Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mere Assertions - Part One

When my ex-girlfriend gave me an extract of C.S. Lewis' notorious apologetic book "Mere Christianity", I wasn't impressed with his arguments based on what I knew. One year on, long since I have talked to my ex, and after a year of almost constant study, I've decided to read the entire book and investigate the claims made in detail.


Lewis sweeps under the carpet all the different denominations of Christianity as if this difference were not an issue. These differences are an issue with those who do not believe. The argument from incoherency is a problem for both exclusive (only our denomination is saved) and non-exclusive (all Christians are saved) branches of Christianity.
the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts.
Unfortunately this isn't good enough Mr Lewis. How then are we supposed to know which is the "true path" when even the "real experts" cannot tell us? If certain interpretations are to be believed, the incorrect Christian religion has ones soul at danger. This is merely embarrassing.

I will leave this issue alone for the moment, until it pops up later.

Book I. Right and Wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.
1. The Law of Human Nature

The chapter heading reveals Lewis' bias. He doesn't pose it as a question but merely asserts it. He doesn't argue this chapter from the point of view of a sceptic, but from someone who is already familiar with Christianity and how Christianity answers these questions. This presumptuousness gets in the way of Lewis argument and turns it into preaching.
None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature.
This is the old tired Christian chestnut that we are all sinners and deep down we know it.

Lewis' moral argument is merely an argument from ignorance.
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.
If Lewis knew about evolutionary theory he would know why these countries would be less successful than countries with the opposing characteristics. The urge is therefore nothing but characteristics honed through evolution. Countries of cowards would be overrun by those who are violent and double-crosses could not form a society where people work for the benefit of all. He is merely highlighting those innate characteristics that have been formed over millions of years of tough struggle - survival of the fittest.

It is no wonder that Christians like to ignore or deny evolution. It answers the moral question sufficiently. For those who believe evolution was guided by God, apart from being a concession to science, it also posits a cruel God whose method of honing a moral law is sufferring and survival of the fittest.

2. Some Objections

Lewis attempts to answer the skeptic who hasn't fallen for his mere assertion.
Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law.
This sounds promising. He accepts that many of our behaviours are instinctual but claims the Moral Law is not - he will of course have to prove that this isn't special pleading.
But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not.
I see no difference between the two. A desire biases our decision making towards either "do something" or "do nothing". This desire produces the ought. If Lewis is arguing that somehow the physical feeling produces a metaphysical ought, he has a lot of work to do to show this is the case!

To use Lewis' argumentative style I am going to argue by analogy. A desire to eat is the same as the feeling that you ought to eat because the desire is (abstractly) sending the message "eat or die". A human who did not have this desire would mistakenly die! This is why evolution has honed the desire to produce the ought.
You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.
Interestingly if you set up an experiment where two monkeys are in two cages adjacent to each other and the act of one monkey eating produces a shock in the other monkey - the first monkey will refuse to eat (to the point of almost dying) rather than let his fellow primate suffer. The monkey ought to eat, which would be in its best interest - but does not act on this compulsion. Clearly an example of selflessness. The Christian would need to conclude that God gave the monkey a moral law too!

If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality,
This statement is rather infuriating. There are countless examples in the past where "civilised" people felt justified in killing "savages" and even taking their children from their parents for "their own good". Recently the Australian government apologised to the children of the "Stolen Generation" because the "civilised" Australians took children away from their "savage" parents. What were the Australian's apologising for? Lewis claims they were justified in doing what they did because they were morally superior! This is merely mite versus right dressed up as morality.

If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something-some Real Morality-for them to be true about.
I agree with Lewis here. Except we differ on what this "something" is. The Nazi's were missing information. The real tragedy of the holocaust was due to absolute morality and the inability to apply reason and inquiry.

If Hitler were a rational human, we could bring him to a table and show him the information that
a) The Jews are human
b) There is no such thing as an ideal race (its arguable whether races exist or not)
c) Homogeneous races (or sets of populations) are bad for genetic diversity

He would therefore agree with us and believe his plan was not the correct thing to do. This is applying scientific conclusions to show that we were right in our condemnation of Hitler and his actions.

But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.
Another infuriating message from someone who believes in a bible which says that a man should not suffer a witch to live. (Exodus 22:18)

if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
Lewis is saying that if we believe witches exist then it is correct to kill them. Lewis has hit the nail on the head as to why absolute morals lead to witch burning and Nazism - but he uses this as an argument FOR absolute morals! Incredible.

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