This quote pops up a lot in religious debates, and I’ve never given C.S. Lewis the respect to look at the quote and explain why it is such nonsense. The quote is this:
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
The reason I have chosen now to critique is because a friend’s mum put it as her Facebook status, and I have reason to believe that my friend’s mum is a well read and clever woman who doesn’t just surrender to fads. Therefore, I assume this quote is not as easy to dissect as I initially thought when I first read it. Part of my objection to rebutting this quote has been that I hate the idea of having to rebut every argument: the good and the bad. Surely I can just wait for the good arguments to roll around. But, as it happens, even the had arguments have their subscribers.
In responding to this quote from C.S. Lewis I want to unpack the assumptions made and respond to them individually. The first assumption made is that atheism is a simple belief or complete worldview from which conclusions can be drawn about the universe. Secondly, the quote assumes that, in a universe without God, the universe would be meaningless. Lastly, C.S. Lewis assumes that a meaningless universe would be a barrier to understanding that the universe is meaningless.
Is atheism simple?
Atheism doesn’t say anything. There are no axiomatic or dogmatic claim you have to accept to be an atheist. It merely describes people who do not believe in a God. There is no need to believe in a simple universe or to use simple defences of your stance at all. But to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt there is a thought within science that a lot of atheists (according to my conversational sample) seem to agree with. The thought is the Grand Unified Theory (GUT). The GUT, if it exists, means that the known laws of physics come out of a single law or expression. For example, electricity and magnetism were once thought to be separate forces, but is now known to be born from the same principle that we now call electromagnetism. The GUT would be the pinnacle of that process, where all the theories of the universe could be unified into one theory; the universe could be explained by one equation.
That belief, if one accepts it, would paint the picture of the universe as simple. So the next question is why a simple universe must (a) be meaningless and (b) inhibit our ability to discover that it is meaningless. Being simple does not make the universe meaningless; universe with a God is no more complicated (in fact one could argue that it is simpler; spoken into existence with no inviolate rule to govern it). However, a universe that was not created with intent and is not overseen by intelligence that has preferences about its outcome may easily be described as meaningless. (Firstly, this has nothing to do with simplicity. Secondly, the universe homes us and harbours intelligent life. Intelligent life is capable of feelings and experiences and I would argue that is meaningful in itself.)
Is a meaningless universe one that inhibits our understanding?
Next, what is it about a meaningless or simple universe that suggests that humans cannot discover the universe is meaningless (if indeed it is meaningless)? C.S. Lewis argues that in a universe without an author, evolution is nothing more than atoms and molecules bumping together and so our evolved rational and critical thought cannot be relied upon to accurately track reality. And to an extent C.S. Lewis has a point. We know our pre-theoretic ideas (often called “intuitions” or “common sense”) about reality are wrong—this video is an example of that. Not only that, but our mind makes guesses about reality as it processes data—for examples I invite you to watch this video. On top of that, our “intuitions” become more and more unreliable the further we delve out of what Richard Dawkins calls “the Middle World”; using our intuitions we cannot explain the really small or the really big.
So, C.S. Lewis may have a point about the human mind. But how have we come to know that our pre-theoretic ideas are insufficient? Our intuitions have led us to certain tools: mathematics, the scientific method and formal logic. These tools are the things that informed us that our intuitions are wrong. These are the tools that discovered relativity and quantum mechanics and even Newtonian physics (which, although simple, are not the rules you would intuit). These tools break the boundaries that may exist in our own psychology. So the limits C.S. Lewis associates with evolution are not an epistemological (about methods we use to gain knowledge) limit.
I have argued that being meaningless or un-authored is not a limit to our understanding because we have discovered tools that do that work for us. I cannot conceive of a way that a truth inhibits its own discovery. What I mean by that is I cannot follow why C.S. thinks that if the universe were meaningless that fact would be hidden from us by nothing more than meaninglessness itself. The only thing that should be able to limit our ability to find that the universe has no meaning is if the universe were to have purpose.
Is the universe meaningless?
Whether the universe is meaningless is not a question that can be answered by a call on atheism. So far that I can see, purpose is something that exists in the mind. The experiences of those minds have greater purpose than anything else (and if God is real, His mind included). And the universe houses consciousness, making it possible for these minds to exist (even if only fleetingly) does give it purpose. But it a philosophical question anyway, and you can disagree with my conclusion.