This forum was closed on October 1st, 2010. However, the archives are open to the public and filled with vast amounts of good reading and information for you to enjoy. If you wish to meet some Wardrobians, please visit the Into the Wardrobe Facebook group.

Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

The man. The myth.

Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby larry gilman » 01 Aug 2009, 14:07

It is interesting that Obama's pick to head the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins -- a world-class geneticist, defender of evolution, and evangelical Christian -- cites Lewis's Mere Christianity as THE book that turned around his youthful crisis of faith, enabling him to make the jump from atheism into a form of belief fully compatible with science. The full Salon interview is at http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/08/07/collins/index.html; the relevant passage follows.

You've said you were once an "obnoxious atheist." What changed you? Why did you turn to religion?

I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn't see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, "What about you? What do you believe?" And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, "Well, I don't think I believe in anything." But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I'd never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

In your book you describe this as a "thoroughly terrifying experience."

It was. It was like my worldview was suddenly under attack. So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn't understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, "You know, I think you'd learn a lot if you'd read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path -- a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion." The book was "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

So that one book totally changed your life?

Absolutely. It was as if he was reading my mind. As I read his arguments about the Moral Law -- the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God -- I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn't go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.


This item is continued as a longer blog post over at The Other Journal:

http://www.theotherjournal.com/blog.php?id=227

Although I think that the concern of atheists like Sam Harris about Collins being fit to direct the NIH is exaggerated and that he is actually a fine pick for the directorship, I also think that the atheists are pointing to a real problem about his attitude toward human evolution.
larry gilman
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 233
Joined: Jul 2004
Location: Sharon, VT

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby postodave » 31 Aug 2009, 21:38

I read your article which I thought was remarkably lucid and sound in the point made - worthy of Lewis himself. Would you go as far as to say Lewis himself was mistaken in his use of the argument from morality or can Lewis's argument compliment an explanation of morality in terms of evolutionary origins? And of course Lewis himself would not accept your view that all beliefs must be caused (Miracles chapter 3) so there is a lot of philosophical meat on this bone. If you want to argue the point out I'm not sure I will be able to follow as I abandoned an argument about this kind of thing not long ago because I simply could not keep up philosophically. But I am interested.
So I drew my sword and got ready
But the lamb ran away with the crown
postodave
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 816
Joined: Oct 2004

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby larry gilman » 03 Sep 2009, 14:54

Postodave,

Thanks for your flattering response! Here are some thoughts tickled into being by your questions -- but keep in mind that I’m not a philosopher, except in the (important) sense that anybody who thinks about thinking is a philosopher. So let’s have at it, shall we?

Would you go as far as to say Lewis himself was mistaken in his use of the argument from morality or can Lewis's argument compliment an explanation of morality in terms of evolutionary origins?


Well, just as a point of fact, I’m not sure that Lewis does use or make any “argument from morality” -- if by that we mean an argument that must God exist because the moral law exists. I believe (I’m on vacation, my books are not available to me at the moment) that in Mere Christianity he explicitly disavows any effort to prove God’s existence from the moral law, and in The Abolition of Man, his great essay on the subject, he hardly mentions God at all, and I am nearly certain makes no existence-of-God argument based on morality. Curiously, I see that in an essay published in the New York Times just a few days ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opini ... wanted=all), Richard Wright claims that Lewis did argue from our moral sense to the existence of God: “The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — ‘out there,’ you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.” In fact, Wright claims that Lewis originated that whole line of argument. But he does not point to any particular work or quote Lewis chapter and verse, and I think that like many writers who have opined about Lewis, he has not really done his homework. I think he misrepresents Lewis. CSL was very keen to argue that the moral law is at root a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, an aspect of Reason in the sense that it cannot be based on anything but itself -- cannot be derived from statements of fact or re-invented at will. And that argument I do accept.

Evolutionary origin of our partial, flawed, developing knowledge of the moral law is another kettle of fish. In my blog post, the point I had in mind was that valid knowledge of a thing, if that’s what one has, is valid regardless of how one got it. Morality might be directly and miraculously implanted in our brains, as Lewis seems to have thought: or it might have evolved biologically; or it might have evolved or been discovered socially. In my opinion, almost certainly some mixture of the latter two. (There is, however, zero possibility that all values are 100% genetically programmed, because values vary too much even when DNA is not changing at all, as in a single person during their lifetime. Or look at Viking behavior versus that of modern Danes and Swedes, or German behavior in 1939 versus 2009.) So knowing exactly how our moral sense got here, if we did, would not tell us whether that moral sense was nonsense. It cannot.

And of course Lewis himself would not accept your view that all beliefs must be caused (Miracles chapter 3) so there is a lot of philosophical meat on this bone.


I've read just enough philosophy (and physics) to know that one must approach the word “cause” and all its cognates with a 10-foot insulated pole. It’s pretty clear that in traditional Christian theology, God is the only thing that is strictly, absolutely “uncaused.” In fact, God is not a “thing” at all and does not “exist” the same way a rock exists: every word in every sentence about God is metaphorical. I think that Lewis would agree with this, and would also agree that all our beliefs are “caused” in some absolute sense: but I think he had reservations about what sorts of causation are permissible for rational and moral thought. He seems to have argued, if I remember Miracles correctly, that there is a sort of causation that is “irrational” (mechanical?) and another kind that is not (supernatural?), and that beliefs arising from the former are inherently invalid. There I would disagree -- following, as far as I think I understand her, the Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, CSL’s famous nemesis on this question. You can read her reply to Lewis at http://www.larrygilman.net/misc_documents/Anscombe_vs_CSL.pdf ; Lewis’s side of the debate is in Ch. III in the early version of Miracles, God in the Dock, and the revised Chapter III in all later editions of Miracles.

So did our moral sense evolve? I think that most evolutionary talk about morality is at present speculative, with little evidential base. Evolutionary psychology is simply not on the same scientific footing as physical evolution -- who descended from what or is related to which, how natural selection and other forces work, that sort of thing. That's hardcore physical science: evolutionary psychology is, so far, mostly rhetoric. And much popular press about the genetic programming of this or that human value is grossly oversimplified (because our genes must permit at least as much human behavioral variety as we already observe, which is a lot). But I offer these as scientific, not theological judgments. It is possible that the evolutionary psychologists will eventually adduce evidence much better than they have so far. If they do, I will try to proportion my belief in their claims to the quality of their evidence. But those evolutionary insights will have, I suspect, very little to tell us about morality itself -- probably nothing at all. Knowing how the brain does calculus cannot tell you whether you’ve done Homework Problem 17 correctly or not: only calculus itself can tell you that. Similarly, while I think that biological evolution is a profound and fascinating subject and must be integrated into the concerns of Christian theology, I don’t think it has anything basic to tell us about what a human life is or how to live it. That is a completely different order of question -- the kind that gets responded to, not answered. And our responses can only grow out of and be worked out in direct experience, not objective knowledge. DNA and evolution can have nothing at all to say to a soldier in the field, gun in hand, hesitating over whether to refuse an atrocious order -- and facing death or disgrace if they do refuse. Ditto for the hardly-noticed drizzle of less momentous choices that fill our days.

Great questions -- thanks for provoking the ol' gray matter -- what are your thoughts?

Regards,

Larry
Last edited by larry gilman on 09 Sep 2009, 19:54, edited 1 time in total.
larry gilman
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 233
Joined: Jul 2004
Location: Sharon, VT

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby postodave » 03 Sep 2009, 21:43

Hi Larry

Well, just as a point of fact, I’m not sure that Lewis does use or make any “argument from morality” -- if by that we mean an argument that must God exist because the moral law exists.

No I agree he's not trying to prove God. It's more like he's offering a very broad hypothesis - doesn't a universe with morality in it make more sense if it is understood as a creation of a rational moral being.

Richard Wright claims that Lewis did argue from our moral sense to the existence of God: “The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — ‘out there,’ you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.” In fact, Wright claims that Lewis originated that whole line of argument. But he does not point to any particular work or quote Lewis chapter and verse, and I think that like many writers who have opined about Lewis, he has not really done his homework. I think he misrepresents Lewis. CSL was very keen to argue that the moral law is at root a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, an aspect of Reason in the sense that it cannot be based on anything but itself -- cannot be derived from statements of fact or re-invented at will. And that argument I do accept.

Wright is surely going too far in claiming Lewis originated this argument. But Lewis does I think, in Mere Christianity argue from our moral sense to God in the sense of saying this hypothesis makes best sense of what we experience.

Evolutionary origin of our partial, flawed, developing knowledge of the moral law is another kettle of fish. In my blog post, the point I had in mind was that valid knowledge of a thing, if that’s what one has, is valid regardless of how one got it. Morality might be directly and miraculously implanted in our brains, as Lewis seems to have thought: or it might have evolved biologically; or it might have evolved or been discovered socially. In my opinion, almost certainly some mixture of the latter two. (There is, however, zero possibility that all values are 100% genetically programmed, because values vary too much even when DNA is not changing at all, as in a single person during their lifetime. Or look at Viking behavior versus that of modern Danes and Swedes, or German behavior in 1939 versus 2009.) So knowing exactly how our moral sense got here, if we did, would not tell us whether that moral sense was nonsense. It cannot.


I don't think it is a matter of pure genetic programming but rather our evolutionary development has made us social animals. (I find Mary Midgley very helpful on this) Wright mentions altruism which he sees in relation to the pragmatic completion of shared tasks. Midgley helped me to see the key role emotions and feelings play in our morality. We are empathic creatures we can understand what others feel - and because we are empathic we can be cruel. A shark can inflict painful damage but it does not know it does this. The higher primates do know and so can inflict pain deliberately. So a large part of our morality and our moral conflict arises from our ability to empathise - that may have been genetically programmed because of it's survival value (ability to imagine what the other will do or sexual or tribal bonding - Lewis talks about herd instinct but the bonding of primates is not the same as the herding of cows or the pack behaviour of dogs - indeed one can imagine different species evolving intelligence and developing a different morality - Midgley says that if octopuses had evolved intelligence they would have been been like enlightenment philosophers with their social contract.)

I've read just enough philosophy (and physics) to know that one must approach the word “cause” and all its cognates with a 10-foot insulated pole. It’s pretty clear that in traditional Christian theology, God is the only thing that is strictly, absolutely “uncaused.” In fact, God is not a “thing” at all and does not “exist” the same way a rock exists: every word in every sentence about God is metaphorical. I think that Lewis would agree with this, and would also agree that all our beliefs are “caused” in some absolute sense: but I think he had reservations about what sorts of causation are permissible for rational and moral thought. He seems to have argued, if I remember Miracles correctly, that there is a sort of causation that is “irrational” (mechanical?) and another kind that is not (supernatural?), and that beliefs arising from the former are inherently invalid. There I would disagree -- following, as far as I think I understand her, the Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, CSL’s famous nemesis on this question. You can read her reply to Lewis at http://www.larrygilman.net/misc_documen ... s_CSL.pdf; Lewis’s side of the debate is in Ch. III in the early version of Miracles, God in the Dock, and the revised Chapter III in all later editions of Miracles.


I've tried to follow this Lewis/Anscombe debate - including having read Victor Repert. (your Anscombe link is dead) Lewis distinguishes between causes and reasons - cause and effect and ground and consequent. I begin to lose it when he insists reason must be supernatural for then I struggle to see how the supernatural thing and the system of cause and effect tie in together.
So did our moral sense evolve? I think that most evolutionary talk about morality is at present speculative, with little evidential base. Evolutionary psychology is simply not on the same scientific footing as physical evolution -- who descended from what or is related to which, how natural selection and other forces work, that sort of thing. That's hardcore physical science: evolutionary psychology is, so far, mostly rhetoric. And much popular press about the genetic programming of this or that human value is grossly oversimplified (because our genes must permit at least as much human behavioral variety as we already observe, which is a lot). But I offer these as scientific, not theological judgments. It is possible that the evolutionary psychologists will eventually adduce evidence much better than they have so far. If they do, I will try to proportion my belief in their claims to the quality of their evidence. But those evolutionary insights will have, I suspect, very little to tell us about morality itself -- probably nothing at all. Knowing how the brain does calculus cannot tell you whether you’ve done Homework Problem 17 correctly or not: only calculus itself can tell you that. Similarly, while I think that biological evolution is a profound and fascinating subject and must be integrated into the concerns of Christian theology, I don’t think it has anything basic to tell us about what a human life is or how to live it. That is a completely different order of question -- the kind that gets responded to, not answered. And our responses can only grow out of and be worked out in direct experience, not objective knowledge. DNA and evolution can have nothing at all to say to a soldier in the field, gun in hand, hesitating over whether to refuse an atrocious order -- and facing death or disgrace if they do refuse. Ditto for the hardly-noticed drizzle of less momentous choices that fill our days


I've been reading about the history of military psychiatry recently so that is an interesting example. Eder during the first world war adapted Freud's idea of id and superego identifying id with survival instinct and ego with the social concept of duty. Soldier's developed hysterical illnesses as a way out of the dilemma caused by this conflict. Lewis talks about herd versus survival instinct in the same language and sees the natural law standing where Freud would place the ego. I think you can say our evolutionary history has lead us into being the kind of creatures who will have this kind of conflict. Intelligent octopuses would be quite different - they could never be made to understand the concept of duty to a country; you would have to convince them, using something like Wright's concept of altruism, that going to war was in their own best interests. If I am right in this then our morality derives not simply from a universal moral law but also from the kind of animal we are in this corner of that universe. It also means that what we call God's goodness derives from what he is in relation to us far more than traditional (western) theology would usually allow. God has assumed to himself a moral nature that makes sense to us poor monkeys.

Final point: what I think I think is this: the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes good sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology also makes great sense as a signpost to God. If we can think that perhaps God made the kind of cosmos where intelligent life would be highly likely or even certain to evolve perhaps he also made the kind of universe where moral life must evolve - and perhaps social isolates like octopuses could not in fact evolve intelligence because the primate tendency to live in groups and to empathise was a key part of the path to intelligence.
DNA and evolution can have nothing at all to say to a soldier in the field, gun in hand, hesitating over whether to refuse an atrocious order -- and facing death or disgrace if they do refuse.

But perhaps with an understanding of evolution we can attempt to explain why a human being would experience this kind of moral dilemma.
So I drew my sword and got ready
But the lamb ran away with the crown
postodave
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 816
Joined: Oct 2004

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby larry gilman » 09 Sep 2009, 19:56

Hey -- thanks for the thoughtful reply. Good points, I agree with lots and lots. I will reply more fully soon, but for the moment, please note that I have fixed the link to the Anscombe article given in my previous post.

Regards,

Larry
larry gilman
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 233
Joined: Jul 2004
Location: Sharon, VT

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby postodave » 12 Sep 2009, 10:09

Thanks for restoring the link Larry. Anscombe's essay is very interesting. The missing link in all this is Lewis's original chapter 3 of miracles. Someone really should make a source book of all this with Lewis's original chapter 3 - and also the earlier knock down versions of this kind of argument from his public discussion sessions. Then Anscombe's comments and response then the revised chapter and Anscombe's brief responses to that. Perhaps Vicor Repert cound edit it. Are you reading this Lewis trustees?

I don't feel comfortable with Lewis's idea of gaps in the causal sequence where reason seeps in - but the whole issue is complex. It seems to touch on issues raised by people like Daniel Dennett and Roger Penrose about how physical processes can give rise to mind. Polkinghorne has some thoughts on it as well. Whether it will ever be resolved by the physicists I would not like to say.

Anyway thanks again for the link.
So I drew my sword and got ready
But the lamb ran away with the crown
postodave
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 816
Joined: Oct 2004

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby larry gilman » 20 Sep 2009, 20:33

I agree that a collection of all the relevant chapters, essays, even letters would be useful. I might just put it together and offer it up as a PDF online, and to hell with Disney-crafted copyright laws that keep us from sharing and learning freely from the writings of people who have been dead for decades.

My intent to reply more fully to your above keeps getting put off, but I do thank you for this discussion anyway.

Regards,

Larry
larry gilman
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 233
Joined: Jul 2004
Location: Sharon, VT

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby cyranorox » 18 Mar 2010, 20:22

Very interesting discussion. Just like to nod in on one point: 'not reliably true' is not the same as 'definitely false'. so, if we posit a source for moral value/belief that does not allow us to deem the belief reliably true, provably solid, and logically mortised and tenoned in supernatural stone, we may still find it good or beautiful, or even find that it came from a trusted witness. In those cases, we would be right to accept it.

Octopuses are remarkably intelligent- up there with the kinds of animals we domesticate.
Apocatastasis Now!
cyranorox
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 274
Joined: Dec 2007
Location: a garret over a moonlit street

Re: Lewis and Obama's NIH Pick

Postby larry gilman » 18 Mar 2010, 20:30

Cyranorox --

Affirmation.

Larry
larry gilman
Wardrobian
 
Posts: 233
Joined: Jul 2004
Location: Sharon, VT


Return to C. S. Lewis

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered members and 3 guests

cron