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Francis S. Collins on C. S. Lewis’ Moral Argument

I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief. … Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than “Is there a God?” And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility. Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.

This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.

At first, I was confident that a full investigation of the rational basis for faith would deny the merits of belief, and reaffirm my atheism. But I determined to have a look at the facts, no matter what the outcome. Thus began a quick and confusing survey through the major religions of the world. Much of what I found in the CliffsNotes versions of different religions (I found reading the actual sacred texts much too difficult) left me thoroughly mystified, and I found little reason to be drawn to one of the other of the many possibilities. I doubted that there was any rational basis for spiritual belief undergirding any of these faiths. However, that soon changed. I went to visit a Methodist minister who lived down the street to ask him whether faith made any logical sense. He listened patiently to my confused (and probably blasphemous) ramblings, and then took a small book of his shelf and suggested I read it.

The book was Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well.

The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book one: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” While in many ways the “Moral Law” that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time.

To understand the Moral Law, it is useful to consider, as Lewis did, how it is invoked in hundreds of ways each day without the invoker stopping to point out the foundation of his argument. Disagreements are part of daily life. Some are mundane, as the wife criticizing her husband for not speaking more kindly to a friend, or a child complaining, “It’s not fair,” when different amounts of ice cream are doled out at a birthday party. Other arguments take on larger significance. In international affairs for instance, some argue that the United States has a moral obligation to spread democracy throughout the world, even if it requires military force, whereas others say that the aggressive, unilateral use of military and economic force threatens to squander moral authority.

In the area of medicine, furious debates currently surround the question of whether or not it is acceptable to carry out research on human embryonic stem cells. Some argue that such research violates the sanctity of human life; others posit that the potential to alleviate human suffering constitutes an ethical mandate to proceed.

Notice that in all these examples, each party attempts to appeal to an unstated higher standard. This standard is the Moral Law. It might also be called “the law of right behavior,” and its existence in each of these situations seems unquestioned. What is being debated is whether one action or another is a closer approximation to the demands of that law. Those accused of having fallen short, such as the husband who is insufficiently cordial to his wife’s friend, usually respond with a variety of excuses why they should be let off the hook. Virtually never does the respondent say, “To hell with your concept of right behavior.”

What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes). It thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity. Yet in this instance, it is a law that, if we are honest with ourselves, is broken with astounding regularity.

As best I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly to human beings Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmering of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness. It is the awareness of right and wrong, along with the development of language, awareness of self, and the ability to imagine the future, to which scientists generally refer when trying to enumerate the special qualities of Homo Sapiens.

But is this sense of right and wrong an intrinsic quality of being human, or just a consequence of cultural traditions? Some have argued that cultures have such widely differing norms for behavior that any conclusion about a share Moral Law is unfounded. Lewis, a student of many cultures, calls this “a lie, a good resounding lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty.” In some unusual cultures the law takes on surprising trappings — consider the execution of suspected witches in seventeenth-century America. yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic action?

Let me stop here to point out that the conclusion that the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current postmodernist philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and all ethical decisions are relative. This view, which seems widespread among modern philosophers but which mystifies most members of the general public, faces a series of logical Catch-22s. If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right or wrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline of ethics in the first place.

Others will object that the Moral Law is simply a consequence of evolutionary pressures. This objection arises from the new field of sociobiology, and attempts to provide explanations for altruistic behavior on the basis of its positive value in Darwinian selection. If this argument could be shown to hold up, the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble — so it is worth examining this point of view in more detail.

Consider a major example of the force we feel from the Moral Law — the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return. Not all of the requirements of the Moral Law reduce to altruism, of course; for instance, the pang of conscience one feels after a minor distortion of the facts on a tax return can hardly be ascribed to a sense of having damaged another identifiable human being.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. By altruism I do not mean the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectation of reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting: the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives. When we see that kind of love and generosity, we are overcome with awe and reverence. Oskar Schindler placed his life in great danger by sheltering more than a thousand Jews from Nazi extermination during World War II, and ultimately died penniless — and we feel a great rush of admiration for his actions. Mother Theresa has consistently ranked as one of the most admired individuals of the current age, though her self-imposed poverty and selfless giving to the sick and dying of Calcutta is in drastic contrast to the materialistic lifestyle that dominates our current culture.