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C. S. Lewis on Futility and the Argument from Reason
By Rebekah Valerius
“For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” Romans 8:20-21, NET
Dementia is the epitome of futility. If you have ever witnessed this disease lay waste to someone, you know that dementia, with all its attendant pain and suffering, represents a supreme example of frustrated ends. I experienced this in recent years as I watched it slowly consume a loved one’s body and mind during the final stages of Parkinson’s. It was a daily and inescapable attestation that we live in a world that is very fallen, indeed.
I was reminded of this recently when I revisited C. S. Lewis’s “De Futilitate.” This essay was an immediate favorite when I first read it in graduate school, containing as it does my favorite apologetics argument—the Argument from Reason. Lewis integrates it beautifully with the Moral Argument by beginning with a discussion of our personal feelings of futility and deftly moving to cosmic futility and its implications not only for human consciousness, but for our concepts of morality and more. More subtly, Lewis shows that scientific thought cannot be sealed off into its own protective compartment away from metaphysical or moral assumptions. Rather, science is founded upon and is continually being invaded by such considerations.
When I first read this work, I had encountered enough futility both in my own life and in what I studied as a biochemist, to understand Lewis’s approach. Regarding the latter, I believe that it is the ever-present frustration of good ends in the biological realm that compels many scientists that work in the field to doubt God’s existence. They tend to be confounded by the Design Argument—seeing design so clearly, yet also witnessing it being continually disrupted through disease and death. Dysteleology is real, as something like dementia shows, and it is hard not to wonder if there is any purpose at all in Creation when you witness the “bondage of decay” up close.
This is precisely why Lewis’s essay is so perceptive. He will use our observations of the problem of futility to make the case that if this futility is indeed real, the universe must not be futile in any ultimate sense.
“De Futilitate” was first delivered as a lecture at Magdalen College, Oxford, around the end of World War II. To say that the feeling of futility was likely rampant in his audience is an understatement. Like dementia, war can also feel like the supreme example of frustrated ends, and there is little doubt that the concentration camps of the Second World War took this feeling to new depths. In that sense of meaninglessness, Lewis challenges his audience to acknowledge what he calls a “much deeper and more radical futility: one which, if it exists at all, is wholly incurable.”
Lewis mentions three approaches one might take towards this more radical futility. The first is to simply accept that it is real and shake one’s fists at it. “You can become a consistent pessimist,” says Lewis, “as Lord Russell was when he wrote The Worship of a Free Man, and base your whole life on what he called ‘a firm foundation of unshakable despair.’” The second approach also accepts the existence of futility in the world, but believes that it is not the entire picture. Lewis notes that within this approach is the Christian view that though the frustrated ends we see are indeed genuine, “there are other realities, and that by bringing them in you alter the picture so much that it is no longer a picture of futility.” A complete data set, in other words, would reveal that there is more at work than futility in the Cosmos. The third and final approach takes an entirely different view by calling into question our perception of futility itself. Lewis states that “instead of criticizing the universe we may criticize our own feeling about the universe, and try to show that our sense of futility is unreasonable or improper or irrelevant.” He begins by exploring this third approach.
Lewis surmises that the third approach would appeal to most of his audience, and in my own experience in the sciences I have encountered it as well. This view states that evolution has produced in us the ability to make tools, thus conditioning us to view objects as either being useful or useless with respect to our purposes. We then project this predisposition onto the universe, expecting it to fit within these categories of “good” or “bad” given our needs. We find that the universe does not meet our immediate, creaturely ends, so we label it futile. “But such thoughts are merely human” according to this view, says Lewis. “They tell us nothing about the universe, they are merely a fact about Man—like his pigmentation or the shape of his lungs”—all things produced in us by the same blind process. If our thoughts about futility exist because they conferred some kind of survival value in our evolutionary past, then given a different history the mental category we label “futility” might not have come to be. This third approach amounts to calling our feeling of cosmic futility an illusion.
Lewis states that this view may at first seem reasonable and indeed may be true up to a certain point, but we must press it further to see if its plausibility remains as a general principle about all human thoughts. “Can we carry through to the end the view that human thought is merely human: that it is simply a zoological fact about homo sapiens that he thinks in a certain way: that it in no way reflects (though no doubt it results from) non-human or universal reality?” he asks. Lewis rightly notes that we cannot view all human thought this way, for it undermines the very thought that makes such a sweeping judgment. We are saved from total skepticism, for skepticism itself arises from the same process we are challenging. In other words (that is, in G. K. Chesterton’s words): “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”
Lewis goes on to note that a popular way to solve this dilemma is to distinguish between kinds of thought. Certain thoughts, such as scientific thought, perhaps get us closer to the truth. It is assumed that, unlike moral or metaphysical thoughts, scientific thought can be rescued from subjectivity through the rigors of the scientific method. But can the scientific method do this? Lewis argues that scientific thought is still contingent upon the action of mindless physical forces, for it arises out of the same clump of biological matter as thoughts about fairness and futility. Repeatable experiments cannot provide external verification to our scientific thoughts because they rely upon logical inference, and this process is locked up in our cerebral cortex just as much as other forms of thought. Therefore, logical inference itself must be valid, totally independent of how our brains work. Instead of making a distinction between scientific and nonscientific thought, Lewis concludes that the legitimate distinction is between logical versus non-logical or rational versus nonrational thought.
There is no escaping the conclusion that in order to assign objectivity to any of our thoughts, we must assume that “we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated.” Any origin account that purports to explain our thoughts on purely materialistic grounds will never be sufficient. What does this mean, then, for our feelings of futility?
Thinking back to the scientists I mentioned before who are bewildered by dysteleology, some may be willing to follow Lewis’s argument where it leads and grant the presence of a cosmic Reason. Yet, they may still wonder if this entity is good, especially given the enormous levels of death and decay we see in the biological realm. “We might therefore conclude that though the ultimate reality is logical,” says Lewis, “it has no regard for values, or at any rate for the values we recognize.” In other words, it is morally blind at best, or worse, morally malformed. We could still accuse it of being futile in some ultimate sense and, like the consistent pessimist, courageously stand in judgment of it.
The question we must ask, though, is can we really accuse the universe of anything? Lewis notes that an accusation against this cosmic Reason implies a standard and, to be consistent, we must ask similar questions about the origin of this standard as we did for human thought. He says, “unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it.” So, even the consistent pessimist, if he were to maintain his approach, must admit to a moral reality outside his own personal whims or humanity’s particular evolutionary history. If he is merely reading onto the universe feelings that were created in him by blind, physical processes, shaking his fists is really an empty gesture. He has preemptively destroyed any basis to complain. Lewis concludes,
Our sense that the universe is futile and our sense of a duty to make those parts of it we can reach less futile, both really imply a belief that it is not in fact futile at all: a belief that values are rooted in reality, outside ourselves, that the Reason in which the universe is saturated is also moral.
This is a strange comfort as I remember the suffering of my loved one. I am sometimes tempted to doubt God’s existence in the face of so much pain and ruin. Futile as it was at the time, and futile as it remains in my every recollection, this futility is not the entire picture. As difficult to imagine as it is now, our universe is moving towards a final picture in which this ultimate Source of reason and goodness has promised to wipe away every tear that has ever been shed in the face of futility. It is to that end that my hopes cling.
 During my time in the field of research, I studied the structure of the regulatory proteins involved in mitosis. The regulation of mitosis is a highly complex process and shows all the hallmarks of divine engineering. Yet, despite all the safeguards in the system, it still fails. This failure results in uncontrolled cell division and cancer. This is what I mean by dysteleology.
 C. S. Lewis, The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), 78.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 82.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 28-29.
 C. S. Lewis, The Seeing Eye, 88.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 94.
 Ibid., 91.
 Revelation 21:4.
— Rebekah Valerius earned a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Arlington and an MA in Apologetics from Houston Christian University. Her academic interests include the works of G. K. Chesterton, philosophical and literary apologetics, and the philosophy of science. You can find her writing at The Christian Research Journal, An Unexpected Journal, Perennial Gen, and The Worldview Bulletin. She teaches biology and chemistry at a university model, classical Christian school near Dallas, Texas.
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