Sunday, August 12, 2012

Argument has a life of its own: what believer-unbeliever dialogue should look like

Here is Lewis's essay on the founding of the Oxford Socratic Club. I am redating this post.

"We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours... The arena is common to both parties and cannot finally be cheated." 

C. S. Lewis, "The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club."

Engagement in real dialogue about matters of religious faith is an act of faith. One must be so sincerely convinced of what one believes that one is prepared to trust one's ideas to the forum of open intellectual dialogue, playing as fair as it is possible to play. We have to trust that dialogue will be rational even if the people who engage in it are not. Honest philosophy and theology has to come first, the conversions have to be a by-product. Though I like seeing people embrace the positions I embrace as much as the next person.


Mr Veale said...

I'm reading Richard J. Evans "In Defence of History".
I started the book, as I'm a little tired of "McAtheist" claims that Historical Jesus research isn't really historical.

But what has struck me as I progress through the book is the similarity between Evan's case for the rationality of Historical Research - that historians can make good inferences about what happened in the past - and apologetics.

This Lewis quote could have come straight out of Evan's book.

Mr Veale said...

"Doing historical research is rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are scattered all over the house in several boxes, some of which have been destroyed, and where once it is put together, a significant number of the pieces are still missing. The nature of the resulting picture partly on how many boxes have survived and have been tracked down, and this partly depends on having some idea of where to look; but the pictures contours can still be filled in, even when all the pieces have not been located. We can IMAGINE the contours in this situation, and have to speculate on quite a bit of the detail; at the same time, however, the discovery of the existing pieces does set quite severe limits on the operation of our imagination. If they only fit together to produce a picture of a steam engine, for instance, it is no good trying to put them together to make a suburban garden: it simply will not work."
Evans, IDOH, p89

Mr Veale said...

Compare CS Lewis' approach to assessing religious truth in "Miracles" p109

"Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony. Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of manuscript and says this is the missing part of the work; this is the chapter in which the whole plot of the novel really turns. This is the main theme of the symphony. Now our business would be to see whether this new passage if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it did actually illuminate all the parts that we have already seen and pull them together."

Mr Veale said...

Similar methodologies are recommended by Schaeffer (eg.The general argument of "The God Who is There" and "Whatever Happened to the Human Race"p359), and by GK Chesterton in "Orthodoxy"

Tim said...

Thanks, Graham -- I will have to get a copy of Evans's book.

Mr Veale said...

No problems!

Evan's uses a strategy that Schaeffer also employed. Evan's works hard to show that postmodern relativists cannot operate by their own rules.
During the de Man controversy, they strained to show that de Man had been misinterpreted by his critics. Furthermore, very few postmodernist historians are prepared to say that Auschwitz occurred only "in the text".

What is important for Historical Jesus studies, is that Evans notes that there simply is not one historical methodology. Different historians face different problems, and need to develop unique ways of interrogating their texts.

(Some of the comments floating around the internet belittling the quest for the historical Jesus, just look puerile and ignorant after Evans survey of the field.As long as the documents are genuinely operating as a check on your theorising, you are doing history.)

shiningwhiffle said...

Furthermore, very few postmodernist historians are prepared to say that Auschwitz occurred only "in the text".

The authors most associated with postmodernism suffered from a pretty severe inability to explain what they were trying to say to anyone outside of their niche. Partly it was because their theories weren't coherent, partly because a lot more were non-philosophers trying to use some genuinely heady philosophical ideas.

Now, a lot of those ideas just didn't pan out, others turned out to be overly-exicted ways of saying something boring. A lot of times you had this projection from epistemology onto ontology: "There is no outside to the text" makes little sense in ontological terms; in epistemological terms, it's just a statement of the rather banal coherentist idea that nothing can justify a belief but other beliefs.

Basically, I think the postmodernists were useful in identifying the dead wood of past philosophies for culling. They just did it in an unfortunate way.

Mr Veale said...

I enthusiastically agree with that SW. (And I'm a little concerned that as Postmodernism is abandoned in the academy, it's being adopted by some evangelicals).

I found it interesting that Evans uses the argument that Postmodernists could not operate without notions of objective truth. That's a strategy that Francis Schaeffer advocated in apologetics.
Schaeffer's history of philosophy (eg. "Escape from Reason") gets him a bad name.
And I think that many of his insights stand up to scrutiny (once some of the eccentricities and simplifications are pruned away.)
For example, he was endorsing cumulative case arguments before they were philosophically fashionable. (Although, oddly, he labelled there "presuppositionalist").

Mr Veale said...

"a pretty severe inability to explain what they were trying to say to anyone outside of their niche"

Evans traces postmodern history to the loss of power, prestige and remuneration that historians and literary theorists suffered in the 1980's and 1990's. Universities ceased to expand, academic life became more stressful and competitive, and outside elite institutions academics could no longer compete with lawyers and civil servants wages.
The adoption of a impenetrable academic vocabulary, and a hermeneutic that gave effectively the historian control over what the documents meant, was a way of giving the historian back some of the power that Thatcher's Britain had stripped away.