Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Enigma That Is C.S. Lewis

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old LewisC.S. Lewis, noted Christian apologist and fictional author (The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia) appears to be enjoying a revival of sorts as a version of his 'Screwtape Letters' is currently playing here in The Springs. Of course, all the resident fundagelicals are going ga-ga over it, but one wonders why.

Lewis, by his own accounts, certainly wasn't dogmatic or doctrinaire. Indeed, it appears the fundies' love for him is evidently based more on assorted canards and myths than reality. All of this lends an aura of enigma to Lewis' life and actual beliefs.

One of the myths is that Lewis used to be an "atheist" who eventually found the light in his thirties and came back to Christianity. In fact, like another Brit of renown - Antony Flew - Lewis was no atheist.  Flew himself was more a secular humanist than actual atheist. But fundies made a huge deal over his "conversion".

The truth is somewhat more mundane and his book There Is a God, is especially instructional. Just one minor little problem with that, Flew never wrote the book!  According to a piece (‘The Turning of an Atheist’) by Mark Oppenheimer. Flew admitted in an interview that he never wrote the book. The actual author was Roy Varghese, a Christian apologist, who did all the original writing and then showed it to Flew, who for some reason okayed it. This was confirmed by Varghese, to Oppenheimer, who describes Varghese as “a crusader and financial backer of those who believe scientific research helps to validate the existence of God.

Getting back to Lewis, he was actually more a devotee of Celtic mysticism from his teens until his 30s, when he rejoined the Anglican Communion. For a great article skewering his so-called atheism see:  Quoting from the piece:

"Lewis must have been one really chicken-shit atheist. He certainly didn't bear himself with the confidence I have observed in every atheist I have ever met. In Surprised by Joy (now there's a Christian title for you), Lewis characterizes his and others' atheism as follows: "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." This is kind of like having a dog, but hating it for not barking at prowlers—a dilemma no atheist would recognize."

Indeed, Lewis's alleged atheism borders on the ludicrous. At the very least it's an infantile mutation ...probably much like the self-proclaimed "atheism" espoused by the Columbine Killers. In that respect, it isn't an atheism that any genuine atheist would recognize,  far less embrace. But why be surprised, if so many also thought Antony Flew was a bona fide atheist?

Lewis'  personal Christian re-awakening then spurred his Christian Apologias, including "Mere Christianity", "Miracles", "The Problem of Pain" and "The Screwtape Letters." Chronicles of Narnia can also be included since it plays and reads like a parable-based Apologia, with the evil doers clearly delineated and the Lion ("Aslan") obviously a stand-in for Christ, including the way he's seemingly offered as a blood sacrifice.

Meanwhile, in a kind of reverse theological psychology, Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters,  fabricated an exchange of letters between Uncle "Screwtape" and demon nephew "Wormwood", wherein the mentor demon attempts to educate nephew on the fine points of tempting humans. The letters are elaborate and often go into moral fine points, conundrums and subtleties - so much so that if one isn't careful to remind himself  it's clever  fantasy - he can almost be lured into thinking these are two real demons communicating about human weakness.

At face value,  Lewis’ unconventional morality lesson emerges as a creative masterpiece at getting the unwary to accept demonic reality and personalized evil. But even a minimal application of reason and numerical logic would disclose it is nonsense.

By way of example, in May of 1990 during a debate at Harrison College, Barbados with a Christian who invoked Lewis’ Screwtape narrative I had occasion to do the math for him. I noted that given Lewis’ original likely demonic population of two –thousand, then it followed that when the human population hit six billion each demon would have 3 million humans (each) to try to tempt into a Hell -bound act each day. Given a uniform load, and dividing the labor equally, each demon would only have about 0.028 seconds per day for each temptation.

Obviously, if the world began with only a couple of thousand agents of temptation, they’d never be able to keep up with the temptation burden as the human population increased to hundreds of millions then billions! In this way I used an argument analogous to reductio ad absurdum to show Lewis’ Screwtape fable to be just that, an elaborate fable

Lewis at the time of the original writing (1942), probably expected the serious rationalist to believe that such a clever parable could entice people to accept evil manifested in personal demons. In the same way, he probably expected the same in one of his most famous attempts at attacking Materialism. In that instance, he asserted that "Materialism is self-refuting" - in that if it denies everything (including God) except colliding atoms and molecules in the brain, then one can't possibly account for a consciousness capable of thinking, reasoning and even being critical of itself.

Alas, Lewis was tilting at the windmill of an ancient Materialism - the one conceived by the ancient Greek atomists Demokritos and Leucippus. The one in which matter is reduced to 'hard' atoms and molecules simply interacting with each other endlessly in a reductionist phantasm.  It would be at least 15 more years before a quantum -based Materialism arose that embraced invisible fields, and waves as opposed to basing reality on hard particle interactions. This new view was perhaps embodied best in the quantum potential of physicist David Bohm:

VQ=   {-ħ2/ 2m} [Ñ R]2 / R

I can't fault Lewis too much because in his simplistic approach he couldn't have known how difficult issues of different forms of Materialism would subsequently become. In a stirring article appearing in Philosophy Now, (Nov./Dec. 2012, p. 28)  Graham Smetham cogently argues that since formal quantum mechanics dispenses with the fiction of a truly objective observer (hence configurations of matter are dependent on the observer and his apparatus) then the mind cannot be reduced to the brain.  If any Materialist models do so, or regard consciousness as an epiphenomenon, then Smetham dismisses them as  "false models of Materialism". They embody a false Materialism because they attempt to explain something as complex as thought and consciousness using simple molecular interactions.

Central to discriminating opposing Materialist models of mind are qualia. The term refers to subjective properties perceived in the material world, including colors, shapes and sounds (music). Arguably, none of these have objective existence but are tied to our neural processing and mode of consciousness. The qualia problem is often also called the Mary problem since it presents a hypothetical character (“Mary”) who inhabits a black and white world, but knows everything about colors in physics terms. Still, though she knows what color signifies – a particular wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum – she has never experienced it.  The qualia problem helps to distinguish between what many call monistic physicalism and what I refer to as quantum physicalism.

In this sense, and in hindsight, we now know that a crude version of the monistic physicalist form of Materialism is what Lewis was actually attacking - given THAT form demanded a hyper-reductionist format. Lewis' problem then, wasn't God being omitted from the equation, but the absence of the broad spectrum of quantum mechanics that enables a Materialist explanation of consciousness without invoking supernatural essences.

One wonders how transformative a philosopher Lewis might have been had he had at hand the insights of modern quantum mechanics.

But one thing we do know:  his embrace of Anglicanism rather than Christian Fundamentalism should come as no surprise and not be an enigma. Lewis was a rationalist thinker to his dying day, and though he 're-converted'  he never trusted ideologies or faiths (even operating under the umbrella of Christendom) that arrogated to themselves all truth. This is a cautionary note many of his fundie followers would do well to bear in mind.

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