Thursday, November 03, 2005

Some dialogue with Ed Babinski

EB: I also heard from Austin Cline who runs the Atheism Guide at of whose pieces on C. S. Lewis you recently replied to.
Austin thought your replies were poor. He thought you misrepresented his
comments on Lewis' view about QM, and that you dismissed what he wrote on
the premise that Lewis couldn't really have meant such a thing, without
explaining why not.

VR: My big complaint about a lot of people who write critically about C. S. Lewis, including Beversluis, Tattersall, Cline and, yes, Babinski, is that they will often find something Lewis says that they can pick a bone with, without asking whether it is really a point essential to Lewis's argument. Often the point with which they have a bone to pick is tendentiously interpreted, and taken as a fatal flaw, when in fact the argument can be very simply corrected so as to eliminate the problem.

I may be mistaken in attributing to him a confusion between inexplicability in principle an inexplicability so far as we know. Of course, not everyone accepts the claim that QM shows that physics is indeterministic. Carrier, for example, is a thoroughgoing determinist, last I checked. Lewis does suppose that naturalism presupposes that nature is a system of determining causes, and that if some events are undetermined, this is an attack on strict naturalism. This is certainly not the way I would describe the scientific situation, writing today. I'll freely concede that Lewis's understanding of QM was limited. So is mine. However, please notice that Lewis is very explicit about saying that he doesn't base any argument on QM, one way or the other, and that his discussion of quantum indeterminacy is merely for purposes of illustration. Can't people read what he says?

However, my central point is that whether the physical universe is deterministically non-rational at the basic level, or indeterministically non-rational at the basic level, is neither here nor there when it comes to assessing Lewis's argument. Lewis says, “If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.” I say, "If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System, insofar as it can be explained at all and is not the product of pure chance." But admitting the possibility of pure chance doesn't help the naturalist. If, however, QM is used as an opening to bring mental qualities into the most basic level of analysis, that would be another matter, but most naturalists would disallow this move as compromising to naturalism.

Bottom line: Lewis may not have understood QM, however QM is not going to resolve the problem Lewis poses for the naturalist, unless it is construed in a way that is fatally compromising to naturalism as we know it. See the posts on the concept of physicalism on this blog.

As for his claim that I dismissed his comments on Lewis because Lewis couldn't have meant such a thing, I take it he is referring to his claim that Lewis is committed to a bizarre epistemology when he says that perceptual knowledge, such as my knowledge that there is a blue marker before my eyes, depends on reasoning. I replied that 1) this kind of epistemology has contemprary defenders, and is not as easily refuted as some might suppose, 2) Lewis's claim, which I quoted at some length, is that perceptual knowledge depends on reasoning in the sense that if sense knowledge is challenged, we have to be able to reply to the challenge by producing an argument, which doesn't imply that we perform inferences whenever we perceive physical objects, and 3) Whatever Lewis's epistemology of perception may have been he doesn't need to say that perceptual objects are inferred in order to make his argument go, because the scientific enterprise depends crucially on logical and mathematical inference.

My main point is that he points he criticizes, in both cases, the one about QM and the other about inferences and perceptual knowledge, are incidental to Lewis's real argument. Criticisms like this perhaps undermine the claim that Lewis is omniscient, but they do little else.

EB: I replied to Austin by sending him my two web articles on your views and those of C. S. Lewis (one article is linked to the other above). I also reminded Austin that you presuppose that reasoning can't work in a
naturalistic cosmos. It's inconceivable to you that reasoning works at all
without some supernatural origin or guiding force behind it.

VR: The argument certainly does not prove that it is supernatural, although I realize Lewis did use that term. The AFR is compatible with idealism and pantheism; neither of these views make a distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

EB: I assured Austin that there is nothing I haven't tried over the past three years to point out to you the insufficiency and vanity of philosophy concerning many alleged "proofs" offered as "solutions to big" questions, except to remind you time and again that you don't have an argument at all but merely a presupposition/intuition that makes you mentally immune from
recognizing the weaknesses of words and of philosophical concepts
themselves, i.e., when it comes to using them to try and "prove things
about reality."

VR: Gosh. You sound like a fundamentalist Christian pontificating about "vain philosophy." Unfortnately we have decisions to make in this life about what seems reasonable to believe, and philosophical arguments can help us do just that. Atheists should not be too happy with your strictures against philosophy, since that means that their arguments against theism are equally vain. I believe in "proofs' in a limited sense, in that I believe that arguments can give us substantial reasons for accepting or rejecting world-views. It's arguments or tea-leaves, and I choose arguments. However, you will have noticed that I am sufficiently tentative about my arguments as to make some people who otherwise like my work uneasy, like Deejay, for instance.


Ray Schneider said...

I suppose that my big complaint would be about people who talk so loosely about QM. Lewis didn't really know anything about it and neither do most philosophers. In any case it is a very complex theory about things that happen at very low energies to things that are mostly invisible such as electrons and other subatomic particles.

Physicists are still arguing about exactly what it means -- and whether the conceptual elements of it such as the Schroedinger waves are real or simply mathematical.

Lewis had a mind of chiseled logic and was usually quite precise in his formulations, something obscured by the fact that he delivered them in such a homespun way that hey were accessible to even the uneducated.

G.E. Anscombe popped his bubble a little at the Socratic, but probably not foundationally since he rewrote the offending chapter in Miracles to meet her objections without really changing the logic or the argument too much. The fact that he bothered showed that he cared about precision.

I think Naturalists are in a rather difficult box -- if it is all molecules then strict determinism destroys their thought, but then strict determinism destroys all thought of any kind. What possible construction does "making up my mind" have if I'm totally determined?

Anyway I was put onto this discussion by a member of SpareOom, a C.S. Lewis listserv at Yahoo and thought I'd come over and see what the smoke was all about.

I have your book VR -- and its sitting next to my bed with a bookmark in it at the place I'd gotten to when other books and duties caught up with me.

Cheers, Ray Schneider
Ray Schneider,PE, Ph.D
Math and Computer Science
Bridgewater College
On the search for the PERFECT tomato.

Victor Reppert said...

Ray: Nice to hear from you. I remember you from the late lamented MereLewis.

Edward T. Babinski said...


If I am a "fundamentalist" then everyone on earth is too by definition, because my views are among the least fundamentalistic when it comes to acknowledging the inherent limitations of human knowledge.

Have you never considered that words like "theism, naturalism, idealism, pantheism, panentheism," may not explain all that you think they do, and relying on such words to explain and counter explanation the endless circling sharks of philosophy amounts to saying that:

"Everything is ONE thing but we don't know how it became (nor how it appears to be) TWO things."


"Everything is TWO things to start with but we don't know how one becomes (or appears to become fully entwined and interact with) the other since we began by defining them as being so entirely unlike at the start."

Some essays are to the point here, such as those by the philosopher Raymond Smullyan (from his books "The Tao is Silent," and, "This Book Needs No Title")

"Is God a Taoist?"

"Planet Without Laughter"

You mentioned "idealism." Bishop Berkeley was an "idealist" who argued that everything was "mind." Berkeley (so the story I'd read), fell off his horse, hitting his head on a stone, and Samuel Johnson said, "At last Berkeley's mind has hit upon the existence of matter." But in fact, if Berkeley were alive he would never make such an admission. For him everything was a creation of some absolute Mind, including his head and the stone, and the action of those two things coming into contact, etc.

So how can you prove or disprove anything via such broad concepts?