The definition of goodness

Let’s start with an analogy: a river flowing across the countryside. Where the slope is nearly flat, the river meanders, wandering here and there according to the influence of various local factors. Where the slope is more pronounced, the river follows a definite course. With a bit of effort, a primitive farmer can use the river for irrigation. Lacking any kind of pump, though, he’s going to find that not all attempts to harness the river will be successful, and that the most successful approaches all have one factor in common: remembering that water flows downhill.

Morality is like the river, in that there are some circumstances where it is fairly easy to make it become what we want it to be, as well as other circumstances where, do what we will, the “water” is going to follow its natural downhill flow. But if morality is like the river, then what is the landscape that shapes its natural course, and what force of “gravity” pulls it downhill? That one is a little more complicated to explain.

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In which I am disappointed

Last week I pointed out to Nick a fairly serious logical flaw in C. S. Lewis’ argument for Moral Law, as presented in Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity.

By asserting the existence of a disobeyable Law, therefore, Lewis is implicitly assuming, in his premise, the existence of the intentional law-giver that is the goal of his conclusion… By incorporating the assumption of an independent Observer/Participant into his definition of “law,” he biases the fundamental vocabulary of the discussion, and makes it difficult or impossible to argue the case, using his terms, without being led inevitably to the predetermined conclusion.

This is a very serious logical fallacy which, if unaddressed, undermines the validity of all subsequent Thomistic argumentation regarding natural law. I then posed a fairly simple question for Nick:

My main question is about Mere Christianity, and about Lewis’ apparent failure to produce a logically valid introduction to Thomistic thought. A sound and correct philosophical foundation should have made it easier for Lewis to produce a coherent and non-fallacious summary, albeit a potentially incomplete one. How then do you account for this discrepancy…?

I was frankly looking forward to Nick’s reply, given his extensive readings (especially as compared to my own). How would he address this problem? Would he agree that Lewis was presenting an unsound argument, and try to excuse him on the grounds that he was summarizing something much more complex? Would he try and make a case for the existence of a disobeyable law independent of any Observer with opinions and preferences about our behavior? Would he admit that “disobeyable law” already assumes the existence of a Divine Law Giver, and plead that in this special case it’s ok to assume one’s conclusion?

I was very interested in seeing how he would reply, but I didn’t expect him to reply like this:

I believe the question, if I’m understanding it rightly, concerns if Lewis is contradicting himself about a law of nature that cannot be broken supposedly and a law of morality that can.

Also, it concerns why we should believe if it cannot be measured or is not tangible in some way.

As they say in lolspeak, I am disappoint.

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A question for Nick

I’m glad to see that Nick shows no signs of being a hit-and-run commenter, nor is he here to harass us with mere thoughtless trollery. He is engaging in real issues, he’s giving forthright answers, and when he speaks he does so with care and thoughtfulness. His tone may strike some as, shall we say, disrespectful, but in my opinion he is absolutely and 100% entitled to it, and he is welcome to continue. We will gain his respect only when and if we earn it.

In the interests of focusing on the heart of the issue rather than on tangents, let me begin by conceding that Nick has read more books on the subject of the ontology of good, Thomist philosophy, and so on, than I have. He has recommended Budziszewski, so I will give him a go. (Nick, would Written on the Heart be a reasonable starting place? When you have kids in college, the $10 book has certain attractions over the $70 hard cover, which is what Amazon is charging for The Line Through the Heart.)

Meanwhile, I do have an on-topic question for Nick, which might open up some common ground for fruitful discussion.

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Answers for Nick

As I mentioned before, I’m not shutting down this blog completely, and we have a new guest in the comments, with some interesting questions. Since Nick asks such good questions, I’m promoting them to a post of their own, so that I can answer them more completely.

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XFiles Weekend: Dueling with dualism

(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.

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XFiles Weekend: Not with a bang

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

At the beginning of Chapter 5, Prof. Lewis started to address those of us who might have “felt a certain annoyance” at his wild leap to the conclusion that there must be some supernatural What or Who behind morality. “You may even have thought that I had played a trick on you—that I had been carefully wrapping up to look like philosophy what turns out to be one more ‘religious jaw’.” In response, he said he had three things to say, the first two of which we’ve already seen.

The third point is, in some ways, a bit surprising. The real surprise, though, is that this third point isn’t just a brief aside on the way to a well-reasoned conclusion. It is the conclusion! He just got done telling us that his argument thus far hasn’t brought us “within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology,” and yet now, apparently, he’s ready to conclude that the Someone “behind” the so-called Moral Law is the Christian God. And he sees nothing wrong with arriving at that conclusion via sloppy, subjective, and unfinished reasoning! Simply astonishing.

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XFiles Weekend: the Good guys

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

We come now to one of the more interesting things C. S. Lewis has said in the entire book so far. It’s an off-hand remark, a casual comment tossed in as a obvious truism, and one that you’ll hear echoed by an astonishingly large number of ordinary rank-and-file believers. And yet, despite all the people who take it for granted that things must be this way, it’s fairly trivial to show that it’s nonsense. Logically, rationally, it means something that can be called true in only the most trivial and even tautological sense. And yet people take it as one of the most fundamental Absolute Truths a person could base their life on. Why?

This is a very interesting question to me, and I’ve got a few ideas that I think are at least part of the answer. But still something about it mystifies me. I’d be interested to hear other people’s comments on this topic.

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XFiles Weekend: What is good?

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

It’s getting increasingly difficult for Prof. Lewis to pretend that he’s doing anything more than hiding traditional Christian dogma inside a secularized vocabulary. He still struggles gamely to maintain appearances, but in Chapter 5 he’s getting more and more careless about slipping openly Christian assumptions into his ostensibly objective “inquiry.”

[T]he being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. In that sense we should agree with the account given by Christianity and some other religions, that God is ‘good’. But do not let us go to fast here. The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic.

It doesn’t? How would Lewis know that? Remember, his “rational” argument thus far has been based only on the observation that people sometimes have feelings that they ought to do certain things, and yet they don’t do them. Unfortunately, as Lewis himself has argued, we don’t find any basis for this “Moral Law” anywhere in the facts of the universe, which means these subjective feelings are our only connection with the Moral Law. And these subjective feelings shift and conflict in so many ways that it’s impossible to know what’s actually in this so-called Moral Law. So how can Lewis be so sure he knows what it does and does not give us grounds for?

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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.

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XFiles Weekend: How to get lost inside your own head

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law”)

Christian apologetics is a quest, a search for something in the real world that leads reasonably and logically to the conclusion that the Christian God exists. So far, no such Grail has turned up, which is why more modern apologists, like Lewis, keep trying different approaches. Lewis’ attempt is as doomed as the rest, though, because his preconceived conclusion keeps interfering with his ability to think reasonably and logically about the evidence he’s trying to use.

Today’s section is a good example. Lewis began his argument by trying to tell us that “just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law — with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.” Right away his thesis is in trouble, because he wants to suggest that there is some kind of Moral Law, on the same level as the law of gravity and other natural laws, and yet the very first and most obvious observation one makes about morality is precisely that it is not like the laws of nature at all.

In today’s reading, Lewis returns to this sore point, and tries to make sense of it in some way that does not involve admitting the fundamental error in his basic premise. It’s rather a jaw-dropping exercise in rationalization and self-befuddlement, despite Lewis’ clearly superior intellect.

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