Three Presuppositionalist Arguments from C.S. Lewis
Presuppositionalism is a form of apologetics on the rise in Christian circles. Its origins, however, are not that recent. The father of presuppositionalism is acknowledged to be Cornelius Van Til, whose work spanned the greatest part of the 20th century and died in 1987. C.S. Lewis, famous novelist and theologian, also dabbled in such arguments.
I examine presuppositionalism in my article ‘Why Presuppositionalism is Wrong’. In it, I explain why the standard objections to naturalism fail to pass the test of logic, and that therefore presuppositionalism is without basis in denying the rational worldview. Also, I discuss the strong-atheistic side of the argument in ‘Materialist Apologetics’, which uses divine causation as proof that theism contradicts necessary facets of reality, a strategy I will use here also.
The article I will examine here, Transcendental Argument : Contours of C.S. Lewis’ Apologetic (published in Premise Magazine Vol. IV No. 4), is Tommy Allen’s examination of C.S. Lewis’ presuppositional arguments. The three arguments discussed in Allen’s article are the Transcendental Arguments from Epistemology, from Morality, and from Myth.
I will use the nomenclature I used in “Why Presuppositionalism is Wrong” to designate the types of objections against naturalism.
(2a) Materialism fundamentally cannot account for X, because of the properties of matter.
(2b) Materialism fundamentally cannot account for X, because of the properties of biological evolution.
(2c) Materialism cannot account for the existence of scientific laws, which require omniscience to be known, but are necessary for X.
As I explain in that article, position (2a) commits the fallacy of composition, position (2b) commits the genetic fallacy, and position (2c) is based on a false assumption that knowledge must be certain. We should keep these in mind as we proceed.
The first argument is the Transcendental Argument from Epistemology. Epistemology, of course, is the study of knowledge : how we know, what the nature of that knowledge is, what our propositions mean and how we can justify them. We know that we must use rational methods because our minds are based on evolutionary instincts, and not borne out of a search for truth. If our instincts were truthful at all times, we would have no need for epistemology.
The theologian, of course, will try to use this fact of nature as a chasm that the atheist cannot cross. This is the presuppositional strategy :
The non-believer cannot give an account for the preconditions necessary to make use of logic, reason, learning, certainty, and truth. The Christian worldview demonstrates the foolish rationality of the non-believer by showing the non-believers system of thought is arbitrary, inconsistent with itself and lacking the preconditions for the intelligibility of knowledge. By showing the non-believer this, the Christian shows how the non-Christian worldview has to assume the Christian worldview in order to deny it.
This is all well and good, but the rational worldview can give account of logic, reason, learning and truth (certainty, being an anti-scientific and irrational concept, is not an issue at all).
- Logic is a necessary part of reality, being a derivate of the axiom of identity. Things have singular natures, and logic is a development of that singularity into a system that permits us to weed out contradictions (see ‘A Support of Secular Foundationalism’).
- Reason is a deductive consequence of the objectivity of reality. Given that all objects, excluding mind-entities, are independent of our mind, the best methods to find knowledge are extrospective (see ‘Why Objectivity is Valid’).
- Learning is possible because other people can communicate the knowledge they acquire through reason to us, by various means – whether direct communication, books, documentaries, and so on.
- Truth is a property of propositions – that they are acquired by rational means.
But did C.S. Lewis justify his argument ? Yes, or at least he attempts to. He uses the (2b) type of objection. As Allen explains, using the example of a drunk man suffering from delirium :
If the mind is irrational and only a product of the natural system, how can it be that the Naturalist does not believe the man suffering from [delirium], and yet believes the sober man? The Naturalist contradicts himself by choosing to believe the sober man, because the sober man’s reasoning has values. The Naturalist believes the universe is irrational, but he knows better than to trust thoughts produced by alcohol or lunacy.
Now, it is true that the human mind is produced by natural causes, which are part of biological evolution. But to claim that this means we must reject all our cognition commits the genetic fallacy. We can see this easily by breaking down the argument :
(1) The human mind is produced by irrational processes, much like an alcoholic’s thoughts are produced by a twisting of the rational mind.
(2) We should not trust irrational processes.
(3) Therefore, the naturalist should not trust his own reasoning.
Of course, we have to correct Allen here and point out that evolution is not “irrational”. Evolution is not a process of thought and therefore cannot be rational or irrational. It is a fact of nature. It produces both rational and irrational processes in the human mind.
At any rate, the genetic fallacy consists of faulting something because of its origins. That our reasoning ultimately originates from our mind, which evolved from impersonal processes, does not indicate its truth or falsity. We must evaluate epistemic claims based on how rational they are, not on their origins. In that regard, the alcoholic example is a straw man because we are aware that an alcoholic’s thought process will tend to be irrational. No such reasoning can be applied to cognition as a whole.
Using materialist apologetics to turn the question back to the theologian, we must ask them : on what basis do you trust your own thought processes ? What is your justification for logic or reason ? We can also return a question that Allen raises as unanswerable by naturalists : how do you justify the intelligibility of human experience ?
The theologian can answer none of these questions, because his belief in divine causation plunges everything material into contingency. He has no justification for upholding logic, since it is acknowledged by the presuppositionalist as a necessary property. Same for objectivity and intelligibility. Since these are all necessary properties of reality, and divine causation implies that they are all contingent, the theologian has no means to address these issues. Only the atheistic, materialist worldview can even begin to address them.
The second argument is the Transcendental Argument from Morality. We know moral values and moral responsibility exist because causality exists. Human values are goals that humans need to pursue in order to live fully. Actions have consequences, and consequences translate into values.
Allen, however, tells us that Lewis considers these relatively simple facts to be naturalistic impossibilities :
To the Naturalist, values are random and are collisions of subatomic particles. Moral laws must be either personal or impersonal. The Naturalist assumes they are relative. But where do these moral principles come from? How can an impersonal moral law make us obligated?
This seems to be a mixture of both (2a) and a bizarre equivocation on the term “impersonal”. I do not know if Allen is simply a bad writer or if Lewis’ argument itself is muddled, but it is hard to make sense of it. In the form of a syllogism, we can express it as such :
(1) To the Naturalist, values are random and are collisions of subatomic particles.
(2) Moral laws are impersonal. (from 1)
(3) An impersonal moral law cannot make us obligated. (from 2)
Of course, both premises are nonsensical : it makes no sense to speak of values as random, or of anything as random for that matter. Randomity is an epistemic consideration, which exists because our knowledge is limited. Furthermore, it makes no sense at all to speak of values as personal or impersonal, as such terms apply only to beings. Allen or Lewis seem to be stunningly unwary of category errors.
At any rate, the passage from (1) to (2) commits the fallacy of composition. This fallacy is committed when we transpose a property of parts to a whole, when such a property is not self-contained. In this case, intentionality is the property transposed. Even if values arose from collisions of subatomic particles, which is patent nonsense as values are an ethical concept and not a concept of physics, this would not indicate that values are impersonal. The formation of intentions is not a self-contained process, and indeed the human brain requires quite a few emergent systems to generate any thought.
Furthermore, even if values could be impersonal, such a state of affairs would have no bearing on moral obligation. We must follow moral laws because that is how we define morality : the specific properties of the moral laws have nothing to do with this basic semantic issue.
In view of this failed attempt at an argument, Allen asks :
If morals are simply chemical conditions and random collisions of protons and neutrons, by what standard can the Naturalist argue that natural disasters, children dying, victims of cancer, and ten million Ukrainians slaughtered in World War II are acts of immorality?
In the face of such presupposed absurdity, we have to return this question to the theologian. By what standard can he possibly argue that natural disasters or genocide are immoral ? His own god created natural disasters, and committed or supported genocide many times (including the Flood, where all life was wiped out). Furthermore, morality is contingent on his god’s decisions : God could declare that natural disasters, or genocide, are not immoral at all.
What right does the theologian have to get indignant at such things ? Why, because he is a human being that shares naturalist values such as the sanctity of life, compassion, justice. Not from his belief in a god – but rather, despite that belief. Not from divine contingency, but from materialist necessity. No other alternative !
The final argument is the Transcendental Argument from Myth. Here I have to confess that my understanding of Allen slips rapidly, as I have no idea what this argument is supposed to entail. Amongst a number of naked assertions that myths have some truth in them, it seems to attempt to make an Argument from Truth :
Tolkien continued to explain to Lewis that not only do our abstract thoughts come from God “but also our imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.”
Tolkien proceeded in telling Lewis how Christianity was a myth but different because God invented it with actual history and the people were real.
We should not be surprised that myths reflect an attempt to give eternal truths. Myths and religions are primitive attempts to answer important questions about reality and our relationship to it. This does not, however, indicate that myths come from God, but simply that pre-scientific people have tried to understand the universe in terms of stories and intentionality. Not having any understanding of the scientific method or naturalistic causes, intentionality must have been the most obvious answer to the problem of change in the universe.
It is also unclear what it means to invent something real, or why Christian myths must be real while all others are not. There is no qualitative difference between Christian myths and other myths : they are all part of the same process of memetic evolution. Christianity was derived from earlier religions (such as Mithraism), and later religions were derived from it (such as Islam). All have a veneer of historicity to support them. Why should we believe Christians and not Islamists or Mithraists ?
Finally, the theologian has no grounds to believe in the eternal truths of mythology. Eternal truths, by virtue of being eternal and therefore uncaused, must be necessary. But if God exists, how can there be any eternal or necessary truth, except for God itself ? Unless Tolkien was claiming that all eternal truths are about God, we must conclude that his statement was a contradiction.