Wednesday, February 16, 2011

God's Quality Control 5.0.3

Here I continue my discussion of the book Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis.

Chapter IV

In preparation for his next round of commentary, Lewis recaps the central theme of the first three chapters, which is the difference between physical laws and the fabrication to which he refers as "The Law of Human Nature." He says that physical laws might be nothing more than the facts we observe, an apparent statement of the obvious unless you go back to Chapter III and find this brief comment: "Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way...and that may be the whole story. I do not think it is the whole story, as you will see later." We'll have to be patient, although my guess is that he intends to claim that his god decrees the physical laws in the same way that it decrees the moral so-called law. He contrasts morality with physical laws by asserting, incorrectly, as we have seen in previous videos, that the moral laws are of a character different from that of the physical laws. In his words, "The...Law of Right and Wrong...must be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behavior...a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey."

Having started the chapter on such unsound footing, Lewis presses on into oblivion: in this chapter he intends "to consider what [his unjustified assertions about morality tell] us about the universe we live in." He concludes that the fact that we feel compelled, sometimes against our will, to behave well is a sign that there is some entity analogous to a mind that is directing the universe. This is obviously preposterous, as is the reasoning he employs in getting there, which I'll discuss here. Before I start, I need to point out a fundamental flaw underlying all superstitionist thinking:

We have always made the mistake of putting ourselves at the center of things. For us to assume that the cause of the universe is something like a consciousness is just another in our long history of such mistakes. We have absolutely zero reason to believe that the universe has anything to do with us, beyond the fact that we are one of the myriad fascinating aspects of it. Consciousness, as far as we know, is strictly a result of the operation of our brains. Why would we assume that the universe comes from something that is in any way, even metaphorically, like our brains? He goes on to talk about a "reason" behind the universe. I say that words like "reason," "cause," "effect," etc., are specific to us and might not have any meaning beyond the meanings we assign to them.

Now we'll look at the arguments that Lewis uses in support of his claim that there is something like a mind behind everything. First, he divides the possible views on the nature of the universe into two broad categories. The first category he calls the materialist view, which, after adjusting for the state of scientific knowledge in his day, boils down to something like "The universe is just here and no one knows why." The second category Lewis calls the religious view, which is that something like a conscious mind is responsible for the existence of the universe. In a chapter end-note he mentions a third possible view that is no longer considered valid by anyone who matters; he calls this the Life-Force view. He makes the serious mistake of claiming that if the Life-Force is conscious, then it must be a god. Because the view is outdated, this mistake might seem to be irrelevant. Its relevance can be seen by considering that perhaps the universe was created by someone who simply has excellent technology, which could hardly be considered the hallmark of a god.

Lewis goes on to say, "Why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind [it all, are not scientific questions]." I had to read this statement several times before I really understood what he is saying, and as it turns out, he's saying nothing at all. It boils down to a tautology: whether there is something behind the observable facts is a question that cannot be answered by science. That's obviously true, as science is based solely on observable facts, but it doesn't tell us anything. He might as well have enlightened us by saying that a question that has nothing do to with dogs is a question that cannot be answered by studying dogs. So much for Lewis being a great thinker.

Lewis sinks deeper into the abyss, claiming that if there is a consciousness behind the universe, because it can't be detected by observation, it must make itself known to us in some different way. You can see that he's assuming, without any justification, that it's possible for us to know of something in a way other than observation. He follows this up by concluding that when we look inside ourselves and see his moral so-called law, we are seeing the very indicator that a universe-creating mind would use to reveal its existence to us. This ridiculous mechanism, with all the myriad ways it could be misinterpreted and misunderstood, would be an indicator used only by some kind of idiot. Surely something powerful enough to create a universe could find some clearer, less-mistakable means of introducing itself to us. Further, he misses two glaringly obvious flaws in this single conclusion. First, what we observe inside our minds are certainly facts. If I feel guilty, then it's a fact that I feel guilty. Sure, it may be difficult to quantify guilt precisely, but no one has ever had a good reason to believe that guilt can't be observed, and modern neuroscience suggests that guilt, not to mention many other internal states, can indeed be observed. Second, if we believe that our internal states were some message from a consciousness beyond the realm of facts, why would we think of morality as fundamentally different from any other internal state? Why doesn't Lewis argue that his god makes itself known to us via bigotry, or humor, or perhaps far more likely, fear?

Lewis makes a fool of himself by claiming that someone observing humans without having access to our thoughts would not be able to infer our morality, because the observer could see only what we actually do as opposed to what we ought to do. He misses the glaringly obvious point that our morality could be inferred simply by observing how humans behave in general, and how we tend to treat those who operate outside the general behavior. One could infer human morality in this way just as one could infer horse morality or lion morality by simple observation. Again, even adjusting for the fact that Lewis wrote 70 years ago, this conclusion is absolutely indefensible.

Strangely, in this book entitled Mere Christianity, Lewis tells us that "If there [were] a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe," forgetting Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew 19:26, "[w]ith God, all things are possible." He goes on to say that "The only way in which we could expect [the controlling power] to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Not only is this absurd on the surface, it also seems that Lewis doesn't understand that the activity of our minds is simply yet another fact inside the universe; it's no different from any other fact that we could observe. Lewis is obviously assuming, with absolutely no support whatsoever, that the activity of our minds is a result of some kind of mystical process as opposed to simple brain chemistry.

Lewis attempts to hedge his bets as he nears the end of the chapter, saying, "I am not yet within a hundred miles of the god of Christian theology," but this is obviously not true, given the horde of gods we've seen that have no particular opinions about how humans behave in general, often focusing on the behaviors of specific humans, and often themselves being suspiciously human in their ways.

We finish the chapter with some good, old-fashioned question-begging. Lewis says, "I think we have to assume [that the thing driving our morality] 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." I can in fact imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. I give instructions all the time to my kid, and as far as I can tell, I'm nothing more than a bit of matter.

That's 5.0.3. Thanks for watching.