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C. S. Lewis and the Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism

C. S. Lewis and the Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism

by Edward T. Babinski

I must begin this essay with a bit of background information about myself.

I was a huge fan of C.S. Lewis in college in the 1970s at which time all of his arguments seemed _a priori_ true to me if only because I admired Lewis as a fellow Christian and intellectual. But ten years later, I “left the Christian fold.” (The full story appears in my book published in 1995, titled, Leaving The Fold.) It was during a transition period in my beliefs, in the mid-1980s, that the editor of the creationist publication, Origins Research, challenged evolutionists to reply to C. S. Lewisʼ argument that “naturalism self-contradicted itself,” which Lewis argued in the original edition of his book, Miracles. (In subsequent editions, Lewis argued more circumspectly, and spoke not of “self-contradiction,” but of naturalismʼs “cardinal difficulty.”) I was tempted by such a challenge to re-read Lewisʼ arguments against “naturalism” and reconsider them. I was not a strict philosophical “naturalist” then, neither am I one today. So what I have to say about Lewisʼ arguments is not meant as a refutation of anyoneʼs theistic beliefs.

Personally, I think the highest, most abstract, philosophical arguments concerning “matter and mind” are incapable of being “solved” by any simple means, certainly not by any means that everyone will immediately accept. So in a sense, I think Lewis was wrong to assert his case “against naturalism” as positively as he did.

Jumping into Miracles, one cannot help noticing that Lewis began chapter 3 by asserting that “If” Naturalism is true, “we” have a “right to demand” that it supply a certain “kind” of explanation, otherwise, it would be a “theory in ruins.” Lewisʼ choice of words, i.e., “a right to demand,” and, “a theory in ruins,” are relatively violent ways of speaking for a person about to engage in philosophical argumentation. Lewis proceeds to mention one “threat” against strict naturalism that has recently been “launched” (anti-ballistic missile fashion?). In a chapter purporting to be the result of the purest reasoning, even of “Divine illumination” (Lewisʼ term) as the source of all reasoning, I canʼt help thinking that such aggression-prone metaphors are unnecessary. Or does Lewis _wish_ to supply ample evidence that his logic evolved out of the jungle?

Lewis also caricatures the Naturalist as making “sweeping negative assertions that ‘There is nothing except this.’… the crowning audacity of a huge negative.” What “crowning audacity?” From the naturalistʼs perspective, he is not “negating” anything. For both the theist and the naturalist the universe they share is a given. It is the theist who makes claims that appear to the naturalist (or even the agnostic) as being both beyond proof or demonstration. So the question of whose view is more “audacious” is moot.

Some of Lewisʼ analogies also raised a chuckle, and I wonder how I missed the problems inherent in Lewisʼs attempts to “disprove” naturalism the first time I read Miracles. For instance, he wrote, “Our acts of inference are prior to our picture of Nature almost as the telephone is prior to the friendʼs voice we hear by it.” Well, does the telephone function naturally or supernaturally? In which case, are the “acts of inference” natural or supernatural? According to Lewisʼ analogy they are as natural as the functioning of a telephone! Having to rely on such a natural analogy poses no difficulty at all for naturalism.

How about Lewisʼs analogy concerning the pond with water lilies on its surface? The pond is “Nature” and the lilies are “human reason,” and naturalists, according to Lewis, believe that the liliesʼ stems go down infinitely deep into the water. Ah, but the supernaturalist knows that the stems are rooted in firm ground (i.e., God). Such an analogy is supposed to illustrate the nature of human Reason rooted in Godʼs. Of course, Iʼd like to know what naturalist believes that ponds have no bottom? Lewis is making them look silly deliberately (or perhaps unconsciously, who knows?). Second, might not a naturalist point out that ponds have natural bottoms, and that water lilies utilize natural matter and energy, like minerals and sunlight, to naturally produce more water lilies? So, a naturalist might conclude that Lewis canʼt even make a good “supernatural” analogy without demonstrating naturalism at work! First the telephone, then the pond and water lilies.

Lewis begins his chapter on “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” by mentioning the theory that “the individual unit of matter moves in an indeterminate or random fashion; moves in fact, ‘on its own’ or ‘of its own accord’… if this theory is true we have really admitted something other than Nature.” Have we?

According to Douglas Hofstadter, Heisenbergʼs “Principle of Indeterminacy” states simply that “at a very fine grain size,” that of an electron, “the wave-particle duality of the measuring tools become relevant… It then happens that we cannot measure a particleʼs position and momentum simultaneously; it doesnʼt even _have_ definite position and momentum simultaneously!” Notice, there are two ambiguities in that simple definition that theologians like Lewis have misinterpreted.

First, there is an ambiguity in the word “determined.” C.E. Turner adds, “In one sense a quantity is determined when it is measured, in the other sense an event is determined when it is caused. Every argument that, since some change cannot be ‘determined’ in the sense of ‘ascertained,’ it is therefore not ‘determined’ in the absolutely different sense of ‘caused,’ is a fallacy of equivocation. The Principle of Indeterminacy has to do with measurement, not with causation.”

Second, there is an ambiguity in the word “particle.” Lewis himself realized “it would be rash to call” this individual unit of matter “any longer a ‘particle.’” In fact, according to Charles A. Coulson, “Once we admit that the electron need not be pictured as a tiny particle,” but as a sort of wave-particle, something for which we have no exact word, “then the indeterminacy relation has nothing more to say about free will.” Nor does it provide proof of Lewisʼ “Subnatural door through which all events and all ‘bodies’ are fed into nature.”

Lewis claims to have mentioned the indeterminacy theory because “it puts in a fairly vivid light certain conceptions which we shall use later on.” What conceptions are those, equivocation, ambiguity and credulity?

To be fair to Lewis, he does add that he “cannot help thinking that (the indeterminacy theory) means no more than that the movements of individual units are permanently incalculable _to us_, not that they themselves are in themselves random and lawless.” In which case, Lewisʼ mention of this theory was superfluous. (Causality-minded readers may, however, chuckle at Lewisʼ statement that he “cannot help” thinking!)

One final word on “quantum mechanical weirdness,” which Lewis attempted to employ as some sort of “way out of nature,” or “Subnatural door through which all events and all ‘bodies’ are fed into nature.” Douglas Hofstadter points out that, “Rydberg atoms are highly excited atoms whose outermost electrons have very large quantum numbers, and which are consequently tethered so loosely to their central nucleus that their orbits begin to be somewhat less ‘cloud-like’ (i.e., less quantum mechanical) and more like the familiar planetary orbits that electrons used to follow, back in the short-lived ‘semi-classical’ era of physics, before Heisenbergʼs day. These bridges between the alien world and the familiar world help provide the intuitions necessary for macroscopic people to imagine how jolly giant greenness could emerge from murky, unfathomable microdepths!” Evidently, Lewis knew little about physics, but attempted to employ what little knowledge he had of it to “reason” his way to the “ruin” of “naturalism.”

Even if Lewisʼ arguments, thus far, were unequivocally true, all he has argued is that human decisions are based on either one of two things:

  1. Nature (what Lewis calls “irrational” natural circumstances and “urges”)


  2. the “Divine Illumination” of Godʼs Reason (Perhaps Lewis “canʼt help” using the term “Divine Illumination” because it is a term redolent with the sound of Medieval literature and philosophy which he taught.)

But if Natureʼs “irrationalism” (as Lewis calls it) and Godʼs “Reason” are the two forces driving human decision-making, then what room is left for “free will?” You either act within the domain of reasonable actions and thoughts, or within the domain of natural actions or thoughts, or a mixture of both. But your actions are the consequence of being “moved” either by a divinely rational thought, or an irrational urge, kind of like being moved by either nature or nurture. Which is kind of like the _deterministsʼ_ view of the cosmos, a view that Lewis probably abhorred. But itʼs amazing how arguments can come full circle, isnʼt it? (Thatʼs the ignoble truth of the limitations of philosophical arguments.)

Now on to Lewisʼ premier argument his statement of the “cardinal difficulty of naturalism.” “A strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’” (from chapter three of Miracles)

Such an argument appears coherent, but it is actually faulty. It concentrates only on atoms and human thought and leaves out every category in between about which we know so little!

For instance, what if mental processes are _not_ determined “wholly” by the motion of individual “atoms” in our brains? Would that leave supernaturalism as the only alternative? What if the brainʼs overall dynamics naturally “took control” of the motions of individual “atoms” within a larger dynamic flow? Or consider the way all the atoms in our bodies are configured very differently than those same atoms in rocks or air and water, and hence, the bodyʼs overall dynamic functioning is very different from that of inanimate matter. But that doesnʼt mean our livers, kidneys and hearts function “supernaturally.”

According to Roger Sperry, psychobiologist and well known philosopher of brain science, “Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces…

“We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics…that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen…

“And the molecules of higher living things are… flown… galloped… swung… propelled… mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties—aims, wants, needs—possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower.

“This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.

“As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation.”

One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a “quantum computer” one day).

Hence, Sperryʼs naturalism does not appear to pose any “cardinal difficulties” for itself.

Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of computer science, notes in a similar vein, “Even if we understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The ‘laws of thought’ depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells, but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, ‘general’ laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, ‘general’ laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular…

“It is not a matter of _different_ laws, but of _additional_ kinds of theories and principles that operate at higher levels of organization… Each higher level of description must _add_ to our knowledge about lower levels, rather than replace it.”

And contrary to Lewisʼ claim that “[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends,” cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study “perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality… The conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these ‘modes of representation’ relate to one another… They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words… Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses… Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research.

“Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised… Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin.” After all, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldnʼt.”

C. S. Lewis might reply to all this, “But the very attempt is absurd.” Especially since he believed that manʼs ability to reason was due to “Divine Illumination,” and also that _his_ reasons for believing in the supernatural were necessarily so. (Might he have said “Divinely so?”)

Just what were Lewisʼ “reasons?” They seem to revolve around his faith in

  1. logic, and
  2. the orderliness of nature.

Let us examine first “Lewis and Logic,” followed by “Lewis and the Orderliness of Nature.”

  1. Lewis And Logic

    Lewisʼ faith in logical inferences seems to come prior to his faith in God or the Bible. At least it is the first thing he asks his readers to put their trust in. (A distressing thought for some Biblical fundamentalists to consider.) He writes, “My belief that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another is not all based on the fact that I have never caught them behaving otherwise. I see that it ‘must’ be so… We can know nothing, beyond our own sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be… If (B) ever ‘follows from’ (A) in the logical sense, it does so always.”

    Does it? In the world that I know (A) and (B) vary, certainly they do in terms of time and place. Even the boiling point of water on earth varies based on altitude. What facts about the natural world are always and everywhere “true” in the most exacting sense of the word? And where can you find two people who totally agree on the exact meaning and significance of all (A)s and all (B)s?

    Lewis does not even touch upon logical paradoxes, viz., the liar who admits to lying, and the Barber who shaves all those who do not shave themselves. Would that Lewis had read books such as Paradoxes by R. M. Sainsbury; Paradoxes from A to Z by Michael Clark; Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge by William Poundstone (Editor); or the works of Raymond Smullyan—to appreciate how wide-ranging and unsettled are the questions that remain in the exercise of logic, and the inherent difficulties connected with language and reality (since words are not things; and maps are not the territory).

    Logic itself is based on such simple principles that “some of the earliest computer programs, embodying no more than a hundred or so ‘facts,’ excelled at solving hard problems in mathematical logic. Yet not till the 1970s could we construct robot programs that could see and move well enough to arrange childrenʼs building blocks into simple towers and playhouses. Why could we make programs do grown-up things, like solve hard mathematical logic problems before we could make them do childish things? The answer may seem paradoxical: much of ‘expert’ adult thinking is actually simpler than what is involved when ordinary children play!

    “To Descarteʼs [and probably Lewisʼ] mind, walking was a simple mechanical act that did not require a ‘mind.’ But we now know that walking is a highly complex performance, no less ‘mental’ perhaps than calculating.” Talk about turning reason on its head!

    Moreover, “At the university of Pennsylvania a chimp named Sarah, using colored tokens for words, reportedly grasps the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different,’ as well as the conditional relationship expressed in English ‘if… then’ — in other words, simple logic.”

    Lastly, as Minsky reminds us, “I doubt if we often use logic actually to solve problems or to ‘get’ new ideas [certainly not when it comes to ‘solving’ the ‘big problems’ in philosophy, which amount to presuppositions piled on presuppositions to solve mysteries, or employing greater mysteries to solve lesser ones.—E.T.B.].

    “Instead, we formulate our arguments and conclusions in logical terms _after_ we have constructed or discovered them in other ways; only then do we use verbal and other kinds of formal reasoning to ‘clean things up,’ to separate the essential parts from the spaghetti-like tangles of thoughts and ideas in which they first occurred.

    “To see why logic must come afterward, recall the idea of solving problems by using the generate and test methods. In any such process, logic can be only a fraction of the reasoning; it can serve as a test to keep up from coming to invalid conclusions, but it cannot tell us which ideas to generate, or which processes and memories we use. Logic can no more explain how we think than grammar explains how we speak; both can tell us whether or sentences are properly formed, but they cannot tell us which sentences to make.”

    Lewisʼ reliance on “Reason” (which he depicts with a capital “R”) is a reliance on what appear to him to be the best “reasons” available to support his overall philosophical position. But study any textbook on the “Problems of Classical Philosophy” and note how often philosophers are unable to resolve any of them using the broad terms and blunt instrument of philosophy alone.

  2. Lewis And The Orderliness Of Nature

    According to Lewis “The reason of God —is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived.” (Lewis apparently, knows all about the “reason of God,” even prior to knowing all about the orderliness of Nature! I daresay, there is much more of Nature yet to be discovered, which will shed new light on questions of “consciousness and reason.”)

    Of course a naturalistʼs concept of the orderliness of nature is different than a supernaturalistʼs, but no less coherent. Take Joseph Campbellʼs vision (admittedly heʼs more of a pantheist than a naturalist, but he expresses the natural relationship between man and the universe as a naturalist might), “We are children of this planet… we have come forth from it. We are its eyes and mind, its seeing and its thinking. And the earth, together with its sun… came forth from a nebula; and that nebula, in turn, from space. No wonder then, if its laws and ours are the same.”

    Manʼs ability to reason does not appear to constitute naturalismʼs “cardinal difficulty.” Manʼs ability to reason is compatible with either a naturalistic or supernaturalistic view of the cosmos. Neither does manʼs ability to reason guarantee either the finality or perfection of his conclusions or knowledge. Human knowledge is limited, painstakingly accumulated over centuries, subject to growth, change, challenges from other branches of knowledge, and even decline. From all the classical philosophy Lewis had imbibed he should have known better than to argue so presumptively in favor of supernaturalism and against naturalism.

    There are even Evangelical Christian scientists who find Lewisʼ arguments contra naturalism to be presumptive, including Donald M. (for MacCrimmon) MacKay, author of The Clockwork Image: A Christian perspective on science. (Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), who accepts that naturalism may indeed be true and that brains may indeed be unimaginably complex machines, but that God has set things up such that each personʼs “information matrix” is recreated or downloaded into the next life, like transferring taped information onto a CD. Such are the varieties of Christian philosophers that some are naturalists too.

See also the article, “The Brain and Mind Question” and Christian Theistic Philosophers* (*In particular, Greg Bahnsen, and, Victor Reppert, the latter being the author of The Argument from Reason) by Edward T. Babinski

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