Friday, January 22, 2010

Chesterton, Lewis, and the Argument from Reason

G. K. Chesterton had a strong influence on C. S. Lewis. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis praised Chesterton as having "more sense than all the other moderns put together", and he wrote in a letter that Chesterton's The Everlasting Man played a role in his conversion to Christianity. One way this influence expressed itself -- although I've never seen anyone make the connection -- is in Lewis's Argument from Reason. This is the idea that any form of naturalism invalidates the veracity of thought; and since naturalism is itself the product of thought, it is hoist with its own petard.

Chesterton wrote a short essay entitled, "The Wind and the Trees" which makes a point very similar to the Argument from Reason. Looking at the trees blowing in the wind one day, he recalled something from his youth.

As I look at these top-heavy giants tortured by an invisible and violent witchcraft, a phrase comes back into my mind. I remember a little boy of my acquaintance who was once walking in Battersea Park under just such torn skies and tossing trees. He did not like the wind at all; it blew in his face too much; it made him shut his eyes; and it blew off his hat, of which he was very proud. He was, as far as I remember, about four. After complaining repeatedly of the atmospheric unrest, he said at last to his mother: 'Well, why don't you take away the trees, and then it wouldn't wind?'

Nothing could be more intelligent or natural than this mistake. Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind. Indeed, the belief is so human and excusable that it is, as a matter of fact, the belief of about ninety-nine out of a hundred of the philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians of the great age in which we live. My small friend was, in fact, very like the principal modern thinkers; only much nicer.

Chesterton's point is that we don't see the wind; we only see its effects on the trees and infer from this the wind's existence. But if you are faced with two entities -- one invisible, and only known inferentially; the other directly perceived, physically imposing, even daunting -- wouldn't it be reasonable to think the latter is the cause of the former rather than the other way round? Shouldn't we say that the obvious imposing reality has produced the ephemeral evanescent one? Doesn't it seem absurd to say that the less substantial has produced the more substantial?

Nevertheless, this intuition is false. It is the wind that blows the trees, not the trees that make the wind. And this applies further than the particular example Chesterton has given.

In the little apologue or parable which he has thus the honour of inventing, the trees stand for all visible things and the wind for the invisible. The wind is the spirit which bloweth where it listeth; the trees are the material things of the world which are blown where the spirit lists. The wind is philosophy, religion, revolution; the trees are cities and civilizations. We only know that there is a wind because the trees on some distant hill suddenly go mad. We only know that there is a real revolution because all the chimney-pots go mad on the whole skyline of the city.

Just as the ragged outline of a tree grows suddenly more ragged and rises into fantastic crests or tattered tails, so the human city rises under the wind of the spirit into toppling temples or sudden spires. No man has ever seen a revolution. Mobs pouring through the palaces, blood pouring down the gutters, the guillotine lifted higher than the throne, a prison in ruins, a people in arms -- these things are not revolution, but the results of revolution.

You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. ... The wind is up above the world before a twig on the tree has moved. So there must always be a battle in the sky before there is a battle on the earth.

Thus, an interesting paradox. That which appears less substantial is prior to that which appears more substantial. The physically imposing bends to the will of the unseen reality.

So why does Chesterton claim that most of the "philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians" of the day deny this? And what does this have to do with the Argument from Reason?

The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances?

The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts -- including that one. To treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority is necessary to any kind of thinking, even free thinking.

This last paragraph is a clear statement of the Argument from Reason. If our thoughts and thought-patterns are accidental by-products of our brains' biochemistry or our personal psychologies then it becomes difficult to place any confidence in them. But obviously, this would apply to the thoughts that led us to believe that our thoughts and thought-patterns are accidental by-products. Thus, this position is self-defeating.

So since Lewis knew Chesterton's work well, it stands to reason that he read this essay in particular, and therefore that it may have influenced his development of this argument. On the other hand, it could just be an interesting parallel. However, I think a stronger case can be made. Lewis wrote an excellent essay entitled "Is Theology Poetry?" (in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses) in which he defends Christianity against the charge that it is accepted for purely aesthetic reasons. In response he writes, "if Theology is Poetry, it is not very good poetry. ... If Christianity is only a mythology, then I find the mythology I believe in is not the one I like best. I like Greek mythology much better, Irish better still, Norse best of all."

Lewis further argues that his rejection of Scientism (not science) is at least partially based on the Argument from Reason.

The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of "Science" mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience. That grand myth which I asked you to admire a few minutes ago is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is what I started from. Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it; it is the one we touched on a fortnight ago. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula or the remotest part obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory -- in other words, unless Reason is an absolute -- all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based.

Here is a statement of the argument similar to Chesterton's. Not only do we see the problem of relegating reason to the status of a "by-product" (Lewis) or "accident of environment" (Chesterton); we also have the positive statement that "Reason is an absolute" (Lewis) or the human mind must have "an ultimate authority" (Chesterton) if thinking is to be valid.

But again, this doesn't necessarily bespeak of a direct influence of Chesterton's argument on Lewis's, it could still be just an interesting parallel. However, Lewis returns to the subject in the final paragraph of his essay.

Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

Wind ... trees. Where have I heard that before?

I get up from under the trees, for the wind and the slight rain have ceased. The trees stand up like golden pillars in a clear sunlight. The tossing of the trees and the blowing of the wind have ceased simultaneously. So I suppose there are still modern philosophers who will maintain that the trees make the wind.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Bjørn Are said...

I think you are absolute correct, based on my own ultimate authority.

Reading through most of Chesterton in the 80's made me realise how much Lewis had got from reading him. Only Chesterton often said it better or more memorable.

Tim O'Neill said...

I have to agree that Chesterton was entertainingly eloquent. But I recall reading The Everlasting Man and finding its comments on evolution ... well, quaint, ill-informed, sad and really rather stupid. We can forgive him I suppose, given he was writing in 1925 and he didn't know what he was talking about. But to pretend this guy has some great insights into science and its interrelation with philosophy is pretty fanciful.

Even the annoyingly lightweight pop-theologian C.S. Lewis didn't stagger and blunder into science the way Chesterton did. It's amusing that many people who poo-poo Dawkins laud these two dabblers.

jamierobertson said...

I poo-poo Dawkins when he "staggers and blunders" into philosophy and theology - and I was pleasantly surprised to see Lewis, in "The Problem Of Pain", happily accept evolution because "it is what those learned in science tell us".

Tim O'Neill said...

jamierobertson said:

I poo-poo Dawkins when he "staggers and blunders" into philosophy and theology

He did a rather better job of both than Chesterton did on evolution in The Everlasting Man. Those bits are simply cringeworthy. I remember talking to a Jesuit at my university about how my grandfather was a Chesterton scholar. The Jesuit in question was a biologist and he paused politely then said, "Well, G.K. was at least eloquent in his ignorance of science."

Got to love those Jesuits.

jamierobertson said...

Well, quite. I suppose Ken Ham is a good communicator, but that doesn't make him worth listening to :grin:

Anonymous said...

"sad and really rather stupid"

Speak for yourself.

Jim S. said...

Well, Lewis and Chesterton were certainly popular-level writers, and neither were professional philosophers or theologians. But I think it's too easy to just dismiss them because of this. Lewis taught philosophy at Oxford after all.

Bernard said...

I thought he taught Philology?

Jim S. said...

His area of expertise was Literature, but in Surprised by Joy he mentions in passing how he was teaching philosophy at one point.

shesnif said...

Hey Tim, you must be really glad to see me given all that hand waving going on... hello to you too!

I don't think anyone ever claims that Lewis was the greatest philosopher in the world, just like how people don't claim that Dawkins is a noble prize-deserving biologist. It's their ability to write for the layman and their ideas that made them both so respectable and enjoyable(when they wrote about their respective fields at least)... only difference is the AFR still holds weight while no one gives two shits about a meme.

Daniel Hychuck said...


...annoyingly lightweight pop-theologian C.S. Lewis

Would you care to expand on this appraisal? It reeks of the sort of careless scorn that its subject hardly warrants.

Anonymous said...

James & Co., what do you think of this:

Accurate history or not?

Bjørn Are said...

My point was not whether GKC understood evolution, it was about his influence on CSL. Still, he seems to have understood the pop-philosophical parts of evolution in his day (a decade before neodarwinism) better than most. Reading Wells makes me cringe even more.

Dawkins is one of the worst I've ever read on theology and philosophy. It is a marvel how little he knows. Almost as much a marvel as atheists defending him in that area.

Sue Sims said...

Lewis's first degree was in 'Greats' - Latin, Greek and Philosophy. He tutored philosophy at Univ. for a year, then moved to an English fellowship at Magdalen. He would never have considered himself a 'expert' in philosophy, but he wasn't simply an amateur, either.

The Pilgrim said...

I know it's off topic, but did you know that it's the churches that will usher in Satan's New World Order? "Evangelical churches will be the chief instrument to bring the New World Order to birth." Check out the evidence at:

Humphrey said...


"Some Christians know that Satan is forming a world government (New World Order) which he plans to rule from modern Israel through the coming false Jewish Messiah (the anti-Christ)."

Yeah; just a wee bit off topic!

Brandon said...

Lewis actually only went on to teach literature at all because of the job market in philosophy at the time; he applied for a philosophy fellowship at Magdalen and was narrowly beat out by H. H. Price. I think most of the parts of Lewis that grate on some modern philosophical tastes can be traced to the peculiarities of philosophy in the inter-war period (especially Oxford Realism), and similar approaches can often be found in most of the major names who were, like Lewis, early members of the Wee Teas philosophical society formed by the Junior Fellows in philosophy.

I'm not sure it makes much sense to play games of whose lightweightness is more worthy of contempt. I think Tim's point, which I took to be concerned not with Lewis's or Chesterton's philosophical ability, but instead to suggest that Chesterton and Lewis were dabblers in science in much the way Dawkins is a dabbler in philosophy, is a fair point, much as I like reading Chesterton or Lewis (or Dawkins, for that matter). I think it's important, though, to recognize that there are blunderings and blunderings: Dawkins blunders through his discussion of simplicity in _The Blind Watchmaker_ (and pretty much everything since), but it's nothing to get worked up about, and the confusions don't get in the way of making good points. When he claims that, for instance, Thomas Aquinas doesn't provide any arguments for why there can't be an infinite regress in causes, when any undergraduate with patience and a search engine can find quickly enough that he gives several throughout his writings, he's merely being perverse and tiresome. And I think one can say fairly enough while there are times in his discussions of evolution in which his blundering isn't too problematic, there are times when Chesterton is simply harrying the foe to the point of being perverse and tiresome about it.

Tim O'Neill said...

Brandon said:

I think Tim's point, which I took to be concerned not with Lewis's or Chesterton's philosophical ability, but instead to suggest that Chesterton and Lewis were dabblers in science in much the way Dawkins is a dabbler in philosophy, is a fair point, much as I like reading Chesterton or Lewis (or Dawkins, for that matter).

Got in one Brandon.

Daniel Hychuck said:

...annoyingly lightweight pop-theologian C.S. Lewis

Would you care to expand on this appraisal? It reeks of the sort of careless scorn that its subject hardly warrants.

His argument that you either have to condemn Jesus as a lunatic or as a fraud or accept he is "Lord" is so feeble a false dichotomy that it's barely worth dignifying with the word "argument". Not surprisingly, the Josh McDowell-style apologists LOVE this argument, which is condemnation in itself.

And I got about halfway through the rather twee Screwtape Letters and found I couldn't take it any more. The silly conceit of that book is, of course, meant to be semi-comical but it only served to make the supposed role of this strange "Satan" person in Christian mythology even more absurd than ever. Which was, I gather, the opposite of Lewis' intention.

I recall Tolkien making some similar disparaging comments about Lewis' ventures into this arena in a couple of his letters. Sound chap, that Tolkien.

Aksiom said...

Well, the "Liar, Lunatic, Lord" argument was of course never intended (by Lewis) to be an "general argument" for Christianity; indeed, it takes for granted the reliability of the Gospel narratives. Lewis's point is, as far as I gather, that it wouldn't make sense to assert that Jesus was "just a good moral teacher", while at the same believing that he did claim to be able to forgive sins etc. i.e. that he said (whether explicitly or implicitly) he was divine.

Bjørn Are said...

And BTW, Lewis himself had at least one other alternative ("made up") when he arrived at BBC to prepare for the talks, however he had to remove the rest due to time constraints (ref. "C.S. Lewis at BBC").

In short think it is a grave underestimation of Lewis to think he would have been so simplifying outside of a broadcast talk.

Sig said...

Brandon said, and Tim applauded:

I think Tim's point, which I took to be concerned not with Lewis's or Chesterton's philosophical ability, but instead to suggest that Chesterton and Lewis were dabblers in science in much the way Dawkins is a dabbler in philosophy, is a fair point, much as I like reading Chesterton or Lewis (or Dawkins, for that matter).

Thing is, Tim , there isn't enough symmetry here for such a 'well' so's your mother'-argument to work. The challenge to some forms of naturalism posed by the AFR is, as far as I can see, philosophical rather than scientific - it does not question specific scientific doctrines, but rather the epistemological and anthropological underpinnings of these scientific doctrines. The AFr is therefore not dependent on a detailed understanding of, say, evolutionary biology, but its refutation would be dependent on a detailed understanding of the philosophical questions involved. In other words, the scientific incompetence of Lewis and GKC are incidental to the discussion, while the philosophical incompetence of Dawkins and his church is detrimental to their attempts at rebuttal. No?

Anonymous said...

'Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees all bow their heads
The wind is passing by.'

Don't know where in Browning that's from, but I took it from a Michael Gilbert story.