Thursday, September 12, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions.

-          Aristotle, Metaphysics

Miracles, C. S. Lewis

What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.  It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.

I am not quite sure what I am going to do with this book, at least within the context of the general direction this blog has taken.  On the surface, writing one way or another about miracles seems outside the scope of this blog, even as widely as I have exercised this scope.

Yet, I am finding something in this book on the idea of naturalism and supernaturalism (as Lewis puts it), and Lewis offers food for thought on the idea that there is Natural Law that derives from a source above man, a Natural Law that takes its form from the ends or purposes of man.

This as opposed to the naturalist view, that we are nothing more than atoms randomly smashing together (as the purest form of naturalism offers).  In such a case, we have no basis for Natural Law, nor do we have a basis on which to suggest any law regime is better or worse than any other – or why we should have any law at all. 

Lewis defines these terms:

Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature; I call these people Naturalists.  Others think that besides Nature, there exists something else; I call them Supernaturalists.

Beyond this, precise definitions are difficult to come by.  Some Naturalists consider as Nature anything that can be identified by the five senses.  Yet, we cannot perceive our own emotions in this way, yet these certainly seem ‘natural.’

Lewis offers his working definition: “…Nature means what happens ‘of itself’ or ‘of its own accord’: what you do not need to labour for; what you will get if you take no measures to stop it.”

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord.

Every event happens only because some other event has preceded it.  Lewis offers that the thoroughgoing Naturalist must, therefore, exclude even the possibility of free will.  Free will suggests that it is possible that something happened outside of what would have happened if things were left to go on their own.

The Supernaturalist agrees that there must be something which exists in its own right, some basic Fact which is itself the ground or starting point of all explanations; this is the One Thing, basic and original, existing on its own.  From this One Thing, there comes a second set of things, all caused by the One Thing; they exist because the One Thing exists.

The difference between the two views might be expressed by saying that Naturalism gives us a democratic, Supernaturalism a monarchical, picture of reality.

I find this striking.  If I may make a broad generalization: the left (naturalists) discounts tradition, including religion, and it praises democracy as proper for ‘equal’ men; if it is all just random, then why not?  The right (supernaturalists) respects tradition and religion and understands that natural hierarchies among men are both real and valuable.  This point is worthy of a more complete treatment than I will give it here; I may come back to it in the future.

What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.

For the theist – the believer in the Supernatural – the reason of God is older than Nature, it precedes nature; from God’s reason, the orderliness of nature is derived.  “Reason is given before Nature and on reason our concept of Nature depends.”

Throughout thousands of years of European thought, it was held by most that Nature – certainly a thing that exists – did not exist in its own right, but was a thing dependent for its existence on something else.  It seems to me that this can be taken a step further: for thousands of years, there was no meaningful concept of a separation of the Natural and the Supernatural: the metaphysical wasn’t thought of as something separate from the physical – no one thought in such terms.  Science (as we moderns consider the term) was not something distinct from philosophy or theology; it was all just science.  More accurately, it was all philosophy (I still think about why all such educated people – even in hard sciences – earn a Ph. D., a doctor of philosophy).

…the understanding of a machine is certainly connected with the machine but not in the way the parts of the machine are connected with each other.

The distinction to be made is not one between mind and matter, but between Reason and Nature.  It is our Reason that enables us to alter the course of Nature.  This is a one-way street – Nature is powerless to produce rational thought:

…not that she never modifies our thinking, but that the moment she does so, it ceases (for that very reason) to be rational. …Nature can only raid Reason to kill; but Reason can invade Nature to take prisoners and even to colonise.

If Nature had her way, we would have nothing we might consider human life – no furniture, no books, no washed hands.  Man, through Reason, has colonized Nature; much of the rest of creation (far outside the scope of this blog, any discussion about higher and lower forms of non-human animals) acts “naturally”; it goes of its own accord, as it must.

John Vervaeke, in discussing Descartes – considered one of the pillars of the idea of rationality – offers that many of today’s defenders of pure rationality ignore Descartes’ foundation for rationality: normativity (how things ought to be), meaning, and purpose are all central to reason.

We know how Descartes would feel about today’s such materialists, because he said the same about Hobbes in his time, through their correspondence.  It was as if Descartes was saying…Hobbes, you idiot.  You can’t have a material reasoner. 

The scientific revolution says about matter: it is inert; it has no purpose.  Science says nothing about how things ought to be, it only has something to say about how things are.  If you are a reasoner, you care about the truth; yet truth depends upon meaning, purpose, and how things ought to be – and none of these are to be found in matter.  In matter, things just are.

Returning to Lewis: what does he have to say about this?  Something quite similar, actually.  Noting, first, that the claim of reasoning cannot be denied by the Naturalist without cutting his own throat, he then turns to moral judgements:

The important point is to notice that moral judgements raise the same sort of difficulty for Naturalism as any other thoughts.

Men, of course, make moral judgements.  But who is to say what is the right moral judgement?  On what basis?

…the ‘oughts’ of Mr. [H.G.] Wells and, say, Franco are both equally the impulses which Nature has conditioned each to have and both tell us nothing about any objective right or wrong….

So, why get so worked up about proper ‘oughts’?  Oughts are just natural impulses – like yawning, barfing, or scratching an itch.  But any idea of an objective morality is an illusion, we are told; morality is nothing more than what keeps us alive, or what will preserve the human race.


But why even this?  Who says life is better than death or that the lives of our descendants’ matter as much as – let alone more than – our own?  After all, we dumped the wisdom of our ancestors a few centuries ago – so what is so special about us or our offspring?

One cannot have any discussion about morality without first having a foundation untouchable by human desire – a first principle upon which morality is built.

There can be no reason for trying to whip up and encourage the one impulse rather than the other. …the Naturalists must not destroy all my reverence for conscience on Monday and expect to find me still venerating it on Tuesday.

Without moral values that are objective, untouchable by human hands, there is no need to talk about Natural Law, therefore no need to be concerned about natural rights derived from these Natural Laws, therefore no need to concern ourselves with this undefinable, nebulous, and subjective thing called liberty.  We have the freedom to define liberty in any manner we choose!

If it is all just atoms randomly smashing together, enjoy the ride.  Work on dying with the most toys, get them in any way you can.  Many consider this liberty.

Of course, we used to call men such as these criminals.


  1. "for thousands of years, there was no meaningful concept of a separation of the Natural and the Supernatural: the metaphysical wasn’t thought of as something separate from the physical – no one thought in such terms."

    I think this idea is key. It explains much of what the Bible is talking about and clashes with the way even Christians today think of existence.

    At the end, my paraphrase of what you said is without objective morality and purpose, all of life is vain. I think that is what you said at least BM. Or was it the preacher of Ecclesiastes.

    1. " paraphrase of what you said is without objective morality and purpose, all of life is vain."

      That, and perhaps more. Seeing the world around us as God's creation, seeing God in His creation. Also, recognizing that the objective morality and purpose comes from something not material.

      Do you know what else that preacher said? "There is nothing new under the sun."

      The more I learn and the more I write...I find that it has all been said before - however, needing to be rediscovered.

  2. He also said, "...Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out."--Ecclesiastes 12:12

    Just a little bit of light-hearted humor. As for me, I hope you keep on writing books and I will continue to study them. I'm actually learning.

    1. Roger, thanks for the encouragement.

      In some ways (and perhaps half in jest) I kind of wish I read this verse before writing the book. The book has kind of left me stuck, like "what do I do now?"

      I know I have much more work to do on the topics covered in the book...but I already wrote the book!

      Anyway, I think I have found a worthwhile tangent - one that will cover new ground but along the same concepts. Perhaps in the next couple of days I will have the first post on this ready.

  3. "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven..."--chapter 3, verse 1.

    Perhaps, like Esther, you were brought here for such a time as this. Roll with it.