Thursday, January 03, 2008

Lewis on Supernaturalism

What Lewis means by "supernatural"
To call the act of knowing--the act, not of remembering that something was so in the past, but of 'seeing' that it must be so always and in any possible world--to call this act 'supernatural', is some violence to our ordinary linguistic usage. But of course we do not mean by this that it is spooky, or sensational, or even (in any religious sense) 'spiritual'. We mean only that it 'won't fit in'; that such an act, to be what it claims to be--and if it is not, all our thinking is discredited--cannot be merely the exhibition at a particular place and time of that total, and largely mindless, system of events called 'Nature'. It must break sufficiently free from that universal chain in order to be determined by what it knows. From Miracles, Chapter 3.

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At 1/04/2008 10:37:00 AM , Blogger Jason Pratt said...

Ahem. {g}

What C. S. Lewis, in MaPS (2nd Edition), means by "supernatural". (By C. S. Lewis, 1960, p8-10 of Macmillan 1978 paperback edition.)

....... [Lewis quote follows]

The difference between Naturalism and Supernaturalism is not exactly the same as the difference between belief in a God and disbelief. Naturalism, without ceasing to be itself, could admit a certain kind of God. The great interlocking event called Nature might be such as to produce at some stage a great cosmic consciousness, an indwelling "God" arising from the whole process as human mind arises (according to the Naturalists) from human organisms. A Naturalist [per se] would not object to that sort of God. The reason is this. Such a God would not stand outside Nature or the total system, would not be existing "on his own". It would still be "the whole show" which was the basic Fact, and such a God would merely be one of the things (even if he were the most interesting) which the basic Fact contained. What Naturalism [per se] cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.

We are now in a position to state the difference between the Naturalist and the Supernaturalist despite the fact that they do not mean the same by the word Nature. The Naturalist believes that a great process, or "becoming," exists "on it own" in space and time, and that nothing else exists--what we call particular things and events being only the parts into which we analyze the great process or the shapes which that process takes at given moments and given points in space. This single, total reality he calls Nature. The Supernaturalist believes that one Thing exists on its own and has produced the framework of space and time and the procession of systematically connected vents which fill them. This framework, and this filling, he calls Nature. It may, or may not, be the only [subordinate system] reality which the one Primary Thing has produced. There might be other systems in addition to the one we call Nature.

[...] This does not mean that there would be absolutely no relation between [discontinuous Natures]; they would be related by their common derivation from a single Supernatural source.

[...] It by no means follows from [theistic] Supernaturalism [per se] that Miracles of any sort do in fact occur. God (the primary thing) may never in fact interfere with the natural system He has created. If He has created more natural systems than one, He may never cause them to impinge on one another.

But that is a question for further consideration. If we decide that Nature is not the only thing there is, then we cannot say in advance whether she is safe from miracles or not. There are things outside her [if Supernaturalism is true]: we do not yet know whether they can get in. The gates may be barred, or they may not. But if Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything. No doubt, events which we in our ignorance should mistake for miracles might occur: but they would in reality be (just like the commonest events) an inevitable result of the character of the whole system.

Our first choice, therefore, must be between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

....... [end Lewis quote]

That's how chapter 2 ends out; and it explains precisely what Lewis means by Supernaturalism compared to Naturalism. He means an ontological distinction of independence: is Nature the final Independent Fact, or is Nature dependent for her existence upon something else?

As it happens, Lewis basically shifts over to theism vs. atheism in chapter 3--which is why there his reference to 'supernatural' is (as you quoted) very much less ontologically oriented; also why there (as you've occasionally noted, and as his own personal history stands as an example of) his AfR doesn't in itself have to point toward supernaturalistic theism. It could point just as easily (as far as it goes) to an ontologically naturalistic theism, such as the absolute idealism he first accepted when he abandoned atheism.

Consequently, there is an important topical disjunction between chapter 2 and chapter 3. Lewis manages to keep it a disjunction rather than subsequently conflating the categories for his argument (I think), which conflation would admittedly be worse--and something to be avoided (as I have been stressing for years {g}).

But his disjunction does lead critics, pro or con, to routinely read that conflation back into his chapter 3 (and subsequent) arguments. His insistence on continuing to call his target Naturalism only facilitates that critical result.

Incidentally, that ontological distinction between Naturalism and Supernaturalism, is why it does in fact make for a problem, or at least for a major doctrinal difference, when you state that you wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. However, a supernatural God, in the ontological sense implied by Lewis' chp 2 usage--which I accept--would still be capable of letting Himself be studied scientifically, in various ways, if He chose to do so.

But we could not depend on having a controllable test situation; and much of science as a discipline involves learning about reactions that can be (to coin a term) inducibly made to occur (whether by humans or by the reactions of the natural system itself).

That kind of testability is functionally excluded by ontological supernaturalism (and still would be for supernaturalistic atheism, too). There are metaphysic-coherence reasons, not only scriptural testimony reasons, for why Theopaschytism per se is rejected as a heresy. (Though I do think orthodoxy can go further with that line of thinking than many people classically suppose.)


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