The Thesis: Why Luther Undercut Materialism
The very title of Luther’s famous first protest spells the death of all materialistic philosophies.
Today marks 500 years since the day Luther supposedly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, although there is some doubt about whether he nailed it, hung it, or just sent a copy to the archbishop (History.com). That detail doesn’t matter; the content of his writing is what concerns the impact of the Reformation that it triggered. What is a thesis? The dictionary defines it as follows:
Luther’s propositions were not material. They may have been expressed with ink on paper in 1517, but they could have been expressed verbally. Today, people can read them electronically on a computer screen. Moreover, verbal and written expressions of his ideas have been translated into a number of languages, as they undoubtedly were when sent to the Pope. They were still the same theses, the same propositions, the same ideas.
The world of ideas is conceptual; it is not material. In his essay “Evil and God” (1941), C. S. Lewis showed why this spells the death of materialism:
Mechanism, like all materialist systems, breaks down at the problem of knowledge. If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason do we have to trust it? As for emergent evolution [Lewis’s term for Darwinism], if anyone insist on using the word God to mean ‘whatever the universe happens to be going to do next’, of course we cannot prevent him. But nobody would in fact so use it unless he had a secret belief that what is coming next will be an improvement. Such a belief, besides being unwarranted, presents peculiar difficulties to an emergent evolutionist. If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’ — it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached’.
With Darwinism thus reduced to the Stuff Happens Law, C. S. Lewis goes further to undermine materialism itself. In his essay on “Miracles” given as a speech in 1942, Lewis continued the argument from reason. You can’t even reason about whether miracles are possible, he says, without assuming the supernatural realm:
The belief in such a supernatural reality itself can neither be proved nor disproved by experience. The arguments for its existence are metaphysical, and to me conclusive. They turn on the fact that even to think and act in the natural world we have to assume something beyond it and even assume that we partly belong to that something. In order to think we must claim for our own reasoning a validity which is not credible if our own thought is merely a function of our brain, and our brains a by-product of irrational physical processes. In order to act above the level of mere impulse, we must claim a similar validity for our judgments of good and evil. In both cases we get the same disquieting result. The concept of nature itself is one we have reached only tacitly by claiming a sort of super-natural status for ourselves.
If you are a materialist reading this, try to refute what Lewis just said. By that very act you prove his point. If you are considering Lewis’s proposition, and using logic or evidence to prove or disprove it, you just proved it by two routes. First, you proved the existence of propositional truth, which is supernatural. Second, you (hopefully) were trying to be honest in your arguments, which presupposes the validity of ‘judgments of good and evil’ which are also supernatural. If either of these values (truth and morals) evolve, they are not trustworthy.
It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs.
In his book Miracles, Lewis summed up the hopelessness of all material philosophies:
A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs.
In the same work, he also said with cunning wit:
The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.
Martin Luther was certainly not the first person to write a thesis. He was not the first to employ the mind in the supernatural act of arguing for the truth of propositions. The art of arguing of propositions, furthermore, was not a Protestant invention (think of Aquinas and the scholastic tradition long before Luther). It’s really as old as man, found throughout the Bible and in non-Judeo-Christian traditions as well (think of the Greek philosophers). That fact does nothing to undermine the argument from reason. Without the distinctively human ability to argue propositions, nothing whatever would make sense, because sense is a value judgment based on the assumption of unchanging truth and morality in the conceptual realm. Our human capacity for seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful sets us apart from the animals. One either has to assume this, or undercut all reason—including arguments for evolution.
The Reformation fed directly into the American Revolution, with its assumption that truth exists and has a moral element. The Declaration of Independence (1776) says,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Abraham Lincoln pointed out that the Founders’ self-evident truths were indeed propositional statements. In the Gettysburg Address (1861), he said,
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
So as we remember today Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (which you can read online), consider the fact that the mere reading them and thinking about them is a supernatural act. Show the Ninety-Five Theses to a monkey, a dolphin or a parrot, and they will likely be looking for a trick or treat, not a rational debate on the merits of the propositions.
Martin Luther desired a rational discussion on the merits of his points, but was met with fierce opposition from a powerful institution, the medieval Catholic church. In our day, those of us who attempt a rational discussion on the merits of intelligent design are met with similar hostility from powerful institutions: Big Science, Big Media and Big Law. By fighting the merits of propositions through force instead of reason, opponents show themselves to be animals, not men. Only Darwinians would use force to demonstrate the survival of the fittest. But if they win, they also spell the death of reason. The self-refuting hostility of today’s evolutionists and materialists against rational debate about intelligent design shows the need for a modern Reformation.
Was C. S. Lewis a theistic evolutionist? Check out Dr Bergman’s book C. S. Lewis: Anti-Darwinist for “a careful examination of the development of his views on Darwinism.”