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Mere Christianity: Book One

I know everyone has been waiting with bated breath for me to post more long religious posts, so here’s the first part of my review of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

Book One deals with establishing the existence of a higher power (not God per se, as Lewis notes). It’s fairly short at just 32 pages, but there’s plenty in there. Let’s begin.

The first chapter establishes what Lewis calls the “Law of Human Nature.” Essentially, all human beings intuitively have a sense of right and wrong that they don’t always follow. He dismisses differences in morals between cultures as insignificant.

There’s not much to disagree with there. We do have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, no matter if you believe there are ultimate moral truths about such things. We feel, but can be convinced otherwise, that way in any case. The next chapter is where the fun begins.

The obvious objection to Lewis’s point as an argument for a higher power is that such feelings are programmed into our brains through evolution. Lewis sort of counters this is at the beginning of the chapter:

For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?” Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct-by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires-one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say the sheet music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one of the notes on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

I have to say, I don’t find this convincing at all. Ignoring the simplistic view of our mind as governed by instincts, Lewis seems unable to consider more than two “instincts” acting at once. Is it not possible that the situation is actually that there are three instincts, (survival, herd, moral obligation), two of which lead to the same action, outweighing the other? Rather than one choosing between the others, it simply shifts the balance. This doesn’t appear to be a strong argument that the “Moral Law” is anything more interesting than programming in our brain.

Another possible refutation comes from a fairly famous neuroscience experiment:

In one version of the trolley problem, a run-away train (or trolley) is hurtling towards five people who are unknowingly in its path, and who will certainly be killed unless the trolley is diverted. You can flip a switch and cause the trolley to change tracks. On the other set of tracks, there is one person who will be killed if you flip the switch. Should you flip the switch? In another version, the trolley is heading towards the same five people, but instead of flipping a switch, the only way to divert the trolley is to through a large man onto the tracks in front of it. Should you do so? Most people answer yes to the first dilemma, and no to the second. The difference between these two problems, according to Greene et al., is that the first problem is impersonal, and the second personal.

Consistent with their distinction, they found two distinct activation patterns for personal and impersonal moral stimuli. The personal moral stimuli, like the second version of the trolley problem, caused activation in several of the areas that were active in Moll’s studies, including the medial frontal gyrus, posterior cingulate gyrus, angular gyrus, and the superior temporal sulcus, areas associated with affect. The impersonal moral stimuli, however, showed activation in areas that are active during cognitive tasks, particularly those involving working memory, but less active during emotional responses, including the middle frontal gyrus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and parietal lobe. These areas were also active in the processing of nonmoral social stimuli.

Perhaps you’re wondering about the relevance of all this. What would we expect in terms of brain activity according to Lewis’s view. Two moral decisions that are the same except in the type of moral decision should show the essentially the same brain activity, since the “Moral Law” is the decision maker and outside the brain. That’s how I’d interpret it, at least. That’s not what we see, though. So, that seems to cast doubt on Lewis’s argument. This is a pretty esoteric argument, but I thought it was kind of interesting (the experiment is interesting, at least).

Lewis goes on to make a strange argument:

If the Moral Law was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call “good,” always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell use to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage.

That’s all the justification he gives. I hope I’m not the only one who’s confused. A quick search doesn’t lead to any explanations, either. Why should there be an always good impulse if there’s a moral instinct? I’m baffled.

Lewis next argues against morality being social convention, which I have no interest in arguing against. After that, he tries to make the leap from Moral Law to higher power:

If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe-no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions? In the only case where you can expect to get an answer, the answer turns out to be Yes; and in the other cases, where you do not get an answer, you see why you do not.

The idea that God can’t manifest Himself in the material world is absurd. The Bible flatly contradicts this on almost every page: booming voices from the sky, Jesus, visions, etc. So, Lewis is assuming something his own beliefs contradict. Even if we accept Lewis’s assumption, his conclusion simply doesn’t follow. Maybe a “Moral Law” is consistent with God, but simply doesn’t imply that it’s actually due to Him. You may as well say, if God existed he would create the universe and the universe exists, so so must God. I’m not impressed.

That’s about it for the interesting stuff. Lewis completely fails at providing us an convincing argument that a higher power exists. I’m actually sort of surprised that this book is so highly thought of, going by what I’ve read so far. Lewis was no doubt a brilliant writer, but his argument for a higher power leaves much to be desired.

Categories: Religion
  1. rob
    November 3, 2005 at 10:27 am

    If your first comment was sarcastic, it needn’t have been; I have, at least 🙂

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