In 2010, philosophy professor Michael Peterson threw fresh meat into the slow-boiling debate around C. S. Lewis and evolution (“C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62:4, Dec. 2010, also available here).
Peterson accepts the scientific world-story, namely, law-guided development over about 13.7 billion years of atoms, stars, galaxies, heavier elements such as carbon and iron (forged in star-cores and supernovae), planets, and eventually, on at least one planet, life; then the shaping of life, including human beings, by biological evolution. He opposes Intelligent Design (ID), which claims that living systems could only plausibly have been produced by an intelligent agent (guess Who). But like many of the ID advocates he opposes, Peterson would like to have C. S. Lewis—killer smart and cosmically popular—on his side. Since Lewis has been dead since 1963, such alliances can only be established by sifting through Lewis’s scattered utterances on evolution and piecing together a case for like-mindedness.
Despite the obvious peril of confirmation bias, most of what Peterson says in his essay is correct—with one important exception. His goals are (1) to explain why Lewis would not have reasoned about God and evidence like a modern Intelligent Design advocate and (2) to expound “Lewis’s important distinction between evolution as a highly confirmed scientific theory and evolution as co-opted by naturalistic philosophy.”
Under his first heading, Peterson points out that Lewis often made arguments for the existence of something above or beyond the natural world. Though Lewis did not claim that such arguments were slam-dunk proofs of the existence of God, he thought that he could rule out as self-contradictory “naturalism” (the view that the physical world is all that exists) and rule in some kind of moral, rational, desirable order transcending Nature. Not necessarily God, mind you. In The Abolition of Man, for example, he used a non-theistic label, “the Tao,” for the moral aspect of transcendence.
Lewis was, then, happy to argue for transcendence, but as Peterson also points out, he never made what is called a design argument. A design argument points to some feature of the natural world (e.g., the eye, or the madly rotating fibers that propel some bacteria, or the fine-tuned life-permitting properties of the cosmos) and claims that natural, spontaneous processes cannot account for that feature. It concludes that the eye, flagellum, or whatnot cannot have been produced by the blind operation of natural causes: it must have been designed. Ergo, there is a Designer.
The design argument has a long history and appeals strongly to intuition; its canonical statement by William Paley at the start of the 19th century is still influential today. Paley begins with the obvious. If you find a wind-up watch lying in a wild place, you know it was made by somebody—that it didn’t just grow there. So if living things are like watches, they must have a Maker—obviously, God. (In his youth, Charles Darwin was much impressed by Paley’s arguments before piecing together his theory of evolution: The Origin of Species can in part be read as an answer-book to Paley’s Natural Theology, 1802.)
The granddaddy of modern design arguments: first paragraph of Paley’s Natural Theology (1802).
Design arguments bring religion into direct conflict with science because it is the nature of science, as actually practiced by scientists for the last couple of centuries, to totally eschew magic, ghosts, fairies, gods, and God when trying to explain how stuff happens. Why so strict? Because any fact can be explained by a miracle, so the miracle explanation can never be ruled out by facts, so to consider the miracle theory is to cease to test explanations against facts—that is, to do science. Logically, it might happen that one is driven back on the miracle theory by some absolutely radical and utterly intractable failure of natural explanation-finding, and Creationists claim this is the case with evolution. But science denies any such failure, and has a century and a half of fruitful research to back its claim. Those airy proclamations one often hears to the effect that Religion and Science Can Never Truly Be in Conflict because they are Complementary Siblings in the Quest for Truth, etc., are wishful drivel: for who can seriously say that a design argument is not of religion, religious? Yet every design argument stomps on science’s toes and spits in its eye. The turf war is on and the turf is real.
C. S. Lewis, at any rate, that canny dog whom I love, made no design arguments, and so avoided a large class of theological pratfalls.
Peterson’s second theme is Lewis’s distinction between evolution-as-science and evolution-as-nonscientific-myth. Lewis did make such a distinction, but in characterizing Lewis’s friendliness toward evolution-as-real-scientific-theory, Peterson oversteps:
So, Lewis never voices any objection to the scientific facts of Evolution as though they are somehow incompatible with orthodox Christian doctrines—and, in fact, he was completely comfortable integrating Evolution into a comprehensive worldview.
Whoa. Hold it right there.
Lewis does insist, repeatedly, that evolution-the-scientific theory, if true, is compatible with Christianity. And on several occasions he refers to evolution as if it is a known fact. But he is not “completely comfortable integrating Evolution into a comprehensive worldview.” One of his most thorough statements of the distinction between “the Darwinian theorem in biology” and “the modern myth of evolutionism or developmentalism or progress in general” positively drips lust see Darwin slip on a banana peel:
[I]n my opinion, the modern conception of Progress or Evolution (as popularly imagined) is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatever.
I say “evolution, as popularly imagined.” I am not in the least concerned to refute Darwinism as a theorem in biology. There may be flaws in that theorem, but I have here nothing to do with them. There may be signs that biologists are already contemplating a withdrawal from the whole Darwinian position, but I claim to be no judge of such signs. It can even be argued that what Darwin really accounted for was not the origin, but the elimination of species, but I will not pursue that argument. For purposes of this article I am assuming that Darwinian biology is correct. What I want to point out is the illegitimate transition from the Darwinian theorem in biology to the modern myth of evolutionism or developmentalism or progress in general.”
—“The World’s Last Night,” 1952, in The World’s Last Night, C. S. Lewis, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1960, p. 101.
Like a lawyer who says something damaging in the jury’s hearing knowing full well his statement will be struck from the record a second later, Lewis here tenders discrediting hints to the reader but avoids taking intellectual responsibility for them. He says that “Darwinism as a theorem in biology” may have flaws, but does not say what those flaws are or even assert definitely that they exist. He says there are signs that scientists themselves may be “contemplating a withdrawal from the whole Darwinian position” but doesn’t say that what those signs are or even that scientists are definitely contemplating them. He thinks that it can be argued that Darwin never accounted for the origin of species, but doesn’t argue it. In the shadow cast by these artfully non-claimed claims, the jury—excuse me, the reader—is left to draw their own conclusions.
Not one of Lewis’s finest moments, in my opinion—nor unique. In my next post, I will delve at length into the history of a doctored quotation from a scientist, D. M. S Watson, that Lewis retailed twice (immediately striking the record, as it were, each time). The quotation (not doctored by Lewis) reads like a damning admission that evolution is based on nothing at all but a refusal to consider special creation, and so of course has been cited by Creationists in dozens of articles, books, and websites. The tale of how Lewis got the bad quote and its relationship to the undoctored version is too long to include here and too interesting to shorten: so, next time.
Conclusion. Was Lewis, as Peterson says, “completely comfortable integrating Evolution into a comprehensive worldview”? My hat! He openly rooted for Darwin to go down. Yet he was no run-of-the-mill Darwin-hater, either. Efforts by some Creationists and ID advocates to iconize him are just as misguided as efforts by some evolution-accepters to paint him as a plumply fulfilled compatibilist. Not only did he sometimes speak of evolution as factual, but there is evidence (here) that he found the common-descent aspect of evolution theologically exciting.
To repeat my basic theme in these posts, Lewis cannot be levered into any of our contemporary positions. He rejected the claim, made by many Creationists, that evolution is inherently incompatible with Christianity—but he was not “completely comfortable” with the scientific worldstory, either. He hoped that the Darwinian position might somehow crumble—but disavowed design arguments such as those made by Creationists and ID mavens.
In fact, he scorned such arguments. In a few weeks I’ll look at recent ID attempts to appropriate Lewis, but for now, here’s a line that should be tattooed on the forebrain of every Intelligent Designer tempted to think that if Lewis came back to life he would be their long-lost theological big brother:
I still think the argument from design the weakest possible ground for Theism, and what may be called the argument from un-design the strongest for Atheism.
— C. S. Lewis, Letter of Dec. 20, 1946: Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. III, p. 747.