Thursday, 13 March 2014

C. S. Lewis vs the New Atheists

It is well known that the new atheists don't really have the strongest arguments. In Dawkins' The God Delusion his misses the point about the good Samaritan being a Samaritan and his ultimate Boeing 747 argument against god, argues against the probability of a complex god. Which is no problem for a Christian since Christianity also doesn't hold to a complex god, but rather a simple one. In Hitchen's God is not Great, he argues against religions and religious people, unless they do something that he also likes. Sam Harris would have us not to lie in one book, but in another say that we actually can not help it. Laurence Kruss argues that this universe came from nothing- assuming there was an infinite amount of matter and universes before this one.

These above points are obvious to me, who really is just a layman. In C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists, philosopher Peter S. Williams cuts deep into the new atheists arguments at their presuppositions, showing that under their own weight they can not stand; mostly using arguments from Lewis that are 50 years old - well before these popular books were even written. The book does present an interesting idea: what if the new atheists had only read some recent history on their arguments and the arguments against it? Would they have kept their arguments, or sharpened them, or even changed their mind entirely? Who knows, but judging by how popular they are, it is evident that lay people like myself also don't know about the arguments for or against their ideas.

The first chapter of this book (free preview here) shows Lewis's arguments against god when he was an atheist. He sounds quite like the modern guys: the universe is made up of random chance, is unfeeling and unfriendly and that religions can be explained away as psychological constructs for primitive societies to understand the world. But over the years Lewis' position changed from idealism, to pantheism, to theism to Christianity, and the rest of the book kinda trances some of the key arguments that took Lewis on this journey.

Logical Positivism & Scientism
Logical Positivism and scientism is discussed in the next chapter. Logical positivism was a movement in Lewis day that said if something was not true by definition (2 + 2 = 4) or could be empirically verifiable then it is meaningless. Sounds OK so far... So statements like "God exits" can not be empirically verifiable, so it is meaningless to say so (lets not also point out that by their same standards that to say "god doesn't exist" also is meaningless). The big issues comes when you apply this to logical positivism itself. Show me, empirically, that if something can not be empirically verifiable that it is meaningless. Oh you can't? Logical positivism, by its own standards turns out to be meaningless. Doh! Even A. J. Ayer, who was a big supporter of this movement said afterwards in 1973 that it was "defective" and full of mistakes. He even wrote it an obituary.

Scientism has arisen from logical positivism, so it has learned not to make so wide a sweeping claim about knowledge, but it still promotes scientific knowledge above all other knowledge (don't tell an art or history student this). The new atheists seem to be of this ilk, some harder, some weaker. (Although Kruss has been accused of still subscribing, or coming very close to, logical positivism.) Lewis pointed out that no one lives their day-to-day life using scientific language, that is, language that is very precise but only covers a narrow range of experiences. Instead we mainly use Ordinary language to convey meaning whereas Scientific (and Poetical) language is but a subset of life, not the whole.

Argument from Desire
The book then moves to some so-called "traditional" arguments for God. Before looking at the Argument from Desire, it examines the new atheists dealing with these arguments. Pretty much only Dawkins comes close to looking at them, but even then he uses about 10 pages of only a few of the classical arguments and does not even quote them from its primary source, so produces a caricature of the argument which no philosopher holds to. (A little aside: if you say the cosmological argument starts with the premise "everything has a cause" then you don't know the cosmological argument and you need to read this long article before you speak of it again).

In the chapter on the Argument from Desire I found the argument a little weak. I might not have understood it, but it didn't feel like a powerful argument. The book even even said it isn't air tight, just that it might have a high degree of probability. The argument goes like this:
1 - Every innate desire points to a corresponding object of satisfaction
2 - We have innate desires that only God could satisfy
3 - Therefore, God exits.

If nature doesn't make us desire anything that does not exist, then why is it that we desire God, or we want our life to have meaning? The book also presents seven objections to this argument and after reading those, which responded to them, I found the argument only a little more sound. The next argument in the book I found more convincing.

Argument from Reason
Sometime before 2007 I once tried to read, C.S Lewis's Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert which was about the Argument from Reason. I didn't finished it, as I didn't really understand it. But this time round, I think I got it. Even if you find it an unconvincing proof that God exits, I think it completely destroys materialist evolution. After reading this chapter I think you could still be a materialist, or an evolutionist, but not both.

The argument is stated as this in the book:
1 - Naturalism reduces reasoning to a closed, mechanistic deterministic system of physical cause and effect
2 - This reduction is unable to accommodate acts of reasoning (including the naturalist's acts of reason)
3 - Therefore, naturalism is self-contradictory and reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause.

Since in materialism or naturalism everything is accounted by the physical (and not the spiritual), everything is then a result of cause and effect. This extends to our actions and our thinking. Our ideas come from our mind, which is caused by chemicals and atoms in our brains. Our actions are effects of these ideas, which are caused by our physical mind. There is more of this line of reasoning in the next chapter, but it does mean that our reasoning is a result of cause and effect and not by logical relations. This then means that when Dawkins was asked (audio here) what, if any, is the difference between the atheist and theist when the same natural processes (of cause and effect) are going on in both; and why is one considered more rational then the other? Richard was unable to account for reason itself and pretty much went with the line "what works is true".

In 2008 I encounter this argument before and landed where Dawkins did as I assumed that "what works" naturally lines up with reality. I now think this is a false idea. Someone may be shy in asking a girl out, who may consult his star sign and it gives him the encouragement to go ask the girl out. They hit is off and down the track have a baby together. Does this mean star signs are right? From an evolutionary stand point does it even matter? Evolution doesn't care, just as long as it works. A rabbit might run away from a predator because it likes to be chased, or it might think that it will hurt the predator if it is eaten. It doesn't matter from an evolutionary standpoint as long as it doesn't get eaten.

Even Darwin had a doubt about the trustworthiness of our minds if we evolved from lower animals. If our reason is not trustworthy, and we trust evolution and materialism to both be true, how do we know it really is?

Argument from Goodness
Following on from the issues of our action and reason being cased by only physical effects, the whole idea of right and wrong is challenged. The atheists may well have a point about the non existence of a loving and powerful God in the face of real suffering and evil, as Lewis did, but then he realised that he had no grounds on which he could call something really "evil", or really crooked if there was no "good" or straight line to measure up against. The argument is presented at:
1 - If metaphysical naturalism is true, then nothing is objectively evil
2 - Something is objectively evil
Therefore, metaphysical naturalism is false.

And then the argument is tweaked to argue for God:
1 - If a wholly good personal god doesn't exist, then objective moral values can't exist
2 - Objective moral values exist
Therefore, a wholly good personal god exists

Point number two, to me is obvious, and only really a small minority of people would say that under some circumstances torturing a young child for pleasure may not be wrong, or that killing 6 million Jews (or any other ethnic race) may not be seen as wrong.

What is stressed in this book, is that this argument is not saying that atheists don't know what is right and wrong. The argument isn't about knowing, or behaving in a moral way, the argument is about the ontology of morality. On what grounds is something wrong, where does that basis comes from? If our actions are all caused from effects in our brains and if there is no higher mind/being/God above a person, then who is one person to tell another what is right and wrong, since both sides are just a result of materialistic evolution?

What is pointed out is that if we are just behaving from our environment and reactions in our minds, then that removes the whole idea of the ought we have to do. Once you start talking about what someone ought to do, you are saying they have a possibility to either do it or not. It was Hume that pointed out that you can not get an ought out of an is. When Hitchens heard this, he tended to agree, where as when Sam Harris heard it, it seems he didn't get it and still thinks science can get an ought from an is.

Historical Jesus
The above arguments are not very exact in who or what god is. They are just arguing for theism in general. In the next chapter Lewis turned to the Christian God based on the historical Jesus. While Lewis did teach philosophy and logic at Oxford, his strength was literature. Lewis pretty much rejects the myth idea of the Bible and goes with it being (generally) history. He says:
All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.
...whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people's studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spend on that Gospel.
Lewis would charge anyone who makes as statement on the literature of the Bible to put their cards on the table to see how much they really know what they are talking about. Lewis had spent his life in this field, how much have the new atheist looked at the text and other texts from the same time period? Since I am already on board with a historical Jesus, I will move on.

Judging from the length of this post you could probably assume that I liked the book. There are lot of ideas and arguments in it - more than what this post has covered. The conclusion of this book, summed up the arguments nicely, so much so I might post a long quote of it on this blog soon. The book left me with two main thoughts. The first one is that this book destroyed the new atheists ideas so much that I don't think I will ever read one of their books again (we will see if this is true or not, sometimes I just can't help myself).

My second thought was: so what do the real philosophical atheists hold to? Throughout the book, other professional philosophical atheists are cited and used against these popular level atheist. Since they reject these guys, what is it that they think to convince them that atheism is true. Does it come down accepting that objective meaning and morals don't exist and so to function as a society we should go back to Hobbes and Machiavelli by accepting that within the culture/state/kingdom the laws of the country/state/king are absolute. Outside of that boundary there could be another set of laws for another country/state/kingdom. Are we to become pragmatic and accept that "what works" (according to probably those in power) is what is real. Sounds a bit like the dark ages to me...

The book is heavily cited and at the end of each chapter it points to more links and resources for you to go deeper into these ideas. I think this book is well worth a read, but I do not think it will get the exposure it deserves. I would also love to read an response to this book to see how they counter some of the arguments presented.


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