More Notes on C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. Is he right in regards to materialism?
I was up to the chapter “What Lies Behind the Law” in my last writing, in this chapter Lewis lays out his views on materialism (with an addendum at the end of the chapter on evolution-mentioning not Darwin but rather Bernard Shaw and his theory that evolution runs by “life-force“, as opposed to natural selection, Pg-27 ), and science.
I concede much ignorance on materialist theory itself, but even so, his words don’t seem to run true for me, and it seems, to other Christians who know about science and theism, they don’t either.
Lewis defines materialism as such:
“…there is what is called the materialist view. People who take this view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us.” (Lewis pp- 21-2, 2002)
It seems from his word choices above that Lewis is intentionally erecting a strawman of materialism (as mentioned, he does with evolution) or perhaps more generously, is simply demonstrating a complete lack of scientific research (a reading of The Origin of the Species, would have corrected much). Either way, this obfuscation of data, seems a dishonest ploy to denigrate the validity of a competing worldview to set the pretext to bolster and promote his own.
What do I mean exactly? We see today, that much of the above is answered, or at the very least, answerable in theory, and that the germ of much of what we know today, was known in Lewis’ time, hence discoverable by him, and it all has very little to do with “chance“, at least chance in the sense he employs above. Evolution, accretion discs, big bang cosmology (to name a few), we have discovered much about the material world and the material universe (again we see intentional obscuration on Lewis’ part). Lewis, however, disagrees that science has anything to say on materialism:
“”You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense“…Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so’ or, ‘I put some of this stuff into a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.’… And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science- and a very useful and necessary job it is too.” (Lewis pp- 21-3, 2002)
Again the language used implies that a real scientist would agree with him, hence putting any scientist who doesn’t on the back foot to begin with. Ken Miller, a scientist and a Christian himself, disagrees with Lewis about science and it’s ability to confirm materialism:
“… science makes sense because science comes with a record. Science works because it is based on causality. Once you understand a process, even a complex one, you can reduce it to the mechanistic sum of its parts. Then, everything that happens becomes an obligatory outcome of how those components interact. It’s just something that happens. No longer magic, but just a simple (and predictable) outcome.” (Miller pp- 194, 1999)
So we see that even a devout Catholic as Miller claims we can still put reliability into science, not just into the philosophy of science, which is what I think Lewis’ main beef is. He doesn’t state explicitly, but his (ironically) mechanistic definition of science above, is by all accounts, acceptable, if not rather dry. Miller’s definition seemingly approaches the line between science and the philosophy thereof, but I think his definition still rings scientifically true, in the sense that he is explaining what science can find, scientific inferences we can make, which can lead to further testable hypothesis and theory, which is strictly speaking, what science is. Miller concedes this point:
“The most important conclusion from the success of scientific materialism was philosophical as much as it was scientific. It had shown us that nature was organized in a systematic, logical way.” (Miller pp- 195, 1999)
From this we see that Miller believes science itself does have the ability to discover a working material world. If my analysis is true, it seems Christians can use science and represent it, and still have their Christian belief intact, but what does Miller say? Can science actually say anything about materialism proper?:
“We can light that [scientific] candle to explain commonplace activities of everyday life, by showing that an underdstandable, material mechanism is at work in each of them- in short, by showing that the phenomenon at hand is a property of the ordinary stuff of nature. That is the working assumption of materialism namely that nature itself is where we can find the explanations for how things work. It is also the credo of science- making science, by definition, a form of practical, applied materialism.” (Miller pp- 194, 1999)
Lewis does justify his position more clearly:
“But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes- something of a different kind- this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind”, then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in a different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them science can make. And real scientists don not usually make them.” (Lewis pp- 23, 2002)
This seems like metaphysical muddying of the waters, if not outright question begging. Aside from that, if there is “Something Behind” the material world, it is either discoverable (hence most likely given a material explanation), or it is not, in which case it is indistinguishable from that which does not exist. As Miller clarifies:
“Scientific materialism rules out the influence of the divine from a particular phenomenon by the application of what we might call “deterministic reductionism”. We can exclude the spiritual as the immediate cause for any event in nature by showing how that event is determined in material terms. All the levels in nature connect according to well-defined rules.” (Miller pp- 195, 1999)
In conclusion I think Lewis has some interesting things to say, and as mentioned here, I concede much of my analysis could simply be my misunderstanding of Lewis (and indeed materialism, science and philosophy). It does, however seem to me he is simply avoiding doing any independent research to confirm the facts he discusses on worldviews that compete with his. Maybe this is a problem we all suffer, we play to our biases (more on that here), I can certainly concede I’m guilty of that much (however much I may not be able to see it). That admission, however, does not relegate him to a relativistic, middle ground. He is factually incorrect when discussing evolution and materialism, it doesn’t mean he is incorrect in everything he says, or that he’s a bad person for his obfuscation, intentional or not.All and only that in this one instance he is incorrect.
Miller’s process demonstrates that it is not necessary for a Christian to be anti science, or that they need to strawman its findings to be a convincing apologist (as Miller still discusses his theology, quite eloquently in his book; Finding Darwin’s God). Materialism being true (or not true, as it were), still ostensibly leaves a Christian plenty of room for their theism, and even their theistic worldview. I guess the point of this blog was to show that point, that we need not be at odds with each other, that we can, perhaps post-modernistically meld competing worldviews to accommodate material evidence and whatever other metaphysical or spiritual beliefs or faith we choose to adopt. I may not necessarily agree with your decision to do so (as I disagree with some of Miller’s theological musings) it still bases our worldviews on reality, as far and as much as that reality is demonstrable and backed by testable, falsifiable evidence (I feel a charge of logical positivism coming on).
After all, don’t we want to be right about the way the world works, about what we know about the world? Reliable evidence, objectively (as much as humans can do that) tested seems to be foundational (or basic if you’re a reformed epistemologist) to finding those answers. Let’s work together!
Lewis C.S., (2002). Mere Christianity (50th Anniversary Ed.). Hammersmith, London. Harper-Collins Publishers. Pp- 21-3, 27.
Miller K., (1999). Finding Darwin’s God. New York, New York. HarperCollins Books. Pp- 194-5.