XFiles Weekend: On the morality of burning witches

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

This week we wrap up Chapter 2 of Mere Christianity with Lewis’ somewhat feeble attempt to address the morality of witch-burning. Until a few centuries ago, it was a rather popular practice among Christians, and—well, let’s let Lewis speak for himself.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [between different moralities], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?

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XFiles Weekend: Math and Morality

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

According to C. S. Lewis, “the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” lies in assuming the existence of a natural Law of Morality. This isn’t just some arbitrary, human legislated regulation either. It’s a real Law of Nature that defines a real standard of Right and Wrong—a standard, moreover, that we all fall short of.

This week, Lewis looks at one last objection to that premise.

Other people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law just a social convention, something that is put into us by education?’ I think there is a misunderstanding here… We all learned the multiplication table at school. A child who grew up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, something human beings have made up for themselves and might have made different if they had liked?

He also compares it to which side of the road we drive on, which (unlike math) is a convention. In America, we drive on the right-hand side of the road; in England, on the left. There’s no natural law that says things have to be that way, and we might just as easily have decided on different conventions. So the question is, when we learn morality, are we learning about a pre-existing law, as in mathematics, or about a mere convention, as in driving?

Lewis, not surprisingly, favors the former, and he gives us two reasons.

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XFiles Weekend: Morality is not a law

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

Last week, Lewis tried to convince us that morality is not merely some kind of herd instinct, which is partly true. Unfortunately, he was not able to discern the true role of instinct in human morality because he’s limited by the preconceived conclusion that he’d like to drive us to. He’s not trying to understand how psychological and sociological factors influence our moral thinking, he’s merely trying to make morality sound mysterious and unexplainable so that he can superstitiously give God credit for it.

These same constraints limit his arguments this week, as he proposes two more answers to the “morality as a herd instinct” objection.

Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses… And surely it often tells us to try and make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is.

This, sad to say, is not C. S. Lewis at his finest. While he was undoubtedly a fine scholar, and probably not consciously attempting to mislead anyone, it must be said that this particular argument presents us with observations so subjective and distorted as to be deceptive. Like all half-truths, there are elements of it that do reflect a certain real-world experience, but without giving us a complete or accurate picture.

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XFiles Weekend: Armchair hero?

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

In Chapter 1, C. S. Lewis introduced two ideas that (he claims) “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” These two ideas are (a) that there is a universal Moral Law defining right and wrong, which we somehow inherently know, and (b) that we do not obey this law. Unfortunately, these two ideas are not themselves the product of clear thinking, and indeed are a rather biased and superstitious failure to understand human morals realistically. There is no singular universal Moral Law by which we all make moral judgments; rather, we judge right and wrong based on how we feel about the outcome. This fundamental disconnect between theory and reality has already bubbled to the surface in a number of inconsistencies between what Lewis claims and what we find through even a trivial examination of the real-world facts.

In Chapter 2, Lewis acknowledges some of these difficulties and attempts to either refute or discredit them. As we shall see, though, his attempts to reduce his troubles only adds to them. As the good fairy told Pinocchio, once you tell a lie, it grows and grows until it’s as plain as the nose on your face—even when you sincerely believe the lie because you first deceived yourself.

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XFiles Weekend: Assumptions and consequences

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity sets out to establish what C. S. Lewis calls “two facts” that “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” We looked at the first of these “facts” last week: the notion that there is some kind of universal Moral Law, aka the Law of (Human) Nature, that dictates the definition of Right and Wrong. According to Lewis, we all know that this Moral Law exists, and we’ve even got some kind of inherent knowledge of what its commandments are. And yet (“fact” number two), we do not do what this Law tells us we should.

We’ll get to the rest of Chapter 1 in a moment, but first let’s note in passing just how far Lewis has already gone astray, due to the preconceived ideas he’s trying to impose on his interpretation of the evidence. Because he’s thinking in terms of divine commandments, he’s already introducing the notion that his so-called Moral Law is not just a description of common patterns of behavior, but is in fact some kind of obligation that each and every individual is somehow responsible to live up to. It’s a subtle little twist, but as he gets into the second part of Chapter 1, we’ll see that this extra little assumption is really a key factor intended to drive us to Lewis’ desired conclusion.

It’s kind of slick, in a way. He directs our attention to certain real-world facts (i.e. the way people judge actions in light of consequences), and then, while our attention is focused on the observations, he slips in a subtle, biased twist that colors our interpretation of these facts. Notice, the extra twist is not part of the observed facts: we don’t observe any Universal Moral Law with any objectively declared principle binding its precepts upon all mankind. This is purely Lewis’ ideology, injecting itself into the argument when it thinks no one is looking. Pretty sneaky, eh?

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XFiles Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the “Law of Human Nature”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

One of the most widespread arguments against atheism today is the claim that we know God exists because we all possess some kind of inherent knowledge of a universal and unchanging moral law, implying the existence of a universal and eternal Law-Giver. C. S. Lewis may not have been the first to make this argument, but he gives it an almost prototypical presentation in the first chapter of Mere Christianity, and it’s a safe bet that most modern proponents of the “moral law” argument took it directly or indirectly from Lewis. In a very real sense, then, we have an opportunity to study the roots of a major pillar holding up modern apologetics. And not surprisingly, we’re going to be most interested in the very large cracks at its base.

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XFiles Weekend: It’s more like “guidelines”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

We’re ready to start the main body of Mere Christianity, but before we delve into what Lewis calls the “law of human nature,” let’s take a moment to do some forward thinking. Let’s start with a species that is intelligent enough to have some understanding of cause and effect, so that they can anticipate the probable consequences of their actions, and choose the ones which will have the most favorable outcomes. Let’s further suppose that these beings possess enough empathy to communicate with each other, to recognize each other’s feelings, and to anticipate what sort of feelings others are likely to feel in any particular set of circumstances.

Given this as a premise, plus the assumption that each individual wants to achieve the most favorable possible outcomes, what consequences would we expect as the members of this species interact with each other and with an environment that contains both dangers and opportunities? If we look at a few specific scenarios, I think a clear general trend will emerge.

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XFiles Weekend: A peculiar prelude

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)

I don’t want to get bogged down in the preface, but there are one or two points here worthy of comment, so I thought I’d put one more post into it. As we saw last week, Lewis hasn’t even gotten into the main part of his book yet, and already he’s running into problems with his basic premise. His goal is to “defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” a kind of “mere Christianity” that transcends personal bias and denominational bickering. And yet, as both ancient and modern church history show, this common core of beliefs is sufficiently elusive that its defenders have a hard time expressing what it is without falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy. Lewis, alas, is no different.

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Debunking “extraordinary claims”

We haven’t heard from our friend cl in a while, but a post of his popped up in my Google Alerts this morning, and it turns out to be an interesting example of doublethink, so I thought we could take a couple moments to look at it.

I’ve got a very simple and straight-forward example of an instance where the claim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” can easily be shown false.

The problem with extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence is that believers have no extraordinary evidence to back up their extraordinary claims (otherwise why would they be so vexed by this requirement?). It’s not at all that skeptics are making any kind of unreasonable demand. All that this oft-repeated claim means is that if you’re going to say something is true, then we ought to be able to see things in the real world that are consistent with what you claim: if you claim extraordinary things are part of the real world, then we ought to be able to see extraordinary things, in the real world, that are consistent with those claims.

But that’s too much to ask of the credulous, so they’re anxious to rationalize away this perfectly reasonably requirement. Let’s see how cl tries to get out of this one.

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XFiles: The myth of “mere Christianity”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)

I’ve got a few books in my queue now, but I think the book I’d like to tackle next is Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It’s a logical next step, because Lewis is one of the people who helped define the modern, evangelical Christianity that Geisler and Turek were mere apologists for. It also doesn’t hurt that Lewis is a higher calibre of thinker, which may spare us some of the groaners G&T laid on us with distressing regularity.

Of course, Lewis is going to have his own set of quirks. The first page of the preface, for instance, consists of Lewis explaining how the contents of the book were originally given on the radio, and how the first printed edition used contractions and italics to capture the informal feel of the original talks. It says a lot about his personality that he feels the need to explain to us why contractions and italics were a mistake, and how the new edition expands all the contractions and rephrases the sentences to emphasize the ideas without the use of italics.

Never fear, though: this book isn’t going to be a tedious lecture on the fine points of grammar and typography. After this initial fussiness, he jumps right in to what I think may be a core problem in the whole book. And, sad to say, he doesn’t seem to notice that it’s a problem.

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