Saturday, June 13, 2015

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity is a work derived almost completely from radio broadcasts originally done on BBC radio in England during World War II. Lewis largely wanted the book to read as a talk (5), and that is indeed how it reads. It is familiar, warm, and yet cuttingly insightful when it comes to the condition of man and the truth-claims of what he calls “mere Christianity.” His main goal was to state the basic, core beliefs that virtually all Christians across history have held to be true and do so in a way that accounted for their plausibility.
The work is actually divided into four books (which should rather be called “parts”). The first book features Lewis unraveling his masterful use of the moral argument for God’s existence. He wrote quite methodically; not attempting to go too fast, he wanted to claim only what his argumentation had warranted, and nothing further.
First, Lewis argued that everyone has a particular concept that there is an objective moral standard, and that this standard dictates what is right and wrong. He argues for universal perception of this moral law, in part, by stating that no one ever tries to simply shrug off the standard. Instead, they argue that they meet the standard, or there is some particular circumstance that excuses them in this case, and so on. He puts it like this: “Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football” (16). As an aside, Lewis excels at showing his point by way of analogy.
Lewis then deals with objections to the moral law, showing that it is not merely social convention or useful behavior by using counterexamples from everyday life (26). He closes this chapter by pointing out this means there is “a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us” (27). He has not yet argued about who or what made this law, but has established that we all think it to be there. After this, he closes the first book with two main contentions. First, that there is a higher power that created these moral obligations. Second, Christianity is the remedy for those who have broken the moral law—which is all of us (35). This serves as a good segue into the next book.
The second book concerns Christian doctrine in particular, and how it differs from other religions. Lewis argues that Christianity must be more than a pagan kind of dualism, because one of the sides is good, and thus is a better representative of an objective moral standard than the other. Thus, the two sides are not really equal, and only one of them is God (44). Christianity also has a remedy for sin, and that is found in the person of Jesus Christ. This is where Lewis’ famous trilemma appears: Jesus is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord (50-51). This weight presses upon the skeptic as Lewis moves to the third book.
This book concerns Christian behavior. Lewis nicely defines morality according to three parts: “fair play and harmony between individuals . . . harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole;” he also argued that most people are only ever concerned with the first part, to their detriment (67). He then speaks of the cardinal virtues, and argues that each act makes a man more like heaven or more like hell (81). Thus, for Lewis, life was a progression unto an eternal state: eternal joy or eternal condemnation. Of particular note is his distinction between two kinds of faith. First, is intellectual acceptance of the truth of Christianity and its teachings (115). However this faith is not merely intellectual. That is, Lewis argues that reason is not cold and divorced from the emotional life of man. Thus, when one is tempted to forego Christian beliefs about morality because it suits him, true faith is in fact a virtue, for it overcomes the emotion to retain this belief even still (116-17). Second, faith is believing something “that cannot be understood until after you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road” (119). This naturally leads the reader into the fourth and final book.
This book engages the deeper doctrine of God, including the Trinity and the Incarnation. Lewis maintains that the nature of the tri-personal God is like a cube, and it is only when we are able to perceive all of the dimensions that we are able to understand that it is made up of more than one square (133). He also attempts to tackle the idea of a timeless God, and explains that the Holy Spirit is the way in which we “catch” the spirit of God (143). Finally, he argues that it is our choice whether or not we will resist God and his actions to make us into true Sons of God (148); it is at this stage of being conformed to the image of the Son that we become our true selves (175). It is this closing thought Lewis dwells on to create a final dilemma for the reader: “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” (177).
Critical Evaluation
            Lewis accomplishes his goal of presenting a plausible version of mere Christianity for those unbelievers. He does not adjudicate between Christian denominations, nor does he intend to do so. It is important to note that there appear to be doctrines (at least one) that does not belong to the essential aspects of Christianity—namely, the defense of a timeless God. While the timelessness of God has been defended far and wide, it is now usually recognized that one is not completely outside of the pale of orthodoxy by conceiving of God as somehow in time. This is the only real bias I can detect that may impact the facts of the matter; the book was very well done!
            A particular strength of Lewis is his ability to relate to the “common man,” or the outsider layman. By using both analogies and thought experiments, he is able to relate difficult concepts in a way that makes them sensible. It is true that these are not perfect analogies, but he never claims they are—and in fact takes great pains to note they are not so perfect. They do, however, tend to accomplish his goal of showing how Christian doctrine impacts life, and each individual human as well. Two particular points of emphasis will be considered.
            First, Lewis considers the point of Christian virtues, given that one is saved purely of faith and not of any merit. He writes, “Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper . . . might be absolute hell in a million years” (68). He exposes that the inner man is either becoming more and more like Christ, or turning inwardly into self. This is why all three facets of morality (as Lewis outlined them) matter: they are intertwined so that they affect the others!
            Second, Lewis hints at here what has later been called his argument from desire. He writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (114). The critic may attempt to defeat Lewis’ underlying premise: for every natural desire there is some thing in existence that can satisfy it. Suppose someone has the desire to become the number 42, for example. There is nothing in the world that can satisfy this desire. But Lewis’ response may be two-fold. First, no one is born with such a desire. Second, if there is a natural desire present, this irrational desire is possibly reducible to it. The desire to be something else is a desire not to be inadequate, not to be limited, not to be finite, not to be contingent, not to be mortal, etc. The satisfaction of even this desire, then, may or may not be found in the world, but one can imagine that the Christian God fulfills these desires via eternal life!
            Next, someone may complain that Lewis presupposes some kind of telos or purpose to human existence. It is true that if there is no purpose to human existence, then God does not exist (and neither does eternal life). However, the “common man” does not believe life to be devoid of purpose, and thus this complaint just will not do for the majority of people. Additionally, one detects a kind of proper basicality to the belief that one’s life has objective purpose.
            While I found much strength to Lewis’ arguments, I did not find much about which to complain. However, two sections will be considered. First, he writes, “Almost certainly God is not in Time” (138). This is quite a contentious claim! A counterexample seems to be found in the Incarnation itself: at one point, God (Jesus) did not have human flesh (a human nature), and at another point in time he did. This, however, Lewis combats by claiming such human nature as “somehow included in His whole divine life” (139). If there are no temporal parts to the experience of God, then it seems mysterious, if not contradictory, to suggest that Jesus’ humanity was an eternal, and hence metaphysically essential, part of Jesus’ life. To see why, consider this: suppose Jesus’ human nature is a timeless part of the divine life. Further suppose God actualizes a world containing no moral agents and no human creatures. It would therefore be a puzzling thing to say that Christ should have humanity as part of his nature. So suppose a defender of Lewis makes a counterfactual claim that were it to be the case that humans were not created, then it would be the case that Jesus would lack humanity as part of the divine life. But then it would be the case that the taking on of humanity was logically posterior to the contingent decision to create free human moral agents. Thus, there is a logical part of God’s life such that he does not have Jesus taking on human nature, and Lewis’ view seems to be incorrect.
            A second criticism focuses on Lewis’ “hard inclusivism.” He claims that it may be the case that God counts for righteousness the true faith of adherents of other major world religions, casting off the bad (165). This is only a minor criticism, because it does not affect his larger point in that chapter. However, it seems that he is overstating his case with respect to Old Testament saints prior to the patriarchs. It does not seem to be the case that these saints were adherents to other world religions at the same time they were regarded to be saints. At the very least, hard inclusivism seems to be more difficult to defend.

            This book was an extremely powerful defense of the doctrines of mere or basic Christianity. It was aimed at the unbeliever (for a rational defense), but there is much in this work for the believer as well. First, it models for believers how to speak to unbelievers concerning the doctrines of the Gospel. Second, it helps the believers to understand aspects of the faith that they never had before. Finally, it helps believers understand that Christian truth applies to every facet of life. This book comes highly recommended for everyone, regardless of age or ability.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Book Review: Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy. By C.S. Lewis. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. 238 pages. Reviewed by Randy Everist.

            This book, penned by C.S. Lewis originally in 1955, is intended to be a story of how Lewis was converted, and is not, primarily, to be conceived of as an autobiography (vii). As such, while the story is nearly completely chronological, it is more thematically arranged than anything else. This theme moves from early childhood to early adulthood; it seems that he was converted by 1929.
            The first stage of Lewis’ life concerned the state of imagination. This occupied much of his young life and played an important role in it (15). One can see in his creation of “Animal Land” and its rich history his imagination that would set the stage for his later works of fiction. In many ways, it is quite appropriate for Lewis to have begun with the child-like wonder of Joy, hinted at in imagination, because of his life stages. Those stages, as they seemed represented, were as follows: imagination, with the hints of Joy; introspection, with its self-serving attempt at religious devotion; intellectualism, with education leading to arrogance and a rejection of God; interference, with Lewis’ views being laid bare for the contradictions that they were; and finally, invitation, with his acceptance of theism (and later Christianity).
            For Lewis, Joy is “a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from Happiness and from Pleasure” (18). Joy is a desire “which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (18). As such, the pursuit of it could just as often have resulted in grief or sorrow, or a sense of loss. This is because Joy, for Lewis, seemed often enough elusive. He remarked that, in a sense, his life was about nothing less than the pursuit of Joy (17). The phase of imagination, unfortunately, was interrupted by the death of his mother (succumbing to cancer). It is remarkable that so tragic and impactful an event should have been given such little coverage (perhaps two and a half pages); yet Lewis implicitly recognizes its significance whenever he writes of the relationship between him and his father.
            The phase of introspection, as it seems to be, occurs when Lewis is sent off to school. He curiously nicknames the headmaster of his school Oldie, and Oldie was a very stern man (26). The students were actually taught very little, and Oldie was content only to teach them geometry and administer a good beating. Interestingly, this is treated by Lewis almost as though it had happened to someone else. One would be forgiven for thinking that it was not of much impact to his life. Clearly, however, it was. Aside from his own father, Lewis referred to Oldie by name the most throughout the rest of the book.
            While Lewis’ intellectual and imaginative life faltered while at Oldie’s school, he did eventually move on to another school. Within these school changes, he began to rediscover his imagination. It was also during this time he would have classified himself as a true believer. A telling anecdote about his immature faith is that Lewis would attempt what he called “realizations;” these were prayers where he tried to focus on really meaning what he was praying (61-62). Of course, this can lead to an infinite regress. For what if one wants to be sure he really means that he wants to really mean his prayers? One can never be sure of an answer to this question. As a result, this introspection resulted in spiritual frustration.
            The third phase is of intellectualism, leading to Lewis’ rejection of God altogether. Throughout each of these phases, one gets the sense that Lewis retained what he would later call “signposts” of the truth: he was able to see glimpses of the real Joy, but it was not itself real Joy. It merely pointed to God. When Lewis went to Wyvern College, this had the ultimate result of his intellectual pursuits as an atheist. In Wyvern, there was a class system where new students were obliged to serve the older, so that they may not think too highly of themselves (88-89). However, Wyvern gave him a sense of superiority over others who were not as widely read as he (101). He writes of his anger with God thusly: “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world” (115).
            Despite the entire point of Surprised by Joy being to tell the story of Lewis’ conversion, the actual details surrounding the conversion itself (the final two stages) occupy very little of the work. In fact, it is the entire book that is the story of his conversion, since the sum of his experiences explains what occurred, rather than merely relaying information. The stages of interference and invitation nearly run together. Though separated by a gulf of time where Lewis accepts mere theism but not Christianity, it seems clear from this vantage point that he was always headed that direction. God used men like J.R.R. Tolkien, who was both a “Papist” and a “philologist,” (216) to help him to see that some of the most intelligent people he had ever encountered were believers, and they seemed to be closer to the truth behind Joy than were the irreligious.
            Lewis came to believe that either Hinduism or Christianity was true, but not both. Indeed, he came to believe that what was good, true, and commendable about any given religion could be accounted for better by one of these two. In the end, it was Christianity’s historical claim that persuaded him to become a Christian. Lewis came in, as he describes it, “kicking and screaming,” and eventually praised God for his love and mercy (229).
            Lewis accomplishes his goal of conveying his conversion story. He weaves a metanarrative through the telling of various episodes of his life, showing how each plays a role in not only his deconversion (if it may be called that), but his conversion to Christianity as well. It comes highly recommended for laypeople, pastors, and lovers of literature. Stylistically, he occasionally relays anecdotes or hints of anecdotes that serve to confuse (such as his hint that he has a major story left out on p. 198—why mention it?), though usually all becomes clear from his particular anecdotes.
            A particular strength of Lewis—perhaps the particular strength of his—is his ability to see into the heart of the nature of man. This existential reflection seems to be woven throughout the entire work. For example, he recognizes that no particular experience of Pleasure or Happiness is itself Joy. This is because Joy, as a technical term with a stipulative definition given, is just a sign pointing to the more permanent. He recognizes that God designed man to be in fellowship with Him, and thus no earthly pleasure can be a fulfilling and lasting eternal Joy.
            Psychologically, Lewis also recognized the arrogance that came with his youthful atheism. He writes that he was shocked he did not recognize as absurd that what was so easily understood as a young man escaped the veritable minds of Christians that had come before him (215). This absurdity was, Lewis suggested, due to his blindness. An extrapolation of this suggestion is that there are undoubtedly others who are atheists and remain comfortable in their intellectual superiority due in large part to blindness. It is to Lewis’ credit that he does not attempt to diagnose the whole world; he is giving a tale of how he came to Christianity, not necessarily others. He clearly achieves his goal of relaying that metanarrative, with each of the major parts intact.
            Another strength was Lewis’ ability to speak with humility. One never reached the sense that he was extolling his intellectual prowess in coming to the truth of Christianity, nor was he demeaning the intelligence of those who did not so come. In fact, some of his kindest remarks are reserved for Kirk, the man who taught Lewis logical thinking and reasoning. His intellectual conversations did not seem to be fraught with conflict, and the times when it may have been, he frankly admitted it had been so on his part alone. This level of honesty allows the reader to take Lewis at his word, and thus makes his message more likely to come through than it would have otherwise.
            Nonetheless, the book is not without some weaknesses (albeit seemingly minor ones that do not affect his overall point much). First, it seems he makes far too little of the horrifying situation at Wyvern with respect to the “Tarts” (88). He almost casually relates that the younger boys were asked or persuaded to do sexual favors for the older boys, and that this was due in large part because there were no females around. This struck me as quite depraved, and while Lewis stated he did not focus on it because it was not a vice with which he struggled, it would seem that two responses are in order.
            First, his defense of these homosexual acts being no worse than other particular vices is a double-edged sword. While it seems he exposes some hypocritical attitudes by some toward homosexuality, it does seem to fly in the face of Romans 1. All sins are sins against God and therefore worthy of punishment, but not all sins bear the same consequences (both temporal and eternal). If this is the case, it is most plausibly because some sins really are farther away from the moral standard than others. Second, I think Lewis has underestimated the effect this likely had on his deconversion. Having such debauchery as normal, even if one does not partake in it, surely affects one’s soul. An unregenerate soul, further, cannot be expected to cope as well. With atheism often comes moral lapse preceding; this appears to be the case here as well.
            Next, Lewis seemed receptive to a type of thoroughgoing evidentialism that he did not repudiate or even seem to amend in his later years (136). The idea is that he seemed to accept the idea that in order to believe some particular proposition, one must have evidence for that proposition. But evidence is not always available for a particular proposition, and yet sometimes people are justified in holding that position. Take the proposition that “My name is Randy.” I certainly can investigate this belief by perusing legal documents, consulting the state, interviewing doctors, etc.—even though these will eventually run into a problem—but I am nonetheless justified in taking my parents’ word for it (all things being equal). There are also some beliefs for which there can be no further justifying evidence: these beliefs are called foundational beliefs. In normal situations, evidence is needed for holding a belief, but not in all.
            Finally, Lewis seems to take for granted a certain Kantian view on a few areas (including ethics and metaphysics). For example, he granted Kant’s view of the distinction between the noumena (the really “real”) and the phenomena (the mere appearance of the real) (198-99). However, if this is accepted, then one cannot really speak of God as he is in reality, since God belongs to the noumenal realm. Only an approximation of what God appears to us to be like can be known. Possibly, this is illustrated in his metaphor of Shakespeare inserting himself as a character in one of his plays as standing for the Incarnation (227). In this case, Shakespeare’s character is not actually himself, but a mere representation. This can be seen in a character’s interactions with the author, as claimed by Lewis. He suggests a mere character cannot interact with the author (226). But if this is so, what if Shakespeare’s character, who is in the story, is killed? Does it follow the author actually dies? If not, then it seems the character of the author and the author himself are not identical, and surely identity is necessary for sameness of persons!

            This book was a fascinating, encouraging, and honest read. It was intellectual without being heady; existential without being flighty; insightful without being arrogant. I can wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone interested in the spiritual lives of those non-Christians around them, and for anyone who has ever struggled with deconversion and doubt.

A Defense of S5

The following post is taken almost verbatim from my way of explaining S5 to people. It makes sense to me, but I recognize not everyone will agree. In any case, I take it to show the thesis “whatever is possible is necessarily possible” is correct.

It seems to me that if something is possible, it's necessarily possible. Take a world, W1, and take the proposition P. Now let's suppose the metaproposition "Possibly, P" is true in W1. A necessary and sufficient condition of possibility is that it [whatever is under consideration] appears in some possible world. With that in mind, let's consider the denial of S5. The positive claim of S5 is that if something is possible, it is necessarily possible. The denial entails that if something is possible, it is not necessarily possible (you can place the negative operator prior to the whole thing as "it is not the case that" and you will yield the same result). This denial means that there is some possible world where P is impossible. Call this world W2.

Here's where the fun begins! In W2, then, P is impossible. But what does it mean for P to be impossible? If "Possibly, P" means that "in some world, P appears (or is true)," "not-possibly P" (or P is impossible) means that in no world is P true (or appears). These definitions of possibility and impossibility are what we're working with as stipulatives in modal logic. Basically, if this is not what possible and impossible mean, I don't know what they are supposed to mean!

So with that in place, we can now derive a contradiction: P is true in at least one world (W1) and true in no worlds (per W2). Whatever is a contradiction is a necessary falsehood. Call the derived contradiction "The Impossibility Thesis." This means that in no world is The Impossibility Thesis true, including W2. But if in even W2 The Impossibility Thesis is false, then, necessarily, either "possibly P" or "not-possibly P." But this process can be repeated, with identical answers, for every possible world. But in that case, what we have described, whichever answer we grant, will be a necessary truth. In this case, it's "Possibly P."

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Modal Argument for Molinism

For your consideration, I have constructed what I am calling a “modal argument for Molinism,” relying on free will. These concepts have cropped up and even been developed other places, so it’s not particularly original. However, it might be helpful in framing the debate between Molinists and non-Molinists.

1.     If libertarian free will (LFW) is possible, then there are truths about how possible libertarian free agents use their LFW.
2.     LFW is possible.
3.     Therefore, there are truths about how possible libertarian free agents use their LFW.
4.     It is possible that all counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) have truth-values.
5.     If (2) & (4), then there are at least some libertarianly true CCFs concerning creaturely essences who never exist.
6.     Therefore, there are at least some libertarianly true CCFs concerning creaturely essences who never exist.
7.     If (6) and OMNI, then a middle knowledge account of God’s omniscience is correct.
8.     OMNI.
9.     Therefore, a middle knowledge account of God’s omniscience is correct.

Let “OMNI” stand for the thesis that for any proposition p, God knows p and does not believe not-p. (1) seems to be definitional. After all, it means that there is at least one possible world where libertarianly free actions are exercised. (2) may need some defense; admittedly, this won’t do a bit of good against the objector who thinks that, as a matter of fact, LFW is incoherent. But it certainly seems to us to be the case that we possibly have LFW, and, typically, we don’t modally perceive something so strongly that isn’t even possible. That is to say, our modal intuitions, on the face of it, count for at least something, and in the absence of other, stronger intuitions or evidence, we are justified in holding it. (3) is an entailed conclusion.

Similarly to (2), (4) can be denied by those who think it’s impossible that there are any true CCFs describing any libertarianly free agents. This might be open theists, who claim that such truths would render LFW actions impossible, or those who think there are no CCFs at all. However, people should accept (4) independently of (2). That is to say, one can accept (4) whether or not he believes in LFW, or even its possibility. (5) is an analytical truth: if it’s possible that all CCFs have truth-values, and LFW is possibly true, then there is a possible world such that creatures with LFW exist and would use it to perform particular actions and make particular choices. Thus, there are truths about how possible creaturely essences would act with LFW who never exist. (6) is thus an entailed conclusion. (7) is also analytic: granting OMNI, and (6), it just seems almost definitional. God would know about these libertarianly free CCFs in possible worlds, and they are not true due to his decree.[1] Thus, middle knowledge is correct!

The upshot of this entire argument is not to convince the anti-Molinist to become a Molinist. Rather, it’s to frame the discussion in terms of the following: if libertarian freedom and CCFs are even possible, then they are known to God prior to the creative decree—even if, in fact, God does not actualize a world with libertarianly free creatures—or even if God does not actualize a world at all![2]

[1] I do recognize classical Thomists would be scandalized at this, and thus they have an out by denying (7). However, I find LFW on Thomism to be sketchy, at best. But to each his own.

[2] Technically, this is not possible. However, all I mean by this is that God doesn’t create a world; the world he actualizes is just a world in which the Trinity exists alone.