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Sunday, 6 May 2012

C.S.Lewis Turns Out To Be Too Simple.

Believe it or not, the following is an argument for the Christian god which C.S.Lewis put forward in all seriousness and which, if they are to be believed, at least some Christians find convincing. It is taken from his 1952 book "Mere Christianity":
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
So, having realised that his childhood belief was childish, and based on his own false expectations, C.S.Lewis concludes that the only possible explanation is that the Christian god must exist. Quite how he gets from realising that his arrogant notion that somehow the universe should conform to his ideas of justice and the startling realisation that he couldn't define these notions, to the conclusion that therefore the locally popular god from his culture exists is never explained.

Let's break this argument down into it's component steps and see if the dots join up:
  1. The universe should conform to my preconception because a god would ensure it does.
  2. The universe doesn't conform to my preconception therefore this god doesn't exist.
  3. I don't know what my preconception is so I don't know if 2 is right or wrong.
  4. Therefore 2 is wrong.
  5. Therefore this god must exist.
Did anyone else spot the jump from not knowing if 2 is right or wrong to the conclusion that 2 must therefore be wrong? How does that follow from 3 any more logically than an assumption that 2 is correct?

And how about the initial premise? Where is the logic behind the assumption that my preferred god should be ensuring the universe conforms to my preconception in the first place?

No. All we have proved is that the initial preconception was wrong. There is no requirement at all for the universe to conform to C.S.Lewis' preconception and, there is no reason at all to assume that, because C.S.Lewis realised he didn't know what his preconception was, it was therefore wrong.

Still not convinced? Okay, If Lewis' logic holds we should be able to apply it to other arguments with equal validity, so let's change the initial premise slightly and see what we can prove with the same 'logic':
  1. The universe should be unjust because the Christian god doesn't exist.
  2. The universe is just, therefore the Christian god must exist.
  3. I don't know what justice is therefore I don't know if 2 is right or wrong.
  4. Therefore 2 is wrong.
  5. Therefore the Christian god doesn't exist.
Hmm... so the same logic can be used to 'prove' exactly the opposite, if only we change the initial, unproven, premise. Talk about starting with the required answer and working backward.

And of course nowhere in all this has Lewis presented any reason to conclude that the only god on offer is the locally popular one. Even if his dots joined up they could be used with equal validity for any god, or indeed a Celestial Peanut-butter Sandwich, if that was what you were trying to prove runs the universe. This is why it can be used equally to 'prove' there is no god.

It's hard to believe that C.S.Lewis could not see the blatant logical fallacies this argument contained, the parochial and cultural arrogance which under-pinned it, and how it could, with equal validity be applied to any god or any daft notion he could dream up, if he was the intellectual giant he is portrayed as.

But, he was marketing his wares to a culturally arrogant and parochial British public in 1952 of course, and he knew that market well, having lived off it for many years.

No. There is no proof of anything in this argument but it does highlight the following problem for Christian theology. If the universe is run by an omni-benevolent god, why does it look just as you would expect it to if such a god is entirely absent? Perhaps it was his subconscious awareness of this fundamental problem which motivated him to abandon his intellectual integrity in order to try to dismiss it. Cognitive dissonance, and years of practice at coping with it, often seems to explain much of religious apologetics.


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11 comments:

  1. Actually, Lewis' argument is as follows:
    1) I perceive universe is unjust.
    2) I cannot attach a meaning to the word "unjust" unless I have a sense of what "justice" means.
    3) Something must exist from which I derive the meaning of the word "justice."
    4) This "thing" necessarily must represent perfect justice, which we might call "God."
    5) "God" (or perfect justice) must exist because we have a sense of what is just and unjust in the world.

    Now, what Lewis is not doing here is arguing for the existence of "the Christian God" as you presume. You made that leap, he did not. In fact, he specifically avoids saying anything about Christianity or the Christian belief system. In this passage and argument, he merely refutes atheism. It's a pit you weren't able to see that. The logic is really, really simple.

    The only "weak" point in this argument is number 4. In point number four, we make the leap from the idea of "perfect justice" to "God." However, Lewis later dives deeper into this point. (You just happened to leave that part out. I'm sure you didn't do it on purpose or anything...)

    So really, Lewis' paragraph here does a marvelous job not at promoting Christianity, but at derailing the idea that atheism is a "logical" belief system. As he showed here, when you really follow the logical rabbit's trail of atheism, you find that it leads you to believe there must be meaning in the universe. And you have to wonder, where did the meaning come from?

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    1. Thank you.

      However, it was unnecessary for you to re-write Lewis's article since I had quoted it correctly in the first place.

      I see you were unable to refute his glaringly obvious fallacy in arguing that because he didn't know why he used to believe something that therefore it must have been wrong. As I point out, in the absence of information he has no basis for that conclusion and could equally have assumed he was right.

      Also, if he had started off with the opposite, equally unsupported, assumption his fallacious argument would have led him to conclude there is no god. A clear example as can be found in his writings of how he started off with the conclusion he wanted and worked backwards from there to construct a marketable argument in the conditions of those times.

      Have you any thoughts on why Lewis used this argument for the Christian god if, as you say, it doesn't even support any particular god, leaving aside the logical jump he has had to make to get to his desired conclusion in the first place?

      Where may we read his articles about how he identified and systematically eliminated all possible natural causes before turning to a supernatural one, and then how he identified all possible supernatural explanations and eliminated all those except one to arrive at the Christian god, which just happened to be the one his mummy and daddy believed in, or, more probably, the one he knew his readers and listeners believed in?

      We don't find them because he never bothered with that little bit of honesty, and just relied on the parochial ignorance of his audience to not notice that the emperor had no clothes on.

      I don't suppose you have ever bothered with this either. If so, perhaps you would take my readers through the process, or explain why you should be exempted from normal logic.

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    2. Actually, I don't think you quoted his argument correctly in any place... I looked back over your post again, but in both places you list out an argument, neither of those is the argument Lewis was making in the passage you excerpted. To arrive at either of the arguments you listed out, you would have to twist his logic severely.

      The "obvious fallacy" you are referring to really doesn't exist. Lewis never claims that just because he didn't know why he used to believe something made it wrong. I don't know where you got that actually. You'll have to point that part out to me.

      And what I was saying in this post is that Lewis was not using this argument for the Christian God. He is only arguing here that there must be a God. He knows he is not going to convince anyone of the existence of the Christian God if he cannot convince them of the existence of a God, so he splits up his arguments to address one point at a time.

      And no, I don't believe anyone has ever examined every fact of the universe to arrive at the "simple conclusion" of whether or not there is a God. I don't believe Lewis did, I don't believe I did, and I don't believe you did. Why do we have to only work from natural to supernatural, though? Why don't atheists have to prove it the opposite way? Would you then have to go through every single fact of the universe and find a natural cause wherever a supernatural cause could exist?

      Things that I am actually curious about are questions like "What caused the Big Bang?" or "How did life begin and how was it separated from other non-organic matter?" For questions such as these, even the "natural" answers are not much more than theories. Scientists still have a hard time explaining the exact details of evolution or universe expansion. This doesn't make them untrue, but it doesn't lead to a perfect conclusion of "natural" or "supernatural."

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    3. >Actually, I don't think you quoted his argument correctly in any place... I looked back over your post again, but in both places you list out an argument, neither of those is the argument Lewis was making in the passage you excerpted. To arrive at either of the arguments you listed out, you would have to twist his logic severely.<

      Me: 1. The universe should conform to my preconception because a god would ensure it does.

      Lewis: "My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too..."

      Me: 2. The universe doesn't conform to my preconception therefore this god doesn't exist.

      Lewis: "My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust."

      Me: 3. I don't know what my preconception is so I don't know if 2 is right or wrong.
      Therefore 2 is wrong.

      Lewis: But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

      Me: 4. Therefore this god must exist.

      Lewis: "Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple."

      I hope that helps.

      >And no, I don't believe anyone has ever examined every fact of the universe to arrive at the "simple conclusion" of whether or not there is a God. I don't believe Lewis did, I don't believe I did, and I don't believe you did.<

      My question was about how Lewis (and presumably you) examined every possible natural cause for the idea of justice (the 'fact' he was using) in order to eliminate all of them, then how he examined all possible supernatural causes to eliminate all of those except for the Christian god.

      Were you not able to answer it?

      You're right though on one point: I didn't do this either because I'm not trying to create a gap in which to sit an imaginary god. The science of memetics has provided a perfectly good natural explanation for the human ideas of morality and justice and it even fills a gap in Lewis's understanding - "But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?".

      That's what happens when you don't wave aside all possible natural causes in your desperate hurry to arrive at the supernatural (and unfalsifiable) conclusion you want. You find the real answer to the question.

      We call this process 'science'.

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  2. >I'm not trying to create a gap in which to sit an imaginary god<

    But you are trying to create a gap in which to sit a belief that there is no god. Any way you look at it, atheism is no less of a belief system than Christianity. And you take science as supporting your belief, while I believe that science supports my belief. Personally, when I look at evolution, the Big Bang, memetic evolution, I see it fitting much better within Christianity. And I think that atheistic evolution, an atheistic big bang, and atheistic memetic evolution leaves a lot of questions open.

    >Lewis: "My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too..."<

    This part of the passage actually comes out to this in deductive reasoning:
    1) I see the universe as cruel and unjust;
    2) Therefore, there should be no god.
    3) However, I need to look at where I got this idea of justice.
    4) If it was a private idea of my own, then...
    5) Points 1 and 2 would not be logical.

    And we see that he gets to point 5 at the end of the passage you quoted where he says: "If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning..." If there was no meaning to his sense of what "cruel and unjust" meant, then he should never have been able to describe it. It would be like living in a world without light and trying to describe darkness.

    So following that logic, since we can describe injustice and cruelty, we must be able to describe the opposite, and that justice has to stem from somewhere. Lewis attributes it to God. And I know you'll just attribute it to memetic evolution, but then where did that original sense of right versus wrong come from? Lewis may have received his sense of justice from his parents and they from theirs and down the line, but who first "created" the idea of justice?

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    1. Your misunderstanding of his whole point is somewhat embarrassing. I can't believe you actually leave it posted here. I am not trying to offend, just saying, you completely break Lewis's point down into a straw man and then attack that. Sorry, but your four points of his argument were so off base that no one really need read the rest of what you said. You state that it is hard to believe why C. S. Lewis did not see the logical problems with his argument, I'll tell you why, its because the problem you are reading into what he is saying there does not exist.

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    2. Ok, I said four points, but there are five. I am sorry for not looking closer. Still feel what I said is accurate though.

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    3. You neglected to say why science supports the existence only of the Christian god but no other.

      Was this an oversight or was it deliberate?

      Perhaps you could explain:

      a) How you identified and eliminated all possible natural explanations.
      b) How you then identified and eliminated all possible supernatural explanations to arrive at only the Christian god.

      This would, of course, turn your contribution into something useful rather than a mere assertion without evidential support which can be dismissed with the same ease with which you asserted it.

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    4. I never claimed that science "supports the existence only of the Christian god," and neither does C. S. Lewis. The argument you quoted is a rational, not scientific, argument. Science does not support any one philosophy. "Since science describes observable physical phenomena it can equally well support any philosophical outlook that is rationally consistent with these observable phenomena. To borrow a mathematical phrase, science is philosophically indeterminate. One's goals and purposes in life, which are intertwined with one's world view, are therefore also not uniquely determinable by scientific means." ("Faith and the Physical World: A Comprehensive View," David L. Dye. From the introduction.)

      I am not interested in contributing something useful in the conversation. And I expected you to dismiss my comment, as it was rude, insensitive, and kind of assholeish, which unfortunately, are character defaults that I struggle against, and end up having to apologize for. Sometimes I get frustrated, and speak callously, which is why I try to avoid commenting anywhere. Obviously I failed this time.

      I do think, after personally exploring the supernatural alternatives, Christianity turns out to be the one that makes the most sense. But that was not purely scientific exploration, indeed, it could not be. So if you insist on keeping the conversation purely about hard science and God I will just keep my mouth shut (your welcome).

      To explain a little bit more, in my uneducated understanding, trying to study God with science is like trying to develop a complete psychological profile of an artist from a few of his paintings. It's been attempted, but I wouldn't call it hard science.

      Again, sorry for the rude comments, I was half awake and obviously in a very "superior than thou" mood. I am ashamed.

      Good luck with your explorations.

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    5. I'm sorry you were unable to rise to the challenge, which should have been very easy for you if you thought your 'faith' had any basis in reality.

      Unfortunately, your rather long-winded excuse for not being able to simply reinforced the impression that you know you you can't defend your superstition.

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  3. I think the misunderstanding here is due to the interpretation of the word 'atheism'. Lewis comes from a time when the word is popularly understood to mean the claim 'there is no god'. The religious insist that this claim is a belief system, and I would have to agree due to the certainty that the claim implies. However, the definition has come to be defined as a position of what is/isn't improbable, not what is/isn't impossible. Mr. Anonymous, as his post states, thinks that Rosa was trying to "create a gap in which to sit a belief that there is no god". Mr. Anonymous has adopted this misguided definition of past times, and in the process made some assuming positions regarding Rosa's argument. Atheism is a lack of belief; no certainty involved.

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