C.S. Lewis had a profound influence on me as a thinker and as a man of faith. In this piece, I trace the evolution of C.S. Lewis in his thinking from materialist to theist.
We begin looking at Lewis a few months after his honorable discharge from the British Army following service in World War I at age 20. Lewis say fighting and was injured during the War. He published a book of poems, Spirits in Bondage, influenced by his experiences. The opening poem, Satan Speaks, paints a grim portrait of nature and the way that young Lewis had come to view the world.
I am nature the mighty mother
I am the law. We have none other.
I am the flower and the dew drop fresh
I am the lust in your itching flesh
I am the battles filth and strain
I am the widow’s empty pain
I am the sea to smother your breath
I am the bomb, the falling death.
I am the spider making her net
I am the beast with jaws blood wet
C.S. Lewis was an impassionate, but staunch atheist in his early years inspired by what he referred to as “the argument from undesign.” He determined that nature’s cruelty and waste speaks strongest against the idea of a benevolent Creator.
Lewis was influenced by personal tragedies, including his mother’s death during his childhood and the war in which he participated. He was also influenced by schoolmasters and material that he read.
Much of what he read, however, pointed him in a different direction. He was a voracious reader, from the classics in Greek and Latin, to Celtic and Nordic literature and the entire the history of great English writers.
In his own life, he found himself confronting evidence in nature and other places that did not fit his hard edged materialist view. That evidence ultimately persuaded him that something existed beyond mere materialism. One “body of evidence” consisted of the beauty he found in nature for which his materialism could give no account.
From early on, his observation that nature is cruel was counter-balanced by the longings the beauty of nature stirred within him. For Lewis, the experience (often fleeting) of beauty in nature pointed to the reality of something beyond nature, something much more sublime then nature itself. “Atoms ever dead could never stir the heart of us lest the beauty that we see the endless beauty be.”
Lewis began to see that the longings stirred up by earthly beauty were transcendent and could not be the product of a blind and mechanical universe. They required a transcendent cause. That cause was not necessarily personal, Lewis thought, but it was more than undirected energy.
He was stirred also by the imagination of great writers throughout history. If man could imagine it, where did the imagination come from? Great writers expressed a different, but similar, kind of longing in the imaginative tales they wove. Great, imaginative writers evoked a similar longing in Lewis to what he experienced in nature. This additional kind of longing was another indicator to Lewis of something transcendent.
Morality became another indicator for Lewis. If the universe is really evil and cruel, where did we develop the idea of what is evil and cruel by which to judge it? If the universe is what it is – a random pattern of molecules and forces – blind matter and motion – then where do we get off expressing outrage at it? If we really think moral right and wrong exist, and nearly all people act as if that proposition is true (whatever that standard may be), the sense of a moral standard cannot be explained by a universe that is merely matter and motion. A moral standard points toward the existence of a transcendent cause for morality.
Maybe the most compelling indicator to Lewis was reason. It seems elemental, especially in a modern worldview, to turn to reason, but the compelling thing about reason for Lewis is not what one might expect. Lewis began to realize that reason undercuts itself in a naturalistic worldview. According to a materialistic view of the universe, everyone’s thoughts are the result of non-rational causes. Where, then, does rationality come from?
Human reasoning helped Charles Darwin conceive the theory of evolution. It helped Einstein conceive the theory of relativity. It helps us to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers. On what basis do we think that this reasoning is the product of random, irrational causes in a world consisting of nothing but random atoms and energy. Human reasoning and mindless matter are not relatives of each other. How does intelligence emerge from that which is unintelligible?
One last point became instructive for Lewis. According to modern Darwinian science, things that are crude and simple naturally become things that are complex. The acorn turns into the oak tree. The egg turns into the chicken. A human embryo turns into a full-fledged human being. Some Darwinists point to technological development as an example of the evolutionary process. But does that really make sense?
Lewis came to call this evolutionary view an optical illusion. What we really see taking place in nature is simpler and less complex things coming from more complex things. If anything, we see in nature a process of devolution, not evolution. Acorns drop from fully developed oak trees, chicken eggs come from fully developed chickens and embryos come from fully developed human beings.
In our own experience, things that we design and construct, from gardens to buildings, immediately began to degenerate without some intentional attention on our part. Even with our attention and diligent maintenance, we are fighting a battle against degeneration that we will eventually lose. Without intentional maintenance, things decay and “go to pot”.
While some Darwinists have lauded technology as evidence of evolution, technology speaks of the product of a mind – not random chance. Modern technology sprang from the mind of man. If anything, technology – the generation of complex things from simple things by the conscious application of a plan – does not suggest the blind chance and random forces of evolution – but design by an intelligent being.
C.S. Lewis recognized that we must look outside of the engine of a train to find the source of its design. Likewise, we must go beyond nature to find the source for nature. This is an argument from functional complexity. An effect cannot be greater than its original cause; a copy cannot be better than the original.
This idea goes back to Plato and can be found in many medieval writers. If we consider the source of an idea, there can be no more information in the idea than in the sum of its causes. Intelligence does not arise out of non-intelligence. New information does not arise from undirected causes. Intelligence must come from an intelligent source.
Human beings, then, are the greatest indicator of an intelligent source. That intelligent source must have greater intelligence than all the intelligence in humankind, as the source of that intelligence must be greater than the intelligence it produces. The inescapable conclusion for Lewis was that a prior intelligent source must exist to account for the intelligence of humankind.
Some argue that the idea of God stifles science, but Lewis came to see that belief in God opens science to new possibilities. Early scientists looked for regularities and laws in nature that they might have missed if not for the assumption that a lawgiver was behind the laws of nature. Far from frustrating science, belief in God inspired and informed it.
For Lewis, the fact that many modern scientists reject the idea of God ought to concern us. If we no longer believe in a lawgiver behind nature, we should not expect nature to act reasonably and in accordance with laws. We may miss regularities in nature because we are not looking for them.
While the modern scientific view is that the laws of nature account for all of the material world, Lewis would say that the laws of nature can do nothing by themselves. They need input from outside. The laws of motion don’t make the billiard balls move; a person with a stick makes them move. The laws of nature predict what will happen given certain inputs. They don’t explain away the need for the inputs in the first place.
Lewis was very open to inquiry and free debate in his own life. At Oxford University, Lewis founded the Oxford Socratic Club to debate the merits of Christianity. They met every week and hashed out the merits of Christianity, pro and con. The group was modeled on the Socratic notion of following the argument wherever it leads.
A young atheist who participated in the club became one of the world’s leading academic atheists, Anthony Flew. Flew admired Lewis and especially Lewis’s motto of following the argument where it leads. He even adopted that motto as his own. At the end of his own life, Flew shocked the world by declaring that he felt the evidence led him to determine that there is a God after all. (See here).
(Reworked from C.S. Lewis & Intelligent Design)
For Lewis, the evolution of his thought took him from materialism to belief in a Creator. Science can only tell us so much. Science, by definition (being the study of the natural world) can’t go beyond what can be observed or duplicated in an experiment.
Lewis determined that science can only tell us of part of the story. Abstract thinking, metaphysics, theology, philosophy, logic – and even inward convictions – must be followed where the arguments lead. For Lewis, all the arguments led him out of the dark, primordial world of materialism to the bright, open world transcended by God, the Creator.