Friday, January 7, 2011

God's Quality Control 5.0.0: Mere Christianity

Don't worry about the numbering in the title; it will make more sense after I make a couple more videos. In the mean time, use the playlists and the video responses to navigate the series. In this series I'll take a look at the book "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. The full title of the book seems to be "Mere Christianity: an Anniversary Edition of The Three Books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality. In this video we'll begin Book I: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.

Chapter I: The Law of Human Nature

Lewis makes two basic points in this chapter. First, humans everywhere do seem to have a sense of right and wrong. The specifics of what is right and what is wrong differ from person to person, but it does seem that almost everyone has a sense about how people should behave. Second, we humans do not always obey the rules that we might wish others to obey, and we do not always obey all of the rules that we ourselves would consider ideal.

Lewis wastes no time jumping to the entirely unwarranted conclusion that this universal sense of morality represents a special kind of natural law (to which he refers variously as the Law of Nature, the Law of Human Nature, Moral Law, and Rule of Decent Behavior), akin to physical laws such as the law of gravitation, the difference being that this law concerning morality is optional. It's impossible to defy the law of gravity, while humans defy Moral Law regularly. He comes tantalizingly close to glimpsing a far better kind of morality, a far more compassionate view of human nature, when he points out that if there is no universal morality, then although we would have had to fight the Nazis, it would not have been proper for us to blame them. Sadly, he doesn't take the next step of realizing that blaming is itself an unhealthy occupation, and in the context of war serves only as yet another excuse to dehumanize one's opponent.

Lewis makes a gigantic mistake here (actually, he makes several, but this one is rather more glaring than the others, if that were possible). He points out that a man who asserts that there is no real right and wrong will still be upset if you treat him badly. What Lewis completely misses is that the man's assertion is a result of the man's reason (regardless of whether his reason is sound), while the man's reaction to mistreatment is a result of the man's instincts. Lewis wrote this book some 70 years ago; we have learned quite a bit since then, and I don't want to criticize him for not knowing what we know. Perhaps he wrote this before any of the studies showing that even very young children have a sense of fair play. But it's still appropriate to point out his mistakes, even if they're honest mistakes, so we can correct them and move ahead.

Lewis closes the chapter with an utterly baffling claim: "These two facts [the existence of Moral Law and the fact that adherence to it is rather flexible] are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in." This may be true if there is a god that intends to punish us for being morally less-than-perfect, but if these are Lewis' foundation, then the whole structure is unsound. It may not be clear from a naive reading of the first chapter, but I expect that he will soon insist that the Moral Law comes from his punishing god, and our so-called disobedience to this punisher in some way obligates us to it. As it turns out, the two facts he mentions are not really foundational to the "clear thinking" he'll surely show in this book. Instead, the foundation of his thinking is sure to be his interpretation of these facts. If he were wrong in his assumption that our moral sensibilities come from the supernatural realm, or that the supernatural provider of said sensibilities will punish us for our shortcomings, then his entire argument, or at least the argument he seems to be setting up so far, would collapse.

Chapter II: Some Objections

In the first half of this chapter, Lewis makes a concerted effort to convince us that this mysterious Moral Law is not an instinct, but rather something higher that arbitrates between competing instincts. He offers absolutely no support for any of his claims beyond some weak piano metaphors, which he makes no attempt to connect to facts or science.

It's clear even in the second chapter that Lewis was not the great thinker that some wish him to have been. Back in the first chapter he criticized people who say that there is no right and wrong, pretending that he didn't know what is meant by this shorthand, but then becoming one of these same people by stating, "Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses...Every single note [on a piano] is right at one time and wrong at another."

About halfway through this chapter, Lewis trips himself up yet again, implying that a "love of humanity in general" would somehow lead us to forget justice. Even ignoring the idea that retributive justice is barbaric, we can see that Lewis is creating a straw-man. He claims that using love of humanity in general as an absolute guide for one's behavior would lead one to break agreements and fake evidence. Once again he simply makes the assertion, with no support or explanation.

That's 5.0.0. Thanks for watching.

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