“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.” – C.S. Lewis
This is an argument that seems sensible on its face, but is one of the sort of theist arguments which are actually so fundamentally flawed that you don’t even notice the problem with it at first. Saying that if the universe has no meaning then we wouldn’t learn that it had no meaning, is so fallacious it shocks me that anyone could actually conjure that thought in their head and think it was worth putting to paper.
The first problem with his claim is that it’s a type of what I’ve come to call “fluff argument” because only deals with vague terms that don’t seem explicitly defined, and that only register with our emotions but not with any actual logic (and hence nothing useful to a logical argument can be derived from it). Fluff arguments are presented in vague and often subjective language that makes the listener feel that they’ve proven a point, but when the terms are clearly defined then the flaw in their reasoning reveals itself.
In this case, the fluff is his use of the word “meaning“. What is he even actually talking about when he says that the universe would have “no meaning” if atheism were true? He keeps using that phrase but it’s never clear if he even understands what he’s referring to when he says it. If he would just define his terms explicitly, then it would reveal the flaw in his reasoning and he would have never needed to make this argument in the first place and I wouldn’t need to explain why it’s wrong.
Meaning is a subjective term, not an objectively literal property of something. So to question if the universe “has meaning” is simply incoherent. It’s like asking if the universe “has fun”. There are beings within it which consider certain things fun, and others consider those same thing “not fun”. It’s just an opinion of the interpreter, due to how their mind feels about something. So it would make no sense to say that an activity itself has the property of “fun”.
However, Lewis indeed seems to be treating the word “meaning” as a literal property, judging by his fallacious analogy which compares it to physical light. Like many religious people, he tends to reify subjective terms and concepts, and presume agency behind everything that exists because he’s so ignorant of the natural world.
The definition of meaning is “that which is felt to be important, or worthy of attention or doing“; or in the context Lewis seems to mean here, the other definition “implied or explicit significance” would apply. He isn’t very clear but this second definition seems to be the closest judging by the context he presents. We always need to be clear about what these terms even mean, otherwise Christians are liable to keep floating off into mental fluffland.
(Note that when making an argument, if a person fails to be clear about the usage of their terms, they are probably either unclear thinkers who don’t understand their own ideas, or they are being manipulative by trying to use fallacies of equivocation)
Meaning is a concept humans created that refers to things we found significant to us and our survival, like animal tracks, facial expressions, and weather; or things we created ourselves like art and symbols for communicating ideas. That is what “meaning” describes. Just something we think is relevant to us and indicates something beyond itself – be it caused by intelligence or not. And what has “meaning” and what that “meaning” might be, is entirely subjective to the individual being and their particular feelings. The existence of the universe as a whole is just one of the things humans have wondered about possibly having meaning to us. That doesn’t mean it does have any useful meaning, let alone an origin in intelligent agency.
So there is no logical way of twisting this to claim the universe as a whole must have some purpose for existing designed by a magic being as some tool or source of entertainment. I honestly don’t believe C.S. Lewis thinks about his arguments for even two minutes before he decides they are good enough to publish.