Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 1, Chapter 4 : Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (What Lies Behind the Law) | Summary



Lewis now turns his attention to the nature of the universe. Opinions have generally fallen into two camps. The materialist view holds that the universe arose from a series of ultimately meaningless coincidences. The religious view holds that "the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know" because "it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another." Its purpose includes creating "creatures like itself" who also have minds. It must be like a mind, Lewis asserts, because it could be either mind or matter, but "you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions."

Science is fundamentally unable to determine which view is correct. Science consists of observing what is. However, it cannot address whether there is a purpose or conscious organization behind what is observed. If there is "Something Behind" it all, science could not reveal it. It would have to reveal itself in some other way.

Luckily we can investigate the question of whether there is "Something Behind" the universe by looking inside ourselves. As Lewis points out, the human being is the "one thing ... in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation." We can't observe the Moral Law from the outside, but we know it is real because we feel its presence internally. Similarly this "Something Behind" would be felt "inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." We can't go inside anything else to see if it is under any kind of external law. But when we turn inward the Moral Law presents itself as proof of a "Power behind the facts, a Director, a Guide."

The chapter ends with a note wherein Lewis describes and dismisses a third metaphysical position that time restrictions prevented him from addressing in the radio broadcast. Variously called "Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution," this third view holds that the universe is guided by a sort of "Life-Force" that has "'striving' or 'purposiveness.'" Lewis points out that if the Life-Force is conceived of as mindlike, it is no different than God. Therefore this view is a mere reiteration of the religious view. On the other hand, if it is not conceived as mindlike, Lewis asks, how could it display intention? Lewis explains that many people are attracted to this view. It allows them to feel spiritually connected when it is convenient but does not put them in the position of displeasing a God who demands morality when they wish to do something self-interested. The position amounts to "all the thrills of religion and none of the cost."


Lewis's assertion of the mindlike quality of the force that guides existence rests on the premise that only two types of things exist, mind and matter. Matter he claims is not capable of "giving instructions." Lewis's justification for the second part of this claim is merely that he cannot conceive of it being otherwise. This is an example of a logical fallacy known as "argument from personal incredulity." This fallacy consists of arbitrarily rejecting evidence or an argument because one lacks the capacity to understand it.

But in 1941 when Lewis made this claim that matter cannot give instructions, scientists were busy studying a type of matter that does precisely that: DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid was first observed and named in 1869, but scientists were unsure of its function for decades after. A series of breakthroughs beginning in 1944 began to point to DNA as the molecule responsible for carrying and transmitting hereditary information. In the early 1950s Watson and Crick drew on the past 80 years of scientists' investigations into DNA and discovered its double helix structure—the means by which it passes on information. Crick famously made a bar-room boast that he had found the secret of life. Because of the work of these scientists, today we take it for granted that matter gives instructions. That this idea was inconceivable to Lewis in the early 1940s is a mark of how far scientific understanding has progressed.

It is unfortunate that Lewis's claim rests on this logical fallacy because it is the mindlike nature of the universe that Lewis will use to argue his case for Christianity. But it would be a shame for a reader to disregard the remainder of Lewis's message based on his failure at providing sound, rational justification for religion. The reader must consider that it might be impossible to find such a justification, though Lewis has certainly made a valiant effort. Whether one accepts Lewis's foundational argument or not, his exploration of Christian doctrine that follows is more than worthwhile. Lewis's strength is not in constructing logical proofs. It is in his ability to communicate the profound, subtle, and complex concepts behind one of the world's major religions in language that is vivid, elegant, and accessible.

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