thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

If you are not a lion or a witch then you must be a wardrobe

This follows The Dawn Treader springs a leak in a series on Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. The series started with Sheer Narnia.







Lewis is very fond of the fallacy of false choice.

He starts with observations which seem fairly reasonable, particularly in the woolly way he presents them. He then presents options in respect of those observations, as if they are the only options available. Next he discounts all bar one of the options. So the remaining option must be true.

But what about the options he ignored because they weren’t convenient to his argument? These are the tricks politicians use. (George W Bush, September 20, 2001: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.) You don’t expect them from ‘one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century’.

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way.

For the sake of argument I will accept these as fairly sound generalisations. He then goes on:

They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

To go from a ‘curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way’ to ‘Law of Nature’ capital L capital N is a bit of a leap, but as long as we take ‘Law of Nature’ (or ‘Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour’ as just capitalised Narniaspeak for that ‘curious idea’, then we can let it go. And we can take ‘all clear thinking’ as a promise of what’s in store.

In the next chapter (2 SOME OBJECTIONS) he stops to ‘make that foundation firm’.

He clearly has his own explanation up his sleeve for the ‘two facts’. But he must discuss a few alternatives.

The first one is ‘herd instinct’. He writes as if we all know what he means by this:

For example, some people [asked:] …’Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?’

Herd of elephants

Herd of elephants

From the way he uses the expression he seems to mean something like ‘instinctual empathy’, rather than any instinct to herd together and behave as one.

He declares that we

all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct… It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you like it or not.

He ignores the distinction between feeling you ought to do something and feeling you want to do something. Both could be instinctual. Lewis just assumes that feeling you ought to do something cannot possibly be instinctual.

He knows there could be conflict between instincts:

Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation).

But you will also find a

third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away… [and which] cannot itself be either of them.

But that doesn’t prove this ‘third thing’ cannot itself be instinctual. Why should we assume we couldn’t have an instinct to form moral judgments and act on them? Why can’t we have an instinctual feature which arbitrates between other instincts?

I am not claiming or presupposing that we do have such an instinct. But if it’s OK to assume we have an instinct to be helpful and an instinct for self-preservation, then there is no reason to assume we could not have an instinct to decide between different options – applying prudential criteria or ethical criteria, or a combination of the two.

Piano keys

Piano keys

We then get another of Lewis’s rhetorical analogies:

You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

But it is a false analogy, introduced to obscure his false assumption.

It is painfully clear how important it is to Lewis’s argument that the ‘curious idea’ people have that they ‘ought to behave in a certain way’ cannot be instinctual. But he has not proved it yet.

He tries another tack, but it turns out to be the same tack:

If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. …[W]e often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on… But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,’ cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note… needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

This is such sophistry.

First let’s deal with the game he’s playing with the piano and the sheet music. We could introduce a new category of entities: things we use to play music. A sheet of music is one of these things, as are all the piano keys. So yes we do use one ‘thing’ (the sheet of music) to tell us to play another ‘thing’ (middle C on the piano) and not a third ‘thing’ (C sharp). Ditto we use one of the ‘things’ (the sheet of music again) to tell us which ‘thing’ (C sharp again) needs to be played louder.

Lewis is telling us we must see instincts as analogous to musical notes or piano keys. But there is no reason why we cannot see instincts as analogous to ‘things we use to play music’.

He considers the example where the creature (who presumably could be a person) has only two things in his, her or its mind, and those two things are conflicting instincts. In that case ‘obviously’ the stronger must win the conflict. This is probably true by definition: if there is a winner, then the one which wins is revealed as the stronger by being the winner.

He then considers the case where there is at least one other thing in the creature’s mind. This third thing is the thing which strengthens one of the two original things (in this case the ‘herd instinct’) over the other original thing (for example the instinct of self-preservation).  He says this third thing cannot itself be the ‘herd instinct’.

Two things. First let us accept that the third thing cannot itself be the ‘herd instinct’. But that does not mean it cannot be another instinct.

And secondly I am not sure it is so self-evident that the ‘third thing’ cannot itself be the ‘herd instinct’. Remember Lewis uses ‘herd instinct’ to mean something like ‘instinctual empathy’. It would seem entirely possible that if we do have such a faculty as instinctual empathy, it could operate in such a way as to amplify itself. We have no reason to assume that our instincts can only act in discrete unchanging quanta.

Again I am not claiming that this is how our minds work. But we have no reason to assume Lewis’s psychological theory must apply either – just because it helps his argument along.

The C# above middle C cannot be the thing that tells you to play the C# above middle C, or to play the C# above middle C louder than the previous note. But that does not mean that instinctual empathy is incapable of acting on itself so as to win a conflict with another instinct.

I have read Mere Christianity twice and it is full of devious and specious arguments like these. It amazes me how much it is admired.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

23 October 2010 at 8:50 am

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