Mere Epistemology

C.S. Lewis

Justin Taylor, over at the Gospel Coalition, recently shared a fascinating lecture on C.S. Lewis and epistemology, the study of knowledge and how we come to know things:
 

(If you can’t see the video, click here.)
 
The talk is by Union University philosophy professor Justin Barnard, who makes two relatively bold claims: first that Lewis was probably not the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century, as many Protestants and Catholics believe, and yet he probably was the greatest Christian epistemologist of the twentieth century.

As Justin observes, based on Barnard’s lecture:

“Lewis died in 1963, the same year that epistemology as a profession took off. Because Lewis’s most overt epistemological work was done before he was a Christian (in the 1920s), it can be difficult to piece together a full-fledged epistemology. But Barnard argues that Lewis rightly restores knowledge as situated in the context of wisdom and the fear of God, doing this in a uniquely Christian though appropriately limited way. Lewis’s epistemology is distinctively eschatological in orientation, focusing on hope as surrendering to the long that the summons of Divine Love is real.”

In other words, Lewis offered a groundbreaking Christian view of knowledge that should remain central to his legacy. Watch the whole, interesting lecture to see Barnard make this case.
  
(HT: Justin Taylor)

  • Winston Jen

    These are my thoughts on Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain.

    Lewis includes in his case for Christianity a noble sentiment everyone
    can agree with: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his
    best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.”

    CS
    Lewis’ arguments for Christianity revolve around two arguments – the
    moral argument (objective morals cannot exist without a tri-omni god)
    and the existence, life and resurrection of Jesus (his infamous trilemma
    rears its head quite early here) and the argument from desire (there is
    nothing in this world that can satisfy my longing for Joy. Therefore, I
    was created for another world). What he does not even consider is a
    third option (namely, that the perfect incarnation of Joy does not exist
    at all).

    His reason for accepting theism (which, according to
    Lewis, excludes Hinduism (he considers them to be pantheists)) is simply
    that it is hard to imagine the majority of humanity being wrong on such
    a crucial subject. He neglects to notice or even consider the fact that
    most human beings before 1500 believed the world to be flat and that
    the Earth was the centre of the universe. As for why he chose
    Christianity over Judaism or Islam, he simply states his incredulity –
    he cannot accept that 1st century Jews would concoct a myth along the
    lines of Christianity. Once again, his failure of imagination is laid
    bare. The byzantine nature of Hinduism, far more complex and imaginative
    than Christianity, seems to pose no such problems for Lewis.

    The
    moral argument, admittedly, was composed before modern evolutionary
    theory advanced by leaps and bounds (particularly evolutionary game
    theory, which explains why piranhas do not often cannibalise their
    brethren. Morality has evolved naturally from the first rudiments of
    social animals to the complex modern systems we debate and follow today.
    When Lewis asserts that evil is merely a “privation of good” and that
    it is impossible to “pursue evil for its own sake”, he is ignoring
    sociopathy, a profound condition. He is glossing over and/or simply
    ignoring child rape and other similar horrors. What perverse notions of
    “love” or “sex” were corrupted to produce such atrocities? Surely a
    tri-omni god would simply prevent such individuals from existing in the
    first place, free will be damned. The “divinely inspired sense of
    morality” that Lewis loves expounding upon also fails to take the child
    rape so prevalent in Islamic theocracies.

    Furthermore, the laws
    of morality are things we discover and amend over time. They are not, as
    Lewis claims, as powerful as the laws of gravity or physics. Moral laws
    are prescriptive, not descriptive. To measure morality, we need simply
    ask each human being what a certain law or policy would do to their
    lives vis a vis suffering and happiness. This could be extended to other
    creatures with relative ease. To measure distances, we need rulers and
    measuring sticks, but the distances themselves still exist, whether we
    have such measuring sticks or not. So too with morality.

    Existence
    and intelligence are described as inherently good by Lewis (and
    therefore must originate from a divine being). But he is not consistent
    here – traits such as sexual desires and appetites for food are morally
    neutral. A hammer can be used to build a homeless shelter or murder the
    homeless. The wielder determines the morality of its use. Lewis does not
    follow his own rhetoric to its logical conclusions.

    The
    remainder of the book consists of how CS Lewis would like a Christian
    society to be. Ironically enough, he soliloquised at length during World
    War 2, modulating at length to inspire the populace and soldiers in a
    battle AGAINST such totalitarian policies and regimes.

    He uses
    god’s transcendent nature outside of time and space as a buffer against
    the free will/divine foreknowledge counterargument, which has now been
    appropriated as a modern day trope by apologists such as WLC and Frank
    Turek. Needless to say, this does not get god off the hook, because he
    still chose to create good and evil.

    Perhaps the most fulsome and
    viscerally offensive paragraphs are in the book’s conclusion, though.
    According to Lewis, our good deeds mean nothing until and unless we
    convert to Christianity. To quote Lewis verbatim: “If there was no help
    from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings.” In other
    words, we must give Jesus credit, first and foremost, for the good that
    humans end up doing. This is beyond condescending. This transcends the
    realm of insulting. More nonsensical still is his defeatist entreaty for
    we humans to trust Jesus, because he alone is eternal and everyone else
    is doomed to death. The dearth of healed amputees and lack of increased
    compassion among Christians must have eluded Lewis.

    CS Lewis is
    held by many to be the premier Christian apologist of the 20th century.
    Unless one is morbidly naive, or has yet to encounter the
    counterarguments to Christianity in particular and theism in general, I
    find this evaluation of Lewis to be painfully naive. I honestly cannot
    see where his appeal lies.

    The Problem of Evil is an
    insurmountable one for Christians (and all other theists who believe in a
    perfectly loving, all-powerful and all-knowing god). There have been
    intense and motivated efforts over the past two millennia to defend such
    a position rationally, and they have all failed. Miserably. Utterly.
    And in many cases, dishonestly. On page 40, Lewis blames his own
    failings for being unable to understand god’s reason for allowing and
    causing evil. He states “…since I have reason to believe,
    nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love
    needs correction.” Stripped of his rhetorical sleight-of-hand, Lewis was
    essentially saying that god’s love is compatible with, and even
    requires, the infliction of pain. Heaping dollops of pain, no less. This
    is Stockholm Syndrome of gargantuan proportions.

    Some approaches
    involve invoking an unknown “greater good” defense (which throws god’s
    omnipotence under the bus. An omnipotent deity could simply actualise a
    desired goal without needing to use suffering as a “middle man”).
    Attempts to shift the problem by asserting that human happiness is not
    the goal of life (but knowing god is) removes the omnibenevolence and
    omnipotence of god (if you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer.
    It really is that simple). On page 104, Lewis concedes that not everyone
    suffers equally. He does not give a reason for this, and indeed, admits
    that our puny human minds cannot understand why god would allow some to
    live decades in comfort and luxury while others suffer for months or
    years on end. To quote Lewis himself: “The causes of this distribution I
    do not know; but from our present point of view it ought to be clear
    that the real problem is not why some humble, pious, believing people
    suffer, but why some do NOT (emphasis Lewis’, in italics). Our Lord
    Himself, it will be remembered, explained the salvation of those who are
    fortunate in this world only by referring to the unsearchable
    omnipotence of God.”

    That’s not an explanation. Lewis is falling
    back on the ancient and ubiquitous appeal to ignorance. God’s mysterious
    ways are beyond us. Well, by that “logic,” he could send all Christians
    to hell and everyone else to heaven, and Lewis, by his own admission,
    would just have to suck up an eternity of torture.

    The old canard
    of free will is often invoked. Unfortunately, free will is meaningless
    unless everyone has an equal amount of it. This is undeniably NOT the
    case. Not everyone is given the same lifespan, physical strength, mental
    acuity, political clout, financial resources, and so on. Lewis is
    pontificating from the luxurious confines of his residence, funded by
    conveniently gullible sheep. This has certainly damaged his ability to
    empathise with the billions who live on less than a dollar each day. Or
    the thousands who starve to death every time the Earth completes a full
    rotation.

    Lewis also, perhaps unwittingly, advocates a social
    Darwinism in which the rich and physically powerful are able to murder,
    rape and steal from weaker individuals (and are therefore less able to
    exercise their own free will to prevent their own suffering). Lewis
    worships a cosmic pedophile who revels in granting freedom to abhorrent
    individuals while getting his jollies from seeing the most vulnerable
    suffer and die in agony (only to get thrown into even more torture in
    the Christian vision of hell).

    Lastly, a loving god would take
    away free will from those who would willingly surrender it in return for
    a life without suffering. Funnily enough, Lewis seems to believe in a
    heaven without suffering but with all the bells and whistles of freedom.
    So why not create that universe from the get-go and stick with it? Why
    create a universe with even the possibility of corruption? It certainly
    is not something a perfect god would do. Then again, a perfect god would
    not blackmail beings he supposedly loves for eternal worship.

    While
    Lewis is usually a good writer, capable of spinning yarns to attract
    the attention of children and young teenagers, he also assumes that
    there is a deep, overriding purpose behind suffering. This purpose is so
    important that it is more critical to his god to NOT end suffering now,
    but to let things run their “natural” course until his plan is
    complete. In service of this goal, he creates a short story that is akin
    to an essay on theistic evolution, and how man is ultimately
    responsible for the Fall and his own corruption. If god knows
    everything, including the future, then he orchestrated the fall (and
    everything else) before setting his plan into motion. Arguing that god
    exists outside of time is a lazy copout, nothing more.

    As a
    ‘loudspeaker’ for the Christian god, pain has done more to drive people
    away from him than anything else. An all-knowing, all-powerful and
    all-good god would not allow any suffering, even in the service of a
    so-called “greater good.” And if such a god desires suffering for a
    greater good, then it would follow logically that his followers should
    cause suffering to convert more people. After all, that is god’s best
    tool for getting our attention, is it not? Fortunately, CS Lewis and
    most Christians today do not follow this logic to its end point. Those
    who do open hospitals and hospices and waste money on bibles rather than
    food (explaining why only 25% of tithes go to benefit indigent people
    around the world). CS Lewis realised this, which is why he asserted, in
    chapter 7, that while evil acts can lead to “greater” goods such as pity
    and compassion, the individual who commits evil is not justified simply
    because positive benefits will flow.

    The hypocrisy here is
    glaringly apparent when Lewis moves on to depict his god as using good
    men as “sons” and evil men as “tools” to achieve his goals. Such an
    obvious double standard is patently hypocritical and serves to do little
    except expose Lewis’ advocacy of divine fiat for what it is – blind
    obedience (which is the antithesis of sound moral reasoning).

    His
    childishly puerile attempts to justify hell are perhaps the only thing
    worse. According to Lewis’ theology, pain is used by god as a teacher, a
    “flag of truth in a rebel fortress” (p. 122). This obviously misses the
    point – an omnipotent god would not need to use pain. If a tri-omni
    deity knows good from evil without needing to suffer, why couldn’t he
    have simply created humans who were likewise omniscient? This is yet
    another obvious point that is glossed over by a highly overrated
    apologist.