Odd Realities and Moral Imperatives

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Jeffrey Thayne

“Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to made to match—all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go further from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel that we were making it up. It has just the queer twist about it that real things have.”
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity1

It seems as though C. S. Lewis is saying something very similar to the claim we made in “Don’t Apologize: Are Christian Apologetics Counter-Intuitive?“: Christianity is not something we derive from reason. As Williams said, “Truth, I am convinced, can be rendered reasonable, but it does not arise from reason.”2 Perhaps a definition found in the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia may help:

A priori: In epistemology, knowledge that is independent of all particular experiences, as opposed to a posteriori (or empirical) knowledge, which derives from experience.3

It seems to me as though knowledge of Christianity is derived from experience. As Lewis says, it isn’t something you could guess by just by thinking about it. In that sense, Christian pursuit of knowledge isn’t a priori, but rather it is empirical; but that is true only if we do not confine our definition of empiricism to merely sensory experience, as the word is usually used. The experiences which give us knowledge of spiritual things transcend the five senses, but they are no less credible than sensory experience and the knowledge gained therefrom. But both types of experience give us knowledge in a much different way than does reason, or propositional knowledge. God isn’t something we derive or deduce using a priori reasoning, but someone whom we encounter and with whom we converse.

Perhaps the ethical obligations and moral imperatives which bind our conscience are also truths we encounter in our lived experience. Rather than inventing moral obligations through rational deductions (aka Kant’s categorical imperatives), we discover these obligations during our daily interactions with other moral agents. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if the moral obligations that we encounter always made perfect rational sense to us, I myself would suspect we made them up. We have all experienced moral promptings to particular actions that we did not rationally deduce, but simply experienced at the moment. In those moments, we can respond to and follow those moral promptings, or we can explain them away … but either response acknowledges their real existence, and they are not the product of human reason.

Continued in “Your Spiritual Nose.”

1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity(New York: HarperCollins, 1952), p. 41.

2. Richard N. Williams, “Faith, Reason, Knowledge, and Truth,” devotional address given 1 Feb. 2000 at the Marriott Center; printed in Speeches, Brigham Young University, 1999-2000, pp. 141–148.
3. Answers.com, “a priori.”


  1. Good post. I’ve thought a great deal in the past about what you covered in the sentence about not confining religious experience to the five senses. Plainly, our belief comes from some personal experience—otherwise it is merely inherited from our parents or community. In such a setting, continued devotion would be irrational, teaching on faith notwithstanding.

    The LDS Church is unique in that we emphasize the read/ponder/pray pattern with a promise of personal revelation. To its own detriment, modern methodology limits itself to the five senses on the assumption that no knowledge can be gained from any other source.

    I find Lewis’s comments unintuitive, though. Though I’ve grown in a fairly astronomically-blessed society and have more context for my opinions on all things space, I find no particular reason to imagine that all extraterrestrial bodies of matter must be the same size or follow any particular pattern, any more than thinking that trees will always grow in a neat gridded pattern in the wild to even out resources. But I suppose a bad introduction doesn’t kill his premise. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to agree, I don’t naturally expect trees to be in a grid, or planets to be all lined up. Maybe that’s the point; Lewis is appealing to our common sense to show us that we already don’t expect to be able to figure out the world just by thinking about it. We expect to have to take a look and find out.

  3. I love this post. It reminds me of how French revolutionary philosophers thought they could reinvent their own morality. But if we consider morality as something learned about through encountering it, rather than as invented through reasoning, then it rightfully seems ridiculous to think that each person could invent his own morality. It would be like each person inventing his own laws of motion, instead of deriving them from observation and experience.

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