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.

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.

  • Scott Scheule

    I find the same degree of support among Christians for Lewis’s work as a I find for The God Delusion among atheists. That’s not unexpected–people look less critically on those things they agree with. What seems completely unfair to the critic will to the supporter seem like an unbiased presentation of options.

  • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

    Great job. I am astounded that Lewis has the reputation he does.

    Could he really have believed that there are basically two views about what the universe is and how it came to be here? This was a well educated educator who taught at two of the premier educational institutions in the world. He must have been being disingenuous here, right?

    • Scott Scheule

      You’ll note the asterisk there. He lists some other views in the endnote which he omits discussion of to keep things simpler.

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        Okay. But what he says is fundamentally false and presents a misleading picture of the world of ideas. Fixing the error requires more than an asterisk. He shouldn’t say such misleading things, period.

        He could say that he wants to compare two common approaches. That would be better. Of course Jeff’s straw man objection would still apply.

        • Scott Scheule

          I don’t see how “common approaches” is relevantly different than “world views,” but at any rate, I agree that the presentation of options is unfair.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            It wasn’t the substitution of “common approaches” for “world views” that I was suggesting makes the difference. It was the substitution of something like “here are two” for “there are basically two.” The former allows for the existence of alternatives to the two, the latter implies that there are really just these two.

          • Scott Scheule

            Ah. Well he does say “very roughly,” which seems like an appropriate fudge factor. And again, there’s an endnote right there. There’s plenty to object to in that passage, but, not, I think, Lewis’s counting.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            When a philosopher starts counting and gets to two, you have to be suspicious that he is setting up a false dichotomy. In Lewis’ case, I think that this is precisely what he is doing.

            I don’t see “roughly” as an appropriate fudge factor. There are enough world views that are significantly different than either of the two mentioned by Lewis that “roughly two” is not a fudge, it is false.

      • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

        FYI: I just edited the post by appending the note from Mere Christianity which links to the asterisk in the original text.

  • being itself

    The purpose of Christian apologetics is not a fair and honest analysis of opposing views. The purpose of apologetics is cognitive dissonance reduction.

    • Scott Scheule

      About the level of comment we’ve been led to expect, but cheers for finally managing a response without cramming in the phrase “promiscuous metaphyics.”

  • Keith Parsons

    Jeff,

    Bravo! Your satire is biting and brilliant!

    There is a problem with naturalism vs. supernaturalism that comes up in much more sophisticated treatments than Lewis’s. The naturalist has to admit that the scientific account leaves our existence very improbable. To take just one example: Prior to the demise of the dinosaurs, human ancestors were nondescript furballs about the size of an opossum. Then, whatever happened at the K/T extinction happened, clearing away the dominant dinosaurs, and the mammalian heyday began.

    Take away the K/T extinction, and, almost certainly we–or anything much like us–would not be here. Also, there was the famous “bottleneck” in human history. All humans today, from Swedes to Sub-Saharan Africans, to Australian Aborigines, display less genetic diversity than a single troop of mountain gorillas. The reason seems to be that humans passed through a population “bottleneck” when the human population nearly went extinct. I have seen estimates that at one time there were no more than 1000 humans alive on the planet. So, we barely made it.

    Since naturalism can draw only upon scientific explanations and causes, it looks as though the probability that humans would exist given naturalism, p(h/n), is quite low. On the other hand, the probability that humans will exist given that an all-powerful being (God) wants humans to exist is one. Hence, it seems that p(h/n) << p(h/g). In other words, the likelihood (in the technical sense) that humans will exist given naturalism is much lower than the likelihood of humans given theism. Thus the existence of humans seems to strongly confirm theism over naturalism.

    Given the automatic advantage supernatural hypotheses have with respect to likelihoods, I think that the only way to give a natural hypothesis a chance to win (since they might, after all, be true) is to assign the supernatural hypotheses (including theism) such an extremely low background probability, that it cancels the automatic advantage with respect to likelihoods. I think, in effect, this is what scientists of the early 19th Century decided to do in science when they declared that they would consider only hypotheses postulating "secondary" (natural) causes and not the "primary" cause (God).

    • David_Evans

      About the K/T extinction: there have been 5 major extinction events that we know of. If that one had not happened, there would probably have been another in a few tens of millions of years. Also, if dinosaurs had not died out there must be a finite probability that some of them would develop intelligence.

      Similarly, if humans had died out at the bottleneck, how do we know that another intelligent primate would not have evolved?

      At most your argument suggests that the probability of intelligent life on a given planet may be quite low. But it seems likely that there are billions of planets in this galaxy alone. Even if only one has intelligent life, that’s the one on which we (or someone) will be discussing these matters.

    • David_Evans

      “On the other hand, the probability that humans will exist given that an all-powerful being (God) wants humans to exist is one.”

      Some question-begging there? What is the probability that an all-powerful being would want humans to exist, rather than some more satisfactory species? Quite low, I think, given our many cognitive and moral imperfections. Why, many of us appear to lack even a sensus divinitatis.


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