C.S. Lewis on Reasoning to Atheism

cs-lewis“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind.  In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking.  It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought.  But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true?  It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.  But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else.  Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity, p. 32

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35 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on Reasoning to Atheism

  1. So he “decides” that randomly inventing a reason (“god”) suddenly solves his problems and now he can trust his thoughts. I really can’t imagine any logical problem with THAT…

    • Why isn’t it logical, Atomic Mutant, to presume an intelligence being responsible for the fact that we have intelligence? It takes a lot less faith to believe that a designer was responsible than to believe that our ability to reason and think developed via random chance.

      • No, it doesn’t. It seems more logical if you already believe it, but of course, that’s true for anything. If you believe in something, it seems completely logical. That’s the nature of belief.

      • I guess you’re right, that you can’t qualify how logical something is or isn’t. And I do agree that your beliefs will color your ability to see something as logical.

        At the same time, if you see a building, it’s logical to believe that there was a builder. If you see a laptop, it’s logical to believe that someone designed and built the laptop. The universe and everything in it is so much more intricate, but you don’t think it logical that an intelligence was behind it?

      • you don’t understand evolution then. it’s anything but random. also, you don’t understand science, the scientific method, logic, fairy tales, mythology, and uh….well, pretty much anything at all.

      • It’s way easier to believe in a Creator than to believe that a tornado created a rolls Royce? What’s more the atheist believes something. The universe came from nothing…Impossible, every person knows zero plus zero equals zero..but the athesist is willing to put common sense on the shelf..sorry but you accountable to. Jesus and one day you will bow your knee to Him whether you want to or not!

      • Suzy: “Impossible, every person knows zero plus zero equals zero”

        So do -1 + 1, -2 + 2, -3 + 3, etc. There are infinite minus one other combinations of occurrances that do not equal 0 themselves that together equal 0. Like matter and anti-matter; like positive energy and negative energy. Find some informatino on quantum fluctuations, just for fun.

  2. “God”? Which one? Why “God” and not “gods”? So unless you were designed by a Trinitarian-incarnational-atoning-resurrecting-ascending-soon-to-be-returning-God who sacrificed himself to himself through a process which involved the livestock insemination of a teenager, you cannot trust your own thinking? The Raelians also believe this but their “Gods” are aliens who sent humans to planet Earth in a spaceship piloted by talking, lava-eating, sea clams. Scientologists also agree with C.S. Lewis but in their case, the galactic tyrant Xenu ruled dozens of planets, including Earth, which was then called Teegeeack. The planets were overpopulated so Xenu captured billions of people, froze them, and transported them by spacecraft to be dumped in volcanoes in Teegeeack. Nuclear bombs were set off in the volcanoes and the disembodied souls of the victims were liberated from their bodies. Now those souls, or thetans, attach themselves to people and inflict psychic suffering on them. You can only trust your own thinking if you believe in Xenu and thetans. Glory!

    • The rest of the book gets into the specifics of Christianity, but you are right that in this quote, Lewis is only arguing the existence of a greater intelligence – a designer, which is logical when you look at the design of the universe, and the design of our minds. And yes, other religions could use this argument, which you didn’t refute.

  3. For Atomic Mutant, his point is actually pretty valid. If we are nothing more than evolved atoms then why should we assume our “reason” is reason. Maybe we evolved to be delusional so we would not have to deal with the reality there is no real purpose to life. If however there was purpose and design then there is validity in there being though and reason.

    • really? we don’t have to assume our reason is reason, actually. and it wouldn’t matter what you called it. it would be the default position- so if we ‘evolved to be delusional’, then that would be the original position, wouldn’t it?

      • ikonografer, I approved this comment, and not the others, because this was the only comment where you weren’t insulting or belittling. Please keep the conversation civil.

      • While I can see your point, it actually brought to mind Nietzsche. I think he would have argued for the breaking of delusional thinking just as he argued for the breaking of moral and social constraints. When you consider the complexity of our capacity, it invites at least the possibility of God. However, if there is a God then it is possible for God to make demands on our lives. I would encourage you to wrestle with the idea of God a little more. I say this because of your willingness to accept being delusional over the idea of God which I think one could argue even the staunch atheist Nietzsche would reject.

  4. An excellent quote. No one would look at a watch and conclude that random bits of metal assembled themselves into gears then into a functioning watch by mere chance. The wrist upon which the watch sits is more complicated than the watch.

  5. Evolution doesn’t state that something complex just pops into existence. It starts from something that is extremely simple and over time, millions or billions of years, gets ever more complex. To state that something complex just assembles itself randomly is not only off topic, but damages the discussion.

    Let’s use an inanimate object for example. A grain of sand sits upon a mountain top. Over the course of several thousand years it gets blown down the mountain, picking up debris as it goes. When it reaches the bottom, it is a boulder… or even just a rock. The point is, did God create this end product? No. Is it the same as it was several thousand years ago? No.

    This is an extremely simplistic example, but it should go to show my point.

    • Instead of using the inanimate object for your example…why not use real life as your example? Describe to me this evolution over time from a simple creature into a complex creature. Therein lies the flaw of evolution.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Shawn.

    However, Lewis’s argument is still valid, even taking into consideration what you’re saying. After all, the rock cycle is still a random process.

    Lewis is just saying that if our minds developed randomly (whether over a short or a long period of time), we can’t trust our minds, because they only work as a byproduct of this random happenstance we call non-theistic evolution.

    Thus, the only way we can completely trust our thought process is if there were an intelligence behind the implementation of the process – one who designed the brain for the specific use of thinking.

    To carry your example forward, it’s like looking at Michelangelo’s “David” and believing that the statue formed randomly and accidentally over time.

    By the way, are you by any chance related to Bruce Hornsby? I love his music.

    • I do understand the argument. The problem that
      i have with it is that it supposes that it is impossible that our brains evolved randomly. As an atheist I do not think it is an impossibility that there is (or ever was) a designer of the universe. The closest that I can come to it is that God created the Big Bang and has been hands-off ever since. I have no proof of this, so therefore this is not my worldview, but I do not discount the POSSIBILITY.

      As to your David comment, it actually is VERY random. The fact that Michelangelo used that specific piece of marble to sculpt it as opposed to any other available is random. The features and pose of the statue are very random, as he could have used any number of different ones as I assume that he had never met “David”.An entire paper could be written on the probability that that statue would turn out exactly as it did.

      This brings me to the point that if it was God’s will that he made it exactly that way, and he couldn’t have done it any other way, what is the point of trying anything? If we are predestined, then whatever we do, or lack of what we do, is exactly what God wants. This brings up a mess of problems concerning the evil that is in the world.

      So either we can trust that our minds are random, or we can trust that God wants all of the horrific things that happen throughout the world, to happen. In my mind there is a possibility for both, because neither can be disproven. I choose the former because I find it difficult to believe that an omnipotent being would create us just to torture us, though this again is not impossible. But why would I dedicate my life to such a being?

      I realize this is deeper than the topic stated, but by Lewis’ logic, I am doing exactly what God wants me to do (and to me that seems counterproductive).

      And to the Bruce Hornsby comment, no we are not related, though I have heard that throughout my life, lol.

      • Good points, Shawn. The idea of a supreme creator’s design transcending that creator’s own capacity to determine all of the outcomes contradicts the creator’s supremacy. This paradox framed in another way: Can an omnipotent being create a stone which even that being cannot lift? Thus, C.S. Lewis’s concern about not trusting “his own” thinking is inherently a misnomer, as it would not truly be “his own.” In fact, his entire existence as an independent being would be a form of deception (aka, a lie)–and, hence, inherently untrustworthy.

    • Only cartoon snowballs get bigger rolling down a hill
      Rocks don’t add volume as they go down the hill they lose it, and evolution by natural selection cannot add genetic material to the gene pool it can only eliminate traits from a static pool. There is not now nor has there ever been evidence of an expanding gene pool within any species or in the aggregate. There are fewer species of life today than there has ever been.

  7. Having written some papers on Einstein relativity and recently have had a paper accepted to be published later this year on the relationship of cosmology, science, religion and philosophy. My next one will be hopefully on Einstein, Theism, Atheism and Cosmology. Einstein is not only interesting but I understand him and his concepts well. He is very interesting because some say he was an atheist and according to others he is a theist. He definitely was not an atheist because is the first person to have used scientific reasoning convincingly and in original ways to indicate there was a mind behind the universe. I will expand on this approach. Since this site has been talking about God, mind, thought, universe etc I should for the present just say that I recently was able to convince a highly intellectual atheist at Oxford University, on accepting there was a mind behind the universe and in his opinion an impersonal mind. My views which I wlll detail out in due course is that the universe was a calculated act of a law of everything which led automatically to the evolution of particles, atoms, molecules. non living and living things and eventually the complex living things. There is behind all these events a predetermined process through a perpetual mind process. I can even say that some Abrahaemic religious beliefs and beliefs have a scientific explanation intimately linked to the existence of this original mind Hope to elaborate in the future.

  8. Lewis reasoning is very sound, in my opinion. But we can go a step further still. If there is no transcendence, there is no room for true agency. Every state of the universe including every state of each human mind is either completely predetermined or at best uncontrollably random. There would be no way for any of us to influence a future state in any way. What I am about to write in the next few minutes would not be the result of a free mind but would have been predetermined either 14 billion years ago or decided by quantum fluctuations that I have zero control over. This includes all reasoning and with it any decision for theism or atheism. We would have no choice to believe or decide either way. You remove transcendence and there goes reason as we traditionally understand it with it. Maybe someone can point me to a coherent way out of this dilemma. I have not found one.

    • It is indeed a dilemma. Transcendence of what, exactly? Certainly not of an ultimate Creator of all things (including all of space and time), established ex nihilo, right? Is the Creator only semi-intelligent about understanding the mechanisms of the Creator’s own works? As the famous paradox inquires: Can the Creator create a stone that even the Creator cannot lift? From an ultimate perspective, all must, in a logical sense, be quite precisely predetermined. There can be no privileged “stuff” called agency that defies a supremely intelligent Creator’s mind–even our most personal and private “inner” musings and thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) would be fully accessible to the Creator (again, if truly supreme and absolute). Therefore, we most certainly have a metaphysical problem with agency in a theistic model of the world.

      On the other hand, it is not clear to me that we have one in a non-theistic model. “Random” as a term to describe the nature of things in the absence of a supreme, intelligent being is sheer presumption. Random is not the logical opposite of having been personally created, so I believe we need to be careful about arriving at that conclusion. I have yet to hear an argument that compels us to accept randomness as a consequence of non-creationism.

      But I do believe we have a way out of the dilemma: Render unto faith that which belongs to faith, and unto reason that which belongs to reason. Stop attempting to justify belief systems with reason, and stop calling reason (and science, for that matter) a belief system, as we encounter these days, all too frequently. That sort of perilous enterprise is an express path right back to the Dark Ages. When faith and reason are mixed together, we find ourselves in paradoxes in infinite regressions that force the faithful into playing the religious exception card: “Well, that is beyond our human understanding” or “That defies linear, discursive logic,” and so forth. It’s certainly a convenient card to play when the very reasoning one claims will provide a stronger case for theism breaks down when finally having to deal with ultimate questions.

  9. @ Shawn Hornsby: You write “This brings me to the point that if it was God’s will that he made it exactly that way, and he couldn’t have done it any other way, what is the point of trying anything? If we are predestined, then whatever we do, or lack of what we do, is exactly what God wants. This brings up a mess of problems concerning the evil that is in the world.”
    How do you arrive at the conclusion of divine predestination? If God has created us with a supernatural capacity for agency (free will) then we can certainly influence what happens. We can decide for or against God, for good or for evil, we can decide to love or to hate, be altruistic or egoistic, etc. Without free will what point is there in any ethics or any revealed moral law? What point would there be to preach the sermon on the mount? Nobody could freely decide to act in accordance with it anyway. What point would there be to create a universe that is a mindless automaton? I don’t have the answer for why there is evil in the world, but I suspect evil is the price to pay for free will (see Alvin Plantinga’s work on this topic). We are “off the leash”. That may not always end well.
    However, without any true agency I don’t even know how to define evil. If a stone falls off a cliff and kills a hiker is that stone evil? No, it did not have a choice.

    • “If God has created us with a supernatural capacity for agency (free will) then we can certainly influence what happens.”

      Yes, as the Creator has predetermined, per the creator’s design–unless the claim is that the outcome of creator’s own design eludes even the Creator, which would contradict the construct of a supremely intelligent designer of all things.

      “We can decide for or against God, for good or for evil, we can decide to love or to hate, be altruistic or egoistic, etc. Without free will what point is there in any ethics or any revealed moral law?”

      It is precisely because, from within our human frame, we do decide these things, that we require a system of ethics and morality. The only difference is that such a morality is not pre-established. We create it. We create our own meanings. As Sartre articulated, we are loathe to such personal responsibility, and it can leave us feeling utterly alone and alienated when our humanity comes face to face with the abyss of nothingness. But then, who promised us a rose garden? Theism as a way out of dealing with the reality of our existence preceding our essence does not render it any more reasonable or logical. This is, in part, where C. S. Lewis and other apologists go astray. Really, really wanting so much for something to be the case does not make it any more the case. Again, however, none of this takes anything away form the value of morality, ethics, and compassion. It simply places them in our hands, as opposed to in one who created us.

      “What point would there be to create a universe that is a mindless automaton?”

      I’m afraid that it is a leap of reasoning that a universe not resulting from the hand of a personal deity is necessarily mindless and automatic. It is even presumption that such a universe lacks spirituality. In fact, there is no basis to conclude that spirituality is not predicated exclusively upon a theistic model of the world.

    • If the stone believed with all of its might that it had the choice and chose to hit the hiker would it be responsible? Are you familiar with the story of Oedipus?

  10. “But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true?”

    You shouldn’t trust your own thinking to be true. That’s what the whole point of “evidence” is. You have to look for things that tell you your thinking is wrong. Making up an excuse (like God) that means you DON’T have to check if you might be wrong isn’t reason, it’s just arrogance.

    If Lewis is stating that our reasoning minds indicate a reasoning designer, then how does he deal with the fact that more than half of the planet doesn’t believe in Christ? Even if you assume Christianity to be true, it still just shows we have flawed minds. If our reason is a reflection on our Creator, then our flawed reason indicates a flawed Creator, or none at all.

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