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October 06, 2006

Mere Christianity: A Critique, Part One

"And what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done - well, you never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were going to be," - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Many moons ago, but not quite so far back as when my people called corn "maize," one of my readers suggested I, the unrepentant and sometimes militant-in-attitude atheist, should read some of the works of C.S. Lewis. To tempt me further, he even agreed to foot the bill, and I - being no dimwit when it comes to dosh - accepted. So, kind contribution in hand, I ordered a few books and had every intention of reading them and offering my thoughts.

But, well, I never would have promised if I had known how frightfully busy I was going to be.

Now though, I find that my schedule and my conscience have colluded against me, and thus I give you - in installments - my thoughts on the book Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Within its pages, Lewis lays out his reasoning for why the Christian faith should be embraced. As you can imagine, I find myself less than convinced.

So, let us begin with Book One…

In attempting to lay the groundwork for his pro-Christianity arguments that will follow, Lewis sets out to establish that there is, as he calls it, a Law of Human Nature, a standard outside of man by which he may measure right and wrong. Alas, he fails.

He first hints at this “law” by introducing human quarrels, in particular those that involve a situation in which one party has taken offense to the action of another. For example, someone taking a seat that we believed to be ours, such that we say, “That’s my seat, I was there first.” Lewis correctly asserts that, in saying it, we are appealing to a standard we hold, a standard we believe the other person should understand and appreciate. But, so what?

And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.”

He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it… or that something has turned up which lets him off….

Lewis says the other person must be “pretending” that my standard (and the one which he secretly understands) does not apply, for whatever reason. However, this is mere assertion; perhaps the person really did not see anything wrong with taking my seat – that is, “to hell with your standard.” In stating that the other person is necessarily and dishonestly attempting to rationalize their behavior, he assumes what he has set out to prove: that an objective standard exists outside of man.

Why would someone have to pretend? Because he knows there’s an objective standard. And how do we know that standard exists? Because people pretend it doesn’t.

As they say, if you believe elves make rain, then every time it rains you have more proof of elves.

For inexplicable reasons, other than to demonstrate that he knows how to use the logical fallacy of association, Lewis proceeds to compare his “Law of Human Nature” to scientific laws, with the exception that while a man cannot choose to ignore the effects of gravity, he can choose to ignore the law that should guide his behavior. In summary, it’s a law, but it’s not really a law, but – man! – didn’t putting it in the same paragraph with gravitation, heredity, and chemistry make it sound legitimate?

Not only was man free to disobey this “Law of Human Nature,” but also there was a chance he might not even know it exists:

This was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune.
Let’s put aside the fact that being “colour-blind” and tone-deaf are actually resultant from the unfolding of scientific laws (e.g. genetics, visual degeneration, brain development), and not examples of where the law is not present or not known. We have to put it aside, of course, because Lewis obviously did, knowing that to acknowledge it would simply speed his argument further into the land of That-Makes-No-Sense.

So, at this point, Lewis is going to base the rest of his argument on a “law” that isn’t really a law and that everyone knows about except for, well, those people that don’t.

Powerful stuff.

Continuing, Lewis then suggests that this Law has been known to all men (despite saying above that it might not have been) because:

There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference….

Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.

The problem with this statement should be obvious: if you do not put someone else ahead of you in all situations, then there are situations in which you find it perfectly acceptable to put yourself first. To say that the Jainist who abhors the taking of any life, and Hitler, who really loved his dogs but didn’t mind killing Jews, share a moral standard with regard to killing is absurd.
Men have differed as to whether or not you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.
Odd that, in a book entitled Mere Christianity, Lewis would display such a weak knowledge of The Bible.

Why, look, there’s old Exodus 21, in which man is instructed in the laws for dealing with a female slave he may purchase and take as his wife. In addition, in Numbers 31, we see virgins being taken as spoils of war, at the behest of the Lord.

In other cases, a man may not simply have any woman he liked: it could be the woman that his parents liked. Or maybe the tribal elders. Tomato, to-mah-to, potato, po-tah-to, let’s call the whole thing off.

Realizing that his train of thought just crashed through the “Bridge out ahead” barrier, Lewis then says that, well, people can be mistaken about the Law of Human Nature; thus, it continues to exist even if we do not realize it. Convenient – the same could be said about Binky the Magic Space Clown, creator of all and everything. He exists; you’re just wrong in saying he doesn’t.

Blessed be his big, floppy shoes.

To summarize, Lewis’ faith is built around the belief in a Law of Human Nature that isn’t really a law, that everyone knows about (except for those that don’t know about it), and that even those who do know about it may just bungle completely and they’ll never be any the wiser (unless, I suspect, someone like Lewis sorts them out, because – after all – he knows this Law exists).

Note that I am not saying that we do not have a sense of right and wrong; nor am I claiming that such a Law of Human Nature does not exist (although I do not believe it does, in the sense Lewis does). I am, however, saying that Lewis has done nothing to demonstrate that this inclination toward socially beneficial behavior arises from and exists objectively outside the flesh and blood of men (and other animals).

Anticipating objections to his belief in this Law of Human Nature, Lewis provides three pre-emptive counterarguments:


  1. The Law is not the herd instinct, rather the Law informs our decision making when instincts come into conflict. For example, if we see a man drowning, we may be driven to help him while at the same time feeling reluctant to risk our own lives in doing so.

  2. The Law motivates us to strengthen the instinct that leads to right behavior (which, really, is not a much different argument than that provided in number one above, but having three counterarguments is ever so much more convincing than just a measly two – and maybe Lewis was paid according to his word count).

  3. The Law does not always point to the same instinct as good or bad, but varies according to the situation and informs us accordingly. OK, fine, this really isn’t very different from the first two counterarguments, but – you know – sing with me, people – “three is the magic number!”
What we’re left with is essentially one counterargument: the Law cannot be an instinct because it is the internal pressure we feel when we must choose between competing instincts. Unfortunately (for those who find this book convincing), Lewis has not demonstrated that our decision to pursue one instinct over another comes from anywhere other than within the individual (his mind, his genes, whatever).

Indeed, we do make choices, but so what? If I imagine my house on fire and my daughter trapped in her room, I have little doubt that I would give small concern to my own wellbeing and would instead try to save her. If I imagine my neighbor’s house on fire, I suspect my willingness to save them, while somewhat strong, would pale next to that for saving my own children.

If Lewis were to ask me, I’d say that seems a rather odd hierarchy for an all-loving deity to establish via a “Law of Human Nature” – but it seems perfectly reasonable when one thinks of natural processes, game theory, and selfish genes.

Lewis then addresses other concerns the public has with his arguments. For example, they ask if the “Law” is really just social convention, something learned. Lewis states:

I fully agree that we learn the Rule of Decent Behaviour from parents and teachers, and friends, and books, as we learn everything else. But some of the things we learn are mere conventions which might have been different [e.g. driving on the right]… and others of them, like mathematics, are real truths. The question is to which class the Law of Human Nature belongs.
As you might imagine, Lewis believes that this “Law” belongs to the realm of “real truths,” like mathematics. The only thing this tells us is that Lewis should have spent more time studying the philosophy of mathematics.

Each branch of mathematics has, at its core, a series of a priori assumptions that cannot themselves be proved true (e.g. a line can continue straight on indefinitely). As a result, multiple branches of mathematics have been developed, many of which may not define reality, but all of which are internally consistent based on initial assumptions. Perhaps some of these abstract concepts are true representations of reality, and perhaps further exploration will demonstrate such – and perhaps we will one day reach the ultimate mathematical explanation for life, the universe, and everything. Amen.

This search, however, bears little resemblance to Lewis’ search for “better” and “worse” moralities:

When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think…one… is ever better or worse…? Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then of course there could never be any moral progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better…

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality….

What Lewis overlooks, and where his argument again fails, is that the interpretation of “better” is a wee bit subjective.

If an Islamic fundamentalist argues with me that oppressing women is “better” than letting them vote, drive, and show their ankles in public, I don’t think he and I are really talking about “better” in any way other than “it comes closer to my own conception of what is morally appropriate.” The standard to which he appeals, and the standard to which I appeal, are astronomical units apart. And that’s, like, really far and stuff.

In the same way, if the Rule of Decent Behavior meant simply “whatever each nation happens to approve,” there would be no sense in saying that any one nation had ever been more correct in its approval than any other; no sense in saying that the world could ever grow morally better or worse.
Again, perhaps this ultimate standard of Right and Wrong really does exist, but Lewis has not shown how he can be a better determinant of its specifics than anyone else, Islamic terrorists included. The a priori assumptions from which Lewis begins and from which bin Laden begins are different, yet both unquestioningly accept the truth of their own. As a result, we are no closer to understanding this “Law of Human Nature” nor to having evidence of its objective existence.

It’s not only theists that make this leap, though. In his new book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris says that we can have morality without gods by determining if there are better or worse ways of seeking happiness in the world. At the core of his definition of morality, then, is that moral behavior is that which increases the likelihood of happiness. Such is Harris’ understanding of the “Law,” but does that make it the right one?

Personally, I find it simplistic (i.e.. if one could make Warren Buffett disappear mysteriously and then distribute his wealth to 100,000 poor people, I think you’d have a lot of happy people and one missing person report).

Once again, let’s recap: Lewis’ faith is built around the belief in a Law of Human Nature that isn’t really a law, that everyone knows about (except for those that don’t know about it, apparently because their mom and dad never taught them), that even those who do know about it may just bungle completely and they’ll never be any the wiser, and that we really can’t ever be sure we’ve gotten quite right anyway.

Gosh, where do I sign up for this mere Christianity?

After once again dredging up comparisons between rocks and people, physical laws and “laws” of behavior, a tactic that continues to add nothing of value or substance to his position, he attempts to address the question of “why ought a person do [the right thing]?”

If we ask: “Why ought I to be unselfish?” and you reply, “Because it is good for society,” we may then ask, “Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?” and then you will have to say, “Because you ought to be unselfish” – which simply brings us back to where we started.
Or we could take the approach of seeing altruistic acts as inherently selfish, from a number of perspectives: future reciprocity (that is, it does not pay me immediately, but receiving the same treatment from others later would), a sense of fairness, empathy and resultant positive feelings from altruism, etc. Just look at the phraseology society uses when a “good Christian” dies: he’s gone off to his final reward. That is not to say that it is all a simple, rational cost-benefit analysis done before each act, but rather inclinations bestowed upon us by generation upon generation of evolution.

Lewis could not have known what animal research would discover in the years after he gave these speeches, although given the theistic propensity to ignore inconvenient science it probably doesn’t matter. Many primates, not just humans, exhibit societal structures with moral codes, social norms, and expected behaviors. They illustrate empathic behaviors and consolation of other members of the group (dolphins as well in this case). Morality, at least in its most basic sense, then, isn’t just for Man.

But, who knows? Perhaps apes and dolphins have their own gods and someday they will tell us all about it, and how they have the “Law of Dolphin Behavior” and how very thankful they were when tuna became “dolphin-safe.” If only they had opposable thumbs, perhaps they would have invented scissors for cutting the nets.

Perhaps anticipating such a rebuttal, Lewis then argues that what we know most intimately is Man, because we (men and women) are part of mankind. He argues that an outsider watching mankind could not know that he feels this sense of moral obligation, only that sometimes men do X and sometimes men do Y.

In a way, he’s right: an outside observer cannot know the mind of man. However, by that same token, Lewis cannot know the minds of other men – all he can know is his own. Perhaps every other person is just an automaton that talks about “having a moral sense,” but really is empty inside, essentially a sociopath. Perhaps everything in the universe, including the Law of Human Behavior, was made by God just for C.S. Lewis.

Of course, our experience of other people leads us to believe that they have minds, that they share certain feelings and thoughts and instincts with every other human on the planet. Even if they do not, they behave like they do, so the difference is essentially meaningless. But, let’s accept for the sake of argument that humans have minds.

Why, then, is it such a fanciful notion that some other animals with large brains and complex social structures should be that different? They exhibit all of the behaviors that indicate some sense of self-awareness, some understanding of individuality and reciprocity and active altruism. The evidence of our connectivity through evolution, the true great chain of being, is undeniable (except to the willfully ignorant). I would venture that the greatest obstacle to denying these primates and dolphins some acknowledgement of mind and morals is that it flies in the face of the “humans were made special by god” line of thinking. In other words, Lewis is preaching to the choir and the converted.

Lewis also argues that there must be Something other than matter that is dictating proper behavior to him, some kind of mind. This assumes that the conscious mind does not arise from the interplay of matter. In short, he has once again assumed his conclusion – something he continuously berates the opposition for supposedly doing.

In closing out Book One of Mere Christianity, Lewis states that once you realize you are sick, you willingly seek the doctor (unless you’re a Christian Scientist, I suppose). So, once you realize there exists a Moral Law, and a Someone or Something outside of yourself that encourages you to follow it, you seek a means of absolution for your transgressions of the law. All fine and dandy, but given the weakness of Lewis’ arguments up to this point, I’d say it’s not so much like being sick as it is being a hypochondriac.

So, all together now, let’s wrap up: the basis of Lewis’ faith is built around the belief in a Law of Human Nature that isn’t really a law, that everyone knows about (except for those that don’t know about it, apparently because their mom and dad never taught them), that even those who do know about it may just bungle completely and they’ll never be any the wiser, that we really can’t ever be sure we’ve gotten quite right anyway, that appears to be, to some degree, in possession of other primates and dolphins (or maybe we’re all just automatons and everything was made for Lewis’ entertainment), and a love of assertion that something exists outside of matter is proof that something exists outside of matter (see: elves, rain).

Forgive me, Father, if I remain a skeptic.

More to come…

Note: I am not arguing for materialism, atheism, moral relativism, or anything of the kind. I am simply pointing out that Lewis' arguments are not (or should not be) convincing to anyone other than those already inclined to (a) not detect logical fallacies and (b) accept a moral code similar to that held by Lewis.

Posted by Andy at 07:19 PM





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