C.S. Lewis and the Argument from Wishing

C.S. Lewis and the Argument from Wishing July 23, 2020

C.S. Lewis looking out a windowYesterday I posted the first of what I plan to become a series of chapter reviews of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I know I’m late to this game—others have already dissected this work many times over—but I’ve never written out my own thoughts for those who would want to know them. It’s long overdue.

In the first chapter, Lewis began his argument for the rationality of the Christian faith by submitting that all people possess a sense of right and wrong. They may differ on the details, but for him the fact that all humans believe in the concept means it must be rooted in something larger than humanity itself. That’s assuming a lot of things at once, but we must not get sidetracked by chasing down every one of those hidden assumptions one-by-one.

What’s That Buzzing Noise?

As an aside, this incorrigible step-skipping is a big part of why apologetics wears out so many people. I have friends who devour thick books like they’re goldfish crackers but who cannot make it halfway through a book like this because, well…they’re not exactly sure why. Even the people whose shelves are full of titles like this have hardly read any of them cover-to-cover. But why?

They say that for every sentence in a bad argument it takes ten to explain what’s wrong with it. Your brain knows this, so as you trudge your way through a defense of the Christian faith, you’ll find your mental processor grinding to a halt for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. Too many people decide it’s because the writer is so smart that what he or she is saying is simply blowing their minds.

But I don’t think that’s what’s really happening. I think their brains are getting overheated just trying to keep up with all the logical leaps and changes of subject that are never acknowledged but somehow still become the foundation for the rest of the discussion. That puts all the work back onto you. If you keep on reading, they may address your concerns at a later time. But until they do, those nagging thoughts are going to buzz around in the back of your head like white noise that grows louder with every page turn.

Thankfully, in the second chapter Lewis anticipates the objection I raised yesterday that morality is a social construct, a system of values passed along to you by those who raised you.

Other people wrote to me saying, “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law just a social convention, something that is put into us by education?” (p.12)

I find his subsequent response unpersuasive for reasons that will become clearest toward the end, but along the way I want to point out how this particular discussion can serve as a case study, a microcosm of the whole apologetic enterprise.

Straw Skeptics

Lewis begins his reply by first misrepresenting the objection itself, a common logical misstep called the straw man fallacy. He exaggerates my position until it appears I am saying something I am not really trying to say.

I think there is a misunderstanding here. The people who ask that question are usually taking it for granted that if we have learned a thing from parents and teachers, then that thing must be merely a human invention. But, of course, that is not so. We all learned the multiplication table at school… (p.12)

Hold up, now. Before we decide if math and morality belong in the same camp, I must point out that no one actually says what he just said. Nobody is suggesting that everything we’ve ever learned in school or from our parents is completely made up. When a writer feels compelled to exaggerate his opponent’s position, it makes you wonder what gaping hole in his own viewpoint he’s trying to conceal by the maneuver.

True to form, Tim Keller will do the same thing in The Reason for God by repeatedly asserting that skeptics who doubt his faith must have been indoctrinated into believing there is no such thing as truth at all. That’s an overstatement of an idea that has some merit to it, namely that we should question to what extent our beliefs are there to serve as a social control. People like us question everything and everyone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe there are any valid answers to be found. That wouldn’t even make sense.

Lewis’s straw skeptic “takes it for granted” that everything we’ve been taught is a social construct. He then DESTROYS his imaginary opponent by reminding him that math is clearly not culturally conditioned at all. It works the same way in every culture and clearly transcends borders and bloodlines. So, there. Not everything we were taught is made up by people out of thin air. Lewis’s imaginary opponent should feel humiliated.

Then he goes on to suggest that morality and math belong together on the same list because they are rooted in something larger than the sum of the people who practice them. He says he will offer two arguments to show their similarity but then the arguments he gives undermine and distract from the point he was supposed to be making.

He admits that there are many differences between what cultures consider virtuous, but he quickly shrugs them off by saying they don’t differ that much. Deep down they’re all basically the same, Lewis implies, so their inability to agree on the particulars is immaterial. They agree on more things than not. But do they really? His facile dismissal of our moral disagreements weakens the point he was trying to make because all he did was acknowledge the differences without actually addressing any of them.

This seems to be a pattern with Lewis. He does the same thing with his own faith when he asserts that there exists a distilled, classic form of The Christian Faith to which every branch subscribes despite disagreeing over particulars. Who cares about those things, anyway, right? That’s why he calls it “mere Christianity.”

The Believer’s Squint

The truth is there never was just one Christianity—there have always been multiple competing christianities, even from the beginning. You can see it in the forms the gospels took, and it becomes even more obvious when you try to make the letters of Paul line up with the book of Acts or, better yet, with James. These people were working off of wildly different theological frameworks which were often in conflict with each other. I know enough primitive Christian history to know that it was quite diverse even from its earliest days, and that church splits were there from the very start.

Calling anything mere Christianity furthermore downplays the violent differences that have arisen between factions of this faith over the centuries—often at the cost of many lives—ultimately producing thousands of groups who have yet to reconcile to this day. Sacraments feature as heavily in some segments of Christendom as revivals and conversions do in others, and they still haven’t even come to a solid consensus about why Jesus died in the first place! But I’m getting off topic.

Math’s credibility lay in its reliability and its precision. No matter how many ways you try to “solve for x” you should ultimately arrive at the same answers. Science is a messier discipline, but even still over time you should expect to see a convergence of thinking around those things we’ve had the time and resources to investigate fully.

Not so with morality. After millions of years, humans still can’t agree on their values. For Lewis, it’s enough that they have any at all. For him, that in itself points to a transcendent referent, something larger than humanity. But he was supposed to be showing how morality isn’t culturally conditioned, just like math isn’t, so he’s still only reinforcing the point he was trying to refute.

You have to squint really hard to make the differences disappear, so that’s what Lewis is asking you to do. It’s the only way to lessen the cognitive dissonance around the point he is trying to make. Not everyone is as skilled as him at controlling their own means of perception, but the good news is they’re going to get several more chances to practice this throughout the book. We’ve only just begun.

The Inward Turn

To make his final point, Lewis turns to you and asks if you would rate one set of morals higher than another, for example between Christianity and Nazism, and then he asks by what standard you could even do such a thing? If you think one is better than the other, then you’re using a higher standard and that proves that you believe there must be one. If this gotcha moment feels familiar to you, it’s likely because you’ve heard some form of it a hundred times before.

You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.

The first thing I must note about this is the way that it turns the discussion back inward, focusing on you and your fitness to be asking these questions in the first place, which is a change of subject. This is a common tactic in apologetics, and I consider it a form of intellectual gaslighting. Lewis was supposed to be explaining how morality, like math, isn’t a social construct. Instead, he turned to you and said in effect, “Who are you to say?”

Lewis argues that we are reaching for a higher standard whenever we find one moral system better than another, but that does nothing to prove that there actually is one. It only shows that we want one, and that we will evaluate systems of belief according to our own personal values. But he was supposed to be showing how this isn’t a subjective mental exercise—a framework that exists only in our heads.

All he’s done so far is establish the inescapable subjectivity of morality as compared with math, which is the exact opposite of that. In the end, he didn’t so much argue for the reliability of morality as much as he argued for the unreliability of humans. That should only increase our skepticism toward our own systems of belief, but Lewis never connects those particular dots.

The Argument from Wishing

At this point in the discussion we are trying to answer two simple questions: How can we humans escape our own subjectivity, and by what means can we evaluate whether or not it is working? In other words, how can we check the accuracy of our mental maps against the Real Places they represent (see how obnoxious that is?) to make sure we are on the right track? We know we’re doing math correctly when our answers converge, but how will we know if our moral values are valid?

Lewis suggests it’s analogous to comparing your mental map of a city with the real city itself. For the comparison to mean anything, there must first be a real place to consult.

If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about. The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks.

But the analogy breaks down immediately when you realize that New York is a place you can actually visit. You can walk the streets and see for yourself if your mental image was correct. Is there such a thing for morality, an objective standard against which our ideas of morality can be reliably checked for accuracy?

Lewis seems to be saying it’s enough that we want there to be one—somehow that proves there must be one. But wishing for something doesn’t automatically make it so. He will do this again and again throughout his apologetics career as it seems to be the guiding paradigm for his whole approach. If we want something badly enough, it simply must exist.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (p.136-137)

For Lewis, the mere fact that we crave things which our current reality cannot supply means there must be an additional reality out there somewhere which does the trick. But that doesn’t necessarily follow, does it? It’s an argument from wishing, ultimately an appeal to your dissatisfied emotions. None of this is really helping to establish that morality is anything more than a human creation to fulfill a need.

We need to see how these moral frameworks actually play out in real life. I mean this life, the one we all can agree is actually real.

Proof in the Pudding

It’s fitting that Lewis chose Christianity and Nazism for comparison because, if you removed their labels, a disturbing number of people today wouldn’t even be able to tell them apart in practice.

Nazism was about nationalistic pride and racial purity enforced by means of heavy-handed authoritarian leadership, which could just as well describe the Trump administration. Cleansing the country of immigrants, by force if necessary, has become the hallmark of Trump’s tenure as president, and white evangelicals seem to love him for it. Some of his most ardent followers even identify themselves as Nazis, wearing that label proudly when they march on whichever state capitol Trump tweets for them to protest.

If his brand of white nationalism were fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith today, you would expect the church to be out in front of everyone else demanding more compassionate policies, but they are not. In fact, the evangelical church makes up Trump’s most reliable fan base, and to this day he enjoys an even higher approval rate among them than he had when he first took the reins of the country.

Nazi Germany considered itself Christian, too, even if Hitler himself didn’t care for the label. There were dissenters in the German church to be sure, but the most influential among them were imprisoned and killed for it. Evangelicals today like Eric Metaxas devote entire books to celebrating one of their leaders, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but Metaxas is also among the most vocal in their support for the Trump administration.

The same could be said for Al Mohler, for Robert Jeffress, for Jerry Falwell, Jr., or for Franklin Graham. You’d be hard pressed to find a name more central to evangelical Christianity than Billy Graham, but Graham’s own son remains among the most visible supporters of an administration built around nationalistic fervor and the use of authoritarian force to drive out anyone who doesn’t look and talk just like them.

I’m belaboring this to make a point. Lewis seems to be suggesting the fact that we want our morals to be rooted in something larger than ourselves means they must be. Or perhaps he is only saying it makes us hypocrites when we say they aren’t but then demonstrate that we, too, wish they were. But all of this is beside the point, isn’t it?

Maybe if Christianity were more consistently opposed to Nazism, we could say they were onto something. But if it can’t even provide that, one wonders why we are still debating how objective these ideologies really are?

If you want to find out how our morals track with real life, you must look there—at real life—not back inside your own head. Apologists like Lewis always seem to shift the discussion from measurable things to the unmeasurable, from objective things to subjective ones. Their beliefs are much safer in the squishy places, where we can argue ad nauseam about our internal motivations and about whether or not our emotional needs are being met. That’s not gonna fly for me anymore.

If all we have proved is that humans want there to be an objective standard, we’ve done nothing at all to prove that such a thing actually exists.

[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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