C.S. Lewis and the Law of Nature

C.S. Lewis and the Law of Nature July 22, 2020

For years now, I’ve been putting off writing a review of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, but the time has finally come for me to take the plunge. One of my daughters asked for my thoughts about the book recently, and given that unpacking my deconversion for my girls was the reason I started blogging in the first place, I’m going to take my time and do this thoroughly. I’m no master debater, but I invested way too much time and energy into my theological education to pass up an opportunity to engage in apologetics, now from the outside looking in.

I maintain that apologetics, or the defense of the faith, is targeted not toward unbelievers and outsiders but to the faithful who are still within the fold. It’s for the saved, not for the lost. It exists to make believers feel more confident about their beliefs in the face of ideological attack and, more importantly, cultural marginalization.

Maybe this insularity explains why this stuff rarely changes minds one way or the other, and it also explains why Lewis himself stopped engaging in this kind of thing later on in his career.

Nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate.

And yet Mere Christianity remains one of his most popular works, perhaps second only to his fanciful Chronicles of Narnia series. Clearly this kind of argumentation helps people sleep at night, as I recall it once did for me. But I would caution them against looking too closely at the details. Like an image that only looks right when you close one eye and squint with the other, arguments supporting the claims of Christianity don’t fare well under closer scrutiny. That’s why leaders of this faith so regularly insinuate that setting aside your most troubling questions is an act of worship.

But enough of that. Let’s dive into Lewis’s initial groundwork for his argument for the rationality of the Christian faith.

The Law of Nature

Lewis begins by arguing that all of us operate from a sense of right and wrong which appears to be wired into us from birth. We may differ from one another over which rules we should be keeping, but we all seem to feel that there should be rules in the first place. For Lewis, this will become Exhibit A for the existence of God.

But hold up a second. Slow your roll, brother. It’s patently obvious that we all try our best to maintain a code of conduct around which a society can function, but that doesn’t mean it’s rooted in metaphysics or an alternate realm or whatever. It only shows that humans have discovered that we need rules if we are ever to build the kind of life for ourselves that would make life worth living.

Even other animals have rules to enforce, and social hierarchies to maintain, but like everything else, we humans have a knack for taking what’s natural to our species and making it way more elaborate. We construct much larger systems of self-government which our primate cousins would never understand.

But that’s still what our systems of thought are…constructs. We hold certain truths to be self-evident, but we still have to hold them because they are ultimately artifacts of our own design. That’s why our rules vary from culture to culture. Lewis insists the fact that we all have rules means that the need must be rooted in something larger than ourselves, but he never fully explains why that must be our conclusion.

Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the “laws of nature” we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong “the Law of Nature,” they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law—with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it. (p.4)

Despite Lewis’s compulsion to Capitalize Terms to Support His Case, humans can choose to disobey this “Law” because it is really nothing of the sort. Not only is it not a law in the current sense of the word, but it’s debatable how “natural” it is in the first place.

Natural law implies that humans are wired by Nature to behave in a certain way…but you have met Nature before, right? She’s kind of a b*tch.

Does Nature Care?

Nature doesn’t really care about our human systems of right and wrong. Nature, as Neil deGrasse Tyson so aptly puts it, is trying to kill us. In fact most of the universe is deadly to us, a limitless vacuum of space littered with giant balls of exploding gas, some of which are being orbited by chunks of rock on which nothing could possibly live.

Even on our own planet the overwhelming majority of the surface is uninhabitable to us, and we can survive in the few habitable regions only because we have constructed climate-controlled, concrete-reinforced living spaces which keep Nature at bay at all times.

Natural law isn’t friendly to human life at all, and it certainly doesn’t teach us to share. On the contrary, it teaches us to hoard, to defend, or even to aggressively take resources from those whose own survival could threaten our own. It takes a lot of training to make people behave the way we would like for them to behave.

Have you ever watched a nature documentary with children around? Watch how emotionally invested they become when they see the wolf finally chase down the baby rabbit, catching it in its mouth in order to take it home to feed its own pups. We call this the Circle of Life, but it is also a Circle of Death, and it’s only obeying Lewis’s Law of Nature.

Humans would be more brutal as well, except we decided at one point in our evolution that we would like to live easier lives, free from constant worry that someone will attack us and take away our resources, leaving us to perish. We make rules and then build institutions to create and enforce those rules in order to rise above what Nature seems to want for us, and it’s debatable whether or not that is sustainable in the long run. I don’t really know. All I do know is that the only thing that’s natural about our rules of right and wrong is that humans create them, and I guess we are a part of Nature, too. But that’s as far as it goes.

So right off the bat, Lewis has gotten off to a shaky start. His point appears valid at first blush, but a few seconds of further thought expose the weakness of his position. Calling it Natural Law (with initial capitals!) doesn’t really establish that something larger than humanity is at work. On the contrary, I would argue that Nature positively militates against the kinds of life that we humans want to create for ourselves.

If this proves to be a significant foundation for Lewis’s future arguments, this review isn’t going to take nearly as many posts as did my review of Tim Keller‘s Reason for God. Stay tuned for that to show up again in the near future, by the way.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something I read Paula Kirby say years ago because I think she sums up my feelings about this point better than I could.

Not only does evolution not need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving. Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work. An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be one of them.

If humans are created in the image of the same Supreme Being who made Nature, I’ve got even more reason than ever to maintain “social distance” from them, pandemic or not.

[Image Source: National Portrait Gallery]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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