Friday, October 05, 2007

CS Lewis, Sigmund Freud, Armand Nicoli and the Existence of God

(Note: this post is from an older blog that I have discarded. It was originally done in October of 2005)

On a bit of a tangent, an interesting book on Lewis is The Question of God : C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand Nicoli, (Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital). The author chooses to examine the existence or non-existence of God by contrasting the lives and philosophies of Lewis, one of the best-known Christians, and Freud, one of the best-known atheists. In effect, he has them debate each other. And, critiques below aside, it is well worth a read (or a listen: there is an excellent unabridged audiobook version).

It is a fascinating book, but one which cants too much towards accepting the Lewist / believer school. This is especially noticeable as one soon realizes that Nicoli’s has a noticeable “default setting” towards faith. This greatly hampers the neutrality and objectivity which he seems to be striving towards. One notices it most on issues where there, on a point at issue, a solid argument in favour of the deist view generated what can call a “Win” before Nicoli the judge. It is analogous to the old feminist saying that a woman can’t be as good as a man to be taken seriously, but rather she has to be twice as good: so it is for an atheist argument before Nicoli. This bias problem aside, the book is a bit of a rigged game in and of itself, for four central reasons.

First, Nicoli examines, as a part of his evaluation, the role and impact of belief on Lewis and non-belief on the choice of these two men. This is an unfair comparison. Lewis was man of faith who drew tremendous strength, peace and happiness from his relationship to his God. Freud, however, was a deeply unhappy man who had little which brought him peace or contentment in any context. Nicoli concludes (often indirectly, and with other examples) that faith seems to bring inner peace and lack thereof inner turmoil. A first year logic student could blow a huge hole in this: If X, living in Austin, is unhappy, and Y, living in Boston is happy, it does not necessarily follow that living in Austin makes you unhappy and living in Boston makes you happy. Such a silly argument seems to carry weight with Nicoli, though, which is odd: there are vast numbers of miserable believers and quite cheery atheists. (One could go further and point out that even if one were to accept the premise that having faith gives you peace, that peace may be the calm of letting others accept responsibility. A person of deep faith always has a security net: God will make things better, and if He doesn’t then he will in the Next Life. An atheist is left with the more brutal and unhappy task of seeing to making things better himself: no deity is going to make him or his world better or happier, so he has to shoulder the entire burden, and has only a pathetically short time to do so. [I know that such an argument is open to counterattack, and I do not advance it as determinative, only to show that Nicoli often glides by such basic concepts if they do not suit his purpose.])

As a supplement to that thought, let’s not forget that Lewis was a Christian in a country where Christianity was accepted and central at best, and benign at worst. Freud was a Jew in one of the most anti-Semitic parts of Europe. To give Nicoli his deserved due, he provides excellent perspective on how both the excesses (and weaknesses) of both Judaism and its persecutors as experienced by Freud would have perhaps inevitably tainted the doctor’s view of religion. Lewis may have had some unhappy experiences with religion as a child, but he was never in social purgatory and possible risk of death because of simply being a Christian. That is not something a Jew could say, even before the Holocaust.

Second, let’s not forget the basic dates, shall we? Freud died in 1939, and had little or no knowledge of CS Lewis and his views and arguments. Lewis on the other hand, died in 1963 and was quite conversant with Freud and with his arguments, and often addressed them directly. How fair can a debate be if only one side knows the other’s views? Take it further: how fair can a debate be if only one side even knows that a debate is in progress?

Third, Lewis was “centred” on faith: it was a – if not the central pillar of his existence. Lewis can be seen as a man of two foci: literature and God, with a great deal of overlap in his time spent addressing them. With Freud, on the other hand, faith was only one thing amongst countless things that he addressed. It was an interesting and important mental disorder, in his view, but not the only one. Lewis is in the position of a specialist having a debate with a generalist on the specialist’s area of expertise.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, and certainly most grotesquely, in taking the two as representative of their positions, Nicoli gives a ludicrous advantage to Lewis. CS Lewis, in making arguments for a theist viewpoint, stood on the shoulders of thousands of years of philosophy and theological disputation, argument and counterargument. He was, if you will passed a baton that had already been carried by others for almost the entire length of the race. Freud, by way of contrast, was a pathfinder, an explorer and explainer of new uncharted areas of humanity’s inner and outer existence. Like all explorers he was frequently and often ludicrously wrong. Such is the price of going where no other person has thought of going, or even dared to tread. To argue by analogy: am I a better navigator that Captain James Cook because he stumbled around the Pacific in a leaky boat for years, bumping into things, whereas I can hop onto a jet and smoothly arrive in Australia in less than a day? Such an argument is obviously arrant nonsense: I am only able to do this because others invented and improved the airplane, built the airport, (etc.), and, for that matter, discovered Australia. Lewis, in going where two millennia of thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and the like have gone is not to be considered the winner of a straight-up debate. Like Newton, if he is able to see far it is because he has stood on the shoulders of giants, staring out at from the topmost point of a tower built over hundreds of years. Freud had to build his vistas from scratch and frequently singlehandedly.

With having said what I have said here, It may seem odd to have me conclude with the notion that Nicoli’s book is well worth reading, yet I do. It challenges you to think, to feel, to examine your preconceived notions and wonder at the questions of the infinite. And in a world where people of faith often challenge not your intellect, but rather your very rights and humanity, and even whether you are even allowed to exist, such a warm embrace and invitation to reason’s home is to be grasped with both hands.


Interrobang said...

There's also this small problem that Freud has an immense credibilty problem to the modern reader -- he lied about his "experimental subjects," most of whom were members of his family, and has an astonishing track record of being wrong about just about everything. (Particularly literary theory, but that's a separately pickable bone.)

In other words, picking Freud as your token atheist in a time-delayed textual debate against the unduly-respected CS Lewis in the first place is like setting up a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Rick Moranis...

(Okay, that's not quite fair -- Moranis is at least a competent comedian.)

seeker6079 said...

My grounding in the mental sciences is more limited than I wish it to be. If your statements are straight fact, then how does one explain the ongoing reputation of Freud? Is it because he was such a groundbreaker? Or is it the tendency to continue to keep people on pedestals?