How Wrong C.S. Lewis is

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.

28 thoughts on “How Wrong C.S. Lewis is”

  1. I could be wrong, but I think you’re overcomplicating a bit. You’re right that by “meaning” Lewis means “directed intent”, but it doesn’t have to get much deeper than this.

    At its simplest, this argument only asserts that the concept of “meaning” (directed intent) and the corresponding concept of the lack thereof would not have any real semantic value (and thus would not be seen as a significant question) except within a universe where directed intent already existed.

    Not saying it’s a particularly good argument; just saying it’s a little less complicated than you may have thought.

    1. If he is saying ‘if the universe is undirected and without intent then we should not be able to discover that it is undirected and without intent’ then he is even less sophisticated that I give him credit for. And his argument could be dismissed under the term “non-sequitur”.

      Given how many people hold up C.S. Lewis as a good example of Christian apologetics, I do hope that I actually have not made this more complex than it really is.

      1. No, I don’t think that’s quite it.

        He’s not saying “If the universe is without directed intent then we should not be able to discover that it is without directed intent.” He’s saying something related, but different: “If the universe is without directed intent then we should not consider the discovery of this to be significant.”

      2. Sorry to be childish about this, but I’m going to take his exact words and then I am going to replace the word “meaning” with “directed intent”.
        “If the whole universe has no directed, we should never have found out that it has no directed intent.”

      3. Actually, I’m going to keep going on this point:
        If what C.S. Lewis is saying is “If the universe is without directed intent then we should not consider the discovery of this to be significant” then that’s not a criticism of atheism and has nothing to do with the idea that atheism is too simple.
        I’m not sure how you can consider “meaning” to be ‘directed intent’ in one usage and yet in the same sentence assume “meaning” means “significance”, but if I assume you have good reason to believe that C.S. Lewis really is saying nothing about atheism at all.

      4. The issue is that his “should never have found out” goes deeper than mere epistemology.

        To “find out” that the universe has no meaning, in a philosophical usage, implies that you attach a particular significance to meaningfulness vs meaninglessness. Lewis’s statement asserts that this attributed significance would not exist unless the universe did, indeed, have meaning derived from directed intent.

        Maybe this is a more complex statement than I originally thought. 😉

      5. He is saying that meaning can only be derived from directed intent, at the end of this post I disagree with that.

        But the main thing I object to is that even if the universe were meaningless, meaninglessness should not stop us discovering that.

        My evolution-context comes from other readings from C.S. Lewis.

      6. I think he’s assuming that the sort of meaning he and those like him values can only be derived from directed intent. I doubt he would say that an atheist cannot find meaning, only that the meaning Joe Atheist finds is not the sort of meaning Joe Christian values.

      7. I think that we are now committing the crime of assigning meaning and guessing.
        But when he says “atheism is too simple” the implication is “Atheism is too simple [to be true]”. And with that context I don’t think it is right to assume he is picking his values over Joe Atheist’s values; I think he is assuming his values are the only values.

        There are a lot of ways of reading the quote, I’ll give you an idea of one avenue I chose not to go down when I initially wrote the post: ‘the idea that truth itself is dependent on the universe being authored. Without an authored universe, we could not discover anything, because nothing could be true.’
        I decided not to make such a polemic out of it, but that is also an interpretation. And it would explain how he thinks a lack of meaning (read: intent) blocks access to knowledge (because there would be no truth).

        This quote is definitely more complex than it first seems.

      8. You’re definitely right about it being more complex than it seems on the surface. Though that doesn’t mean it’s complicated per se….

        Honestly, I think it’s a mix of the path you took and the path you didn’t take.

        One possible reformulation: “Atheism assigns a philosophical value to lack-of-directed-intent which would not possess significance in a universe lacking directed intent.”

        How’s that?

      9. Hmm… perhaps “complicated” isn’t the right word, and it is better described as “written in such a way that it obscures its assumptions and its message”.
        Then again, it might just be written to appeal to the intuitions of people who think atheism is an indefensible positions.

      10. “…that’s not a criticism of atheism and has nothing to do with the idea that atheism is too simple.”

        In his view, atheism attaches a philosophical value to the lack-of-directed-intent that would not register as significant unless the universe possessed directed intent.

      11. If I were to dismiss Christianity or Islam because I packed on Creationist baggage to them, I would be dismissed. And I would ask for the same courtesy, especially from the intelligent people that quote C.S. Lewis.

        Besides, I do consider it. I outline all of the assumptions the quote makes.

  2. “Meaningless” is a rather sweeping, somewhat childish statement. Just because Lewis couldn’t find meaning doesn’t mean others can’t. I know i can without there also being some supernatural overseer.

      1. No, it’s not “just” a definition. It has huge implications and cannot be given a pass. Applying it here, for such a large concept, is amateur apologetics, at best.

      1. That’s a good way of putting it. I loved his books as a kid, and i’d be lying if i didn’t say i’ve searched through more than one wardrobe in my youth.

    1. You said, “No, it’s not ‘just’ a definition. It has huge implications and cannot be given a pass.”

      I didn’t say it should be given a pass. I’m just clarifying the basis of his assertion. His usage may be misleading if you don’t know his definition.

      Of course, his assertion, IMHO, was more intended to make “intuitive sense” than logical sense….which was par for the course when it comes to his writings.

      1. Apologies if my comment came across as a little terse. Wasn’t my intention.

        Yeah, I see where you’re heading, and i would agree, but then as Alts article indicates others then use this inherently misleading definition to advance their positions.. an argument from authority. What was one meaning becomes bastardised for other purposes.

  3. Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis. Having said that, when I first read this quote, the statement that atheism is too simple I understood it as meaning that it describes the universe as an accident; nothing more, nothing else. And, like every accident, it has no purpose or meaning. It just happened. Like when I accidently pour black ink on my canvas without intending to. The result of such accident would be a random, asymmetrical stain of blackness on my white canvas. Atheist would then say that such a black stain would then develop its own purpose even though its cause was an accident, like when we can develop consciousness and make up our own purpose. However, this scenario also assumes that developing a purpose would have to somehow come to existence, even though it came from an accident. To me, this is a contradiction, and therefore, too simple.
    Then, if the universe has no meaning, we would have no way of being aware of this meaninglessness. Our mere consciousness of meaningfulness implies the existence of meaningfulness. As C.S. Lewis also wrote, we cannot tell if a line is bent, if we don’t have an understanding of a straight line, or we cannot tell if it is dark if we don’t have an understanding of light.

    1. But we could understand darkness, even with no light. The standard model of quantum mechanics would predict photons of all energies, but we would detect a gap in what we now call “the visible light” bit of the electromagnetic spectrum.
      We could easily have concepts of angles without ever seeing a 0-gradient.

      What you seem to be saying is that you cannot imagine how consciousness appeared from a universe without meaning, and that we need consciousness to discover if the universe has meaning or not. I don’t understand how you make the step that consciousness needs to be borne from meaning, or that only meaning can effect consciousness. That’s just a thing CS Lewis (and, I get the impression, you) feel.

      Well, tough. We have a good understanding of how the brain evolved. And our understanding is devoid of Gods.

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