Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Notes on C. S. Lewis and Science

As I read him, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), probably the most famous Christian apologist of the 20th century, presented a four-step apologetic. I want to note in what ways this apologetic engages science with Christian faith. Though the final step argues that Jesus is God—which is not strictly speaking a scientific concern—the first three steps confronted the scientifically based philosophy of his early 20th century Oxford. I could also argue that they resonate into 21st century American culture as well. 

But I’ll restrain myself on that last point. Instead, let me outline those first three steps:
  1. First of all, there is more to the world than just material stuff. Materialism (that there is just brute matter) is in fact self-defeating because, if we are pure materialists, rational thinking is impossible. Lewis’s book Miracles principally presents this apologetic, but it is scattered throughout his writings, especially in the ‘40s.
  2. Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  This argument appears in The Problem of Pain and in “The Weight of Glory.”
  3. There is a Law or Rule about Right and Wrong (or the Law of Nature, or even natural law) that exists in all human beings and points to the God created that law within us. Lewis developed this apologetic in his opening Broadcast Talks for BBC, which became the first section or “book” of Mere Christianity, as well as his 1943 Riddell lectures later published as The Abolition of Man.

Let’s look at #2 for a moment: Lewis’s argument from Joy or desire. The argument brings to mind the question of whether Albert Einstein’s words about “God” were really about, well, God, such as “everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.” Richard Dawkins argues (not surprisingly as the arch-atheist) that this stuff in Einstien isn’t really about God, it’s about transcendence. In his recent book, scientist Amir D. Aczel, contends (as I understand him) that, no, this is really about the Deity, and in fact, believing in God is profoundly compatible with science.
So I'm going to set Lewis in this fray. What is he saying? Is he arguing that this sense of transcendence—or better, this desire for it, which Lewis calls “Joy”—proves God? No, at least not as a deductive proof. Instead Lewis is making a suppositional argument here: We do not fully understand the desire for something beyond (or Joy) itself, but it opens to a wider metaphysical conclusion, one that points to God who created us. Or more systematically, the form of this suppositional argument from desire proceeds as follows: Suppose God created this world, we can imagine that God would leave a desire for more than this world offers. We experience a longing for more than this world offers. It is reasonable to see this as pointer to God.
In a certain sense then, the argument cannot be decided on the basis of science or not. Science seeks to understand the interactions of the material world. And yet, many scientists, because they focus their lives on the interactions of the material world, believe that this world is all there is.
Like my title says, these are notes. Nothing fully conclusive yet. But I’m interested to know what you think…


  1. "Materialism (that there is just brute matter) is in fact self-defeating because, if we are pure materialists, rational thinking is impossible."

    I'm not sure I understand why that would be the case. If we add a notion of reductionism, that all phenomena are completely describable in terms of subatomic particles or whatever is at the "bottom" then I think I can see how that becomes self-defeating. But aren't there nonreductionist, materialist accounts of rational thinking?

    "Suppose God created this world, we can imagine that God would leave a desire for more than this world offers. We experience a longing for more than this world offers. It is reasonable to see this as pointer to God."

    I'd agree that the observation is consistent with the supposition. But isn't it equally consistent to suppose that there is no God, in which case these desires for transcendence are just another example of concepts our language can describe but which do not and possibly cannot exist? Other examples might be time machines, perpetual motion machines, the state of having one's cake and eating it too, or the smallest positive integer not definable in fewer than twelve words.

  2. Way to slow in responding... my apologies... I simply stated Lewis's position on the self-defeating nature of materialism; I wasn't trying to argue for it. That, I hope, will be part of another blog post... The question of desire and its proof for God: yes, there is wishful thinking. No doubt about it. (And here Lewis was seeking to counter Freud.) There are several responses here, but I'll offer just one: What if many of us actually wished that God didn't exist because that--as many atheists argue--would not lead us to have to follow what God wants? We could have liberty to do whatever we want. So desires for transcendence and lack thereof can go two ways at least. Nonetheless, Lewis's argument is that this desire is consistent with belief in God, not that it proves God so far as I read him.

  3. No worries; just because the Internet can be instantaneous doesn't mean it always has to be.

    Sure, I appreciate that you were just summarizing Lewis. I've encountered comments about the self-defeating nature of materialism elsewhere as well, and the reasoning behind that conclusion has never really clicked for me. Since you brought it up and asked for comments, I thought I'd see if maybe you could help me understand better. If that's a topic for a future blog post, then I will await that post.

    As for the topic of desires -- Right, opposing desires are somewhat difficult to reconcile under Lewis' reasoning. I suppose there is a related question of how accurately one understands one's own desires. For example, do your hypothetical atheists actually want God not to exist, or is liberty really want they want? If the latter, then one could argue God wants them to have liberty also, making their desire consistent with his existence. Conversely, I could imagine someone saying that a desire for God or transcendence is really just a desire to go back to having parents or guardians take care of you instead of facing the challenges of adulthood directly, or some such.

    Your comment about a response to Freud is helpful. I can see where Lewis' thoughts here would be more relevant in the context of a particular conversation (as it were). And if those thoughts resonate for others, that's great. It's just not a line of reasoning that resonates much for me personally.

    Thanks for the reply!