Friday, February 27, 2009

Ramblings of a White Witch sympathizer

I never liked C S Lewis. I think his books are rubbish, especially Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. While I will freely concede that he is indeed a skilled writer with a talent for creating immersive fantasy worlds you can lose yourself in for a few hours, I am not in the slightest bit impressed with his sense of narrative structure, and found the whole business of "have faith, and the Lion will come and save everybody on a minor technicality which was conveniently overlooked by an apparently inept (though rather hawt in the movie) nemesis" sorely lacking in storytelling skillz. I don't know about you, but I find something deeply unsatisfying about an epic struggle between good and evil where victory is won against all odds by the better rules lawyer, bolstered by a dose of that most convenient of all deus ex machina devices, magic.

Another thing really ticks me off about C S Lewis - his role as Christian apologist. At the age of 30, he gave up on rational thought and turned from atheism to the Church of England and has been a favourite poster boy ever since. I attended the Alpha Course while in university to satisfy my curiousity re: Christianity. It's very telling of the intellectual bankruptcy of Christianity if the best they can do is shove C S Lewis' lack of resolve in my face. Even more so if the best argument he could come up with is the argument from morality.

I had just gotten acquainted with C S Lewis' Universal Morality last night, over a pint in the pub (which, as we know, is the only real way to discuss philosophy) which appeared to me to be trying bang a fifth wheel onto a car. For those who don't know about it, Lewis basically argues that the apparent manifestation of certain "universal" moral traits suggests that a higher being is behind the creation of said traits. In his own words:

These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

Oh, the pomposity... The moment this argument was laid out to me, I was led to doubt. Call me a cynic, but I catch a whiff of bullshit anytime anyone talks about a "Law of Nature" from anything other than the standpoint of mathematics and/or the physical sciences. For the sake of my being able to keep my lunch down, we'll stop abusing the phrase "Law of Nature" in this childish manner and stick to calling it by it's appropriately fanciful name, universal morality.

Now, there's any number of ways to rip this silly idea to shreds*, I went with Occam's Razor, looking at the development of our social norms from the evolutionary standpoint to show that there's simply no need for the concept of a universal morality to create the illusion of it's existence.

Think of these social norms, these unwritten rules of behaviour, as memes. Just like genes, what it takes for memes to survive and prosper, the three magic words, fidelity, fecundity and longevity. Does it not follow that, of the possible rules and rituals for a society to live by, there is a small subset of rules that serve to help said society survive and prosper? Other rules don't do so well or simply do not really serve the greater good of the societies in which they are practiced, e.g. Female circumcision, polygamy/polyandry**, use of phallocarps***, ferret legging, etc. As such, such practices, though they still exist, are viewed as bizarre or downright wrong by the rest of us, who haven't been held back wasting time and resources on them.

As history takes it's course, we find that, of the original set of societies, each with their own sets of memes governing behaviour, some will rise, some will fall, and a few will prosper. Those that prosper will have the memes accepted as "right" by the largest number of people - the utilitarian ideal given form by the forces of evolution by natural selection. The unquestioning masses living by these memes will have their sense of morality defined by these memes. Many individuals will become those gormless conservatives who will tell you that certain things are morally wrong "because it's just wrong". Be that as it may, we see here that what we take for granted as right or wrong are simply illusions. What is real is that what we call right or wrong are simply the right mix of memes governing behaviour that allow a society to be stable enough to survive and prosper. And at no point is it ever necessary for a sky fairy to plant such notions, i.e. universal morality, into our heads.

Consider the anthropic principle. Take a dozen men, have them each pray to their own deities, then shoot them all in the heads with a dozen guns but only eleven bullets. Somebody's going to feel he was obviously praying to the right god, but the fact of the matter is that the praying had sodall to do with his survival. In the same way, the notion of a universal morality, while cute and , in a way, appealing to simple-minded, insecure people who fear the cold touch of existential angst, is a completely unnecessary fiction.

Now, the brevity of my argument here is owed to the assumption that whoever reads it has some measure of understanding of the mechanism of evolution by natural selection and, of course, a little about memes. Alas, the bloke I was discussing this with last night, does not. So meh. This is just me recording my thoughts on the matter for my own benefit, because I'm rather pleased that I managed to come up with this on a gut full of awesome Thai food, Carlsberg and Hoegaarden. So much for getting my chubby arse back under 82kg.... :-(

Addendum: I just read that again and realised I'm being a bit harsh to Mr Lewis. Public understanding of evolutionary biology has made leaps and bounds (well, except among Republicans, of course) since C S Lewis' time, and his position, while still wrong, is based upon an ignorance of matters scientific quite typical of the period. The point still stands, though, so I'm not bothering with editing the above post more I already have.

* Here's a nice one that Google popped up pretty quick.

** Not really a good idea with a species equipped with all the biological hardware to produce males and females in more or less even numbers.

*** Go on, Google it. You know you want to.

No comments: