A dose of C.S. Lewis’s intellectual snake oil

Here’s a quote posted recently by The Armchair Apologist:

There’s a time to suggest politely, “While I don’t find Mr. Lewis’s logic entirely persuasive…,” and there’s a time to point out that this is what passes for a reasoned argument from a man who, fifty years after his death, remains one of the most respected Christian intellectuals out there.

First, Lewis assumes that complexity (in this case, a reliable brain) can’t possibly come from an undesigned universe. As I recall, Lewis believed in evolution, but he apparently didn’t understand its implications. The theory of evolution by natural selection shows how unplanned complexity arises. It’s not just blind chance alone. It’s not just Lewis’s inept milk jug analogy. It’s a mindless, algorithmic process by which adaptive changes are conserved and built upon, bit by bit by bit. The gradual development of intelligence in our ancestors was an adaptive change that made them better able to survive. Lewis’s argument would only make sense if he could disprove the theory of evolution and show that there’s no alternative to intelligent design, but not only did he never attempt that, he apparently never even realized that he needed to.

Second—and this is what’s so contemptible about Lewis—is the not-so-sneaky way he tries to undermine the whole notion of evidence-based reasoning. He makes his case for god by invoking reason, even as he claims that it’s invalid for his nonbelieving opponents to do the same. Thus, if you find the evidence against theism to be extensive and persuasive, just ignore it, dear. Don’t trust your brain if it concludes there’s no god. Only trust your brain if it concludes that there is.

Isn’t that neat? Evidence doesn’t matter. Theism wins by definition!

So go ahead and celebrate the power of godly reason by posting C.S. Lewis quotes to your blog, confident that atheists are forever disqualified from using reason against you.

7 thoughts on “A dose of C.S. Lewis’s intellectual snake oil

  1. I enjoy your observations…while Lewis is certainly a clever writer and very “quotable”, I agree that his arguments are mostly out of false assumptions and leaps of logic. I’ve certainly had Christians give the the “liar, lord,lunatic” line and assume the discussion is over.

    • Thanks. I grew up with C. S. Lewis – still have a number of his books on a shelf somewhere. I thought he was brilliant at the time, but later re-read some of his stuff and said, “Hey, now wait a minute…!”

  2. Thank you for the repost. There is after all no such thing as bad publicity. 🙂 All that Lewis, as a former atheist, is doing is using its own argument for a nihilistic universe against itself. If our brains are only the product of an accident and not designed for thought, as atheism claims, how CAN you trust it’s conclusions? God bless.

    • The problem, as I see it, is twofold:

      Lewis assumes that evolution is random i.e. analogous to pouring out milk and hoping to get a map of London. It isn’t. There is a random feature to evolution, but the selection process–the bit that makes evolution work–is non-random. Better comprehension is the selected-for variable because it has survival value. Evolution accounts for thought very well.

      The second is that all the evidence in the world could point against the existence of a god (it doesn’t, but assume it does for the sake of this comment) and this argument would still be used; if you regard evidence then you are assuming you are rational, and evolution alone cannot account for rationality, THEREFORE GOD; all the evidence in the world says I am wrong, therefore I am right.

  3. Where do atheists claim that our brains are not designed for thought? Personally, I think that is a straw man…

    To answer your question, many would argue that our brains have evolved and allow us to think ahead and plot out a better chance for survival. You can only trust your conclusions after testing and proving your assumptions, otherwise you may be incorrect or incomplete in your knowledge.

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Ivan essentially just restated Lewis without answering my objections. He thinks evolution teaches that “our brains are only the product of an accident,” which, as I and other commenters here pointed out, is not an accurate description of natural selection.

    Perhaps Ivan doesn’t understand how natural selection works. Whether he does or not, it’s clear that he doesn’t find it a plausible engine of complexity. Fact is, natural selection is counter-intuitive. Our day-to-day experience tells us that you don’t see complexity without intention. That’s why Paley’s watchmaker argument was so convincing in its day (and why many people still use it). For me, I had to read a little more deeply about natural selection to really “get” it (Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was a big help).

    There’s something else about Ivan’s reply that bothers me. He, like most Christian apologists, assumes that a godless universe is a “nihilistic” one — presumably devoid of any possible basis for knowledge, meaning, or morality. That’s a much larger issue than I care to deal with here, but suffice to say that it’s yet another example of Christians opening the discussion by assuming that nothing makes sense apart from god. But if you’re going to convince a skeptic, that needs to be your conclusion, not your premise.

    Here’s what we know: We know we’re here. We know we can test hypotheses and learn about the world — we know this because it works, and has proven to be the most reliable method we have for increasing our knowledge. So let’s start there. The existence of a creator god who intervenes in the world is a hypothesis, and the nonexistence of such a god is a hypothesis. Which hypothesis best explains the facts as we observe them? If C.S. Lewis argued on that basis, he might still make a faulty argument, but at least it would be relevant. As it is, his arguments tend to be just so much wordplay and pseudophilosophical navel gazing.

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