(Note: This is a paper I'm presenting at the December meeting of the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science. It's excerpted from C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian
Naturalism (or the almost synonymous position of
materialism) represents the philosophical position that the natural world (or
the material world respectively) is all there is without remainder. At one
point in his key argument against naturalism, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, Lewis states his definition succinctly, “Some
people believe that nothing exists except Nature. I call these people Naturalists.”
In accord with Lewis, I will generally use “naturalism” because that is C. S.
Lewis’s preferred term, but sometimes I will employ “materialism”
interchangeably. This philosophical position obviously presents problems for
Christian faith as it points to the Source of all being beyond this material
world. In this chapter, I will look at Lewis’s apologetic strategy of arguing
that naturalism is self-defeating.
Whatever it is called, naturalism
has again returned with renewed vigor, though not always improved insight. And
with it, a combative anti-theism has arisen in our country. The prominent
Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Pinker has laid down the gauntlet in this way:
neuroscientific worldview—the idea that the mind is what the brain does—has
kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted
all of the previous scientific challenges to religion—the Earth revolving
around the sun, animals evolving, and so on—the immaterial soul was always one
last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the
advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.
It seems that materialism has
won the day with scientists and that, according to many, it represents the
crucial contemporary argument against religious faith. It represents a crucial
component of the “New Atheism” that has resulted in millions of books being
sold by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.
the conflict between Christian faith and naturalism, C. S. Lewis’s next
apologetic argument, even if he formulated it most definitively almost seventy
years ago, still takes hold. We have a contemporary culture that hears the
siren cries of naturalism. Lewis, as he moved into theism and then Christian
belief in the 1930s, continued to wonder about whether life ends and is simply
annihilated. I too, having grown up for my first eighteen years without
religious faith and now engaging in scientific literature that so often denies
a reality beyond nature, I find myself tempted by unremitting naturalism.
Nevertheless, Lewis’s argument that naturalism is self-defeating is powerful,
and I cannot escape its force.
Though it can be argued that
idealism still maintained a foothold at Oxford in the 1940s,
Lewis nevertheless felt compelled to engage in dialectics against naturalism.
For Lewis the big crises with naturalism first emerged in 1929, when he
confessed adult faith in theism and then in 1931 when he looked specifically to
Christ. No longer content simply to remain the rationalist—and thus
materialist—he found that life had more to offer. In some ways, it could be
argued that Lewis had a strong line of idealism running through his
philosophical veins, at least in the sense described by his friend, the Oxford
philosophical theologian, Austin Farrer:
raised in the tradition of an idealist philosophy which hoped to establish the
reality of the mental subject independently of, or anyhow in priority to, that
of the bodily world.
Farrer does note that Lewis
“moved some way from such positions,” primarily by concluding that idealism did
not sufficiently take in the personal presence of the absolute in the
Incarnation. He indeed calls this shift a move from “idealism,” by which he
means that there is a transcendent Mind or Spirit, to full encounter with God.
This God would never be contained solely by the interactions of the natural
there was sufficient idealism in Lewis’s convictions to butt heads with the
more materialist currents of his day. For example, in Oxford’s Socratic
Society—where Lewis presented the two pieces (or at least parts thereof) I am
analyzing—Lewis found he regularly had to impugn the arguments of Logical
Positivists, who asserted that statements about a transcendent reality were meaningless.
This represents a linguistic and philosophical complement to naturalism. As he
wrote to his student, Dom Bede Griffiths on April 22, 1954,
imagine that the Logical Positivist Menace is over. To me it seems that the
apologetic position has never in my life been worse than it is now. At the
Socratic the enemy often wipe the floor with us. Quousque domine? [How long, O Lord?]
Lewis, who in many ways
gloried in moving against the grain of the culture, readily argued for the
irrationality of materialism. I use “irrationality” advisedly because Lewis
argued that materialism did not allow for rationality and thus obviated truth
as well. In materialism, things just are;
they are neither true nor false. And I mean this literally—Lewis concluded that,
if we take nature to be all that there is, there is no place for rational
thought. That is why naturalism defeats itself. It cuts off the very branch on
which it sits.
I mentioned above, we live in an age, remarkable similar to C.S. Lewis’s… at
least in this regard. The intellectual culture of the 1940s, out of which the
two prominent writings, first “Is Theology Poetry” and then Miracles: A
Preliminary Study, I will analyze emerged,
promoted the concept that matter was all that mattered.
For this reason, these two pieces are still pertinent.
not all scientists today or in the early decades of the twentieth century, were
of similar minds. Some, even within the naturalist and therefore atheistic
camp, saw the problems inherent in arguing that “the mind is what the brain
does.” The famous geneticist and evolutionary biologist, John Scott Haldane
It seems to
me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my
mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I
have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound
chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no
reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.
It is noteworthy that Lewis
takes up this citation directly in Miracles,
probably to demonstrate that the self-defeating nature of unremitting
naturalism arose not just from a theological conviction, but from a logical one
now turn to Lewis’s specific encounters in the ‘40s with the naturalistic
mindset of many scientists.
Ultimately, Lewis was a
professor of literature and therefore a specialist in the humanities and not
the sciences. Most of his arguments for faith in light of what he names “the
Scientific Outlook” take place in philosophy or the arts. Yet, this may be a
strength because many arguments against Christian faith are presented by
scientists as scientific, but are really philosophical in character.
there more than one form of naturalism? If so, are all forms of naturalism
self-defeating? We arrive at a nexus where confusion can arise. Sometimes less
scrupulous atheistic commentators may even use this misunderstanding as a
rhetorical shell game, treating all naturalism as coterminous and concluding
that God cannot exist in light of the advance of science. So I need to make a
distinction. Science commits itself to methodological naturalism quite rightly. Science, at its core, commits to a
method in which scientists look for the interactions, interrelations, and thus
cause and effect in the natural world. For example, when scientists ask the
question, “What is the boiling point of water?” they keep testing,
hypothesizing, testing, and hypothesizing, until they find the natural causes
for this effect. They conclude that, when water at sea level is heated to 100
Celsius, it begins to boil. No god or spirit is needed for that specific
phenomenon of nature (other than a Creator God who put together nature itself,
by I will return to that theme below). The methods of scientists become
complicated in more elaborate theories—quantum theory comes to mind—but the
basic commitment to find solely natural causes remains. This is proper
issue is when this method of looking solely for natural causes elides into philosophical
naturalism—that all that exists is nature.
Just because science cannot test or number something does not mean it does not
exist. It is here—not as a field of study, but as an
understanding of the world or as a sense-of-life, where science often
intersects—or even collides with—theology. Many evolutionists use the theory of
natural selection and conclude that the natural world of cause-and-effect is
not guided, but evokes a mindless, “pitiless indifference,” to quote Richard
Dawkins in Journey Out of Eden. He sets this view against the purposeful creation by the
hand of God. But, as Albert Einstein once quipped about scientists’
prediliction for numbering as an example of philosophical naturalism,
that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot
necessarily be counted.”
though many scientists, and atheistic philosophers, casually link
methodological naturalism with philosophical atheism, there is no sound reason
to do so. Here a distinction is helpful. There is a fundamental difference the
study of God and the study of the natural world based. Simply there is primary
and secondary causation. God is the primary
cause—God undergirds and establishes all being. As the great medieval
philosopher Thomas Aquinas taught, the nature of God as Creator is that being
itself continually flows from God. That fact defines primary causation. God is
the Cause that undergirds all other causes. Secondary causation is what human
beings, and all other agents in the natural world, are given to do. Shakespeare
created Hamlet and Ophelia—that is the nature of authorship. They would not
exist without him, but within the story they have real interaction. They exist
because Shakespeare, as it were, brought them into being. The analogy is not
perfect because once the play is written, the real interactions between Hamlet
and Ophelia are fixed in a way that ours as real secondary agents is not.
Nonetheless, the central analogical point lies here: if Shakespeare were to
have stopped writing Hamlet in
the midst of its creation, the entire story would have ceased. And so too with
God. God is the primary cause, but we are the real secondary causes. If God
were to stop creating, we would no longer exist. At the same time, we can study
the real interactions among secondary in their own right without direct
reference to the first cause.
“Is Theology Poetry” on
“the Scientific Outlook” and its contrast with science
I make these distinctions between
primary and secondary causation and between these two types of naturalism
because they are consistent with Lewis’s own. So I
turn then to our first text at hand: “Is Theology Poetry?” really an oral
presentation to the Oxford Socratic Club—from 1945. It is a fascinating lecture—as Lewis is wont to create—not
on science per se, or even strictly
evolutionary science, but on the use of evolution to create a worldview, one
that challenges orthodox Christian accounts of the world. To repeat: This
atheistic challenge confuses methodological naturalism (tbe basis of evolution)
with philosophical naturalism. Or, as it appears in this essay, Lewis
distinguishes “science” (and “real science”) with “the Scientific Outlook.”
scientists grasp this distinction, no conflict between science and God need
arise prematurely. Now there may be discoveries about creation and raise
questions about the Creator, but science by its nature does not have the power
and right to say that all that exists is what it studies. It is as if sculptors
were to assert that painting does not exist because they have never touched
Lewis held out great hope for science and faith. He held a positive assessment
of science. Worth considering is what he puts in the mouth of the devil,
Screwtape, in the first letter of the Screwtape Letters, the imagined correspondence between a senior devil
and a junior devil, Wormwood, on how to tempt a human soul.
Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real
sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him
to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases
among the modern physicists.
argument here is that “real sciences” are philosophically anti-naturalistic, a point that finds agreement with the eminent physicist
Sir John Polkinghorne; quantum physics now raises up things that we cannot see
or touch. With the existence of quarks, no one can see them directly, but we
have to infer their existence because they make sense of material reality:
quarks are, in some sense, unseen realities. Nobody has ever isolated a single
quark in the lab. So we believe in them not because we've, even with
sophisticated instruments, so to speak, seen them, but because assuming that
they're there makes sense of great swaths of physical experience.”
another brief essay, “Dogma and the Universe,” Lewis makes another connection
between modern physics and the defeat of “classical materialism,” that nature
depends on its existence on something else.
In one respect, as many Christians have noticed,
contemporary science has recently come into life with Christian doctrine, and
parted company with the classical forms of materialism. If anything emerges
clearly from modern physics, it is that nature is not everlasting. The universe
had a beginning, and will have an end.
does note, however, “We should not lean to heavily on this, for scientific
his essay, Lewis takes up the question given to him: “Is theology poetry?”
(This, of course, is also the title of the talk). He does not seem to enjoy the
question as it stands before him, so he refines it to become whether theology
is merely poetry. He, first of all,
argues that theology is not just poetry—it is not really artful enough, nor is
it as good as the poetry of
The charge that Theology is mere poetry, if it means that
Christians believe it because they find it, antecedently to belief, the most
poetically attractive of all world pictures, thus seems to me unplausible in
then analyzes the poetry of the Scientific Outlook presented by evolution (and
especially H. G. Wells) as a philosophy of progress that gradually and
painfully overcomes obstacles. What Lewis names the Scientific Outlook
begins with a humble of inanimate matter that gradually becomes life. It
gradually emerges as dinosaurs, who die out, replaced by Man, who is also
destined to die. This great myth is finally “overwhelmed in ruin.” It is a beautiful, tragic myth of Man fighting valiantly
against the odds, but ultimately losing.
reason Lewis rejected the “Scientific Outlook” lies in the self-defeating
nature of the two claims “we can think” and “nature is all there is.” Here we
come to the key theme of this chapter: the Scientific Outlook asserts the truth
and reasonableness of its claims without thereby providing a place for reason.
Or as he put it:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on
biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the
atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more
significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.
Scientific Outlook tries to fit in reason in an irrational—or maybe arational—world. Lewis concludes that this move is self-defeating.
an alternative, Lewis discovered in his own life (around his conversions in
1929 and 1931) something he argues here: Belief in a Creator God who endows
humanity with reason makes entirely more sense. The divine Logos creates human
reason. The primary Cause ungirds all secondary causes. Lewis says that is why
he does not believe in the “Scientific Outlook,” but instead believes in
Christianity, which includes reason and science. As he closes the lecture, he
Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and
the sub-Christian religions. The scientific view [such as in H. G. Wells, and I
would add, Pinker] cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because
I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Lewis believed that Christian
theology gave grounds for reason and thus reasoning about what is true.
Therefore it makes sense of science. Put another way, if science bets its
existence on naturalism, then it will ultimately undermine itself.
more sustained argument can be found in the 1947 apologetic work, Miracles, a key chapter of which (chapter three) he revised
for the 1960 edition, from which I will quote.
The argument in Miracles (1947, revised 1960)
Starting with Lewis’s arguments
against naturalism, I turn to his most sustained, discussed, and debated
presentation, the opening chapters of Miracles, particularly the third chapter, “The Cardinal Difficulty with Naturalism.”
As I mentioned above, Lewis defines naturalism simply as the belief that nature
is all there is, and he also provides a more extensive definition in Miracles: Naturalism is “the doctrine that only Nature—the
whole interlocked system–exists. And if that were true, every thing and event
would, if we knew enough, be explicable without remainder (no heel
taps) as a necessary product of the
He continues the essence of the argument he presented in “Is Theology Poetry?”
(and elsewhere)—that in order for reason to exist there must be something
greater or “above” (super in Latin) and
thus there must be Supernature.
presents his argument against naturalism to kick away a support for
disbelieving in miracles. If there is nothing that supervenes over nature, then
miracles are impossible. If there is, however, a Supernature, then it, or God,
could act in ways contrary to the nexus of cause and effect in the natural
world. That a central reason he argues against naturalism.
Lewis’s argument against naturalism is reasonable simple. It starts with the
Naturalism asserts that all that exists is part of the
natural, or material world, of cause and effect.
Reason, being a part of all that is, must therefore be a
component solely of the natural world.
Yet, in order for reason to discover truth, it cannot be
solely based on natural, or material, cause and effect.
Therefore naturalists cannot fit reason into their system.
Consequently, naturalism is false.
a result of the well-known debate with the eminent Oxford philosopher Elizabeth
Anscombe at the Socratic Club on February 2, 1948, Lewis conceded that Anscombe
had pointed out flaws in his essential argument. He presented changes in the
1960 revision to Miracles, noting a key
distinction between Cause-Effect and Ground-Consequent. She too, according to
subsequent reflection, felt that he had admitted problems, noting his “honesty
and seriousness” as a philosopher. She did not, however, conclude he destroyed,
as later commentators would assert. A. N. Wilson, who, in his 1990s biography
of Lewis, labored incessantly (and even cooked a few facts) to make Lewis look
unworthy of serious attention repeats a somewhat tired argument that Lewis
retreated from apologetics (such as Miracles) to children’s literature (i.e., Narnia) after this encounter. (Below I will note how
Wilson’s mood changed significantly a few years ago.) He continues by asserting
that Lewis even patterned the evil White Witch of Narnia, Jadis, after
Anscombe. I find it difficult to take that sort of assertion seriously.
I have presented the critical elements of his
revised presentation, not to engage them directly (others have done so
but to demonstrate more that Lewis more away from argument to story, from
justification to signification. Or put another way, as Michael Ward does in Planet
Narnia, Lewis moved from Contemplation to
Enjoyment. This is a key distinction that Lewis makes in Surprised by
Joy, which he picked up from Alexander. So
in 1950, when he began the “Narniad” as it is called, he wanted to enjoy what reasoning implied (a first order experience),
not contemplate reason, or think
about thinking (a second-order experience).
apologetic force of this argument remains surprisingly relevant for today’s
anti-theistic—I have noted Pinker and Dawkins, but there are many others. I
have found myself, as one committed to the glory of scientific insight along
with my Christian faith, leaning on Lewis. He does not argue that one must
conclude that naturalism is self-defeating, only that that it is very likely to
be self-defeating. And I have not found a rejoinder, although many have been
and the debate shows no signs of abating.
It is not exactly an argument for Christian faith, but as he concludes in “Is
Theology Poetry?” he does offer that theism—specifically, the creation of the
world by a rational Creator—offers the best ground for human reason. For this
reason, Lewis brings together a rigorous reasoning alongside a robust faith in God
Perhaps the best closer for this chapter comes from the pen
of A. N. Wilson, the brilliant, but cranky biographer of Lewis who remained,
for decades, a committed, atheist. Just a few years ago, he changed his mind.
In an April 2009 article in MailOnline, he wrote this,
Our bishops and theologians,
frightened as they have been by the pounding of secularist guns, need that kind
of bravery (like Sir Thomas More’s) more than ever. Sadly, they have all but
accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the
few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or
believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns
out not to be belief after all. As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is
the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally
irrational. Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It
has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or
heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.
That seems in the mode of C. S. Lewis himself. But Lewis did
not stop with simply impugning naturalism—a negative accomplishment—he also
presented a positive argument for Jesus Christ. That is the subject of the next