Friday, September 10, 2010

Some revisions in Talbott's response to Beversluis, and a lesson from Lewis on Ad Hominem arguments

Those who are familiar with what I write are aware that I have strict standards for avoiding ad hominem arguments. In my view, we are poorly situated to understand the motives and character of other people, and so we should stick to the issues and avoid casting aspersions on the character of those whose views we oppose. Some people think this is a matter of niceness, but I see it rather as a way of keeping discussion productive.

I think one example where a lot of people with whom I sympathize made a mistake in this direction was the various responses made by critics of the original edition of John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, published in 1985. As a Lewis defender, I was sympathetic to the content of their criticisms. At the same time Richard Purtill, for example, implied that Beversluis was being deliberately dishonest in his treatment, for example, of Lewis's A Grief Observed. Now, having written a book that was harshly critical of a highly regarded Christian thinker such as Lewis, he could expect harsh criticism in return. But I do think that moving from a critique of the contents of his treatment of Lewis to a discussion of his motives and character was misguided.

Now, of course, Beversluis wrote his 2007 revision of the book, this time with Prometheus Press as opposed to Eerdmans, and he there responded to various critics of his work. Just recently, Thomas Talbott has written a reply to Beversluis's revised edition, claiming that Beversluis badly misinterpreted his defense of Lewis's treatment of the problem of evil. I linked to it a few posts back. However, Talbott's essay, as it appeared when I linked to it, did contain some aspersions against Dr. Beversluis's character, and Beversluis e-mailed me to point out that Talbott's rejoinded did not meet what he knew to be my standards of ad hominem avoidance.

I sympathize with Talbott, and am inclined to agree that Beversluis committed some serious errors in interpreting his essay. (Interestingly enough James Petrik, who independently wrote an essay which made a number of points that are similar to those of Talbott, also complained about how his essay was interpreted by Beversluis, and I heard from him before I heard from Talbott). However, Talbott said that Beversluis "had no concern for accuracy" and even that he "had deliberately removed a modal operator" from one of Talbott's statements, and that steps over the line.

One important piece of evidence that makes me very reluctant to charge Beversluis with dishonesty is the fact that, in spite of the fact that it would advance the overall thesis of Beversluis's book that Lewis's apologetics fails miserably, in a review of A. N. Wilson's biography, and later in the revised book, he argued that Lewis did not abandon apologetics after his exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe. No one trying to tear Lewis down dishonestly would have given up on what I have called the Anscombe Legend. That legend is just too juicy for Lewis's opponents to throw away, and the only reason someone like Beversluis would abandon it was because it doesn't fit the facts.

It is very irritating, surely to be misinterpreted by a critic. However, we cannot do better than follow the example of Lewis himself, in his Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger.

How many times does a man have to say something before he is safe from the accusation of having said exactly the opposite? (I am not for a moment imputing dishonesty to Dr. Pittenger; we all know too well how difficult it is to grasp or retain the substance of a book one finds antipathetic.)"

In any event, Talbott has made some revisions in his essay to meet my criticisms. Those who want to determine how right, or wrong, Talbott is in his criticisms of Beversluis's interpretations should read Talbott's original article, read Beversluis's criticisms, and read Talbott's response. I realize that the relevant portions of Beversluis aren't available online.


finney said...

"form follows function."

in both beversluis' and talbott's writing, form exceeds function. while talbott may be right in asserting how competent philosophers would write certain sentences, he should be aware that competent philosophers don't humiliate philosophers for their imprecise writing. they may point it out, but i've never read anyone go out of his way to put someone down for his style of writing. i'm reminded of richard swinburne's graceful response to dawkins' distortions of swinburne's positions. i think that's a form to follow.

Chuck Starck said...

Why do fans of Lewis get so worked up over the fact that Anscombe whooped him in a debate?

I think that two factors come into play.
You have a woman who's an atheist.

It's one thing if a man who's an atheist another if it's a lady.

Lewis's proofs for God weren't impressing Anscombe and not only that - she was effectively refuting them.
So much so that years later we're debating the impact it had on Lewis's life.
Maybe he did continue with apologetics, maybe he didn't. But, something shook him deeply.

The typical mindset of the time was that women didn't get involved with areas like this. Christianity wants to keep women in a certain position.
Ms. Anscombe comes along and shatters all of that.
Lewis, we can imagine, was shocked first at the audicity and then troubled by the fact she was a better philosopher than him.

I'm going to do something that might shock you too. I'm going to concede that Lewis kept up with apologetics.
But here's the one thing you'll have to concede: the debate with Anscombe bothered Lewis so much, made him question his arguments for God's existence so much that we find ourselves today still questioning what was running through his head.

Peter said...

1) Anscombe is usually referred to as a Roman Catholic, not an atheist.
2) You psycho-analyze the context of a discussion on the problems of doing so in service of ad hominem attacks?


Charles Starck said...

This might surprise you - but I know alot of people who were raised Catholic (including yours truly) who do not consider themselves believing catholics.

It's more ethnicity.
You've heard of ethnic jews - but that isn't by any stretch of the imagination the same as them believing the tenents of the faith.

Same with ethnic catholics.
Or, nominal catholics if you wish.

I'm an ethnic/nominal catholic but I am an atheist too.
It's not hard to conceive of when you're not trying to be intentionally difficult.

I'm more than aware of Ancsombe's actual beliefs. And devout catholics tend not to argue with Christians of the existence of god.

kbrowne said...

Anscombe converted to Catholicism as a young woman and remained a believing Roman Catholic until she died.

In fact, Lewis suggested that the Socratic Club should ask Anscombe to give a talk on her reasons for believing in God.

I don't believe she ever did give such a talk though.

Victor Reppert said...

As I understand it, in her and husband Peter Geach's book "Three Philosophers," there is a defense of theistic arguments.

My concern about the Anscombe debate has to do with claims made with respect to its psychological impact, claims about which Anscombe herself has spoken in the most dismissive of terms.

The idea that "Christianity was to keep women in their place" is an excessive generalization. Lewis's views on men and women would probably not make most feminists happy, nor am I inclined to defend them, but that didn't keep him from friendship with Dorothy Sayers, or marriage to Joy Davidman, neither of who could be considered to be paradigm cases of women who stayed in their places.

Anscombe caused Lewis to realize that he had presented one of his central arguments inadequately. That's a "victory" in itself, if you want to talk that way. Does it refute the argument? Well, I've written a book arguing that it does no such thing. Further, I think that talk of winning and losing in this context is misleading. We are talking about the discussion of a philosophical issue, not a football game.

Victor Reppert said...

Further, the main reason why the "Anscombe legend" is even an issue is because of rumor-mongering by biographers like Humphrey Carpenter and A. N. Wilson. Please note that Beversluis, the last person on earth anyone could possibly accuse of being an apologist for Lewis's apologetics, debunks these exaggerated and, to my mind, irresponsible claims by people like Wilson and Carpenter. Shouldn't that tell you something?

Dustin Crummett said...

I'm more than aware of Ancsombe's actual beliefs.

Being in the context of a discussion about the inappropriateness of ad hominem attacks, I will refrain from saying what I was at first going to and instead say merely, "Obviously not."

BenYachov said...

Anscombe was a strong Catholic not an Atheist when she debated Lewis & she is also famous for her smack down of the errors of David Hume on causality(as cited by Feser a modern ex-Atheist turned Catholic philosopher & Conway).

To claim she was an Atheist when she debated Lewis is about as bad as claiming Darwin renouncing his theory on his deathbed & "converting". Yikes!

>And devout catholics tend not to argue with Christians of the existence of god.

I reply: No but they might argue against the use of bad or inferior arguments for the existence of God.

For a modern example See Feser's debate with ID proponent William Dembski.

It's not hard.

Victor Reppert said...

Devout Catholics don't argue with theistic arguments?

I take it everyone considers St. Thomas Aquinas a devout Catholic, right? Then, why did Aquinas not only criticize Anselm's ontological argument, he also rejected Kalam-type arguments for the claim that the universe began to exist?

Are you kidding me?

Tom Talbott said...

What I thought was a fairly brief comment turned out to be too long. So I'll here split it into two pieces:

I wish to thank Victor and all others who have expressed concerns of any kind about my critique of John Beversluis. Here I would single out Finney’s remarks (see the first comment above) as being especially important. For even though I want to quibble with the specifics of what he wrote, I nonetheless appreciate the spirit behind what he wrote. I’ll begin with a couple of quibbles.

First, I do not believe that I have criticized Beversluis for his writing style. In fact, I think his writing style is very effective; and if that were not the case, I would probably never have responded in any way to his critique of Lewis, Petrik, and me. But I also believe that his effective writing style is apt to conceal a lot of logical confusion from the philosophically untrained. So, for the sake of the non-philosophers among Lewis’s many devoted fans (including several members of my larger family), I did go out of my way to point out some logical confusions in Beversluis’s discussion of the problem of evil and to point them out in as forceful and hard-hitting a way as I could. Had I been writing for an audience of professional philosophers, I might have expressed myself very differently. Or, as is more likely, I might have seen no point in writing at all.

Tom Talbott said...

Second, some may question the very possibility of a sharp distinction between pointing out the logical confusions in a written work and criticizing someone’s writing style. If so, then I would point out the following: One can surely find numerous counterexamples to the claim that “competent philosophers don’t humiliate philosophers” for their logical confusions. During my own graduate school days, for example, the cigar smoking Elizabeth Anscombe, whom I once had the privilege of seeing in action, had quite a reputation for the way she sometimes humiliated an opponent in debate. Indeed, that sharp tongue of hers no doubt contributed to the myth that she had utterly devastated Lewis and that Lewis therefore wrote no more apologetic works after his own encounter with her.

Still, having said all of that, I do have moral qualms about some of what I have written, especially the sentence to which Finney alludes. In response to Beversluis’s claim that a view I expressed in my 1987 article is both appalling and outrageous, is undeserving of a reply, and logically commits me to a moral obligation to oppose all efforts to eliminate various evils, I deliberately chose to respond in kind, which I probably should not have done. Because Beversluis did not even identify the specific proposition that supposedly entails the obligation he alleges, I probably should have been content simply to challenge him to identify it. For the added comment about competence (which I’ll not repeat here) was, at best, an instance of very poor writing on my part and, at worst, morally inappropriate.

In any event, Beversluis tells us that part of his purpose in his book is “to show, by means of example after example, the extent to which the apparent cogency of his [Lewis’s] arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic” (p. 20). And the purpose of my own critique of Beversluis is analogous to that, namely, to show, by means of one example after another, “the extent to which the apparent cogency of his arguments” in Chapter Nine of his book “depends upon his rhetoric rather than on his logic.” And insofar as Beversluis sought to dismantle Lewis’s apologetic arguments in a systematic way, he should hardly find it surprising that someone might eventually try to do the same thing to some of his own arguments.