Puddleglum’s Wager

August 27, 2009 at 11:24 am 22 comments

puddleglumListened to The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis with the kids on a roadtrip recently, and this section caught my ear, an interesting bit of reasoning and apologetics. Need to go back a couple of pages to supply some background first though.

The book is part of the Narnia series, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wordrobe fame. Two children, accompanied by a Narnian creature, a Marsh-wiggle (read the book) are on a mission to rescue a prince (the Prince of Narnia), whom they have now found. He had been held captive by a witch (a different witch than the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe witch). After they find the prince, the witch makes her appearance, and is trying to beguile them into disbelieving their mission. In fact, she is trying to convince them that their understanding of reality is completely wrong.

The witch has enchanted the company into a stuperous state with song and magic incense. She is trying to convince them they have made up everything they think is true, including the world they have come from (“Overworld”, the witch’s realm is underground). As they struggle to perceive reality, they grasp at memories of their world and mention things they “know” to be real, like the sun:

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldy and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.” “Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch… “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this *sun* must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your *sun* is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the *sun* is but a tale, a children’s story.” “Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone, “It must be so.”

The group is obviously falling for the witch’s deceit. The children’s companion Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, musters the strength to grasp at a fragment of reality. He brings to their minds a memory of Aslan, the lion symbolic of Jesus in the series:

“There’s Aslan,” he said. “Aslan?” said the Witch, quickening ever so slightly the pace of her thrumming. “What a pretty name! What does it mean?”

Ha, she knows very well what it means! As the group struggles to remember Aslan, the Witch continues to play her game of feigned ignorance and spreading of confusion through her lies:

“I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your *lion*, as you call it, then we did with your *sun*. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the *sun*. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a *lion*. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger.”

Puddleglum comes through again though. He quenches the enchanting fire with his bare feet, and then makes the following statement (this is the money paragraph):

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we *have* only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of akingdom of yours *is* the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the yong lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

At which point the spell is broken in a dramatic fashion.

It seems like the story offered here is trying to take two approaches for reasoning towards belief. First, it is worth believing even if it is not true, because life is so much better that way. Belief has benefits apart from whether or not the belief is accurate. Second, living as though something were true can actually lead to real belief that it is true. What starts as a way of life can become a belief. In the end it is Puddleglum’s act of faith itself which enables them to escape the doom of unbelief and life imprisoned in Underworld. It just takes faith.

Pascal’s Wager states that “a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.” (from wikipedia). Win-win, right? Even if Aslan does not exist, you spent your life with such high aspirations and hopes that there wasn’t anything to lose. And look what you stand to gain.

But is that a valid way of thinking in the modern world where, by the very nature of living in this age, we reason and understand things based on evidence, not just feelings and intuitions alone?

It just sounds too much to me like the statement, “just have faith,” which I have heard too many times. Maybe that is my conservative Christian background, tending towards seeing things in black and white. Or my rejection of conservative Christianity which makes it hard to see the good in Lewis’ story because I view it as a fundamentalist exhortation rather than a lovely liberal story. Regardless, I need another way, one that looks at evidence as well as benefits and wagers. Or maybe I’m in the grip of a dark power; drugged, deceived, confused, hopeless to choose my own way… Where have I heard that story before?


Entry filed under: books, doubt, faith.

vacation rending conservative people

22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bookinglass  |  August 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I am very interested in the ‘reasoning towards belief’, although I am not what you would call religious, I often argue that science is not the only way of reasoning. But I have never got very far, but I think this is because I am not very good at debating.

    Nice post to make me ponder though. I loved reading the Narnia series before I realised that it was a massive metaphor but I understand that it could be read much more in depth. I hope Jesus is like a lion.

  • 2. amy  |  August 27, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I’ve always hated Pascal’s wager. I’ve spent almost 20 years (on and off) of my life trying to believe something I simply cannot. Pascal didn’t think of wasted time that could have been better spent being happy, did he?

    Thanks for visiting my blog–your comment was unbelievably (hee hee) helpful. It inspired me to start a new blog altogether!

  • 3. atimetorend  |  August 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    bookinglass: I agree with you that scientific reasoning is not the only way of thinking, but when we say reasoning in this day and age it typically means scientific rational thought. So in that sense we cannot “reason towards belief,” and I have found Christian apologetics to fall far short in that regard, Mr. Lewis included. That said, there is much of beauty in the world and in life which does not depend exclusively on scientific reasoning to appreciate.

    amy: wow, that was fast! Glad you found the comment helpful. Thanks for dropping by.

  • 4. Janus Grayden  |  August 27, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    It’s not even a very good analogy. Through rational, critical thinking, they could have determined that their Overworld was real. The witch’s methodology was comprised solely on the blind acceptance of her captors. The things she was saying were true because they were true. How was it an enormous victory for truth when our heroes believe the opposite thing for the exact same reasoning? Their faith that there was a better world was stronger than her faith that they were confined to a dark, dank existence? Is there some great moral to be had by good triumphing over evil simply because they believed their story more?

    What if they were wrong? They claim that they would gladly die wandering for their dream, but what of everyone else living underground? To drop the analogy, what if this is all we get? In my mind, simply living in your own fantasy world because the real world is too painful to bear is cowardly, but worst of all, does nothing to fix the problem for everyone else.

    As humans who have limited time on this small planet, it is our default obligation to do the most that we can with what little we have to improve our collective condition.

  • 5. atimetorend  |  August 27, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Hmm… I think for the sake of the story it is reasonable to grant that there was no evidence for the Overworld other than their confused memories, and that they were sufficiently magically drugged to prevent their minds from working well enough to be confident in their memory. It’s a story after all.

    I agree with you that living in a fantasy world is not an adequate response to the horrors of the real world, and that is where the apologetic gets confusing. Because it is starting with the assumption that the fantasy is real. If it is real, it is reasonable to pursue the fantasy world even when it doesn’t seem real. In the story, as the reader, you know it is real all along in a way that the bible’s stories cannot be known to be real. I think that is the problem with Pascal’s Wager as well, the starting presupposition that was granted in his day is not universally shared today.

  • 6. Sabio Lantz  |  August 28, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Here is an interesting quote from one of my favorite atheist blogs:

    In Society Without God I showed that there are strong correlations between atheism and societal health. But I don’t think atheism causes societal health. Rather, I suspect that societal health causes atheism.

    Read the linked post. Christians think the life is so much better, but research does not show such a huge difference — so that even the quality the Marsh-wiggle dreams of is imaginary.

    The benefits of rational thinking is technology, medicine, agriculture etc. It also brings cooperation and compassion (even reason is key for Buddhist morality). Besides, “faith” isn’t all sparkles, it brings Jihad, tribalism, self-righteousness and many other vices.

    Lewis was smart, stories are a good way to brainwash kids — the human brain has a hard time of sorting out reality from fiction.

  • 7. atimetorend  |  August 28, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    That is a good point from that article, that there are societies of content atheists. The thing about the Marsh-wiggle’s vision is the setting he is living in at the moment, a terrible place. And the article you linked to also draws a correlation between contentedness and atheism I believe. How about for those who live in places without the current comforts of the developed nations? And maybe one person in a developed nation may be relatively happy viewing their own circumstances, while another might be troubled and tormented reading about the horrors in other parts of the world or in other times in history. It is not difficult to make the case that the world is a terrible place the way it is now.

    So that shows two ways of looking at the first part of Lewis’ apologetic. My take is it can be subjective, and you can make the case either way. The second part of the apologetic though, the reality of the myth is a different case, and unfortunately can be influenced by the first part. Maybe if you are convinced the world is dark and horrid without believing the myth, you convince yourself the myth is true based on your need to live the myth. Or something like that?

  • 9. Will  |  August 29, 2009 at 9:18 am

    If this weren’t a story, if you just took Puddleglum’s words out of context and put them into a discussion about the reality of the Christian God, then he (Puddleglum) would be arguing for faith simply because it’s more pleasant than reality. That’s a worthless argument for God’s existence.

    But – if you expand the meaning of what he’s saying a bit, you can take away the message that dreams really are important, and they might really have some important truths in them.

    Lewis was obviously trying to send the first message. Putting Puddleglum’s words back into the context of the story, we see the importance of dreams/faith plus reason. In the story, the witch is using false reasoning and witchcraft to cloud the judgement of the kids. If they were to hold on to their spark of faith, as well as think critically about what they know and what they see around them, they would realize that Aslan and the Sun are real – it is only the witch’s trickery that is befuddling them.

    So I can see a bigger lesson from this myth that Lewis created. I, as an agnostic, can take away a bigger lesson than Lewis intended. Where he wanted his readers to see the Christian god, I can see the beauty of the universe as it is, without dogmatic reliance on primitive myths.

  • 10. Sabio Lantz  |  August 29, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    @ Will — that was good !

  • 11. OneSmallStep  |  August 29, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    **Even if Aslan does not exist, you spent your life with such high aspirations and hopes that there wasn’t anything to lose. And look what you stand to gain.**

    Ideas like this seem to work much better with Western Christianity, where so many of those with faith aren’t legitimately persecuted for their faith, where they might have good jobs, health benefits, their children are healthy, they have material things, they’ll donate to a charity, and so forth.

    Yet there are a lot of Bible verses about suffering for Christ, and how to share in the suffering of Christ in order to reap the benefits later. If there is no after life, aren’t those people who greatly suffering for their faith in fact losing a great deal? Pascal’s Wager does not come across as addressing the high cost that Christianity calls for.

  • 12. atimetorend  |  August 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Will, I think you are doing what Sabio calls “generous translation” with the story, it is good making it out that way. I think the opposite of generous translation is judging and rejecting, maybe sometimes appropriate and sometimes not?

    OSS, that’s a great point, does Pascal’s Wager apply for those who suffer for their faith. I think the case could be made that some are happier in their suffering for their faith than they would have been living an easier life without the same faith. Probably a small portion of people? Elite martyrs?

    btw, I had this post started before reading your Pascal’s Wager post last week, but it was your post that pushed me to finish and publish it. Sorry I didn’t comment there, but thanks for the inspiration.

  • 13. OneSmallStep  |  August 30, 2009 at 10:53 pm


    **suffering for their faith than they would have been living an easier life without the same faith. Probably a small portion of people? Elite martyrs?**

    That would probably depend on the point of the suffering. Are they suffering for the sake of suffering itself? Or are they doing so for the bigger picture, which involves God commending them once they’re in the afterlife?

    I know there are people out there who just enjoy suffering and what it produces, but I’m not sure we could qualify any Christians as such. Or any “true” Christians, because they’re suffering is ultimately tied into their picture of Jesus. If they’re suffering just because, why be a Christian in the first place? Unless it’s the route that produces the maximum amount of suffering.

    I’m always happy to be an inspiration. :)

  • 14. some guy on the street  |  September 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    It’s interesting to note that encouraging people to “believe X, not because it is TRUE, but for some other reason” is a diabolical technique to undermine true faith that Lewis himself highlighted in his Screwtape Letters.

    So here he may have been forgetful of that earlier criticism, but it’s entirely possible that he’s pointing at something else altogether: he may be suggesting that pure imagination, an innocent aesthetic sense are a better guide towards Truth than the things that earthly princes say.

  • 15. atimetorend  |  September 8, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    I think he is saying both, what you said in your second paragraph (well stated), and also the former, that it is worth believing even if it is not true.

    So The Screwtape Letters states belief is correct only if it is belief in what is true?

  • 16. Sabio Lantz  |  September 9, 2009 at 6:03 am

    I understand trying to figure out if CS has a consistent theology — I doubt it since none of us have tight consistent thoughts. This is exposed easily when we speak in stories instead of abstracts.

    But my question:
    I believe that untruthful beliefs are not only inevitable but can be very useful.
    Do you all agree?

  • 17. atimetorend  |  September 9, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Sabio, I believe that untruthful beliefs are inevitable and can be very useful. I would even say we sometimes deliberately trick ourselves into believing them (“I just know I’m going to hit this next pitch.” or, “Today is going to be a great day.”). But are those beliefs we come to rationally and deliberately, or are they wishful beliefs which we deliberately refrain from thinking through?

  • 18. Sabio  |  September 9, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Beliefs are very, very odd things. Well, actually, our beliefs about beliefs are odd. I am hoping to write some stuff on it. Because belief is CENTRAL to Christianity. Odd, that. Whereas practice is central to Buddhism and mysticism (Christian included). Though others use beliefs, they don’t bank their money on them.

    We hold multiple contradictory beliefs.
    Many beliefs, like free-will, you are almost incapable of thinking through.
    Your thoughts of phobia, for example, or about sex, are almost invariably wrong.
    But if you understand the nature of beliefs, I don’t think this is disturbing. We hold a very greek notion of beliefs, I believe !

  • 19. wowy  |  October 26, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Did you follow the discussion here?


    Or did they pay copyright :-)

  • 20. atimetorend  |  October 26, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Copyright, very funny! I will have to read over that when I have a moment, looks like pretty high powered stuff. Victor Reppert wrote something about Puddleglum? Thanks for the link!

  • 21. D'Ma  |  May 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

    I know this post is rather old, but I enjoyed it just the same. Thanks for leaving your blog up. :)

  • 22. atimetorend  |  May 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Thanks for commenting! It is an old post, but I don’t appreciate your comment any less for it. :^) Glad you enjoyed the post, it’s one of my favorites.

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