Have you ever, in a moment of frustration perhaps, wondered who invented math? Or, maybe in your math classes over the years you heard about ancient and modern men (Pythagoras, Euclid, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Einstein, Hilbert, Cantor, etc.) who made great mathematical dis-coveries and you thought that they were the inventors of mathematics? If so, you would, at least in part, be wrong.
It may be a bit frustrating to you to learn that there’s nobody to blame for inventing mathemati-cal truths or the field of math because they were not invented. They were discovered. Many men and women have discovered all kinds of mathematical truths about our universe, but they didn’t invent those truths. These truths like 2 x 2 = 4 simply are there as a part of the structure of reality. We could say that mathematical truth is a like law within our universe—no-one invented gravity, for example, but Newton did discover it and describe it mathematically. In the same way, we don’t invent mathematical truths but we do discover mathematical truths and invent various in-genious symbolic systems (Algebra, Calculus, etc.) to describe and use those truths.
Now, what does that have to do with morals? It might surprise you to learn that C. S. Lewis uses this fact about math in his argument for the existence of an objective moral standard. When ad-dressing the common objection that our morals are simply learned conventions of our society like the side of the road we drive on—something which is not inherently right or wrong but which, when adopted by our society as law, becomes right or wrong, Lewis argues that our morals are not like these social conventions, but instead are like mathematics. He says:
We all learned the multiplication table at school. A child who grew up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, something human beings have made up for themselves and might have made different if they had liked?
Notice, Lewis says, yes, we may credit our society with teaching us mathematical truths, but that doesn’t mean that our society originated or invented those truths. If they had, then they could have written the multiplication table however they might have liked. But, they didn’t. As we all know, the multiplication table is absolute—the same for all people, in all places, at all times. 2 x 2 is 4 in America today just like it was in England in 1942 when Lewis first made this argument. And, why shouldn’t it be?! There is nothing about that simple equation that should have changed because of a change in location or time. Whether in England in the 40s or America today, 2 x 2 = 4
Can we really show that morals are like math in this way—a law or objective truth of reality? Lewis argues that there are two ways in which morals are like mathematics. First, he says that though it is true that there are minor differences between the moral codes of different people at different times in history, those differences are, in fact, very slight. For example, murder, theft, rape, etc. have been identified as wrong in all major societies over time of which we have record. Second, Lewis argues that if we compare moralities of people and find one better than another, we must, in fact, be comparing both to an external or objective standard and finding that one more closely meets that standard than the other.
Well, what do you think? Are morals just conventions of society that could be different if we so chose, or is there a real Right and Wrong? Don’t we all agree when it comes to our own lives or the lives of people we love, that murder is always wrong and preservation of life is always right? If so, doesn’t that mean that the moral command, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, ESV), is really an objective moral law that governs all of mankind? And, if this is true for murder, couldn’t it also be true for all the other major moral precepts by which we live? Lewis says, yes! What do you say?
- Are murder and rape always wrong? If not, what circumstances could possibly make them right, or, at least, not wrong?
- Who taught you right and wrong? Did they invent right and wrong?
- Do most societies agree in the major points of morality?
Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 8). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.