Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Two Lectures" by C. S. Lewis

In reading the collection of magazine articles and papers by C. S. Lewis titled God in the Dock, my brain was stimulated by the piece, “Two Lectures.”

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“And so,” said the lecturer, “I end where I began. Evolution, development, the slow struggle upwards and onwards from crude and inchoate beginnings towards ever-increasing perfection and elaboration – that appears to be the very formula of the whole universe.

“We see it exemplified in everything we study. The oak comes from the acorn. The giant express engine of today comes from the Rocket. The highest achievements of contemporary art are in a continuous line of descent from the rude scratching with which prehistoric man adorned the wall of his cave.

“What are the ethics and philosophy of civilized man but an elaboration of the most primitive instincts and savage taboos? Each one of us has grown, through slow pre-natal stages in which we were at first more like fish than mammals, from a particle of matter too small to be seen. Man himself springs from beasts: the organic from the inorganic. Development is the key word. The march of all things is from lower to higher.”

None of this, of course, was new to me or to anyone else in the audience. But it was put very well (much better than it appears in my reproduction) and the whole voice and figure of the lecturer were impressive. At least they must have impressed me, for otherwise I cannot account for the curious dream I had that night.

I dreamed that I was still at the lecture, and the voice from the platform was still going on. But it was saying all the wrong things. At least it may have been saying the right things up to the very moment at which I began attending; but it certainly began going wrong after that. What I remembered on waking went like this: “…appears to be the very formula of the whole universe. We see it exemplified in everything we study. The acorn comes from a full-grown oak. The first crude engine, the Rocket, comes, not from a still cruder engine, but from something much more perfect than itself and much more complex, the mind of a man, and a man of genius. The first prehistoric drawings come, not from earlier scratchings, but from the hand and brain of human beings whose hand and brain cannot be shown to have been in any way inferior to our own; and indeed it is obvious that the man who first conceived the idea of making a picture must have been a greater genius than any of the artists who have succeeded him. The embryo with which the life of each one of us began did not originate from something even more embryonic; it originated from two fully-developed human beings, our parents. Descent, downward movement, is the key word. The march of all things is from higher to lower. The rude and imperfect thing always springs from something perfect and developed.”

I did not think much of this while I was shaving, but it so happened that I had no 10 o’clock pupil that morning, and when I had finished answering my letters I sat down and reflected on my dream.

It appeared to me that the Dream Lecturer had a good deal to be said for him. It is true that we do see all round us things growing up to perfection from small and rude beginnings; but then it is equally true that the small and rude beginnings themselves always come from some full-grown and developed thing. All adults were once babies, true: but then all babies were begotten and born by adults. Corn does come from seed: but then seed comes from corn. I could even give the Dream Lectureer an example he had missed. All civilizations grow from small beginnings; but when you look into it you always find that those small beginnings themselves have been “dropped” (as an oak drops an acorn) by some other and mature civilization. The weapons and even the cookery of old Germanic barbarism are, so to speak, driftwood from the wrecked ship of Roman civilization. The starting point of Greek culture is the remains of older Minoan cultures, supplemented by oddments from civilized Egypt and Phoenicia.

But in that case, thought I, what about the first civilization of all? As soon as I asked this question I realized that the Dream Lecturer had been choosing his examples rather cautiously. He had talked only about things we can see going on around us. He had kept off the subject of absolute beginnings. He had quite correctly pointed out that in the present, and in the historical past, we see imperfect life coming from perfect just as much as vice versa. But he hadn’t even attempted to answer the Real Lecturer about the beginnings of all life. The Real Lecturer’s view was that when you got back far enough – back into those parts of the past which we know less about – you would find an absolute beginning, and it would be something small and imperfect.

That was a point in favor of the Real Lecturer. He at least had a theory about the absolute beginning, whereas the Dream Lecturer had slurred it over. But hadn’t the Real Lecturer done a little slurring, too? He had not given us a hint that his theory of the ultimate origins involved us in believing that Nature’s habits have, since those days, altered completely. Her present habits show us an endless cycle – the bird coming from the egg and the egg from the bird. But he asked us to believe that the whole thing started with an egg which had been preceded by no bird. Perhaps it did. But the whole audience accepted it as something natural and obvious – depended on his slurring over the immense difference between this and the processes we actually observe. He put it over by drawing our attention to the fact that eggs develop into birds and making us forget that birds lay eggs; indeed, we have been trained to do this all our lives: trained to look at the universe with one eye shut. “Developmentalism” is made to look plausible by a kind of trick.

For the first time in my life I began to look at the question with both eyes open. In the world I know, the perfect produces the imperfect, which again becomes perfect – egg leads to bird and bird to egg – in endless succession. If there ever was a life which sprang of its own accord out of a purely inorganic universe, or a civilization which raised itself by its own shoulder-straps out of pure savagery, then this event was totally unlike the beginnings of every subsequent life and every subsequent civilization. The thing may have happened; but all its plausibility is gone. On any view, the first beginning must have been outside the ordinary processes of nature. An egg which came from no bird is no more “natural” than a bird which had existed from all eternity. And since the egg-bird-egg sequence leads us to no plausible beginning, is it not reasonable to look for the real origin somewhere outside sequence altogether? You have to go outside the sequence of engines, into the world of men, to find the real originator of the Rocket. Is it not equally reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?

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Truth is...By posting this piece, I am not at all pretending to Make The Case, once and for all, of Creation over Evolution. Rather it is meant to simply suggest that logic and reason do not necessarily rule out the concept of a non-natural creator. There is reason to doubt on both sides of the fence.

1 comment:

  1. And the lecturer can't even get his own theory right; evolution doesn't imply a teleology, but he gives it one nonetheless, which is where the whole dilemma originates.

    A good combined scientific/theological overview of the subject is Evolution: From Creation to New Creation. It's a survey of Christian interpretations of evolution, followed with the two authors' own position.

    A better introduction to evolution more generally is Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.