Who Gets to Use Lewis’s Excuse?

Now that college is over, and I’m wrapping up my guest stint at Daylight Atheism, I finally have time to get back to reading and blogging about books (or more precisely, books about atheism and philosophy, since if I were blogging through all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading, this would be a very different blog).  I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, but I’m not that interested in discussing the main thesis of the book since, as I’ve said before, I don’t think theodicy is a defeater for Christianity.  I find the general structure of Lewis’s argument reasonable, even if I’m unconvinced any god exists that needs his defense.  So let’s get on to weird digressions.

At the conclusion of Lewis’s discussion of the Fall, he adds a brief caveat, to explain why his discussion omitted all mention of the parable of the tree of knowledge.

These theories may have done good in their day but they do no good to me and I am not going to invent others. We have recently been told by the scientists that we have no right to expect that the real universe should be picturable, and that if we make mental pictures to illustrate quantum physics we are moving further away from reality, not closer to it.  We have clearly even less right to demand that the highest spiritual realities should be picturable, or even explicable in terms of our abstract thought…

I have thought it right to allow this one glance at what is for me an impenetrable curtain, but, as I have said, it makes no part of my present argument. Clearly it would be futile to attempt to solve the problem of pain by producing another problem.

And lest anyone think Lewis is making an unfair criticism of science, I’ve linked below an xkcd cartoon that pretty much recapitulates the heart of his argument:

Lewis intends for this section to let Christians off the hook a little, but, when I read it, I immediately dogeared the page so I could use it in my next round with my Catholic boyfriend. One of the primary points of our disagreement (you know, aside from the existence of God) is that he claims I cannot legitimately believe in some kind of objective absolute morality (usually something akin to virtue ethics) if I don’t have a solid metaphysical system to ground it in.

I still defend myself by saying a moral system can be useful (and clearly superior to some alternatives) if it generates mostly correct answers, i.e. if it is a crude approximation of whatever proper moral judgement would look like.  And just as I don’t need to know physics to be able to figure out where a thrown ball will land in time to catch it, I don’t need a full understanding of whatever complex principles undergird moral law to be able to guide my choices and have a good-enough idea of what parts of me don’t measure up.

(Note: In point of fact, I know physics, but can’t reliably catch a ball.  Let’s treat me as an aberration, or say I am analogous to many philosophers of the academy).

So am I off the hook?  I tend to think that my claim is bolstered by the idea that if there is a just moral law that is binding on all people, it has to be reasonably accessible, or else everyone would have to delegate their moral choices to some arcane priesthood without the ability to discern whether their judgement were correct. In other words, if there’s any topic people should be allowed to get away with using approximations and stories to talk about, it seems like moral law fits the bill.

But if I claim this excuse for myself, I make it a lot harder to attack the people I disagree with or have an argument at all.  I’m not sure what heuristic to use when I’m deciding whether someone’s beliefs need a more in depth defense.  I’d welcome thoughts and disagreement in the comments section.

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  • Patrick

    I hate to quote William Lane "one fever dream away from a sunday school machete massacre" Craig, but you're confusing ontology and epistemology. Your boyfriend isn't saying that you can't ACCURATELY DETECT objective moral values without believing that moral laws are made out of magic, he's saying that you can't HAVE objective morals unless they're made out of magic. Don't believe in magic? Then no objective morals for you in the same way that you don't get any leprechaun gold.And if he's going by the classical theistic definition of "objective morals," he's probably right.

  • So Leah, you say you believe in objective moral laws but are happy to use a best fit heuristic while trying to uncover the 'real' rules?On what basis do you claim there exists an objective moral law? At least science, when making progress, improves its description of reality so that we can reasonably expect there to be an accurate description of reality out there, but moral 'progress' simply means coming more into line with your preferences, either for rules you agree with or outcomes you value.Without a Platonic ideal to measure against, how do you know if one heuristic is better than another, and how do you know whatever metric you just answered that with is a valid measure of morality?And what Patrick said.

  • And this is exactly why I'm a consequentialist.

  • Anonymous

    I'm still confused as to why you need an absolute morality. You start with a conclusion and seek to fill in the blanks. Make that conclusion a hypothesis.

  • I'm with Patrick, here, I think you are confusing ontology and epistemology. Although, I think that one of the most brilliant parts of the Harris/Craig debate was Harris' insistence that objective morality can exist without a deity.

  • Are you off the hook? Have you studied Catholic moral theology or ethics? Of course there is many a holy little grandma saint living in the backwaters of this world who have never studied ethics (who, if we were comparing sanctity to a fight, could beat me like an MMA champ beating a 10 year old boy). You don't need to study ethics in order to have a basic instinct for distinguishing right from wrong except in difficult cases (like contraception). Your analogy to throwing a ball and knowing physics makes this point. Similarly, there is a built in instinct to feel what is right and wrong which requires no formal study. We call this "natural law." It is both built into nature and it built into our nature. This is why everyone has a sense of it (for example, murder is wrong).But are you looking for the bare minimum here in a moral system? Is a moral system that "generates mostly correct answers" really all you are seeking? Are you not looking for a moral system that actually makes real demands on both you and others?I guess what I am trying to get at is, it is up to you, when you are going to let yourself be "off the hook." I don't think I personally could ever be satisfied living under the demands of a morality where I did not actually believe in the foundation. I first need to see "this is the truth" before I am willing to take "so you must live by it."You also raise a good point that even beyond the moral system telling me how to live, if I don't actually believe in the foundation of the moral system I am advocating, how could I ever use it to argue that something was right or wrong for someone else. How could I ever make a compelling moral argument which could be applied to another person or even (God forbid!) a whole society.I hope this helps.

  • "We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong."I think you're ready to graduate from Lewis to Chesterton. I see that you've read Orthodoxy, but I think you're better moving on to, say, Tremendous Trifles, or the Father Brown mysteries, or even What's Wrong with the World.http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com