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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 3

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May 2, 2011 Tags: Design
C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Michael L. Peterson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This blog series, adapted from this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. In Part 2, Peterson began to show why Lewis, who did embrace some implicit or explicit arguments for an Intelligence beyond nature, rejected “design-type” arguments. Today he explores three features of ID and Lewis’s reaction to each.

1. ID claims to be an alternative way of doing science.

Mainstream science restricts its investigation to the natural world—and the world of modern biology is a world of evolutionary processes. However, IDers insist that certain biological structures are better explained scientifically by referring to intelligent design than to blind, random evolutionary processes. The clash over these two approaches to science has been at the heart of recent academic debates, cultural divides, and court cases. In their crusade against establishment biology, IDers style themselves as the oppressed minority who cannot get a fair hearing. Ben Stein took up their cause in the recent film Expelled. (I have to admit that I strongly dislike this film: both its logical fallacies and its convenient editing that makes some experts who were interviewed seem to support ID although they are on record in many other venues criticizing it.) Also, the Discovery Institute, established in Seattle in 1990, supports, among other projects, intelligent design research that challenges the accepted Darwinian -approach. So far, the Institute has made no groundbreaking discoveries or overturned any widely accepted biological explanations.

What would Lewis say about an alternative science that claims to detect Intelligent Agency beyond nature? Lewis was a purist regarding the role of science and rejected any notion that its methods can deal with qualitative matters and values, let alone prove (or disprove) a Transcendent Intelligence or God. Although he was a scholar and lover of the humanities, Lewis still appreciated established science and the integrity of its method. As a Christian theist, Lewis envisioned the constellation of all fields of knowledge as providing different avenues for -discovering various kinds of truths about God’s creation (historical, mathematical, scientific, and so forth). Not that every scientific theory is always correct or that the findings of science can never be revised as science progresses, but that the method of science is geared only for discovering the linkages between natural causes and natural effects. In Lewis’s own words:

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, “I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 am on January 15th and saw so-and-so,” or, “I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such- and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.” Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is.

And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it really is a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, “Why is there a universe?” “Why does it go on as it does?” “Has it any meaning?” would remain just as they were? (Lewis, "Mere Christianity", 22–3)

This brief sketch of the descriptive aspect of science should be augmented with information about the testing of hypotheses, which is central to science as it pursues its explanatory mission. But Lewis’s critical point for present purposes, in current parlance, is that we must distinguish the appropriate methodological naturalism of science from philosophical naturalism— something ID fails to do. Methodological naturalism is the scientific approach of restricting the explanation of natural phenomena to natural causes. Philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, is the philosophical view that nature alone is real, that there is no supernatural. Confusing these two definitions leads to the misunderstanding that mainstream science is inherently atheistic. In reality, methodological naturalism is completely neutral as to whether God exists or life has meaning; such lofty matters take us into the areas of theology and philosophy.

2. ID makes its living on what it takes to be deficiencies, incompletions, or gaps in existing science.

This specific strategy for formulating a design argument was first developed during the European Enlightenment when the scientific picture of the universe was that it is like a vast machine operating according to completely specifiable scientific laws. Many people looked for divine activity in this clockwork universe in events that science had not yet explained. Isaac Newton, for example, developed a precise mathematical formula “on paper” to describe how the planets move, but the actual motion of the planets varied slightly from the formula. So, Newton suggested that God periodically adjusts their orbits. The problem with god-of-the-gaps arguments was that they were already semi-Deist (admitting that God is only involved in special cases) and readily gave way to total Deism as science found natural explanations for what was previously explained by reference to God. In fact, historically, Deism eventually gave way to Naturalism, as God’s explanatory role in the scientific world was progressively eliminated. The mistake of making God-explanations competitive with natural explanations is now classic.

Yet this is exactly the mistake that ID is repeating. As ID arguments—regarding the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, the eye, etc.—are rapidly being undercut by new and existing scientific knowledge, educated people, particularly scientists, wonder about the intellectual credibility of the underlying faith that seems to motivate the arguments. By contrast, Lewis calls us to a richer, more nuanced understanding of what kinds of explanations are appropriate within the various disciplines— e.g., empirical and scientific questions require natural explanations as distinct from questions about ultimates, values, and meaning, which require philosophical and theological explanations. Grasping this distinction allows us to explore more productively how different types of explanation are not necessarily mutually exclusive but can be entirely compatible— e.g., explanation in terms of physical causes and explanation in terms of personal agency. Consider a personal anecdote which makes the point. While driving on a family vacation many years ago, I asked my two sons why a certain billboard was standing along the highway. Adam, who was six years old and fascinated by building things, said, “Because trucks and high lifts came in and built it.” Aaron, twelve years old and wiser about life, responded, “Because the owner of that business wants to market a product and make a profit.” Here we have a causal and mechanical explanation alongside an explanation referring to intelligent agency. Both explanations of the billboard are correct, not at odds. The key is to be clear about the kind of question we are asking and what disciplines properly address it. The flaw in the ID argument is that it treats natural causes and supernatural action as incompatible, such that the explanation of some selected phenomenon must always be one type of cause or the other.

3. ID trades on a number of misleading dichotomies.

If space permitted, we could more fully expose the dichotomies between theology and science, divine action and physical process, primary and secondary cause, efficient and final causality, and so on. One dichotomy in ID that Lewis would certainly address in the present context involves pitting purpose and design against chance and evolution. Lewis rejects the view that reality exists completely by chance and without purpose as inconsistent with Theism, as we shall later see. But for biology to identify chance as a factor in the unfolding life process does not imply that the world is purposeless and not guided by a greater intelligence. The assertion that the biological realm involves chance as nondetermined contingency and thus the potential for development is not equivalent to the declaration that existence is ultimately without meaning or purpose. There are finer distinctions to be made in thinking carefully about the roles and levels of chance in relation to intelligent guidance.

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil (Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God (Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.

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Merv - #60709

May 2nd 2011

Something like the phrase “... ‘chance’, if ‘chance’ you call it…” comes up in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ (more than one place I think) in the mouths of wise characters of middle earth pondering events like Bilbo happening to place his hand on the lost ring as he blindly crawled through a dark tunnel or Faramir rather than Boromir being the brother to encounter the vulnerable Frodo & Sam later in Icthilion.    Those are great caveats to something grander masquerading as (even ‘incarnate’ in?) that most mundane of items we call chance.

Theology according to Tolkien.


Merv - #60712

May 2nd 2011

Lewis’ assertion that any “complete” science would still leave the big questions unanswered is still very apropos to recent years.  We still see the tendency of some to think that religious experience is answered (or dismissed) on the grounds that it can be correlated to detectable brain activity in specific regions.  Such thought is the continued symptom of an entrenched dichotomous approach in which something can’t possibly be more than one thing.  Thank you, Dr. Peterson, for a thought provoking essay.

Good luck, though, getting folks to warm up to any phrase such as “methodological naturalism”.  What some of us (myself included) see as a fairly accurate description of science, is a hostile bright red flag for others.  It has been hopelessly conflated with philosophical naturalism (especially by ID proponents) who see nothing but prescriptive (over descriptive) exclusion in the term designed to lock them out.  Perhaps they have a point.  In any case I’m not sure that well can ever be ‘unpoisoned’.   And anyway, it is merely the label over the deeper issue of whether the goal of ID can be considered scientific.


Kregg Miller - #60735

May 3rd 2011

As an admitted layman I believe a large number of IDers would gladly accept “methodological naturalism” amongst evolution biologists if it were actually practiced by evolution biologists.  REPORTING on observations in the laboratory or in the field is a far cry from EXPLAINING those observations - and it is in the explanations that philosophical naturalism inevitably takes over.

If science were willing or able to police itself in regards to philosophical naturalism I doubt IDers would feel the need to continually remind them to stay within the purvey of science - to observe and report.
Merv - #60745

May 3rd 2011

Excellent point, Kregg.  I can sympathize with the notion that ID is responding to much abuse by some a-theistic, if not anti-theistic aggressors who cloak themselves with science.  Of course, they will object that they are merely reacting to heavy theistic overtones (or ‘abuses’ they would say—and rightfully so in many cases) from even farther back.  So both can play the “well, you were naughty first” game.  But regardless of the shoving match, the provocations are certainly there on both sides now.  ...leaving us to ponder how we can swim up through all that to at least get closer to objective light again.


Dave C. - #60740

May 3rd 2011

Well I am a little disappointed that a philosophy professor would suggest that methodological naturalism is atheoretical. It is well known in the theory and philosophy of science that methods are theory-laden. That’s right – methodological naturalism is laden with assumptions about the natural world, assumptions that work well when studying inanimate material, but violate common sense experience and Christian theology when applied to the study of human experience, as so often happens.

The author claims that naturalism is neutral with regard to meaning in life. Many theoreticians know that naturalism is NOT neutral with regard to whether life has meaning. Methodological naturalism assumes that actions are governed by universal laws of nature (cause & effect), including the actions of humans as we are comprised of physical material upon which natural laws assert their influence. Well, if, as naturalism assumes, we deny humans agency then their actions cannot be meaningful. If I cannot choose to do otherwise, then my actions are not meaningful. This underlying assumption of methodological naturalism is not neutral on whether life has meaning.

Perhaps a hatred of ID may cloud one’s ability to write clearly on matters such as this.

Merv - #60746

May 3rd 2011

Dave wrote:  “

Methodological naturalism assumes that actions are
governed by universal laws of nature (cause & effect), including the
actions of humans as we are comprised of physical material upon which
natural laws assert their influence.”

I would put it rather that  MN assumes only the naturalistic agents are within reach of *scientific investigation*.  MN doesn’t say anything at all with regard to whether other (supernatural) agents exist at all or not.  There is a reason for that ‘M’ to be in front of the ‘N’.  By conflating MN with simple N (i.e. PN).  I agree with you that ‘naturalism’ by itself as historically used generally is synonymous with the value laden philosophical naturalism.  Dr. Peterson warned about confusing the two.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60744

May 3rd 2011

I too have a problem with “naturalism,” methodological or otherwise as it seems to be understood in scientific circles.  As I understand it based on the thought of Monad science is intended to be objective, that is the study of objects.  Objects do not think and therefore do not have purpose or meaning.  In other words and maybe more to the point science is opposed to teleology, the study of purpose or ends, which was a part of Aristotle’s concept of science and was used by theology to discourage experimentation.

The problems with this point of view are many.  The primary problem I have with it is that it effectively makes nature nonrational.  Nature does not think and the supernatural is excluded from the study of nature, so from whence comes Natural Laws which are rational.  They must come from humanity, which can think and thus humans would seem to be supernatural, or natural laws must not exist and are a figment of our imagination, just like God.

Second, the view that things have a purpose goes against common observation and experience.  Eyes are made for seeing.  Our hands definitely have different purposes.  While it may be that when one is observing inanimate objects it is hard to see how they have a purpose, but when we look at a natural system, like the water cycle and how it works, we see that each part has a purpose and a function.  It seems that humans probably get the idea of machines from nature, rather than humans projecting the idea of machines on to nature.

Third, while it may be true that objects cannot think and thus cannot be said to have a purpose, the same thing cannot be said of living things.  While as far as we can tell only humans are self aware and self conscious, we are now aware that other animals are able to think and even solve problems at least after a fashion.  Thus we cannot say thaqt purpose and is some sense meaning does not apply to the evolution of life forms as Dawkins, Dennett, and Co.  maintain.   

Finally the virtue of science is that it based on experience or experimentation.  I submit that naturalism as Monad has described it and Dawkins and Co. practice it is not based on experimentation or experience, but on the theory described above.  One can see how over the millenia eyes have adapted in different creatures to meet the visual needs of different creatures in different environments with different anatomies.     

When we strip nature of its rational, designed structure as naturalism tries to do, it does not make sense.  It points to the fact that nature does not exist apart from its Source, which of course is the fact that Dawkins and Co refuse to consider.  ID tries to get back to this basic fact, although its methodology is clumsy and does not work.  Nature is more like a computer program that God has created and sustains indirectly, rather than a machine that needs upgrading and maintenance. 


Merv - #60747

May 3rd 2011

Roger writes:  “The primary problem I
have with it is that it effectively makes nature nonrational.  Nature
does not think and the supernatural is excluded from the study of
nature, ” ...  and continues:  “Second, the view that things have a purpose goes against common observation and experience.  Eyes are made for seeing. “...

Looking at your second point first:  didn’t you mean to write “the view that things *don’t* have a purpose goes against common observation…”  That would fit better with the rest of what you wrote.

The first paragraph above has the curious statement:  ” ... supernatural is excluded from the study of nature ...”.   And you have a problem with that, Roger?  Wouldn’t ‘supernatural’ include *by definition* things that aren’t natural?  And so why should any study of nature be accused of not including them?


Argon - #60772

May 4th 2011

Roger: “As I understand it based on the thought of Monad science is intended to be objective, that is the study of objects.”

“Objective” in science means conclusions are not based on personal feelings but on readily transmissable facts, independent of any particular individual. It’s not about the topic of study. As for ‘intention’ and ‘purpose’: Well, we have psychology and behavioral research which perform scientific research. The problem is the conflation of ‘function’ say, of a proximate, selected trait in an organism, with ‘purpose’ as a distal, metaphysical claim. Proximate effects and causes are far, far easier to objectively characterize. Theology, less so.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #60801

May 5th 2011


I understand your point which has some validity, however the problem with making a blanket statement about purpose and function is that it is not always appropriate.  I have heard that scientists are not permitted to say that many birds migrate south for the winter in order to avoid the frigid winter weather. 

The thing is, adaptation does have a purpose, which is to survive and flourish in an interactive system, and to deny this distorts the whole process. 

S. Scott Mapes - #60748

May 3rd 2011

In my seminary studies, I took a seminar on the theology of C.S. Lewis.  Having read several thousand pages of Lewis’ writings, I believe that Michael’s assessment of Lewis’ views on science is spot on.  A well written article indeed!  And although Lewis and Tolkien had some lively disagreements, Merv’s point about “chance” as providence in cognito would have been a point of accord between the two.  (See Lewis’ The Silver Chair

as an example of imperfect obedience on the part of the children and the seeming happenstance quality of events that followed.)  Finally, while I may not always agree with your analyses, Roger, your comments do get me reflecting more deeply than I would have otherwise.  Perhaps I’ll be a fly on the wall while Merv and you continue your end of the discussion. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60750

May 3rd 2011


Thank you for pointing out the my mistake in syntax.  I definitely meant to say that people observe that most things do mhave a purpose.

As regards to the second point.  Please note that natural laws govern nature.  That means that they transcend nature and are not physical.  How can one study nature and not natural laws?  Natural Law is really what physics and the natural sciences are all about.

The truth of the matter is that “natural laws” are not physical and by the definition that scientismers use of nature as physical are not natural.  They are indeed intellectual and relational, not composed of matter and energy.  They are indeed over nature, or supernatural or metaphysical, that is beyond the physical. 

Some scientismers are trying to redefine the task of science as description, rather than understanding.  This means that natural laws would not govern nature, nor would there be any moral laws.  Just descriptions of what has happened in the past.     

Merv - #60752

May 3rd 2011

Fascinating approach!  ...and one I hadn’t encountered.  So you would say that gravity, for example, is unnatural?  You are correct [I think] that such a thing isn’t thought of as matter or energy (though I really have no idea what terms like ‘gravitons’ are all about & how much it may owe to science fiction as opposed to science.]    But all that aside, I am interested in the notion that would blur (or recognize a ‘blur’) in the distinction between alleged ‘natural’ and alleged ‘supernatural’.  So do you think that the ‘miraculous’ and the ‘common-place’ are separated only by a matter of degree of their ordinariness?  Is gravity simply more commonplace than people rising from the dead—-but really all just one big [unnatural] collection of laws or divine agency?  Do you still maintain a category of ‘supernatural’ as different from gravity?

gotta go for now…

sy - #60763

May 4th 2011


I agree with Merv that your approach to this issue is fascinating and thought provoking. In one sense, it seems logical to propose that there is only one natural universe, in which all that exists (including God) exists. Yet we have pretty good evidence that the existence of God is outside of “naturalist methodology” or science as we know it. In this sense, although real, God (and many other aspects of reality, like art, love, meaning, morality etc.) belong in a realm that we could label as supernatural, but again that applies only to the methodology we might use to study them, not to any judgment about their actuality.

Merv raises the issue of gravity, which is certainly real, but like a good deal of modern physics can only be understood and researched using mathematics. This raises the question of how and whether the use of mathematics should be considered to be part of the naturalist methodology. Physicists of course claim that of course it must be. Mathematics is the only way to make progress in understanding many aspects of the physcial universe, and in many cases, predictions from mathematical theory have been confirmed by observation and experiment. But this is not always the case.

Which brings us back to ID, which is ultimately a mathematical proposition, yet without the rigor found in most mathematical physics (IMO). I agree with the article, that ID makes a fundamental error in claiming to use naturalist methology to address an issue (the role of God in creation) that it is not equipped to do.                           

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60767

May 4th 2011

Merv and Sy,

Sy is closer to what I am saying.  It is not gravity that transcends nature, because garavity is energy.  It is E = mcthat transcends nature, the natural law that governs energy and matter.  The question raised is What is “real” or “natural?”  I contend that we must consider math which is intellectual a part of the real and meaning as part of the real, if we are going to understand nature.

Roger Penrose has developed an interesting view of Reality, based on Plato, which as three aspects, the physical world as it is, the mental world as we know it, and the perfect mathematical world (as God sees it.)  All three are real and interactive.  This view and diagram can be found in his book The Road to Reality and Mario Livio’s Is God a Mathematician?

I would change the model slightly to make the perfect world of math into the spiritual world of meaning, so Reality would have three aspects or interdependent levels, the physical, the intellectual, and the meaning/spiritual.  Science is primarily concerned with the physical aspect of Reality and secondarily with the other two, Philosphy is primarily concerned the  level of Ideas and the Intellect, while Theology is primarily concerned about Meaning and Purpose. 

All three are concerned with the understanding of Reality, but each has its primary concern.  They are interactive, but hopefully do not interfere with one another.  

Merv - #60779

May 4th 2011

If I understand you correctly, you’re proposing that E=mc^2 is somehow categorically different than F = Gm1m2/r^2.   You call the gravitational law ‘energy’, though it is actually Einstein’s famous equation that is energy (and matter—governing the exchange between the two, in fact.)  Gravity probably is too, though less obviously so.

But in any case, if you are distinguishing between such mathematical relationships, how do you justify that?  And are you accepting the label ‘natural law’ for them even though you seemed to suggest earlier that they (or at least some of them) transcend nature?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60781

May 4th 2011


The law is not a thing.  The law or equation is that which determines how things work or ralate to each other.  In other words gravity is not the law of gravity, but the way that gravity works.  I may not be familiar with the exact equation that scientists use for gravity, but I think that E = mc2 is the general formula that expresses the relationship between energy and matter.  My understanding is that gravity is caused by a force field that bend space, making energy, space, and matter related.  The speedm of light brings time into the picture.

My main point which you still have not comprehended is that Nature is MORE then the physical, but a complex unity of the physical, intellectual, and the spiritual, just as humans are but with a different mix of the three, and just as Jesus Christ is.  Thus Natural laws transcend nature according to the monistic definition of nature, but not the the revised triune definition of nature, the three worlds of Plato.  

Merv - #60783

May 4th 2011

I will keep reading as you interact with others to see if I can better understand your approach.  It seems to me you are willing to treat what nature is and what nature does as two separate categories.  I’ll keep an open mind to that, though I remain skeptical that they can be so easily separated.

Just on the surface, I see no objections to acknowledging physical / intellectual / spiritual categories with their complex mixes in each of us.  Thanks for pushing on that.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60788

May 4th 2011

Merv wrote:

I will keep reading as you interact with others to see if I can better understand your approach. It seems to me you are willing to treat what nature is and what nature does as two separate categories.

Thank you for your comment.  You say that I seem to treat what nature is and what nature does as two separate categories.  First of all let me state that humans really do not know things are they are, that isw a collection of atoms and molecules.  we know things are objects with form and function. 

This might seem to be superficial knowledge, but we find that form and function of things are what they really are, not a collection of molecules and atoms.  A ball is a ball.  Balls are used in games.  Different kinds of balls are made of different materials to match the character of the games in which they are used.  Metals are all similar and yet have different characteristics which make them useful in many different ways.   

Everything is composed of a very limited number of kinds of subatomic particles, and yet we have many different elements and many, many compounds and of course limitless forms of the protein, DNA.  We cannot see any of these but we know them by the form and functions and diversity they give to our world.  This is the wonder of science.  Of course it is also the wonder of God Who is the Source of all.  Why anyone would deny this is beyond me, but that is the way it is.  

I do not know if this helps or just confuses, but that is the way I see it.  The universe is not made up of static being, but dynamic relationships grounded in the dynamic interplay of matter and energy. 

Uncle Bonobo - #60804

May 5th 2011

” garavity is energy.  It is E = mc

that transcends nature, the natural law that governs energy and matter.”

This is flatly and scientifically incorrect at a fourth grade level of misunderstanding.

“I may not be familiar with the exact equation that scientists use for gravityequation that scientists use for gravity”

Truer words were never spoken. This inability to comprehend basic science that is the foundation of your arguemnt leads me to doubt all of the rest.

A fair alnalogy is someone who tells me that the the human brain has several lobes, such as frontal lobe, temporal lobe and caudate lobe, while explaining medicine to me.  When it is pointed out that the caudate lobe is in the liver, not the brain, the person responds ” I may not be familiar with the exact location of lobes, but let me tell you about brain surgery.”

I suggest that some very hard study of physics, chemistry and biology is in order before making any broad conclusions how science works.

“I have heard that scientists are not permitted to say that many birds migrate south for the winter in order to avoid the frigid winter weather.”

This is what happens when you work from a fourth grade level of  scientific understanding.

Bilbo - #60879

May 8th 2011

S.Scott Mapes:  ” Having read several thousand pages of Lewis’ writings, I believe that
Michael’s assessment of Lewis’ views on science is spot on.”

Mapes, I’ve read several thousand pages of Lewis’ writings, also, and I could not possibly disagree more with you.  Michael Peterson has thoroughly butchered Lewis’s views.  He should hide his head in shame.

S. Scott Mapes - #60881

May 8th 2011

I will read the remaining pieces on Lewis and the blogs befoe I engage further on this topic, Bilbo.  I’ll get back to you. 

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