C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 6

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May 12, 2011 Tags: Design

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

C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 6

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. Today Peterson continues to demonstrate that Lewis did accept the scientific evidence for evolution, while adamantly rejecting the philosophical naturalism many wrongly associate with it.

Lewis was extremely critical of Evolutionary Naturalism as a total package because Naturalism involves the denial of God, moral relativism, and human devaluation. What science legitimately reveals about Evolution is then pressed into the service of a completely secular and godless vision that justifies the technological and political manipulation of humans—and this is touted as a “progressive scientific outlook.” Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not primarily about advanced space travel or futuristic warfare but about the irreconcilable conflict between the Christian tradition and the “developmental” or “progressive” tendencies of modern thought. Professor Weston and Richard Devine, for example, represent different versions of the secular scientific vision. In That Hideous Strength, the final book of the trilogy, Lord Feverstone (Devine who has become politically influential) reveals the real purpose of N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) to Mark Studdock, a young sociologist he is recruiting as a propagandist for the cause:

If science is given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal … [T]he question of what humanity is to be is going to be decided in the next sixty years … Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest … You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. (pp. 39-40)

In “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis explains that the myth of Developmentalism or Evolutionism or Progressivism—i.e., the “Scientific Outlook”—twists Darwin’s achievement in biology into a grand, sentimental narrative about how—from elemental beginnings, against all odds, over enormous spans of time—life and then consciousness and then rational thought arose. The narrative continues: although the distant future is bleak and all existence ultimately meaningless, this courageous creature that the universe has produced, Homo sapiens, can now shape its own future (“The Funeral of a Great Myth,” 83; The Problem of Pain, 14-15). In The Abolition of Man (Book 3), Lewis warns about people of this persuasion who gain political power and calls them “the Conditioners.” No doubt, Hitler’s insidious crusade to “improve the species” through eugenics helped fuel Lewis’s incisive critique. Of course, Lewis knew that Darwin’s theory of organic evolution had been used to defend despicable acts toward humanity; but the preeminently logical Lewis knew full well that anyone could fallaciously dismiss any genuine fact by pointing out some misuse of it.

Unpublished correspondence with his friend Captain Bernard Acworth displays Lewis’s distress that Darwin’s theory had “run mad” and become the basis for the most fanatical views about the inevitable progress and limitless possibilities of the human race. Yet Lewis cannily describes his own thinking on this subject as the process of measuring scientific claims (as well as any other claims) by whether they contradict Christian orthodoxy—“the Creed,” as he says.1 Since scientific evolution does not conflict with orthodoxy, he politely refuses to reject it and equally politely declines to write a recommendatory preface to Acworth’s anti-evolutionary book, The Lie of Evolution. Some commentators place undue emphasis on Lewis’s remark that he has come to regard Evolution as “the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood” which so strongly influences modern thought. Such interpretations fail to account for the many contextual clues in the letters indicating that Lewis is not making this pronouncement about Evolution as science but about evolutionary science turned into a philosophical viewpoint which is naturalistic at its core. Although the correspondence transpires later in Lewis’s life, it is consistent with Lewis’s earlier published writings. The little-known letters to Acworth still show a lucid Lewis who remains focused on Progressive Evolutionary Philosophy, commonly known as Social Darwinism, as his real target, not the science of Evolution. He is not concerned about the prospect of our subhuman ancestry but consistently attacks the reductionism of our personhood in theory which leads ultimately to dehumanization in practice.2 “Reductionism,” of course, is reducing something to what it is not— qualitative matters to quantitative, the rich dimensions of our humanity to the purely physical.

The real debate is between the worldviews of Naturalism and Theism, or, really, Christian Theism. To demonstrate the conceptual advantages of Christian Theism, Lewis uncompromisingly works at such questions as, Which philosophical perspective provides a better explanation of everything we know? Which provides a more adequate vision of reality as a framework for making sense of important features of life and the world? Throughout his writings, Lewis hammers away at Naturalism’s inadequacies, at its reduction of many important features of reality to a deterministic material process. He is particularly worried about the distortions of consciousness of moral law, rational thought, and finite personhood. Christian Theism, as he argues in many venues, is philosophically far superior to Naturalism—which is frequently encountered in the guise of “the Scientific Outlook”—in explaining these fundamental phenomena. He also argues that Christian Theism is superior to Naturalism in explaining science itself, since Naturalism undercuts the validity of rational thought, which is essential for science. Lewis maintains that science as a knowledge-gathering enterprise makes best sense within a Christian worldview, which affirms that a rational God creates and upholds a rational finite reality and gives human beings the rational powers to investigate it.3 As Lewis says in "Is Theology Poetry?": “The scientific point of view cannot fit in … even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (p. 140).

Furthermore, since Lewis affirms that “all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found,” he refuses to surrender the scientific truths of Evolution to Naturalism.4 One reason for this is that he believes that the facts are what they are and must be accepted when properly established. This allowed Lewis to see evolutionary science as revealing fascinating details about how God’s physical creation has developed and continues to function. Another reason is that Lewis believed that the very character of the scientific facts can reveal something about God and his ways. In this regard, he perceives compatibilities and even deep resonances between Christian Theism and Evolution that are important to the articulation of a comprehensive and informed Christian worldview.5 Lewis knew that the doctrine of creation entails that, in principle, all truths fit together as a consistent, unified whole; they are not disparate beads on a string. But in practice we are always working toward greater comprehension, trying to perceive more connections and develop a holistic perspective—in other words, we practice “faith seeking understanding.”6 Lewis himself is a wonderful model of a Christian mind seeking understanding of the role of science in the human search for knowledge and insight into the evolutionary contours of the universe which science investigates.

In Miracles, Lewis offers a charming description of what it is to see Nature properly as a creature— a description that even heightens our awareness of the resonances between Christian faith and Evolution:

Only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see. (pp. 104-105)

Supernaturalism—not just any old supernaturalism, but orthodox Christian Theism—is the best vantage point for understanding the natural world. Lewis affirmed that an infinite personal Creator willed that the physical universe come into being and, through a long and complicated process, bring forth a special kind of being, the human being, in which rationality and animality are united.7 From this perspective, the evolutionary character of the universe can be seen as physical nature’s exploration of contingent possibilities within lawful structure, but still as having a divinely willed trajectory leading to a creature who could relate to God. Classical Christian theology does not entail that either the natural world or the human enterprise was created without chanciness and contingency, without the potential for development along alternative possible routes, and therefore strictly determined. Evolution in the physical realm and free will in the moral realm mutually attest to the significant degree of openness in God’s creation.

Notes

1. See Lewis’s Letter, September 23, 1944, reproduced and discussed in Gary B. Ferngren and Ronald L. Numbers, “C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith: Journal of the Scientific Affiliation 48 (March 1996): 28–33. The Creed here is probably the Apostles’ Creed, but it could be the universal ecumenical Nicene Creed, which is Lewis’s shorthand way of alluding to one of his most important themes: concentrating on and working intellectually out of the framework of doctrine that “has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” (Mere Christianity, Preface, viii).

2. Reading all of Lewis’s letters to Acworth, we see Lewis basically reacting to the evidences against evolution that Acworth proposed by saying that at his age he could not become an expert and adjudicate such matters. He was certainly open-minded and willing to consider all putative evidence for any view. But any suspicion Lewis expressed about the factual nature of Evolution can be overblown by fastening on just a comment or two. The larger context which Lewis always establishes for any particular remarks about Evolution is his deep hostility toward Evolution as a kind of secular theological creed. Misunderstanding this aspect of Lewis, Marxist geneticist J. B. S. Haldane wrote an inflammatory article accusing Lewis of engaging in wrongfully degrading scientists in his fictional novels. See “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.,” Modern Quarterly, n.s., 1 (Autumn 1946): 32–40. Although never completed, Lewis’s partial rejoinder can be found in “A Reply to Professor Haldane” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), 74–85.

3. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory, 139–40. This point again picks up on the recurrent theme in Lewis (found in Miracles, Mere Christianity, etc.) that reason cannot be ultimately derived from and dependent on matter. Lewis explores supporting themes in “Meditations in a Toolshed” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 212–5.

4. Arthur Holmes is well known for coining this felicitous and quite profound statement which is the title for his All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983). The idea behind this statement, of course, has deep roots in Christian history: the doctrine of creation, the concept of Christ as Logos, Augustine’s writings (on creation, the light of the mind, etc.), and Aquinas’s magisterial works (aimed at interpreting and synthesizing all knowledge under Christian understanding). Not surprisingly, the idea is pervasive in the Lewis corpus.

5. I explore this point in depth in Peterson, “Evolution and the Deep Resonances between Science and Theology” in The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011).

6. This famous phrase (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum) echoes throughout the writings of the great medieval Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas. But it is usually attributed more directly to Anselm of Canterbury. See his Proslogion in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, trans. M. J. Charlesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 83.

7. “God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures which can [be turned] into ‘gods.’” See Lewis, Mere Christianity, 222. Here again Lewis is reflecting another ancient theme of the church: that proper human destiny is participation in the divine life. See also Lewis’s restatement of the classical Aristotelian definition of Man—as “an animal, yet also a reasonable soul”—in Perelandra (1944; reprint, New York: Scribner, 1972), 178.


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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Jon Garvey - #61068

May 12th 2011

I suspect that in answer to our absent friend Gregory’s repeated challenge: “Name some things that don’t evolve”, Lewis would have happily done so.

Nearly 50 years after Lewis’s death we are still often trapped in the mindset of naturalism as the default position, even as Christians. Or so it seems to me.


Bilbo - #61073

May 12th 2011

I think a more complete list of the Acworth letters can be found here:

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1657102/posts

For example, this one:



“Do I agree that the theory of evolution, its truth or
falsehood, is of fundamental importance to the Xtian faith?” This
question can have several senses, in some of which the answer yes wd.
most seriously misrepresent my position. I believe that Man has fallen
from the state of innocence in which he was created: I therefore
disbelieve in any theory wh. contradicts this. It is not yet obvious to
me that all theories of evolution do contradict it. When they do not, it
is not my business to pronounce on their truth or falsehood. My
“message” on any biological theorem wh. does not contradict (or wh. I,
with my imperfect process of reasoning, do not perceive to contradict)
the Creed, is not “equivocal” but non-existent: just as my message about
the curvature of space is not equivocal but non-existent. Just as my
belief in my own immortal & rational soul does not oblige or qualify
me to hold a particular theory of the pre-natal history of my embryo,
so my belief that Men in general have immortal & rational souls does
not oblige or qualify me to hold a theory of their pre-human organic
history­if they have one.”


Bilbo - #61074

May 12th 2011

Or this one, that Peterson quotes from:

September 13, 1951: “I have read nearly the whole of Evolution
[probably Acworth’s unpublished “The Lie of Evolution”] and am glad you
sent it. I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution,
which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief
that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What
inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the
central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs
our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and
twisted attitudes of its defenders.”

What does Lewis mean that Acworth’s book has shaken his belief that the question of evolution was wholly unimportant?  Why does Lewis wish he were younger?  So that he can seriously study biology and evolutionary theory?  What evidence is Lewis referring to when he refers to “the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its [evolution’s] defenders”?   I imagine that we would need to read Acworth’s book in order to understand what Lewis is talking about here.


Steve Ruble - #61080

May 12th 2011

“Reductionism,” of course, is reducing something to what it is not— qualitative matters to quantitative, the rich dimensions of our humanity to the purely physical.

Well, this statement counts as “reducing something to what it is not”, but it doesn’t actually give a very good definition of “reductionism”.  I think a better definition would in fact be the exact opposite: “reductionism” is reducing something to what it

is -

trying to find the most fundamental detectable things which compose the objects of our every day experience.  It’s not as if matters

stop 

having qualitative properties when you discover the quantitative structure underneath, any more than a basket stops being heavy when you count the number of apples which make up its weight. Reductionism leads to you understanding more, not less.


He is particularly worried about the distortions of consciousness of moral law, rational thought, and finite personhood. Christian Theism, as he argues in many venues, is philosophically far superior to Naturalism—which is frequently encountered in the guise of “the Scientific Outlook”—in explaining these fundamental phenomena.
I’m not sure “finite personhood” requires much of an explanation - it seems like the only likely kind of personhood to me; the “infinite personhood” of Lewis’s god is much more dire need of explanation. Moral law? Well, since that’s a construct of Christian Theism anyway, it’s welcome to try to explain it; naturalism isn’t particularly good at explaining things which don’t exist.  Finally, rational thought… I think this illustrates the fundamental abuse of the word “explanation” that is happening here. I’m familiar with the made-in-the-image-of-god claim, but that doesn’t explain anything. You can’t form any conclusions about how people actually reason from the claim that they are 

made-in-the-image-of-god; it doesn’t lead us to any new discoveries; it doesn’t help us understand why we make the mistakes we do; it doesn’t help us learn how to reason better. It’s a phrase pretending to be an explanation, but it does no work at all.


Merv - #61094

May 13th 2011

So theology doesn’t give us scientific discoveries ...   then we should also criticize Tiger Woods for never once having scored any touchdowns in the NFL. 

I do admire your religious devotion, Steve.  It’s a good kind of naivete—and Lewis thoroughly approved of simple Christian men who were too busy being religious to think of their religion or of themselves as being religious.  You exemplify the same immersion, though you direct it towards science.  Sometimes zeal is needed as an antidote for too much navel-gazing.  On the other hand, total departure from reflective thought will prove dangerous.  History (including but not limited to church history) could teach you all about that.


freetoken1 - #61102

May 13th 2011

Well, that seems a bit harsh.   However, the concern over the lack of self-reflection is a point that could be fruitful in many instances.


It does lead me to wonder, though, why all this concern about C. S. Lewis and what he thought.  Lewis was a good writer but I doubt that his thinking on various topics today, several decades later, could be considered up-to-date or even fit into the contemporary discussion without having to massage (and re-message) his words.

Merv - #61104

May 13th 2011

... I apologize for the harsh tone.  I too easily slip into the wrong spirit, and am sorry about the tone of that last post and especially the last sentence, Steve.

freetoken wrote:  ...” but I doubt that his thinking on various topics today, several decades
later, could be considered up-to-date or even fit into the contemporary
discussion”...

Christians stand accused of a far more egregious “sin” than this—and that is reading a Bible that is much older yet and seeing its applicability today as well.  It is the glory of science to strive after things “updated” and the glory of Christianity to strive for knowledge of things eternal. I can’t remember who said something very similar to this—it might have been Lewis himself.

—Merv


Merv - #61105

May 13th 2011

Correction…

my apology above was regarding the last sentences [plural] —-not just the last sentence.


Steve Ruble - #61204

May 14th 2011

Merv, I appreciate the apology, but I don’t think you should be too worried about your tone in that passage. I’m rather disappointed I haven’t been coming across as a reflective person, because I see many of my beliefs - and certainly my own loss of faith - as arising from reflection about what I can and cannot be confident about knowing, as well as a careful attention to the extent to which I may be deceiving myself or applying different standards to my own arguments than I do to others.


In the case of my comment above, I wasn’t contrasting Lewis’s Theism against science, but against the metaphysical Naturalism that Lewis sees as his enemy; I think that both philosophical frameworks are - or out to be - playing the same game, and can be fairly compared.  It goes without saying, I suppose, that I think Naturalism gets the better of the comparison - in large part because of its pragmatic success, but also because it is philosophically defensible, and because the Naturalistic tendency to formulate explanations in terms of composite systems and sets of rules appeals to my sense of what an “explanation” ought to comprise.

Merv - #61212

May 14th 2011

Thanks, Steve.  Your assessment is fair enough.

Freetoken, I still haven’t let go of your suggestion that Lewis’ writings are out of date for the purposes of these discussions.  In fact, I was just finishing reading his “Letters to Malcolm” this morning and found his last letter (ch. 22; p. 118 in my copy)  to be (to me) a powerful commentary on exactly the sorts of things we write of here.  In fact, he writes much in it that I think Steve would thoroughly approve even if he won’t follow to the same conclusions in the end.  In fact, if you don’t have a copy I would love to paste some of the highlighted portions in a post here for you all to react to.  I have just under 1200 words worth of excerpts typed and ready to go, but am not sure that such doesn’t push beyond the limits of quotation practices from copyrighted material.  It would make a rather lengthy blog posting (at least we don’t have the 1400 character limit any more—thank you Biologos for that!)  and I will do it if appropriate and nobody counsels against it.  Or you can check it out at your own libraries.  Let me know.

—Merv


freetoken1 - #61218

May 14th 2011

For lengthy discourses on topics you would probably benefit from having your own blog of some sort.   Commenting systems tend to always be limited in one way or another and it benefits from being able to have a place on the web to put detailed discussions, if only to provide a link to use in comments at other sites (such as this one.)


As for Lewis and the contemporary world - I’m thinking of the global nature of today’s scientific endeavors and that Lewis, like so many writers referred to in American Christian circles, was writing from his (and most people here) worldview, one of Western (even Anglo) Christianity.   E.g., a modern scientist in China today has a background worldview that is a mixture of her culture (some blend of naturalism and Eastern thought) and Lewis’ concerns are likely to be more orthogonal to her (and her colleagues’) lives than some of Lewis’ proponents would like.

Another example - I always liked Lewis’ The Great Divorce, but I realize that when I read it I am coming from a culture that is relatable to that work but someone from outside our Western heritage, while they may enjoy it at some level (and I see it is being made into a movie finally), will unlikely to appreciate all the details of what is in there.

So yes, I’m saying that Lewis (like every person) is culturally bound and we’ve got to be careful in trying to universalize whatever he was discussing.

Further, I don’t know what Lewis would have made of contemporary thought on the Bible and archeology and if he could have been convinced that some of what he thought was true was as certain as some would like to think.



Bilbo - #61236

May 15th 2011

I read the rest of the article here:

http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1996/PSCF3-96Ferngren.html

It ends with what I think is the correct conclusion:


“At the
same time his
correspondence with
Bernard Acworth suggests that he had come in his later years to
entertain more
doubts about the claims made for organic evolution than his published
works
indicate.”

Would present evidence make Lewis entertain more doubts?  I think so.  Would that make Lewis include ID as a major part of his apologetics?  No.  Why?  Because he saw all of science as being tentative in its conclusions, and therefore something on which one shouldn’t base major metaphysical or religious conclusions.


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