Meditations with C. S. Lewis: A Layman’s Defense of the Argument from Reason

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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Recently, I shared the above image from the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society on my Facebook page.  After a few hours, I noticed that several other friends had passed it along and so I looked at the reaction it got on their pages.  Some of them were quite…interesting:  “Lewis is an idiot because someone else says so and I read something different in a textbook.”  “Lewis’s argument isn’t wholly original.”  “It’s all based on the idea that rationality actually exists.”*    In almost all cases, people didn’t seem to be concerned as to whether or not his argument is actually true.**

Lewis’s most basic point is that if you are correct and there is no inherent rationality behind the universe, the burden of proof is on you to explain why anyone should believe a word you say–even yourself.  Naturalism is based on the idea that humanity is nothing more than a product of the total irrational system.  Naturalists look at the span of entire UNIVERSE, presume that it is thoroughly irrational, and then suddenly insist that humanity is the single apparent exception to this rule (themselves and their favorite philosophers in particular).  Why?  “Natural selection,” which they presume a priori is capable of producing said rationality.

Of course the response then becomes “Rationality originating from natural selection is based on observed evidence:  we exist, we think, and therefore it is proven.”  It is, however, indeed a priorinonsense to examine the results of an alleged process–one that has not been observed directly and is only inferred based on a complex system of interdependent assumptions–and then to state categorically in the face of all contrary evidence that your preferred answer is by default the necessary one.

And so we return to the very solid reality of Lewis’s argument:  If we are nothing more than chance plus time in a universe of nonsense, we have no logical grounds to claim that our thoughts are “rational” beyond blind faith.  Those who believe in God–note that Lewis did not say the Christian God at this point–have a consistent starting point from which to base their claim to reason.  Pure naturalists don’t, and they have never succeeded in crafting a significant response (that I’ve seen) that doesn’t violate the basic principles of their position.

Does this “prove” God’s existence?  Of course not; not by itself.  But Lewis didn’t try to base his entire proof for God on this one point, and he certainly never intended for this alone to prove the existence of the Christian god.  It does strongly suggest that there must be some larger, more significant Rationality to the universe that gives our lesser rationality meaning and makes it possible.  It is a step in a larger, deeper structure that lays a foundation for bigger things that some fear might lead to the reality of God.

Which is probably why his critics spend so much time and effort belittling this “disproven” philosopher.

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*This point doesn’t deserve special treatment.  If you actually want to put together a rational argument that rationality doesn’t exist, be quiet and twiddle your thumbs.  Don’t waste anyone’s time when you yourself don’t believe you have anything rational to say!

**I should also mention that the reactions of Facebook are not representative of the most difficult problems posed by critics of Lewis’s argument from reason.  Victor Reppert has examined the best they have to offer in his book C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea and he finds that the Lewis’s argument withstands the test.  It is well worth reading!

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on August 12, 2012, in Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Meditations and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Well said, Brian. For more on critiques of famous Lewis arguments, see the chapter on the Trilemma in my book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). Whether serious or frivolous, the results are the same: Lewis almost always wins.

  2. I would note that “(not that I’ve seen)” leaves me to believe you have not done enough research. This is presumptuous on my part, however, but I will further explain why I think so in the following.

    Naturalism does not view the world as irrational and therefore unpredictable. Naturalists accept scientific discovery as our best understanding of the world, and therefore ourselves (which are obviously a part of that world). If nature were wholly irrational, it would not have any predictable structure, but it does. Hence why scientific studies work and we’re here using the internet. It leads one to an obvious conclusion, then, that rationality doesn’t just “come from nowhere” or from presumptive a priori nonsense. It comes from nature itself. It’s not ridiculous to believe that nature is predictable or comprehensible, and then it is therefore not ridiculous to have set rules and expectations (i.e. logic) in order to best understand and predict nature.

    C.S. Lewis’ argument falters, in my opinion, in that is presumes the concept of “order” must be anthropomorphic. Hoping that milk spilling into a map of London reveals this quite obviously. London is a human-based concept of order and structure, and has nothing to do with nature left to itself. The simile, then, is inapplicable. No one expects the world to accidentally create human-like order. I would think your only counterargument here would be that, as I stated above, if humanity is a part of nature, would it not behave just like nature? And I would state that humanity’s actions, like the rest of nature, is explainable within those same laws. We’re simply a more complex formation, and therefore harder to predict. Not to mention sciences like psychology and sociology are young sciences, heavily caught up, still, in the liberal arts. Nevertheless, the concept of “creating order out of disorder” is a very anthropomorphic view of nature. If one views humanity outside of nature, when humanity makes things like buildings, we look at it as “order,” and when nature destroys them with hurricanes or tornadoes, we view that as “disorder.” Humanity’s “order,” however, is a subset of nature’s order, not the other way around. At least, up to this point, all knowledge points to this. And I mean all of it.

    This is my problem, then, with C.S. Lewis’s argument. He assumes the order of the universe, the one that trumps the subset (humanity’s), should fall in line with the subset rather than the foundation. That makes sense, given he believes that the subset is actually the foundation and the foundation is the subset, but all proof and studies have shown otherwise, and rationality and logic are based on nature, not humanity. I would reframe his argument, then, as an argument in thinking one’s way to god.

    “But, if there is a god, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes will give you a map of London.”

    I suppose my reframing assumes that the god to which he’s referring is anthropomorphic, and therefore would create the world as such, but most people that believe in a deity to presume this already. If Lewis was simply a deist, then my reframing would leave something to be desired, but he was a Christian. And Christianity believes in an anthropomorphic god and therefore an anthropomorphic order of the universe, especially in terms of morality.

    Regardless, your view of naturalism is heavily misinterpreted, and thus, so is your view of rationality and logic.

    • Thanks for commenting. Actually, I would say that you are misinterpreting Lewis’s argument, and also that you are viewing naturalism through the rose-colored glasses of blind faith. I would also humbly submit to you that if “all knowledge points to this,” we wouldn’t be having the conversation. Of course, that could simply be your way of calling me stupid and sticking out your academic tongue, but we can just presume that it was well intended.

      Lewis’s argument isn’t simply that “there happens to be order in nature, therefore God exists.” Neither did I intend to communicate that if you believe in naturalism, you cannot believe in order. It is that in human reason and creativity we see a certain type of order that nature doesn’t exhibit. Crystals, for instance, are incredible, orderly structures—but I’ve never seen one with postal addresses. Watching a nebula or a galaxy is a moving experience—but no self-respecting naturalist will look for meaning and purpose in it like he/she might a painting by a master. We are talking, in fact, of two different orders of order. We attribute meaning and truth to one, and not to the other for the simple fact that we believe there is intelligence in the one and not the other.

      That, then, is the crux of the argument. Can you give me one example of anything in the universe known to science that exhibits creativity, reason, or the ability to grasp propositions about said universe on a similar level to humanity? Monkeys poking anthills with sticks and birds reflexively building the same nest over generations are of such a lower order of magnitude that they aren’t worth mentioning. Show me a non-human creature who actually has written Shakespeare and another one who can appreciate it and we have something to discuss.

      Further, by even commenting, you are making a claim for your thoughts and expressions that, according to “all knowledge” (and I mean knowledge, not simple speculation), has not been observed in the nature you claim spawned it. You are digesting my creative explanation of Lewis, critiquing it creatively, and providing what you believe is a reasonable, intelligent, truthful response. If you didn’t believe those things about your statement, I would wonder, why you would bother to give it at all? None of those aspects—reason, creativity, knowledge, intelligence (in the human sense), or our ability to stand apart from them and understand them objectively—find sufficient grounds in simple natural order. You are in fact engaging in the same anthropomorphism you attribute to Lewis and Christianity: You are projecting your own selfhood and that of humanity in general onto a mindless, shapeless “natural order.” You simply aren’t stating it openly.

      So, in the end, I agree that there was some “heavy misinterpretation” but you haven’t convinced me that I’m the one to blame.

      Best Regards,
      Brian

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