Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Stephen Law: A parody of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters

Stephen Law: A parody of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (from my book Believing Bullshit) 

This exercise in character assassination will be nicely rounded off with a suggestion of arrogance—get the patient thinking that her brother is being arrogantly dismissive of things that he doesn’t even properly understand. Remind them both that there are “more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamed of in his philosophy. Shouldn’t her brother be showing a little humility? Notice the delightful switcheroo we pull here. We are the ones claiming certainty, yet we end up appearing humble while he is portrayed as the arrogant know-it-all! You’ll enjoy the delicious irony! But remember—don’t be caught savouring it.
There is a second strategy that will also prove invaluable in dealing with the brother—the Way of Questions. Look it up in the Handbook and study it well. Don’t let the brother be your interrogator. You must become his. For every question he asks you, ask him three back. Get him on the back foot.
Of course you must not come across as inquisitorial. Pretend your questions are merely for “clarification”—you just want to understand more clearly where the brother is coming from, so you can properly address his concerns. But here’s what you actually do: hit him with a series of thorny philosophical puzzles with which he’ll inevitably struggle. I recommend two in particular:
1. Ask him why he supposes the universe exists. Why there is something rather than nothing.
2. Ask him how he is able to know right from wrong. How is he in a position to say that something truly heinous, such as slavery, is wrong? Or, better still, the Holocaust?
If the brother is an atheist, or agnostic, he’s not going to have pat answers to these Big Questions. As you will know from that training in moral and religious philosophy we gave you, they are awfully deep and difficult questions to which there are no simple, easy answers (one of the reasons we provided that training is precisely so you can use it to tie people like this irksome brother up in knots).
The fact is, we don’t have good answers to these questions either. But we pretend we do. We say, Glub is the explanation for why there is anything at all. We say, Glub provides us with our moral compass in this otherwise treacherously uncertain and increasingly morally depraved world.
Our patient will be impressed by the fact that, while her brother struggles with such tricky moral and metaphysical questions, we do not. We offer quiet, calm, simple, certainty. As your patient looks back and forth between—on the one hand—your serene, wise and confident expression and—on the other hand—the look of exasperation creeping across her brother’s face as he struggles and fails to provide an adequate justification for condemning the Holocaust, your job will be more than half done. Indeed, the thought might even cross your patient’s mind that her brother is morally rudderless!
Even if the brother manages to deal successfully with your first round of questions (which, he almost certainly won’t) you can just ask another “clarificatory” question, and then another: “Ah, I see. But then let me ask you this. . . .” “Hmm, that’s interesting, but what do you mean by. . . .” This will tie him up in knots, very probably leaving your patient with the impression that you are the winner in this little intellectual exchange. The truth, of course, is that you never dealt with his penetrating questions. But the chances are your patient won’t even notice this, or even remember what his questions were, after half an hour or so of the Way of Questions!
At the very least, if you combine these two techniques, the patient will be left with the impression that the debate between you and her brother is all square—that neither side can be said to have achieved a decisive victory. And that is all the space we need in which to operate.
Your affectionate aunt,
Tapescrew

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