A SCIENTIST STRIKES BACK
Two attacks on C. S. Lewis by J. B. S. Haldane
(1) “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.”
(2) “More Anti-Lewisite”
A long-overdue comprehensive collection of C. S. Lewis’s “shorter writings” was published by HarperCollins in 2000. This Essay Collection and other shorter pieces, also available in two paperbacks, contains nearly all of Lewis’s shorter writings previously published by HarperCollins in smaller collections. One exception is, regrettably, a piece of polemic against J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964), a renowned biochemist, geneticist and popular writer on science. The manuscript of Lewis’s piece is incomplete, with the last one or two pages missing. The incomplete essay was first published as “A Reply to Professor Haldane” in 1966, when both men were dead, in a volume called Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (enlarged edition in 1982 as Of This and Other Worlds, reprinted in 2000).
Lewis was replying to Haldane’s essay “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.”, a critique of Lewis’s Space Trilogy published in The Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1946. Haldane presumably never saw Lewis’s “Reply”, but continued his attack in a piece called “God and Mr. C. S. Lewis” in The Rationalist Annual for the Year 1948, pp. 78-85. Both pieces were reprinted in 1951 in a volume of Haldane’s essays, Everything Has a History, pp. 249-258 and 259-267. In the preface to this volume, Haldane wrote regarding these two pieces,
I have tried to give this book a certain unity by confining it to astronomy, geology, and biology. So I have not included a number of articles on medicine, hygiene, politics, and so on, published in recent years. I have then proceed to destroy this unity by adding two articles attacking Mr. C. S. Lewis. Some people will regard these articles as in bad taste. They are at least in the central tradition of English literature, and in much better taste than, for example, some of Milton’s polemics. Besides which, Mr. Lewis, if he chooses to reply, has two considerable advantages over me. He is, as befits a student of literature, a better stylist than I. And he will be able to show, without serous difficulty, that I have contradicted myself repeatedly. I certainly have, because my thought (or if he prefers that expression, my prejudice) has developed, and I think some statements are false which i formerly thought were true.
In this volume, The second piece was here titled “More Anti-Lewisite”. The two make up the volume’s penultimate section (IX), “Controversial” and are followed by the final piece, “Human Evolution, Past and Future”. Lewis perhaps never saw the second piece although, curiously, he wrote “Anti-Haldane” as a kind of title on the manuscript of his Reply. Many years later Haldane’s first piece was reprinted in a volume of essays by several authors on Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Williams, Shadows of Imagination, ed. Mark R. Hillegas (1969, reprinted 1979), pp. 15-25.
“Auld Hornie” is a Scottish mock-affectionate name for Satan; “F.R.S.” is short for “Fellow of the Royal Society”. Haldane had been a F.R.S. himself from 1932 onward.
For readers interested in Haldane as an antagonist of C. S. Lewis, I would recommend
(1) Haldane’s early seminal paper Daedalus (1923), reprinted in a memorial volume Haldane’s Daedalus Revisited, ed. Krishna R. Dronamraju (Oxford University Press 1995), and available here.
(2) his essay “The Last Judgment”, included as the last piece in Possible Worlds (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927) (this essay is not included in the 1928 Harper U.S. edition).
(3) What I Require from Life. Writings on Science and Life from J. B. S. Haldane, edited by Krishna Dronamraju, with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke (Oxford University Press 2009).
(4) Mark B. Adams, “Last Judgment: The Visionary Biology of J. B. S. Haldane”, Journal of the History of Biology Vol. 33, No. 3 (December 2000), 457–491; available to JSTOR subscribers. Print copies of the journal are available in university libraries all over the world.
(5) Richard Jeffery, “C. S. Lewis and the Scientists”, The Chronicle of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society Vol. 2, No. 2 (May 2005).
Utrecht, The Netherlands
> update of web links and bibliographic details – 25 May 2015; further updates and added paragraph from Haldane’s 1951 preface – 20 April 2020
Auld Hornie, F.R.S.
by J. B. S. Haldane
Mr. C. S. Lewis is a prolific writer of books which are intended to defend Christianity. Some of these are cast in the form of fiction. The most interesting group is perhaps a trilogy describing the adventures of Mr. Ransom, a Cambridge teacher of philology. In the first volume Ransom is kidnapped by a physicist called Weston and his accomplice, Devine, and taken in a “spaceship” to the planet Mars, which is inhabited by three species of fairly intelligent and highly virtuous and healthy vertebrates ruled by an angel. Weston wants to colonise the planet, and Devine to use it as a source of gold. Their efforts are frustrated, and they return to earth, bringing Ransom with them.
In the second volume the angel in charge of Mars takes Ransom to Venus, where he meets the Eve of a new human race, which has just been issued with souls. Weston arrives, allows the devil to possess him, and acts as serpent in a temptation of the new Eve. Ransom’s arguments against the devil are inadequate, so he finally kills Weston, and is returned to earth by angels, with thanks for services rendered.
In the final book two still more sinister scientists, Frost and Wither, who have given their souls to the devil, are running the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments. Devine, now a peer, is helping them. The only experiment described is the perfusion of a severed human head, through which the devil issues his commands. They are also hoping to resurrect Merlin, who has been asleep for fifteen centuries in their neighbourhood. Their aim appears to be the acquisition of superhuman power and of immortality; though how this is to be done is far from clear, just as it is far from clear why a severed head perfused with blood should live longer than a normal one, or be a more suitable instrument for the devil. However, Mr. Ransom is too much for them. He obtains the assistance not only of Merlin, but of the angels who guide the planets on their paths, and regulate the lives of their inhabitants. These angels arrive at his house, whose other inhabitants become in their turn mercurial, venereal (but decorously so), martial, saturnine, and jovial, but fortunately not lunatic. Merlin and the angels smash up the National Institute and a small university town, Frost and Wither are damned, and Ransom ascends into heaven, bound for Venus, where he is to meet Kings Arthur and Melchizedek, and other select humans who escape death. One Grammarian’s Funeral less, in fact.
The tale is told with very great skill, and the descriptions of celestial landscapes and of human and nonhuman behaviour are often brilliant. I cannot pay Mr. Lewis a higher compliment than to compare him with Dante and Milton; but to make the balance fair I must also compare him with Rolfe (alias Baron Corvo) and Velenovsky. Dante and Milton knew the science of their time, and Dante was well ahead of most of his contemporaries in holding that the earth was round, and that gravity changed direction at its centre; though Milton hedged as to the Copernican system. Mr Lewis is often incorrect, as in his account of the gravitational field in the spaceship, of the atmosphere on Mars, the appearance of other planets from it, and so on. His accounts of supernatural intervention would have been more impressive had he known more of nature as it actually exists. Of course, the reason is clear enough. Christian mythology incorporated the cosmological theories current eighteen centuries ago. Dante found it a slight strain to combine this mythology with the facts known in his own day. Milton found it harder. Mr. Lewis finds it impossible.
Mr. Lewis is a teacher of English literature at Oxford. The philologist Ransom reminds me irresistibly of the idealised Rolfe who becomes Pope as Hadrian VII; though of course it is even more distinguished to escape death by ascending into heaven than to become a pope. Velenovsky (whose name is not so well known) was (or perhaps is) a botanist who discovered a new species of primrose in the Balkans, and called it Primula deorum, the primrose of the gods. With such a name one might expect a plant even nobler than the purple giants of the Himalayas and Yunnan. Unfortunately it is a wretched little flower, which will not bear comparison with any of our four British species. In his attempts to defend Christianity, Mr. Lewis has also defended the beliefs in astrology, black magic, Atlantis, and even polytheism; for the planetary angels are called gods, perhaps in deference to Milton. Many sincere Christians will think that he has done no more service to Jesus than Velenovsky to Jupiter.
As a scientist I am particularly interested in his attitude to my profession. There is one decent scientist in the three books, a physicist who is murdered by the devil-worshippers before we have got to know him. The others have an ideology which ranges from a Kiplingesque contempt for “natives” to pure “national socialism,” with the devil substituted for the God whose purposes Hitler claimed to carry out. As a matter of fact, very few scientists of any note outside Germany and Italy have become Fascists. In France only one, the engineer Claude, did so, though the Catholic biologist Carrel came back from the U.S.A. to support the Vichy government. A very much larger fraction of the clerical, legal, and literary professions bowed the knee to Baal.
Weston is recognisable as a scientist; Frost and Wither, the devil-worshippers, are not. They talk like some of the less efficient of the Public Relations Officers who defend Big Business, and even Mr. Lewis did not dare to assign them to any particular branch of science. At a guess I should put them as psychologists who had early deserted the scientific aspect of psychology for its mythological developments.
Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell. This world is largely run by the Devil. “The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus,” and the best we can do is to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Revealed religion tells us how to do this. Any human attempts at a planned world are merely playing into the hands of the Devil. Auld Hornie, by the way, to use the pet name which the Scots have given him, perhaps in thanks for his attacks on the Sabbath, has been in charge of our planet since before life originated on it. He even had a swipe at Mars, and removed much of its atmosphere. Some time in the future Jesus and the good angels will take our planet over from him. Meanwhile the Church is a resistance movement, but liberation must await a celestial D-Day. The destruction of Messrs. Frost and Wither was only a commando operation comparable with the bombardment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In so far as Mr. Lewis succeeds in spreading his views, the results are fairly predictable. He will not have much influence on scientists, if only because he does not know enough science for this purpose. But he will influence public opinion and that of politicians, particularly in Britain. I do not know if he is a best seller in America. He will in no way discourage the more inhuman developments of science, such as the manufacture of atomic bombs. But he will make things more difficult for those who are trying to apply science to human betterment, for example to get some kind of world organisation of food supplies into being, or to arrive at physiological standards for housing. In such cases we scientists are always told that we are treating human beings as animals. Of course we are. My technical assistant keeps a lot of mosquitoes in my laboratory. Their infantile mortality is considerably below that of my own species in most countries, and I hope to get it down below the level of English babies. But meanwhile I should be very happy if all human babies had as good a chance of growing up as my mosquito larvae. Mr. Lewis is presumably more concerned with their baptism, which is alleged to have a large effect on their prospects after death.
More and more, among people who think about such matters, the division is appearing between those who think it is worth while working for a better future (which, since the various members of our species now form, for some purposes, a single community, must be a better future for all mankind) and those who think that the best we can do is to look after our immediate neighbours and our noble selves. Clearly anyone who believes that he or she stands to lose by social changes will be pleased to find arguments to prove that they are impracticable or even devilish. So Mr. Lewis is a most useful prop to the existing social order, the more so as his Martian creatures seem to practise some kind of primitive communism under angelic guidance; so a good Lewisite can get a full measure of self-satisfaction from condemning capitalism as a by-product of the fall of man, while taking no concrete steps to replace it by a better system.
It is interesting to see how Mr. Lewis’s ideology has affected his writing. He must obviously be compared with Wells and Stapledon, rather than with the American school of “scientifiction,” which is a somewhat lower form of literature than the detective story. The criteria for fictional writing on scientific subjects are similar to those for historical romance. The historical novelist may add to established history. He must not deny it. He may describe the unknown private life of Hal o’ the Wynd or Fair Rosamund. He must not contradict what little is known about them without sound reason given. In a scientific romance new processes or substances may be postulated, for example Cavorite, which is opaque to gravitation, or animals which reproduce by clouds of pollen. But apart from special cases our existing knowledge of the properties of matter should be respected. Wells occasionally broke this rule; for example, the giants in The Food of the Gods would have broken their legs at every step; but much may be forgiven a pioneer. Stapledon is much more scrupulous. Lewis’s contempt for science is constantly letting him down. I wish he would learn more, if only because if he did so he would come to respect it. I do not complain of his angels or “eldils”. If there are finite superhuman beings they may well be as he describes. I do complain when, in the preface to The Great Divorce, he writes: “A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” I happen to be an addict of the kind of “sum” called iteration. For example, I have recently had to solve the cubic equation
7009X3 – 7470X2 – 7801X + 516 = 0
This equation arises in the theory of mosquito breeding. Writing it as
X = 516/7801 – X2 [1 – X – (331 – 792X)/7801]
I put X = .06 on the right-hand side, and get X = .0629 as a better approximation. Then I substitute this value on the right-hand side, and so on, finally getting X = .06261. If I shall make a small mistake it gets corrected automatically, and may even speed up the approach to the final result. I think the process of solving a moral problem, for example of arriving at mutually satisfactory relations with a colleague, is a good deal more like iteration than the ordinary method of solving such equations.
If Mr. Lewis would learn mathematics and science he might change his views on other matters, for he is intelligent enough to make some very awkward if unconscious admissions. For example, the sinless creatures on Mars had a theology but no religion. They believed in a creator and an after-life, like Benjamin Franklin and other great rationalists; but during a stay of several months among them Mr. Ransom reported no religious ceremonies, or even private prayers. Their conversations with passing angels, or “eldils,” whom they occasionally saw and heard, were no more like religious acts than is turning on the radio to listen to Mr. Attlee. This is entirely what one would expect if Mr. Lewis’s other premises were true. A person fully adapted to his environment would have no religion. As Marx put it (On Hegels’s Philosophy of Law, 1844): “This state, this society, produce religion – an inverted consciousness of the world – because it is an inverted world ... it is the fantastic realisation of man, because man possesses no true realisation.”
Again, it is striking that communism is only once mentioned in the books under review, and though in The Great Divorce the narrator finds one Communist in hell, he had left the party and become a conscientious objector in 1941; so perhaps the punishment was deserved, if unduly severe. I take it that Mr. Lewis, who is at least aware of the important difference between right and wrong, though he draws what seems to me to be an incorrect line between them, recognises that Communists also take right and wrong seriously, and is therefore loath to condemn them radically. In consequence the conflict described in That Hideous Strength, which is supposed to be important for the future of humanity, lacks reality. And in so far as Mr. Lewis persuades anyone that devil-worship is any more important than other rare perversions, he is merely pandering to moral escapism by diverting his readers from the great moral problems of our day.
I fear that Mr. Lewis is too “bent,” to use his own word, to become a communist. Look at his taste in grammar. In the celestial language, of which he gives us some samples, the plurals of the word eldil, pfifltrigg, oyarsa, and hnakra, are eldila, pfifltriggi, oyéresu, and hnéraki. If that is his ideal of grammar, no wonder his ideals of society are peculiar. Parenthetically, I should have thought the most striking character of a language used by sinless beings who loved their neighbours as themselves would have been the absence of any equivalent of the word “my” and very probably of the word “I,” and of other personal pronouns and inflexions.
Nevertheless, if Mr. Lewis investigates the facts honestly, he will probably discover two things. One is that if Christianity (in the sense of an attempt to follow the precepts attributed to Jesus) has a future, that future, as things are today, is far more likely to be realised within the Orthodox Church than the western Churches. In fact, Marxism may prove to have given Christianity a new lease of life. The second is that scientists are less likely than any other group to sell their souls to the devil. A few of us sell our souls to capitalists and politicians, and Mr. Lewis may have met some such vendors at Oxford. But on the whole we possess moral and intellectual standards, and live up to them as often as other people.
I think we even do so a little more often, because we possess objective standards which others do not. One can find out whether samarium is heavier than lead, whether dogs are more variable in weight than cats, or whether trilobites or dinosaurs lived earliest. There is no way of finding out whether Crashaw was a better poet than Vaughan, or whether Shakespeare wrote the parts for his heroines to suit the leading boy actors of the moment. We also have to risk our lives in the course of our profession rather more often than writers. “The real importance of scientific war,” says Mr. Frost, “is that scientists have to be reserved.” It is worth remembering that some of us were reserved to unscrew magnetic mines and to test a variety of rather unpleasant chemical substances on our own persons.
But my main quarrel with Mr. Lewis is not for his attack on my profession, but for his attack on my species. I believe that, without any supernatural promptings, men can be extremely good or extremely bad. He must explain human evil by the Devil, and human virtue by God. For him, human freedom is a mere choice between alternatives presented to our souls by supernatural beings. For me it is something creative, in the sense that each generation makes newer and greater possibilities of good and evil. I do not think that Shaw is a greater dramatist than Shakespeare; but some of his characters, for example, Saint Joan, Lavinia, or even Dudgeon, are morally better than any of Shakespeare’s characters. Good has grown in three hundred years. So has evil. I do not think that any of the Popes whom Dante saw in hell had done an action as evil as that of Pius XI when he blessed fascism in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.
Mr. Lewis’s characters are confronted with moral choices like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left. This is no doubt one step nearer to the truth than a completely mechanistic view, but only one step. Two thousand years ago some people had got further. I find Horace’s “justum et tenacem propositi virum,” who is not deflected by mobs, tyrants, or the great hand of thundering Jove, a vastly more admirable figure than Mr. Lewis’s saints who are “Servile to all the skyey influences ”; though of course Cato’s idea of justice was as narrow as ours will, I hope, seem two thousand years hence. But it was men with this Horatian ideal of dignity who made Rome, and men with not very dissimilar ideals who made China, which did not fall as Rome fell. Both the Roman and Chinese ideals were aristocratic. They had to be so in societies where most men and women spent much of their time as mere sources of mechanical power. Today a society is technically possible where every man and woman can have the leisure and culture needed to take a part in managing it. Democracy is in fact a possibility, but so far it has only worked rather spasmodically. Some of us want to make it a reality. Mr Lewis regards it as impossible. “There must be rule,” says an aged and learned Martian, “yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by men, men by angels, and angels by the creator” (I translate several celestial words). As angels do not give most of us very explicit orders, it would seem that we should entrust our destinies to someone like Dr. Frank Buchan or the Pope, who claims to be divinely guided. If Mr. Lewis does not mean us to draw such a conclusion, what does he mean by this passage?
In practice these self-styled mouthpieces of higher powers will presumably transmit orders very similar to Mr. Lewis’s broadcast talks on Christian Behaviour. They will probably, for example, condemn sodomy absolutely, but they will hedge regarding usury if they even mention it. Mr. Lewis admits that Christian, Jewish, and pagan moralists condemned it, but points out that our society is based on it, and adds: “Now it may not follow that we are absolutely wrong.” If it had followed that usury was absolutely wrong, Mr. Lewis’s series of radio talks might have been brought to a sudden end like one of Mr. Priestly’s. I mention sodomy and usury together because Dante, who expressed the ideals of medieval Christianity, exposed sodomites and usurers to the same rain of flames in hell, with the difference that the sodomites could dodge them, but the usurers (or, as we should say, financiers) could not. If sodomy were an important part of our social system, as it was of some past systems, Mr. Lewis would presumably wonder whether sodomy was absolutely wrong.
The men and women who believe most in human dignity are fighting usury and every other institution which makes man the slave of money. Those who share Mr. Lewis’s view are compromising with these evils in one way or another, even if they do not always attack democracy as openly as does Mr. Lewis. Any Marxist can see why this must be so; and Christian readers of Mr. Lewis’s books might well remember St. James’s statement: “Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” His books certainly have very large sales, and may have a very large influence. It is only for this reason that they are worth attacking. They can of course be attacked on many other grounds than those which I have given. But I would state my case briefly as follows. I agree with Mr. Lewis that man is in a sense a fallen being. The Origin of the Family seems to me to provide better evidence for this belief than the Book of Genesis. But I disagree with him in that I also believe that man can rise again by his own efforts. Those who hold the contrary view inevitably regard the reform of society as a dangerous dream, and natural science as unworthy of serious study. And they consequently end up by making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. But this friendship, so far from qualifying them for an eternal habitation, may not even secure them a competence in this present world. For Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface, and his realm is contracting in Europe today. It was men, not angels, who cast him out.
by J. B. S. Haldane
Everything Has a History (1951), pp. 259–267
Lewisite is a poisonous liquid with a poisonous vapour, called after an American chemist, Lewis. British Anti-Lewisite, or B.A.L. is a compound invented by Professor Peters of Oxford, which neutralizes its poisonous effects on men and animals, and would have been used had the Germans used Lewisite against us. Fortunately, it can also be used against other arsenic compounds than Lewisite, including the familiar poison, arsenious oxide, generally though incorrectly called arsenic.
Mr. C. S. Lewis is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, which has become one of our principal defenders of Christianity. His arguments seem to me to include many which definitely muddy the stream of human thought. If I can precipitate some of them, I shall help to clear this stream, thus performing in the mental sphere a task similar to that of Peters in the chemical sphere. I shall deal particularly with Mr. Lewis’ Broadcast Talks.
The first part of these talks is devoted to proofs of the existence of God. It is rather interesting to list some of the arguments which Mr. Lewis did not use. First comes the ontological argument used by St. Anselm and others, and revived by Descartes, which is roughly as follows. We can conceive of a most perfect being. But existence is a kind of perfection. Therefore the most perfect being must have existence. Mr. Lewis allows this argument to fall by its own weight, perhaps because it might be used in an inverted form to prove the non-existence of the least perfect being, namely the Devil, in whom he believes passionately.
Nor does he set much store by any of St. Thomas Aquinas’ five arguments, particularly those which depend on the alleged impossibility of an infinite series of causes, or of movers. The plain fact is that St. Thomas had not the intellectual equipment to deal with infinite series, and we have this equipment to-day. They turn out to be much simpler than finite ones. Thus, if we consider the series 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 and so on, no one can tell me the sum of its first million terms, for the good reason that its numerator and denominator each consist of 301,031 figures. But if we revise our definition of sum to cover the sum of an infinite class, we can say that the sum of all its terms is exactly unity. Mr. Lewis makes very little use of the argument from design, which, as I have pointed out, leads, if logically pursued, to the conclusion that even the animals and plants of our own planet suggest the existence of a million or more mutually hostile designers.
His main argument is from the fact that almost all human beings recognize the existence of moral obligation. At an early stage (p. 11) he deals with the argument that different societies have, or have had, different moralities. He states that they have had “only slightly different moralities” (his italics). Perhaps Mr. Lewis would be only slightly uncomfortable in a society where cannibalism was the rule, or one in which a murderer was not punished, but was compelled to adopt the children of his victim. The plain fact is that different cultures have or have had almost every morality which is compatible with the existence of society even in its crudest form. If he points out that no society has existed in which it was thought praiseworthy to murder one’s parents before they reached old age, my answer is that I don’t believe in miracles, and the existence of such a society would be a miracle. Societies have certainly existed in which the killing of babies and of old people were regarded as praiseworthy acts. However, let us suppose for the moment that Mr. Lewis is right, and that moral codes show a greater agreement than is necessitated by the bare existence of society, let us see how his argument continues.
He is impressed by the fact that people are aware of the existence of moral obligations, but yet do not conform to these obligations, and that people regard one moral code as better than another. “the moment”, he writes on p. 17, “you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are in fact measuring both by a standard, saying that one conforms to that standard better than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.” Before we follow Mr. Lewis’ next step, let us examine this argument. If it is formally correct, it will still be true if we alter the terms in it. Thus, if “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; so Socrates is mortal” is a valid argument, we can substitute “Nelly” for “Socrates”, “cat” for “man” and “clawed” for “mortal”, and see that it still works. Let us apply this experimental method to Mr. Lewis’ argument. Now, “tall” is a simpler idea than “good”. We do not for example ask “tall for what?” as we ask “good for what?” and it is easier to determine whether one man is taller than another than whether he is better. Here is Mr. Lewis’ argument subjected to this simple transformation. “The moment you say that one man can be taller than another, you are in fact measuring both by a standard, saying that one conforms to that standard better than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.”
The conclusion is obviously untrue. One can tell that one man is taller than another without any reference to a standard of measurement, and doubtless primitive men did so and do so. There are standards of measurement, but there is no absolute standard. If people thought as loosely about length as they do about right and wrong, Britain and France would have waged a series of religious wars between the adherents of the yard and those of the metre. But the transformation shows us something more. Mr. Lewis writes about measuring a set of moral ideas, a notion which I find unduly materialistic. But his notion of a standard is a standard of moral perfection to which nobody conforms all the time. In fact it might be possible to grade different moralities, as one can grade, say, mathematical or musical performances. But one could not do so in terms of moral perfection. One can say that one piece of conduct or one set of moral ideas is better than another. But one cannot say there is a best standard. A simple example will show why this is so. I find a man bleeding by the roadside. I certainly ought to help him in some way. But the help that I can give depends on my knowledge and skill. If I know nothing about first aid I can do a little, if I have taken a fist aid course I can do more, if I am a surgeon a great deal more. I must always do the best I can, and it can be argued that every one has the duty to learn some first aid, so that he can stop a bleeding artery. It can hardly be argued that everyone should learn surgery. The ideal man is doubtless skilled in surgery, psychiatry and other cognate subjects, and if Mr. Lewis is correct, can even pray with enough efficiency to pull off at least an occasional miracle. But he is useless as a standard in this case. The practical standard is not the ideal man but the man who can do a little better than myself, the man who has taken the first aid course which I didn’t take, or memorized the location of the nearest telephone box, which I didn’t. An absolute or ideal standard of conduct is useless. And because it is useless it is immoral, in the sense that it actually leads to a less good life than the practical standard. This is one of the main reasons why, as a matter of hard fact, religion does not produce a higher level of moral conduct in its adherents than does irreligion. It sets standards which are impossible because they are self-contradictory. I cannot learn surgery, Chinese, diving, fire-fighting, infantile hygiene, wrestling, rock-climbing, weight-lifting and all the other accomplishments which might enable me to save a life. In the same way I cannot be a moral paragon in all respects. But I could always, or almost always, have done a little better than I actually did.
Mr. Lewis finds it unintelligible that we should be dissatisfied with our actual conduct unless an absolute standard of conduct exists. He can understand it if our ancestors fell from such a standard. It seems to me quite equally intelligible if our standard is, on the whole, rising. Once a conscious being can form any idea of the future he will wish it to be in some respects more satisfactory than the present. He will realize that some of the unpleasantness of the present arises from his own past actions, and will wish not to repeat such actions in future. For example, he may wake up with a headache and determine never again to drink so much whisky. This is a very elementary type of moral decision, but it is one. The passage to altruistic conduct is a more complicated matter. But one can regret past behavior and resolve to do better without any altruism, and the possibility of doing so without any supernatural standard is the point at issue.
Our own moral behavior is complicated by two facts. We have a cerebral structure which sometimes generates emotions more appropriate to a primitive savage than a civilized man. And we live in a society whose customs and laws are at least several generations out-of-date in relation to its productive forces, that is to say, to the jobs on which people are engaged. For both these reasons, we are frequently dissatisfied by our own conduct and that of our neighbours. I can see no reason to postulate either a god or a devil to explain this state of affairs.
Supposing there were an extra-human, or at least superhuman, standard of morality, a doctrine which I regard for the reasons explained above as dangerous and untrue, Mr. Lewis’ next point would certainly not follow. “If you look at the present state of the world”, he writes on page 30, “it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” Some of our religious teachers claim (and in a few cases with justice) not to be reactionaries. Mr. Lewis can make no such claim. Now, supposing I were a performing sea-lion extremely anxious to please my keeper, and aware that I could not yet balance as many balls on my nose as he wished, it would not follow that I had made any one big mistake. Much more probably I should have made a lot of little ones. I am a critic (most people think too violent a critic) of our present social system. But I don’t think it is one big mistake. I don’t think it is a mistake that I should be allowed to own a toothbrush, or even a dwelling house. I think it a mistake that I should be allowed to own ten acres in the City of Westminster, though this was not unreasonable five hundred years ago when this area was open country. I think it a mistake that I should be paid to give lectures to a few students rather than make really good talking films for a larger number, but this method of teaching was quite reasonable even fifty years ago. And so on.
Supposing that the moral obligations which we recognize are the standard set by a superhuman personal being, it seems just as probable that such a being for some reason prefers us to improve our conduct gradually by learning from our own mistakes, rather than use more drastic methods to make us good. The history of man in the last few thousand years can be regarded as a series of moral challenges to which men have responded by remodeling their conduct. Sometimes this remodeling involved the collapse of a political system, as with the Roman Empire, sometimes only its transformation, as with the decay of feudalism in Britain. Such challenges have been met more or less satisfactorily in the past. They might have been arranged by a superhuman being. However, I think they are mainly the result of changes in productive forces. Thus improvements in transport and food production made it possible for a hundred thousand or more people to live in one city, and this demanded a new code of right and wrong. Further improvements in transport made the city too small a political unit, and so on. We are up against a very severe moral challenge at the present time. If we think it came out of the blue from a supernatural being it seems to me that we are much less likely to meet it effectively than if we think that it came about through changes in industry and transport which have given us on the one hand the possibility of universal plenty in a world community, and on the other hand the atomic bomb and the long-range bomber. If we think our only course is to go back, we shall not meet it at all.
So much for Mr. Lewis’ argument from moral obligation. He has a few others, perhaps rather better. For example, if the universe is not the work of a creative mind he argues that thought is merely a by-product of chemical reactions in the brain. “But if so,” he asks (p. 38) “how can I trust my own thinking to be true? … Unless I believe in God, I can’t believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.” Let us suppose the creator has made intelligent beings on two planets. On one they are endowed with free will, which they use to such effect that most of them, after unhappy lives, go to eternal torment after death. On the other, they behave well and live happily, either ceasing to exist when they die, or going on to eternal bliss. They are all, however, afflicted with a peculiar mental set-up which leads them to believe, when they think of such matters, that there is only a finite number of prime numbers; and a good deal of time is wasted in tabulating them, in the hope of finding the largest one. I think the second world is considerably easier than the first to reconcile with the hypothesis of a benevolent creator. In fact, if we were the work of an almighty hand, and yet with no exceptions (or possibly one exception) our moral conduct is imperfect, is it not at least highly probable that our reasoning powers are equally imperfect? As a matter of fact we know them to be so. For over two thousand years all educated men believed Euclid to have proved several propositions which he did not prove. I don’t “believe in thought” as Mr. Lewis perhaps does, as a process bound to lead to truth. I believe in it as a process which fairly often does so. But if I believed in an almighty creator I should certainly believe that he could make me think anything he wished, and should therefore have no guarantee that my thought processes have any validity. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may very well wish that the creator had induced Rutherford into logical errors when he started thinking about atomic nuclei. And if the creator exists, it is highly probable that he has deliberately made it impossible for us to think about other things which would be even more dangerous. Thus I should be prepared to reverse Mr. Lewis’ statement and say that if I believe in God, I can’t believe in thought.
Let me be perfectly frank. I can’t give an account of thought which is any better than Mr. Lewis’. But then I know a great deal less about the universe than he thinks he knows. In particular I don’t expect that anyone will be able to give even a moderately satisfactory account until a lot more is known about our brains. I don’t think thought is a mere by-product of physical or chemical processes in these organs. But if Mr. Lewis has ever been anaesthetized, or even drunk, he must admit that, at least in this present wicked world, his capacity for thought depends on the chemical state of his brain. On the other hand the chemical state of his brain does not depend, except to a very slight extent, on what he is thinking. By putting a narcotic in his coffee I could alter this state so that he could no longer think. And I could do this equally well whether he were thinking of the college wine cellar or the attributes of God. For this reason I think our account of thought will have to wait for our account of our brains. I think that when certain work now half finished is published, we shall know a lot more both about cerebral physiology and about how we do at least the classificatory part of thinking.
I think I have now gone over the main arguments on which Mr. Lewis relies to make listeners share his theories as to the existence and nature of God. I have dealt with them in some detail because he was allowed a great deal of time by the B.B.C., and those who think otherwise are not allowed time in proportion to their numbers in the population. And, as happened to me in July, 1947, if they want to say anything particularly effective, they are not allowed to do so. But Mr. Lewis needs attacking particularly because of his attempts, which by no means all Christian apologists make, to attack morality in the name of religion. “If the universe is not governed by absolute goodness”, he writes (p. 31) “then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.” In other words, unless you share a large part of his beliefs, there is no point in trying to be good. It may be that “in the long run” the human race will come to an end without handing on its ethical, intellectual and cultural achievements to any other rational beings. This conclusion was inevitable if Newtonian physics were true. The clock had been wound up by the creator, and was bound to run down. If Newtonian physics are not true, and diverge a great deal from truth when long periods of time are considered, it may not be correct. But even if it is correct, I think that it is possible so to act as to make people (including ourselves) happy. If the universe as a whole is not governed either by good or evil, it is up to us to inject some goodness into it. And this is not a hopeless task. It is a difficult one. And those who say it is hopeless make it more difficult.
Curiously enough Mr. Lewis is as contemptuous of some of the arguments for theism which others have used, as he is of lay morality. He does not think we can deduce the existence of a creator from the physical universe. “In the same way”, he writes on p. 21 “if there is anything above or behind the observed facts in the case of stones or the weather, we, by studying them from outside, could never hope to discover it.”
This is rather startling from a religious apologist. Two centuries ago, Addison could say of the heavenly bodies that:
“In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
The hand that made us is divine.”
Mr. Lewis’ inner ear seems to be as deaf as my own to this song. Kant based his theism both on the starry heavens and the moral law. Mr. Lewis’ theology seems to stand on one leg only. And if, as I have tried to show, his arguments from the moral law are illogical, this means that it has not got a leg to stand on.
In fact in the long run Mr. Lewis may be working for rationalism. I think that his stories which bring in witchcraft, astrology, demoniacal possession and so on, will probably bring it home to a number of people that those who reject these beliefs are a good long way towards rejecting religion altogether. But in the short run Mr. Lewis is a danger to clear thinking, and one must turn aside from more constructive work to show him up.