Monday, December 26, 2016

C. S. Lewis's Natural Law of Lockean Liberalism

Did C. S. Lewis show how the ancient idea of natural law could support the modern idea of Lockean liberalism?

That he did indeed do that is the provocative claim made by Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson in their book C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  This is provocative because, as Dyer and Watson indicate, many of the Christians who have become devoted fans of Lewis's writing--and especially American evangelical Christians--will be disturbed by the thought that Lewis was a classical liberal who rejected theocracy as a form of tyranny, who believed that government should not have the power to legally enforce Christian morality, and who thought the only proper aim of government was to secure individual liberty from legal interference except when necessary to prevent harm to others.

I find their arguments largely persuasive.  But unlike Dyer and Watson, I don't share Lewis's scorn for modern science--and particularly Darwinian science--as subverting any conception of natural law.  On the contrary, as I have often argued on this blog, I see a tradition of natural law thinking--from Aristotle to Aquinas to Locke--resting on the biology of human nature that can be supported by a Darwinian science of human nature that sustains a Darwinian classical liberalism.

Lewis believed that our distinctly human capacity and propensity for making moral judgments--for judging what is good and bad, right and wrong--testifies to the existence of a universal moral law or natural law or what the Chinese called the Tao.  We disagree about how to apply this law to particular cases, but the mere fact that we can argue about this shows that we agree on some general principles of morality that are so universally held that they can be found in all human civilizations throughout history.  Lewis's Abolition of Man concludes with an Appendix that provides "illustrations of the Tao"--quotations from religious, philosophical, and legal texts around the world that are remarkably similar in the moral principles they affirm.  So, for example, the Old Testament commandment "Do not murder" (Exodus 20:13) can be found in many different texts.  Similarly, the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--is recognized in all moral and religious traditions as a fundamental principle of the moral law.

The best explanation of this universal moral law, Lewis argues, comes from the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christianity--particularly, Creation, Fall, and Human Nature, or "our created-yet-fallen human nature."  We were originally created by God in His Image as a Mind capable of grasping the moral law. But while we were originally created good, we used our free will to fall away from God through pride or disobedience, and our human nature became so corrupted or sinful that we could not perfectly follow the moral law that we could know by reason.  There is a natural moral law, but we fail to keep it. To keep it, we need to be redeemed by God's forgiveness.  Those who accept that divine forgiveness will have eternal happiness in Heaven with God.  Those who reject that divine forgiveness will have eternal punishment in Hell far from God.

Dyer and Watson assume that these Christian doctrines must be rejected by "post-Darwinian thought," because Darwinian materialism requires a materialist explanation of the origins of life that denies any conception of the universe as intelligently designed for some divine purpose.  According to the Darwinians, human life is meaningless because it has no natural purpose or telos.  To support this conclusion, Dyer and Watson quote from Richard Dawkins and his famous claim that Darwinian evolutionary theory made it possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist" (18-20).

But this ignores the fact that Lewis was a theistic evolutionist (as I have indicated here).  Actually, Dyer and Watson acknowledge this in one passage: "To be clear, Lewis saw no conflict between reason and a biological theory that explains the progressive development of life on earth by means of natural selection. That theory, he allowed, may be proved more or less accurate by successive discoveries" (24-25).  But then they generally assume that Dawkins is correct in claiming that Darwinian science must be atheistic.  And thus they pass over in silence prominent theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins, whose Christian faith was much influenced by reading Lewis.

This also ignores the fact that Darwin himself employed the Thomistic idea of "dual causality" in claiming that an evolutionary science of "secondary causes" left open the possibility of "primary causes" in the divine creation of the laws of nature (see here and here).  Darwin thought that seeing God as the ultimate source of the moral law could reinforce the moral sense: "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality" (2004, 682).  And yet he also thought that people could obey the natural moral law even without seeing its divine source.  Dyer and Watson see Lewis as taking the same position: "One can recognize and practice elements of the natural law without acknowledging its ultimate source" in God (91).

Also, in denying that Darwinian science can be teleological, Dyer and Watson ignore the ways in which biological science must recognize immanent teleology (as opposed to cosmic teleology) in the goal-directed character of living beings (as indicated here).

Furthermore, Dyer and Watson fail to notice that what Lewis does in looking for anthropological evidence of the universal moral law as the Tao corresponds to what evolutionary moral psychologists have done (beginning with Darwin) in looking for the moral universals of evolved human nature.  In the Descent of Man, Darwin declared: "I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important" (2004, 120).  And just as Lewis saw the Golden Rule as one of the finest expressions of this conscience, Darwin thought that the Golden Rule "lies at the foundation of morality" (151).  Collecting and analyzing the massive evidence for moral universals has been the work of many Darwinian moral psychologists, beginning with Edward Westermarck in The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906).

I am sure, however, that Dyer and Watson would object that while Lewis defends the universal moral law as an objective cosmic reality that human reason can grasp as true, Darwinian moral psychology must explain morality as rooted in subjective human emotions that have no cosmic truth.  After all, doesn't Darwin show the influence of emotivist philosophers--such as David Hume and Adam Smith--in grounding morality in moral sentiments rather than moral reason?

Moreover, Dyer and Watson agree with Lewis's argument that insofar as Darwinian science rests on a scientific naturalism that denies any supernatural origins for human reason, this science cannot assert anything to be true without falling into self-contradiction.  If human rationality is the product of an irrational process of evolution that has not been guided by the Divine Mind, then we have no good reason to trust that human rationality as valid.

Although at times Lewis sounds like a Kantian rationalist in claiming that moral imperatives are known by pure reason without any impulse of desire or passion, he adopts Aristotle's account of "practical reason," as opposed to "theoretical reason," in a way that suggests that he agrees with Aristotle that moral judgment requires a combination of reason and passion (see here and here)., which is the position taken by Darwin and the evolutionary moral psychologists.

"Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle declares in the Nicomachean Ethics, although reason can guide the desires that do move us.  Desires (orexis) always moves us, but thought never moves us without desire.  Deliberate choice by practical reasoning requires a conjunction of desire and reason into "desiring thought" or "thinking desire."  In his Rhetoric, Aristotle shows how the psychology of the moral emotions, working through social praise and blame, supports a natural moral sense.

Moreover, Lewis's "Illustrations of the Tao" in The Abolition of Man are illustrations of the universal moral psychology of the human species as animals naturally inclined to feel moral sentiments of approval and disapproval.

One can see this by noticing how selective Lewis is in his choice of illustrations.  For example, under the category of "the law of general beneficence," he quotes the Biblical injunction "Do not murder."  Why doesn't he also quote these commands of Moses to his soldiers fighting against the Mideanites--"Kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves" (Numbers 31:17-18)?  Doesn't Lewis quote the first passage because he knows it will elicit the reader's sympathetic approval, while he knows that the second passage (or other passages in the Bible that display brutal violence) would provoke moral emotions of disapproval?  Does this explain why the first belongs to "the Tao," but the second does not?  Lewis is passing the Bible through the moral filter of human moral sentiments so that he can correct the Bible's mistakes.

Similarly, when Lewis provides illustrations of the Tao that concern "Duties to Children and Posterity," he does not quote God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22).  Nor does Lewis quote from the Biblical story of how Jepthah sacrificed his daughter to God after God had given him victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-40).  Such stories violate natural law, because they offend our moral emotions.

Evolutionary neuroscience has confirmed the importance of such moral emotions by showing that people with damage to certain emotional control centers of the brain are diminished in their moral judgment, or even totally lacking any moral sense (like psychopaths), not because of any defect in cognitive reasoning, but because they lack the moral emotions (like guilt, shame, indignation, and love).  Thus, neuroscience has refuted Kantian moral rationalism by showing that it is neurologically impossible (see here and here).

But then, Dyer and Watson argue, such evolutionary scientific research presumes that we can trust in the validity of human reasoning, but an evolutionary account of the origins of the human mind denies that such trust is justified, and thus such evolutionary science, like all purely naturalistic reasoning, is self-defeating unless we believe that the human mind has been created by a Divine Mind.  That's Lewis's famous argument from reason that has been elaborated by Alvin Plantinga. 

But as I have argued (here and here), this argument from reason originated with Rene Descartes, and its weakness is the implausibility of radical Cartesian skepticism.  The core of the argument moves in four steps.

(1) If we understand naturalism as the belief that there is no God--no supernatural Mind outside of Nature that created Nature--and if the naturalist is also a Darwinian who believes that evolutionary science explains the origins of all life, including human life, then the Darwinian naturalist must believe that the mental faculties of human beings originated through evolution by natural selection favoring those random mutations that were adaptive for survival and reproduction.

(2) Natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and punishes maladaptive behavior. But natural selection does not care about the truth or falsity of an animal's beliefs. If beliefs produce adaptive behavior, they will be rewarded by natural selection regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false. Therefore, the evolution of adaptive behavior in our prehistoric ancestors did not guarantee or make it probable that our cognitive faculties would be reliable in generating mostly true beliefs.

(3) From this it follows that the Darwinian naturalist has no good reason to trust his cognitive faculties as reliable. But then it follows that the Darwinian naturalist has no good reason to feel confident that his belief in naturalism is true. Consequently, Darwinian naturalism is self-defeating in that it contradicts itself.

(4) Darwinian science--and science generally--can escape this self-defeating position by rejecting naturalism and accepting theism, because theism believes that our human minds were created by God in His image such that we can understand the intelligible world He has created, and therefore we can be confident in the reliability of our divinely created cognitive faculties. This is compatible with evolutionary science, because we can assume that God has guided the evolutionary process, perhaps by causing those random mutations that He foresaw as facilitating the evolution of the human mind in its capacity for correctly understanding the world. This is also necessary for evolutionary science because it supports our confidence in the validity of human reason and escapes the incoherence of naturalism.

The weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is step 2, where he assumes that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable, so that we might be in a state of utter delusion, as the Cartesian skeptic claims. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Daniel Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."  So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue.

The waggle dance of honeybees is another dramatic example of how evolution by natural selection favors adaptive behavior that tracks the truth about the world.

This suggests that we can account for the natural evolution of reliable cognitive faculties without assuming a theistic explanation of human mental capacity as a product of divine creation in the image of God.

Even without attributing any conscious beliefs to honeybees, the remarkable accuracy of their waggle dance illustrates how natural evolution--even without divine guidance--can produce animal cognition and communication that shows an accurate representation of the world as related to the needs of the animal.

Or would Lewis and Plantinga argue that this can only be explained as the work of God--that the cognitive abilities of honeybees show that they have been created in the image of God--because otherwise we would have no reason to believe in the accuracy of their dance?

In my next post, I will take up the account of Lewis's Lockean Liberalism provided by Dyer and Watson.

Some of my other posts on Lewis are here, here, and here.

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