Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Puddleglum's Argument

Many of us are familiar with the argument Puddleglum gives back to the Green Witch in Narnia.

"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."*

Reading Adam Barkman's very thorough C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life (Zossima Press, 2009), I found the following gloss on it from a letter Lewis wrote a month before he died:

I suppose your philosopher son--what a family you have been privileged to bring into the world!--means the chapter in which Puddleglum puts out the fire with his foot. He must thank Anselm and Descartes for it, not me. I have simply put the 'Ontological Proof' in a form suitable for children. (Barkman, p. 91).

Those interested in a philosophical discussion of Puddleglum's argument should read Steve Lovell's "Breaking the Spell of Skepticism: Puddleglum vs. the Green Witch" in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy (Open Court, 2005), pp. 41-52.


Anonymous said...

I am utterly lost. How is Puddleglum's argument related to the ontological proof? Someone walk me through this. It seems closer to Pascal's Wager at a glance.

Steve Lovell said...


My article to which VR refers draws out some relations to Pascal's wager. Puddleglum's argument only has similarities with one of Descartes' ontological arguments and, as I see it, not so much with the Anselm style argument. It is only ontological in that it begins with the idea of God or the idea of perfection. In structure it has more in common with the cosmological argument or teleological argument. From memory it runs roughly as follows:

(1) I have the idea of perfection
(2) The perfection cannot have derived from me an imperfect being.
(3) The idea must have it's origin in a perfect mind.
(4) Therefore a perfect mind exists.

I'll leave you to think about how Puddleglum's argument is similar to (1)-(4). I've never done much thinking about that line of argument, so despite having written on Puddleglum's argument, I'm happy to give way to others on the parallels to this (and other?) ontological arguments.

Steve Lovell

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve. That makes things a bit clearer.

Looks like I'll have to track down this paper.

J said...

I would agree that's sort of Descartes' variation on the Onto-Arg. Puddleglum may have an idea of a perfect Being. So did Hassan i Sabbah. So did Al Caponay. Or Der Fuhrer.

That one can conceive of something like spiritual perfection does not mean that something supernatural caused that conception; nor does it show anything definite about the concept itself....

And why doesn't a Perfect Being make more of an effort to manifest Himself, instead of being limited to mystics, preachers, and a few theologians?

kbrowne said...

I have never understood why Lewis said Puddleglum was offering the ontological argument. He must know what he intended, of course, but it makes no sense to me. Surely the ontological argument is intended to establish the existence of God (or a perfect being). Puddleglum does not seem to be talking about existence at all. Of course, reading the passage in the context of the story, I think he was recovering from the spell at that point and he did believe in the existence of the overland. But that is not what he says. He says that truth does not come into it. He will live as though it were true even if it is not. In the same way someone might say that they behave as though all humans are essentially good even though the evidence is against it because it is better to live that way.

Unknown said...

I think some of the confusion is in the insisting one follow the ontological argument to its conclusion. If we attempt to approach this as rational philosophers, we will completely miss every ounce of meaning.

It seems that here, Lewis is stepping outside of the purely "rational" conclusion (The ontological argument has never really made any sense to me aside from a launching point for other things) and adding a final piece.

So using Steve's 4-point explanation as a base, it would go something like this:
(1) I have the idea of perfection
(2) The perfection cannot have derived from me an imperfect being.
(3) The idea must have it's origin in a perfect mind.
(4) Therefore a perfect mind exists.
(5) If, however, the perfect mind does not exist,it would not be a great waste to still have spent one's life in pursuit of it.

To put it a bit differently, I think Lewis is saying that even if Jesus/God did not exist, pursuing the world envisaged by the Bible (one in which grace, forgiveness, fair dealing, honesty and love were firm reality) would still be worth trying to make a reality.

I think the purely rational approach loses something as we get to the last step of the argument and stop. It either works or it doesn't, so going beyond makes no sense. In that context, it's easy to forget that while Lewis was quite rational in his apologetic, his faith was significantly more than a rational argument. I see a very clear statement that Lewis had very little concern with whether the ontological argument worked on its face, and a deep concern for whether or not the being it attempts to prove is worth caring about.

Does that make sense?

Mike Darus said...

Puddleglum is to utilitarian for me. If a fable gives me more purpose to life than the glum reality, then live according to the fable. False optimism is better than realistic pessimism.

It needs just a small turn to be faith based on even an inkling of evidence. Then the contrast is not so severe. Puddleglum had sources of information. He had reason to believe his sources but also reasons to doubt. The trick is how we evaluate evidence that comes to us second or third or one-hundredth-hand. Can we believe those that claim to be eye-witnesses of the grass and sun and moon and stars,.... and Aslan?

J said...

(Mr Reppert, I would appreciate your comments on this sketched out argument (provisional at this stage).

The Argument Ad Infernalis:

1. -Sane intelligent human-agents make us of a conception of Justice that does not depend on a consensus or majority opinion (utilitarianism, democracy), such as "killing innocent civilians is wrong".

2. Something must have caused/brought about that conception of Justice

3. That conception would have to be due to either an a priori supernatural and spiritual force, or due to experience.

4. If a priori, then a universal. If via experience, subject to relativism (analytical/synthetic distinction)

5. It is not relativistic or subject to consensus (from 1) (at least Sane intelligent human-agents do not think it is)

6. It is a universal

7. It must be an a priori supernatural and spiritual force (aka God).

8. By violating that universal Justice (say killing innocent civilians, or engaging in massive fraud such as Madoff), one has errored, and committed an injustice--has fallen away from the universal

9. Sane intelligent human-agents believe injustice must be paid for, either in terms of worldly punishment or spiritual--whether that is justified via an "eye for an eye," or deterrence, or prevention of future injustice by the perpetrator (so, the is-ought distinction falsified: "if you murder an innocent civilian, you ought to be punished").

10. There is a scale of punishment (theft or fleshly sins are not murder; murder is not genocide, etc) which sane intelligent human-agents agree on.

11. Some crimes cannot be paid for in the earthly realm (ie Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Turks slaughter of armenians, mass murderers)

12. There must be a spiritual realm which all humans who have committed serious injustices are subject to proportional punishment, chastising, and for some extreme moral injustices, that is a permanent spiritual condition .

13. That is what is meant by Hell, perdition, the Inferno

Puddleglum said...

Sorry guys but arguments about the existence of God have nothing to do with it. I don't know what C.S. Lewis thought he was arguing in this extract but this is what I think it means (or should mean).

It's more a pragmatic theory of truth rather than a correspondence theory. Truth about spiritual matters is created via our collective acts (that's one of the criteria for a matter being a spiritual matter). We create truth and, hence, at that level we create what is real. (You can't do that sort of 'creation' over some other matters - e.g., physical matters. The 'language-games' aren't the same, despite the use of the same word, 'truth'.)

This arena of truth (or belief in what is true) does not guide our acts but is a consequence of our acts. As I just hinted, it's got a lot of Wittgenstein in it, actually. The ground of our action is not 'knowledge' but 'ordinary certainties' (this is part of Witt's counter to G.E. Moore's argument for knowing reality - holding up his hand and saying "I know this is my hand" - see 'On Certainty').

What Puddleglum is pointing out is that, at the end of the day, you do what you are, what 'stands fast' for you. It's not about knowledge, it's about ordinary certainty. When you live that way, you have a better time of it (I guess because you are living with 'integrity', which is to say, living in an integrated way, come what may. It's less about 'feeling better' - because your belief paints a nice comfortable picture of the world - and more about living better.).

Yeah, it's an act of faith but it's no different from the act of faith involved when a bee buzzes into a flower. Since knowledge can't ground our acts then simply 'going on' (i.e., a bedrock act of 'faith') is what will have to do as a foundation - no matter how much, or what, we may come to know. (That's what Witt was on about a lot of the time.)

Simple really - which is why such a simple soul (Puddleglum) could see it and the others couldn't.