A Difference of Opinion: Prewired Knowledge

Part Two in a Three Part Series on C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:19 AM

As I noted in the first part of this series, Freud uses two main theories concerning the origins of religion. Having addressed the first in the former part of the series, I shall now address the second one. Freud backs up his position with another argument, that of projection (21).

According to Freud, we wish for a great father in the sky to protect us from the things we cannot control. He suggests that this is merely an extension of the childhood notion that one’s father will protect one from anything bad that might happen. One’s earthly father cannot protect against great problems such as death and evil, so we move on to project a “great father” to take care of that. Now it is true that a religion like Christianity does indeed apply a lot of father imagery to God, but should this be cause to disturb the believer? If God is the creator of everything, would it not make sense that our earthly father has some of the attributes of our heavenly Father? According to Lewis, everything on earth has some hint of the goodness of God. Even bad actions are based on the pursuit of something good, he asserts, but that good has been distorted, abused or otherwise corrupted (44). Therefore, it makes sense that a human father’s attributes might be somewhat of a microcosm of the creator who made him; the earthly form may be a corruption of the Heavenly one, but that does not rule out its connection. Moreover, is it that hard to imagine that God would make us in a way that has a tendency to “project” the macrocosm? Surely God would make us inclined to look for Him (Hick 35), even if He wished to keep the universe relatively religiously ambiguous for the purpose of preserving free will or for some other reason.

We run into a problem here that Freud simply cannot mount. If the Christian claim is right, and God created us, it is impossible for us to reason ourselves beyond God, and therefore anything that we look at can be argued to be “tainted” by being only the creation looking at the creator. If God has created everything, including our reason, how can we ever presume anything we think is not influenced by God? Freud even noted, in defense of psychoanalysis, that those who disagreed with him would likely use his very own system of psychoanalysis to argue against his points (47), just as I have done above.

Unlike the case with the believer who can assert having experienced God calling at us and nagging at us until we finally come to belief, there can be no experience to validate the Freudian view for a person, much less in a way that everyone can accept. Therefore it might be good to turn back to Pascal’s wager for a moment and reflect on the truth of it. Unless we find ourselves completely unable to believe, why would one accept Freud’s argument of conjecture when Lewis can offer a system whereby we can authenticate his claims with personal experience? I can experience God and I can experience the absence of God, but I can only experience either if God exists for if God does not exist, what is it like for Him to be absent from me? Said another way, I cannot know God is not there unless I know what it is like for God to be there. This is a serious conundrum for a skeptic trying to prove religion an illusion.

Another key point of disagreement between Freud and Lewis is the origin of moral behavior. Freud makes the case that morality originates from evolutionary progress that leads to the need for civilization. To use his example, one might think it would be good to be able to kill off one’s rivals and then, with them out of the way, take their possessions for one’s own use (18). There is an obvious flaw in this idea that appears quite quickly, however: if I could do this, then so could everyone else, and they will likely do the same to me that I did to the person I killed. I would have to be a very strong person indeed to defend myself against this, and even then, I would likely be overpowered eventually (51-52). In a society without the standard trimmings of civilization, Freud notes that only one person can be happy, that person being the “tyrant,” and even he would want people to observe a prohibition on killing. Therefore it is not hard to make a case that people simply must act in specific ways, if only for the selfish reason of hoping others will return the favor. This makes reasonably good sense.

Lewis disagrees with this, not surprisingly, and suggests that we instead have an innate Moral Natural Law inside of us (4). Now, so far we are no further than we were before, since we have two authors presenting two polar viewpoints concerning the subject of morality. Lewis anticipates the critique from Freudian thinkers and answers it in its very own chapter. According to Lewis, it makes sense to assert that humans might have a type of herd instinct or other natural reasons linked to self-preservation to follow basic social conventions, but he then demonstrates a situation wherein this does not seem to apply all that well (9). According to Lewis, if I hear a person in danger cry for help, I will have two instincts come into play, a herd instinct and a self-preservation instinct. I want to help the fellow in trouble, but I do not want to die doing so. Despite this, I will likely feel that following the former instinct’s advice is the right thing to do, and may disregard the latter instinct’s warning.

Logically, if I have judged the two instincts and found one to be good and moral in contrast to the selfish and immoral behavior of the other, then I must have judged them both according to a higher standard (10). This, he asserts, is moral law; moral law, he explains, serves as the sheet music for the piano keys that are the instincts.

Moreover, Lewis brings in the example of judging Nazi morality against Allied morality (14). Perhaps a less well known example might be more suitable, since Nazi comparisons in present times often do little more than serve a technique for poisoning the well, but it does fit this example well. From purely a survival standpoint of the majority, we must question how we can prove that the Nazi’s morality was inherently bad compared to “Christian morality” (13). Yet we do want to assert that Nazi morality is indeed bad and the morality of the opposing forces was inherently better (regardless of the Allied nations’ goals of fighting the Nazi’s, at the very least, it can be said that we stopped the Nazis). Would it not have been easier for many to simply join the Nazis and not risk their lives fighting them?

Now, if things that go against my own self-preservation can be judged to be better, how can it be mere desire for a good society that leads me to act against my own interests? While we can explain away why I might agree not to steal, how do we deal with things that might end my own life for the benefit of others? Clearly, if I am going to be just plain dead, and not in an afterlife, I should have no reason to risk my life for others, since any benefits reaped will never be witnessed by me, should I die. It would therefore follow that I should be best off if I followed the example of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and “counterfeited” my death whenever danger arose, taking due note of the fact that honor is “insensible […] to the dead” (5.1.137-138).

In the third and final part of this series, we will look at one topic both men seem to use as a foundational core to projections on the future of humanity, albeit to extremely different ends: evolution. Finally, I shall conclude with a few final thoughts on issue of choosing sides.

Note: Works cited information will appear in the third part of this series.

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