The Dawkins/Lewis debate

Looks like the fine folks at “Truthbomb Apologetics” have set up an impromptu “debate” of their own between Richard Dawkins and C. S. Lewis. It has this in its favor: it’s short.

Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

C.S. Lewis: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

Notice the difference in the two approaches. Dawkins’ approach is based on reason and evidence: we consider the consequences that would result from having a universe created by a good God for the purpose of bringing souls to eternal bliss, and the consequences that would result from the absence of such a God, and then observe which set of consequences is closer to the data we actually observe. Lewis, on the other hand, uses an equivocation fallacy to make it sound like the evidence has to point to God no matter what form it takes.

The equivocation Lewis exploits is the ambiguity between “meaning,” in the sense of being able to infer context and implications of a given piece of data, and “meaning” in the sense of some specific interpretation or implication regarding some specific piece of data. The universe is full of meaning in the first sense of the word. Science is all about discovering meaning, in the sense of discovering the contexts and implications of the real-world evidence. Nothing in Dawkins’ argument has anything to do with an absence of meaning in this sense of the word.

When C. S. Lewis thinks about “the meaning of the universe,” by contrast, he’s thinking about an entirely different category of meaning: he’s thinking (superstitiously) about a very specific meaning that he ascribes to the cosmos, namely that God exists, and is good, and has a good design and purpose for life. This is “meaning” in the sense of a particular, specific dogma. It’s not the same as the first sort of meaning at all: the absence of this specific teleological “meaning” for the universe would not mean that meaning, in the first sense, was absent or impossible. It would just mean that the Good Creator was just a myth.

Thus we see the difference in mindset between the skeptic and the believer. The skeptic bases his conclusions on reason and evidence, and draws different conclusions depending on which hypothetical set of outcomes happens to match real-world conditions. The believer, however, attempts to subvert our reasoning into supporting his conclusions no matter what form the evidence takes. By confusing the difference between “meaning” in the broad scientific sense, and specific “meaning” in the catechetical and sectarian sense, Lewis pulls a bait-and-switch con that deceives the unwary into thinking science proves God, when it does not.


  1. Tom Clark says

    I’ve always hated C.S. Lewis; possibly because I feel like he and I have such similar thought patterns, yet the things he said are so abominably stupid.

  2. sailor1031 says

    I’m now going to promulgate sailor’s internet law:

    “He who first introduces C S Lewis into discussion automatically loses the debate”

  3. Roger says

    Tobe fair to Lewis, he was a literary scholar, so he was psychologically predisposed to think of everything as having a specific definable and discoverable meaning. It was only after he’d been an atheist by default and a scholar by vocation that he became a christian. That’s aside from the psychological aspects which would affect a veteran of WWI.

  4. Richard Simons says

    When I was about 12 a friend persuaded me to go to church with him for about a year. It was (to me) completely baffling verbiage like C.S. Lewis’s that convinced me that religion had no meaning.

  5. Helmi says

    Ah, equivocation. I can’t believe how often this logical fallacy pops up, not just for Christian arguments, but creationism, and superstition in general. I could swear that half the arguments are equivocation, and the other half are “everything else”.

  6. akos says

    I think you completely misunderstand Lewis’ style here. The last sentence (“Dark would be without meaning” ) is an intentional equivocation, but it’s not a part of the argument: it is meant to be a cheeky “last stab” in the “opponent”, a pun to reveal the absurdity of the other side. He often does this; in his essay “Miracles”, he has a one-page long argument with the following last sentence: “Humpty Dumpty can’t fall off a wall that never existed.” I guess it’s not so clear here, partly because it is just a 3-line extract from a long essay.

    So if you ignore this last sentence, the core of his argument is the following: “if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark”. I think he uses the word “meaning” in the same … meaning (see why he used the pun?) as Dawkins: “no purpose, no evil and no good”. A materialist believes that there is no such thing as “purpose”: there are events which are related to each other by causality, and that’s all. Lewis argues that if this were true, we would not have the concept of “purpose” in the first place, in a similar way that in a world without light, we could not possibly grasp the concept of seeing.

    Note that this is very different from the reasoning “if we have the concept of witches, then they should exist”. Because a “witch” can be defined easily with other concepts: e.g. a malicious old woman who flies on a broomstick and whose spells come true. It is an arbitrary combination of other, more elementary concepts. But if we did not have the concept of a human, or the concept of causality (the spell comes true because of the action of spelling), then we could not possibly imagine a witch. Unlike a witch, the words “good” or “bad” or “purpose” are either axioms, or very close: everybody knows what they mean, but it is very hard to define them (in a similar way that you cannot define the word “number”). For these kind of elementary, axiomatic concepts I think that Lewis’ argument is reasonable, although it is not a formal proof (nor it is meant to be – there is no formal proof for either the existence or the non-existence of the purpose of the universe).

    By the way, this is where the mindset of the materialist and the religious (or “the skeptic and the believer”) differs: the materialist looks around and says: “I cannot find the concept of purpose in the universe, therefore it is an illusion.” The religious man looks around and says: “I cannot find the concept of purpose in the universe, therefore it must be beyond it.” Both approaches are reasonable and valid, and because of their nature there is no way to scientifically prove which one is right. All arguments for or against God (yes, even Dawkins’) finally come to a point where you cannot step any further by pure logic: you have two choices, and you have to decide which one seems more likely to you.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Well, I don’t know. You claim that I completely misunderstand Lewis’ style, yet the remainder of your argument only emphasizes the fact that Lewis was making precisely the point I understood him to be making. Indeed, you yourself seem to fall into the same equivocation: you claim that “A materialist believes that there is no such thing as ‘purpose’,” but that’s a claim that’s obviously false unless you equivocate between “purpose” in the Providential sense and purpose in the mundane sense that materialists see every day. This latter is just what we would expect in the absense of a overriding supernatural design: material organisms using their material brains to calculate which future outcomes would be most beneficial to their material well-being.

      The supernaturalist is proposing nothing novel or unheard-of when suggesting that there exists some Person who is like us, only bigger, with a mind like ours only bigger, whose intentions are like ours, only bigger. The reason why we have goals and intentions is because we are material beings, and therefore different possible outcomes have the potential either to help us or to harm us. Being the genetic descendants of ancestors who successfully navigated towards the beneficial outcomes and away from the harmful ones, we are materially constructed to favor “good” (i.e. profitable) outcomes over “bad” (i.e. harmful) ones. Thus, real-world purpose is an entirely material phenomenon, motivated by material needs and drives, for achieving material outcomes.

      That’s where Lewis’ argument breaks down. He equivocates between mundane “meaning” and Providential “Meaning” to say that “meaning” could not exist unless “Meaning” existed, when in fact its the other way around. It is mundane, materialistic meaning–the kind you would find in a godless and uncreated universe–that forms the conceptual basis for the kind of superstitious Meaning that believers try to impose on a world inconsistent with it. Thus, Dawkins is spot on when he observes that meaning and purpose, as we observe them in the real world, are consistent only with the behaviors and perceptions of limited, finite, material beings, and that reality is not consistent with any hypothesis which tries to extend material meaning and purpose into some kind of exaggerated anthropomorphism.

  7. says

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    There is no skill in proving that there is no God. It is pretty evident that this is a cold and scientific wondrous universe. But there is morality and there is this constant longing for happiness within it. There is fear of oblivion in all of us and given the natural problems and practicalities, for example God has to be scientific, the seen has to be real and mechanisms to make things work to make the heartbeat of consciousness run are needed.

    Every single piece of real evidence is seen as science and every time that is shown the divine is denied. The end, dumped. It seems like the scientifically rational are saying God can only exist in an illogical universe where things make no sense, where miracles happen without science behind them and we have a giant old guy with a beard in charge.

    Therefore everytime the wonder of the natural world and physics is shown to us. Every time it is used to disprove the existence of God. Whereupon all of us who have any shred of religion in us just say, so what? God has to be part of a scientific universe, or there is no God at all. It is part of the real or it is just a make up game. I am sceptical about an afterlife but I may be wrong, I hope I am. I believe in God but a scientific God that is part of the whole of existence. Maybe this intelligence tried to contact us in the form of religion, or maybe more likely it can only be detected in the form of philosophy and reason, science and higher thinking.

    The divide between Dawkins and Lewis is thus, Dawkins is about WHAT we are. Lewis is about WHO we are and what it means to be alive. Strangely the ideas given by Lewis about desire and idealism are not so different from who Dawkins is as a person. Morality is its own reward, belief can bring both happiness and pain. Personally I feel that belief cannot hurt a person if approached with caution. It can also enrich a person morally and philosophically. (Gratitude, counting ones blessings come to mind.)

    Personally I also think: Morality matters, happiness does have a deeper meaning which is why we all seek it and there may be more to the world than we all know. There may be, I hope so. But there again not. And we all just have to accept it, remain practical and try to live by our own lights and values. There are bills to pay, children to raise, sights to see, and wonders to witness in life. Just try to enjoy the ride.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      The best promise of religion is that we project our selves and values onto the vast complexity of the universe, and call the reflection God, and in so doing we reveal things about ourselves and our values that we might not discover by mere introspection. By exploring the contradictions and aspirations of theology, there is at least the potential to begin to work on resolving some of those contradictions within our own souls, and to begin to realize some of our best aspirations. But against all this hopeful promise stands our endless temptation to let faith devolve into mere superstition and manipulative tribalism. To be of any benefit at all, religion must always be treated as a metaphor rather than as metaphysics, and few earthly religions have ever managed that consistently.

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