C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Reason
Lewis’s contribution to Christian apologetics is many and varied, but one of his contributions seems to be of great contemporary relevance, and that is his argument from reason. The argument from reason is only indirectly an argument for Christianity or even for theism, but is instead an argument against one of Christian theism’s most popular rivals, and that is a doctrine called metaphysical naturalism. In recent years, we have seen a very aggressive version of this doctrine propounded by advocates of what is today called “The New Atheism.” Of course, the atheists we have always had with us, but led by popular writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, atheists have made it their goal to eliminate religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular, from the face of the earth. At the same time, these atheists have made if very clear what they want to replace religious belief with. They want to people all over the world reject whatever religions they currently accept and embrace instead a doctrine of scientific naturalism. This effort has found its way onto sign on British buses that say “There is almost certainly no God. Now go on and enjoy your day.” To people like Dawkins, belief in the existence of God, or in Christianity, isn’t just false, it is delusional, which means it believed by its adherents in the teeth of overwhelming evidence that it is not true. Further, they maintain that religious beliefs are not a benign delusion, it is a delusion that blocks the advancement of science at every turn, and actually leads its followers to resort to violence, as is evidenced by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
One of the assumptions made by the New Atheists is that they suppose that religious believers believe as a matter of faith, which to them means that believers believe in spite of the evidence. I do not know what someone like Dawkins would make of Lewis’s famous statement from Mere Christianity, in which he says “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in.” But they are quite convinced that the weight of the evidence is against religious belief, and that such faith does considerable harm.
I noted earlier that the New Atheists not only want to make religious belief disappear, they want to replace it with a non-religious doctrine which is called philosophical naturalism. It is expressed in Carl Sagan’s famous pronouncement that “The Cosmos is all the was, or is, or ever will be.” But there is more to it than this. In the book entitled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, (the book whose title I cannibalized in “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea) Daniel Dennett contrasts two types of explanations, one of which he calls cranes, and the other he calls skyhooks. Cranes are bottom-up explanations, which explain the more intelligent and more complex in terms of the less intelligent and less complex. Where you have a mental explanation, you must explain that mental explanation in terms of something that is non-mental. For example, if you say that the purpose of your eye is to see, that might be an acceptable thing to say, so long as you can cash that explanation out in terms of something that is not so purposive. In Darwinian biology, if you say that the purpose of your eye is to see, what that means is that the function and survival value of the eye is that it enables the one who has it to see. Evolution will select for something that gives its possessor a survival advantage, but will not do so as a matter of a deliberate mental process. If we say that God designed you eye so that you can see, that would be, on Dennett’s view, and unacceptable skyhook, which he describes as a mind-first explanation with no underlying non-mental explanation. However, the Darwinian version of this statement is acceptable, because even though there is a mental explanation on the surface of things, it is merely a stand-in for a proper scientific explanation that excludes the mental. The mental is, according to naturalism, a system by-product of an inherently non-mental universe. It is not literally true that the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side. The history of science, on this view, is the history of displacing mental explanations, at least at the basic level of analysis, with non-mental ones. Every day, in every way, we’re getting closer and close to the time when all the skyhooks are gone, and all we have are cranes.
The argument from reason essentially says that this can’t be the comprehensive story of the universe. Remember, atheists say that religious believers believe in spite of the presence of overwhelming evidence against what they believe. What that implies is that there is an alternative to this, namely, believing in accordance with, and because of the evidence. But if everything in the universe has to be explained from the bottom up, then can it be literally true to say “I reject belief in the existence of God because if there were a God, there would be evidence of his existence which we do not find?” In the final analysis, stuff moves not according to the laws of reasoning or logic, but according to the laws of physics, without intention or purpose. If this is so, then how is it possible to believe anything on the basis of evidence? Scientists believe what they do because they evaluate the evidence for scientific hypotheses, and accept the one which has the most evidential support. Thus, Darwin, we are told, found evidence for his theory of natural selection based on evidence taken from his observations of finches on the Galapagos Islands. Science would not exist if it were not possible to give mentalistic explanations for the activities of scientists. Hence, the ban on skyhooks has to stop when we start talking about the rational formation of beliefs, whether this is the formation of scientific beliefs based on evidence, or the mathematical underpinnings of the sciences (as both Lewis and I learned to our chagrin in school, you can’t get very far in the sciences without being good at math), or the rational consideration of the question of whether or not there is a God, or whether Christianity is true. If we explain reason in terms of the non-rational, we invariably end up explaining it away.