Saturday, October 29, 2005

An attack on Lewis from Austin Cline

These comments are from Austin Cline, on his atheism website. He seems a little out of touch with the most recent scholarship on the Argument from Reason. Cline's comments are in bold, my responses are not.

AC: C.S. Lewis wanted to explain nature on the basis of his supernatural god; as a consequence, naturalistic explanations for nature represented a major threat — just as it does for contemporary apologists. Lewis argued against naturalism in a variety of contexts. It plays an important role not just in his discussions about morality, but also in his arguments about the nature of reason.

VR: No, Lewis did not think naturalistic explanations for nature constituted a threat. It is only when these explanations are claimed to excluded a theistic explanation that they become at threat. There is no problem with Christians believing in, say, the law of gravity.

AC: In his book Miracles, Lewis argues against naturalism by saying “If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.” This isn’t necessarily true. Lewis was aware of advances in physics which revealed that events on the quantum level were probabilistic rather than deterministic, but he regarded this as a reason to think that there exists something more than “Nature” rather than as a reason to think that maybe nature isn’t quite what he (like others) assumed it to be. He rejected the findings of science because they conflicted with his assumptions.

VR: The difference between Quantum and Classical mechanics are irrelevant to the Argument from Reason, since on most interpretations quantum activity is pure blind chance and nothing more. If QM opens the door for ground-level teleology (which seems to be what Wiest was suggesting on this blog a few months back), then we have something that is not naturalism in the sense that Lewis was trying to criticize.

AC: Lewis appears not to have understood that some events and systems are, even in principle, not explainable despite being entirely natural. No one disputes that the weather is completely natural, but while weather events can be predicted to varying degrees of accuracy, it’s not possible even in principle to explain every facet of them because they are too complex, chaotic, and probabilistic.

VR: Meaning not explainable in principle, or beyond out powers of explanation? Cline seems not to understand the difference between inexplicability due to temporary human limitations, and inexplicability due to the absence of determining causes. In any event I see no reason to believe that Lewis was guilty of this lack of understanding, and if he did it is irrelevant to the argument.

AC: Part of the problem is that Lewis adopts a very limited, narrow understanding of naturalism. For Lewis, naturalism is the same as determinism. Thus, what we encounter is a tactic which Lewis uses continually: the construction of a false dilemma fallacy in which he presents the “wrong” option in an unfavorable and incorrectly defined way against the “right” option which, he hopes, will seem more reasonable against his straw man. The idea of a third option, like rejecting both extreme determinism and supernaturalism, is never entertained.

VR: Again the question is not determinism, it is the question of whether, at the most basic level of analysis, nature in non-purposive. Since believing something for a reason needs to be explained purposively in order for it to be regarded as reasoning, this is the basis for a prima facie incompatibility. Replacing blind determination with blind chaos does not help account for reason.

AC: From this inauspicious beginning, things only go down hill. Lewis argues that nature cannot explain the existence of Reason:

“A strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)”
In other words, because atoms are not themselves rational, then they alone cannot be responsible for rationality because such an irrational foundation cannot be a reliable basis for rational thinking. This absurd reasoning would preclude atoms being responsible for anything at all — atoms aren’t visible to the naked eye, so how could they produce anything visible? It’s known as the fallacy of composition and is just one more example of Lewis constructing fallacious arguments in the apparent hope that no one would notice.

VR: Lewis makes a distinction between "strict materialism," which can be refuted in one sentence, and naturalism, which requires a much longer treatment. Lewis was praised by his most famous opponent, Anscombe, for "honesty and seriousness" in his revised chapter. Shouldn't this tip anyone off that a "quick and dirty" refutation of Lewis is not in the cards? The real question is how logical relationships between proposition can play any role in some event in the physical world being caused. I'm really not sure what Lewis meant by "strict materialism;" however I would not give that simple of an argument against more contemporary kinds of materialism. But I think a some versions of Lewis's arguments against naturalism are telling arguments against contemporary materialism.

AC: On February 2, 1948, G.E.M. Anscombe read a paper to the Oxford Socratic Club criticizing this section of C.S Lewis’ book, identifying several serious weaknesses. According to George Sayer, a friend of Lewis, he recognized that his position was soundly refuted:

“He told me that he had been proved wrong, and that his argument for the existence of God had been demolished. ...The debate had been a humiliating experience, but perhaps it was ultimately good for him. In the past, he had been too proud of his logical ability. Now he was humbled ....’I can never write another book of that sort’ he said to me of Miracles. And he never did. He also never wrote another theological book. Reflections on the Psalms is really devotional and literary; Letters to Malcolm is also a devotional book, a series of reflections on prayer, without contentious arguments.”
VR: Here we go again with the Anscombe Legend. Sayer was basically a high school English teacher, and he fails to draw the all-important distinction between thinking oneself really proved wrong, and thinking the someone has shown one's argument to be inadequately formulated. Lewis probably thought he had performed poorly in the exchange; he probably thought that there were problems with the formulation of his argument, but there is no reason to suppose that he thought his argument shown to be a bad one.

John Beversluis, on whom Cline seems to be relying for his critique of Lewis, had this to say in a subsequent paper:

First, the Anscombe debate was by no means Lewis's first exposure to a professional philosopher: he lived among them all his adult life, read the Greats, and even taught philosophy. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miracles in which he revised the third chapter and thereby replied to Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, mine included, fail to mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis's revised argument on the grounds that it is deeper and far more serious than the original version. Finally, the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics overlooks several post-Anscombe articles, among them "Is Theism Important?" (1952)—a discussion of Christianity and theism which touches on philosophical proofs for God's existence—and "On Obstinacy of Belief"—in which Lewis defends the rationality of belief in God in the face of apparently contrary evidence (the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s and early 60s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that the post-Anscombe Lewis wrote no further books on Christian apologetics, but it is pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument from Abandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books on Paradise Lost or courtly love either.1

AC: Lewis never publicly acknowledged his defeat, but he did respond. The relevant chapter was renamed from “Naturalism is Self-Refuting” to “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.” Some statements were revised and he removed the egregious claim that “We may state it as a rule that no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.”

These revisions are not enough to salvage his argument because its flaws are fundamental. Lewis relied, for example, on a bizarre epistemology, according to which knowledge can only be attained indirectly by inferring from sensory perception to the objects supposedly lying behind them. Because of this, he felt that reliable knowledge depends upon logical reasoning — that we cannot come to have true, justified beliefs about the world without it. This is a peculiar and extreme form of rationalism, but it’s not an epistemology which is compatible with modern science and thinking. It doesn’t enjoy wide currency today, even among Christians who ostensibly accept Lewis’ apologetics. If they do not accept the epistemological assumptions he uses, though, they cannot also accept his theological conclusions which they find so appealing.

VR: This is a criticism that Cline is borrowing from John Beversluis, whose book C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, is taken by many in freethought circles to be the definitive refutation of Lewis, in spite of the fact that numerous articles effectively criticizing it have been published. Lewis did say that all possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. But depends in what way? Is he actually saying that what we are immediately aware of are "sense data" and that we recognize physical objects only by performing inferences? This is a philosophical theory that still exists, and it is probably more defensible than most people think it is, but it is true that today the mainstream position is a some kind of direct realism, according to which we perceive physical objects directly.

But would a good case for direct realism refute Lewis's argument? No. First, did Lewis really say we infer physical objects? What he said was:

"It is clear that everything we know, beyond out own sensations, in inferred from those sensations. I do not mean that we begin as children, by regarding out sensations as "evidence" and thence arguing consciously to the existence of space, matter and other people. I mean that if, after we are old enough to understand the question, our confidence in the existence of anything else (say, the solar system or the Spanish Armada) is questioned, our argument in defence of it will have to take the form of arguments from our immediate sensations."

So it is not that we perform inferences in order to know physical objects; it is that we use inferences to defend out beliefs in those objects that makes perceptual knowledge depend on inference. This I consider to be perfectly compatible with the claim that we perceive physical objects directly and noninferentially.

In any event, if Lewis exaggerated the role of inference in knowledge, so what? His argument is that if naturalism is true, then there are no inferences. Maybe my knowledge that the wall in front of me is purple can remain as knowledge under these circumstances, but if there are no inferences, then no one ever proved the Pythagorean theorem, Darwin didn't really provide arguments for evolution by natural selection, and no one ever inferred that e=mc squared, and no one ever inferred atheism from the existence of evil in the world.

In other words, whether or not Lewis used the "epistemological assumptions" in his argument, the argument does not need them, and will can do just fine without them. Whether one can explain the existence of rational inference naturalistically--well, I could write a book about that subject. In any event, if there is something wrong with Lewis's argument, Cline has failed to take the argument seriously enough to find out what it is.

1 John Beversluis, "Surprised by Freud: A Critical Appraisal of A. N. Wilson's Biography of C. S. Lewis," Christianity and Literature, Vol. 41, No. 2 (1992), pp. 179-95


Edward T. Babinski said...

See the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Supplement 56, Mary Midgley's article, "Souls, Minds, Bodies, and Planets":

"When physicists abandoned the notion of solid particles the word 'materialsm' lost its original meaning. Though this word is still used as a war-cry it is by no means clear what sifnificance it ought to have today. That change in the ontology of physics is one scientific reason why it is now clear that the notion of matter as essentially dead stuff--hopelessly alien to conscious life--is mistaken. But an even more obvious reason is, of course, the Darwinian view of evolution.

"We now know that matter, the physical stuff that originally formed our planet, did in fact develop into the system of living things that now inhabit its surface, including us and many other conscious creatures. So, if we are still using a notion of physical matter that makes it seem incapable of giving rise to consciousness, we need to change it. That notion has proved unworkable. We have to see that the potentiality for the full richness of life must have been present right from the start--from the first outpouring of hydrogen atoms at the big bang. This was not simple stuff doomed for ever to unchanging inertness. it was able to combine in myriad suble ways that shaped fully active living things. And if it could perform that startling feat, why should it be surprising if some of those living things then went on to the further activity of becoming conscious?"

Mike D said...

Ed quoted Midgely:
"That change in the ontology of physics is one scientific reason why it is now clear that the notion of matter as essentially dead stuff--hopelessly alien to conscious life--is mistaken."

I found the first part of the article here:

She does not argue in favor of pure naturalism:
'Gradually it became clear that the concept of the Machine could not really function on its own because it had been engineered in the first place to fit its Ghost.'
This is not a great quote to prove the point but it does summarize her paragraph on the failure of behaioralism to explain consciousness.

No one doubts that potentiallity for our present world existed right from the start. Otherwise, we would not be here. The problem remains what enabled the transformation from swirling gases to complex machines with consciousness. Midgley glibly concludes that "This was not simple stuff doomed for ever to unchanging inertness." It could have been. She also belittles the jump from living organisms to consciouness. The first does not explain the second.

Anonymous said...

I am no philosopher, and maybe even stupid about philosophy. But if one says (as I venture to summarize the bit of Midgley quoted here) "The fact that conscious life is here at all means that it did arise from matter and nothing else" - isn't that in itself a pure act of faith? In materialism, Darwinism, or whatever? (Anything-except-God is probably its right name)

Anonymous said...

Actually, I skimmed through Midgley's article (thanks for the link) and was rather pleased and surprised to find that, like Mr. Lewis, she wrote clearly and engagingly. I had rather thought that philosophers didn't do that any more.

Curtis Edward Clark; Dean said...

Oh, so very good, to see criticism of a man I have recently labeled the Deity of Atheism! I published an entire thread of conversation with him just yesterday, wherein he first accuses me of being unqualified, then refused or neglected to print my qualifications!

As he himself said, he is writes "culture." And as I replied to him, "I write philosophy."

Thank you for your attack. He is dangerous.
Curtis Edward Clark