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At Evolution News: C. S. Lewis and the argument for theism from reason

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The argument from reason is an old one but, as Jay Richards shows, it stands the test of time:

Naturalists tend to believe that Darwin’s account of the evolution of life is roughly correct. And they think the evidence establishes it. According to the Darwinian story, the adaptations of living things to their environment are not the result of purposeful design, but are the result of a blind process of natural selection acting on random variations within a population. Natural selection preserves and then propagates those variations that provide organisms with a survival advantage, and weeds out those that don’t…

Lewis argues that this process — which preserves survival-enhancing features — is nevertheless non-rational, and so cannot be expected to produce rational faculties. Again, if naturalism were true, then one would not expect minds and agents, choices and intentions to exist at all. If these things did exist, surely they would be mere epiphenomena of physical states. But let’s grant their existence, and even allow the naturalist the luxury of assuming that beliefs can guide our behavior. The naturalist will then want to argue that our reason and belief-forming faculties have been shaped by natural selection over eons, and so should be quite reliable.

The problem is that there are millions of beliefs, few of which are true in the sense that they correspond with reality, but all compatible with the same behavior. Natural selection could conceivably select for survival-enhancing behavior. But it has no tool for selecting only the behaviors caused by true beliefs, and weeding out all the others. So if our reasoning faculties came about as most naturalists assume they have, then we have little reason to assume they are reliable in the sense of giving us true beliefs. And that applies to our belief that naturalism is true.

This argument wasn’t original with Lewis. it appears in the Gifford Lectures given by British statesman Arthur Balfour in 1914. At the time, Balfour’s lectures were well known. They were even reported individually in the newspaper, and eventually published as the book Theism and Humanism, which Lewis credits as one of the ten books that most influenced him. But it is Lewis’s form of the argument that is still published, and read, in the twenty-first century.

Jay Richards, “C. S. Lewis and the Argument from Reason” at Evolution News and Science Today (October 26, 2021)

The essay at Evolution News and Science Today is based on Jay W. Richards’s chapter, “Mastering the Vernacular,” in The Magician’s Twin. edited by John West.

See also: John West on C.S. Lewis (who was not really a “theistic evolutionist” as the term is understood today). West: “Indeed, [Ken] Miller insists that ‘mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here… as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.'” Needless to say, Lewis did not subscribe to anything similar to this and might not have recognized it as Christian.

3 Replies to “At Evolution News: C. S. Lewis and the argument for theism from reason

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    “The problem is that there are millions of beliefs, few of which are true in the sense that they correspond with reality, but all compatible with the same behavior. ”

    This misses a big distinction.

    All naturally generated beliefs DO correspond with reality as seen by the believer. Scientists like to mock these beliefs, calling them “superstitions” based on “anecdotal” data, but the “anecdote” is the only data available to people. Statistics are not reality, and statistics rarely represent reality.

    Artificial beliefs, created by religions or govenments or media, are directly opposed to reality. These beliefs seem to generate the behaviors of war and torture, but not necessarily because the conscripted soldiers share the belief. Popes and presidents COMMAND the peasants to fight in crusades and wars, and KILL peasants who disobey. The belief doesn’t generate the war; the belief “justifies” the war in the proceedings of the legalistic courts and legislatures. Everyone knows the truth sooner or later.

  2. 2
    ram says:

    Polistra: the “anecdote” is the only data available to people. Statistics are not reality, and statistics rarely represent reality.

    I would say that that the “anecdote” is the only immediate data available to individuals. Statistics are a certain view of reality and are useful for predicting categories of events over time. They are generally useless in predicting a single event. Understanding why casinos and insurance companies make a profit is a case in point. The equations of Quantum physics are based on statistical models and are the most successful predictive models ever devised so far.

    –Ram

  3. 3
    jerry says:

    Darwin was right, his three observations affect our survival and thriving. It is called micro evolution or genetics. But as the article points out, thousands of beliefs are consistent with survival even if not true.

    And thus these false beliefs do not affect survival and thriving. Or do they?

    Suppose some of these false beliefs will affect survival and flourishing but extremely slow. Will then there be mass deleterious event? There was a famous expression

    Two ways, Gradually but then Suddenly

    There is a part discussion of this on another thread but these ideas are important and are essentially the same as presented there. However, commenting as usual digresses and essential ideas are then ignored.

    Lewis argues that this process — which preserves survival-enhancing features — is nevertheless non-rational, and so cannot be expected to produce rational faculties. Again, if naturalism were true, then one would not expect minds and agents, choices and intentions to exist at all. If these things did exist, surely they would be mere epiphenomena of physical states

    Again, Darwin’s ideas have nothing to do with the Evolution debate and micro evolution done a zillion times never adds up to macro evolution because the DNA model has little to do with the Evolution debate and micro evolution is about DNA.

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