Everything Old Is New Again

One of the writers I quote most frequently is the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. Lewis's book Mere Christianity helped bring me to Christ, and his writings have done the same for countless thousands of others. Most of Lewis's readers come away from his books impressed by his deep faith, his brilliant mind, and the clarity and logic of his arguments. Yet according to philosopher Victor Reppert, one of Lewis's most successful arguments was one that many people thought a failure during his own lifetime. In his new book, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, Reppert examines Lewis's attack on naturalism, which Lewis defined as "the doctrine that only Nature . . . exists" and that there is nothing beyond nature. Lewis argued against naturalism in his book Miracles and defended it in a debate with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Although she also was a Christian, Anscombe thought Lewis's argument had major philosophical weaknesses, and she went after it with both barrels. Reportedly, Lewis was shaken by the experience and so revised and strengthened his argument for the next edition of Miracles. But unfortunately, even after the revisions, the controversy has kept many people -- even Christian philosophers -- from taking his argument seriously. Reppert believes this is a mistake and that it's time to take another look at the revised "argument from reason." Simply stated, it goes like this: Naturalism claims that everything that exists, including our own mental states, results from nonrational causes. As Lewis explained in the third chapter of Miracles, "If there is nothing but Nature . . . reason must have come into existence by an historical process. And of course, for a Naturalist, this process was not designed to produce a mental behavior that can find truth. There was no Designer; and indeed, until there were thinkers, there was no truth or falsehood." Human beings could have learned to respond to their environment, but this does not necessarily mean the same thing as learning to think rationally. That means that we have no way of evaluating whether our reasoning process -- which comes from chance -- is itself valid. But if we can't trust that our reasoning processes are truly rational, then we can't trust the reasoning we used to arrive at that conclusion, or any conclusion. Therefore, naturalism must be false. It is a self-refuting proposition. The more Reppert studied this argument, the stronger it appeared to him. In fact, he ended up writing his doctoral dissertation on it, and he notes dryly, "Even though my committee was solidly opposed to the conclusion of my argument, they nevertheless passed my dissertation." I'm glad Reppert is calling new attention to a much neglected argument against naturalism. It's the belief system, after all, dominant in science and philosophy today -- and in the classroom. Reppert's book isn't an easy read, but I recommend it for serious students. As he writes in his conclusion, the argument from reason "constitutes an extremely powerful reason to reject naturalism and to accept some other worldview that makes reason fundamental to reality." And what would that worldview be? Well, we have an answer to that, which is eminently reasonable. For further reading and information: Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (InterVarsity Press, 2003). Victor Reppert, "Taking C. S. Lewis Seriously," Books & Culture, September/October 2003 (an excerpt of C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea).
  1. S. Lewis, Miracles(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 edition).
  2. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity(Touchstone, 1996 edition).
Arlice Davenport, "C. S. Lewis's 'dangerous idea' gets a fresh, new look," Wichita Eagle, 21 December 2003. The essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," which was instrumental in the development of Prison Fellowship's ministry, is available in Lewis's essay collection God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1994 edition). Charles Colson, "C. S. Lewis: Prophet of the Twentieth Century," speech, BreakPoint Online. Charles Colson, "The Oxford Prophet," Christianity Today, 15 June 1998 (reprinted on BreakPoint Online). Gina Dalfonzo, "Screwtape's Favorite Vice," BreakPoint Online, 24 January 2003. Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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