Wednesday, January 30, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Sensible Supporters

In analyzing John Beversluis’s revision of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, I think some things have to be clarified, it is important to understand what the book claims to do. To do this we have to distinguish four different types of responses to Lewis:

1) Hagiographical supporters. These are writers who read Lewis and say, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “Well, that about wraps it up for atheism” (or whatever else Lewis happens to be attacking). Richard Purtill and Peter Kreeft certainly sound like this sometimes.
2) Sensible supporters. Sensible supporters hold that Lewis’s apologetics are far from flawless or that a few Lewis quotes are hardly sufficient to demolish whole philosophical traditions. Sensible supporters realize there may be rough edges to sand off and ever errors to correct. However, with proper philosophical development, Lewis’s arguments have real positive apologetic force. Obviously, this is where I would put myself, along with Steve Lovell and Thomas Talbott.
3) Loyal opponents. Loyal opponents think Lewis is an honest, serious, and competent thinker. However, they also maintain that in the final analysis Lewis’s arguments are unsuccessful. Erik Wielenberg falls into this category, as does Beversluis, in spite of some passages in the first edition that might have suggested to some that he belongs in the fourth category below.
4) Hostile critics. These are people who think Lewis is not only wrong, but either stupid, ignorant, insane or wicked, someone who deserves to be laughed off the intellectual stage. S. T. Joshi would be an example of one of these, and in spite of some patronizing praise, would A. N. Wilson.

Beversluis’s central claim is that Lewis’s apologetics are entirely unsuccessful, and that his popularity as an apologist is the result primarily of rhetoric rather than intellectual substance. Assessing this claim is going to be more difficult than it looks. The reason is that a criticism directed again a popular apologist from an earlier generation has involves issues you don’t have when you are dealing with a trained philosopher working in the contemporary analytic tradition. The reason that this is so is that the terminology, the style of argumentation, form a set of common expectations by which we judge each other in contemporary philosophy. But even in dealing with our philosophical predecessors, not all errors in argument are created equal. For example, as I discuss in my book, David Hume’s famous “Of Miracles” employs a mathematical probability theory that no one today would take seriously and which leads to absurd consequences. Whether that results in his argument being judged an “abject failure,” as John Earman suggests that it does, or whether some less severe estimation is in order, is a matter for further argumentation. Could a present-day admirer of Hume, armed with an up-to-date Bayesian probability theory, get the kind of result that Hume was aiming at? I, like Earman, would say no, but to establish such a claim would take more than pointing out the errors in Hume’s mathematical probability theory.

Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris, in his review in
Faith and Philosophy, makes this claim concerning Beversluis’s first edition:

My main philosophical criticism of this book is that Beversluis seldom comes anywhere near digging deep enough to really appreciate a line of thought suggested by Lewis. All too often he gives a facile, fairly superficial reconstruction of a line of argument, and after subjecting it to some critical questioning, declares it bankrupt and moves on. What is so disappointing to the reader who is trained in philosophy is that in most such instances a few minutes of reflective thought suffice to see that there are very interesting considerations to be marshalled in the direction Lewis was heading, considerations altogether neglected by [Beversluis].

It is a mistake to expect Lewis to have arguments sufficiently polished to pass muster in present-day philosophical journals. Lewis, of course, simplifies them for general consumption. The real question is whether they provide legitimate insights that can be developed into good philosophical arguments. If someone is tempted to think that Lewis can do all of our thinking for us, then it is worthwhile to be reminded that there are things the skeptic can say back. However, this is hardly sufficient to establish a verdict of abject failure against C. S. Lewis.

An example of this would be Lewis’s claim that quantum-mechanical indeterminism is a “threat” to naturalism. Clearly, this is not a claim that I would want to defend. Nevertheless, when we look at Lewis’s overall argument against naturalism, we find that amending naturalism to include quantum-mechanical indeterminism will not get around the difficulty that Lewis is posing for naturalism in the argument from reason. Getting a better, more adequate definition for naturalism, one that leaves Lewis’s central insights essentially in place, is an easy task for a trained philosopher who is a sensible supporter such as myself. So yes, a criticism can be lodged against Lewis, but the criticism isn’t terribly far-reaching.

My own efforts with respect to the argument from reason have been along these lines, attempting, in Morris’s words to draw those “interesting considerations to be marshaled in the direction Lewis was heading.” To get a verdict of abject failure you need to show that there is nothing apologetically fruitful in those considerations. As you might expect, I don’t think that either edition of Beversluis’s book, or Wielenberg’s book for that matter, achieves that goal.

The other danger here, of course, would be to attribute more credit than he deserves in developing the idea, when the actual nuts and bolts of the argument are developed by subsequent people. But, at least with respect to the AFR, I still judge that Lewis's contribution is substantial enough that to justify the title of my book. But you may disagree, of course.

Barack Obama replies to the State of the Union

Maybe this will work now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gordon Hinckley is dead

The prophet, seer, and revelator of the Mormon Church has died at 97. Who replaces him will have a major impact on Mormonism, since, if anything, the president of the Mormon church is more powerful in the Mormon Church than the pope is in the Catholic Church.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wright on Lewis the apologist

N. T. Wright: Lewis has indeed built a fine building with lots of splendid features, and many people have been properly and rightly attracted to buy up apartments in it and move in. Some parts of the building have remained in great shape, and are still well worth inhabiting. But I fear that those who move in to other parts will find that the foundations are indeed shaky, and that the roof leaks a bit.

VR: Why should anyone expect an apologetic mansion in perfect repair from a mid-century popular apologist? If Wright's criticisms are all that is wrong with the trilemma argument, it's in pretty good shape.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On C. S. Lewis and success

Ed Babinski and John Loftus: Was it so difficult to understand that in the post on reasons for Lewis's success as an apologist I meant that success in being popular and persuasive? After all, if you read to the end of the post, you would have seen that I said that:

All of these things, I believe, have contribute to Lewis’s popular success as an apologist. However, all of these achievements, which are considerable, are quite compatible with Lewis’s having provided poor and inadequate reasons for accepting Christianity. Lewis's apologetics still must be put before the bar of rational argument, just like anyone else's.

Actually, this was the beginning of an essay I eventually published in a four-volume Lewis encyclopedia in which I replied to Beversluis's first edition on the problem of evil, A Grief Observed, and ethical subjectivism. I am linking to a page on the encyclopedia set here. I think some of the points in this essay could be carried over to the new edition, while others of course would not.

Obviously, people are going to be debating Lewis's arguments long after Beversluis and I are both dead. I think that they provide at least the foundations of good apologetical arguments by and large, and he does not. I think, for instance that he missed some important points in my development of the argument from reason, which I plan to discuss either here or at DI2 in the near future.

As for Ed's question as to whether I am the only Christian philosopher that references Lewis very often, just read Beversluis's book and count the number of Christian defenders of Lewis he responds to. Big hint: the number is much higher than 1.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A new word in the Book of Mormon

That's a way to deal with the problems generated by apparent conflict between science and one's holy book: just get the holy book changed a little.

P. S. One Brow is quite right, of course. The change is to the introduction, written in the 1980s. A more interesting question concerns what this does to the historic mission of the Mormon church. Historically, this has involved a special mission to Native Americans on grounds that they are Lamanites, that is, descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples. At one time this was the basis for an adoption program of Native Americans into Mormon households, and past President Spencer Kimball is notorious for having said that the program must be working because you can see the effects of greater righteousness in these adoptees by seeing that their skin has gotten whiter in the course of their adoption to those Mormon households. If Mormons stop believing that the people who live on the res are Lamanites, doesn't that entail that one of the Mormon Church's primary missions has been misguided all these years?

Another interesting question is whether the Prophet, Seer and Revelator (aka the President) of the Mormon Church could change the text of the book of Mormon if the PSR were to claims fresh revelation as a basis for doing so. Given a belief not only in modern revelation but also in ongoing revelation, this would be more to be expected coming from Mormonism than it would be coming from either Catholic or Protestant Christianity.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More on Lewis and Determinism

Lewis actually asserts that indeterministic naturalism admits something other than nature, not something supernatural, but rather subnatural, and therefore on his view indeterminism and the quantum-mechanical level is in conflict with naturalism.
What he says is:
Now it will be noticed that if this theory is true we have really admitted something other than Nature. If the movements of the individual units are events 'on their own', events which do not interlock with all other events, then these movements are not part of Nature. It would be, indeed, too great a shock to our habits to describe them as super-natural. I think we should have to call them sub-natural. But all our confidence that Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on, would have disappeared. There is apparently something outside her, the Subnatural; it is indeed from this Subnatural that all events and all 'bodies' are, as it were, fed into her. And clearly if she thus has a back door opening on the Subnatural, it is quite on the cards that she may also have a front door opening on the Supernatural-and events might be fed into her at that door too.

So, contrary to what Jason says, I don't think Lewis is considering non-deterministic forms of naturalism in this chapter. What he's saying is "these guys aren't really naturalists, naturalists have to be determinists."

The real problem with using this against Lewis's argument is that when you look at what Lewis says is missing from a naturalistic understanding of reason, namely, the relevance of ground-consequent relations and the perception of ground-consequent relations in a world governed by blind cause and effect, you find that denying determinism doesn't get the naturalist where the naturalist wants to go in overcoming what Lewis takes to be the "cardinal difficulty."
One of the complaints that I am going to be making against Beversluis's discussions of Lewis is that he too often presents a problem for what Lewis says without determining whether this problem can be easily fixed by a Lewis-friendly philosopher. On the other hand, in this case Beversluis doesn't seem to me turning this into one of the primary objections to Lewis's argument.

Debate on God at Stanford

Following the evidence where it leads

DEBATE: Atheism vs. Theism and The Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design
Sunday, January 27th at 4pm PST, Stanford University

Stanford University will play host to a debate entitled Atheism vs. Theism & the Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design. This debate is being organized by student groups at Stanford: IDEA Club at Stanford,The Stanford Review and Vox Clara: A Journal of Christian Thought at Stanford.

Chirstopher Hitchens vs. Jay Richards

Christopher Hitchens — Contributing editor to Vanity Fair; visiting professor, New School in New York; author of God is Not Great.
Jay W. Richards — Research Fellow and Director of Acton Media at the Acton Institute; co-author, with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery.

Hosted by Ben Stein — Journalist, author and actor in the soon-to-be released movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Moderated by Michael Cromertie — Vice President at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; co-editor, with Richard John Neuhaus, of Piety and Politics.

Sunday, January 27th at 4pm PST

Stanford University
Dinkelspiel Auditorium
471 Lagunita Drive
Stanford, CA 94305

TICKETS: You must have a ticket to attend the event. Tickets can be reserved/obtained at no charge, by emailing: You must provide this information: Name, Affiliation ("Referred by …"), # of tickets. Seating is limited and tickets will be reserved on a first come, first reserved basis. On the day of the debate there will be a table out front for reserved tickets, and you can pick them up there at the event.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Determinism is irrelevant to the argument from reason

Lewis's account of naturalism seems to imply that it does, although he mentions quantum-mechanical theories suggesting it does not. John Beversluis, in his treatment of Lewis's argument from reason, points out that Lewis does not consider or refute indeterministic forms of naturalism.

However, in dealing with more recent versions of the argument from reason the question of determinism is irrelevant, as I argued in a recent essay:

Exactly what does Lewis mean by naturalism? Very often the terms Naturalism and Materialism are used interchangeably, but at other times it is insisted that the two terms have different meanings. Lewis says,

“What the naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process of time and space which is going on of its own accord. Inside that total system every event (such as your sitting reading this book) happens because some other event has happened; in the long run, because the Total Event is happening. Each particular thing (such as this page) is what it is because other things are what they are; and so, eventually, because the whole system is what it is.”

As a presentation of naturalism, however, this might be regarded as inadequate by contemporary naturalists, because it saddles the naturalist with a deterministic position. The mainstream position in contemporary physics involves an indeterminism at the quantum-mechanical level. Lewis himself thought that this kind of indeterminism was really a break with naturalism, admitting the existence of a lawless Subnature as opposed to Nature, but most naturalists today are prepared to accept quantum-mechanical indeterminism as part of physics and do not see it as a threat to naturalism as they understand it. Some critics of Lewis have suggested that his somewhat deficient understanding of naturalism undermines his argument. Lewis, however, insisted on “making no argument” out of quantum mechanics and expressed a healthy skepticism about making too much of particular developments in science that might be helpful to the cause of apologetics.
However, contemporary defenders of the Argument from Reason such as William Hasker and myself have developed accounts of materialism and naturalism that are neutral as to whether or not physics is deterministic or not. Whatever Lewis might have said about quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, the problems he poses for naturalism arise whether determinism at the quantum-mechanical level is true or not.
Materialism or naturalism, as we understand it, is committed to three fundamental theses.
1) The basic elements of the material or physical universe function blindly, without purpose. Man is the product, says Bertrand Russell, of forces that had no prevision of the end they were achieving. Richard Dawkins’ exposition and defense of the naturalistic world view is called The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World Without Design not because no one ever designs anything in a naturalistic world, but because, explanations in terms of design must be reduced out in the final analysis. Explanation always proceeds bottom-up, not top-down.
2) The physical order is causally closed. There is nothing transcendent to the physical universe that exercises any causal influence on it.
3) Whatever does not occur on the physical level supervenes on the physical. Given the state of the physical, there is only one way the other levels can be.

These three claims can be true if "the physical" is deterministic or not. Even if there are no determining physical causes, if all that makes it undetermined and is nothing but brute chance, this hardly introduces libertarian free will or reason.

Steve Davis on the origin of the trilemma

Hi Victor, several years ago, I e-mailed two prominent patristic
scholars who are friends of mine, and neither was aware of anything
like the Lewis trilemma argument in the church fathers. And I'm reasonably
sure it is not found in Luther or Calvin. Maybe Chesterton made it up;
I just do not know where it came from.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Madeleine Bunting on Richard Dawkins

Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Craig vs. Kai Nielsen on Moral Values

This is a debate between Bill Craig and Kai Nielsen on morality and objective moral values.

A question concerning the relations of religion to morality

1.) Consider the following cases of the relation of morality and religion.

a) The 9/11 hijackers thinking they are doing the will of Allah by attacking the World Trade Centers.
b) A Christian refusing to get an abortion even though carrying the child to term would cause economic hardship.
c) A religious couple delaying sex until marriage because of their religious beliefs.
d) Hakeem Olajuwon refusing to market an excessively expensive basketball shoe because of his belief that Allah does not approve of gouging the public. (Remember the kids who were murdered for their Air Jordans?)
e) Thomas Jefferson saying that we were endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.
f) Girls forced in the name of religion in Colorado City to enter into polygamous marriages with older men.
g) Martin Luther King’s conviction that there is a law above the laws of the state of Alabama which make it wrong to discriminate against African Americans, even though it’s the law.

All these are instances of religion influencing morality. But they don’t seem to be all equal. What makes the effect of religion on actions good, or bad, or in different?

Bobby Fischer is dead

Bobby Fischer's passing marks the end of an era for chessplayers of my generation. As a player in high school and college in the early 1970s I followed Fischer's rise to the world title very closely. The final match with Spassky was, no doubt, the chess event of the century, filled with drama from beginning to end. I am linking to Dennis's blog for more information.

Dennis's chess story about Fischer reminds me of my own big Fischer story. I was playing in the American Open in 1972 in the last round. I had just declined a draw offer from my unrated opponent, hoping to squeeze the point out of a slightly better position. Then I heard a huge ruckus as hundreds of people started milling across the playing room towards the top board. The reason eventually became clear: Bobby Fischer, the newly crowned World Champion, had walked in the room, and wanted to see Larry Remlinger's top board game. So I did the only sensible thing; I took my draw and joined the throng. He headed out the building into one of about six cabs to escape detection. I heard someone say as he left, "I've just seen God."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

John Hare on the evolutionary foundations of morality

John Hare is a Christian philosopher and the son of R. M. Hare.

Friday, January 18, 2008

How does religion, or the lack of it, affect values?

What it is to be physical

Since the issue of what the physical came up in a comment b y Amandalaine in the combox for the "computers" entry, I thought I would explain further.

In my view, there are four things that have to be lacking for something to be considered "physical."

1) Intentionality. At the most basic level of analysis, no physical thing is about any other thing. Intentionality, if it exists, is a system by-product.

2) Purpose. There is apparent purpose which is explained away in terms of Darwinian function.

3) Subjectivity. Physical things, per se, have no point of view.

4) Normativity. Nothing about the physical entails that some physical state ought to exist as opposed to some other.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Beversluis's New Edition

I have redated this post by a few days because I wanted people to notice that I put a correction on the comment line to one claim that I had made about the conclusion of Beversluis's argument.

23 years ago, John Beversluis’s book, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion was published. I was then in my first year as a philosophy student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The previous semester I had taken Hugh Chandler’s metaphysics class and we had already begun discussions of what later came to be known as Lewis’s argument from reason. At that time Beversluis’s book was published by a Christian publisher, Eerdmans, and two of the endorsements on the dust jacket were from leading Christian philosophers. On that basis, a reader might have come to expect Beversluis’s book to be a relatively friendly critique of Lewis’s apologetics, perhaps along the lines of Thomas V. Morris’s critical study of Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics. Morris showed that Schaeffer’s arguments were underdeveloped, admonished against excessive idolization of popular apologists, and made some recommendations as to how the Schaeffer’s arguments could be made stronger, though he also recommended that they be put to the service of more modest claims.

In the beginning of the book, it might seem as if that was what Beversluis was up to. But further reading dashed those expectations. The criticisms of each argument: the argument from desire, the moral argument, the “trilemma,” and the argument from reason, yielded a verdict of abject failure, with no suggestion that the arguments could be revised and strengthened. The tone at points was quite harsh, attributing blatant fallacies to Lewis, especially the fallacy of the straw man and the false dilemma. At some points expressions like “irresponsible writing” and “considerably worse than fuzzy” thinking were used. Though at other points Beversluis seemed to show at least some sympathy toward Lewis the man.

In the latter part of the book Beversluis made the case that Lewis had no adequate answer for the problem of evil, and that his own agonized response to his wife’s death in A Grief Observed constituted a repudiation of his previous apologetics and an abandonment not only of his previous views on pain and suffering, but also of rational religion itself. The conclusion of the book was not simply that Lewis had failed to successfully defend Christianity, but that his apologetic career showed that Christianity could not be rationally defended.

It should not be too surprising that persons well-disposed toward Lewis and his apologetics might be angered by a critique of this kind. Now, sharply worded criticism is part and parcel with the activity of philosophy and is to be expected. But some responses to Beversluis went considerably beyond criticism to actually impugning the Beversluis’s intellectual integrity. One response, by Richard Purtill, defended this claim:

My purpose in this paper is to convince the reader, by evidence and argument, that the general impression given by the television play, the books, and the article are not only false, but perniciously and culpably false. It is in fact part of the counter-attack against Lewis’s outstandingly successful defence of the rationality and probability of Christianity, and it is a particularly unfair and underhanded counter-attack, because it distorts Lewis’s work and exploits his personal tragedy. (Purtill, “Did C. S. Lewis Lose his Faith” in A Christian for all Christians, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).

Further on in his essay, he explains Beversluis’s motivation in terms of envy at Lewis’s success as an apologist.

Now, there may be times when it is reasonable and sensible to make charges of this sort. However, if unless one is prepared and able to meet a very high standard of proof in defense of such claims, it is best to avoid making them. It doesn’t help Purtill’s cause at all that he entitled his essay “Did C. S. Lewis Lose his Faith,” a question that Beversluis answered quite firmly in the negative. Beversluis never said Lewis lost his faith, he said that in the course of his grief experience he decisively compromised his apologetic position; that after calling God a bunch of names for putting him through that the ordeal of grief he abandoned the objections, but also moved from what Beversluis calls a Platonist view of God to an Ockhamist view of God. That is a very different charge, one that can be criticized, (and I have criticized it myself), but one that Purtill never actually addresses.

It is valuable to remember that Lewis himself, after making a charge of misinterpretation against Dr. Pittenger, wrote:

"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.)”

Lewis is more than sensible in refusing to charge his opponent with dishonesty even when he found himself to be egregiously misinterpreted, and in the absence of very strong evidence we should do likewise.

Any doubts I might have had about the honesty and seriousness of Beversluis’s work on Lewis was decisively smashed when I read his review of A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis. He protests against Wilson’s psychoanalyzing, claiming that many of his assertions are based on very poor evidence. But one paragraph stood out to me. In his book and in a related article published at the same time Beversluis quoted some people who claimed that Lewis essentially abandoned apologetics after the exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe, but in the review of Wilson, he takes that all back.

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.

(Beversluis, “Surprised by Freud” Christianity and Literature (1991).

I remember reading this passage when James Sire, the former editor of IVP, sent Beversluis’s paper to me. Ideologues and dishonest thinkers don’t take their claims back if they find them to be unsupported by evidence. They just don’t. Besides, what I have called the Anscombe Legend is a key dimension in the anti-C. S. Lewis playbook. It gets repeated over and over again until people actually think it’s true. Most recently, I found it in Philip Pullman’s anti-Lewis diatribes. No anti-Lewis ideologue could possibly abandon the Anscombe legend, but Beversluis did.

Now that Prometheus Books has published a second edition of Beversluis’s book, I can say that the spirit that engendered this change in the treatment of the Anscombe controversy can be found throughout his revised edition. He has called by own book “scrupulously fair,” a compliment that I am more than proud to receive. In his treatment of the argument from desire, he acknowledges a critic’s charge that Lewis’s argument could be developed as an inductive argument as well as a deductive argument, and considers the argument as an inductive argument. In his treatment of morality in the previous edition he considers it irresponsible that Lewis characterized ethical subjectivists as people for whom moral judgments are on a level with “a liking for pancakes or a dislike for spam” but in the revised edition he admits that Russell said almost the same thing in describing his own view. His treatment of the “Lord or Lunatic” argument takes critics into consideration. He once again criticizes the Anscombe Legend, though he defends Anscombe’s arguments against Lewis. In his treatment of the problem of pain he withdraws the charge, made in the prior edition, that Lewis started with a Platonist view and then retreated to a position that “differs only semantically from Ockhamism.” The new edition is a fresh, serious effort that deserves fair attention by Lewis’s admirers. It’s must reading for anyone interested in Lewis’s apologetics.

Now I am not going to say, with John Loftus, that Beversluis has provided an overwhelming blow against Lewis’s apologetics. Beversluis thinks that the apparent strength of Lewis’s apologetics is mostly in the rhetoric, and I do not. He thinks a case against the rationality of the Christian faith can be developed on the basis of Lewis's life and writings, and I do not. Unlike him, I think that we can follow what I have called Lewis’s “outstanding philosophical instincts” and find and develop good arguments, although I would not vouch for the technical adequacy of those arguments as Lewis presents them. We “sensible supporters” of C. S. Lewis have work to do, too. But I think that I have shown with my book, and Beversluis with his, that the merits and demerits of Lewis’s apologetics can be discussed with courtesy and without recourse to ad hominems.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Aut Deus Aut Malus Homo

The actual structure of the argument generally known as the "trilemma" is indicated by the argument's Latin name, aut deus aut malus homo or either God or a bad man. This suggests that in order to understand the argument you have to consider it a dilemma first, and then subdivide "bad man" into however many possibilities you like: liar, lunatic, legend, benignly delusion, that you want. If an argument has a name in Latin, this suggests that the argument is quite old, and it raises some questions as to who its initial target was. I have talked to people who have worked on it more than I have and they just say it goes back to the Middle Ages. So who was the target. Not, I suppose, members of the Jesus Seminar. Not atheists, who were not prevalent back when Latin was spoken. Arians and post-Arians, maybe? Or Muslims, who consider Christ a great prophet but vehemently deny his claim to be God?

In any event this essay is interesting, in that it takes off from a passage which John Meier, who have Jesus Seminar-type views on Jesus, thinks comes from Jesus himself. This reminds me of the arguments of Stephen Davis, who takes statements the Jesus Seminar thinks Jesus actually said and argues, on that basis, that even going from those passages Jesus is still making implicit divine claims.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Some argument against objective moral values

Are there more than this? These were what I could come up with.

I. The argument from disagreement:
1. People and cultures disagree extensively about what is right and wrong.
2. Probably, if moral judgments were objectively true or false, people would not disagree extensively about what is right or wrong.
3. Therefore, probably, moral judgments are subjective.

II. The argument from nonphysical realities
1. Probably, there are no realities that are not physical in nature; that is, that do not exist at particular places and times and are not complex states of fundamental physical particles.
2. If objective moral values exist, then there would be realities that are not physical in nature.
3. Therefore, probably, there are no objective moral values.

III. Argument from atheism
1. Probably, unless there is a God, there cannot be objective moral values.
2. There is no God.
3. Therefore, probably, there are no objective moral values.

IV. Argument from science:
1. What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.
2. Science cannot discover which moral values are correct and which are not.
3. Therefore, mankind cannot discover which moral values are correct and which are not.
4. If we cannot in principle discover what moral values are right or wrong, then we ought to view them as subjective and not objective.
5. Therefore, we ought to view moral values as subjective and not objective.

Lewis's Three Arguments for Moral Objectivity

This is a redated post

C. S. Lewis’s arguments for moral objectivity in Mere Christianity

First, an account of subjective vs. objective.

Something is objective just in case there can be real disagreements in which one party or the other must be mistaken. Both sides can’t be right. If I say O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, and you say he didn’t, one of us is mistaken. Even if, as the defense argued at the trial, there wasn’t evidence to settle the question beyond a reasonable doubt, the fact is that either O. J. did it, or he did not. So the question of O. J.’s guilt is an objective, not a subjective matter.

Something is subjective just in case there are no real disagreements and no one is really right or wrong. If I think McDonald’s burgers are better than Burger King’s, and you like Burger King’s better, we both can be right for ourselves. It’s a matter of what tastes good to us, and there is no grounds for dispute. As the Romans used to say “De gustibus non est disptandum” (in matters of taste there is no disputing).

Bertrand Russell said:

“The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the “subjectivity” of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says “oysters are good” and another says “I think they are bad,” we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question says that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters.”

This is the position that Lewis is criticizing both in Mere Christianity and in the Abolition of Man.

Lewis's first argument is the argument from implied practice. People are, at best, inconsistent moral subjectivists. He writes:

"But the most remarkable thing is this. whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking on to him he will be complaining 'It's not fair' before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying taht the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there iis no such ting as Right and Wrong--in other words, if there is no Law of Nature--what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?"

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

Some examples may help:

1) A student once wrote a paper for a professor defending moral subjectivism. He made extensive use of anthopological and sociological evidence and the paper was well-written. He put the paper in a blue folder and gave it to the professor. The professor returned it with an "F" and said "I do not like blue folders." The student, of course protested, pointing out all the effort that went into the paper. the teacher replied "Your paper argues that moral values are subjective, that they are a matter of preference?" Yes, replied the student. Well, the grade is an "F" I do not like blue folders. Of course the student could say "But that's not fair," but to do so would, of course, compromise his subjectivist principles.

2) A fellow philosophy teacher, who was an opponent of abortion and relativism, was having trouble with her 14-year old daughter. The daughter said "I think abortion is OK. That's my opinion. And if you don't think so, that's your opinion." I suggested to her (this is better philosophy than parenting)that she tell her daughter, "So long as you are under my roof, you do not have a right to your own opinion on abortion. So, until you change your mind, you're grounded." Of course, the daughter can reply "But that's not fair...I have a right to my opinion" but to do so would, once again,undermine her subjectivist principles.

3) In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin was proclaiming that he didn't believe in ethics, that it's a dog eat dog world, that if someone is in your way you have to push them out of the way to get ahead, and that the end justifies the means. All of a sudden, Hobbes shoves Calvin to the ground. Calvin yells WHY DID YOU DO THAT? Hobbes replies, " You were in my way. Now you're not. The end justifies the means."

By the way one way of defending objective moral values, which we have discussed earlier on this blog, is from the standpoint of rights. If we have rights, that means there is an objectively binding moral obligation on the part of others to allow you to exercise those rights. Otherwise, the idea of rights makes no sense. If I have a right to life, that only makes sense if you have a moral obligation not to kill me.

Lewis’s second argument is the Argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:

1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

Yes, there are differences in moral codes. However, some differences in moral codes can be explained in terms of differences about the facts. People don’t burn witches today (Lewis’s example) not because using Satan’s supernatural powers wouldn’t a serious offense against humanity to warrant severe punishment, but because we no longer believe people actually have and use such powers.

Consider also the differences concerning human sacrifice. (Ollie’s example) The ancient Aztecs thought it was right to sacrifice humans, we do not. However, the Aztecs and ourselves both believe that we have a prima facie obligation not to kill people. The Aztecs, however, believed that there were gods who had the right to demand human sacrifices, and when they are demanded, the duty not to kill is overridden by the moral requirement to do what the gods command. The Abrahamic tradition, going back to, well, Abraham, maintains that the true God does not make those sorts of demands.

Other differences can be explained in terms of how widely we expand the concept of “neighbor.” Moral codes require that we treat our neighbor with respect, but we may limit the concept of “neighbor” to one’s fellow tribe member, or countryman, or a member of one’s own race, etc. It is Jesus’s contribution (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) to our moral understanding that we ought to assess the question “Who is my neighbor” from the bottom of a ditch.

“I only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country in where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.” (p. 19 in my edition).

The third argument for moral objectivity is the Argument from Reformers. There have been reformers in the history of the human race whom we believe to have improved our understanding of what is right and wrong. An example (mine) would be Rosa Parks. Parks challenged the principle that African-American people should acquiesce in being treated as inferiors and challenged the Birmingham bus system’s policy of requiring African-American riders to give up their seats. Because of her stand, and that of Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movements, laws were changed in such a way as to require equal treatment under the law.

But if you think that the laws of the state of Alabama are more just today than they were when Rosa refused to give up her seat, then you are applying an objective standard of justice. If on the other hand, you maintain that morals are just social conventions, then Rosa’s actions would have to be considered wrong, because they contravened the social convention of the time.

So the argument is:

1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

moral objectivity

Again, I am redating the moral objectivity post because we are covering it in my Philosophy 105 class.

Are Moral Values Objective?

I. Facts and Opinions: Before I start to answer this question, let me rant and rave a little bit about the “fact and opinion” exercises that are given to school children. (Here, I am operating in the tradition of C. S. Lewis, who in the Abolition of Man complained about the implied positivist philosophy that he thought to be smuggled into students’ English textbooks). This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.

This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.

II. What is it for something to be an objective matter? An objective matter is about which it is possible to be mistaken. Let’s take
1) 2 + 2 + 4 or
2) The earth is round.

If someone says something that contradicts these claims, we quite straightforwardly say that they are wrong. There is, for example a Flat Earth society, headquartered in Illinois. (If you’ve ever been to Illinois, you might understand why people who live here are tempted to think the earth is flat). These people sincerely believe that the earth is flat, but there is little temptation to say that they the earth is really flat for them, even though it is round for the rest of us. Contrast this with

3) McDonald’s burgers are better tasting than Burger King’s
4) Belching after dinner is rude

In the first instance, we are inclined to suppose that the statement in incomplete; in order to assess its truth or falsity we have to ask “better tasting to whom?” It’s a matter of individual preference, and no further debate or discussion is necessary. In the second case, most of us are inclined to suppose that while it may have been true in our home, there are cultures elsewhere in the world where it is manifestly false, where an after-dinner belch is required by good manners to indicate that one is satisfied with the meal that has been prepared. In neither case are most of us inclined to think that the people who differ with us about 3 or 4 have false beliefs.

But now consider
5) There is life on other planets equivalent or superior in intelligence to our own or
6) God exists

In the case of 5, the matter seems clearly to be an objective one, although I at least, have no clue as to whether it is true or false. I’m very sure that it’s either true or false, whether it is true or false strikes me as something I am not in a position to know.

But 6 seems equally and obviously to be an objective matter. “But not everyone believes that there is a God.” Yes, not everyone believes that the earth is round. If no one can be mistaken about whether or not God exists, then it would have to be that case that God exists for everyone who sincerely believes that God exists, but God does not exist for the people who believe that God does not exist. On this account, God is like Tinkerbell, the fairy who continues to exist so long as people believe in fairies.

Now in order for the objectivity to be made clear, we have to have a clear definition of God in mind. The standard definition of God in philosophy is a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If might be that one person might believe some being (say, the Force of Star Wars) to be describable as God, while another might not. That’s why we need a definition of the conception of God to make the claim objective.

But what about moral statements like

7) Abortion is always wrong unless carrying the pregnancy to term will endanger the life of the mother.

This is a profoundly debatable question, one that I can’t settle easily. Some people accept it, others do not. But the same can be said for 5 and 6. There are arguments that can be given both for and against 7. Sometimes the profundity of the disagreement about abortion is take to be evidence that moral differences cannot even be argued about, and that therefore they are subjective. However, let’s notice two things about the abortion controversy.
Both sides seem to agree that

A) Human life has value and
B) The quality of life has value

We don’t hear pro-life people denying the importance of the quality of life. We don’t hear pro-choice people denying the value of human life. Rather, we find pro-choice people arguing that human life in its fetal stage is doesn’t possess personhood in the sense required to give it a right to life, or perhaps it dependent status on the mother makes it acceptable for the mother to relieve her burden even though the fetal life is lost. (Sort of a justifiable homicide argument). But they normally don’t say life just isn’t valuable. (The closest I came to that came from an office-mate of mine in grad school. He claimed that pleasure was the only value and pain was the only disvalue. To the question “Why shouldn't I just kill you now.” my office-mate replied, “Only if you can do it painlessly.” But most defenders of a woman’s right to choose would not take such an extreme position. They think that human life is valuable; they just think either fetal life isn’t human life in the required sense, or that the value of life can be “trumped” in favor of quality-of-life considerations.

It seems, therefore, that the “deep” disagreements involved in the abortion controversy conceal deep agreements as to what our fundamental values are. But consider

8) It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement.

If you are a moral subjectivist, you have to believe that 8 is subjective, that it is just a matter of custom that you accept it, and someone like, say, Jeffrey
Dahmer who rejected it, isn’t really engaging in wrong behavior, just distasteful conduct. And whether apply moral relativism to a case like this is the real test as to whether you are an ethical subjectivist or not. To do that, I suggest that you have to swallow very hard.

As you have no doubt been able to ascertain, I believe ethical judgments are objective. It may be difficult to determine if they are true or false, but I am confident that they are either true or false. Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. He wrote:

The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity" of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says "oysters are good" and another says "I think they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth. (From the essay “Science and Ethics”

C. S. Lewis, on the other and, wrote:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike...Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.
--C. S. Lewis

So debate on this question of moral objectivity rages on today.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hillary is dead

Sir Edmund Hillary, who first climbed Mount Everest, died at the age of 88. What were you thinking?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Computers and the argument from reason

A. The Argument from Computers

Some people think it is easy to refute any argument from reason just by appealing to the existence of computers. Computers, according to the objection, reason, they also are undeniably physical system, but they are also rational. So whatever incompatibility there might be between mechanism and reason must be illusory. However, in the case of computers, the compatibility is the result of mental states in the background that deliberately create this compatibility. Thus, the chess computer Deep Blue was able to defeat the world champion Garry Kasparov in their 1997 chess match. However, Deep Blue’s ability to defeat Kasparov was not the exclusive result of physical causation, unless the people on the programming team (such as Grandmaster Joel Benjamin) are entirely physical results of physical causation. To assume that, however, is to beg the question against the advocate of the Argument from Reason. As Hasker points out:

Computers function as they do because they have been constructed by human beings endowed with rational insight. A computer, in other words, is merely an extension of the rationality of its designers and users, it is no more an independent source of rational insight than a television set is an independent source of news and entertainment.81

The argument from reason says that reason cannot emerge from a closed, mechanistic system. The computer is, narrowly speaking, a mechanistic system, and it does “follow” rational rules. But not only was the computer made by humans, the framework of meaning that makes the computer’s actions intelligible is supplied by humans. As a set of physical events, the actions of a computer are just as subject as anything else to the indeterminacy of the physical. If a computer plays the move Rf6, and we see it on the screen, it is our perception and understanding that gives that move a definite meaning. In fact, the move has no meaning to the computer itself, it only means something to persons playing and watching the game. Suppose we lived in a world without chess, and two computers were to magically materialize in the middle of the Gobi desert and go through all the physical states that the computers went through the last time Fritz played Shredder. If that were true they would not be playing a chess game at all, since there would be no humans around to impose the context that made those physical processes a chess game and not something else. Hence I think that we can safely regard the computer objection as a red herring.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

How subjectivism undercuts the argument from evil

A redated post from 06.

I have been arguing 1) that there are arguments from naturalism to moral subjectivism ( I have more to say about that later) and 2) moral subjectivism undercuts the argument from evil. Now I agree that if the atheist can show that his theist opponent is a moral objectivist who somehow implicitly accepts the moral premise of the argument from evil, then he would have a reductio ad absurdum argument against that theist. But once the reductio is done, the theist may not reject theism, he may just deny the moral premise of the argument from evil, in order to make his position consistent. What you actually have to show is that theism, or Christian theism entails that moral premise, but showing that would be a tall order.

It's not true that no theists defend moral subjectivism; I got the impression that Marilyn McCord Adams, a leading Christian philosopher first at UCLA and later at Yale, is a moral subjectivist of some kind. Her husband Robert Merrihew Adams (making the two of them the philosophical Adams family) is a moral objectivist, (see, a philosopher couple can disagree about a few things!) but in a paper originally published in Philosophical Review which later appeared in his book The Virtue of Faith, entitled "Must God Create the Best," argued that God did not have the obligation of creating the best of all possible worlds, or even the best world that he had the power to create. In that essay, and in another essay entitled "Existence, Self-interest, and the Problem of Evil" Adams argues " that ethical views typical of the Judeo-Christian tradition do not require the Judeo-Christian theist to accept the view (that this is the best world God could create). He must hold that this world is a good world. But he needs not maintain that it is the best of all possible worlds, or the best world that God could have made." Now if you're a moral objectivist, you can argue that this position is morally unacceptable based on a moral standard you share with Adams and other theists. If you are a subjectivist, you're out to lunch in the face of an argument like this.

William Lane Craig, in a debate with Keith Parsons, argued that since God had created the Amalekites, he had the right to have them slaughtered down to the last man, woman and child. Parsons expresssed "outrage" at this position. I don't buy Craig's theology here at all, but as a subjectivist, I would have no right to complain about it. I could not argue that Craig was being irrational in accepting this kind of a moral position. I don't know if Parsons is a subjectivist or not, but if he is, his outrage is just his personal feeling, and there is no way he can make it binding on Craig.

So I think that even though it is theoretically possible to use the argument from evil as a subjectivist, the theist has some counter-moves which look awfully difficult to stop, consistent with moral subjectivism.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Some AFR debate on Debunking Christianity

It's everyone against me over there.

VR: So when we say mental states are brain states, what do we mean?

Shygetz: We mean that each mental state corresponds to one and only one brain state. However, you labor under the misconception that when you think "apple" and I think "apple" we have the same brain state. We do not--when you think "apple" what color fruit are you imagining? What size, what exact shape, shiny or dull, alone or in a context? If "apple" doesn't refer to a single unique physical state, what makes you think it refers to a single unique mental one.

VR: There are, of course, various chairs, some made of different stuff and some different colors, but there is something that makes them all chairs. Doesn't everyone's thought of an apple have to have something physical in common if it is a physical state.

More, A can correspond to B without being identical to B, so there has to be more to identity than correspondence.

Causal role is determined by physical structure. If there is nothing about the property "being a thought about a pencil" that is identical to some particular physical state-type, then the mental state-type cannot be causally relevant.

Shygetz: And the only way you can do this is to posit something that interacts intimately with physical matter and can be strongly affected by physical matter while remaining somehow distinct from physical matter in some manner you have yet to even attempt to explain. I hope you are not trying to imply that dualism is more simple than physicalism, because it is not by some undefined by doubtlessly large amount. You are positing an entire new branch of physics based on a substance that violates its current laws.

VR: No problem. We need this one in order to preserve the logical foundations of science.

Shygetz: Yet again, you make a bald assertion that actually flies in the face of (admittedly incomplete) evidence. Do you have any evidence that this is true? If so, by all means present it. If not, you are not making an argument--you are declaring by fiat. Argument is necessary, sir; I don't think anyone here will be convinced by raw audacity. Show me a reason to think that physical data are insufficient to determine mental states--otherwise, you merely continue to beg the question.

VR: It's very simple really. Identity claims are necessary truths. In order for physical states to determine intentional states uniquely, it must be logically contradictory to deny the mental state once the physical information is given. Postulate any amount of physicalistic information you want, and you will never get anything that logically entails the existence of a mental state. The only way to get an argument that has a conclusion "X is about B" is to have intentional states in the premises. It doesn't matter how much physical information you give, it will always be logically possible for me to deny the existence of the mental state without logical contradiction.

The irreducibility of intentional states to physical states is held by many philosophers, many of whom, like Donald Davidson, are philosophical naturalists. There is also the argument that intentional-state attributions involve normative elements, and therefore, cannot follow necessarily from the existence of physical states. Many naturalists accept a dualism of properties but try to avoid a dualism of substances. The problem the arises as to how those nonphysical properties fit into a physical world, and also how non-physical properties can possibly be causally relevant.

Shygetz: Ah, now you are at least starting down the right path. Have you ever, and I mean EVER, added, subtracted, or manipulated powers in a mental vacuum? No; you always bring along your "unique perspective" which changes your mental state. Computers can add in a vacuum; if I take two identical computers and have one add 2 + 2, then take another computer and manipulate its physical states so they replicate the first one exactly, the second computer will have added 2 + 2. What is the reason to think that the human brain is different when adding 2 + 2?

VR: Computers have no first-person perspective. Therefore, they do not literally add 2 + 2. They do not perceive the relationship amongst the meanings. We perceive those relationships. However, physical facts are not perspectival. If my perspective determines how atoms go in my brain, we have a non-publicly accessible fact that determines physical states. That's not considered good naturalism.

It's like taking a bunch of indicative facts about the world and concluding the existence of an objectively binding moral obligation. You have to wrong type of facts on the one side to draw the proper conclusions on the other.

You have to go from facts are not subjective or perspectival, not normative, not intentional, and not purposive, and yet these facts have to entail truths that are subjective/perspectival, normative, intentional and purposive. That is a good deal more than just a question about how the bacterial flagellum got engineered.

See this on the god of the gaps complaint.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mr. Brain looks for an idea

Earlier I made mention what I call "the brain fallacy." To illustrate the point further, I once saw a presentation by Paul Churchland in which, to ridicule certain Fodorian models of folk psychology, showed a cartoon which showed "Mr. Brain" going through a large card file to find an idea. Again, it doesn't follow from the fact that you are using brain-talk that you really have a naturalistic account. Sometimes when people talk about what the brain does I want to say 'Interesting fellow, Mr. Brain. Remarkable what he can do."

The point I want to emphasize here unless the mental states are really analyzed in physical terms, the fact that the word "brain" was used is not to make the analysis genuinely naturalistic. In fact, I could agree with attributions to claims about the brain and then turn around and deny that the brain functions mechanistically. I think that whatever is non-mechanistic in us does actually occupy space, and so I could, on some definitions, be regarded as a materialist!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is the argument from reason a god of the gaps argument?

A. God of the Gaps
Another argument frequently advanced against virtually any piece of natural theology is the God of the Gaps charge. In fact, this is one of the most popular items in the atheist playbook. We know from the history of science that many things were thought in the past to require an explanation in terms of divine agency are now know to have naturalistic explanations. Rainbows, for example, were once thought to have been put in the sky as a sign, we now know that they can be naturalistically explained in terms of light refraction. Various biological systems show a harmony between means and ends which in the past was cannon fodder for the design argument, but is now explicable in terms of random variation and natural selection. So if there is something that we think cannot be explained in physical terms, just give science some time, and they’ll figure it out sooner or later.
An instance where the God of the Gaps objection appears strong is in the case of Newton’s account of the orbits of the planets. His theory would have expected the orbits to go somewhat differently from the way they go, and so he postulated God as the one who keeps the planets in line. Laplace later developed a theory that didn’t require this kind of divine tinkering, and when asked about Newton’s theistic theory he said “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
However, I am not sure that every argument that points to an explanatory difficulty for the naturalist can be effectively answered with a “God of the Gaps” charge. Consider, for example being at a dinner party with someone who is given a large amount of water and creates from it an equal volume of wine. (It tastes like really good wine, not that California cheap stuff). Can we reasonably say that this we just have a gap in our understanding. As Robert Larmer points out, our understanding of how wine is made is precisely what makes it so difficult to explain naturalistically.
What should be at issue in assessing “God of the gaps” arguments is whether they have met these conditions. Claims regarding events traditionally described as miracles and claims regarding the origin and development of life are where “God of the gaps” arguments are most commonly met. In the case of events traditionally described as miracles, it seems very evident that our increased knowledge of how natural causes operate has not made it easier, but more difficult, to explain such events naturalistically. The science underlying wine-making is considerably more advanced today than it was in first century Palestine, but our advances have made it even more difficult to explain in terms of natural causes how Jesus, without any technological aids, could, in a matter of minutes, turn water into high quality wine. Indeed, it is the difficulty of providing a naturalistic account of such events that leads many critics to deny that they ever occurred; though this looks suspiciously like begging the question in favour of naturalism. It is clear that if such events have occurred, the advance of science has made them more, rather than less, difficult to explain in terms of natural causes. Employing a “God of the gaps” argument that the occurrence of such events would constitute good evidence for supernatural intervention within the natural order seems entirely legitimate.
Perhaps even Newton has been given a bad rap, as Plantinga points out:
Newton seems ... to have suffered a bum rap. He suggested that God made periodic adjustments in the orbits of the planets; true enough. But he didn’t propose this as a reason for believing in God; it is rather that (of course) he already believed in God, and couldn’t think of any other explanation for the movements of the planets. He turned out to be wrong; he could have been right, however, and in any event he wasn’t endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of God-of-the-gaps thought (“Methodological Naturalism” Pt. II, Origins and Design, Vol. 18, No. 2, Footnote 52).
So, I would maintain that there are gaps and there are gaps. It’s not just pointing to an unsolved engineering problem in nature. First of all, the categories of the mental and the physical are logically incompatible categories. You start attributing mental properties to physics and you might end up being told that you are no longer describing the physical at all. Purpose, normativity, intentionality or about-ness, all these things are not supposed to be brought in to the physical descriptions of things, at least at the most basic level of analysis.
Let’s consider the gap between the propositional content of thought and the physical description of the brain. My claim is that no matter in how much detail you describe the physical state of the brain (and the environment), the propositional content of thought will invariably be undetermined. This isn’t my claim of C. S. Lewis’s, this argument was made by the arch-naturalist W. V. Quine. Now of course that doesn’t make it true, but nevertheless it’s not a matter of getting a physical description that will work, In my view the logico-conceptual gap is always going to be there regardless of how extensively you describe the physical. As I said earlier, bridging the chasm isn’t going to simply be a matter of exploring the territory on one side of the chasm.
Second, to a very large extent the gap between the mental and the physical was caused by science in the first place. The way one got physics going in the early days of modern science was to attribute such things as colors, tastes, smells, to the mind, while explaining the physics of it without having to consider these things. So, for example, in reducing heat to the mean kinetic energy of gases, science “siphoned off” the feeling of warmth caused by heat to the mind, and explained heat without reference to how heat feels to us. As Swinburne put it.
There is a crucial difference between these two cases. All other integrations into a super-science, or sciences dealing with entities and properties apparently qualitatively distinct, was achieved by saying that really some of the entities and properties were not as they appeared to be; by making a distinction between the underlying (not immediately observable) entities and properties and the phenomenal properties to which they give rise. Thermodynamics was conceived with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of the molecules) and the sensations which the motion of molecules cause in observers. The former falls naturally within the scope of statistical mechanic—for molecules are particles’ the entities and properties are not of distinct kinds. But this reduction has been achieved at the price of separating off the phenomenal from its causes, and only explaining the latter. All reduction from one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i. e. the ‘secondary qualities” of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all. It siphoned them off to the world of the mental. But then, but when you come to face the problem of the sensations themselves, you cannot do this. If you are to explain the sensations themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter. In fact the enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena. The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing which has made apparently impossible any final success in integrating the world of mind into the world of physics.
If Swinburne is correct here, the very thing that made reduction possible in many historic cases is going to make it impossible in the case of the mind and matter.
I conclude, therefore, that “God of the gaps” or even a “soul of the gaps” response to the argument from reason does not work. I am not saying that we just cannot figure out right now why the mental states involved in rational inference are really physical, I am suggesting on principled grounds that a careful reflction on the nature of mind and matter will invaribly reveal that there is a logical gap between them that in principle can’t be bridged without fudging categories.

Reply to some comments in Loftus' review of Beversluis

From John Loftus' Review of Beversluis

The Argument From Reason, as best seen in Lewis’ book, Miracles, “is the philosophical backbone of the whole book,” from which “his case for miracles depends.” (p. 145). Lewis champions the idea that if naturalism is true such a theory “impugns the validity of reason and rational inference,” and as such, naturalists contradict themselves if they use reason to argue their case. If you as a naturalist have ever been troubled by such an argument you need to read Beversluis’ response to it, which is the largest chapter in his book, and something I can’t adequately summarize in a few short sentences. Suffice it to say, he approvingly quotes Keith Parsons who said: “surely Lewis cannot mean that if naturalism is true, then there is no such thing as valid reasoning. If he really thought this, he would have to endorse the hypothetical ‘If naturalism is true, then modus ponens is invalid.’ But since the consequent is necessarily false, then the hypothetical is false if we suppose naturalism is true (which is what the antecedent asserts), and Lewis has no argument.” (p. 174).

In response to Parsons' comment, that's not how the argument from reason goes. If naturalism is true, then no one ever performs a modus ponens inference, and this can be for a number of different reasons.

1) If naturalism is true, then there are no propositional attitudes. Propositional attitudes are necessary for modus ponens inferences, so no one would actually ever perform a modus ponens inference if naturalism is true.

2) If naturalism is true, then there is no mental causation. One mental event cannot cause the occurrence of another mental event in virtue of its content, if naturalism is true.

3) If naturalism is true, then logical laws have no psychological relevance. Only physical laws can be relevant to physical events if naturalism is true; logical laws will be followed only if the physical order to disposes the brain to follow them. There could be arguments in accordance with reason but never from reason, to use Kantian terminology. I'm not saying that if naturalism is true there would be no logical laws, but rather those laws would not and could not have anything to do with what anyone things.

In other words, the argument says that if naturalism is true, then no one reasons validly. Modus ponens would be eternally a valid form of inference, but that fact would be completely irrelevant to any actual reasoning processes, and would be inoperative.

Oh dear

Another book with Dangerous Idea in the title.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Steve Thomas's New Blog

Steve Thomas, formerly of Imago Dei, is now he at atalanta's apples. He is the one who interviewed me for Quality Christian Internet

The ball is in my court

Regardless of who we are, if we study philosophy or theology, there is someone that we think has a lot of things right, that we want to know more about so that we can shape our own thoughts on the relevant subject matter. But what should we expect from this person? Is it possible to allow one's devotion to one's favorite thinker to get in the way of one's own thinking. In perhaps the most quotable line in my book, I said:

Great thinkers are always the ones that make us think harder for ourselves, not thinkers who do our thinking for us.

When I develop an argument based on Lewis, the argument becomes my argument. While I may adapt a number of points he makes, if I want to see how strong the argument really is in the light of contemporary philosophy, I have to make it my own argument. So, for example, Lewis's argument from reason talks about "full explanations" and "an act of knowing thus determined by what it knows." These are concepts that, Anscombe said in her 1981 response, that Lewis had failed to make clear. My argument talks about the causal closure of the physical, intentionality, supervenience and mental causation--and some of these terms were not developed in Lewis's time. Never mind, the ball is in my court.