Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Mystical Experience Through Ecstatic Epilepsy Triggered in the Anterior Insula

People with ecstatic epilepsy have epileptic auras in which they have mystical experiences.  In recent years, there has been growing evidence that this experience is triggered in the anterior insula in the temporal lobe of the brain.  This raises the question of whether all religious experience can be explained as rooted in the brain, and perhaps crucially in the anterior insula, as a product of the evolutionary history of the brain.  Does this show that there is a natural desire for religious experience as rooted in our evolved human nature?  If this is so, then we must wonder whether this is or is not a sign of the real existence of a transcendent realm of divinity that is the object of mystical experience.


To begin, despite the difficulties of definition in this whole area of human experience, we must define what we mean by mystical experience; and in doing that, we must also define religious experience in so far as it is rooted in mystical experience.  I have found William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) to be a helpful starting point.

James distinguished two branches of religion--institutional religion and personal religion.  Institutional religion is about theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization, by which the social life of religious believers is structured--the external life of a religious group.  By contrast, personal religion is about the inner life of each believer as he conducts his own religious feelings, thoughts, and activities.  James chose to concentrate on personal religion because it seemed more fundamental than institutional religion.  Theological, ceremonial, and ecclesiastical traditions of every religion depend upon the personal religious experience of their founders.  For example, Paul is often considered the founder of the Christian church, but his authority to preach to the early Christian churches depended on his mystical experiences--such as his conversion on the road to Damascus--in which he saw and heard Jesus Christ and received a direct revelation from God.

James proposed:

"Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.  Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow" (James 1987: 36).

He then proposed defining mysticism as having four marks.  1.  Ineffability:  By this negative trait, no mystical experience can be adequately reported in words, because it can be known only by direct experience--by being felt rather than understood.  2.  Noetic quality:  Although it is a state of feeling, a mystical experience does convey a profound mental clarity or revelation of the deepest truths about the universe, often an ecstatic sense of oneness with Everything or the Transcendent Order.  3.  Transiency:  Mystical states can be experienced for only brief periods of time--from a few minutes to an hour or two.  4.  Passivity:  Although mystical states can be facilitated by exercises such as meditation, prayer, and reading of spiritual texts, when the mystical consciousness arises, it feels as though it was compelled by a higher power beyond the person's will (James 1987: 343-44).


Ecstatic epilepsy is a rare form of focal epilepsy in which people have mystical experiences during the aura before the onset of convulsive epileptic seizures (Picard 2023).  (In Greek, ekstasis means "standing outside oneself.")  Epilepsy affects a small minority (between 4 and 10 per 1,000) of every human population.  It has occurred in every culture throughout history.  It is most easily recognized in its convulsive form, in which people suddenly fall to the ground, lose consciousness, and writhe with seizures. 

In ancient Greece, it was called the "sacred disease" because it appeared to be caused by divine inspiration.  Around 400 BC, Hippocrates (or someone belonging to the Hippocratic school of medicine) wrote "On the Sacred Disease," in which he began by dismissing the popular belief in epilepsy's divine origin: "The disease called sacred . . . appears to me no more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from which it originates, like other affections."  And, in particular, epilepsy is caused by the brain: "Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations."

Since the end of the nineteenth century, neurologists have understood that epilepsy is caused by sudden, abnormal electrical discharges in the cortex of the brain (Sacks 2012).  In generalized seizures, the electrical discharge comes from both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously.  In a grand mal seizure, the person falls to the ground with convulsive twitching of the muscles and loses consciousness within seconds.  In a petit mal seizure, a person loses consciousness for only a few seconds without realizing what has happened.  And even the people around him might not notice anything unusual, as they continue talking with him.

In contrast to such generalized seizures, partial or focal epilepsy arises from a particular area of brain damage or sensitivity that can be genetically inherited or acquired by injury.  Focal conscious seizures are often called "auras," which are sometimes warnings that convulsive seizures with loss of consciousness will soon follow.  During an aura, depending on the location of the seizure in the brain, there will be different kinds of sensory or psychic hallucinations.  So, for example, a seizure in the olfactory area of the brain might produce strange smells, or a seizure in the visual cortex might produce visual hallucinations.

"The symptoms of partial seizures depend on the location of the focus:  they may be motor (twitching of certain muscles), autonomic (nausea, a rising feeling in the stomach, etc.), sensory (abnormalities or hallucinations of sight, sound, smell, or other sensations), or psychic (sudden feelings of joy or fear without apparent cause, deja vu or jamais vu, or sudden, often unusual, trains of thought).  Partial seizure activity may be confined to the epileptic focus, or it may spread to other areas of the brain, and occasionally it leads to a generalized convulsion" (Sacks 2012: 134).

What are here identified as "hallucinations" need to be distinguished from illusions and delusions.  In his Principles of Psychology, James explained:

"Hallucinations usually appear abruptly and have the character of being forced upon the subject. . . .They are often talked of as mental images projected outwards by mistake.  But where a hallucination is complete, it is much more than a mental image.  A hallucination is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if there were a real object there.  The object happens not to be there, that is all" (James 1983: 758-59). 

In ecstatic temporal lobe epilepsy, the hallucinations are mystical experiences of ecstatic or transcendent joy or heavenly bliss, with a feeling of certainty or clarity in the revelation of divine truth (Picard 2023).  For example, one of the first clear reports of ecstatic epilepsy came from Fyodor Dostoevsky, who described his epileptic seizures in his letters and notebooks, and then he described characters in five of his novels as having similar experiences--such as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (Voskuil 2013).  On one evening before Easter, Dostoevsky was talking with friends about religion.  Then, when a bell tolled midnight, he shouted, "God exists, He exists."  Later, he described his experience in a letter:

"The air was filled with a big noise, and I tried to move.  I felt the heaven was going down to earth, and that it had engulfed me.  I have really touched God.  He came into me, yes God exists, I cried, and I don't remember anything else.  You all, healthy people, can't imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second or so before our fit. . . . I don't know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours, or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

We might assume that people who are already predisposed to religious belief are most likely to have religious seizures.  But doctors who study ecstatic epilepsy have reported some cases of people with no religious belief having a religious conversion as a result their mystical seizures.  Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard (1970) provided some examples of this.  One was a bus conductor who had an ecstatic seizure while collecting fares:

"He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss.  He felt he was literally in Heaven.  He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. . . . He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days.  Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences, and he continued to believe in their validity."

But then, three years later, after three seizures over three days, he said that his mind had "cleared," and he had lost his faith.  His religious conversion had been overturned, and he had been converted to atheism!   One of Fabienne Picard's epileptic patients was an atheist physicist who became a Christian after having experienced ecstatic seizures.  Oddly, then, these ecstatic conversions can go from atheism to religion or from religion to atheism.

Gschwind and Picard (2016) surveyed 52 cases of epileptic patients who had had ecstatic auras.  Some of the most common descriptions of what the patients reported included:  ineffable joy, extreme happiness as if one being in Heaven, feeling union with the whole world and with god, feeling like an orgasm, bright and expanding light, complete mental clarity, everything is joined together in one whole, certainty immune to rational doubt, and intense feelings of bliss and well-being.


In 2009, Picard and A. D. (Bud) Craig proposed the hypothesis that the primary brain structure involved in ecstatic epilepsy was the anterior insula deep in the temporal lobe.

I have written previously about Craig's studies of the insula.  He has shown that the insular cortex is a crucial part of the neural network of the brain that supports interoceptive self-awareness and self-ownership of one's body and the social emotions in which concern for oneself is extended to concern for others.  In understanding this, social neuroscience provides the evolved biological ground in the brain for what John Locke identified as human self-ownership or self-concern that is extended to concern for others in mammalian animals like humans.  The Lockean natural right to property is rooted in this natural sense of self-ownership.

The most dramatic evidence for the anterior insula hypothesis to explain ecstatic epilepsy has come from Picard's treatment of epileptics at the University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland (Picard 2023).  Working with a patient with ecstatic epilepsy, who was undergoing presurgical evaluation with intracerebral electrodes, she recorded spontaneous seizures that were associated with electrical discharges in the anterior insula.  Moreover, her ecstatic auras could be reproduced through electrical stimulation of her anterior insula.  Even more amazing than that, Picard found that she could induce ecstatic auras by the electrical stimulation of the anterior insula in one patient with temporal lobe epilepsy who had never had ecstatic experiences previously!

If we're persuaded by this evidence that ecstatic epilepsy is somehow connected to the anterior insula, then the next question would be how to explain this:  What exactly is happening in the anterior insula to cause ecstatic seizures?  Picard's primary hypothesis for answering this question proposes "that temporary disruptions to activity in the anterior insula could interrupt the generation of interoceptive prediction errors, and cause one to experience the absence of uncertainty, and thereby, a sense of bliss," because this would "mimic perfect prediction of the body's physiological state" (Picard 2023: 1372).

Craig has claimed that the posterior insula is the primary place in the brain for the representation of interoceptive signals--the signals of the internal physiological state of the body--and integrating those signals with signals from the external environment.  The signals are combined with information from limbic and frontal cortices, and then they are represented as consciously experienced feelings in the anterior part of the insula.

Picard has extended Craig's theory through the theory of predictive coding that has become popular with many neuroscientists (Clark 2023).  The idea of predictive coding is that rather than passively perceiving reality, our mind actively predicts it.  Before our brain receives external signals from our environment and internal signals from our body, our brain has already made top-down predictions about what those signals are likely to be; and then when the real bottom-up signals arrive in the brain, they are compared with the prediction.  The mismatch between the prediction and the real incoming signals provides a prediction error, which can then be used to change the future prediction.

Picard's theory is that an epileptic seizure in the anterior insula can interrupt the predictive coding system, so that a person in the ecstatic state will feel the internal state of his body and the external state of his environment as if he had predicted them perfectly.  This would create a sense of clarity, certainty, and unity with everything in the world, resulting in a feeling of perfect, even heavenly, bliss.

Even if this theory proves not to be completely correct, it does look like the kind of theory that would explain how an epileptic seizure in the anterior insula could produce an experience of mystical ecstasy in contact with the divine.

Of course, this does not mean that ecstatic epilepsy is the only source in the brain for religious experience.  There are other ways in which the brain might facilitate human access to the divine (Nelson 2011; Newberg 2018).


Does this mystical experience affirm the reality of the supernatural realm that fulfills our deepest longings for eternal happiness?  Some of us will say no, because, as James said, it's a hallucination--"a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if there were a real object there," but "the object happens not to be there, that is all."  Others will say yes, because, as C. S. Lewis said, the natural desire for Joy manifest in mystical experience is a sign of the real existence of the object that would satisfy that desire.  I see no way to prove which answer is correct.

Even if we are convinced by a neurological explanation of how mystical experiences arise in the brain, that does not prove that those experiences are pure hallucinations.  After all, God could be using the neural apparatus of the brain as a medium for revealing His truth--a natural cause for a supernatural Revelation.

Something like this might have been intimated by Hippocrates at the beginning of "On the Sacred Disease" when he said that epilepsy was "no more divine than other diseases" that have natural causes.  At the end of his essay, he declared:

"The disease called the Sacred arises from causes as the others, namely, those things which enter and quit the body, such as cold, the sun, and the winds, which are ever changing and are never at rest.  And these things are divine, so that there is no necessity for making a distinction, and holding this disease to be more divine than the others, but all are divine, and all human."

In my next post, I will consider the case of St. Paul.  His mystical vision on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an ecstatic epileptic seizure.  But it's not clear to me that that would deny the possibility that it was also a revelation from God.


Clark, Andy.  2023.  The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dewhurst, Kenneth, and A. W. Beard.  1970.  "Sudden Religious Conversions in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy."  British Journal of Psychiatry 117: 497-507.

Gschwind, Markus, and Fabrienne Picard.  2016.  "Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula."  Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 10:21.

James, William.  1983.  Principles of Psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

James, William.  1987.  The Varieties of Religious Experience.  In Writings 1902-1910, 1-477.  New York: The Library of America.

Nelson, Kevin.  2011.  The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience.  New York: Dutton.

Newberg, Andrew.  2018.  Neurotheology: How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Picard, Fabienne.  2023.  "Ecstatic or Mystical Experience Through Epilepsy."  Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 35 (9): 1372-1381.

Picard, Fabienne, and A. D. Craig.  2009.  "Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Potential Window on the Neural Basis for Human Self-Awareness."  Epilepsy and Behavior 16: 539-546.

Sacks, Oliver.  2012.  Hallucinations.  New York: Random House.

Voskuil, Piet H. A.  2013.  "Epilepsy in Dostoevsky's Novel."  Frontiers in Neurology and Neuroscience 31: 195-214.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

C. S. Lewis on the Fringes of Mysticism

I have been wondering whether evolutionary psychology and cognitive science can explain the varieties of religious experience.  In particular, I have been thinking about the essential religious experience of mysticism--the immediate sense experience of the divine by seeing, hearing, or feeling the Transcendent Order behind or beyond Nature.  I am considering whether mystical experience ultimately expresses the shamanic ecstasy or awe before the Numinous that was the original religious experience in prehistoric foraging bands of human beings, which C. S. Lewis identified as "the seed of religious experience."

A preeminent example of Christian mysticism in the New Testament is the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.  Paul was a Jewish leader who persecuted the Jewish Christians.  He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus where he would persecute the Christians there.  Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus asking him why he persecuted Jesus.  Those travelling with Paul saw the light and heard a sound, but they did not hear or see Jesus.  When Paul rose from the ground, he was blind, and would remain blind for three days.  In Damascus, Ananias, a Christian disciple, had a vision of Jesus telling him that Paul would be chosen to preach Christ not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.  When Ananias placed his hands on Paul, Paul's sight was restored, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized.  He began to preach that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.  This provoked the Jews to persecute him.  Some of the Roman rulers believed that he was insane (Acts 9:3-19; 22:6-21; 26:12-24).

Although he was not one of the original apostles, Paul claimed that his having seen Jesus entitled him to be considered an apostle.  "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1).  He interpreted his mystical vision as a direct revelation from Jesus: "I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12).  He even claimed to have ascended into "the third heaven" and up to "paradise"--"whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows" (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).  Paul also affirmed one of the fundamental themes of mysticism--deification.  As believers contemplate God, they become like God.  As Paul said: "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate (or reflect) the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As the most popular Christian writer of the past one hundred years, Lewis offers a good entry into the modern Christian understanding of mysticism.  David Downing has shown in his book Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (2005) that Lewis studied the history and literature of mysticism throughout his life, and the themes of mysticism ran through his writings.  The title of Downing's book refers to a passage where Lewis describes his conversion in mystical terms: "Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with . . . the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired" (Surprised by Joy, 221).  

In one of his letters, Lewis defined mysticism as "a kind of direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or colour" (Letters, 3:109).  This echoes the language of Evelyn Underhill, whose work on mysticism Lewis studied, who described mysticism as "the direct intuition or experience of God."  She claimed that while "every human soul has a latent capacity for God," mystics have "realized this capacity with an astonishing success" (Mystics, 9, 11).

Lewis denied that he himself was a mystic.  In his Letters to Malcolm, he observed: "You and I are people of the foothills.  In the happy days when I was still a walker, I loved the hills, and even mountain walks, but I was no climber.  I hadn't the head.  So now, I do not attempt the precipices of mysticism" (85).  In a private letter to a woman who was troubled by some shocking passages in the Bible, Lewis wrote: "But why are baffling passages left in at all?  Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents" (Letters, 3:357).

But even if Lewis was not a mystic, he developed the mystical theme of deification.  He interpreted Paul's teaching about how reflecting God's glory transforms Christians into God's likeness by saying "a Christian is to Christ as a mirror is to an object" (Christian Reflections, 6).  He repeatedly used this metaphor of spiritual growth as mirroring Christ.  Thus, "every Christian is to become a little Christ" (MC, 153).  "The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God" (141).  In Heaven, we will be "gods and goddesses" (175).  We will be "true and everlasting and really divine persons only in Heaven" (WG, 174-75).

Since Lewis was not a mystic, he could not directly experience--he could not really see--the divinization of human beings in Heaven.  He could only imagine what this is like and express this through metaphorical imagery.  So, at the end of his Narnia Chronicles--his fairy-tale for children that has sold over 100 million copies, which has become a series of major motion pictures--he evoked a figurative image of eternal bliss in Heaven.  At the end of The Last Battle, Aslan the Lion--the Christ-like ruler of Narnia--has been speaking to the characters about how they now must die and then enter the real Narnia, where they will live forever.  Lewis has Jewel the Unicorn declare:

"I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.  Bree-hee-hee!  Come further up, come further in!" (196).

Then Lewis writes about death and eternal life in the last sentences of The Last Battle

"And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before" (210-211).

In his "spiritual biography of C. S. Lewis," Devin Brown adapted these words to give a vision of Lewis (Jack) after death entering Heaven:

"And for us this is the end of Jack's story, and we can most truly say that he lived happily ever after.  But for Jack, it was only the beginning of the real story.  All his life in this world and all his adventures on earth had only been the cover and the title page: now at last he was beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before" (224).

But while Lewis could only evoke the reality of Heaven through the metaphorical language of a fairy-tale, mystics like Paul could actually see Heaven through mystical hallucinations arising from ecstatic experiences in their brains, particularly through ecstatic epilepsy.  That's the topic for my next post.


Brown, Devin.  2013.  A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Downing, David C.  2005.  In the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis.  Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1955.  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Lewis, C. S. 1960.  Mere Christianity.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S. 1964.  Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 1973.  Christian Reflections.  Edited by Walter Hooper.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Lewis, C. S. 1980.  The Weight of Glory, and Other Essays.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 1984.  The Last Battle.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 2007.  The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963.  Edited by Walter Hooper.  New York: HarperCollins.

Underhill, Evelyn. 1964. The Mystics of the Church.  New York: Schocken.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Failure of C. S. Lewis's Moral Argument for God

 In Mark St. Germain's play "Freud's Last Session," but not in the movie, there is one scene where Freud and Lewis disagree about the source of morality (14):

LEWIS. We have to begin by accepting that there's a moral law at work ---

FREUD.  I don't accept it.  There is no moral law, only our feeble attempts to control chaos.

LEWIS.  Moral codes have existed throughout time.  Tell me one civilization that admired theft or cowardice.  Mankind has never rewarded selfishness.

FREUD.  Selfishness rewards itself.

LEWIS.  Then the Nazis are right in their actions?

FREUD.  Of course not.

LEWIS.  So there is a morality you're comparing them with.  A man can't call a line crooked unless he knows what a straight line is.

FREUD.  Ah! Geometric morality.

LEWIS.  Moral conscience is something we're born with.  It grows as we do.  When I was younger, I thought about right and wrong as much as a baboon thinks about Beethoven.

FREUD.  And this "conscience" is God-created?

LEWIS.  Yes.

FREUD.  Ha.  I am laughing.  You might argue God did an adequate job with the sunset, but as far as "conscience," he failed completely.  What you call "conscience" are behaviors indoctrinated into children by their parents.  These become the crippling inhibitions they struggle with all their lives.

Here Lewis is alluding to his moral argument for the existence of God, or what he calls in Mere Christianity "right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe" (17-39).  All human beings--or all normal human beings--have a sense of right and wrong, of what they and others ought to do or ought not to do.  Even though human beings often disobey this moral law, they show their knowledge of this moral law by feeling guilt and shame when they disobey.  And while there is a lot of variation across cultures in their moral standards, there is remarkable agreement:  for example, all agree that lying, stealing, murder, and betrayal of one's friends are wrong.  "It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.  People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table" (20).  And so, "it begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behavior, and yet quite definitely real--a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us" (30).  This intimates "the idea that in the Moral Law somebody or something from beyond the material universe was actually getting at us" (36).  At some point, you realize "that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power" (39).  There is "a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong" (34).  Here we see what Lewis identifies in The Problem of Pain as the third stage of religious development--when human beings believed that the Divine Power before whom they felt dread and awe was the source and the enforcer of the Moral Law.

But Lewis never provides a compelling argument for why the reality of the moral law of right and wrong proves the reality of a Divine Power behind that law.  After all, we could follow the lead of the ethical naturalists--from David Hume to Charles Darwin to Edward Westermarck--in explaining this universal moral law as rooted in a universal human nature shaped by natural evolution.  We could explain the common moral rules as arising from the natural needs and desires common to all human beings.  The natural desires for self-preservation and for respect for life, persons, and property shape the moral rules in all societies.

Even Lewis seems to agree with this when he identifies this Moral Law as "the Law of Human Nature."  One can see this in his book The Abolition of Man, where he speaks of the Moral Law as the Tao or Way that is universal to all human societies.  I have written about this in some previous posts.

Although natural moral law is often assumed to come from a supernatural lawgiver, Lewis insists that understanding the Tao as natural law does not require any belief in the supernatural. He writes:

"Though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reasoning as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more 'realistic' basis, is doomed. Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with" (61).

It seems, then, that there is no necessity for grounding the Moral Law in "a Something which is directing the universe."

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Did C. S. Lewis's Natural Desire for Joy Show the Supernatural Reality of God and Heaven?

The end of the movie--but not the stage play--"Freud's Last Session" suggests that Freud has been persuaded by Lewis's Argument from Desire for the reality of Heaven.  

On his train back to Oxford, Lewis looks at the book that Freud had slipped into his coat pocket.  It's Freud's copy of Lewis's book The Pilgrim's Regress (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 2014, originally published in 1933).  Lewis sees that Freud has written inside the book "from error to error, one discovers the entire truth."  Lewis smiles as his train enters a tunnel, and then the movie fades out.

The quotation is so enigmatic that most viewers will be confused as to what it means, although they can see that Lewis is pleased or amused by it.  As I noted in a previous post, the quotation is an altered version of a quotation from Francis Bacon: "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion."

Anyone who has read The Pilgrim's Regress could see how this applies to the book.  It's the story of the pilgrim John whose journey to an enchanting island takes him through adventures with a series of people, most of whom are allegorical representations of various errors that he must avoid.  In the "Afterword to the Third Edition" of the book, Lewis explained it as a depiction of his own experience of intense Desire as he progressed "from 'popular realism' to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity" (231).  In later writings--particularly, in Surprised by Joy (1955)--Lewis called this Desire Joy, and he said that "in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else" (17).


In the "Afterword" and in Surprised by Joy, Lewis indicated that there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Joyful Desire.  When people feel this Desire, they think they know what they are desiring.  A child looks wistfully at a distant hillside and thinks he would be happy "if only I were there."  Or he reads a fairy tale and thinks he would be happy if that fairy-tale land really existed.  A man in love thinks he would be happy if he possessed the perfect beloved.  Or a man longs to travel to foreign lands, and he thinks he would be fulfilled if he could see visit those places.  Or a man driven by ambition to gain great status and power thinks he would be happy if he could satisfy that ambition.  Or a man absorbed by his studies in philosophy or science thinks he would be fully satisfied if only he could achieve a full intellectual understanding of his subject.  

Lewis claims that by his own experience he has proven all of these impressions to be wrong.  Every one of these supposed objects for this Joyful Desire is inadequate because having any of these objects would not satisfy the Desire.

"It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given--nay, cannot even be imagined as given--in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.  This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur's castle--the chair in which only one could sit.  And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist" (PR, 237).

Lewis concludes that the One who can sit in that chair is God.  So our search for Joy can be satisfied by nothing in the natural world but only by our entering the supernatural Heaven where we will be united with God.  Freud was perhaps suggesting his agreement--"from error to error, one discovers the entire truth."

But is this really the truth?  Has Lewis made a cogent argument for this conclusion?  John Beversluis (C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion) has made a good case for saying No.  And I agree with Beversluis that Lewis's desire for Joy--for religious transcendence--is not evidence for the transcendent reality of God and Heaven.  

But I disagree with Beversluis's claim that this is not a natural desire at all.  There are good reasons for believing that the desire for religious transcendence is one of the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature, although the natural reality of this desire neither proves nor disproves the supernatural reality of its transcendent object.

As Beversluis indicates, Lewis's Argument from Desire can be framed schematically as either deductive or inductive.    The deductive version goes like this (Beversluis, 41):

1.  Nature makes nothing in vain, that is, every natural desire has an object that can satisfy it.

2.  Joy is a natural desire, but not for any natural object because no object in the natural world can satisfy it.

3.  Therefore, Joy is a desire for an object beyond the natural world and that object must exist.

Lewis suggested this deductive form when he used the word "must" in his conclusion: "And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist."

The inductive version of the argument goes like this (Beversluis, 43):

1.  Many natural desires have objects that can satisfy them.

2.  Joy is a natural desire for a kind of satisfaction that no object in the natural world can satisfy.

3.  Therefore, Joy is a desire for an object beyond the natural world and that object probably exists.

Lewis suggested this inductive form when he used words like "a pretty good indication" and "most probable explanation."   In "The Weight of Glory," he wrote:

"Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.  But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it?  'Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.'  But I think it may be urged that this misses the point.  A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic.  But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.  In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.  A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called 'falling in love' occurred in a sexless world" (The Weight of Glory, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 32-33, italics added).

In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (120, italics added). 

In his play (p. 16), but not in his screenplay for the movie, Mark St. Germain has Lewis repeat this passage but without the sentence on sexual desire. 

Beversluis correctly observes that Lewis's argument--in both its deductive and inductive forms--fails.  The deductive argument fails because it begs the question at issue: the major proposition assumes that "every natural desire has an object that can satisfy it," but that's what Lewis needs to prove.

The inductive argument rests on a false analogy: it's not at all clear that the desire for supernatural transcendence is a natural desire of the same kind as the natural human desires for food and sex or the duckling's natural desire to swim.  From the fact that the natural desires for food, sex, and swimming have natural objects that can satisfy them, it does not follow that a natural desire for a supernatural bliss probably shows that there really is a supernatural object that can satisfy it.

The natural desire for religious transcendence is different in kind from all other natural desires, because it is the only natural desire that aims at a supernatural end that cannot be achieved in the natural world.  Beversluis contends that this desire is so radically different from all other natural desires that it should not be considered a natural desire at all.  Here is where I disagree with him.

Although Lewis does not explain what he means by natural desires, his examples--human desires for food and sex and a duckling's desire to swim--suggest that he means innate desires that arise spontaneously in all normal members of a species as part of their evolved nature.  Natural desires are evolutionary adaptations that are necessary for the survival and reproductive success of a species.  But, Beversluis observes, Lewis's Joy does not seem to be biologically instinctive in this way, because it is not necessary for the survival or reproductive success of the human species.  Moreover, if it were an instinctive desire of evolved human nature, one would expect to find evidence that it is universal for all human cultures throughout human history; but Lewis has not provided such evidence (45, 52-53).


Lewis does suggest, however, an evolutionary explanation of religious experience that could be judged in the light of the modern evolutionary psychology and cognitive science of religion.  Showing the influence of Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), Lewis sketches the evolutionary development of religion through four stages in the Introduction to The Problem of Pain (16-25).  The first stage is what Otto called the experience of the Numinous--the feeling of dread and awe in the experience of the uncanny.  Otto coined the word "numinous" from the Latin word numen for "divinity."  According to Lewis, this arose first among prehistoric human beings.  "Now nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits" (17).  This dreadful and awful feeling of ghostly invisible spirits was "the seed of religious experience" (God in the Dock, 189).

The second stage in religious evolution came with the human feeling that there is a moral law--the sense that we "ought" or "ought not" to engage in certain kinds of conduct.  Human beings agreed in prescribing this moral law although they often failed to obey it.

The third stage in religious development was when human beings identified the Numinous Power as the guardian of that moral law.  The Jews in the Hebrew Bible show this identification of the Numinous with the moral law:  God is righteous and loves righteousness.

Finally, in New Testament Christianity, a man is born who claims to be the son of, or the same as, that Numinous Power who is also the giver of the moral law.  The teaching of the New Testament--the incarnation of Jesus as both human and divine and the promise that his sacrificial death and resurrection will redeem sinful human beings so that they can be resurrected to eternal life in Heaven--is the completion of all previous religious development.  Because now, for the first time in history, human beings can satisfy their deepest natural desire for supernatural happiness by being resurrected after death to eternal life in the presence of God, and thus return to the true home from which they came.

Lewis suggests that this evolution of religious experience through four stages could be explained in two ways.  It could be a fully natural evolution of human religious experience through four stages of the biological and cultural evolution of the human mind.  Or it could be that at each of these four stages of natural evolution, there was some human experience of a supernatural Revelation from God.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Lewis was a theistic evolutionist, who thought there was no conflict between the natural science of evolution and the supernatural Revelation of Christianity, because Christians should see that God could carry out His will through the natural process of evolution along with some supernatural interventions into natural history (such as the Incarnation of Christ).

So, when prehistoric human ancestors first began to experience the Numinous--feeling dread and awe in the belief that "the universe was haunted by spirits"--Lewis says there are only two possible explanations:

"There seem, in fact, to be only two views we can hold about awe.  Either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function, yet showing no tendency to disappear from that mind at its fullest development in poet, philosopher, or saint: or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given" (Mere Christianity, 20-21).

Presumably, most readers of this passage will dismiss the first alternative--"a mere twist in the human mind"--as unsatisfactory, and thus they might think there is no good alternative to Revelation as an explanation.  But here Lewis displays one of his favorite rhetorical tricks--the false dichotomy.  Anyone who knows anything about the evolutionary psychology of religion will know that to explain the appearance of the first religious experience of a world "haunted by spirits" in human evolution, we are not forced to choose between "a mere twist in the human mind" that is inexplicable and a Revelation that erupts miraculously in human experience. 


In saying that a mental capacity for religious experience would be "serving no biological function," Lewis adopted the position of Alfred Russel Wallace, who agreed with Charles Darwin in developing the theory of evolution by natural selection, but who denied that this could explain the higher mental and moral capacities of human beings.  Wallace argued that since the mental power for religious experience does not serve any biological need for survival and reproduction, this mental power could not have evolved by natural selection.  So natural selection shaped the "animal nature" of human beings but not their "spiritual nature," which must arise from "the unseen universe of Spirit."

But now the evolutionary psychology of religion--as developed by Justin Barrett, Jesse Bering, and others--can show how although the propensity to religious experience has not evolved directly to serve a biological function, it has evolved as a byproduct of innate mental mechanisms directly shaped by biological evolution for detecting agency--for identifying objects in the environment (particularly, animals and other human beings) that move themselves for the sake of goals as guided by mental states like beliefs and desires.  Once such agents have been detected, the human capacity for mind-reading generates predictions about the mental states of these agents and how these mental states might direct their actions.  As naturally social animals whose survival and reproductive fitness has depended on a subtle negotiation of the complex social interactions among human agents, human beings have been endowed by evolution with intuitive mental tools necessary for social life.

For that reason, our agency detection device becomes hypersensitive: we detect agency based on limited evidence.  Particularly, in urgent situations of distress, where we cannot account for what is happening based on natural causes, we are quick to infer supernatural agents at work.  We then want to negotiate with these supernatural agents--spirits, ghosts, or gods--to protect ourselves from harm.  All human societies throughout history show this natural propensity to believe in supernatural agents to be a human universal.  The original expression of that religious experience was in our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had shamans as mediators with supernatural agents, and who lived in a world "haunted by spirits"--feeling the awe and dread of the Numinous, which Lewis saw as "the seed of the religious experience."

The subsequent development of religion beyond this original experience of awful spirits came through cultural evolution, in which some religious traditions had a selective advantage in that some were better than others in satisfying the innate mental tools of the evolved human mind for detecting supernatural agency.  Justin Barrett has argued that the Abrahamic monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are more naturally attractive to the human mind, because the human mind is naturally inclined to believe in the divine traits of the Abrahamic God--God as moral, God as superknowing, God as immortal, God as superpowerful, and God as Creator.  This would confirm Lewis's claim that Judaism and Christianity became the most humanly satisfying forms of religious development.

But this Darwinian science of the biological and cultural evolution of religion as culminating in Abrahamic monotheism does not either prove or disprove the real supernatural existence of the Abrahamic God.  A Christian evolutionist like Justin Barrett can see this as showing that the natural evolution of religious belief is compatible with believing in the truth of Revelation, because we can believe that God used the evolutionary process to create a human mind that would have a desire for religious transcendence that would be fulfilled by faith in the revealed truth of God and Heaven.  But an atheistic evolutionist like Jesse Bering can see this natural evolution of religious belief as showing the natural human propensity for believing religious illusions.

Thus, Lewis's natural desire for Joy--for the Paradise of eternal life with God in Heaven--does not by itself prove the reality of that supernatural object of his desire.

We are left, then, with the unresolvable debate between Reason and Revelation, in which neither side can refute the other.  But as Lewis saw in his many years of debating atheists and skeptics in the Oxford Socratic Club, a modern liberal social order can secure the freedom of thought that makes it possible to have such a public debate that would not be possible in a more theocratic or illiberal social order.

And even if the Socratic and Darwinian zetetic philosophers lack the absolute knowledge or wisdom that would be necessary to refute Revelation, they can find such joy in the philosophic life of loving wisdom even without ever fully achieving it that they can attain the natural happiness possible in this life, so that they need feel no longing for a supernatural happiness in some heavenly afterlife.  Those living the philosophic life might even find joy in understanding--in at least some limited way--that everything in the Universe, and even the Universe itself, must eventually die.

I have written about the evolution of Heaven and Hell and given some reasons for agreeing with Wallace Stevens that "death is the mother of beauty."

Lewis was mistaken in thinking his desire for Joy was a desire for Heaven.  A deathless life in a heavenly paradise would not satisfy us, because it would not be a human life at all.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Can Socratic Argument Prove the Existence of God? C. S. Lewis's Answer

Before I examine Lewis's argument from desire for the existence of God, I should explain what Lewis thought generally about rational arguments for the existence of God.

As the founding President, and most active member, of the Oxford Socratic Club from 1942 to 1954, Lewis was eager for Socratic debate between Christians and unbelievers because he was sure that Christianity could be defended against its opponents by rational argument and evidence (Hooper 1979).  In his statement on "The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club," he explained: "Socrates had exhorted men to 'follow the argument wherever it led them': the Club came into existence to apply this principle to one particular subject-matter--the pros and cons of the Christian Religion" (Lewis 1970: 131).  

Lewis disagreed, therefore, with those Christians who believed that their religious life was based on faith alone without any appeal to reason.  If Christianity is not reasonable, Lewis insisted, then it cannot be credible at all.

In contrast to my claim that there can be no final resolution to the Reason/Revelation debate, Lewis argued that even if Reason can neither prove nor refute the truth of Revelation, Reason is on the side of Revelation at least to some degree.  But then, we must wonder what it means for Reason to favor Revelation to some degree?

Lewis's clearest explanation was in his reply to a paper by H. H. Price on "Is Theism Important?" read to the Oxford Socratic Club.  Lewis suggested that we need to distinguish two kinds of Faith (Lewis 1970: 186-91).  Faith-A is "a settled intellectual assent" to the existence of God as First Cause.  Faith-B is "a trust, or confidence, in the God whose existence is thus assented to," which is the faith that Christians have in the God of the Bible--the Creator who created human beings in his Image, and who sent His Son to redeem them from their sinful state, so that they could have eternal life in Heaven.  Faith-A is the Theism that arises from philosophical arguments (such as the Argument from Design) for the existence of a philosophical God, which is not strictly a religious state.  Faith-B is a religious faith that this God is actually the Christian God of the Bible, and the New Testament identifies this faith as a "gift" from God through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Ephesians 2:8).

This distinction between the two kinds of faith runs throughout Lewis's apologetic writings.  So, for example, in Mere Christianity, Lewis argues for the existence of "a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears to me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong."  But then he warns his reader: "I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology" (34).  Similarly, in Miracles, he says: "I do not maintain that God's creation of Nature can be proved as rigorously as God's existence" (Lewis 1966: 33; 1974: 50).

In Surprised by Joy, his spiritual autobiography, Lewis distinguished between his conversion to Theism in 1929 and his conversion to Christianity in 1931: "It must be understood that the conversion recorded in the last chapter was only to Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity.  I knew nothing yet about the Incarnation.  The God to whom I surrendered was sheerly nonhuman" (228-30).

As I said in some previous posts, at least one of the philosophical atheists who were active in the Oxford Socratic Club--Antony Flew--seemed to have been converted to Theism at the end of his life.  And Charles Darwin was open to scientific and philosophical arguments for God as First Cause.  But neither Flew nor Darwin were ever converted to Faith-B--to believing in the God of the Bible.

But as I will indicate in my next post, I am not persuaded that Lewis's Argument from Desire--from the experience of Joy--is a good argument supported by evidence for the existence of God, and for this as a first step to faith in the Christian God.


Hooper, Walter. 1979. "Oxford's Bonny Fighter." In James T. Como, ed., C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, and Other Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S. 1952. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan.

________.  1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

________.  1966. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan.

________.  1970. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. Walter Hooper.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

________,  1974. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins.