Many years ago, one of the first books I wrote was published under the name Persuasions, and the subtitle was “A Dream of Reason Meeting Unbelief.” In that book, a character named Evangelist encountered various people on the road that leads to the Abyss and he engaged them in conversation, seeking to persuade them to turn and head in the other direction.
Now these were the pre-Cambrian days before the Internet, and theological book junkies like myself used to rely on monthly newsprint catalogs that would get the word out about books that might interest all the junkies out there. One of these fine publications was called Great Christian Books, and so we sent on a copy of my book to them in the hopes that they would include it as one of their titles. They agreed to do so, which was a really big deal for me at the time. When I got my copy of that month’s catalog, I eagerly looked up my book, and discovered that the good folks at Great Christian Books had written the copy for it. It read something like “this small book is a fine introduction to Van Tillian apologetics . . .” I stared at that with something akin to consternation, and thought something like, “It is?”
I had heard of Van Til, but had not read him. So what was I doing running around writing little introductions to his apologetic approach? In haste I ordered a copy of The Defense of the Faith, probably from Great Christian Books, and breathed a sigh of relief after I read it. I guess I was Van Tillian. There are worse things, I suppose.
But where had I learned it? The element in my book that caused GCB to tag me as a Van Tillian was a method of argumentation that I had learned from C.S. Lewis, most probably from his book Miracles. This was odd, because there is a section in The Defense of the Faith where Van Til was quite critical of Lewis. And this in turn was understandable because there are a number of places where Lewis does in fact reason like an evidentialist, and reasoning like an evidentialist gave Van Till the jim jams. But there is also a great theme running through his work—his argument from reason—that I would regard as a high-octane presuppositional approach. This line of argument is not at all incidental to his thought, as I would like to show here. I learned to think this way from Lewis, and I want show homage here.
Because of this central theme in Lewis’s thought, I think it is fair to say that his use of evidences is closer to what Greg Bahnsen described as “debris clearing” than it is to a “neutralist” evidentialist approach. That’s as may be, and you all can evaluate my reasons for thinking this below.
The Anscombe Episode
This argument from reason that Lewis advances is best known from his book Miracles, in the third chapter of which Lewis set out the self-contradiction of naturalism. His particular formulation of this argument was challenged at a meeting of the Socratic Club at Oxford by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, and the two debated it there. As a result of that interaction, Lewis adjusted the wording of his argument in subsequent editions of Miracles, clarifying what he meant, and sharpening his argument. In my view, whatever form the argument takes—although this may be just me—it is a slam-dunk, knock-down, set-the-tattered-remains-on-fire argument
But as a result of Lewis making these adjustments in response to Anscombe, a myth has grown up in unbelieving circles that says that the great “apologist” Lewis got his clock cleaned by a real philosopher, and as a consequence he retired from the field of apologetics and took to writing about fauns, centaurs, and talking lions. Whatever Narnia has going for it, the jibe might go, we have to include the fact that there are no real philosophers there who might burst the bubble of your apologetic method.
Those who want to read further about the background of the Anscombe/Lewis debate, and the actual details of it, should check out C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert. My purpose here is not to go over the same territory that Reppert covers, but rather simply to show how Lewis did not back away from this argument in the slightest, as established by a glance at the overall the timeline. This argument was at the center of how Lewis became a Christian in the first place, and he advanced it over and over again throughout his life, clean through to the end of his life.
The Argument in Brief
A blind, purposeless, and material process does not and cannot know that it is blind, or purposeless, or material. It cannot know anything. If thought is simply the froth on the waves of our brain activity, then one of the first things that thought loses is the ability to know that there is even such a thing as brain activity, or froth for that matter. If human argumentation is simply the epiphenomena that our brain chemistry produces, then there is absolutely no reason to trust human argumentation—including any arguments that urge us to believe that argumentation is simply the epiphenomena that our brain chemistry produces. If reason is simply what these chemicals do under these conditions and at this temperature, then we cannot even know that such things as “chemicals” exist, and we certain cannot know about “conditions” and “temperatures.”
In short, we need not do battle with materialistic atheism. They show up to the fight but before swords are drawn the foe cuts his own throat.
And far from backing away from this line of argument, C.S. Lewis made this argument the theme of his life’s work in apologetics. Taking slightly different forms, it shows up again and again and again. In the citations I have collected below, I have sought to arrange them (roughly) in chronological order. There will be a lot of quotations, so please bear with me. I will make just a few comments as we go along, and will feel free to italicize within Lewis’s quotations for emphasis.
Although Surprised by Joy was written later in his life, Lewis was describing how he became a Christian. And this is part of what he said.
“We maintained that abstract thought (if obedient to logical rules) gave indisputable truth . . . Barfield convinced me that it was inconsistent. If thought were a purely subjective event, these claims for it would have to be abandoned. If one kept (as rock-bottom reality) the universe of the senses, aided by instruments and co-ordinated so as to form ‘science,’ then one would have to go much further—as many have since gone—and adopt a Behaviorist’s theory of logic, ethics, and aesthetics. But such a theory was, and is, unbelievable to me. I am using the word ‘unbelievable,’ which many use to mean ‘improbably’ or even ‘undesirable,’ in a quite literal sense. I mean that the act of believing what the behaviorist believes is one that my mind simply will not perform. I cannot force my thought into that shape any more than I can scratch my ear with my big toe or pour wine out of a bottle into the cavity at the base of that same bottle.”
In short, if thought is subjective there is no reason to trust my thought that thought is subjective. There was a reason why Lewis could not bend his mind into that particular shape—it wasn’t a shape. It was inchoate nonsense.
After his conversion, the first book Lewis published was The Pilgrim’s Regress. As an allegory about many of the intellectual follies of that era, it is not surprising that this argument appears there. This book was published in 1933, and in this place Reason is speaking.
“‘The Spirit of the Age wishes to allow argument and not to allow argument.’
‘How is that?’
‘You heard what they said. If anyone argues with them they say that he is rationalizing his own desires, and therefore need not be answered. But if anyone listens to them they will then argue themselves to show that their own doctrines are true.’
‘I see. And what is the cure for this?’
‘You must ask them whether any reasoning is valid or not. If they say no, then their own doctrines, being reached by reasoning, fall to the ground. If they say yes, then they will have to examine your arguments and refute them on their merits: for if some reasoning is valid, for all they know, your bit of reasoning may be one of the valid bits’”
In 1941, Lewis says this in an interaction with a Dr. Joad.
“I agree with Dr. Joad in rejecting mechanism and emergent evolution. Mechanism, like all materialist systems, breaks down at the problem of knowledge. If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?”
Sometime during the Second World War, Lewis wrote this:
“There is therefore no question of a total scepticism about human thought. We are always prevented from accepting total scepticism because it can be formulated only by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment—just as the man who warns the newcomer ‘Don’t trust anyone in this office’ always expects you to trust him at that moment . . . It therefore follows that all knowledge whatever depends on the validity of inference. If, in principle, the feeling of certainty we have when we say ‘Because A is B therefore C must be D’ is an illusion, if it reveals only how our cortex has to work and not how realities external to us must really be, then we can know nothing whatever.
In 1942, Lewis said:
“The belief in such a supernatural reality itself can neither be proved nor disproved by experience. The arguments for its existence are metaphysical, and to me conclusive. They turn on the fact that even to think and act in the natural world we have to assume something beyond it and even assume that we partly belong to that something. In order to think we must claim for our own reasoning a validity which is not credible if our own thought is merely a function of our brain, and our brains a by-product of irrational physical processes. In order to act, above the level of mere impulse, we must claim a similar validity for our judgments of good and evil. In both cases we get the same disquieting result. The concept of nature itself is one we have reached only tacitly by claiming a sort of super-natural status for ourselves.”
In Mere Christianity (1943), Lewis reasons in the same way.
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
Then in 1944, Lewis wrote this:
“If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e. of Materialism and Astronomy—are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milk-jug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.”
The book Miracles was published in 1947, and in the original form, it was this that drew criticism from Elizabeth Anscombe.
“All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really ‘must’ be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.
It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.
Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)”
Lewis says the same thing again, a year later, in 1948.
“Whenever you know what the other man is saying is wholly due to his complexes or to a bit of bone pressing on his brain, you cease to attach any importance to it. But if naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat”
Sometime in the 40’s, Lewis said farewell to the grand theory of emergent evolution in his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth.”
“The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all. Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any palaeontology, any archaeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists—which are then taken over by the Myth—you must—in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational—if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel—how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from bio-chemistry which results from physics.’ But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’: The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one’s suspicion that we here touch a radical disease in their whole style of thought.”
In his famous essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed” (1945), he makes the point yet again.
“In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled . . . You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter.”
In 1944, Lewis penned “Bulverism,” his key to understanding the rotten foundations of twentieth century thought.
“The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend on reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more—for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.
If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.
A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless.
All attempts to treat thought as a natural event involve the fallacy of excluding the thought of the man making the attempt.”
In another place, Lewis remarked on how this line of thought affected him before his conversion (1945).
“Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it; it is the one we touched on a fortnight ago. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula or the remotest part obeys the thought-laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory—in other words, unless Reason is an absolute—all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning.”
Not much has changed. People still can’t see the difficulty, and it remains a radical disease in their entire mode of thought. They cannot be brought to understand that they think something that would make thinking impossible.
“If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees”
The same issue arises again in The Abolition of Man.
“But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”
In the preface to That Hideous Strength, Lewis says that he was making the same over all point that he was making in The Abolition of Man. That includes this particular point we have been emphasizing. Two of the villains, Wither and Frost, got to the point of intellectual incoherence by two different routes, but they both managed to get there.
[Speaking of Wither] “It is incredible how little this knowledge moved him. It could not, because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself. What had been in his far-off youth a merely esthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar, had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain. He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.”
Wither withered because he had refused knowledge for so long that it got to the point where he could not even know that.
Another villain of the piece also hated knowledge, and came to the same bitter end.
[Speaking of Frost] “Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so—since he had been initiated—he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men. But never, until this evening, had he been quite so vividly aware that the body and its movements were the only reality, that the self which seemed to watch the body leaving the dining room and setting out for the chamber of the Head, was a nonentity. How infuriating that the body should have power thus to project a phantom self!”
Lewis touches on the point again in 1948:
“You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphoresence arising from the behavior of your genes”
“For one thing, it is only through trusting our own minds that we have come to know Nature herself. If Nature when fully known seems to teach us (that is, if the sciences teach us) that our own minds are chance arrangements of atoms, then there must have been some mistake; for if that were so, then the sciences themselves would be chance arrangements of atoms and we should have no reason for believing in them.”
In his essay “De Futilitate,” Lewis drives yet another nail in the coffin.
“It therefore follows that all knowledge whatever depends on the validity of inference. If, in principle, the feeling of certainty we have when we say ‘Because A is B therefore C must be D’ is an illusion, if it reveals only how our cortex has to work and not how realities external to us must really be, then we can know nothing whatever.”
“We are compelled to admit between the thoughts of a terrestrial astronomer and the behaviour of matter several lightyears away that particular relation which we call truth. But this relation has no meaning at all if we try to make it exist between the matter of the star and the astronomer’s brain, considered as a lump of matter. The brain may be in all sorts of relations to the star no doubt: it is in a spatial relation, and a time relation, and a quantitative relation. But to talk of one bit of matter as being true about another bit of matter seems to me to be nonsense.”
Lewis the apologist was the same man who was Lewis the husband, married to Joy Davidman. After she died, Lewis published his reflections on his grief in a small book called A Grief Observed. He said this about H., the abbreviation he used for his wife. Because Joy died just three years before Lewis did, this observation is right near the end of Lewis’s life.
“If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe—more strictly I can’t believe—that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.”
The year before he died, Lewis preached a sermon called “Transposition,” which can be found in The Weight of Glory. He hammered the point yet again.
“We are certain that, in this life at any rate, thought is intimately connected with the brain. The theory that thought therefore is merely a movement in the brain is, in my opinion, nonsense, for if so, that theory itself would be merely a movement, an event among atoms, which may have speed and direction, but of which it would be meaningless to use the words ‘true’ or ‘false. We are driven then to some kind of correspondence.”
After Lewis died, some of his lecture notes on the medieval cosmology were published posthumously in The Discarded Image, and Lewis speaks from beyond the grave.
“And now, in some extreme forms of Behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too. And where we ‘go from that’ is a dark question.”
I was not able to put my hands on a date for Lewis’s essay “The Poison of Subjectivism,” and so we will finish with that.
“Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as an epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.”
The Light From Behind the Sun
C.S. Lewis was absolutely right. Unless reason is absolute, all is in ruins. Moreover, we cannot say that reason is absolute without acknowledging that such a claim has preconditions. If reason is not absolute, we can know nothing, which would include the fact that we know nothing. But if reason is absolute, how is that possible? If reason is absolute, what is it resting on? What do we mean by it?C.S. Lewis was absolutely right. Unless reason is absolute, all is in ruins.
None of this is possible unless the Word was with God and the Word was God. This is the light from behind the sun. He is the light from behind the sun.
 Surprised by Joy, pp. 208-209.
 The Pilgrim’s Regress, pp. 64-65.
 “Evil and God,” from Essay Collection, p. 93
 Christian Reflections, pp. 61-63
 “Miracles” in God in the Dock, p. 27.
 Mere Christianity, p.
 “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” from God in the Dock, pp. 52-53).
 “Religion Without Dogma?” in God in the Dock, p 137.
 Christian Reflections, pp. 88-89
 “Meditation in a Toolshed, in God in the Dock, pp. 233-234.
 “Bulverism” in God in the Dock, pp. 303-304
 “Is Theology Poetry?” in Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, p. 19.
 Ibid, p. 21.
 The Abolition of Man, p. 81.
 From “On Living in the Atomic Age,” in Essay Collection, p. 363.
 Ibid, pp. 364-365.
 “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, pp. 62-64.
 A Grief Observed, pp. 28-29.
 “Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory, p. 103.
 The Discarded Image, p. 215.
 “The Poison of Subjectivism” in Essay Collection, p. 657.