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C. S. Lewis and the “Argument from Reason”: An Examination and Modified Defense, Part II

August 18, 2012

 II.          Hints of the “Argument from Reason”[1] in Lewis’s Works

            Of Lewis’s major philosophical arguments, the “Argument from Reason” is perhaps his most fully developed presentation.[2]  It forms the basis of his entire defense of the possibility of miracles in the book by that name, and is suggested in several of his other major works such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain.  This particular argument, as I have mentioned, is increasingly popular among those, such as John Lennox, who are making it a point to respond to the New Atheist’s movement.  The argument requires some degree of unpacking and to that we must turn to its fullest treatment in Miracles; but before that, we should see how it is suggested—or hinted (or teased?) at—in some of Lewis’s other, more accessible works.[3]


Mere Christianity

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes that one of his major arguments against God was that the world was filled with so much injustice that it seemed impossible to have been created by just and loving God.  Yet, a problem dawns on him:  where do ideas of “justice” and “injustice” come from?  If the entire argument against God’s existence is that the world is unjust (i.e. “The Problem of Evil”), where does one go to find a standard in which to make such a judgment.  Lewis writes, “What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust?”[4]  In a world that is, at bottom, meaningless, one’s personal preference is all that one has to make such a claim, but the entire argument is predicated upon the idea that there is really (objectively so) such a thing as justice and injustice, and not just personal preference.[5]  It is further predicated on the idea that one’s sense of justice and injustice is, in fact, meaningful or “full of sense.”  Yet, if the universe is, itself, meaningless or “senseless,” then to use “sense” (or more accurately, to believe that one’s own view makes sense) to prove it so (i.e. reasoning), is itself, nonsensical.  Lewis’ own words are worthy of citing here:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.  Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  Dark would be a word without meaning. [6]

Though only a brief sketch of an argument, it is clear that Lewis is beginning to make the case that the idea humans can reason and make sense of things, that is, to discover meaning, is irreconcilable with a view of the universe that claims that the universe is meaningless.  To go further, to reason toward such a view (i.e. Naturalism) undercuts the view in the first place.  This will be explained more fully in Miracles.


The Problem of Pain

Lewis makes almost the identical case in his treatment of The Problem of Pain.  In acknowledging the force of the “pessimists” view that the universe is filled with pain, suffering, and could not, therefore, be the design of an omnipotent and benevolent creator, Lewis writes:

There was one question which I never dreamed of raising.  I never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists’ case at once poses us a problem.  If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activeity of a wise and good Creator…The direct inference from black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief [emphasis mine].[7]

The point here is far less precise than even in Mere Christianity; nevertheless, one can see the hints at the argument even here.  How did mankind ever infer—or reason to—a good creator from the evidence provided by the universe?  Implied here is the further question:  how does one infer to a wise creator, if the world is in fact senseless?  The Argument from Reason in Miracles simply flips the question:  How does a product of the universe (i.e. human being) infer to a senseless universe (i.e. Naturalism) by an argument based on inference?  It is the same as saying, “I reason that there is no reason.”


The Abolition of Man

Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is a tour-de-force in the defense of objective moral values.  Though Lewis writes about objective moral values in most of his writings to some degree or another, in this work he makes an extended argument that unless we accept a Tao—a way or set of objective values that transcends nature—we undercut any value system we try to create ourselves.  Again, like The Problem of Pain, though the suggestion to the Argument from Reason is brief—and vague—Lewis nonetheless mentions it in passing.

For example, while defending objective values, Lewis at various times discusses the effect of the scientific enterprise that attempts to provide natural explanations to everything.  He acknowledges that many will accuse him of attacking science itself, to which he responds:  “I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut.”[8]  In other words, according to Lewis, without some appeal to a transcendent source, the value of knowledge—which is valuable through the process of reasoning—is undercut.  Put differently, knowledge (of the reasoning kind) is intrinsically valuable when it is grounded in a transcendent source; it is valueless (and meaningless) if it is merely a product of nature.  Lewis, thus, ends this work by imploring his listeners[9] to consider the danger of embracing a naturalism that seeks to explain everything in naturalistic terms:  “You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.”[10]  This reference to explaining away “explanation itself” is a small, but clear reference to the Argument from Reason.  With these acknowledgments of the argument’s abbreviated occurrences in Lewis’s major works, we now turn to his full length treatment of it in his work Miracles.

[1] I choose to follow the lead of Beversluis, and title Lewis’s presentation of this argument, as the “Argument from Reason.”  I do not believe Lewis every gives such a title, but for referencing, I will.

[2] It could be argued that based on the totality of his works, Lewis’ version of the Moral Argument is the most fully developed.  Still, I find the level of rigor used to develop the Argument from Reason in Miracles to be greater than his development of the Moral Argument, though the Moral Argument appears more frequently and in more detail across his works.

[3] In surveying Lewis’ major works, it is my opinion that Lewis “sprinkles” his major arguments  throughout all of his works, but deals with each of them fully in, at least, one work.  In other words, Lewis will take an argument such as the Argument from Reason and develop it fully in a book like Miracles (or his version of the Moral Argument and develop it fully in The Abolition of Man), but then reference them throughout his other works.  These references then serve a sort of footnote to his major work on the subject.  I mention this because Lewis is often criticized for quickly and superficially presenting an argument without treating it rigorously.  I think this is incorrect however.  Rather his quick “mentions” or hints of the argument serve as glimpses of the full treatment of the argument given elsewhere.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 30.

[5] This continues his treatment of objective morality.

[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 30.

[7] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 374.

[8] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 489.

[9] This work was originally a series of lectures.

[10] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 490.

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