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Remembering C. S. Lewis on Intelligent Design

Photo: C. S. Lewis, via Asar Studios/Alamy (Celestial Images).

It’s the time of year to remember C. S. Lewis, who died on this day, November 22, sixty year ago in 1963, and was born on November 29. Perhaps best known for his Chronicles of Narnia and works of Christian apologetics including Mere Christianity, Lewis was a first-rate scholar of medieval and renaissance English literature, and a first-rate mind on many topics.

As I discuss in my book The Magician’s Twin, Lewis frequently examined the impact of modern science on human life, including debates over evolution and what has become known as intelligent design.

In the waning days of World War II, Lewis published two little-known essays advancing a positive argument for intelligent design: “Is Theology Poetry?” and “Who Was Right — Dream Lecturer or Real Lecturer?” Both essays were published in 1945, although the first was originally delivered as a talk to the Socratic Society at Oxford University in November 1944. The second essay was later republished under the title “Two Lectures.”

“Universal Evolutionism”

According to Lewis in these essays, “universal evolutionism” has schooled us to think that in nature complicated functional things naturally arise from cruder and less complicated things. Oak trees come from acorns, owls from eggs, and human beings from embryos. 

But for Lewis, this “modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion” that defies the actual data of the natural world.

In each of the aforementioned cases, complex living things arose from even more complex living things. Every acorn originally came from an oak tree. Every owl’s egg came from an actual owl. Every human embryo required two full-grown adult human beings. 

We see the same pattern in human culture. The “evolution” from coracles to steamships, or from one of the early locomotives (the “Rocket)” to modern train engines, requires a cause that is greater than either steamships or train engines. Wrote Lewis: “We love to notice that the express [train] engine of today is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself — namely, a man of genius.”

Lewis made clear the relevance of this truth for understanding the wonderful functional complexity we see throughout nature: “You have to go outside the sequence of engines, into the world of men, to find the real originator of the Rocket. Is it not equally reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?”

An Explicit Argument for ID

This is explicitly an argument for intelligent design, and Lewis implies that this line of reasoning was central to his own disavowal of materialism. “On these grounds and others like them one is driven to think that whatever else may be true, the popular scientific cosmology at any rate is certainly not.”

This argument for intelligent design does not in and of itself lead to the Christian God according to Lewis. But it opens the door to considering the alternatives to materialism of “philosophical idealism” and “theism,” and from there Lewis believed that one may well progress to full-blooded Christian theism after further reflection.

This article is adapted from an earlier post, published last year.