Let’s Attack a Straw Man, C.S. Lewis Style!

I was re-reading C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, and was struck by his completely biased way of defining the theory he wants to discredit. Here’s a quick refresher: Lewis wants to defend a moral argument for what he calls the “Religious view” (read: theism) and against what he calls the “Materialist view.” If you were expecting Lewis to offer a “neutral” definition of materialism, such as “the belief that matter and energy are all that exist,” you’d be massively mistaken. Instead, here’s how Lewis defines his terms.

I now want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live in. Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us. The other view is the religious view. (*) According to it, what is behind  the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know.

Lewis then proceeds to give his famous moral argument for God’s existence.

If we deconstruct and generalize this paragraph, Lewis’s approach seems to be as follows.

1. There are two main competing worldviews: H1 and H2.

2. [Hidden premise: there is a set of facts F1, F2, ..., Fn which count against H1. These facts are as follows.]

F1: the universe exists (“matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why”)

F2: the evolution of intelligent life (“the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us”)

3.  Define H1, not in the way that any of its proponents would do so, but instead in terms of F1, F2, …, Fn to make it sound as implausible as possible.

4. Offer a much more favorable definition of H2, one which makes no reference to any set of facts which might count against H2.

5. Then move on to to give your argument for H2 and against H1.

I think I’m getting the hang of this…. If my goal were to be the C.S. Lewis of naturalism, then, I would begin an essay against theism with the following skewed definitions.

I now want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live in. Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held.

First, there is what is called the Religious view. People who take that view think that God is changeless … except for when he decided to create the universe [see the "immutability vs. creation argument" here]. They think that God created the universe, except there was never a time when the universe did not exist [see the "impossibility of a divine cause argument" here]. They think that God ‘fine-tuned’ the universe for intelligent life, except for the universe’s massive hostility for life, the clumsy process of evolution by natural selection, the coarse-tuning of pain and pleasure systems, and the fact that the majority of sentient beings do not thrive for most of their lives. They think that human minds are immaterial souls that just happen to be dependent upon a physical brain, a brain which is reliable… except when it produces religiously important beliefs about invisible agents, like God, or incorrectly leads people to assume that invisible agents explain the natural world, except for all of the times science has shown such explanations to be false.

The other view is the naturalist view. According to it, the physical explains why anything mental exists.

I think no fair minded person–theist, naturalist, or otherwise–would say that this is a fair and honest way to begin an examination of the evidence about God’s existence. Why, then, if their silence is any indication, do so many Christians seem to think Lewis’s diatribe is acceptable?

See Also:

Do Christian Apologists Spend Too Much Time Focusing on their Weaker Opponents?

ETA: Note:

Here is the note Lewis provided where the asterisk (*) appears inside the quotation of Lewis.

Note —In order to keep this section short enough when it was given on the air, I mentioned only the Materialist view and the Religious view. But to be complete I ought to mention the In between view called Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution. The wittiest expositions of it come in the works of Bernard Shaw, but the most profound ones in those of Bergson. People who hold this view say that the small variations by which life on this planet “evolved” from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the “striving” or “purposiveness” of a Life-Force.

When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then “a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection” is really a God, and their view is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense in saying that something without a mind “strives” or has “purposes”? This seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.

Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Part 3
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What is Faith? – Part 9
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


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