Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Short Analysis of an Essay by C.S. Lewis

I just read an essay by C.S. Lewis on Living in an Atomic Age where he address the topic of what is the world to do with the possibility of reaching an cataclysmic end of all life. He questions the reader on what they thought of the world prior to the advent of the atomic bomb. He further responds that if nature -- the time space matter system-- is truly running down and on its way to extinction anyway then what is being proposed as potential is an event happening by the hand of humanity prior to its natural end. While this would be catastrophic, he says that those who believe it was going to happen sooner or later has only had their time line moved up. He then deals with the question of nature and whether it is all there is or of it there is something more behind it that might give hope for humanity.

He writes to the naturalist (the one seeing nature as all there is and lacking in real meaning and purpose):

"You can't, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atom, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behaviour of your genes. You can't go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you only like it because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it."

He also writes that "If Nature when full known seems to teach us (that is, if the sciences teach us) that our minds are chance arrangements of atoms, then there must have been some mistake; for if that were so, then sciences themselves would be chance arrangements of atoms and we should have no reason for believing in them."

Moreover he writes, "All Naturalism leads us to this in the end- to quite final and hopeless discord between what our minds claim to be and what they really must be if Naturalism is true."

Naturalist must either choose to live in accordance with their philosophy and accept the meaninglessness of all our experiences, or meaninglessness must be rejected and life lived contrary to that reality. If the latter is possible, and more desirable, could it be that the latter has more merit because it it closer to the truth than the former?

Lewis opines that, "the very ground on which we defy Nature crumbles under our feet. The standard we are applying is tainted at the source. If our standards are derived from this meaningless universe they must be as meaningless as it." Thus we have not escaped into something better for better has no meaning for as Peter Kreeft writes "without an unchanging goal you cannot judge any change as progress. So you can have no hope."

If there is nothing unchanging by which to anchor our standard of life then there is no progress made no matter what way we chose to live, nothing gets in reality any better for all semblance of "better" is a mirage. But there is hope, one can give up the mirage of "better" for the authentic "better" which is eternally rooted outside nature.

Excerpts are from "On Living in an Atomic Age" an essay by C.S. Lewis reprinted in Present Concerns edited by Walter Hooper

48 comments:

CyberKitten said...

I hardly know where to start....

Maybe with the continued confusion of Lewis being thought of as a great thinker.......

Karla said...

It probably would be much more helpful if I could post the entire essay, but copyrights won't permit that. I pulled out key quotes instead, but it loses something without the context.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"I hardly know where to start....

Maybe with the continued confusion of Lewis being thought of as a great thinker......."

Even Lewis didn't think he was a great thinker as I recall.

CyberKitten said...

mike said: Even Lewis didn't think he was a great thinker as I recall.

Well, at least he was right about that!

Karla said...

I don't see what you do. I thoroughly enjoy reading Lewis. I think he had incredible insight and very sharp thinking. I've read almost every book he ever wrote as well as letters and essays.

I definitely do not always understand him. He uses allusions to books I have never read and uses Latin phrases I do not know. But that's just more of his brilliance.

I think it was his humility that he didn't think much of his own thinking.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: I thoroughly enjoy reading Lewis. I think he had incredible insight and very sharp thinking.

I was leant a copy of 'Mere Christianity' by a Christian @ work in order to influence me on the subject. I managed to get about 1/4 way through it before I had to give it back as unreadable. I thought both his arguments and style were very poor.

karla said: He uses allusions to books I have never read and uses Latin phrases I do not know. But that's just more of his brilliance.

I have no issue with an author referring to books I haven't read - as long as they are cited so I can read them too (its often how I investigate a subject much more deeply) but I do object when a modern author uses foreign words or phrases without translating the text either in the body of the book or at least as a footnote. To not translate is either a sign that the autor is being exclusive or careless. I forgive older authors - back in the 19th or 18th centuries - for doing so but 20th century authors should know better.

cl said...

I like the bit about the natural end in the opening paragraph, it's something that pops into my head every now and again, too. OTOH, I would disagree with Lewis that a materialist worldview necessarily precludes genuine experiences in love or music.

Yet, when he writes, "All Naturalism leads us to this in the end- to quite final and hopeless discord between what our minds claim to be and what they really must be if Naturalism is true[,]"

I think that's quite the unavoidable truth for all materialists.

I think I'd have to pretty much disagree with your final paragraphs, though. Even if we reject all propositions of God, how does this reduce "better" to a mirage? It might mean that we presume humanity to be the measure of all things, then end up with the unavoidable "arbitrary morality" that would result, but even then, to imply that "better" is a mirage without God or an unchanging standard just doesn't make sense to me. For me, with or without God, it's hard to think of a potential definition of "better" that would prefer unjustified taking of life.

CyberKitten said...

cl said: I think that's quite the unavoidable truth for all materialists.

Really? As we still don't know how the mind works - and certainly didn't know when Lewis wrote those words - its difficult to credit his statement with *any* validity. He is clearly basing his conclusions on an understanding we have yet to achieve.

cl said: I would disagree with Lewis that a materialist worldview necessarily precludes genuine experiences in love or music.

Agreed. It was a nonsensical statement.

karla quoted Lewis: If Nature when full known seems to teach us (that is, if the sciences teach us) that our minds are chance arrangements of atoms....

You see... this is where his whole argument falls apart... The mind is not a "chance arrangements of atoms" it's the product of 4 billion years of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is *not*, I repeat *not* a random process! Also atoms do *not* behave in a random fashion. If they did not only would life be impossible but even if we could somehow see into a universe where such conditions did exist it would be completely incomprehensible to us. Without atoms behaving in a regular and understandable way then physics and chemistry would be impossible.

The common mistake people like Lewis seem to persist in making is that the opposite of planned (as in God) is random. No it isn't! The opposite of planned is UN-planned. This does *not* mean random!

Natural explanations for the existence of the universe, life, and everything does *not* preclude the existence of love, music or saturday night football. Only those who believe in the so-called supernatural think such things. There is nothing particularly mysterious about me being able to love my cat, my car or my girlfriend. Likewise there is nothing mystical about my liking of Mozart or Bach (or Nirvana for that matter).

karla quoted Lewis: If our standards are derived from this meaningless universe they must be as meaningless as it.

....and? The universe is indeed meaningless - in that it has no overarching meaning. Life has no ultimate meaning. Our standards are human and subjective, changing over time and from place to place. There is no external standard because there is no external place for such a standard to exist. I do not have a problem with any of the above.

Karla said...

Cyber,

Lewis's audience was actually the commoner of his day and not the academic. Our, or I should say "my", inability to understand his use of Latin without translation is telling of how different our education is today than in those days. 50 years ago makes a big difference.

But just the same, you don't have to like Lewis. I still will forever and he does take some getting used to. Also his worldview is very different from yours so I would imagine that would make it a more difficult read in and of itself. I share his worldview for the most part and yet I don't always grasp his point the first time around because his intellectual prowess way surpasses my knowledge. But that's just my opinion.

Karla said...

CL, there has to be an unchanging standard to measure something and come up with degrees of "better" or "worse". Is there anything in nature, including man that is such a standard?

cl said...

Karla,

"CL, there has to be an unchanging standard to measure something and come up with degrees of "better" or "worse". Is there anything in nature, including man that is such a standard?"

There doesn't, though. This is what you and GCT went round and round on to no end. My position - which I recall you agreeing with - was that there is no middle ground between objective and absolute morality, meaning that there is either an unchanging standard that is what it is regardless of our word (i.e. God) or an arbitrary standard that is what we say it is.

Still, standards of measurement change and are really just verbal cues we use to categorize and communicate intervals of feelings, matter, time and space. "Better" is a feeling or state of affairs in which the "good" or positive outweighs the "bad" or negative (I know those words open up their own cans of worms, too, but for the sake of this minor discussion let's put that major one on hold). So - although we can certainly derive benefit, meaning, or real value from privation - generally speaking, health and happiness are "better" or more conducive to life than sickness and suffering, and this seems true whether God exists or not. The whole concept of "better" or "good" relates to what's most conducive to our peaceful proliferation and stewardship of this planet, but that presupposes everybody shares that as the primary virtue.

So, though I believe, I'm arguing that "better" has a definitive meaning with or without God.

CyberKitten,

"[Lewis] is clearly basing his conclusions on an understanding we have yet to achieve."

No, he reasons cogently from sound scientific principle, and his estimation holds as much now as it did then: if naturalism is true, then there *is* a quite final and hopeless discord between what our minds perceive themselves to be and what they really are.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: Lewis's audience was actually the commoner of his day and not the academic.

I'm almost old enough and certainly common enough to asure you that the majority of the population were not generally exposed to Latin in school 50 years ago. I recall that the Catholic Mass was switched to English in the 1960's precisely because very few could understand it.

CyberKitten said...

cl said: a quite final and hopeless discord between what our minds perceive themselves to be and what they really are.

But..... there is no agreement on what our minds 'perceive themselves to be' and there is no clear understanding of what they 'really are' so how can any judgement or confident statement be made?

Any 'discord' between the two is inevitably surrounded by multiple unknowns. How then can we say with confidence what kind of discord exists (if any). Were the mind is concerned we are in a world of speculation and conjecture. That is all we can say on the subject - as far as I am aware.....

cl said...

"But..... there is no agreement on what our minds 'perceive themselves to be'"

Do you perceive yourself to be autonomous being, meaning that at any given moment, you can will yourself to do that which is not beyond your current means?

CyberKitten said...

cl said: Do you perceive yourself to be autonomous being, meaning that at any given moment, you can will yourself to do that which is not beyond your current means?

Yes.

cl said...

"Yes."

Me too, and this means we agree on what our minds perceive themselves to be. The only difference is, the believer's worldview coheres with that fact, while the naturalist's worldview is in discord with it - exactly as Lewis described.

cl said...

As for,

"..there is no clear understanding of what they 'really are' so how can any judgement or confident statement be made?"

You gotta get consistent here. Every day, atheists use variations of the "consciousness is just a neural dance" argument to ostensibly refute anything even remotely reminiscent of Cartesian dualism. If there's no clear understanding, then why do so many atheists state their ultimately materialistic views of consciousness and existence with such confidence?

CyberKitten said...

cl said: the believer's worldview coheres with that fact, while the naturalist's worldview is in discord with it..

How so? I am a Naturalist and I believe that I have Free Will. To me there is no discord here....

CyberKitten said...

cl said: If there's no clear understanding, then why do so many atheists state their ultimately materialistic views of consciousness and existence with such confidence?

Because they are strongly held opinions.... presumably held with a degree of confidence.... certainly enough confidence to hold the views that they do.....

Personally, as I have said more than once, I am 'certain' of very little.... This does not mean that I cannot have opinions (or beliefs) about things - including the nature of minds...

cl said...

The point was to undermine your appeal to non-agreement. The larger point is that if consciousness is just a neural dance, the free will you think you have is an illusion.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"The larger point is that if consciousness is just a neural dance, the free will you think you have is an illusion."

How is that not a non sequiter?

cl said...

Mike,

Because Lewis' claim that CK dismissed was, "All Naturalism leads us to this in the end- to quite final and hopeless discord between what our minds claim to be and what they really must be if Naturalism is true."

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Yes, now explain how that's not a non sequiter.

"If we are only biological we have no free will" doesn't make any sense to me.

CyberKitten said...

mike said: "If we are only biological we have no free will" doesn't make any sense to me.

Ditto. I don't need a supernatural explanation for my Free Will.

cl said...

Naturalism claims thought is a mere by-product of matter. If that's true, decisions become illusory but incredibly well-timed forethoughts that somehow perfectly precede their correspondent acts. That's not autonomy, rather, being taken along for a molecular ride.

CyberKitten said...

cl said: That's not autonomy, rather, being taken along for a molecular ride.

I don't agree. Naturalism does not, at least to me, preclude autonomy in any way. I see no reason to suppose that our minds are anything more than the product of activities in our brains. Just because they are meat and electricity doesn't mean we are either robots or puppets. Because we are self-aware, which is probably the result of our brain's complexity, we can see alternative actions and decide what to do to achieve our aims and desires. We have the ability because of that to make choices. In other words we have Free Will. It is not that great a mystery.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I agree with CyberKitten.

Karla said...

CL "Naturalism claims thought is a mere by-product of matter. If that's true, decisions become illusory but incredibly well-timed forethoughts that somehow perfectly precede their correspondent acts. That's not autonomy, rather, being taken along for a molecular ride."

Well put.

Karla said...

Cyber "I don't agree. Naturalism does not, at least to me, preclude autonomy in any way. I see no reason to suppose that our minds are anything more than the product of activities in our brains. Just because they are meat and electricity doesn't mean we are either robots or puppets. Because we are self-aware, which is probably the result of our brain's complexity, we can see alternative actions and decide what to do to achieve our aims and desires. We have the ability because of that to make choices. In other words we have Free Will. It is not that great a mystery."

It appears we have that ability, but if Naturalism is true that "free will" that ability to choose is an illusion, hence the discord.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: It appears we have that ability, but if Naturalism is true that "free will" that ability to choose is an illusion, hence the discord.

But why is it an illusion? What is it about a natural explanation for brain function that precludes Free Will? Why must the mind be supernatural in order to be free to choose?

To me, and Mike, that makes no sense. I see no discord between naturalism and free will.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Saying "free will is an illusion if naturalism is true" doesn't make it so.

CL stated it very well with his "Naturalism claims thought is a mere by-product of matter..." paragraph, but it's essentially the same statement.

Karla said...

Cyber "I'm almost old enough and certainly common enough to asure you that the majority of the population were not generally exposed to Latin in school 50 years ago. I recall that the Catholic Mass was switched to English in the 1960's precisely because very few could understand it."

Lewis's generation would have been adults not children. Their schooling would have been a good 30 to 40 years prior.

Karla said...

CL “There doesn't, though. This is what you and GCT went round and round on to no end. My position - which I recall you agreeing with - was that there is no middle ground between objective and absolute morality, meaning that there is either an unchanging standard that is what it is regardless of our word (i.e. God) or an arbitrary standard that is what we say it is.”

I’m with you so far.



CL “Still, standards of measurement change and are really just verbal cues we use to categorize and communicate intervals of feelings, matter, time and space. "Better" is a feeling or state of affairs in which the "good" or positive outweighs the "bad" or negative (I know those words open up their own cans of worms, too, but for the sake of this minor discussion let's put that major one on hold). So - although we can certainly derive benefit, meaning, or real value from privation - generally speaking, health and happiness are "better" or more conducive to life than sickness and suffering, and this seems true whether God exists or not.”


We have to have some standard outside health and happiness to judge that health and happiness are “better” than “sickness and suffering.” Otherwise we are only left with our feelings of preference – liking one over the other—we cannot go further to say that one is truly better than the other without something existing outside both by which we can make such a judgment.

CL “The whole concept of "better" or "good" relates to what's most conducive to our peaceful proliferation and stewardship of this planet, but that presupposes everybody shares that as the primary virtue.”

Yes it presupposes a lot. If there isn’t any anchor of goodness outside us by which we can judge one thing better than another then there is no way one can honestly say that a person who does not value life is not as good as one who does. If life is a combination of atoms the one who sees no real value in it would seem to be more congruent to naturalism than the one who maintains its value. (This is outside of personal preference and feelings—of course we are going to value our own preservation and our own happiness, but that’s because we like ourselves do not wish to experience harm or death).


CL “So, though I believe, I'm arguing that "better" has a definitive meaning with or without God.”

I still don’t see how. I see it only having meaning in a context of feelings and preferences and not by anything definitive or true.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: Lewis's generation would have been adults not children. Their schooling would have been a good 30 to 40 years prior.

I think my point stands. Very few schools would have formally taught Latin in the 1920's and 1930's. Only the 'upper classes' would have been taught it in school to such a degree that they could read it 30-40 years later without the need of a reference book. Back then the working class would've left school at 12-14 and I seriously doubt if they'd ever come across any Latin except in a Catholic Church or as an inscription over a public building.

Karla said...

Cyber "I think my point stands. Very few schools would have formally taught Latin in the 1920's and 1930's. Only the 'upper classes' would have been taught it in school to such a degree that they could read it 30-40 years later without the need of a reference book. Back then the working class would've left school at 12-14 and I seriously doubt if they'd ever come across any Latin except in a Catholic Church or as an inscription over a public building."

Okay. You seem to have more expertise on that than I.

cl said...

Karla,

"I’m with you so far."

Actually, I made a mistake in that paragraph. The sentence that read, "..there is no middle ground between objective and absolute morality" should actually read, "..there is no middle ground between objective and subjective morality.

That said, are you still with me? Meaning, that there is either an unchanging standard that is what it is regardless of our word (i.e. God) or an arbitrary standard that is what we say it is?

I think you are, I just wasn't sure whether you caught my mistake and knew what I meant to say, or were actually agreeing to what the mistake implied. Once I hear that, I'll get back to the rest of the comment.

cl said...

"CL stated it very well with his "Naturalism claims thought is a mere by-product of matter..." paragraph, but it's essentially the same statement."

Well thanks, but I'm afraid the impact has fallen by the wayside.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

CL, what it comes down to is our perceptions. Atheists and theists look at the same evidence and one group finds it convincing while the other does not.

That's the main reason I've always found God arguments to be useless to me.

cl said...

Mike,

I agree. This might sound weird, but God arguments are pretty much useless for me, too. I don't need another human's permission to believe in anything. I think and decide for myself. I didn't become a believer because of arguments for God.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

CL, they were useless to me too, when I was a believer, for similar reasons.

CyberKitten said...

mike said: That's the main reason I've always found God arguments to be useless to me.

cl said: This might sound weird, but God arguments are pretty much useless for me, too.

At last - something we can all agree on!

cl said...

CK,

Oh come on, don't exaggerate: we all agreed on Karla's "Chivalry" post too.

:)

cl said...

Karla,

I'm still interested, and that's just a cordial reminder, not a complaint.

CK / Mike:

You've both made the positive claim that free will is compatible with Naturalism. As you know, my position - at least provisionally - is that you're incorrect. However, I'm actually quite interested in the supporting evidence for the claim that free will is compatible with Naturalism, and we should probably agree on definitions if we decide to pursue this further.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"You've both made the positive claim that free will is compatible with Naturalism."

I think my claim was more I don't see it as being incompatible. I just don't follow the logic, it truly does appear to be a non sequitur to me, and not just because I like saying "non sequitur". ;-)

Karla said...

CL "Meaning, that there is either an unchanging standard that is what it is regardless of our word (i.e. God) or an arbitrary standard that is what we say it is?"

Yes. Agreed. Sorry I forgot to get back to you.

boomSLANG said...

Karla: It appears we have that ability, but if Naturalism is true that "free will" that ability to choose is an illusion, hence the discord.

'Strongly disagree. Of course, if Naturalism is true, "free will" does have limitations. If I encounter a bear in the woods, I most certainly have the natural(built-in) abilty to choose to get out of harm's way, as opposed to just standing there. To have this ability ensures my survival. On the other hand, I can't simply "choose" to sprout wings and fly away like a bird, which, if I was a bird, my chances of getting out of harm's way are even greater than as a hominid.

That these "thoughts" that ensure my survival are a "byproduct of matter"(or, generated by a material brain), doesn't mean that said "thoughts" aren't really there, as in, that they are "illusion". In fact, if a super-natural being exists and knows the future outcome of every event, then this is when "free will" becomes an "illusion".

Karla said...

BoomSlang "That these "thoughts" that ensure my survival are a "byproduct of matter"(or, generated by a material brain), doesn't mean that said "thoughts" aren't really there, as in, that they are "illusion". In fact, if a super-natural being exists and knows the future outcome of every event, then this is when "free will" becomes an "illusion"."


They (thoughts) would be really there, but if our ability to reason isn't supernaturally distinct from the animal instinct then how are we really doing anything outside of what nature has disposed us to do?

boomSLANG said...

Karla: They (thoughts) would be really there...

Good. Agreement. So then, said thoughts aren't "illusory", as you previously suggested.

continues...but if our ability to reason isn't supernaturally distinct from the animal instinct then how are we really doing anything outside of what nature has disposed us to do?

Why can't our thoughts be naturally distinct from lower organisms? The thoughts of apes are surely naturally "distinct" from those of a lizard, yes? Moreover, we know that some lower organisms are capable of the sames types of emotions as homosapiens, to include, empathy, love, pain, etc. To argue that all living things, sans homosapiens, aren't "really doing anything" simply because they aren't "supernatural" beings, is nonsequitur.