I was recently doing some study for a membership class at church, and I came across this critique of C.S. Lewis’s “spilled milk” argument against atheism:
I appreciated the post because it did make me think, and at least for my own personal processing of the argument, I wanted to offer a brief response. I’m not really taking up the cudgels against the author. This is for me (and I suppose any who read my posts).
First, thoughtful as the post is, I’m not sure it has grasped the point Lewis was making. I would appeal to these paragraphs for proof of the confusion.
Suppose you did spill a jug of milk, and suppose that somehow, inexplicably, it did produce a map of London….Would it ultimately matter that you cannot explain how the map appeared? Would that have any bearing on the usability of the map itself?
Well… yes it would matter, because this isn’t actually about milk or maps, it’s about rightly namely the universe that we live in. Asking why we have minds that work is actually another way into the question of whether there is a God and for what purpose did he make us. Lewis’s whole argument is that atheism has no ability to account for the origins of the mind, but Christianity does and therefore Christianity is a more probable account of the universe. So, yes it does matter (a lot) how we explain the origins of the mind.
But hold on a second. If you can’t trust your own thinking, and if you therefore cannot trust the arguments leading to atheism, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that you similarly cannot trust the arguments that led to a belief in God? Why does the inexplicability of human cognition invalidate arguments for atheism, but not also invalidate arguments for the existence of God?
And that argument does not apply to Lewis because he can supply such an account for the origins of human reasoning. Because atheism hasn’t provided a coherent account, it has a different set of problems to deal with.
Lewis was a man of literature, and clearly not a man of science. If he had studied biology, he would have understood that the selective pressures of evolution are not completely random, even if the process of mutation is. There is an illusory appearance of intelligence produced by the forces of natural selection whereby living things develop capabilities which give them advantages over their environment. In the case of higher mammals like ourselves, we have developed advantageous cognitive abilities which, very much like that analogous map of London, have gotten us places where we want to go.
True enough; Lewis was a man of literature, and not a man of science. He was also not a theologian (which is why he gets himself into trouble in theology too, sometimes). But in his defense, he did believe in evolution, so I don’t think he would’ve felt brushed back by these comments about biology. If anything, such observations about science would’ve made him hammer his point more. How do you account for such a rational, coherent, progressing evolutionary process in an undesigned, atheistic universe?
The block quote is fascinating to me precisely because it illustrates the failure of atheism to grasp what it needs to do to establish itself as a credible philosophy. Appealing to science and evolution is not it. In fact, logic would show us as much. A-theism (no-God-ism) is a metaphysical claim. Evolution is not a metaphysical claim, it is a scientific theory. So, appealing to evolution to vindicate atheism doesn’t make sense.
Atheism’s issues are metaphysical. That is what Lewis is arguing in the illustration. Atheism will always be stuck explaining how a meaningless, undesigned, uncared for universe could somehow ‘just happen to produce’: 1) meaning that isn’t us lying to ourselves over and over again, 2) morals that we should care about and treat as universal to everyone, 3) reliable scientific laws that came from nowhere but somehow happen again and again for billions of years and do not appear to be disappearing as suddenly as they came, and 4) unseen laws of logic and rationality that also happen again and again and are here just as firmly as the scientific laws are. This is the battlefield that atheism stands or falls on, not science.
And I would say that answering, “I don’t know where these things come from, but they are just here, so let’s go with it” (in addition to be a circular argument) is a curiously weak answer from a philosophy that has always insisted it is more concerned for logical precision and a humble, intellectual curiosity than any religious worldview. At least in this case, it seems like Lewis the Christian was more curious about the origins of human logic than an atheist was.
“The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” -Richard Dawkins,
BTW: Define “property.” Is a species that is invincibly convinced that good and evil are real and actually matter a “property” of the universe? If so, we are the fly in the ointment of atheism.
“The first effect of not believing in God, is that you lose your common sense.” -Father Brown, in The Oracle of the Dog, G.K. Chesterton
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find a rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” – Richard Dawkins, River our of Eden
BTW NOTES: This line of reasoning is the destruction of morality. Hitler was just dancing to the music of his DNA.
God is a foundational assumption that must be in place to have an intelligible view of the universe. It’s not that unbelievers don’t think intelligently about the universe, but their most basic assumptions about it are hostile to the way they engage the world around them. Without God, morality becomes impossible to justify. As do scientific laws, and laws of logic. These have to be designed by Someone and deliberately set within our universe, or we have every reason to doubt their existence, or at least wonder if they actually mean what we have always assumed them to mean. Honest unbelief requires contemplating the possibility that we might just be lying to ourselves about what the universe is, and what we are.
“It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” -Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, 130.
“God is not a projection of our needs; we were created for him. If anything, we are a ‘projection’ into reality created for his pleasure.” -Sinclair Ferguson (unverified)