Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Anscombe experience: a crisis of faith?

I had something like Lewis's experience when I presented a paper at Notre Dame on eliminative materialism. My commentator was Bill Ramsey, a UCSD graduate who actually did most of his work with Steven Stich rather than the Churchlands. In the exchange that ensued, I think the general consensus was that he had gotten the better of it. Did that tempt me to become an eliminativist? Certainly not. Did I ever cease to think that some kind of self-refutation argument could be made to work against eliminativism? No. But what it did show me was that I had failed to get fully "inside" the eliminativist perspective to be able to bring up objections that would draw iron. Ramsey subsequently published his reply in Inquiry, and I responded to that, I thought, reasonably well in that same journal. I also wrote another paper which came out in Metaphilosophy examining the eliminativism debate in light of an analysis of the fallacy of begging the question.

The overall reaction in the Oxford community might have been embarrassing and hard on Lewis. Lewis has said that one thing he didn't like about these Socratic sessions was that the credibility of Christianity seemed to hang on his performance in some particular debate. The fact that his adversary was young, female (Oxford in 1948 was less than fully converted to gender equality), and hitherto unknown didn't help. I take it when he later says "She obliterated me as an apologist" what he was saying was that he thought she had damaged his reputation amongst people who went to the Socratic meetings.

I know there was a subsequent discussion of the exchange between Lewis and Anscombe at the home of Lewis's physician Havard, who knew both of them. I'd give my eyeteeth for a record of what was said at that meeting. I also know that Lewis published a rebuttal in the Socratic Digest that same year. So if there was a time when he thought he actually thought the argument might have been refuted, it didn't last long.

Lewis came to reject naturalism in favor of absolute idealism as a result of an argument of this type in the course of his disputations with Owen Barfield prior to his conversion. However, if you read Surprised by Joy (and there is even more to the story than he recorded there), there were lots of factors in his conversion. It's unlikely that this would have triggered a crisis of faith.

2 comments:

Matt said...

Just reading the Wikipedia entry on Anscombe you can see her impression of Lewis' reaction to their debate. Based on it's report of Anscombe's statement it seems like Lewis' faith was not much shaken and he rewrote his works that she disputed in a way that addressed them. Her impression is that the crisis of faith was reported by Lewis' friends who were likely projecting their feelings onto Lewis.

From Wikipedia:
"The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to meet Anscombe's objections], shows his honesty and seriousness. The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis's part [...]. My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis's rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments of the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection."

Matt said...

I suppose I should offer the link as well:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._E._M._Anscombe#Debate_with_C._S._Lewis