Saturday, October 10, 2009

C. S. Lewis and the evidentialist objection

In Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, he presents Lewis as someone who accepts the challenge posed by what later can be known as the evidentialist objection.

I think this is a very tricky claim to make out. The big problem is to try to figure out what is packed into the evidentialist objection.

 Consider the classic Cliffordian statement of the evidentialist objection:

 "It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

And compare it with C. S. Lewis's statement of "evidentialism":

 I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in.

I would make note of the fact that these are two different types of claims. Clifford is talking about what is morally wrong for everyone to do, Lewis is talking about what he is asking someone to do. Clifford says there must be sufficient evidence for any belief, Lewis is just saying he won't ask for belief if a person's reasoning tells him there is evidence against the belief.

In fact Lewis's account of the ethics of belief raises questions as to whether it is a moral issue at all. He writes in Mere Christianity:

I used to ask how on Earth it can be a virtue--what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence, that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view.

So here we don't have Clifford's moral thunderbolts against those who believe for insufficient evidence, just the suggestion that it isn't a very bright idea.

Further, Lewis seems to cast the net of evidence widely; more widely that, I think Clifford would countenance.

The man who accepts Christianity always thinks he has good evidence; whether, like Dante, fisici e metafisici argoment: or historical evidence, or the evidence of religious experience, or authority, or all of these together. ("On Obstinacy of Belief")

But surely Plantingian properly basic beliefs have experience or authority backing them up, at the very least.

One way of explaining the difference between Lewis and someone like Clifford is to make the case that Clifford is a strong rationalist, who holds that the position that "in order for a religious belief-system to be properly and rationally accepted, it must be possible to prove that the belief-system is true." Further, "prove" has to be parsed in such a way that in order to prove something true one should have evidence sufficiently strong that all rational persons ought to be convinced. Of course, there are many issues on which all persons are not convinced. For example, there is a flat earth society. But this, we suppose, is not because the evidence for a round earth is lacking; rather it is due perhaps to some emotionally-driven biases.

But it doesn't look as if Lewis thinks in this way. In very confident modes Lewis comes off sounding like he thinks he can meet the strong rationalist's criteria for rational belief. Beversluis notes points at which he says "we are forced to conclude..." But he also notes that Lewis says that the evidence may be sufficiently strong to eliminate the psychological possibilty of doubt, but not the logical exclusion of dispute.

My own view is that Lewis is a critical rationalist, who believes that "religious belief systems can and must be rationally criticized and evaluated although conclusive proof of such a system is impossible." That is not to say that his language and tone do not suggest otherwise at times. If by evidentialist we mean the he thinks one must evaluate evidence when forming religious beliefs, of course he is an evidentialist. If we mean that he thinks there is some burden of proof on religious as opposed to non-religious beliefs, or that we should only believe if we have evidence that everyone ought to be able to accept, then he isn't an evidentialist in that sense.


J said...

Consider the classic Cliffordian statement of the evidentialist objection:

"It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

The criteria could be expanded: not only insufficient evidence, but conflicting, or contradictory evidence exists. Or when testimony is unreliable (Clifford actually addresses most of those issues, and has read his Hume, however unnerving that may seem to some xtians). One considers and weighs what Tacitus and roman historians claimed about early christians vs. what early church fathers say. And that would hold for the competing claims of different religions (or supposed miracles, etc), and for testimony. Believe if you will, but don't mistake faith for the historical record, or scientific proof.

Theological arguments are not really evidential, anyway--a point lost on the Ed Feser sort of hysterical dogmatist. Hume suggested something along those lines in DCNR. One can reason from similar effects to similar causes (ala the Watchmaker), but it's analogy, not necessary--or perhaps not even analogy, but speculative metaphysics (ie Aristotle's primum mobile thinking about thinking, and then breaking the pool table so to speak--quite poetic, but hardly evidentiary, or analytical. Some might call it a type of madness).

Eric said...

Phritz, I see that you still haven't understood Feser's point about the nature of metaphysical arguments.

J said...

Excuse me? Phritz? J. Mr. J to you.

I see you still don't understand evidentialism. Maybe try Clifford's essay a few times--a fine antidote to Feser's dogmatic hack attack.

And you still don't understand arguments for that matter. Aquinas' first three "arguments" all depend on Aristotle's baby physics and have little or nothing to do with the big-bang singularity. Even Von Feser grants the physics "might be wrong." No sh*t.

And really, metaphysical arguments are not falsifiable either: that's one reason it's difficult to argue with a Von Feser. He's not disputing facts, and he's not offering a deductive argument either--the "First cause arg." is not a necessary, analytical argument. Im tired of proving that to the xtians. They might sound good to dupes--to people who understand logic and evidentiary reason, they don't.

Eric said...

Aquinas's arguments have nothing to do with the Big Bang singularity? Wow, thanks. Next you'll be telling me is that he didn't write his Summas with a PC -- or a Mac!

J said...

Actually, let's assume there was some spiritual First Cause. How do you know it wasn't Lucifer? Or Brahma. Or Wotan. Or the flying spaghetti monster. Or maybe it was an alien force that immediately flew off towards Crab Nebula.

You don't--nor does Von Feser, but if he repeats Aquinas-Aristotle dogma long enough he scares dupes into taking Mass at Cafe Iglesia.
(and as usual you ducked the falsifiability issue.)

Eric said...

J, you honestly must read the books containing the arguments you're critiquing *before* you critique them. I think that's how it usually works. See, if you actually read Feser's TLS, you'd know that he deals with that very objection in detail. You may of course conclude that the argument doesn't work, but ideally you'd do that after studying the argument, not before studying it.

Eric said...

Oh, and I didn't 'duck the falsifiability issue.' Rather, the fact that you raised it served to buttress my initial point, i.e. you simply don't understand what Professor Feser means when he says his arguments are metaphysical arguments. Again, if you had actually read TLS before criticizing the arguments it contains, you would know this.

J said...

Some of us read Aquinas and Aristotle years ago, without a little GOP study guide. And also read the numerous criticisms of them--starting with Kant's . That's the usual sophistic Ad Auctoritas--you don't understand them! No, you don't understand the problems with them. I understand them quite well, and the mistakes. In fact Feser endlessly chants teleology as if no one EVER heard of it, or objected to it. Thinkers, philosophers, scientists have been questioning a final cause, and rejecting it since Spinoza, if not before. It's not an observable phenomenon anyway--not evidence--but merely posited. Trivial in the intrinsic sense that Feser uses it as well--roses will be roses, eggs turn in chicken! Hardly different than Aynnie Rand. What's the final cause of a hurricane, anyway? Destruction of the gulf coast.

Feser simply thinks he has an angle here, by preying on weak, right-wing minds. And tho' Im not a sunday schooler, I think any religious person should object to Feser's manipulation: believe in Aquinas, or else. Nothing to do even with New Testament. Luther even called it BS.

Anonymous said...

Teleology lives on as the common currency of popular evolutionists: ... as even atheistic Dennet admits:

teleogolgy and evolution the IDIOM

Anonymous said...

Pay J no mind. This is just what he does until he gets banned. And banned again and again, and again. He tends not to leave until ban 6.

J said...

Let's not pay attention to you, Anny. Aquinas' first three: Falsifiable, or not, Anny? Not that it matters.

Mike Darus said...

Maybe a useful analogy to compare Lewis and Clifford is found in the legal distinction between a civil and criminal case. Clifford is demanding proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that skeptics are guilty of rejecting God. Lewis suggests that a preponderance of the evidence is sufficient to provide a rational basis for faith.

J said...

I would agree there are reductionist aspects--even philistinish aspects-- to Clifford's evidentialism: par for the course for many anglo skeptics. Clifford was not only discussing evidentialism in regards to religious issues however. Obviously in many situations--research, journalism, science, legal issues--evidence matters greatly.

Clifford's tory skepticism bothers me about as much as CS Lewis's pretentiousness and right-wing aspects do. It's about the same today, when an Oxbridge skeptic takes on an Oxbridge believer. They may differ in regards to their views of sunday school, but they are brothers in most respects--like politically.

Gregory said...

Edmund Gettier has presented an interesting problem for Clifford-style normative evidentialism. Namely, that it's possible to meet Clifford's ethical demands regarding "evidence", and yet retain false beliefs. Likewise, one could fail to meet Clifford's ethical imperative and yet retain true beliefs.

But the most damning problem with Clifford's thesis is this:

Whatever criterion is used to measure the sufficiency or insufficiency of "evidence", by the very nature of the case, it is not something that is susceptible to evidential verification. Rather, such criterion are "brute" principles by which we must assess the adequacy or inadequacy of evidence. It [first principles] cannot be "proven". Therefore, Clifford's approach is self-stultifying and/or incoherent.

Consider Clifford's statement:

"It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

Question: how does Clifford prove his own statement? What does he mean by "wrong"? Are ethical principles the sorts of things that can be scientifically verifiable? Are the methods and principles of science, themselves, scientifically/empirically verifiable?

"Should one say that Knowledge is founded on demonstration by a process of reasoning, let him hear that first principles are incapable of demonstration; for they are known neither by art nor sagacity."

St. Clement of Alexandria in his "Stromata" Bk. II; Ch. IV.

J said...

Are the methods and principles of science, themselves, scientifically/empirically verifiable?

Yes. Perhaps not to the satisfaction of some Plantinga- like theological businessman, but the method can be described, at least. Something like verification, observation, evidence-gathering occurs with scientific research (as well as with journalism, legal issues, history). You could examine field biologists at work, and see them taking data samples, which then are used to substantiate some hypothesis. Confirming evidentialism itself does not appear so problematic. That's not all scientists do; mathematics/ statistics may figure into the hypothesis, but that usually relates to data, evidence and observation. (And perhaps a concept-forming stage--still arguably evidence-based).

Far more problematic would be the theologian's attempt to confirm alleged supernatural religious events--as Clifford realized (as did his Hume). Confirming, say, instances of bubonic plague among squirrels in the San Gabriels is nothing compared to trying to confirm an ancient report of a person coming back to life, the angel Gabriel speaking to Muhammed, or a Jezebel riding a 7-headed Beast.

Holy Blood Red Heifer, batman