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?
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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: The wisdom of the “why’s”

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

Once upon a time, a man met three students, and asked each of them, “Why did Jesus die?” The pre-med student replied that Jesus died because he had lost a lot of blood during his beatings, and because of the physiological effects of crucifixion, and because he was stabbed with a spear. The political science student replied that Jesus died because he ticked off the wrong group of guys, and was becoming popular enough to pose a credible threat to the political establishment. And the theology student replied that Jesus died in order to save mankind from sin.

All three answered the same question. All three gave answers that their professors (at least) would count as correct. None of the three contradicted the other two. And yet they gave completely different answers. How can this be? Once we understand the answer to that question, we’ll be ready to look at C. S. Lewis’ claim that science can never answer the question “Why is there a universe?”—or at least, not to his satisfaction.

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XFiles Weekend: “Jesus was an atheist”

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

Professor C. S. Lewis is a highly intelligent man who started out not believing in God and ended up a believer. His book Mere Christianity would like to lead the rest of us down the same path. So far, though, the road has taken some bizarre twists and turns. He began, in Chapter One, by informing us that there is a Law of Right and Wrong, or a Law of (Human) Nature, which he claimed was a universal and objective law like the laws of Nature. Then he noted that, in fact, this Law of (Human) Nature was really not very much like a scientific law of Nature after all. Yet, rather than admit that his so-called Law was not real, he jumped to the conclusion that there must be more than one reality, in order to provide some way his “Law” could be real in some sense. And in last week’s post, we saw him begin to deny, or at least doubt, the idea that the scientific laws of nature are truly real.

It’s fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way. Step by step, the gifted thinker, writer, and Oxford don is leading himself to turn his back on such truth as can be learned by studying the real world, and to embrace instead a sort of “truth” that springs from superstition, subjectivism, and gullibility. Having borrowed the authority of real laws of nature in order to lend legitimacy to his own fanciful Law, he then turns around and rejects the reality of the laws he started from, and embraces his own creation as the sole Real Law. “I reject your reality, and substitute a Truth of my own invention.” And thus the road to faith is paved.

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XFiles Weekend: Toxic faith

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

We come now to Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, and I’m going to steal a little of Lewis’ thunder by giving away the plot. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Lewis wants to claim that there exists some sort of “real” Moral Law which he can then attribute to an invisible, magical Being, or Lawgiver. Trouble is, if we take any sort of rational and objective look at the actual evidence, we find that it’s fundamentally inconsistent with his claims. Instead of admitting that the facts don’t fit, however, Lewis argues that this glaring discrepancy is proof that multiple realities exist, and that his so-called Moral Law must come from the other one.

In making this argument, Lewis has implicitly thrown reason and science out the window, but in Chapter 4 he goes on to make this more explicit. Appealing to the age-old expedient of declaring that this new “truth” lies beyond the reach of science, he declares that we must reject and ignore any sort of reasonable, scientific evaluation of the “evidence” he tries to use to back up his claims. The problem with abandoning science and reason, though, is that it becomes very difficult to make a coherent argument without them, as Lewis is about to demonstrate.

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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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XFiles Weekend: Blameless Morality

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

Last time, we wrapped up Lewis’ attempts to address a few objections to his theory of Moral Law, and now he’s going to go back to developing his main thesis, which is that human morality stems from some kind of supernatural list of everything that’s Right and everything that’s Wrong. It’s a thesis dictated by the conclusion he wants to reach, so not surprisingly he has to work to make it all fit, even when he’s only using a carefully selected subset of the facts. Today he brings up another fact that would like very much to inform him about what’s wrong with his theory, but sadly he’s still not listening.

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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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