Archive for October, 2010
XFiles Weekend: The tangled web he weaves…

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

As we saw last week, C. S. Lewis would like us to believe that he is “not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches,” and that we are simply seeing what we can discover “under our own steam” about the source of his so-called Moral Law. Whether he is consciously trying to deceive us, or whether he has merely deceived himself, the result is a web of assumptions and superstitions so complicated that even Lewis himself gets tangled up in it, and he can’t seem to remember from one sentence to the next whether he’s posing as the unbiased objective observer, or is simply dishing straight Christian dogma.

Last week, he averred that we had not gotten as far as any particular God, let alone the Christian one. We had only, he claimed, “got as far as a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law.” Strictly speaking, we hadn’t even gotten that far—Lewis just took a cherry-picked assortment of biased observations, and twisted them until they more or less fit into an anonymized Christian worldview.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we have reached the point where it seems likely, or at least possible, that “someone or something” is behind some kind of moral law. Lewis has some conclusions that he thinks follow logically from this “observation.” Let’s consider his analysis in the light of two questions: (1) are his conclusions supported by verifiable fact? and (2) how long can he maintain the pretense of objectivity without lapsing into frankly Christian dogma?

We have two bits of evidence about the Somebody. One is the universe He has made.

Right off the bat, he slips into the assumption that Moral Law’s source is not Some Thing, but Some One. Not just any Somebody, either but the Creator of the Universe Himself. Remember, Lewis’ argument is that the Moral Law must come from some “other reality,” because even though he presented this so-called Law as being a Law of (Human) Nature, it doesn’t fit the pattern of genuine natural laws, and therefore there must be some other reality whose laws have characteristics that the Moral Law can be consistent with.

Fine, for the sake of further argument, let’s assume (again) that Lewis is not just blindly denying his theory’s failure to fit the facts, and that we’ve arrived at the conclusion that this universe, this reality, is contained within some greater Reality, whose laws transcend the physical laws of nature. Why, then, would we assume that this greater Reality contained only one person? or that only one of the inhabitants there ever created anything? Why assume, in other words, that the Universe and the Moral Law must both have the same Creator? Lewis has already noted how the character of the Moral Law is markedly different than the character of the Laws of Nature. So why leap immediately to the conclusion that the same Somebody is behind them both?

Lewis, clearly, is leading us down the Romans Road without openly identifying it as such. The Bible teaches that God is the Creator of the universe and the author of morality, therefore Lewis knows, without even looking at the evidence, that the universe and the Moral Law have the same Creator. He’d like us to think we’re discovering things “under our own steam”, but the steam is coming from an engine running down tracks laid by Christian apologetics. We’re not about to slow down or turn aside from the planned destination, regardless of where the steam is coming from.

If we used [Creation] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).

Now, somehow, we’ve learned not only that it’s a Somebody, but we’ve also determined this Somebody’s sexually reproductive role. He’s a male. Where did Lewis get that bit of rhetorical procto-logic? Is it just a coincidence that the Bible also happens to present the Creator as a male, you think?

Interestingly, the existence of sexual reproductive roles in this Somebody is a further indication that we shouldn’t be assuming there’s only one Creator, since sexual reproduction is designed to provide beneficial inherited characteristics for the offspring by mixing the gametes of different males and females, which implies the existence of different male and female gods. Sexual characteristics in a deity are otherwise fairly futile, unless they have some sort of masturbatory purpose. For a monotheistic Creator to be male betrays a theology with roots deep in polytheism and/or human narcissism and/or self-lust. On the other hand, if there were a truly monotheistic deity Who had a penis and no place to put it, He might indeed be inclined to screw with our minds, by way of compensation. But I digress.

The other bit of evidence is that Moral Law which He has put into our minds. And this is a better bit of evidence  than the other, because it is inside information. You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built.

Did he just say—? Oops, yeah, he forgot that “we haven’t gotten as far as…God” yet. Though he pretends to be posting an unbiased job posting (“Wanted: Creator of Moral Law”), even Lewis himself sometimes lets it slip that he just took God’s resume and changed a few pronouns. He even left in God’s name here and there. It’s a set-up, and not a very subtle one.

Now, from this second bit of evidence, we conclude that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.

Really? Honesty and truthfulness? ;)

In that sense, we should agree with the account given by Christianity and some other religions, that God is ‘good’.

And here’s where Lewis’ railroaded steam engine becomes a train wreck, because there’s a very important section of track missing. Lewis has given us no standard by which to measure “good.” He has suggested that such a standard ought to be contained within the Moral Law, but that leaves us with no way to determine whether or not the Moral Law itself is “good” in any non-tautological sense.

But worse than that, the evidence Lewis himself has marshalled fails to provide us with any reliable means of verifying the contents of this so-called Moral Law. Even if we do say that “good” is defined in the Law, we still have no way to determine what “good” is, because we can’t access this Law to determine what definitions it contains.

That’s bad, because that puts us into a position of mandatory gullibility. Anybody could come along with a cobbled-together list of do’s and don’ts and claim that their book was a Scriptural revelation of God’s Moral Law, and we’d just have to take their word for it. Even Lewis’ own list—fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness—is somewhat arbitrary, impossible to verify, and prone to interpretational issues. Is it wrong to lie to the police? about where the Jews are hiding?

As we’ve seen before, the Moral Law cannot be the standard of “good” versus “bad/evil”, because the Moral Law cannot objectively exist. To be workable as a Law, it must state a set of general principles that apply to a broad range of circumstances. Circumstances, however, are too broad, and you therefore end up with exceptions (like deceiving the police into thinking you aren’t hiding any Jews). Honesty is usually the best policy, but life is complicated.

Meanwhile, if we try to enumerate all the exceptions and incorporate them into the Law, we have two problems: it would take an omniscient being to enumerate them all, and it would also take an omniscient being to remember them all, even assuming there was a finite number of them. A law that spelled out every possible combination of circumstances that could arise throughout all eternity would cease to be a law that we could know and obey, and would end up being an unlimited number of special cases with no general applicability.

We could suggest that God selectively imparts small portions of the incomprehensible Law to us, as we need it, but then our lives would end up being a succession of special cases, and our “good” behavior would be reduced to that of a robot, clicking from step to step as each new special case required the “good” action that applied to those unique circumstances. We, as mortals, could not predict in advance what course our lives would take, since the Moral Law would be too complex to allow long-range charting. We would have to wait until we magically received our programming, and then execute it. Hallelujah, bleep bloop.

Nor, of course, would it be possible to assess the morality of other people’s actions under such an incomprehensively vast and complex Law. If each Right and Wrong is a special case, there’s no way you can know that what’s Right for you, under your unique circumstances, would necessarily be Right for someone else whose circumstances aren’t quite the same as yours. Each individual case would be unpredictably unique, and therefore you could never truly know what was right or wrong for someone else to do.

That might actually be a good thing in a way, but overall it would put a serious damper on social conventions. Things like a criminal justice system, or even traffic laws, depend on declaring what it is right and wrong for people to do. Such mortal laws by their limited nature would necessarily be inconsistent with a fully-enumerated Special Case Moral Law, and thus these mortal laws would by definition be Wrong. Oops.

And, by the way, why would there ever be any moral debates in a world where each of us was magically being fed the perfect moral answer to every moral dilemma whenever it arose? As nice as it might be to have God magically poofing infallible moral answers into our heads, there’s no real-world evidence that any of us (let alone all of us) are really doing anything more than just judging according to whatever seems right in our own eyes. Moral Law is a nice fairy tale, but the more we try to make it work, the less it looks like the real world.

We’ve given Lewis the benefit of our assumptions multiple times, but there’s still no holding his sham together in any kind of real-world pragmatic sense. Lewis drives on, heedless, trying to explain what it means for God to be “good,” as his pretense of objectivity falls to pieces, and more and more of his explicitly Christian bias shows through. But we’ll stop here for now, just to catch our breath. Tune in again next week, when Prof. Lewis will tell us:

If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.

See you then.

XFiles Weekend: Doing it wrong

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

C. S. Lewis is famous both as a Christian apologist and as the creator of a number of charming and popular fantasy worlds. He put both talents to good use in Chapter 4, and now he’s going to back-track just a bit before moving on to the next leg of his epic quest.

I ended my last chapter with the idea that in the Moral Law somebody or something from beyond the material universe was actually getting at us. And I expect when I reached that point some of you felt a certain annoyance… You may have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only religion, well, the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.

Lewis has three things to say to those of us who have caught on to the fact that he’s just “wrapping up” religion to make it look like philosophy, but I suspect we’ll only fit in one or two of them today.

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? … [P]rogress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer… There is nothing progressive about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake.

Lewis originally wrote these words during World War II, so it’s easy to understand the almost tangible longing to go back to a time before there was any war. But what is the “big mistake” here, and to what more-idyllic time would Lewis have us turn back the clock? World War II was, in the West, a war between the Christian nations of Europe. Granted, after the Enlightenment, it might be more accurate to call them post-Christian nations, but was Enlightenment the big mistake? Is Lewis saying that perhaps we ought to undo the Enlightenment, and go back to the union of Church and State that held sway during the Dark Ages? Do we need to undo the Protestant Reformation (which resulted in so many wars), and unite the West under one Pope, with so much power that he could command kings? Does the world need another Holy Roman Emperor?

Like I said, Lewis wrote this under the stress of war, so it’s easy to understand his longing for a better time. The problem is finding any point in history where things were ever genuinely improved by abandoning science and reverting to superstition and to the rule of men whose authority rested on a “reality” that could not be seen and was not part of the world we find around us. Don’t forget, those “good old days” gave us wars with names like “The Thirty-Years War” and “The Hundred Years War”! I sincerely doubt that, for all his blurry-eyed nostalgia, even Prof. Lewis would seriously wish for a return to the days when science was held accountable to religion rather than the other way around.

What I find interesting about the history of Christian Europe, especially in the context of Mere Christianity, is that in all of this long history of Christian nation warring against Christian nation, God and His Moral Law so consistently encouraged both sides to believe that their own cause was right and just, and the enemy’s was evil. That’s exactly what we’d expect to find if people were defining right and wrong in terms of how they felt about the consequences. “Hey, if we win this one, it’ll be really great! Well, for us, at least.” That’s not just predictable, it’s virtually inevitable.

It’s a pretty poor fit, though, for the idea that, in some “reality” above and beyond the material universe, there’s an absolute and universal Moral Law that not only defines right and wrong for every man, but also mystically communicates that definition to man so that he knows when he’s doing something he shouldn’t. Think about it: of all the wrong things you could do, declaring open war on your fellow Christians ought to be fairly high on the list, don’t you think? Yet the long traditions of hostility and warfare that lead to WWII show no sign of any such Moral Law declaring, for all to see, which side was right and which was wrong.

As Lewis himself says, if you’re headed the wrong way, going forward does not bring you closer to your goal. There’s nothing progressive about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake, even a mistake with a multi-century tradition behind it. You can tell yourself that there’s a supernatural force that mystically shows each man the difference between right and wrong, but if you find that following that fantasy only leads you down a road of endless violence, persecution, and war, then maybe you are the one who should consider an alternate route.

Let’s move on.

Then, secondly, this has  not yet turned exactly into a ‘religious jaw’. We have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion, still less the God of that particular religion called Christianity. We have only got as far as a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law. We are not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches, we are trying to see what we can find out about this Somebody on our own steam.

This is very nearly true. What we’ve got so far is not any particular religion, it is merely a primitive form of animistic superstition, the instinctive and thoughtless tendency to assume that complex phenomena are the result of conscious decisions by some kind of invisible person or persons (aka spirits, gods, angels, demons, etc). Lewis does not understand how complex moral codes can arise among people without there being some kind of intelligent, deliberative edict-making behind it, so he thoughtlessly assumes that our moral codes must reflect some supernatural person issuing specific edicts defining for us what right and wrong are.

So far so good, then. Lewis is correct that he’s only laying a superstitious framework on which to build a Christian apologetic later on, and has not yet started the explicitly Christian portion of his presentation. He’s being less than honest, however, when he claims that he’s not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches. He may believe that he’s not taking anything from Christian traditions (in which case he’s being less than honest with himself), but it’s quite plain that, while he’s giving the appearance of working things out “on our own steam,” he is in fact only considering those alternatives which are consistent with the Church teachings he wants to arrive at, and is bending and twisting the facts in order to fit them into the plan he has in mind.

Why, for example, does he always refer to the Moral Law and the Somebody Who designed it in the singular? If we want to be superstitious about morality, we could just as easily say that there are several Somebodies, each with his or her own Moral Law, each of which gets mystically urged on some portion of mankind through the windows of the soul (or whatever). Suddenly the wars of Christian Europe become understandable: there were two Gods (or more), and two or more Moral Laws, and each one was taking a different side, assuring the troops that they were doing what was right and good and just. If we were really free to see where we can get “under our own steam,” it would seem that this would be a much more fruitful approach to reconciling superstition with reality.

We’ve also seen that Lewis takes an extremely biased view of the evidence, in that he uses the evidence both to argue that the Moral Law is a law of nature, and also that it proves the existence of the supernatural by its very failure to behave like a law of nature. Wouldn’t it have been more rational to admit that this Moral Law is not, in fact, a genuine law, since it fails to behave like one? That would have left him without an argument to use in making a case for Christianity, though, so he does not even consider that alternative. Though he does not acknowledge the role Christianity plays in his argument, it nevertheless defines his argument.

Granted, he’s not explicitly telling us that we ought to just accept Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, yet it’s quite plain that even the initial postulate is aimed in that direction. Remember from the end of Chapter 1, the two “facts” he cited as being “the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” These “facts” are (1) that we each have the “curious idea” that we ought to behave in a certain way, and (2) that we do not behave the way we think we should. You could say much the same thing by quoting “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that’s pretty much what Lewis is doing. He’s just re-phrasing it to make it sound like it’s coming from objective observation rather than from the Bible.

This is a very long ways away from genuinely proceeding under own own steam and seeing where it takes us. Notice how Lewis insinuates guilt into what he pretends are unbiased observations: we ought to behave in a certain way, we do not do what we ought to do. The clear implication is that we have an implicit obligation to behave in a certain way, and we deliberately failed to fulfill that obligation. We’re guilty, in debt, wrong. It’s a perfect setup for the Four Spiritual Laws. Think that’s just a coincidence? And that’s the opening of his argument.

If we take the original observation—that people sometimes do things they feel they shouldn’t—there are questions we should ask that Lewis doesn’t bother with. For example, when people feel obligated to behave a certain way, are these legitimate obligations? Is it really wrong to lie to the police about where the Jews are hiding? If we consider the possibility that these impulses might be wrong at times, we come to rather different conclusions than Lewis does regarding the existence of some perfect Moral Law.

Or we could ask, to whom are these obligations owed? Lewis leaps easily and naturally to the conclusion that there must be some supernatural Person who is offended when we “disobey,” but is that logically where we would go under our own steam, or is Lewis just letting Christian teachings tell him what he ought to believe? The more obvious “Who” would be other people, since they’re the ones who are going to call the police if you walk outside with no clothes on (or not, depending on which culture you happen to be in at the time). Lewis doesn’t merely avoid this possibility, he tries to dismiss it by pointing out that people didn’t consciously sit down and write out the laws of morality. But who sits down and consciously writes out the laws of fashion, or stock market prices, or what types of fiction will sell well and bring in profitable movie rights?

No, Lewis is quite clearly presenting a straightforward and unmistakably Christian apologetic from the get-go. His initial premise assumes in not-very-subtle terms that we are all sinners in need of a savior, and he builds on that to create (manufacture?) a foundation for precisely the kind of heavenly Being Who could fill this messianic role. His attempts to try and disguise this as an objective and unbiased inquiry merely diminish my respect for him.

Gay rights and Biblical justice

Hey, I just had a stray thought. I know how we can settle this whole gay rights controversy in a way that should please gays, liberals, and even conservative Christians. Let’s use Biblical justice to punish gays for being gay. No, not that whole “stone them with stones” thing. That went out with bronze chariots. I mean that bedrock of moral principle at the bottom of God’s Old Testament Law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

Since gay people sin against us by falling in love differently than we do, we should punish them by falling in love differently than they do. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! Let’s see how they like a taste of their own medicine, eh? They want to walk down the street with a same-sex lover? We’ll show them: we’ll walk down the street with opposite sex lovers. Hah! They want to marry same-sex partners? Let ‘em. But we’ll make ‘em pay. We’ll marry opposite sex partners. Legally! Take that, gays! You want to be different from us? Fine, then we’re gonna be different from you. And it serves you right.

Yeah, none of this merciful, New Testament, God-loves-sinners crap. Paul knew how to deal with sinners. Give ‘em old-fashioned Moses-brand justice, and do to them exactly what they’re doing to us, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. 100% Biblical justice, old school. Then everyone will be able to see just how much harm you can do to someone else by falling in love differently than they do.

XFiles Weekend: Thinking matter?

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Last week, C. S. Lewis led us down a rather strange path, in search of some kind of supernatural “reality” that would be more consistent with his “moral law” than the reality we observe. He started off by offering us a hamstrung science incapable of any analysis or observation beyond taking note of what he called the “observed facts” of the natural world. Then he suggested that, if there were a (supernatural) power behind the observed facts of Nature, it could not be any of those observed facts, in the same way that an architect cannot be one of the walls of the house he’s designing. That brought us to the conclusion that we must rely on our own inner feelings, and our subjective interpretations of those feelings, as the sole available guide to whether this supernatural power exists. (It also ruled out any possibility of Biblical miracles being true, but that’s one of the occupational hazards of trying to prove the supernatural, and it’s customary to ignore such trifles.)

So where does all this lead us? Let’s let Prof. Lewis give us his “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking” speech.

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears to me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.

He has, in other words, brought us nearly to the point of believing in primitive, superstitious animism as the reason for our subjective feelings of guilt. So far so good, eh? But there’s a catch. In order for animism to work, you need more than just a supernatural law. You need an thinking, purposeful supernatural Being to drive it. And that’s the next leg of our journey. Just what is this supernatural power anyway?

I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know—because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. But of course it need not be very like a mind, still less like a person.

Somehow I’ve got more than just a hunch that Lewis is going to “discover” his mysterious supernatural law creator is very much like a Person indeed, don’t you? He may not be “within a hundred miles” of his destination, but given the care with which he has eliminated not just the possible alternatives, but the scientific means of even looking for other alternatives, it’s pretty clear where he’s headed.

But what about his assumption here—that “you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions.” Is that reasonable? Does Lewis even realize what he is saying? Granted, he was writing in the 1940′s, and DNA was discovered in the early 50′s, so he could not have been aware of how marvelously its particular molecular structure manages to provide living organisms with a complete set of instructions for assembling themselves out of simpler molecules.

But even so, beer existed even back in the 1940′s. Take anything we know of, that could reasonably be called an instruction, and it’s quite plain that the instruction originated in a bit of matter, aka “the brain.” The brain gives out instructions all the time; drink enough beer to shut down the material functions of the brain, and the thinking stops too. All the instructions we know about are instructions that were originally given (as far as we can detect) by a bit of gray matter.

Now, you can speculate that there exists some kind of supernatural spiritual mind “behind” the material brain, and that this immaterial mind is the ultimate source of the instructions. But the point is, we have never observed any such immaterial, disembodied intelligence. It is mere superstition to ascribe neurological functions to what is essentially a magical power. What we actually observe is thinking matter. We don’t have to imagine it, we observe it, every day. Ordinary beer is sufficient to demonstrate that thinking is a material process that can be influenced by material substances, as well as by material injuries, environmental conditions and so on. Instructions that originate in matter are the only instructions we’ve ever seen or heard of, at least in the real world.

What Lewis is doing, of course, is sidestepping that whole problem by assuming that the real thinking is being done by the presumed supernatural, immaterial mind. An educated man, let alone an Oxford don, ought to be able to recognize how very foolish it is to assume the existence of the supernatural in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. By assuming that all thinking is being done by supernatural/immaterial minds, he ensures that his conclusions will reflect the same premises he started with, regardless of whether or not any of them are true. But Lewis doesn’t let that bother him. In the same calm, common-sense tones, he just tells us he assumes the moral law must originate in a mind, because you can’t imagine thinking matter.

At this point it should be apparent that Starship Lewis has left the realms of observable, objective reality and is blasting off into some kind of subjective fantasy with no particular connection to real life. Where the facts are not in line with his intended destination, he simply steers around them and replaces them with superstitious assumptions. It’s a foregone conclusion that he’s going to “discover” the God he set out to prove, and never mind what scientific and even theological cargo needs to be jettisoned along the way.

In this edition of Mere Christianity, Chapter 4 ends with a kind of footnote/addendum having to do with the original question of materialism versus animism (what Lewis calls the Materialist view and the Religious view). It turns out that, in Lewis’ mind at least, there was also a third view being proposed by some of his contemporaries. This view Lewis dubs “Life Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution.”

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.

Kind of a 1940′s “New Age” precursor, sounds like. As any biologist will tell you, there is no long-term goal to evolution. Life tends to survive because things that endure longer end up playing a greater role in the ecosystem than things that don’t, and things that reproduce themselves tend to endure longer than things that never pass on their unique characteristics. This unguided interplay of natural forces happens to have produced us, but that was never its “goal” or “purpose.” In a sense, then, Lewis is right to critique this view, because it does have flaws. Then again, so does Lewis’ critique:

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 identical with the Religious. If they do not, the what is the sense in saying that something without a mind “strives’ or has ‘purposes’?

Bear with me while I play devil’s advocate and argue with myself, because in a way, it almost does make sense to say that mindless Nature “strives” to accomplish certain “goals,” and has (apparent) “proposes” in many of its natural mechanisms, including evolution.

Think for a moment what we mean when we say that a mind has motives and purposes. What do these motives and purposes consist of, and why does the mind have them? We could say that the mind is responding to attractions (positive forces) and repulsions (negative forces). In other words, whatever state we are in now, there are a number of alternative states we could be in. Some of these states represent a positive change in our condition, and these are the conditions we are “striving” to obtain. Others represent a negative change in our condition, and these we try to avoid. Our “propose,” then, consists of navigating a sequence of states so as to maximize the “desirable” levels and minimize the “undesirable” ones.

My language may be rather stilted and contrived, but I think perhaps you see my point. The complex interactions of relatively simple natural forces tend to form patterns roughly similar to the function of a mind choosing between “desirable” and “undesirable” circumstances. All it takes for Nature to manifest something that looks like purpose is for current conditions to allow for a number of alternative changes in state, such that some changes are favored by the natural forces involved, while others are not. And indeed, it becomes easier and more intuitive for us to understand these complex interactions if we express the transitions from one state to another in terms of this mechanism being “designed” to cause that result. Nature, like thinking minds, responds to changes in “pressure” by making some outcomes more likely than others. In minds, we call that “preferring” one outcome over another, or “making choices.” It makes sense to refer to Nature in the same terms.

Thus, though Nature does not actually have genuine intentions and purposes, it has functions that are very similar, not to say analogous, and therefore it’s not entirely wrong to speak of design in nature (just as it’s not entirely wrong to describe the sun as rising and setting). Lewis, of course, takes a different tack: he claims that the reason people propose a Life-Force philosophy is because they want “much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.” In other words, the little heathens just want a license to go sin. This self-indulgent little slander lets him dismiss the likes of George Bernard Shaw with what may turn out to be the most ironic question in the whole book. In fact, let’s close with that. Here is how Lewis ends Chapter 4.

The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

There are some questions a Christian apologist should never ask, for fear of getting honest answers.

Framing Atheism

I don’t know if you’ve been following the discussion on Scienceblogs right now, but there’s a very interesting exchange going on between Josh Rosenau and Jason Rosenhouse on the subject of New Atheists versus accommodationists. Josh writes:

Jason’s account makes it sound as if King was an uncompromising and iconoclastic leader. But that misreads King and the history of civil rights. Remember that it was Malcolm X, not Dr. King, who insisted on change “by any means necessary.” Indeed, Malcolm X criticized King using logic analogous to that Jason deploys against accommodationism.

Sounds like strong talk, though Josh immediately tempers it with one of the many disclaimers and caveats in his post:

(I repeat that this is an analogy. New Atheists aren’t Malcolm X, there aren’t atheist nationalists that would parallel Malcolm X’s black nationalism, neither I nor any other accommodationist would claim to be Martin Luther King reborn, etc. It’s an analogy, please don’t overinterpret it.)

He’s got a point to make and he’s going to make it, but he bends over backwards to be, well, accommodating to those who might disagree with him. He wants us to hear what he has to say, and I think we need to hear it. I wouldn’t call myself an accommodationist (and I don’t think many regular readers would accuse me of being overly accommodating to religion, at least in this blog), but right now, at this time and place in the history of church and state, I think we need to listen to both sides, and do some serious, open-minded thinking. And I think the MLK vs Malcolm X analogy gives us something really meaty to think about.

If you haven’t been following the discussion, the links are here, here, here and here. It’s worth taking the time to read the whole thing, even though the posts tend to be on the longish side. But what really sparked my interest is the analogy Josh draws between how Martin Luther King approached civil rights, and how Malcolm X did.

Malcolm X, of course, was famous for being fierce, uncompromising, and unapologetic. He had a style that might forgivably remind some readers of certain popular bearded bloggers on the New Atheist side. But, as Jason points out in the comments, Richard Dawkins, at least, is no Malcolm X, and his books (even The God Delusion) conspicuously fail to demand the end of religion “by any means necessary.”

That weakens the analogy, but doesn’t destroy it, which suggests that the parallels that Josh draws are close enough to be intriguing, but perhaps not as close as they could be. There may be a better fit, and one of the commenters raises an idea that might give us a clue.

The clue lies in realizing that Malcolm X’s approach was less successful because he not only refused to accommodate racism, he refused to accommodate white people. MLK was more successful because he attacked the racism rather than the racists. Josh calls this “framing,” which is a term that tends to excite knee-jerk responses in some people (myself included), but there’s really nothing terribly controversial in the observation. We could have called it “common courtesy” (or politics) just as easily—the tacit if sometimes unwarranted assumption that those present were excluded from the group being criticized.

Here’s what I see as being a point of interest relevant to this discussion. MLK did not do what so many of us do routinely: he did not single out and identify specific individuals, to ridicule and condemn their personal racism. He did not identify specific groups (e.g. Catholics) as bastions of racism, to be condemned and rejected. (Did he openly denounce the Klan? That I don’t know.)

Consequently, it’s not surprising that MLK was more successful than Malcolm X in effectively winning over the opposition. For white people, there would be no point in reconciling with Malcolm X, because Malcolm X won’t accept them unless they stop being white, which isn’t really an option. MLK gave white people a way to support equality for blacks without requiring that they stop being what they can’t help being.

The crucial question, then, is to ask how this strategy might apply to the ongoing debate between atheism and religion. The trivial answer would be to say that atheists ought to attack religion in the broad, general sense without singling out any particular groups or individuals. But would that work? And is it even possible to confront religion without referring, at least indirectly, to specifics that will obviously and immediately let everyone know exactly who you’re talking about? And, not to forget another important question, is accommodation sufficient to accomplish its goals without confrontation? Did Malcolm X contribute at least partially to MLK’s success by saying things that needed to be said, that were too harsh for MLK to say?

I tend to lean towards the view that both approaches—and the inevitable conflicts between the two approaches—are necessary. There are harsh things that need to be said that I don’t expect Josh to say, and there are (for want of a better word) “accommodating” things that I don’t expect Jason or PZ Myers to say, that also need to be said. And there are things that each side needs to say to the other, urging either temperance or zeal, as appropriate to the specific circumstances.

But here’s my last point, and I think it’s something both sides need to remember: religion is not racism. Racism is a relatively simple thing, no matter how devious it may be in how it expresses itself. Racism is the idea that one race is superior or inferior to another, and ought to be treated differently. Religion is not so simple. Religion encompasses both good things, like preaching the value of honesty and virtue, and bad things, like the failure to practice what you preach. It encompasses both good people and bad people. It promotes both community and divisiveness. It reflects both what’s good and what’s bad about the people who make it work, and leaves open the chicken-or-egg question of whether religion does more to define people’s attitudes and actions than people’s attitudes and actions do to define the religion.

You can’t just “outgrow” religion the way you can outgrow racism. Or at least, a lot of people can’t. People use religion as a conceptual framework within which they understand what is going on in the world around them. They don’t have the analytical skills to describe the complexities of real life in scientific terms. Beyond a certain point, none of us do—there’s too much data, coming in too fast, for a detailed and rigorous analysis to keep up. Conceptual symbologies like “God’s will” and “intelligent design” serve as rough approximations for the apparent “moods” of things too complicated to reduce to simple causes and effects. Religion works, as a rough, back-of-the-napkin approximation of what happening, and that’s enough for a lot of people. It has to be, because that’s all they have!

So here’s the dilemma: MLK had it easy, because all he had to overcome was racism, which is a prejudice that people can easily live without. Religion isn’t. Oh, for some of us it is, because some of us are able to see the world in objective, scientific, rational terms. Unfortunately, that ability tends to make it that much harder to understand why other people don’t find it as easy as we do. What we’ve got works better than what they’ve got, so why do they so stubbornly refuse to see things the way we do? The answer is that they don’t have our ability to see everything in such cold, analytical, rational terms. They think socially and see socially, and it just makes more sense to them to understand the world in social terms, as reflecting the motives and moods of intelligent supernatural beings.

Our job, then, is to try and wean them off of the more harmful aspects of religion, like superstition and intolerance, while intelligently recognizing that we can’t ask a fish to ride a bicycle. People won’t give up their last hope of making sense of life, so they won’t give up their religion unless and until something better comes along. And science, while better, is out of the reach of a lot of people. That’s the “intelligently recognizing” bit I just mentioned. It is neither possible nor necessarily even desirable to force everyone to think the same way scientifically-minded people do. Such a goal would indeed be a Malcolm X style strategy, doomed to failure.

So on the one hand we do need to confront the bad aspects of religion, like superstition and intolerance, but we need to do so without destroying the one tool most people rely on to get by in life as sentient beings. And I’m not sure how to accomplish that. I’ve toyed with the idea of offering people a reality-based religion (see my Patron Goddess link above), but I’m no messiah, let’s face it. I think that’s what we need, but I have no real clue how to get there.

Meanwhile, let’s encourage Josh and Jacob and PZ and Jerry Coyne and Chris Mooney and all the rest to continue their discussion, with as much civility as the market will bear (knock wood). We need both sides because I don’t think either side has found THE answer yet, nor do I expect either side to make much progress without the other. I’m going to continue making such critiques as I always have, because I think that’s important and necessary, but I strongly encourage people to disagree with me and try and change my mind. The time is ripe, let’s make the most of it.

Streaming Happiness Into Our Lives: Why and How

The pursuit of happiness is one of the three things that are listed in the United States’ Declaration of Independence among the “unalienable rights” or sovereign rights of human beings. Happiness is no doubt, an extremely valued state of being for all people and it is the wish of many to experience it as often as possible. It can be a helper in the transcendence of the levels of consciousness well into the domain of positive feelings and emotional states of mind. There is much research in existence today that demonstrates all the beneficial aspects of happiness and can help us better understand this real-life fantasia of be-ing so that we can learn to stream more of it into our day-to-day lives. Using simple yet effective methods of experiencing more happiness within our lives, we can become permanent residents in the domain of Happiness.

Happiness has been thought to be largely determined by genetics in times past but new research from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey has revealed to us that happiness comes more from our personal choices than it does from our genetic make-up. The research had found that altruistic goals were more important than money, and that focusing on family, social activities, exercise, religion/spirituality, and working the right amount were choices that, if made, would bring more happiness into a person’s life. What this can demonstrate to us is that we really do have a tremendous amount of control as to what our emotional state is at any given time. With our positive focused intentions, we can shape and change the way we feel.

Our control over our state of mind is further enhanced with the realization that the most sought-after means to an end (money) does not bring happiness like people sometimes believe.  Scientists have recently proven for the first time that even the thought of money reduces satisfaction in the simple pleasures of life. Their results showed that the subjects in their study who were wealthier had a self-assessed lower level of savoring ability, which undermined the positive effects of money on their happiness, although they were overall slightly happier than the less well-off subjects. This is something that must be understood by the whole of humanity, particularly by the societies that consume gratuitous amounts of products every day because not only does our happiness rely on it, our very survival as a species depends on it as well.

There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. In a book entitled “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science” by Richard Layard, this paradox is explored . Most of us want more income so we can consume more. However, as societies amass more riches, they do not become happier. In fact, the “First World” has more depression, alcoholism and crime than 50 years ago. This paradox is true of countries such as Britain, the United States, continental Europe and Japan. Statistically people have more things today than they did 50 years ago, but they are less happy in several key areas. There is also the considerable cost of what materialism does to the environment. We do not yet know what final toll that could take in terms of quality of life and overall happiness. What many people do not understand is that if we want to save the environment then at some level we have to buy and consume less. The current way of life is a lose-lose situation because we are not becoming happier and we are simultaneously making this planet uninhabitable.

If we are succumb and use a means (money) to an end (happiness), research shows that buying life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness for both the consumer and those around them. This finding, which was presented by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The study demonstrates that experiential purchases result in increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and a feeling of being alive. The results also show that experiences produce more happiness regardless of the amount spent or the income of the individual. Experiences also lead to longer-term satisfaction because purchased experiences provide memory capital…we do not get easily bored of happy memories like we do with material objects.

Raising Our Level of Happiness

We know that happiness is something very beneficial and comforting to experience, but sometimes it may be difficult to lift ourselves up to the domain of positivity. Thankfully, there are many ways to increase our level of happiness. One of these ways is through meditation. There is plenty of research on meditation and some of it concerns meditation’s effect on happiness. One study found that after a trial period of mindfulness meditation, 14 and 15 year-old boys were found to have increased well-being, which was defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and functioning well. Other research identified the left prefrontal cortex as a region of the brain associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imagining scans on meditating monks, the study found that their brain activity was especially high in this area. A conclusion reached from this research was that meditation not only changes the workings of the brain in the short term, but also produces permanent changes as well. That extraordinary finding is based on the fact that the monks had considerably more gamma wave activity than others even before they start meditating.

There are two integral components to the happiness equation that will be sure to gift us with immense happiness for the rest of our lives:  Be a part of something you believe in and savor the natural joys of simple pleasures. You can be a part of anything, really. Some people take an active role in their local community, some find refuge in spiritual paths, some join social organizations or clubs supporting causes they believe in, and others find passion in their careers. In each case the psychological outcome is the same:  they engage themselves in something they strongly believe in. This engagement brings happiness and meaning into their lives.

The best things in life can truly said to be free. They come in the form of simple pleasures and they appear right in front of you at various locations and times. They are governed by macrocosmic forces and situational circumstance, then being captured by mindful awareness. Take moments out of your day to notice the little things in life. Perhaps it is the red, orange, and yellow-colored leaves falling from the trees in the brisk autumn breeze, or it is the laying in a field cuddling with your lover. Noticing these moments and taking part in them regularly will bring unpredictable bursts of happiness into your life.

Several other ways exist by which we are able to enhance the the heart-centered feelings of happiness. Some of these include the following:

  • Spiritual practices like meditation that connect us to something greater than ourselves.
  • Heart-to-heart connection with others and close friendships within and outside family.
  • Gathering with others frequently for uplifting purposes

Positive psychology has done much to increase our understanding of happiness and has given us a multitude of exercises that can increase our level of happiness. Here are five that are exceptionally helpful:

  • Express your individuality. The more autonomy and freedom of choice in your life, the happier you are. Look for opportunities in your daily life, at work and home, to express your free choice and independence.
  • Since people tend to overestimate the duration of their feelings about both positive and negative future events, adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • An orientation to the welfare of others is, in the long run, more satisfying than an orientation to one’s own pleasure. To experience this for yourself: In the next week, undertake one pleasurable activity for yourself and one philanthropic activity that will benefit another person. Spend about the same amount of time on each activity during the week and at the end of the week jot down your reactions and feelings as a result of each activity.
  • Gratitude is a feeling of thanks that, when expressed, brings positive emotions to both initiator and recipient. To experience this, pick someone who has been kind and helpful to you, but has not heard your personal expression of thanks. Write a gratitude letter to the person you pick, expressing your gratitude and why you are grateful in specific and concrete terms. If at all possible, deliver it personally and ask the person to read the letter in your presence.
  • Research indicates a very strong correlation between the quality of a relationship and the way in which partners respond to each other’s good news. When your partner has good news to share: listen attentively, share positive thoughts about the news, and be constructive.

We crave happiness. It is certainly more desirable than unhappiness. By understanding how happiness, and the lack of it, affects the overall well-being and level of consciousness of oneself, each person is able to take steps towards streaming more happiness into one’s life. By using tools such as meditation and positive psychology exercises such as expressing individuality, we are able to experience more happiness more often. We can evolve humanity by experiencing a higher level of happiness. Think of the possibilities such as less frequent war and conflict. Imagine the transformation of society that would occur if the overall level of happiness the collective consciousness experiences. We can start with raising our own personal levels of happiness, and then we will be able to smile when we see the transpersonal effects in the whole of humanity.

XFiles Weekend: Lewis vs Behe, Dembski, et al

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Last week, we watched a rather sad spectacle, as Prof. C. S. Lewis, Oxford don, tried to convince us all that science can never answer any questions beyond certain basic, elementary observations (e.g. “at such-and-such a time, I saw so-and-so through my telescope,” or “when I heated this substance to such and such a temperature, it melted”). Why would an intelligent and educated man be so eager to blindfold science, and to deny the existence of the various analytical, theoretical, and experimental techniques that define what science is?

Rhetorical question, I know. Lewis wants to persuade us to believe in something that hasn’t got a chance of withstanding any sort of scientific scrutiny, so he’s anxious to get science out of the picture, and to propose an alternative “reality” beyond the reach of science. He wants to make sure we have no way of verifying the truth of what he claims, so that we have to just take his word for it, prompted and consoled by our own (carefully manipulated) subjective feelings and biases. That may not sound very intellectually honest, but you can’t deny that, in marketing terms, it has proven to be extremely effective.

There’s a certain natural pattern in the process of fleecing the gullible. First, you sow doubts and suspicions about the reliability of anyone or anything that might expose your hoax. Then, when you’ve got people wondering whether there’s really anything they can trust, you offer them your exciting new system, that they can trust 100%, and that they can verify by examining it in the light of their own feelings. (You might recognize this pattern, for instance, if you’ve ever spoken with Mormon missionaries for any length of time.)

Lewis follows the same pattern: he spends most of the beginning of Chapter 4 trying to make us doubt that science can answer any kind of “why” questions about the real world at all. That means we’re ready for step 2.

Now the position would be quite hopeless but for this. There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.

Slick, eh? Take that, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists! Science doesn’t know anything about Man, because science can only make “external” observations, and report what it observed. But we know more than science does about Man because we are men. I notice that he doesn’t claim that because we are men, therefore we understand women! Funny, that. Perhaps he might have overstated his case here just a bit.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that, in fact, most of what we know about men does indeed come from external observation. I don’t really know what it is like to be you, and you don’t know what it is like to be me. I know what it is like to be me, but even then, it is a very rare individual who truly understands even himself. Lewis is mistaken: we don’t know Man, and we don’t know as much as we’d like about the one person we do know “from the inside.” And that’s not really a good basis to go on, at least not for this type of question. We might as well say, “Let’s just be superstitious and self-centered” and leave it at that.

Notice, too, the subtle psychological manipulation going on here. Lewis wants us to trust in his biased interpretation of our subjective feelings. He’s priming us with the notion that, whenever we’re unhappy with our choices, and feel some kind of nameless dread regarding present or future consequences, the name of this vague disquiet is “guilt.” All through the book thus far, he’s been planting the suggestion that we should be interpreting our ambiguous feelings within the framework of a supposed “moral law” that we have intentionally violated. And now he appeals to that suggestion, which he himself planted, as being our own personal, subjective, inner validation of the existence of such a moral law. We’re “in the know,” you see, and therefore we should trust this (manipulated) subjective impression as being more reliable than science in determining certain types of “truth.”

Let’s look, once again, at this idea that we know there is a moral law and that we’ve deliberately violated it. Consider, for example, the 98-pound weakling who says to himself (with a certain amount of dread), “Gosh, I should never have let the quarterback’s girlfriend kiss me.” I submit to you that the emotion the weakling feels is the very same feeling that Lewis is calling “guilt.” If we wanted to mess with the weakling’s head, we could tell him that there is a “moral law” that says wimps are not allowed to compete with jocks for girls, and that he is now feeling guilty for violating that moral law.

The truth, of course, is that he’s just worried about what kind of vengeance the 240-pound bully will exact. He did not actually do anything immoral, but he’s feeling the same feelings. And they’re fearful, anxious feelings that are not all that hard to manipulate. Give the poor kid a copy of Mere Christianity, and he’ll identify right away. This is easy stuff. And Lewis has no compunctions about using it.

Mind you, this isn’t to say that people never have any reason to feel truly guilty. Bad behavior does lead to bad consequences, and if the bad consequences haven’t happened yet just because you haven’t been caught yet, then guilty feelings are entirely appropriate and accurate. But the point is, the actual feelings themselves are an anticipation of the negative consequences, not a reflection of some kind of secret knowledge of some kind of moral law that we’ve knowingly and deliberately violated. This “law” is just a superstition that Lewis attributes guilty feelings to, instead of identifying actual, real-world causes.

Let’s move on.

The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason, or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that power, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put it the other way round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.

Isn’t it fascinating how coincidentally the only way we could detect Lewis’ alleged metaphysical reality just happens to be the specific case he is arguing right now? Funny old world.

One of the hazards of trying to reject science wholesale is that there’s no way to anticipate just how many babies are going to go out with the bathwater, and I think Lewis has missed a rather large preschool here. The goal he’s after is to propose that there’s an important body of knowledge that can only be detected by explicitly rejecting the scientific method and putting your trust exclusively in your own subjective (and possibly manipulated) feelings and emotions. In the process of pursuing this goal, however, he has declared that it is impossible for there to be any valid scientific approach that can tell us whether or not the universe is the product of an Intelligent Designer.

I’ve never heard Bill Dembski or Mike Behe or any of the other luminaries at the Discovery Institute try to address this argument, but it clearly pulls the rug out from under their whole enterprise. The whole point of ID, and indeed of creationism in general, is to try and claim that there exists scientific evidence that the universe was created by a Person. Lewis, in Chapter 4, is categorically denying that such a thing is even possible. It has to be impossible in order for his whole “moral law” argument to work.

After all, if it were possible for science to examine the evidence and draw verifiable conclusions about this moral law, and whether it comes from some other “reality,” then Lewis would be in trouble, because the evidence comes nowhere near supporting his claims. It doesn’t support his claims regarding what this “moral law” even is, let alone backing up his argument that it must come from a supernatural source.

Considering that two of the most popular arguments for Christianity right now are Intelligent Design and “moral law,” it’s a bit ironic that they contradict each other so strongly, don’t you think? But it goes even deeper than that. Notice that Lewis says that this supernatural power “could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe”—part of his argument against allowing science to get close enough to examine his evidence. That fine, but did you notice he just threw out the entire Bible? None of those supernatural powers can show up as facts of the universe, so miracles, prophets, incarnations, resurrections, and so on, are all frauds. God’s only possible interaction with the real world is via some kind of secret, inner knowledge that makes us feel guilty. The Bible stories thus can only be lies. Oops.

It says in the Bible that God is not mocked, and that’s true, except the God is Alethea, not Jehovah. When you take up arms (or arguments) against the truth, God will not be angry. She’s never angry. But She will get even, and the loser will be the one who challenged Her. So sorry, Prof. Lewis, but I think in this case God has had Her revenge.

XFiles Weekend: The wisdom of the “why’s”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Once upon a time, a man met three students, and asked each of them, “Why did Jesus die?” The pre-med student replied that Jesus died because he had lost a lot of blood during his beatings, and because of the physiological effects of crucifixion, and because he was stabbed with a spear. The political science student replied that Jesus died because he ticked off the wrong group of guys, and was becoming popular enough to pose a credible threat to the political establishment. And the theology student replied that Jesus died in order to save mankind from sin.

All three answered the same question. All three gave answers that their professors (at least) would count as correct. None of the three contradicted the other two. And yet they gave completely different answers. How can this be? Once we understand the answer to that question, we’ll be ready to look at C. S. Lewis’ claim that science can never answer the question “Why is there a universe?”—or at least, not to his satisfaction.

Lewis, as you may recall, is arguing that there are certain questions science can’t answer. Sure, it’s ok for making observations, and telling us how the world is.

But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question… The statement that there is such a thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make… After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, ‘Why is there a universe?’ ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were?

The whole idea of “meaning” in life, of searching for some kind of “purpose” for the universe, has become a fairly dominant expression of religious yearning, and something that many, many Christians today appeal to as a justification for their faith. It’s worth spending a little time on, because once we understand the roots of this appeal, we’ll understand a lot better why Christians cling to it, and what it really implies for their faith.

Let’s begin our own quest for meaning by examining the meaning of the word “why.” When we ask “why?” what exactly are we trying to find out? As the introductory story shows, “why” encompasses at least two different types of question. The first question is “what chain of cause-and-effect led to the event or condition we’re asking about?” For example, if I ask my doctor, “Why do I have a rash on my elbow?” my doctor will examine my elbow and try to find some sort of injury or infection that would be likely to cause a rash.

Obviously, that’s the sort of question science is particularly well-suited to answer. Indeed, you could do a lot worse than to summarize all of science as being the process of answering the question “Why does the world go on as it does?” So when C. S. Lewis describes “common sense” as telling us that science ought to be unable to answer a question like that, it’s clear that Lewis must have some other kind of “why” in mind, because this kind of “why” is science’s bread and butter.

Let’s go back to our three students. The pre-med student gave us the scientific “why” for Jesus’ death by describing the cause and effect relationships that lead to his demise, but the political science major and the theology major gave us a different kind of “why” by describing the motives of those responsible. This is the other kind of “why” question: the question of goals and desires and agendas. In other words, the “social why.” And yet, here too the questions are not immune to scientific inquiry, as witness the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and yes, even political science (not to overstate my case, but it is political “science”).

Notice, though, that we frequently distinguish between “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry, and “soft” sciences like sociology. It’s not that these fields are necessarily less scientific, but rather, the number of variables, and the subtle interactions between the variables, become difficult to manage. Samples, summaries, approximations, and margins of error assume a much more significant role, and researchers are more likely to resort to (dare I say it) intuition for their insights into the problems they’re working with.

So, not to stray too far from my main point, there is a different sort of science that deals with the more social sort of “why” question. But here’s the rub: all of us, by virtue of our membership in a sentient, socialized species, are naturally gifted at answering “social why” questions. Our socially-oriented minds automatically draw instinctive conclusions based on approximations and trends and intuitive pattern detection. We do a very crude version of this sort of “soft science” every time we interact with other people, reading their moods and inferring their motives.

It’s understandable, then, that Lewis would turn to something other than (hard) science for answers to “social why” questions. Even if there are soft sciences like psychology and sociology, you don’t turn to science for answers to questions like, “Who should I marry?” or “What would my kids like for a Halloween costume this year?” The soft sciences tend to give broad, general answers, not individual specifics, and are a lot more error prone (at least on the scale of the single individual) than are relatively simpler sciences like subatomic physics.

In this sense, Lewis is justified in appealing to common sense as proof that there are some questions that science cannot answer. When it comes to concrete cause-and-effect relationships like those that govern physical events in the material universe, then science can give hard, specific answers with very low margins of error. When it comes to people having agendas and desires and social obligations and pride and so on, pure science is less able to give specific individual answers to questions like “why did you do that?”

The catch is that you have to be dealing with a person who has motives and fears and so on, before you can ask a “social why” question. That is, by asking a “social why” question, you are implicitly assuming that some sort of person is involved in producing the event or condition you are asking about.

Let’s go back to the first question that (according to Lewis) cannot be answered by science: “Why is there a universe?” If we ask the “scientific why” question, we can see that the correct answer is that the universe ultimately does not have a cause. Lewis himself would cheerfully explain this to you, if you were to ask him “Why is there a God?” In Lewis’ theology, God has always existed, and has no cause, therefore it makes no sense to ask why there is one. But, as science is currently documenting, material reality itself has the properties Lewis ascribes to God: it has existed for all of time, and has no beginning and no cause. The question “Why is there a universe?” therefore, is not a meaningful question.

So much for the first “why,” then. But what about the social why? This is where our instinctive animism comes into play. If you ask “Why is there a universe?”—meaning “why” in the social sense—you are assuming that there is some kind of person involved in causing the universe, and that this person has motives and agendas in mind for the cosmos. It’s a loaded question, designed to prevent any atheistic answers from being offered.

Clearly, science cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question, because it is a question based on false premises. Science also cannot explain why baseball has more little green men from Mars than soccer has. It’s the same problem. Any answer that would satisfy the question (and its implicit assumptions) would have to involve describing a real-world process in which actual little green men (or actual Cosmic Creators) played a significant role. Science, however, is limited to what it finds in the real world, which sadly does not contain any observable Martian men (or Divine Creators). So while it is true that science cannot answer these sorts of questions, that’s a deficiency in the questions, not in the science.

It all comes back to the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Science is the systematic application of this principle, used to acquire knowledge of new truth based on its consistency with the truth we already know. It’s because of this inherent self-consistency that it’s even possible to ask questions and get meaningful and accurate answers. All real-world truth is interconnected and self-consistent, and therefore science is able to follow the connections, and test for consistency, and make valid discoveries.

This, unfortunately, leaves science without any way to arrive at the animistic conclusions Lewis would like to reach, and therefore he declares science to be incapable of answering certain questions. He proposes a different reality, one that lies outside the reach of science, that he hopes to discover by means of subjectivism (as we’ll see next week). Unfortunately, since truth is consistent with itself, that means all of reality is going to be consistent with the truth as well. Any reality outside of this would have to be a “reality” that was not consistent with the truth (otherwise it would be part of this reality). So the bottom line is that Lewis is rejecting science in order to better pursue a lie. And what better place to find a lie than inside your own head?

Stay tuned.