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C. S. Lewis Helps Us See Design in Three Dimensions

Selective focus on a tall, dark lamp post during a snow storm in the pacific northwest woodland
Selective focus on a tall, dark lamp post during a snow storm in the pacific northwest woodland

C. S. Lewis, the beloved apologist, was not always a Christian. He suffered greatly in his younger years, having lost his mother at an early age, and having survived years of unpleasantness in boarding schools. Then, as a young man, he volunteered to go to the front in World War I, where he saw horrors that most of us would find hard to imagine, and was wounded. All of this colored his view of the world.

He saw the world as a place of darkness, disease, death, and un-design. By un-design I mean that the world was not the result of a benevolent creator’s intelligently ordered process but rather the result of chance and purely natural causes, without guidance or purpose, with no goal, in a meaningless universe that cared nothing for us. We are as nothing in the immensity of the cosmos and of no importance.

Three weeks before he died, the astronomer Carl Sagan expressed this idea in an interview with Ted Koppel:

We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.

(ABC News Nightline, December 4, 1996)

This bleak perspective is shared by many in the world today. There are many reasons to think the world is a place of disease, death, and un-design, and many do come to the conclusion that the world is the product of un-design. Yet, to do so they have to ignore some very significant things about reality, things that radiate a light that shows undesign to be an illusion. It is because of that light that C. S. Lewis did not remain an atheist. We will discuss three chief things whose light brought Lewis to reconsider his views on design versus un-design.1

Argument from Beauty

We all share in the experience of beauty, but describing it is difficult. Beauty has a quality that surprises, that goes beyond the expected, that opens one up to a new way of perceiving. Beauty is rich, many-layered, continually deepening, and never boring. It is elegant, balanced, and evocative.

Beauty awakens in us a longing, a yearning after some unknown thing, or, as the Germans call it, Sehnsucht. C. S. Lewis experienced that longing in nature and in certain books about Norse mythology. This desire was for something beyond himself, for something transcendent. What particular beauty stirs the heart will vary from person to person, but I suspect we all have some point of contact with this longing, and, as with Lewis, the longing is for something greater than ourselves.

Just for a little while turn off the PBS science narrator in your head. Why should there be beauty? What is it for? We find joy in beholding something truly beautiful, a sense of awe even. And we never grow tired of that beauty, unless some spiritual sickness has entered and sapped us of all capacity for joy. Even more strange, it is a great pleasure to participate in the creation of something beautiful, something that moves other people, that brings joy to them. Why should this be, that there is joy for the creator in the creative act and joy for the audience also? All of this points toward a designer who knows joy in creating beauty for its own sake, and for the sake of others (beauty can bring healing). The designer made us to desire beauty, and to desire to communicate beauty in the world. He made us and the world beautiful, but in a way that means we must always look to others to show us our own beauty (we are made for relationships).

Now put your PBS science hat back on. Scientifically speaking, does beauty indicate design or un-design? The answer is this: there is no reason to expect random mutation and selection to produce beauty, and no particular reason for us to find certain things beautiful. Functional, yes. But the beauty we see does not necessarily correlate with safety or suitability for eating or mating. It has no particular survival value. Instead, beauty is a lovely surprise that points toward the transcendent Something that is the source of beauty.

Argument from Morality

The second argument for design that C. S. Lewis found personally convincing, and that he used to good effect in Mere Christianity, is the argument from morality. As he observed, when people quarrel, they often appeal to moral standards: “You promised,” or “You shouldn’t treat people that way.” They appeal to these standards expecting to be understood.

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Or even our belief that there is such a thing as right or wrong?

There are certain acts that are universally acknowledged to be morally wrong, such as the killing of innocent human beings. Where does such objective certainty come from? If someone says, “Well, we evolved that view,” then there is no reason to suppose it has any basis in objective truth. Any moral view selected for its survival value loses any claim to objective truth. Should it not be just as moral, if not more so, to kill innocent humans if it benefits you, under that scenario?

On the other hand, if we concede that we didn’t evolve morality, a lot of people then default to the position that there is no objective basis for morality. We must define it for ourselves. Why, then, do most people still choose to adopt the moral precept that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings?

I know an atheist who falls into this camp. He denies objective morality and says he makes his own morality. Yet he and I agree that helping those in need is good. In fact, it’s one reason he likes me, because we share the same humanitarian values.

All this argues for the objective reality of moral values, and for our innate sense of them, sometimes called the natural law. And the existence of objective moral law points toward a designer who set this law into our hearts.

Argument from Reason

The fact that we reason at all, and that our reason corresponds with reality, is a remarkable thing. Have you never thought that it should be surprising that our minds are capable of probing the deep things of the universe, and that the universe is constructed in such a way as to be discoverable? That it should be founded on laws that we can grasp and that surprisingly find a match with our abstract mathematics?

Ape brains that evolved to hunt prey and run from lions should not be expected to do higher-order mathematics or particle physics. Yet our brains are fitted for the task, as deep as we need to go. Our brains and our abilities go so far beyond what survival requires that no evolutionary explanation could possibly account for the things we can do.

If evolution is all there is, then rationality hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Natural selection may favor the fastest or strongest or most fertile, but it doesn’t care about syllogisms or propositions or inferences. And if all we have is an evolved feeling that our minds are trustworthy, then our minds aren’t trustworthy. Even Darwin was plagued by the thought that his theory undermined rationality itself:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?2

C. S. Lewis’s response:

All possible knowledge . . . depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them — if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work — then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.3

Thus naturalism has cut itself off at the knees. Naturalism depends on the idea that science has discovered the truth about the world — what the world really is — namely, that it is nothing but matter and energy, particles in motion, and neurons firing, with consciousness an epiphenomenon and free will an illusion. But see — on what basis do they claim to know? Science is supposed to be a logical enterprise that interrogates the natural world and discovers its hidden reality using reason and logic, which naturalism cannot justify as being reliable.

Humble Acknowledgement

C. S. Lewis was a very wise man. He saw through the “nothing buttery” of his age: we are nothing but molecules in motion; we are nothing but the predetermined pattern of neurons firing in our brains; we are nothing but evolved apes dressed up in suits. None of those statements is true, and Lewis knew it because of the glimpse of beauty and joy he saw in a far Northern sky, because of the plain sensibleness of people in their disputes, and because of the human intellect’s power and ability to penetrate the universe’s secrets.

What does this have to with evidence for intelligent design? If we cannot account for ourselves and our abilities, or for the natural world itself, by purely natural means — and I believe we cannot — then we must acknowledge humbly that there is a Designer who is beyond the natural world, who writes beauty, morality, reason, and laws, beautiful and mysterious in their perfection, into the universe.


  • John West, “C. S. Lewis and Intelligent Design,” in The Magician’s Twin, John West, ed. (Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 153–178.
  • Letter to William Graham (July 3, 1881), in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, Francis Darwin, ed. (London: John Murry, Albemarle Street, 1887), vol. 1, 315–316.
  • C. S. Lewis, Miracles (1960), 14.