I came across this passage by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, posted by a Theist. In it, Lewis argues that if atheism is true then we cannot trust our thinking. And honestly, after learning his rationale I admit to not having much trust in his thinking either. This is what he had to say:
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
I will address his mistakes and offer my counterarguments in the following points:
You may not be convinced by that argument, but many people who share C.S. Lewis’s emotion-driven belief in a god find his words to be a satisfying reassurance that their deity isn’t just another myth. They want to believe the conclusion so they don’t consider the argument itself very deeply. But I don’t plan on letting him off as easy, so let’s look at how much of a case Lewis really makes here.
1) Evolution is not random
The first and most fundamental problem with Lewis’s argument is his view on the nature of the human mind and how trustworthy it would be without a god. He claims that a mind which was not designed by a sentient being could not be reasonably trusted to produce reliable interpretations of reality.
In his words, if atheism is true then a human mind trying to conceptualize reality is “like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.”
But that is not an accurate analogy to what naturalism suggests. Evolution is not randomness. And that is a crucial point that creationists perpetually misunderstand. Evolution is works by trial and error, naturally weeding out organisms simply due to them being less commonly able to survive and thus less likely to procreate. So it makes perfect sense that evolution would produce structures, like humans, capable of accurate reasoning in many regards without any designer at all. So there is no reason to believe that a natural brain operating purely for “physical and chemical reasons” cannot produce reliable beliefs. To claim that it cannot is just an unsupported assertion.
While there are certainly many instances where humans hold incorrect beliefs, the fact is that our brains can produce accurate beliefs if we utilize demonstrably reliable reasoning. This is tested and demonstrated every minute of every day as we navigate our lives, managing to act according to sensory input and experience to learn to solve problems and, at the very least, not bump into everything around us. And these logical thought processes are demonstrated in the use of science to make accurate predictions and advanced, functional machines – and yes, even useful maps of London.
So we can certainly learn to reason and navigate in the world, thus demonstrating that the human mind can be relied upon in a vast number of situations. Thus even though we don’t know most things with literally absolute certainty*, we do have a basis upon which to use reasoning to conclude that some claims are more or less probable than others. And evolution by natural selection – not by randomness – is the process that explains how a designer-less universe can produce such minds.
2) If thoughts weren’t reliable, conclusion would be extreme agnosticism
In point 1, I explained why we can indeed trust our own thoughts, even in a godless universe. However, I wish to be thorough and point out all the flaws in Lewis’s thinking, so consider his argument according to what he believes is true.
Remember, Lewis said “But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else.”
If Lewis honestly believed that, then he was inadvertently admitting that he could not be a believer either – well, at least not on the basis of this particular argument. That is because if he did, then Lewis would be committing an Appeal to Consequences fallacy.
He would be using the alleged inability to trust one’s thoughts in an atheistic universe as his premise to conclude that therefore an intelligent designer must have created us. But this is a non sequitur because the inability to “trust” his thoughts would not mean that his thoughts are necessarily or even probably wrong.
As he said himself, he would simply have no reason to believe anything over anything else. And since the very issue he is trying to debate is whether or not there is a god, his argument operates on the foundation of not knowing whether he is in a godless universe or not. So Lewis would not have any reason to believe that could trust his own thoughts, and he would have to adopt a position of extreme agnosticism, not just believe in a designer because he thinks that without one he couldn’t choose a side.
3) Ye olde infinite regression
Whenever an argument for an intelligent designer is made, the argument almost always leads us back to pointing out this flaw, and it’s no different with Lewis’ statements.
His argument undermines its own alleged conclusion (that a deity exists) because Lewis of course believes that God can trust his own thoughts. So the argument itself, if sound, would mean that any intelligent mind that designed us would also have required an intelligent mind to design it too, due to it also being an intelligent mind capable of reason. And this produces a logical paradox where an infinite linear regression of designers is required, yet impossible since by its nature it could never have a starting point.
A person cannot make an argument claiming that the existence of minds able to reason required a prior mind that could reason, then just make an arbitrary exception for a single alleged designer because that is the conclusion they desire.