C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

(or, “Why you sometimes feel like you can remember something, sometimes, from even before your childhood”)

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C.S. Lewis often wrote about (and alluded to) the sense of “nostalgia” that comes with beholding a beautiful landscape.

One of my recent backpacking trips

One of my recent backpacking trips. Observe the bursting sense of nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that the Christian argument from beauty/awe/nostalgia is one of the most difficult to convincingly express, yet one of the most powerful when properly understood. It shares some commonality with the Argument from Religious Experience, in that it relies on personal revelation rather than hard evidence (historical & scientific data) or soft evidence (formal philosophical arguments).

Rather than relying upon another person’s (oftentimes unreliable) testimony, however, the argument from nostalgia encourages self-reflection by identifying a peculiar sensation – almost like déjà vu, or a lost memory, or a half-forgotten dream – that seems to be shared by most people. C.S. Lewis described this sensation as follows:

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When I first encountered that passage, I remember being stunned. I had to re-read it several times. It almost seemed as if Lewis had ripped something from my own mind and memories, and put it to paper half a century before I was born.

The association between nostalgia and childhood is particularly intriguing. While childhood clearly isn’t the source of this particular type of nostalgia, the sensation seems to be strongest in the context of one’s childhood. Something to do with innocence, maybe? Lewis goes on:

“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism”. Lewis again:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

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13 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

  1. Very refreshing. Thanks. It’s good to revisit C.S. Lewis. This selection conjures up his Narnia and I taste it, indeed, with nostalgia. Who says a place has to be physical to be real!

  2. Reblogged this on a simple man of God and commented:
    For my post this week, I pass along Matt’s wonderful entry from his blog Well Spent Journey. What is really crazy about this is that one of our youth came over this fine Labor Day to help us do some work in our new house. While in the grocery store to pick up some things for lunch, we shared a deja vu moment. It was very odd, only to be followed by my reading this!
    The fact is, only God can fill all of our needs (read Matthew 6:25-34). If each of our other longings can be filled by things on this earth, yet we have this longing that is never fully met here, does that not speak to something or Someone beyond this earth? A God who created us for intimate fellowship with Him fits this perfectly.
    Go read Matt’s thoughts and quotes from C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest non-theologian theologians of the 20th Century!

  3. “And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism””

    You’re right, it is a leap. A leap over a gap filled by the Christian notion of God.

    Nostalgia is a psychological state of mind. The human brain acquires a great deal of information, and it builds its own contexts for all this information. So, the scent of strawberries might remind us of nice summer days of childhood, triggering pleasant memories and feelings of nostalgia. On the other hand they could invoke fear and dread in the brain of someone who was, say, abused as a child by apparent who loved strawberries.

    But, and here’s the important point, nostalgia can be a state of mind invoked for quite false reasons.

    Just today I responded on a philosophy post here: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2013/09/burma-myanmar-and-the-myth-of-objectivity/#comment-72356

    In the response I included a reference to a TED talk that included a reference to faux nostalgia: Faux nostalgia may be thought of as, “The achingly sentimental yearning for times that never happened”, according to Bruce McCall (http://www.ted.com/talks/bruce_mccall_s_faux_nostalgia.html). But it may also be understood as, “The achingly sentimental yearning for times, place, events that passed one by.”

    Now, from Lewis: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off…”

    This in itself is a faux nostalgia, for nostalgia, a yearning for it to explain a non-existent connection to a fantasised metaphysics.

    It is a neurotic fancy. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose it the truest index of our real situation – no more than any faux nostalgia for anything. Faux nostalgia is often at work when people simply hark back to times past that they missed. Young people now seem to have a craving for the music of the 90’s. When I was in my 20’s the 50’s were very much in vogue.

    “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.”

    This is simply a general assertion based on some specific observations. Yes, evolutionarily, hunger is a biological mechanism by which an organism is driven to find food. Food is no more than the building material for the organism.

    The problem is that the human brain is so complex and the way it builds and maintains knowledge is so complex and contextual that it’s quite easy for the brain to be stimulated (even self-stimulated) quite arbitrarily into wanting, desiring, things that it does not have or cannot have. It’s quite easy to see how a brain that absorbs stories from the past can develop internal contexts that then drive the brain to desire that past. This seems to be behind much of the desire that drives religious belief, by contextual association with religious stories. It doesn’t seem to matter if those stories are not grounded in any truth. For example, I take it that you think the stories of Joseph Smith and tablets of gold are not true historic events, and yet you have to acknowledge that many people passionately believe that they are. Similarly Muslims believe passionately that Jesus was not divine. They are nostalgically buying into these stories because they build a context in their brains that can sustain them and desire them.

    The passions, emotions, of which faux nostalgia is one symptom of a false stimulation, are really unreliable sources of truth. And yet this is the stuff that religion is entirely built on.

    C. S. Lewis clearly has a good imagination. I loved the books of Narnia. But the capacity to fantasise is no measure of the ability to reason.

    • “It is a neurotic fancy. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose it the truest index of our real situation – no more than any faux nostalgia for anything.”

      If one presupposes a naturalistic worldview, then I guess that’s a reasonable assertion.

  4. I just finished reading Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain.” In the final chapter he discusses similar thoughts but with a slightly different purpose. He caries a theme of exploring the secret longings and joys that you yourself can understand just enough to know when you catch a fleeting glimpse of it, but you aren’t able to understand in a way that allows you to properly explain it to a friend or to effectively seek after. You might enjoy reading or rereading this chapter in light of this blog post.

    Also, you might be interested in this
    http://www.desiringgod.org/events/national-conferences/2013

    • Thanks Vince! I actually have “The Problem of Pain” sitting on my dresser right now, currently unread. I’ll definitely watch for that chapter.

  5. Matt,

    A Presupposed naturalistic world view?

    But as I’ve explained before, you don’t need to presuppose a naturalistic world view, but rather do what only humans can do, in the absence of any access to what are the actual origins of the universe: science. All the indications from science are that the many and various notions of higher realms or super beings are inconsistent with a naturalistic world view, and that this view is sufficient; and further, the belief in such non-entities is also explained by a naturalistic world view. You don’t have to invent gods, or any of the many varieties that have been invented, to explain the universe; but the natural universe can explain the false belief in invented gods.

    Sure, you can invent notions of a god that are consistent with these psychological experiences that persuade you there is a god – and particularly if you ignore a lot of science this becomes even easier to do, and if you make many presuppositions of your own you can kid yourself that the various arguments for gods are sound arguments, rather than merely valid but false ones.

    Lewis is particularly committed to explaining away various aspects of the human condition by what is nothing more than unsupported affirmation, assertions; and with some very poor arguments.

    If you don’t assume a naturalistic world view, but instead dream up any number of world views, and then examine the evidence, what can you conclude? Well, all the arguments that support a good god are just as easily turned to support a bad god who torments us; or a pair of conflicting gods who struggle for our attention; or indeed a super god and a lesser god or fallen angel, or any number of variations; or fairies, or the FSM, … One has only to dream up some entity and use apologetics to excuse any inconsistencies with how one observes the world to be. Claim that god answers our prayers; and then test to see if he actually does, and when the tests fail one invents a reason as to why he doesn’t in those cases where he doesn’t.

    Naturalism can be a presupposition, and historically, pre-science, that’s all it was; but still a more reasonable one since none of the gods ever imagined actually appeared anywhere. And there were so many gods, that didn’t appear that it was, even then, quite obvious that they were variations on an invention made in man’s image.

    But these days naturalism isn’t a presupposition. It’s a derived best explanation.

    The ONLY example we know of intelligent self-aware purposeful life is humans. Science clearly shows humans are an evolved case of more general brained animals of various kinds, and on back in time to non-brained animals, to pre-animals and very simple life forms. Life itself is nothing more than a complex form of matter, or combined simple elements, that results from chemistry – biology is complex chemistry, with every reaction relatively easy to understand.

    Everywhere else we have so far looked in the universe has shown massive amounts of simple matter – all the stars and dust – and ever reducing amounts of more complex matter. The simpler elements are far more abundant than the bigger ones, and we know the processes by which natural processes involving simpler elements create more complex elements. The amount of all the life on Earth that has ever been is miniscule compared to the amount of energy from the Sun that drives life; and all the matter of life on Earth is miniscule compared to the size of the Earth, and is compatible with the range of elements found on the Earth. Life is compatible with natural processes, and therefore our intelligence is compatible with natural processes – there’s no need for a guiding hand.

    There are precursors for life in the wider solar system that suggests that life may be a rare but not too infrequent (i.e. not just in this star system), a possible rare but not too infrequent outcome of planetary system natural forces; but at the moment we have no direct evidence for life in other star systems. So, this still means we have only one example of life; and, even rarer, one example of intelligent purposeful life.

    So, it is an entirely presuppositional wishful thinking leap to suppose that intelligence of any kind is required to make this universe. It would still be a massive presupposition to suppose there is any intelligence, or any life, outside of the complexity building processes within this universe.

    All the complex content of this universe comes from an origin of much simpler content – all the complex elements above hydrogen were formed by stars bursting into existence, collapsing, exploding, all by natural processes; and all the complex interaction of elements, to molecules, to complex molecules that form life as replicating systems is fully covered by natural explanations.

    Why then would you not presuppose that the very simple hydrogen universe didn’t come from even simpler precursors, rather than some complex entity like a god. And note here that naïve theology sometimes tries to presuppose god is some ‘simple consciousness’ to avoid the need for complex precursors, but we still have only one example of intelligence and it’s directly positively related to complexity – more intelligence is always found in increasing complexity.

    Of course it’s only one possible explanation that this happened only once. We have nothing to indicate that these natural processes have not happened before our particular universe appeared, or that they don’t go on concurrently with our universe, in other universes. We simply don’t know. This is our current ignorant state, and any religious claim to know more than this is the height of presuppositionalism – and the height of arrogance to presuppose in particular that it is all for us on this tiny little planet in some backwater of a galaxy that is itself just one speck in an incredible expanse of clusters of galaxies – sheer hubris.

    Incidentally, I’m always amused how the religious have the nerve to say scientists are claiming to know everything, when very clearly they do not make that claim. Scientists claim to know, and then contingently, only what science currently shows them. It’s the religious that make these extraordinary claims about stuff of which we have no experience whatsoever: universe creation.

    But, given ALL we know about how ever more rare and complex entities are produce from natural processes involving ever more abundant simpler entities, from elements up to human life, it is a massive leap of wishful thinking to suppose that all of this is driven by some magical intelligence. There is simply no reason to suppose such. It’s a massive fallacy. There is no good reason to think that there is some magical intelligent entity steering all this.

    Then, Christians want to take such an incredibly wishful fantasy and compound it by inventing not only an intelligent creator, but one that just happens to be good. And, as if that’s not enough, he is coincidentally good according to whatever a particular Christian thinks is good – and it’s laughable how God doesn’t like condoms, then he does, or he does for this Christian but not for that, or he’s fine with gay marriage for these Christians but not for those, … But there’s more! He talks to them, and they understand him and can tell us all about what he wants – well, until a few tricky questions come along, when he suddenly becomes mysterious, ineffable.

    And that’s just the Christian invention of this presupposed God. Add to that all the others and it becomes ridiculously presuppositional to even invent such gods, let alone any sort of god at all.

    I’d really like to know how you know your god is what you claim he is, while Joseph Smith’s is not. Or why the Muslim god is not the better understanding of this god.

    There’s the mystery: how the religious can dismiss ALL these other fantasies, and yet be so committed to their own. Of course there are naturalistic explanations that are quite compatible with this, that explain why the religious fall for this stuff.

    Any one god story is hopelessly inadequate to explain both why so many other gods are believed in, and at the same time why someone’s particular god is the right one. There is simply no consistency between the many god stories of different religions, or even the same religion, so it is plainly ridiculous that anyone should buy into any one of them.

    But naturalism explains the natural world, and it does explain why many people believe in so many gods: psychological errors in biological material brains that are consistent with the many other errors that such brains make.

    Naturalism is a derived best explanation for not only what we discover about the wider universe, but also what we discover about how brains work, and how brains come to believe totally unevidenced fantasies.

    The specific thing that makes naturalism a far better explanation is that evidential naturalism is really hard work, using very critical and sceptical methods of science and philosophy to determine what it is reasonable to claim we know, and where to declare the boundary between what we think we know and what we know we don’t know.

    Religion is and always has been very simplistic stories at heart; nothing but fairy tales, fables, invented by humans to explain the mysteries of the universe away by dreaming up entities that just happen to be like us, only bigger, better, badder, gooder. It’s no coincidence that these stories have changed little over the millennia: there is no supportive evidence to make them change, and only ever more elaborate excuses as to why these gods don’t show up. There is only tradition to cling to; and the further back in time it is lost, and the more vague the historic data, the easier it is to fudge explanations for the no-show.

    • “All the indications from science are that the many and various notions of higher realms or super beings are inconsistent with a naturalistic world view, and that this view is sufficient;”

      “and particularly if you ignore a lot of science this becomes even easier to do,”

      Which scientific findings are you referring to, specifically?

      “and further, the belief in such non-entities is also explained by a naturalistic world view.”

      Man’s denial of God is also explained by a theistic worldview.

      “Well, all the arguments that support a good god are just as easily turned to support a bad god who torments us…”

      Are you referring to Stephen Law’s Evil God hypothesis? That’s been pretty thoroughly refuted by modern philosophers and theologians.

      “…or fairies, or the FSM…”

      All the arguments for God can “just as easily” be applied to fairies or the FSM? That’s the kind of bewildering claim I would only expect from someone who lacks familiarity with the standard arguments for God. http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2008/11/russells-teapot-does-it-hold-water.html

      “Life is compatible with natural processes, and therefore our intelligence is compatible with natural processes – there’s no need for a guiding hand.”

      See, that’s a *philosophical* leap that goes way beyond what science actually demonstrates. You’ve gotta play a lot of “naturalism-of-the-gaps” to draw that conclusion from our current knowledge (or even our “anticipated knowledge,” if you will). Also see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=264MRoncVZA&feature=youtu.be

      “…and the height of arrogance to presuppose in particular that it is all for us on this tiny little planet in some backwater of a galaxy that is itself just one speck in an incredible expanse of clusters of galaxies…”

      Christianity makes no such claim, that I’m aware of.

      “Scientists claim to know, and then contingently, only what science currently shows them.”

      I find this ironic in light of your statements (above) on the origins of complex life.

      “Then, Christians want to take such an incredibly wishful fantasy and compound it by inventing not only an intelligent creator, but one that just happens to be good.”

      You should check out AW Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy”.

      “I’d really like to know how you know your god is what you claim he is, while Joseph Smith’s is not. Or why the Muslim god is not the better understanding of this god.”

      CS Lewis actually wrote on this issue, as well: “If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.”

  6. Pingback: Does Religion “Poison Everything”? | Well Spent Journey

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