It is always with happy anticipation that I begin reading a book; I wouldn’t have taken it up in the first place had I not some reason to think that I would profit by it, and when the writer is someone I admire as much as C.S. Lewis, I know that I will be in the company of a man of immense erudition, elegant refinement of style, and – perhaps most fascinating to me – one who is both a skeptic and a believer. So it was with great interest that I opened his book Miracles, which deals directly with an issue that has been vexing me no end lately – the question of Natural vs. Supernatural.
Lewis begins by surveying the landscape. He needs to be clear about what it means to be a Naturalist, or a Supernaturalist, and finally settles on the following:
Both Naturalists and Supernaturalists agree that there is an irreducible Fact of the world, something you simply cannot go behind. To a Naturalist, this Fact is simply the “whole show”, as it were: the vast, interlocking, unfolding Event that is Nature. Nothing that is, or that happens, can be viewed as anything other than a local aspect of this enormous, universal system, whose course, past and future, would be visible to the Being who knew the complete state of affairs. On such a view, Lewis says, the Naturalist can admit no such thing as free will. (This is, of course, an interesting question on its own, as we all know, and much depends on what we mean by the term, but we will pass over this for now.)
The Supernaturalist, in contrast, believes that the bottom-level Fact is not all of Nature, but one primary Thing, which is responsible in turn for the creation and maintenance of Nature. This Thing, of course, is God.
Lewis makes the interesting point that the Supernatural view is more monarchial, and the Natural view more egalitarian, more democratic, and that the Supernaturalist view might be seen as simply being a product of the monarchial cultures in which it was most often found. But, he points out, the Naturalist view is susceptible to the same argument in reverse, so this sort of interpretation doesn’t give an edge to either camp. (Not that it would be a compelling brief for the truth or falsehood of either anyway, I might add.)
Having staked out the territory, Lewis next devotes a chapter to what he considers the “Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”, which is in his opinion the unreliability of human Reason in a naturalistic world. We’ll look this over in the next post.