Friday, December 19, 2008

C.S. Lewis on thought...

Many Christians like to quote C.S. Lewis in various discussions, and I recently came across this one, which I have seen before:


"Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen for certain physical or chemical reasons to arrange themselves in a certain way, that gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But if it is so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way the splash arranges will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I can't believe in thought; so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God." C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity"


Let's examine C.S. Lewis's above comments, and see what a miserable wreck of tortured logical fallacies, it is.

Of course, this is a common fallacious argument, known as "Denying the antecedent". Lewis essentially implies that the only alternative to the notion that our brains were designed by a creative, intelligent God is that our brains are just a random collection of matter. He denies or ignores any other possibility. Of course, his argument doesn't work, because in the world of science, (you know, the REAL WORLD) nothing is simply "random chance", especially when we talk of biological matters. In science, everything happens as a matter of cause and effect.

Lewis then tries to explain what many people who never bother to read any science texts, or get their facts straightened out before trying to explain science to others do. He completely makes up how science allegedly explains the workings of the brain. Scientists, from Neurophysiologists, to biologists, to those who specialize in evolution, do not describe any biological processes as random, nor would they explain the workings of the brain in the simplistic way that Lewis does. Like many of the Christians who try to make arguments against established science, Lewis is putting his money in the ignorance of believers, or at least he is as ignorant as people who think that he gave an accurate explanation of how science describes brain functions.

He then says something so astonishingly irrational and logically fallacious that it's hard to believe that someone of his apparent intelligence and stature would make such a conclusion. He claims that "Unless I believe in God, I can't believe in thought..." Yes, apparently, belief in thought is dependant on one believing on God. We apparently are supposed to just take his word for it. After all, he's C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia stories. Being famous and popular gives him the authority to be right about whatever subject he writes about! Next thing you know, these Christians will tell us that we can't piss unless we believe in God, first.

Lewis states that we cannot trust our thoughts, UNLESS we believe in God. Apaprently, Lewis never got wind of concepts like objectivity, logical thinking, and rationality. of course, Lewis doesn't define what thought is. After all, he may be playing the word-redefinition game, and using his own personalized definition of thought, which he assumes is the same definition that everyone else uses. Of course, Lewis did not have access to information on Neurophysiology before 1963, because the field is highly specialized, highly technical, and prior his death in 1963, there was no actual field of Neuroscience, or international organizations of scientists to get information from, and of couse, no internet. So in this sense, we can't really blame Lewis, because he died before neuroscience was an accessible topic for most people.

Thought, by definition, is simply a process that brains perform. At it's basis is the interaction of neurons, and the sending of signals from sensory organs. "Thought" is what happens when the neurons in the brain are stimulated and various parts of the brain process that information. I doubt that Mr. Lewis was even aware of the concept of thought as a biological function when he wrote his oft-quoted comment. But it is very well documented what thought is, and even as early as Ancient Greece, philosophers at least understood that thinking was an action, and they even offered prescribed methods for performing it, which we call the principles of logic. Even an Oxford grad like Lewis should have been familiar with that information, because the classic Greek philosophers are part of the standard curriculum there.

In the real world, to validate thoughts, we compare them to data that we receive from our senses. It is reasonable to say that when you can measure and record data, and several independant people set forth to measure and record the same data, comparing each others' data is a reliable way of determining the validity of it.

The difference between rational thinkers and the irrational religious people who push C.S. Lewis's outdated and uninformed philosophy, is that the irrationally religious never seem to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong about anything; everything they think is truth. Their faith is used as a way of validating their own thoughts, however erroneous they may be. Rational people do not innately trust thoughts. They know that their opinions and perceptions are not neccesarily the truth, and the use the tools of research, logic, and rational thinking to determine which thoughts are valid and which are not.

Many religions, Fundamentalist Christianity included, are nothing more than thought systems that let lazy people proclaim themselves to be wise and informed on any topic, without actually going through all that annoying work of reading, researching, comparing data, and actually learning anything about it. This is why we get loads of uneducated, non-science-trained, non-scientists confidently telling educated, degreed, seasoned, professional scientists that everything they know is wrong. This religious mindset lets these people be self-proclaimed experts on anything, and they never feel the need to verify any of the facts that they seem to make up on the fly.

9 comments:

Pocket Nerd said...

When I read C.S. Lewis's theological musings, I get the impression of a smart man frantically trying to rationalize his own beliefs. Sometimes it seems he's struggling desperately to persuade himself, not the reader.

I've seen that behavior before, from people I knew. If you grow up thinking that without God life is worthless, and death is a Big Scary Horrible Unfair Thing from which only God can protect you, it's damned hard to abandon your faith. Most people just can't abandon that "magic feather" once they're convinced they need it.

(Yes, I know Lewis claimed to have been an atheist in his teenage years, but his other writings just don't back it up. Assuming he's not doing the classic rhetorical trick of claiming erstwhile atheism to enhance his perceived credibility as a Christian, he may simply have been one of those deeply confused sorts who thinks "atheist" means "a person who believes in God but is angry at Him.")

David W. Irish said...

I've read his own account of how he converted to Christianity from atheism. It's not very believable. In fact, it's so short and simplistic that I think he just wrote it into his book to say "I should know -- because I, an Oxford graduate and professor, used to be an atheist."

I think that, like many of the dimmer bulbs on the Christian tree, Lewis has his own definition of "atheist" that is not a standard one. Many Christians I know seem to define an atheist as anyone whose beliefs are not exactly like their own. This is how they can get away calling Christians of other deminations "atheists".

From his writings before he became such an apologist, the impression I have is that Lewis was just a non-church-going Christian who simply had doubts about his faith.

I would love for someone to find a single essay he wrote before he became a Christian authority, when he was allegedly professing atheism. I haven't read any of it in his early works at all.

All I know is this: J.R.R. Tolkien was one of his idols, and a personal friend. Tolkien was a Christian, and despite the complete lack of Christianity in his most epic works, Tolkien commented that he went deeper than the veneer of religion when writing the LOTR books. He wanted to touch on the classical mythology and classical motifs found in all of the world's folklore, to be universal, but he kept his message compatible with his Christian own Christian beliefs, without being preachy about anything. Lewis was influenced by Tolkien's instruction, and the Narnia chronicles are a pretty pitiful attempt to do what Tolkien did. Lewis, lacking the imagination of Tolkien, made a story that is preachy, full of borrowed mythological elements, and well, cardboard characters.

Pocket Nerd said...

Many Christians I know seem to define an atheist as anyone whose beliefs are not exactly like their own. This is how they can get away calling Christians of other deminations "atheists".

This is not a trivial issue. Many of the crazier fundamentalists really do believe that atheists (and sometimes Jews and Muslims) are actively working to infiltrate and subvert True Christian™ churches. That guy in the third pew who doesn't fly into a rage when somebody wishes him "happy holidays"? Obviously he's an atheist sleeper agent, waiting for his moment to destroy your church from within.

I would love for someone to find a single essay he wrote before he became a Christian authority, when he was allegedly professing atheism. I haven't read any of it in his early works at all.

Neither have I. And I looked hard.

Lewis, lacking the imagination of Tolkien, made a story that is preachy, full of borrowed mythological elements, and well, cardboard characters.

Meh. To be fair, I rather enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia. They aren't bad reading, when you're twelve or thirteen. Unfortunately, they don't hold up to an adult reading as well as, say, The Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn.

(If you haven't read the latter, you should do so immediately. It's only superficially a children's story; scratch the surface and you'll find a story about the nature of growth and maturity.)

David W. Irish said...

Pocket Nerd wrote:
This is not a trivial issue. Many of the crazier fundamentalists really do believe that atheists (and sometimes Jews and Muslims) are actively working to infiltrate and subvert True Christian™ churches. That guy in the third pew who doesn't fly into a rage when somebody wishes him "happy holidays"? Obviously he's an atheist sleeper agent, waiting for his moment to destroy your church from within.

Don't you just love paranoia? That is why these people are so easy for the right wing to manipulate. We all have hot-buttons that trigger responses when pressed, but the average fundy seems to have a hair-trigger on all of their buttons.

Neither have I. And I looked hard.

That is why a lot of people take his claims of being an atheist with a grain of salt. There is a huge difference between our atheism, and some guy who just doesn't go to church for a long time because he loses interest in his religion.

Meh. To be fair, I rather enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia. They aren't bad reading, when you're twelve or thirteen. Unfortunately, they don't hold up to an adult reading as well as, say, The Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn.

Oh, I agree, they are good for kids, but the problem is that too many of the fans I know are like the Harry potter fans -- 40-somethings reading and obsessing over children's stories.

(If you haven't read the latter, you should do so immediately. It's only superficially a children's story; scratch the surface and you'll find a story about the nature of growth and maturity.)

I dunno -- the title doesn't work for me. I'm not into unicorns. However, I wasn't into the Golden Compass until someone told me it was a children's novel written by an atheist, and after reading it, I thought it was pretty clever.

David W. Irish said...

Also -- Lewis's argument can be summed up like this:

"Christians can trust their thoughts because they believe that God created their brains to think, and atheists cannot trust their thoughts, because they [allegedly] can't account for the reliability of their brains"

Essentially, his argument is that just because he believes that God created him, he can account for his thought's reliability. However, atheists do have an account of how reliable their thinkning is -- evolution, biology, neuroscience. Essentially, Lewis just ignores science, and doesn't even allow it as a possibility in explaining anything.

Pocket Nerd said...

Oh, I agree, they are good for kids, but the problem is that too many of the fans I know are like the Harry potter fans -- 40-somethings reading and obsessing over children's stories.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want my children absorbing morality from Narnia's thinly-veiled Christian doctrines— such as "killing an innocent person instead of a guilty one absolves the guilty party and makes everything okay!" Maybe I'm not giving my hypothetical kids enough credit; after all, I read the story as a child and it didn't seem to affected me.

I dunno -- the title doesn't work for me. I'm not into unicorns. However, I wasn't into the Golden Compass until someone told me it was a children's novel written by an atheist, and after reading it, I thought it was pretty clever.

I'm not really a unicorn-fan either, but it's still one of my favorite books.

If you're reluctant to be seen in public reading The Last Unicorn, maybe you should start with A Fine and Private Place. It's another very deep story, this time about a man who can see and talk to ghosts. It's a good introduction to Beagle's style, and will give you an idea of whether you'd enjoy his other works.

SmidgenWriter said...

I find this article very interesting. I enjoyed reading it and it was very informative, but I do think you are kind of... missing the point of what C.S. Lewis was saying.

Let me just reiterate what you said. Humans gather information with the senses. We compare this sensory data to confirm it. We draw logical conclusions from our findings. Now, you also said that there is a science, logical thinking, reason, behind the way we do this. The way we compare, the way we sense. Physiologically, everything just FITS.

Maybe I'm missing something, and PLEASE, point it out if I am, but wasn't Lewis' point that, if there wasn't a designer, there can't be design? We can't reason, we can't "think", we can't trust our own conclusions because there is no starting place. How do I phrase this... okay, just like the scientific method, you have to have many scientists and experiments for something to become a theory. We only have our own thought processes, the human minds, to work with. It's impossible to escape that mind. Our brains will never be able to go beyond what they are. So how can we confirm that those thought processes are accurate?

Sorry for the long winded response, but I'm not convinced with your reasoning. =/

Seb said...

Why a conclusion that follows its premises shouldn't astonish anyone at all. He simply means do we have a reason to trust that our senses, our reason (mind), are reliable based on determinism (naturalistic cause & effect) alone? And it could also be implied further that truth values can never exist in such a state of affairs, but the very fact that you are challenging his statements means that you are against determinism and that at the same time you assert that you are also for it. So what is it really? We can't have contradictions can we?

whoever I am, you dont need to know said...

The way you go about angrily and sarcasticly critizing those who disagree with you, it seems like you're trying to convert everyone to Atheism. You're no better than fanatical Christians.