Friday, 18 May 2012

Philosophical Disagreements With CS Lewis

C. S. Lewis suggests that, if we dislike his ideas, the fault lies with us:

“Many of those who say that they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God: infinite sovereignty de jure, combined with infinite power de facto, and love which, by its very nature, includes wrath also – it is not only in poetry that these things offend.” 1

Thanks for the judgementalism but let’s consider “God.”

(1) The creator before the creation would be a self without other which is like a square without sides. Self is recognized only by contrast with other, thus with external objects of consciousness. Consciousness, a relationship between a subject and its objects, is negated by the negation of the objects. If there were a single being, then it would become self-conscious only by first appearing to itself as other, then realizing its identity. The creation of a perceived world of discrete objects separated by apparently empty spaces necessarily preceded self-consciousness, not vice versa.

The complete process would be: reality; appearance; illusion; realization. Realization is the ending of illusion, which is appearance mistaken for reality, but reality, even if single, must also be internally dynamic because a static unity would be unable to differentiate itself. Individuals perceive objects; scientists study dynamics; mystics realize unity; theists personify unity.

The problem of self-consciousness before the creation is not solved by suggesting that a timeless creator does not literally preexist his creation. He must exist independently of it and this is enough to make him potentially a subject without objects.

(2) God is believed to be bodiless. An embodied subject identifies itself with one of its objects and therefore can think “I perceive my body and other objects” whereas a bodiless subject without an environment would have nothing to think about. It would be a form without content. Mental properties like knowledge, wisdom, goodness etc, require a context. They are applicable to knowable objects and to discernible, i. e., embodied, other subjects but not to nothing. Goodness is a disposition to act in a particular way towards other beings who therefore necessarily preexist it.

(3) God is believed to be self-conscious yet timeless. However, external objects, necessary for self-consciousness, are conceived to be external only when they are re-perceived, recognized and regarded as having continued to exist even while not being perceived. “I saw that before” presupposes that “I” and “that” have continued to exist independently of each other since the remembered perception. This requires memory, thus the experience of having lived through a period of time.

A single moment of consciousness with no past or future would begin and end simultaneously, thus would be indistinguishable from unconsciousness. God is believed not to begin and end simultaneously but to be beginningless and endless. However, this implies infinite, not zero, time. Timeless consciousness, the temporal equivalent of a mathematically flat plane, is an abstraction whereas the Biblical deity is presented as a concrete individual, with specific characteristics, YHWH, not Baal, acting in history.

(4) Persons, self-conscious individuals, exist only in interpersonal relationships. The Trinity doctrine seems to answer this requirement. However, the doctrine was formulated in order to preserve monotheism despite the deification of God’s son and the personification of his spirit, not in order to explain pre-existent personality, and it raises the additional problem of differentiating between persons who are not spatially distinct. (Similarly, patriarchal monotheism precludes female deities so Mary became not a Mother Goddess but the Mother of God, which sounds like the same thing until it is elucidated.)

(5) Lewis thought that divine existence was logically necessary. However, existential propositions, like “God exists,” are contingent, not tautologous. God’s properties can neither include nor entail existence because existence is not a property but the instantiation of properties. If perfection did entail existence, then a perfect example of every kind of thing for which there is a criterion of perfection would necessarily exist. Empirical research would locate the perfect person, poem, potato etc.

(6) The omnipotent creator of all things other than himself would create all the determinants of our choices and us making those choices and therefore could not consistently condemn us for making such choices. If choices are not determined, then they are random, therefore not morally significant, and God does not create all things other than himself. Because interacting dispositions and circumstances determine  behavior, we are morally accountable to fellow creatures who try to influence our  behavior, but not to a hypothetical creator of all our dispositions and circumstances. Fellow beings can advocate courage or honesty. Our creator could have made us brave or honest.

A father (or ruler) can either allow or prevent his child’s (or subject’s) freedom of choice because he is a more powerful being sharing a common environment governed by regular laws which neither of them created. However, the infinitely powerful creator of us and our environment has already made us the people we are, making the choices we do. He neither allows nor prevents freedom of choice but determines choices. Many theists are, consistently, predestinationists.
People are most predictable when unconstrained. A careful man is one who usually acts carefully. He can act uncharacteristically and unpredictably because we do not know all the factors determining his behavior. God not only knows but creates them. He need not even predict because:

“…God did not create the universe long ago but creates it at this minute – at every minute.” 2

Thus, he creates us doing whatever we are doing at every moment.

I agree with Lewis that:

divine omniscience would not negate human free will because merely knowing what someone does does not make him do it;
eternal omniscience is not temporal prescience;
even prescience would not make anyone do anything.

If a man does A, then it would have been foreknown that he was going to do A. If he does B, then it would have been foreknown that he was going to do B. Foreknowledge that he was going to do B if he in fact does A is logically impossible as is subsequent knowledge that he did B if he in fact did A. However:

eternal omniscience is timeless consciousness, which I do argue is impossible;
I have also argued that omnipotent creation prevents creatures’ freedom in relation to their creator.

(7) Lewis’ defense of theism is invalid. He argues that merely caused beliefs are true only by accident whereas valid inferences are reasoned, not caused, and that an act of knowing must be determined only by what is known, not by past events. He infers that a beginningless “Reason” frees our inferences and acts of knowing from causation. Natural thoughts are at best associative whereas inferential thought is divinely illumined, thus “supernatural.” 3

Reason preceding language and an environment sounds like a square preceding its sides. If an apparent act of knowing is caused only by a series of events acting directly on a conscious being, then there is not necessarily any external object or state of affairs corresponding to what that being seems to know, but, if the series of events brings the subject and object of knowledge into contact, then it does cause the act of knowing.

Conscious organisms are not, like inanimate objects, mere passive recipients of causal determination. Animals process sensory inputs and act accordingly. When our pre-human ancestors began to manipulate and thus to experiment with their environment, their cerebral capacity increased accordingly. Lewis writes:

“…expectations are not inferences and need not be true. The assumption that things which have been conjoined in the past will always be conjoined in the future is the guiding principle not of rational but of animal behavior. Reason comes in precisely when you make the inference ‘Since always conjoined, therefore probably connected’ and go on to attempt the discovery of the connection.” 4

But an environment-manipulating, data-processing, language-using animal, competitively compelled to learn, possessing greater cerebral capacity than other species and already capable of associative thought would be able to make the qualitative leap from mere expectation to attempted discovery. It would begin to anticipate the outcomes of its actions and to adjust its expectations to experience.

Lewis rightly argues that improved vision is not knowledge of light and that improved curiosity or expectation are not inference but ignores the roles of manipulation, cerebral data-processing and qualitative transformation:

organismic sensitivity quantitatively increased until it was qualitatively transformed into conscious sensation;
processing of immediate sensations quantitatively increased until it was qualitatively transformed into perception of discrete objects;
the transition from passive expectation through active curiosity to experimental manipulation is another such qualitative transformation.

The  brain evolved with the hands, reflection with action, theory with practice, mind with body.

When Lewis criticizes his philosophical opponents for being unable to explain how a thought can be both caused by previous events and grounded in another thought, he argues that it is insufficient to suggest that the grounding thought is one of the previous events because no thought causes all the thoughts that can be inferred from it. This is because, when we think a thought, not being mere intellects, we have more to attend to than tracing all its implications. We attend to what concerns or interests us if we are not distracted by more urgent sensory inputs. Once, I was so disturbed by a particular event that it took me two days to realize one of its obvious implications.

Lewis distinguishes sharply between causally determined rationalizations and timelessly valid rationality but surely they are almost inextricably entangled in practice? Many influences prevent most people from reasoning systematically though not from drawing common sense inferences about everyday events. When we do achieve circumstances that enable us to attempt systematic reasoning, then our premises, procedures and probable conclusions are strongly influenced by economics, education etc. A skeptical theologian informs me that, because British University Theology Departments are mainly staffed by people who already accept the tenets of Christianity, they continue to accept evidence for the Resurrection that would not be accepted in History, Sociology, Philosophy or any other academic discipline. Wider recruitment to the study of Biblical texts would change the theological consensus.

A billionaire’s social circumstances and self-interest usually cause him to rationalize capitalism but, in order to do this, he pays experts to analyze relevant evidence and to generate arguments that some regard as valid but others as invalid and that must be considered as arguments, not dismissed as rationalizations. Controversy and experience force the intellectually honest to test and change their ideas and some agreed truths have emerged.

 I know that 1+1=2 not because I have been caused to believe it whether or not it is true but because biological and social causation have produced in me a level of consciousness that can apprehend simple mathematical truths when they are presented to it. Systematic rationality and abstract understanding in logic, mathematics and science have been won in struggle against concrete nature and scriptural authority.

Any process of reasoning is expressed in a set of mutually consistent propositions, at least some of which should be testable against experience. When we want to discredit someone’s reasoning, we try to show that his propositions contradict experience, each other or both. Our wish to discredit him may be irrational. Prejudice may blind us to the truth of his statements. We may respond emotionally to a single word instead of listening carefully to an entire sentence. We may interrupt and simply not hear out a valid argument to its conclusion. We may either not understand an argument or continue to disagree with it even when we do understand it. However, we at least pay lip service to rationality whenever we criticize inconsistency. Consistency between propositions, necessary for communication, is the basis of the “reason” which Lewis argues preceded communication.

Lewis argues that a thought resulting from anything other than an earlier thought has no rational basis. However, my thought that the sun is hot follows only from my experience of the sun and my ability to think. The latter has not always existed. Lewis’ conclusion that its existence depends on an ability to think that has always existed does not follow from his mistaken premise that rational thought must be beginningless first because an ability to think is not a particular thought and secondly because God’s thoughts are not mine. An additional argument is necessary to show how thoughts of mine that do not follow from earlier thoughts of mine can instead follow from earlier thoughts of an invisible being. This is not obvious. My thoughts follow from yours only if you tell me them and I agree with them.

Lewis’ philosophical opponents have not “…given an account of what we thought to be our inferences that suggests that they are not real insights…” or treated reason as a mere phenomenon. 5 Intellect was naturally selected because it enhances life by enabling us to understand natural processes. We do not first find that our insights are useful, then have to prove that they are insights. Inferential ability selected for survival can now be used for more dispassionate research just as opposable thumbs selected for grasping branches can now be used to write philosophy.

Lewis is simply wrong to imply that human loves are valueless if they are biological by-products. They remain human loves, whatever their physical basis. An electric bulb is not valueless because its light source is natural. Why would human ideals be illusions if they had not, somehow, preexisted humanity? 6

Lewis approvingly quotes 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.” 7

Atomic motions in my brain are a scientifically detectable aspect of me as perceived by others. My mental processes are my perceptions of everything else. Of course atomic motions and mental processes differ qualitatively and neither simply causes the other. Dialectical materialists recognize emergent, irreducible levels of being linked by qualitative transformations but Lewis replies only to mechanistic reductionism. (See Zen Marxism) Dialectical materialists say not “Only atoms exist” but “Atoms and reason are two levels of being.”  Lewis mentions the concept of emergent deity but confuses the emergence of new qualities with reduction to previously existing qualities, thus does not really consider “emergence.” 8

He concludes that “…the human mind…is set free…” from causation.

“And the preliminary processes which led up to this liberation, if there were any, were designed to do so.” 9

There were natural processes that led up to human mentality and they explain it. Any design argument for theism needs to be empirical, not a priori. An evolutionary account of the origin of human reason is no more an absurd or nonsensical proof that there are proofs than is the theistic account. We do not prove that there are proofs but explain how there are beings that can understand them.

If God exists, then he is another rational subject, not objective rationality. The latter comprises facts such as that, whenever there are countable items, then one plus one always equals two. 1 + 1 = 2 need not have been thought before the creation and, even if it had been, that thinking of it would not have been what made it valid.


  1. C. S. Lewis, A Preface To Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942, 1967), p. 118.
  2. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947; London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002). P. 288.
  3. ibid, pp. 17-60.
  4. ibid, p. 30.
  5. ibid, p. 32-332.
  6. ibid, p. 54.
  7. ibid, p. 22.
  8. ibid, pp. 45-46.
  9. ibid, pp. 34-35. 



  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I am pleased to see an original argument in favor of atheism on your blog: the argument that a being outside or before the universe could not have consciousness because he encounters no sensory objects of consciousness is one I have never heard any other atheist aside from me to say. Well done.

    Your opening is weak: you rebuke CS Lewis’s observation that if you do not like the Milton’s idea of God it is because you dislike the idea of God per se. You then go on, after sneering at Lewis, to rebuke the idea of God per se, actually proving his point.

    The arguments (1) no self without other (2) no thought without body (3) no consciousness without time, all suffer the same conceptual limitation: they presuppose that the mind of God is like the mind of men and has the same limitations to the causes of thought processes as men do. Anyone not already convinced that the mind of God is like the mind of man will not be convinced by an argument which points out a limitation in human thinking and attributes it to God.

    Argument (4) no persons without other persons suffers from the same limitation, and the additional limit that Christian notions of the Trinity assert all three persons of the trinity existed from eternity, and that therefore the Christian God, at least, has never suffered the isolation in which no self awareness is possible.

    Argument (5) that God is contingent is both a clever argument, and a gratuitous assertion. All mainstream Christian theology concludes that the word ‘God’ is not meaningful unless it applies to a necessary being. The statement ‘God exists’ if God is defined as ‘The being who necessarily must exist in order for any contingent beings to exist’ is in fact a necessary and not a contingent statement. The conclusion about the perfect example of all things existing does not necessarily follow, and, in any case, if he perfect example exists as a Platonic form, or as an idea in the mind of God, or existed once in Eden before the fall, this criterion is satisfied. It is argumentum ad ignorantiam to argue that the perfect man or perfect potato does not exist because you have yet to see him.

    Argument (6) is merely a misstatement of the nature of choice.

    Continued below

  4. Argument (6) is merely a misstatement of the nature of choice.

    The argument you give with no number that God continually creates the universe is based on an assumption of Mohammedan theology Christians do not share (we believe in secondary causes), and, again, simply assumes that the author of the universe cannot take into account and allow his characters freely to choose their own ultimate fate. If an allpowerful being has all power, one of his powers is the power to give power to another being and let him do with it what he will.

    Argument (7) is not rigorous enough to bear refuting. Lewis says reason is the perception of a non-physical connection, such as the law of cause and effect (a law which cannot be seen with the eye) bridging two physical events, the physical cause and the physical effect. The difference between animal and man, says Lewis, is that while an animal can develop a habit or reflex associating a given cause with a given effect, only man can perceive the connecting reality, which is nonphysical and timeless. The rebuttal to this is simply a denial that this is so.

    The argument merely treats with reason in a sloppy, offhand way. Argument (7) is merely a series of gratuitous statements that deny the paradox involved with materialism, namely, that if thoughts are the sole byproduct of nondeliberate irrational atomic processes in our brains, they can have neither truth value nor meaning. The analogy between a lightbulb and love is an irrelevant analogy: the better analogy would be to say that if an Asimov Robot is programmed to protect human owners, the protective emotion the robot allegedly feels is just as valuable as if the robot had free will and had freely consented to love his owner.

    “There were natural processes that led up to human mentality and they explain it. ”

    This statement is simply false. All natural processes can be reduced to expression of fundamental units: mass, length, duration, temperature, current, candlepower, moles of substance. No symbol, not even the simplest, which expresses a quality can be expressed in terms of those seven unit measurements or any combination thereof, for the same reason that no addition of merely horizontal inches can raise one inch vertically.

    Symbols are a relation between thought and object such that a symbol can be true or false, accurate or inaccurate, just or unjust, fair or ugly, and so on.

    These concepts, true, just, fair, are fundamental qualities and cannot be reduced to any expression such as “Truth is when one gram of substance moving at one second per second strikes another gram to produce one degree Celsius of heat.” Whereas emergent properties, such as color or density, can be expressed in these terms. The wavelength of a stop light can be measured precisely: the idea that red “means” stop cannot be measured because “means” means a meaning.

    But all natural processes can be measured and reduced to these fundamental units; human reasoning, abstractions, and symbols cannot be; therefore human reasoning is not a natural process.

  5. Gentlemen,

    Not being a philosopher myself, merely one who respects real philosophy, I'm very glad to see Mr. Wright commenting in this blog. I had more than once recommended his blog to Dr. Shackley.

    Sean M. Brooks