Theism and Naturalism

Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics and Theology by C. S. Lewis, an excerpt with a short book review.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

“In so far as natural science can give a satisfactory account of a man as a purely biological entity, it excludes the soul and therefore excludes immortality. That, no doubt, is why scientists who are most, or most nearly, concerned with man himself are the most anti-religion.

Now most assuredly if naturalism is right then it is at this point, at the study of man himself, that it wins its final victory and overthrows all our hopes: not only our hope of immortality, but out hope of finding significance in our lives here and now. On the other hand, if naturalism is wrong, it will be here that it will reveal its fatal philosophical defect, and that is what I think it does.

On the fully naturalistic view all events are determined by laws. On our logical behavior, in other words our thoughts, and our ethical behavior, including our ideals as well as out acts of will, are governed by biochemical laws; these, in turn, by physical laws which are themselves actuarial statements about the lawless movements of matter. These units never intended to produce the regular universe we see: the law of averages has produced it out of the collision of these random variations in movement. The physical universe never intended to produce organisms. The relevant chemicals on Earth, and the Sun’s heat, thus juxtaposed, gave rise to this disquieting disease of matter: organization. Natural selection, operating on the minute differences between one organisms and another, blundered into that sort of phosphorescence or mirage which we call consciousness – and that is some cortexes beneath some skulls, at certain moments, still in obedience to physical laws, but to physical laws now filtered through laws of a more complicated kind, takes the form we call thought. Such, for instance, is the origin of this paper: such was the origin of Professor Price’s paper. What we should speak of as his ‘thoughts’ were merely the last link of a causal chain in which all the previous links were irrational. He spoke as he did because the matter of this brain was behaving in a certain way: and the whole history of the universe up to that moment had forced it to behave in that way. What we call his thought was essentially a phenomenon of the same sort as his other secretions – the form which the vast irrational process of nature was bound to take at a particular point of space and time.

Of course it did not feel like that to him or to us while it was going on. He appeared to himself to be studying the nature of things, to be in some way aware of the realities, even supersensuous realities, outside his own head. But if strict naturalism is right, he was deluded: he was merely enjoying the conscious reflection of irrationally determined events in his own head. It appeared to him that his thoughts (as he called them) could have to outer realities that wholly immaterial relation which we call truth or falsehood: though, in fact, being but the shadow of cerebral events, it is not easy to see that they could have any relations to the outer world except causal relations. And when Professor Price defended scientists, speaking of their devotion to truth and their constant following of the best light they knew, it seemed to him that he was choosing an attitude in obedience to an ideal. He did not feel that he was merely suffering a reaction determined by ultimately amoral and irrational sources, and no more capable of rightness or wrongness than a hiccup or a sneeze.

It would have been impossible for Professor Price to have written, or us to have read, his paper with the slightest interest if he and we had consciously held the position of strict naturalism throughout. But we can go further. It would be impossible to accept naturalism itself if we really and consistently believed naturalism. For naturalism is a system of thought. But for naturalism all thoughts are mere events with irrational causes. It is, to me at any rate, impossible to regard the thoughts which make up naturalism in that way and, at the same time, to regard them as a real insight into external reality. Bradley distinguished idea-event from idea-making, but naturalism seems to me committed to regarding ideas simply as events. For meaning is relation of a wholly new kind, as remote, as mysterious, as opaque to empirical study, as soul itself.

Perhaps this may be even more simply put in another way. Every particular thought (whether it is a judgment of fact or a judgment of value) is always and by all men discounted the moment that it can be explained, without remainder, as the result of irrational causes. 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.” Taken from Religion without Dogma (91~93).

C.S. Lewis furthermore asserts on ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ (119~120), “For, really, the naturalistic conclusion is unbelievable. 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.”

Professor John Lenox, a scientist and a Christian Theologian, posits a rhetorical question, almost similar to C.S. Lewis statement, during his debate against Professor Darwin Dawkins, a scientist and an atheist, “If my beliefs are the results of the motion of the atom in my brain produced by unguided, random, mindless process, why would I believe them?”

The book fundamentally establishes that the faith of a Christian in God can be a process of life in making chaos into order – from natural interrupting irregularity to observable regularity – a similar process upon which natural law is governed. The opposition of C.S. Lewis on Naturalism – which is used to refute theism – can help faithfuls, who look for rigid rational ground to support their faith so they can keep on nourishing and practicing their belief as a Christian, or any theists who hope and will to find significance in their lives here and now.


My 2020 goal is to read a book per month; share with people what I learn from, and feel about the book. And for March 2020, the book I read is Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics and Theology by C. S. Lewis.