The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best Part 1 - page 2


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From the Summer 2017 issue of Knowing & Doing:

The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C.S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Christian Apologetics
Part 1 of 3

by Michael Ward, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow, University of Oxford

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 Apologetics is usually defined as ‘a reasoned defence’. In Lewis’s view, reason could only operate if it was first supplied with materials to reason about, and it was imagination’s task to supply those materials. Therefore, apologetics was necessarily and foundationally imaginative. In order to provide an easy—and amusing—introduction to Lewis’s thinking on this subject, let me relate the following (untrue) story. One day I took my car into the repair garage for its annual overhaul. At the end of the repair job, I collected the car and, as I was driving it out of the garage forecourt, realised I had forgotten to check on something, so I stopped and rolled down my window and called over my shoulder to Billy, the car mechanic, and asked, ‘Is my rear indicator light working?’ To which he replied, ‘Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes.’ This little exchange neatly encapsulates Lewis’s definition of imagination. ‘Imagination’ is a notoriously slippery term and different thinkers and writers define it in very different ways. According to Lewis, imagination is simply ‘the organ of meaning’.1 Billy the car mechanic’s ‘organ of meaning’ was sadly deficient.A flashing phenomenon, as far as he was concerned, could have only one possible meaning: electrical failure. He was able to see the raw data—light on, light off, light on—but was unable to discover the correct meaning of those brute facts. He had sight, but no insight. He focussed on externals and failed to perceive their inner significance. Not that Billy was entirely without the capacity to perceive meaning. He knew the basic meaning of electrical circuits. He knew that when a light shines a connection has been made and when a light goes out a connection has been broken. But he was unable to find a meaning in the relationship between a completed and a broken electrical circuit, imaginatively incapable of perceiving that, in this case, an intermittent light means ‘indicator’, not ‘insecure connection’. Lewis definition of imagination as ‘the organ of meaning’ appears in an important but much overlooked essay called ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’, which was first published in 1939. (The odd title may have had something to do with why it has been so overlooked.) Mainly concerned with how metaphors are created and used, the essay also contains some larger scale epistemological observations. As well as defining imagination as the organ of meaning, Lewis defines the opposite of meaning as not error but nonsense. Things must rise up out of the swamp of nonsense into the realm of meaning if the imagination is to get any handle on them. Only then can we begin to judge whether their meanings are true or false. Before something can be either true or false it must mean. Even a lie means something and a lie understood as a lie can be most instructive. Only nonsensical things mean nothing. Back to Billy and the car. Not every flashing light on a car is meaningful. Sometimes there really are loose connections, whose occasional bursts of luminosity, flickering on and off in no particular rhythm, we should best describe as nonsensical: the connections are arbitrary, random, meaningless. If the connections were regular or patterned, however, we would be inclined to conclude that they were significant, meaningful. But what kind of meaning would they have? A true meaning, showing that the driver was about to make a turning? Or a false meaning, showing that the driver had forgotten to cancel the lever? It is human reason, in Lewis’s view, that judges between meanings, helping us to differentiate those meanings that are true and illuminating from those which are false and deceptive. To summarise his definitions: reason is ‘the natural organ of truth’; imagination is ‘the organ of meaning’ and meaning itself is ‘the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood’3. Imagination is therefore, for Lewis, ‘the prius of truth’4: before something can be either true or false, it must mean. Meaning appears to mean the relation between the physical and the psychic or psychological, ‘the psychophysical parallelism (or more)’ which characterises the universe5, linking bodies in space and time with spiritual realities (‘spiritual’ meaning not just psychological, but also rational and, ultimately, pneumatological). A true meaning would be a complete, unimpaired, healthy, fruitful psycho-physical relationship.


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