Essay Excerpt – De Futilitate by C. S. Lewis


Many believe that our idea that the universe is “futile” is an illusion.  Thoughts of utility and futility are merely human projections upon reality as a whole, holdovers from our evolutionary derived tool making, means-end  functions.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “there is something attractive about this: but the question is how far we can go.”  He asks, “can we carry through to the end the view that human thought is merely human: that is simply a zoological fact about homo sapiens that he thinks in a certain way: that in no way reflects (though no doubt it results from) non-human or universal reality?”

These are the questions Lewis poses in his essay, De Futilitate.  In it, one can find variants of the Argument from Reason and the Moral Argument, though he uses them only to interrogate materialistic philosophy and moral systems like Stoicism and Confucianism.  The acceptance of these arguments was an important first step for Lewis in the abandonment of his own atheism.  They are near to my heart for they were two arguments that I held onto during a particularly difficult season of doubt about God’s existence.

With regard to human thought, he writes, “the most we can ever do is to decide that certain types of human thoughts are ‘merely human’ or subjective, and others are not.”  At this point, I was thinking what I once thought, “well, Lewis, science enables us to determine exactly which ‘merely human’ thoughts are true through repeatable, empirical methods.”  Lewis anticipated this (and probably thought it one time himself) claiming that “the distinction made between scientific and non-scientific thoughts will not easily bear the weight we are attempting to put on it.”  Then, he shows that we cannot escape inference for our “the material or external world, in general, is an inferred world” that we access via our senses, even during scientific experiments – “we reach our knowledge of the universe only by inference.”  In the end, “the physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics.”  In other words, logic is a priori to, not verifiable by, science.

The consequences of this admission about logic are tremendous, and Lewis details several of them, namely that a strictly materialistic account of thought is inadequate and that the applicability of logic to the natural world is inescapable.  “Where thought is strictly rational it must be, in some odd sense, not ours, but cosmic or super-cosmic … not shut up inside our heads.”

Having established logical thought as something that must be objective, Lewis goes on to draw out parallels with our thoughts about values writing,  “we might therefore conclude that though the ultimate reality is logical it has no regard for values” for only a small fraction of it is what we would call good.  The rest of the universe is, by comparison, useless or futile.  But, Lewis points out that “there is real difficulty about accusing it of anything.  An accusation implies a standard.”

The quote below is from the end of the essay and is, arguably, the climax that it has been working towards.  It is significant to point out that many of the atheists I know reject God because of the abundance of senseless suffering in this world.  This suffering was a catalyst for my own brush with atheism.

I hope you enjoy this small taste of what is an excellent essay.

“There is, to be sure, one glaringly obvious ground for denying that any moral purpose at all is operative in the universe: namely, the actual course of events in all its wasteful cruelty and apparent indifference, or hostility, to life. But then, as I maintain, that is precisely the ground which we cannot use. Unless we judge this waste and cruelty to be real evils we cannot of course condemn the universe for exhibiting them. Unless we take our own standard of goodness to be valid in principle (however fallible our particular applications of it) we cannot mean anything by calling waste and cruelty evils. And unless we take our own standard to be something more than ours, to be in fact an objective principle to which we are responding, we cannot regard that standard as valid. In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it. The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.

I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the Book of Job. No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering is there given: that is not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval: the orthodox, pious people who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned. Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice to the absolute justice is not to throw our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them. Just as the pupil advances to more perfect arithmetic not by throwing his multiplication table away but by working it for all it is worth.”

From “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp.69-70.

Lewis writes, “The idea of a wholly mindless and valueless universe has to be abandoned at one point – i.e. as regards logic, after that there is no telling at how many other points it will be defeated nor how great the reversal of our nineteenth-century philosophy must finally be.”

He was not the only person to come to this conclusion.  Prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel is another intellectual that agrees.  You can read more here:  “Aristotle Call Your Office” by Ed Feser.




One thought on “Essay Excerpt – De Futilitate by C. S. Lewis

  1. Pingback: “The Poison of Subjectivism” by C.S. Lewis | Along the Beam

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