Sunday, September 06, 2009

Does Paul Erland Build a Case?

Erland's case against CS Lewis is weakness incarnate

One of the more amusing things about the fundamentalist atheism movement that has emerged behind individuals like Richard Dawkins is the very real sense that every fundamentalist atheist seems to believe they're a master philosopher.

Often, however, their arguments are every bit as weak as the religious arguments they seek to counter. For example, their ojbection to Pascal's Wager -- the argument that one is better off believing in God in order to essentially "hedge their bets" for the afterlife -- is usually expressed by positing the ever-insipid (although admittedly otherwise hilarious) Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Of course no one actually believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But many people actually do believe in a sentient and interventionalist god. Thus, God is what philosophers would refer to as a live hypothesis, where as the FSM is not.

A much better argument against Pascal's Wager is a much simpler one -- Pascal's Wager is actually an extremely cynical argument. No believe based on solely on Pascal's Wager could ever be genuine. An all-knowing god would very much know the difference.

Many fundamentalist atheists can't seem to settle for these kinds of simple arguments. Instead, they seem to feel a need to concoct drawn-out arguments that they seem to believe implies a sophistication which rarely turns out to be present.

An interesting case in point are the objections recently raised to CS Lewis' religious thought voiced by The Examiner's Paul Erland, a Nashville Agnostic Examiner:
"CS Lewis, the defender of the faith so beloved by all Christ-ininnies for lending elegance to their untenable beliefs, wrote:
'If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe -- no more than an architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves.'
First of all, if we’re likening God to an architect, why couldn’t he leave traces of himself inside his work? Architects often employ signature features and flourishes.

Blithely assuming, however, as he frequently does (Lewis is a master of the false syllogism), that we’re all agreed so far that God can’t be expected to reveal himself, Lewis then proceeds to tell us what we should expect -- for him to show himself 'inside ourselves.' So, in light of the architect analogy, should we expect the builder of our house to show himself inside us? And in any event, how does his conclusion follow from his premise? OK -- God is outside the universe and can’t blatantly interfere. So, obviously, he has installed that little voice inside us that says, 'You’re being watched, so behave yourself.'

Lewis is trying to account for the 'Moral Law' that may or may not be universal (he says it is). But wouldn’t such a 'law' be more plausibly explained as a biological imperative—a check on murderous impulses that grew out of natural selection—than as the finger of God perpetually tapping us on the shoulder?

Richard Dawkins says that the God delusion is a virus. If that’s the case, then Lewis was struck by a particularly virulent strain.
Erland actually tips his hand awfully early in his article -- he flagrantly disrespects the religious views of Christians (referring to them as "Christi-ninnies", and labeling the post with "Christ-inanity"). That disrespect informs his argument against Lewis, as is, in fact, his argument's undoing.

Erland seems to think that he isn't required to attempt any kind of serious attempt to debunk Lewis' thought -- and that the fact that Lewis is a religious thinker has already done the lion's share of the work of invalidating his thought.

Noting that architects often employ "signature features and flourishes", Erland insists that these would be irrefutable evidence of the architect's existence, and that this notion somehow counters Lewis' ideas.

But in order to make this claim, Erland has to overlook the cornerstone of Lewis' religious thought: namely, that religion is much an enterprise of the rational mind as of the spiritual self.

As with many kinds of evidence, the "signature features and flourishes" example employed by Erland is only as meaningful as a human actor's ability to properly perceive, analyze and interpret them. To the unknowing mind or the untrained eye, such "signature features and flourishes" would seem like any other feature of the house.

Even beyond that, the "signature features and flourishes" are not, themselves, the architect, but rather identifying characteristics left ehind by the architect.

Much like the "moral law" that Lewis has often posited, both through his philosophical works and through his literary works.

Erland posits that this "moral law" would "be more plausibly explained as a biological imperative" vis a vis natural selection. But his argument could quickly be countered by anyone who argued, even if only for argument's sake, that such a biological imperative could have been included by the creator's design.

What CS Lewis would actually argue in regard to his moral law argument is that the "moral law" in question is actually the message of Jesus Christ, and the blueprint for a moral life that his teachings provide. Lewis argues that those who do not follow this blueprint essentially debase themselves.

Lewis would go so far as to argue that the benevolence of Christ's message essentially gives it a monopoly on moral behaviour. He would more explicitly argue that no evil could ever truly be done in Christ's name -- although some certainly attempt to invoke Christ to justify their own immoral actions.

Moreover, Lewis argues that those who live in a moral manner are doing the work of Jesus Christ regardless of whatever religion they purportedly follow. (Admittedly, this argument has been interpreted as offensive -- perhaps quite rightly -- by a great number of people who subscribe to non-Christian religious beliefs.)

Perhaps Lewis would even argue that human conscience -- that voice within us that tells us when we've done something wrong -- could be interpreted as God's moral fingerprint on humanity.

These are interesting ideas, and admittedly are no more decisive than Erland's.

But there's very likely a good reason why Erland targeted Lewis in such a brazen manner in the first place. Richard Dawkins -- whose "faith as a virus" epithet Erland invokes in the conclusion of his article -- has advanced a perception of religion as adverse to rational thought.

Yet it was CS Lewis who said that being a Christian is hard intellectual work. He argued for spiritual faith mediated by the rational and intelligent mind. As a result, Lewis is clearly a thinker very threatening to Erland, Dawkins, and their fundamentalist atheist worldview.

CS Lewis certainly doesn't build a decisive case for "moral law", but he never truly meant to, either. What Lewis does do is build a compelling and inclusivist case for God's moral influence on the world.

Paul Erland, on the other hand, fails spectacularly in his attempt to build a decisive case against CS Lewis. Not only does he not seem to understand Lewis' thinking in the first place, but his scornful starting point nearly precludes any kind of rational criticism of Lewis' ideas.


  1. This arguement of Erland's falls apart at the very beginning. As a matter of fact his argument agianst, is a very arguement for. As an architect who leaves begind traces of my existence in my work, so I see very clearly in every cell and molecule the traces and flourishes of the creator of this magnificent creation. God is the greatest and most inspiring architect to ever grace the known and unknown unviverse. The place, time and reality within which we live screams the unavoidible signature of its creator. Any being that creates leaves irrefutible evidence of his existence as well as a clear path to understanding the essence of his being.

  2. But, once again, this requires specialized knowledge to identify.

    Someone would have to have specialized knowledge to examine your architectural work and identify it as your own design.

    It's similar to the existence of God -- which, for the sake of debate, I think is better off treated as largely hypothetical -- one would require signficant and privileged specialized knowledge to recognize any kind of fingerprint on such a god's behalf.

  3. It may require specialized knowledge to identify my work as mine but it does not take specialized knowledge to understand the person or entity behind a creation. It only takes the power of observation which we all possess. You can clearly see the decisions made, you can observe how things relate, you can see the order of things. Through the observation of all things created, art, literature, cinema, photography we can learn something ahout who created it without having specialized knowledge.

  4. Some of that may be so.

    But let's try a variant of Plato's cave allegory to see how universally that holds up.

    Consider the hypothetical example of a pair of twins raised by wolves. They've never been inside a man-made structure of any kind, until one day they stumble upon that creepy house from the Blair Witch Project.

    They've never seen a house before. They've never seen a human building a house. Given the amount of knowledge they possess -- or rather, lack of knowledge -- would it be more reasonable for them to assume that someone built that house, or would it be every bit as reasonable -- again, based on their knowledge -- to assume it had either always been there, or had grown out of the ground like a tree?

    Just as we are not born with the knowledge needed to believe that a house has a creator, we are not born with the knowledge necessary to believe that the universe, and the world within it, has a creator.

    Just as architects go to University, Christians send their children to Sunday School for a reason.


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