“Miracles” by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis sets out to prove by logical argument that miracles are possible. The clear-headed writing style helps to draw you in, he anticipates a lot of the criticisms people will have, and I just like the attempt to argue from a position of rigorous logic something which mostly just comes down to “you believe it or you don’t”.

The trouble is that, in the end, it comes down to that anyway. The calm logic proceeds slowly from step to step, and I am with him all the way, until he makes a big leap, which is that scientific theories of evolution cannot explain the development of human rational thought. Because the process of reasoning is so completely different from anything we can find in the animal world, he argues, it cannot come from that world. Therefore it must come from outside, i.e. from God. On this point his whole argument rests – because each human brain is an intrusion of the supernatural into the world of Nature, so other intrusions are plausible too. He sees miracles in this way – not as breaking the rules of nature, but as sporadic intrusions by God, after which the rules of nature continue to work with the new situation.

In the framework he has constructed, most of his arguments are logical. But his framework is based on a logical leap I don’t think is justified. It’s very hard to understand a lot of evolutionary theory intuitively. I can’t imagine basic organisms evolving into giraffes, or a fish coming out of the water, developing the ability to breathe and becoming an amphibian. But I can accept that over countless millions of years, countless tiny, incremental changes could add up to huge, incomprehensible changes. The development of reason doesn’t seem to me so different from anything else that we have to give it a supernatural cause.

Another problem with the book is that all of the miracles are Christian. This is Lewis’s belief system, so it’s understandable that he would be interested in proving the viability of the virgin birth more than anything else. But he is completely dismissive of other religions, without making any attempt to explain why. If Christian miracles are possible, then are Hindu or animist ones possible. Presumably not, because Christians say there can only be one God.

But the reason for believing the Christian miracles specifically comes down to an absurd criterion called “our innate sense of the fitness of things.” The last few chapters are devoted to trying to prove that the Christian miracles meet this bizarrely vague standard of “fitness.” Lewis does not seem to consider that his own assumptions of how the universe should be are unlikely to be the same as someone else’s. People like him, the “we” of his definition, white male Oxford dons, might agree with his “innate sense of the fitness of things”, although many, clearly, would not. As for people all over the world of different origins, different religions, different social status, etc etc, surely they would have their own sense of what is “fit”? And, perhaps, they would have their own ways of describing the supernatural, and different religions would form, each as valid in its generalities and false in its details as Christianity.

I am willing to believe that miracles could happen, but not because of this book. C.S. Lewis raises some interesting ideas, but after all the long philosophical arguments it comes down once again to a question of belief.

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