But how do you reason to religion?

I saw this on Facebook this morning. Check it out.

There’s a lot of wrong here packed into a short passage. Things like this have a lot of power mostly because it takes so much more space to explain what’s wrong with it than to say it. I mean, Lewis’s writing here is fairly clear and concise, if it speaks to your biases you’re going to be very tempted to just trust it and not bother reading long-winded rebuttals like the one I’m writing now.

But I think you should read this. If only so you can honestly say that you consider what you believe.

I’ll start from the beginning. When he speaks of a creative mind designing the brain for thinking, he drops right into a problem of infinite regress. If thinking minds must be created by thinking minds, then where did the original thinking mind come from?

Lewis seems to think that without conscious direction to the form and purpose of the brain he cannot trust his thinking. He combines two errors into one, here.

First is that there are serious limits to how much we can trust our thinking. The human mind is not infallible, even if we rule out physical injury, psychological trauma, and imbalances in the complex chemistry of the brain, human beings get things wrong all the time. We’re prone to making unwarranted assumptions and allowing our biases and expectations to draw our conclusions for us without really examining our thinking. The entire scientific method, especially the peer-review structure of the scientific community, is designed to overcome these weaknesses. Since we began to develop this, some 400 years ago, we’ve made tremendous improvements in our understanding of the world we live in, allowing us to build tools undreamt of by past generations.

Second is illustrated in his analogy of upsetting a milk jug, which simply doesn’t track to reality. A better analogy would be upsetting a milk jug and expecting the milk to spread itself until it is no thicker than the surface tension of the milk can hold, to always run downwards, to conform to its surroundings as compactly down as possible, in accordance with gravity. Because our brains, and therefore our minds, are not random constructs but as shaped by the environment as that spilled milk. They have been refined over countless generations to evaluate our surroundings and plan ahead, not perfectly, but good enough for survival. Once our ancestors began to rely on tools and cunning for survival there was a lot of pressure for us to get smarter, and we did.

“Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought” is a bare assertion without support. Thought, as flawed and difficult as it is, clearly exists, but there’s no reason at all to believe that it’s dependent on God. I’ve not read the book this is excerpted from, so perhaps Lewis writes in more detail to clarify. Perhaps I’ll look up a copy sometime, but it seems unlikely to present anything interesting, let alone change my mind.

The book this comes from is The Case for Christianity, and the one part I would really like to read is how Lewis goes from the assumption that there must be intelligence behind things to Christianity being true. I want to see the chain of logic that leads him from a creative mind to Jesus, Yahweh and the holy ghost, to falling from grace by eating forbidden fruit, to virgin birth and resurrection, to all these specific elements of Christianity that are not implied by the premise of a creator.

Why not Odin? Why not Zeus or Marduk or Osiris or Amaterasu or Tlaloc or Quetzalcoatl or John Frum? Why Jesus and not Muhammad? Why the serpent tempting Eve and not Loki tricking the Aesir into slaying Balder, or Coyote creating glass-eyed men? There are thousands of gods still known to us, we probably can’t even estimate with any confidence how many have been simply lost to time, their names and trappings forgotten as the last of their followers converted and their stories faded away. What makes one seem more real than any other?

Ultimately, a large part of why I call myself an atheist today is that people dream up fantastic stories all the time, and have for as long as we’ve been able to record them, probably since the beginnings of language. Religions appear to be no different from these stories. None of them stands out as more true to the real world than the others. They contradict each other, they cannot all be true. But they can all be fiction.

We can learn from fiction, use it as a mirror to see ourselves better, but we can’t trust it to tell us anything for certain. We have to go out and see for ourselves.


About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on August 5, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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