Appreciating C. S. Lewis

“We can see this far because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s a maxim I have tried to teach my students. So, even though our work has dealt with technologies James Clerk Maxwell hadn’t dreamed of (the interaction of light with molecules and nanostructures, the full physics modeling of the scattering of Radar from kilometers of sea surface, the design of antennas that radiate using magnetic currents) we still go back to the masters to learn what they had to say, in their own words.

If you ever took an electromagnetics class from me you would have heard other names beside Maxwell’s: Heaviside, Larmor, Lord Kelvin, Tesla. The list would continue into the 20th century with people like Bode, Schelkunoff, Wheeler, Hamming, Rumsey, Wait. And from there it continues to grow, as it should, if the Science is advancing.

It is the same with other fields of knowledge of Science and Philosophy. Ignoring the masters, the giants, is a shortcut we cannot afford. Of necessity, most textbooks reduce the Science to facts (Laws, equations) but learning is not about facts. Learning includes learning how to learn and think. And that’s why we turn to the giants. In fact, that is a thread that runs through the book that is the source of the quote I started with, John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon. This is how he said it:

“Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature. I readily agree with the foregoing.”

What does this all have to do with C. S. Lewis?

He was a deep thinker, a giant worth reading.

Many times, while I’m waiting for my FORTRAN program to grind on towards its solution, I scan the web for interesting conversations. One of those was a YouTube video of a part of a debate (or a panel discussion) between Prof. Jordan Peterson, Clinical Psychologist (University of Toronto) and Matt Dillahunty, Secular Humanist and American atheist activist. Of course, YouTube videos don’t give you the whole story but three points from that conversation stuck with me and bear analyzing:

  1. Dillahunty made the claim that there is no need for God or Religion because humans can construct their own ethical system. He had done so himself.
  2. He was challenging a common argument made against atheism that states that without God and a God-given ethic there is nothing to keep us from going on a rampage of murder and rape. His response to that challenge is to turn the question around and ask, “If today you were to be convinced that there is no God, would you go out and rape and murder people?”
  3. Apparently, if you go to his website you can find his deconstruction of the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that Jesus gave some good advice and some bad advice.

Why did this make me think of C. S. Lewis? Because in his book, The Abolition of Man, he pointed out that we as human beings are incapable of constructing an ethical system, for the simple reason that THE ethical system is already built into humanity. Lewis bases this conclusion on his extensive studies as a literary historian – that is, considering the writings of humanity from the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Babylonians, Hindu, Chinese through the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, all the way to Native Americans.

It bears quoting this whole passage from Lewis, because it is hard to think of any clearer way to put it:

“This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.

There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.

If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

So, point number 1 of the secular humanist argument is moot because the witness of the history of humanity has already proven that we already know the difference between right and wrong. As Lewis points out, to claim I am constructing my own ethical system is, at least, disingenuous.

Point number 2 is an example of the “strawman fallacy”. The point of the argument presented against atheism is that if God, or someone or something absolutely transcendent above man, is not the source of the definition of right and wrong then we can only have moral-ethical anarchy. Every individual would be capable of defining his own version of right and wrong, truth and lie; and there would be no way to govern society. There would be no limits on behavior. This argument is logical.

But to say there are no limits is not the same thing as saying that every man will go berserk as soon as he knows there are no limits. Yet, that is what Dillahunty turned the argument to mean. However, the very fact that most people answer “No” to his question of whether or not they would go on a rampage if they suddenly stopped believing in God, shows the problem with his argument. Most people already know right from wrong; whether they claim to believe or not to believe in God. Such an answer should force the secular humanist position to ask: where did they get this knowledge from? Most of these people have certainly not set out to construct their own ethical system. Yet, they have it.

In other words, point number 2 is also moot in light of the answer to point number 1. What C. S. Lewis called the “Tao of mankind” is real. And the real question is, if there is no God, where did it come from? Did it evolve?

I’ll get back to that one in the next blog post.

Point number 3 is rather strange. As Lewis brings up in “Mere Christianity” and expands on in the essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus?”, the claims Jesus made of himself do not admit the conclusion that he was a good teacher or even a good man. A Jewish Rabbi of the first century that by word and deed intimated he was on par with the Deity (claiming to have the power to forgive sins, claiming to have existed before Abraham) would have to be insane. Why would you even try to make sense of his Sermon on the Mount? How could you know what, if anything, of what was said was meant to be taken at face value?

If Jesus’ life and words, taken in totality, don’t fit with my worldview, I still have the free choice to disbelieve. But to pick and choose the bits I agree with and claim that “Jesus said it” is a waste of time; the Jesus I would be quoting would not be the real Jesus.

Next time: Did the Tao evolve? A tale of three lions.


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