C.S. Lewis Anticipated Thomas Nagel

Lewis Nagel

I am currently walking my 9th grade theology class through C.S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We are on chapter 4, the final note of which called to mind the thesis of the recent book Mind and Cosmos by philosopher Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, 2012), which I reviewed last year. Nagel takes a rather unique position; although he is an atheist, he is not a materialist. Instead, he adopts a version of panpsychism or dual-aspect theory, according to which the substance of the universe is simultaneously both material and mental. That is, he believes that the universe itself is “gradually waking up.” This theory eliminates the need for a Creator, but it acknowledges the inadequacy of the materialistic Darwinian account of the human mind and consciousness.

What is striking is that Lewis, who wrote almost 70 years before Nagel, anticipated this theory. Here are Lewis’s words from the end of chapter 4 in Mere Christianity:

In order to keep this section short enough when it was given on the air, I mentioned only the Materialist view and the Religious view. But to be complete I ought to mention the In-between view called Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution. The wittiest expositions of it come in the works of Bernard Shaw, but the most profound ones in those of Bergson. People who hold this view say that the small variations by which life on this planet ‘evolved’ from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the ‘striving’ or ‘purposiveness’ of a Life-Force. When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then ‘a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection’ is really a God, and their view is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense in saying that something without a mind ‘strives’ or ‘purposes’? This seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives on e much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

3 Responses to “C.S. Lewis Anticipated Thomas Nagel”

  1. I don’ t understand what Lewis or any of the other philosophers are talking about?

  2. This is metaphysical monism, basically the same as Stoicism and Hegelianism, I believe. I didn’t realize that was Nagel’s thesis, no wonder he got so much flack.

  3. I didn’t realize that was Nagel’s thesis. It sounds like metaphysical monism, basically stoicism and Hegelianism.

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