must live up to, or fail. Alethea alone is the God Who can define both good and evil without Herself being altogether good or altogether evil.
Or if you prefer to address the issue in less mystical/mythic terms, you could just say that good is defined by the shared experiences of countless individuals interacting with one another and seeking a common approach that benefits everyone. There’s a certain Darwinian dynamic at work, because a moral principle only spreads when people see some sort of benefit in it, and that’s more likely to happen if the principle has some real, tangible benefit. Principles that benefit more people will spread to more people, whereas if a principle tends to harm more people than it helps, fewer people will want to adopt it, and more people will want to actively discourage it.
Thus a moral consensus will emerge that is neither “whatever we humans happen to like at the moment” nor some divine list of do’s and don’ts. It may be good and wise, or it may be tainted with superstition and cultural biases, but it won’t be a matter of individual/arbitrary preference nor will it be some universal Moral Law that applies equally to all men at all times in every circumstance. It’s a consensus based on common, real-world experiences, relentless, undirected, and inescapable. Some of us can influence it, but no one, not even Jesus, can control it.
That’s why not even God can be good unless He (or She) conforms to our accumulated “moral” experience of what’s really beneficial and what isn’t. The ancient slave-owning Israelites could have a “good” God who had no problem with slavery, but that’s because of their narrow and self-centered concept of “good,” which only took the slave owner’s benefit into account. After the Enlightenment and the rise of humanism, with its views on the equality of all men, a pro-slavery God could no longer be “good,” and God had to change. Reality, including the reality of human experience, is a God that even Jehovah must submit to.
It’s sad, really. Not only is C. S. Lewis smart enough to have the potential to see the flaws in his Moral Law argument, but here in this chapter he explicitly details one of them for us. He not only should know better, he does know better. And yet, because of his Christian faith, he has compartmentalized this information out of the way, isolating it from the things he wants to believe, and using it only as a criticism of a very similiar religious belief.
There’s just no way around it. Christianity does not make you less intelligent, but as Prof. Lewis demonstrates, it can prevent you from enjoying the benefits of a good mind. Truth is knocking at the door, but Jesus has thrown the bolt.