Abolition of Man

14 09 2009

Morality signThis week the book discussion group in which I participate gathered for our final discussion on Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis and again had a great discussion. It is amazing how in three chapters and less than 100 pages Lewis could weave together such a compelling argument, yet that is just what he has done in this book.

To review his argument, Lewis began the first chapter discussing two actual authors whom he pseudonymously referred to as Gaius and Titius (G&T) and their book to which he referred to as The Green Book. In this book, in which G&T set out to write about writing styles and the proper use of grammar, the two actually instead write about philosophy, describing how a writer doesn’t describe a thing in itself, but only how they feel about that thing. They used Coleridge’s story of a couple at a waterfall, one who described it as sublimeand the other describing it aspretty. Lewis tells us that “Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgment and rejected the second in disgust.” However, he goes on to tell us that G&T explain that they were not giving an actual judgment or description of the waterfall, but only theirfeelings about the waterfall.

Lewis tells us that in The Green Book the schoolboy will learn two things: first, that “all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker”; and second, “that all such statements are unimportant.” In contrast to these postmodern ideas of truth and reality, Lewis introduces the concept of the Tao, a shorthand word to refer to objective reality and truth. Lewis also explains that when filtering reality the head rules the belly through the chest. In other words, reason or intellect rules emotion or instinct through sentiment, magnanimity or nobility. This ruling is governed by the Tao. He explains that G&T and their kind are producing Men without Chests, those who are either all head or all belly but without the chest to govern the two.

Lewis explains that even though G&T attempt to tear down objective truth, they seem to believe in an inherent objective standard toward which they are driving the readers of their book. They imply that certain states of mind are intrinsically good. They are promoting their own dogmatism while tearing away at traditional values. Yet the standards that they are trying to establish are built upon reason and pragmatism alone and Lewis shows how this attempt at values breaks down in the end as it does not have the force ofoughtness to it; there is no reason one should be compelled to follow them. Lewis also argues that following instinct won’t lead us to workable morality either. We have competing instincts and yet, who or what is to govern between them.

SignIn the final chapter, entitledAbolition of Man, Lewis argues that man in his attempt to conquer nature, will in the end only be conquered by nature. He shows how man has advanced in developing technology to, in a sense, conquer nature. One of those technologies is contraceptives. Contraceptives allow people to engage in certain behavior without all of the “consequences” entailed in these practices. Lewis makes an interesting point in regard to the usage of contraceptives in that “there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive.” In other words, the user of contraceptives is impacting and exercising control over future generations; they are denying them existence.

Lewis tells us that eventually all species will end up in extinction and the closer we come to extinction, the easier it will be to take control of Nature, especially our Human Nature. He writes:

I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

He argues that Conditioners will be developed, people who will train the coming generations to follow the artificial Taothat they have developed. However, as one of the conditions that they will instill will be to break from past traditions and develop new ones, those taught by the Conditioners will also eventually be abandoned in place of new ones. We will have people conditioned to act in a purely natural manner, according to natural impulses, yet in man’s attempt to conquer nature, acting naturally, he will eventually conquer himself, thus in the pursuit of the abolition of man, man will be destroyed.

Without objective truth and morality, what Lewis in this book refers to as the Tao, there is no way to make sense of moral behavior at all. At best, all we can say is that we have certain behavior, but we cannot call it moral, or even good as that would imply an objective standard. If a person were to love another person or hurt another person we could only say that they were acting differently from one another, not better or worse.

The conclusion of this argument has implications for a naturalist who believes that morality can be determined by evolution. Lewis debunks such an idea and tells us that we need an objective standard to truly have morality at all. Apart from God, that objective standard cannot exist. Does this mean that a naturalist cannot live a moral life? No, they certainly can. However, it does mean that they don’t have a basis for that behavior according to their worldview. It is only by what Lewis calls the Tao, an objective standard that requires a transcendent source, that man has a basis for this objective morality.

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Are We Merely Creatures of Instinct?

7 09 2009

This week in a book discussion of which I am a part, the discussion centered around Lewis’ discussion of the concept of instinct. What he says is that if we are merely evolved beings then we should operate on instinct rather than intentionality. There should be no oughtness to our behavior, simply an isness. What he means is that we should only be able to describe how a person behaves, not how they ought to behave, as ought would imply that there is a right and wrong way to behave, which cannot come via natural processes.

right-way-wrong-way1Often evolutionists will argue that survival is the result of evolution, and some will take an extra and unwarranted step of saying that survival is the “goal” of the evolutionary process, thus implying a purpose for evolution. I say that this is an unwarranted step as evolution is a blind process according to people like Richard Dawkins and others, and therefore cannot have a purpose or goal. So, survival is just a chance result of the evolutionary process rather than a goal or purposeful end.

What one of our members did to test this idea was to pose a case in which a person (A) had a choice to make between B, C & D to achieve the end of fulfilling a desire (sorry for all the letters, but it is the best way to explain the situation). His instincts were equally divided between the options and he had no history with any of the choices, so he arbitrarily chose B, which gave him fulfillment of his desire. The next time, given the same choices, instinct should direct A to choose B again to fulfill A’s desire, as B fulfilled A’s desire the first time.

Now the scenario changes and the option for B is taken out of the mix of choices, leaving A to choose between C & D. A arbitrarily chooses C, and A finds that C fulfills him even better than did B. The next time, given the choices of B, C and D, instinct should drive A to choose C over B & D.

In these scenarios we are assuming that A does not reason or is not influenced by anything other than instinct. Suppose that A, driven by the instinct to survive, began to steal food from Y who had more than needed to survive. If we are truly driven by instinct alone, we could not say that A has done anything wrong, even if our instincts tell us that stealing is wrong. We could only say that A has done something different from what our instincts would drive us to do. That would include every other behavior that we consider moral or immoral. Those actions would not be truly moral or immoral, just different.

Neither can we determine what actions would have ultimate survival value as we cannot determine how a certain action will impact the future. For example, suppose society judged murder to be an action that impeded survival, yet A were to murder a person who would have become a Stalin or a Hitler should he have lived, that murder would have actually had a greater impact on survival than not murdering the Stalin or Hitler. Yet, we cannot determine who will become a Stalin, Hitler, or Mother Teresa. In other words, we don’t truly know which of our actions will have greater impact for survival and which will not. Yet, to not murder will generally have greater survival impact than to murder. The choice not to abort the unborn should also have greater survival value as well, yet, it has not led us to ban abortion.

The other challenge with the instinct driven scenario is that often we have competing instincts and are left to “decide” between them. I put decide in quotes as we aren’t, in the case, making rational decisions, but somehow our instincts are arbitrating between them and one ends up “winning.” We are told that we have an instinct to survive by evolutionists, yet, we often see situations in which a person will put him or herself in harms way for no “good” reason from a survival viewpoint.

For example, on 9.11.01 we saw the efforts of the NYC fire fighters as they rushed into a burning building that they knew could be hazardous and possibly lethal to them. The higher up they went, the lower the chances of their survival as well as the survival of the victims inside the buildings. Yet, we saw these men and women rushing into the building and up to the higher floors against their instinct to survive. There was no guarantee that their efforts would have led to the ultimate survival of the species or even the improvement of the odds of the survival of the species. So, how does one explain that these people gave their lives and why do we call them heroes if instinct is the driver?

I think the reason that we consider them to be heroes is the same that we consider the person who does what we consider to be immoral to be an immoral person. We know that people act on more than just instinct, we know that they also act based upon reason and that reason is directed by a moral code that exists outside of us. C.S. Lewis calls this the Tao, a shorthand name for what we know to be objective moral values that really exist and by which our actions are judged and which also directs our conscience. We are driven by more than just instincts as we consider criminals to be truly guilty of doing wrong and someone like Mother Teresa to be truly virtuous. We don’t just chalk it up to instinct and leave it at that. We are not indifferent to these behaviors as we should be if we were truly driven by instinct as the instincts of those people would be no better or worse, just different.

We celebrate the heroes of 9.11, those who have given their lives for our country in war, and many others who made conscious choices to resist the instinct to survive as the highest good and chose instead to put their lives on the line for the good of country and those who were in need.