Monday, February 23, 2009

CS Lewis: When Cabbages teach Botany, or The Interrogation of Futility

We left CS Lewis (in De Futilitate) concluding that the way forward with futility wasn't to just take it, or to deny it, but to face it head on.

We feel a sense of cosmic futility.
Futility is the opposite of utility.
"In calling it futile we are only expressing our naive surprise at the discovery that basic reality does not possess the characteristics of a human artefact — a thing made by men to serve the purposes of men — and the demand that it should -may be regarded as preposterous"
The universe fails to serve us and thus we conclude "futile!" - yet who are we to have supposed it should serve us, small us in our small corner of the Universe. Furthermore
"The proper way of stating the facts is not to say that the universe is futile, but that the universe has produced an animal, namely man, which can make deeply engrained that even when the creature is not engaged in tool-making it continues to use this pattern of thought...Hence arises the absurd practice of demanding that the universe should be ‘good’ complaining that it is bad’."
The futile universe produced us who ask the question. Asking tells us about us but not a great deal about the universe. We have to ask whether our own thinking is as futile as the futility we observe, but one cannot pursue that line of argument for very long. We have to conclude that some insights are actually true. We do this about science, though we're reluctant to say the same morally. So,
"That is why in modern stories of what the Americans call science fiction - stories about unknown species who inhabit other planets or the depth of the sea - these creatures are usually pictured as being wholly devoid of our moral standards but as accepting our scientific standards."
But it's a false distinction. The only distinction really is between logical and non-logical thought, our knowledge comes from sensible inference. From which Lewis concludes:
"logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. In other words, the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time . This admission seems to me completely unavoidable and it has very momentous consequences."
This is explored further in his book Miracles (chapters 1-6). From here we find a purely material account of the universe to be ruled out.
"The laws whereby logic obliges us to think turn out to be the laws according to which every event in space and time must happen. The man who thinks this an ordinary or probable result does not really understand. It is as if cabbages, in addition to resulting from the laws of botany also gave lectures in that subject: or as if, when I knocked out my pipe, the ashes arranged themselves into letters which read: ‘We are the ashes of a knocked-out pipe.’ But if the validity of knowledge cannot be explained in that way, and if perpetual happy coincidence throughout the whole of recorded time is out of the question, then surely we must seek the real explanation elsewhere."
However reality can be logical and still disregard any recognisable values and so be accused of futility. Yet, the accusation implies a standard. Thus the "Heroic anti-theism thus has a contradiction in its centre." (anti-theism rather than atheism feels more appropriate for our present age - the so called New Atheists don't just deny God they seem to rage against him) - Identifying and taking issue with the futility undermines our accusations. And so:
"Our sense that the universe is futile and our sense of a duty to make those parts of it we can reach less futile, both really imply a belief that it is not in fact futile at all: a belief that values are rooted in reality outside ourselves, that the Reason in which the universe is saturated is also moral."
To be continued...


  1. Maybe my eyes are going but CS Lewis looks a lot like Jack Bauer in these photos...

  2. Your eyes fail you, it's Jack Lewis.