Following on from Monday’s comments I was pleased to see that Lewis recognised that there were some valid objections to his points.
What Lewis calls “herd instinct” or normal human impulses. He provides an example.
Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self preservation).
He goes on to explain how instincts in conflict must be resolved by a third thing: The Moral Law. As with a lot of things I feel the need to say “I think you’ll find that it’s a bit more complicated than that” and I can think of several alternatives without much effort, one being that these instincts are not of equal and opposite strength, another being that they are not the only two instincts at work in the human mind. He also includes a lovely metaphor of a piano. Each of our many instincts are keys on the piano and the Moral Law acts are the sheet music. It’s a neat idea but it both begs the question as to where this Moral Law resides in our minds and it is wholly unnecessary for understanding human behaviour.
Secondly Lewis raises the objection that what he calls Moral Law is simply a social convention that is taught. he refutes this objection by claiming that this Law of Human Nature is closer to mathematics than taught behaviour. Essentially he attempts to assert that Moral Law is an absolute that does not change but social conventions are changeable. Indeed he tries to make the case that social conventions progress to get closer to an absolute value and pioneers and reformers are those who make these social changes to improve the lot of all of society. This may well be an attempt at Objectivism in a religious sense with absolutes of behaviour being assumed and then used as a comparison. There is nothing wrong with this if you take the assumed standard of behaviour as a model and not a real thing but I fear that Lewis is making an error by granting his assumption too great a value.
In conclusion Lewis uses an example of a witch hunt to demonstrate how social conventions have changed but Moral Law has not. He argues that our knowledge of witches supersedes any desire to kill them. We do not execute witches because we do not believe in them. If we did, he explains, it would be right to execute them. I disagree. We do not execute child molesters or mass murderers in England or in other parts of the world. We know that such behaviour is vile and reprehensible almost beyond belief. We can certainly justify ending the lives of such monsters but we do not do so because the taking of a life is considered to be wrong. A wrong in executing someone is compounding the wrong of their crime, it is not righting it. This is an improvement in moral behaviour for society, not a change in social convention.
Sadly I think he is trying to build a base where the Moral Law is seen by the reader as an irrefutable fact in order to explain the source of this Moral Law. I’m unconvinced so far. I can see far too many alternatives.
I’m reading C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity at the moment and found myself ranting (in my head) before I’d even finished the first chapter. Most distracting, I had to kept shutting me up and going back to read what I’d missed. With that in mind I’d like to examine the points raised in each chapter to see if there is any merit to what he’s written. Fortunately he writes very well with some excellent examples so there are few distinct points in each chapter to confuse thing.
In chapter one Lewis argues that there are things he calls Laws of Nature that are universal for all people. This is essentially a default moral standard enjoyed by all of humanity that included compunctions against killing, stealing, rape, deceit, etc. He argues that these are not learned traits but inherent in the human condition.
There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Creeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to–whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put Yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.
I disagree. Although he does follow up with some neat examples that I do agree with I think he is too sweeping in his assumptions.
There are many different characteristics that human beings could be said to have. I can indeed think of a country where aggression in war is frowned upon and pacifism is considered a positive trait or even where cowardice is excused. I think that we live in societies where exploiting those weaker than us is permissible and even encouraged. Selfishness and self dependence are certainly considered to be traits of value although we do not think of self promotion in such terms.
Are there really universal human characteristics or is Lewis just making a huge assumption? Even if he’s right what does this prove?
Filed under Atheist, Debate
There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who walk into a room and say, “There you are” and those who say, “Here I am!” — Abigail Van Buren
There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there. — Indira Gandhi
There are two kinds of people in the world, those with a zombie plan, and those that don’t. We call the second group dinner.
What two kinds of people are there for you and what’s your zombie plan?
Knowledge of the Bible is in decline in Britain, with fewer than one in 20 people able to name all Ten Commandments and youngsters viewing the Christian holy book as “old-fashioned”, a survey said.
Atheists, however, were not unduly worried about the decline in the Bible’s popularity.
“It shows really that religion is becoming less important to people,” said Pepper Harow, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association.
I got the article link from the BBC’s Big Question forum. Here was my own response at the time.
Whether you are a believer or not the Bible and the Church of England is part of our national culture and heritage. How can you hope to understand and appreciate the Reformation, The English Civil War or The Enlightenment without some idea of what the bible meant to people. Our language is resplendent with biblical references, our laws are often derived from biblical sources and overturned because we have no secular reason for keeping them.
We should have an awareness of the bible even if we believe that it is myth because people took it very seriously for a very long time. How can you argue against something if you don’t know where the idea came from. If you support stem cell research then you must know about the objections that are derived from Christian dogma as well as those that come from ethical considerations. If you support a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy then you need to understand how others object to it. If you support free education then you need to understand the basis for it and how Christianity was instrumental in creating the public school system.
Some responses lament the decline of knowledge in the general populace. “We are becoming dumber” they say. I disagree though that knowledge is in decline. In the 21st century we have unprecedented access to knowledge on almost any subject you can imagine. I can read Ulysses online, go to a library, order it from Amazon or even borrow a copy. I can discuss the references in a forum with people all over the world if I wish and can even search for one if I don’t know where to find one. I can join a correspondence course, arrange to meet up with Joyce or Tennyson enthusiasts or just write a blog about it. None of this was possible even 10 years ago on the scale we have today.
I think what is in decline is interest. We are becoming the Eloi and the Morlocks, neither is a fate I find particularly appealing. Do you disagree? Should we lament the loss of our history or allow that which has served it’s purpose to pass unremarked and unmourned? Is the decline of biblical knowledge, as I believe, a symptom of a society that has grown bored and indolent, that seeks only survival and entertainment. If we are losing the roots of our history then is this a step to replacing these old myths with something better for everyone?
Filed under Atheist, Debate
A round up of interesting news stories. What ho!
Britain’s libel laws threaten Free Speech. The article begins with some interesting background on chiropractors and how my nation’s laws are being used to silence science writers who criticise crackpot pseudoscience. Oh the shame.
Research reveals how super-sleeper frogs survive Oh I sometimes wish I could sleep for so long.
Outsourcing Faith Apparently the faithful want to be able to talk about faith rather than do their jobs. Fine, but it should be unpaid work right? Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who always come round when I’m in the middle of a strenuous workout (ahem) on a Sunday morning. They don’t get paid.
Filed under Atheist, Debate