Sunday, August 04, 2013

C.S. Lewis's Argument against Naturalism, part 2

Early Versions of the Argument 
In this post, I will summarize some of Lewis’s essays where he addresses the argument from reason, prior to the publication of Miracles in 1947.

One of Lewis’s first essays devoted to the argument from reason and the issues it raises is “Bulverism,” which was published twice: a short form appearing in 1941, and a longer one in 1944. In it, Lewis takes aim at Freudianism and Marxism, which he perceives to be inherently reductive. Freudians hold (according to Lewis) that all reasoning is the result of psychological conditioning, while Marxists hold that it is the result of social conditioning. As such, all reasoning is “tainted,” either psychologically or ideologically, and this applies to any criticism of Freudianism or Marxism. The implications being that such criticisms are neither rational nor justified, and so can be safely ignored.

Lewis dispatches with such views fairly easily by applying this argument to the Freudians and Marxists themselves: if all reasoning is tainted, then they do not arrive at their doctrines by valid reasoning either, and if this condition allows their critics to be discounted, it allows Freudianism and Marxism to be discounted by the same token. More specifically, Lewis asks two questions: “The first is, Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought -- in the sense of making it untrue -- or not?”{1} Lewis understands the Freudians and Marxists to be answering both of these questions affirmatively. However, since this invalidates their own position -- amounting to an argument that no argument is valid -- he suggests they have to choose another option: either not all thoughts are tainted, or the taint does not invalidate the thought (or both). But if any of these positions is true, it becomes possible for the criticisms of Marxism and Freudianism to be untainted or not invalidated, and so they have to be dealt with.{2}

Lewis’s point is that “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.”{3} Take, for example, a man who believes he is rich. We cannot use the fact that he wants to be rich as evidence that his belief is the result of wishful thinking. The psychological motivation to believe that he is wealthy simply does not matter; what matters is whether the man has correctly assessed his accounts. “If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant -- but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought.”{4}

Lewis proposes calling this error “Bulverism” after a fictional character he invents.{5} “Ezekiel Bulver” realized as a young child that “refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.”{6} All sides can engage in such sophistry, since no position excludes its advocates from treating their opponents like unreasonable buffoons. But of course, this does not prove that their opponents are wrong; indeed, it does not even address whether they are wrong. “Bulverism” is essentially the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, and also shares some similarity with the genetic fallacy. In this scenario, one attempts to refute a position by arguing that its proponents arrived at it by nonrational means.

As Freudianism and Marxism are examples of Bulverism, Lewis sees fit to apply the same conundrum to Bulverism that he did to them. “The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend on reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more -- for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.” This leaves us with very few choices: “either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning.”{7}

From this point on, the essay closely mirrors the structure of Miracles. Here, we will just treat the most pressing issue, namely what exactly reasoning consists of. He argues that most of our beliefs are inferences derived from sensory experiences. Therefore, any prospective worldview must make it possible for our inferences to be valid, since that worldview itself would be reached by inference. This forces us to take a step further back: of what does a valid inference consist? Here Lewis makes a distinction between the normal causes present in nature and “a special kind of cause called ‘a reason.’”{8} The former are mechanical and mindless; the latter are inherently rational in nature. In order for our inferences, and hence our reasoning abilities, to be valid, they must be the result of reasons rather than normal causes; and since nature only knows normal causes, our reasoning abilities must transcend nature. The extent to which our beliefs are brought about by normal causes is the extent to which they are not brought about by reasons; and thus the extent to which these beliefs are invalid.

Apparently forgotten is his second question to the Freudians and Marxists: “Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought -- in the sense of making it untrue -- or not?”{9} Does having a nonrational cause for a belief invalidate that belief? Also apparently forgotten is Lewis’s insistence that beliefs be weighed on purely rational grounds, and not on the basis of how an individual came to hold them. These points would come back to haunt him when Elizabeth Anscombe put forward her critique of his argument.

De Futilitate
This essay “is an address given at Magdalen College, Oxford, during the Second World War.”{10} While the majority of it is a sophisticated presentation of the argument from reason, in it Lewis is actually addressing a larger issue: how the picture of the world that modern science paints seems to depict a universe that is utterly futile. This presents a problem of how we should respond to this picture, and Lewis argues that there are really only three ways to do so.

The first is heroic nihilism, such as that proffered by Russell in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship.”{11} The problem with this position is that the standard by which we judge the universe to be futile is, according to this view, just another product of the universe. Choosing to build one’s life on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair” as Russell puts it,{12} is itself one more meaningless and arbitrary act. There is nothing heroic or noble about it -- for the simple reason that, according to this view, heroism and nobility are illusions. “Heroic anti-theism thus has a contradiction in its centre. You must trust the universe in one respect even in order to condemn it in every other.”{13} A foreshadow of this point appears in Lewis’s private journal, written before he was a Christian, where he states that Russell provides “a very clear and noble statement of what I myself believed a few years ago. But he does not face the real difficulty -- that our ideals are after all a natural product, facts with a relation to all other facts, and cannot survive the condemnation of the fact as a whole. The Promethean attitude would be tenable only if we were really members of some other whole outside the real whole.”{14}

The second way to respond to futility is to deny that the picture modern science paints is accurate. One can do this by denying that the physical world is real (which Lewis equates with idealism and Eastern religions), or by positing a larger world of which this world is a part, and in light of which, changes the picture from one of futility (which he equates with monotheistic religions). Lewis does not go into any more detail about this, but leaves it open.

The third way is the one Lewis wishes to investigate, because he finds it to be the most appealing to our common sense. This is the view that our sense of futility is a category mistake. It is a result of our ability to construct tools, which creates in us the habit of thinking in terms of “means and ends.” We then apply this pattern to the physical universe (which we obviously did not construct), and find that it fails to fit neatly within it. Thus, the universe appears futile.

Lewis has a very high opinion of this view, and argues that it should be accepted. However, it raises the question of how far we can take it. Can we discount all thought in similar fashion, as “merely human”? If we do, the very asking of this question, being a merely human mode of thought, should also be discounted:

There is therefore no question of a total scepticism about human thought. We are always prevented from accepting total scepticism because it can be formulated only by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment. … Whatever happens, then, the most we can ever do is to decide that certain types of human thought are ‘merely human’ or subjective, and others not. However small the class, some class of thoughts must be regarded not as mere facts about the way human brains work, but as true insights, as the reflection of reality in human consciousness.{15}

Of course, this is not to say that people do not make mistakes when they reason, but that the correction of such errors must come from a source beyond the individual mind.{16}

A common candidate offered for this role of true insight is scientific thought. Lewis argues to the contrary, though, that this does not work for the simple reason that science is dependent upon inference, which is a category of logic. Any movement from observation to hypothesis involves some inference. Even observations can be understood this way: we infer an external world as the cause of our sensory perceptions. Of course, Lewis is not challenging whether these inferences are correct and rational; of course they are. His point is that scientific thought presupposes inference, and therefore, logic.

This, in effect, provides us with a better candidate for the role of true insight: logical thought. If logical thought is “merely human,” then all of science is as well, since science is built upon the foundation of logic. Moreover, the thought that logical thought is merely human would be merely human itself, and therefore, not valid. “I conclude then that logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. In other words, the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time.”{17}

This leads to two “very momentous consequences,” the first being that materialism is necessarily false. This is because thoughts are about something. Yet if the mind and its thoughts were just physical matter, no such relation would hold: it is nonsensical to say that one piece of matter is “about” another piece of matter. A tree is not about a rock, for example. Moreover, a piece of matter cannot be true or false; it simply is. But again, thoughts can be true or false. Since thoughts have these properties but matter does not, thoughts cannot be explained entirely in terms of the physical matter and energy that make up our brains.

We are compelled to admit between the thoughts of a terrestrial astronomer and the behaviour of matter several light-years away that particular relation which we call truth. But this relation has no meaning at all if we try to make it exist between the matter of the star and the astronomer’s brain, considered as a lump of matter. The brain may be in all sorts of relations to the star no doubt: it is in a spatial relation, and a time relation, and a quantitative relation. But to talk of one bit of matter as being true about another bit of matter seems to me to be nonsense.{18}

The second momentous consequence is this: if it is true that “The laws whereby logic obliges us to think turn out to be the laws according to which every event in space and time must happen,”{19} it means that logic permeates the universe. There is a correspondence between our minds and the universe, a correspondence that stands in need of an explanation.

Some might try to explain it by arguing that the mind is a product of the universe, an effect of nature. As such, it seems plausible that our patterns of thinking would correspond to it. However, Lewis argues, this is too simplistic.

To be the result of a series of mindless events is one thing: to be a kind of plan or true account of the laws according to which those mindless events happened is quite another. Thus the Gulf Stream produces all sorts of results: for instance, the temperature of the Irish Sea. What it does not produce is maps of the Gulf Stream. But if logic, as we find it operative in our own minds, is really a result of mindless nature, then it is a result as improbable as that. It is … as if, when I knocked out my pipe, the ashes arranged themselves into letters which read: ‘We are the ashes of a knocked-out pipe.’{20}

We are thus forced to conclude that “where thought is strictly rational it must be, in some odd sense, not ours, but cosmic or super-cosmic.”{21} This is inconsistent with any worldview that assigns primacy to matter; but is consistent with any view that denies this. In fact, Lewis gives several possible positions one could develop from this argument. However, this is not as diverse as one might think: all of them fall under the category of the second way by which one could respond to futility.

Towards the end of “De Futilitate,” Lewis applies this argument to ethics in addition to reason.{22} He does this elsewhere,{23} and to aesthetics as well,{24} as Balfour had before him; but this goes beyond our present interests.

Meditation in a Toolshed
In this essay, Lewis uses the image of a beam of light to illustrate the difference between “looking along” and “looking at.” In a dark room, a beam of light from the outside can be very prominent, but it makes a world of difference whether we step into it and see the outside world via the beam -- i.e. by looking “along” it -- or whether we step back from it and just look “at” the beam itself. Similarly, we can make a distinction between the experience of thought and the observations of neurological processes. “The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician’s head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there -- only tiny movements in the grey matter.”{25}

He goes on to point out that the contemporary world has decided that looking at a phenomenon gives the truer or more correct account of that phenomenon. We assume that we learn more about something by studying it from the outside than by experiencing it from within. “Looking at” has annulled “looking along.” However, Lewis raises objections which make it impossible to disregard all inside experiences, and the argument from reason is one such objection.

We can look at thought, or the beam of light, from the side, as it were; but then that looking itself is another phenomenon which, presumably, must be looked at from the side as well; and this third act of looking must also be looked at from the side, ad infinitum. “In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled.”{26}

The solution to this is not to disregard all outside observations as less valuable or true than inside experiences. A woman in love may know more about it than another who has only read romance novels; but she may also be blinded to some realities by her love. Rather, the solution is that we must use both types of looking, and determine on a case-by-case basis whether one type is more correct, or whether both are equally correct in different ways. Lewis’s solution is that we cannot presuppose that one type of looking is inherently superior to the other. This essay foreshadows similar sentiments expressed by Thomas Nagel fifty years later.{27}

Religion without Dogma?
This essay is a critique Lewis wrote of a paper presented to the Socratic Club by H.H. Price defending agnosticism. While Lewis makes many points, one of them is a presentation of the argument from reason.{28} Unlike the other essays we have looked at, here Lewis makes no pretense of objectivity, couching his description in loaded terms and phrases, occasionally bordering on the contemptuous. He emphasizes how the physical laws of causality “never intended” to produce the universe, much less life, the human being, or the human brain; and so our mental activity is the result of “the law of averages” and “random variations.” Organization is matter’s “disquieting disease” and consciousness was “blundered into.”{29}

Lewis takes this biased description and applies it to a very particular target: Price’s composition and delivery of his paper. These events were, on Price’s own view, “the last link of a causal chain in which all the previous links were irrational.” As such, they amount to “a phenomenon of the same sort as his other secretions … no more capable of rightness or wrongness than a hiccup or a sneeze.”{30} But of course, no one, least of all Lewis, took his paper that way. He makes some of the same points he made in earlier essays, such as that any thought “explained, without remainder, as the result of irrational causes” is thereby rendered completely invalid. He also alludes to the difficulty, if naturalism is correct, in ascribing “that wholly immaterial relation which we call truth or falsehood” to the brute physical events that we call our thoughts: “naturalism seems to me committed to regarding ideas simply as events.”{31} Thus, naturalism presents itself as a true system of thought that invalidates all thought and makes the concept of truth nonsensical.

There are two final points to make about this essay. First, while Lewis read it to the Socratic Club in 1946, it did not appear in The Socratic Digest until two years later, in the same volume containing Anscombe’s criticism. In fact, Anscombe’s was the premier essay in that edition, and as such, completely deflated this presentation of the argument.

Second, in his response, Price conceded this point to Lewis.{32}

Shorter versions
Apart from the detailed account of the argument from reason that Lewis gives in Miracles, the essays presented above represent his most extensive treatments of it. It did not form a part of his two most popular theological works, Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, although in the former, he does give a related argument for the validity of ethics{33} and one of the shorter books Mere Christianity was based on, The Case for Christianity, does have a statement of the argument,{34} but it was removed from the larger work. However, he presented shorter versions of it many other times in his writings and lectures;{35} it even found its way into his fiction.{36}


{1} C.S. Lewis, “‘Bulverism’: or, The Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (1970; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 272.
{2} Lewis criticizes Freudianism on other grounds as well (“Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism,” in They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses [London: Bles, 1962], 120-38), although he also states he has “no objection to the inclusion of Freudian explanations provided they are not allowed to exclude all others” (“Behind the Scenes,” in God in the Dock, 247).
{3} Lewis, “Bulverism,” 273.
{4} Ibid., 272-73.
{5} It may also be the case that “Bulverism” is inspired from the French term bouleverser. This means to disrupt or cause distress, but it also means to turn upside down. This could indicate that the person who engages in Bulverism is turning the reasoning process on its head. However, this is pure speculation.
{6} Lewis, “Bulverism,” 273.
{7} Ibid., 274.
{8} Ibid., 275.
{9} Ibid., 272.
{10} Walter Hooper, Preface, in C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (1967; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), xiii.
{11} Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1917), 46-57. Lewis refers to this essay by an alternate title, “The Worship of a Free Man.”
{12} Russell, “Free Man’s Worship,” 48.
{13} C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections, 67.
{14} C.S. Lewis, All My Road before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 281 (the entry for Saturday 5 January, 1924).
{15} Lewis, “De Futilitate,” 61.
{16} Ibid., 68.
{17} Ibid., 63.
{18} Ibid., 63-64.
{19} Ibid., 65.
{20} Ibid., 64-65.
{21} Ibid.
{22} Ibid., 67-70.
{23} Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943; New York: Macmillan, 1947), 39-91; idem, Mere Christianity (1952; London: Collins, Fontana Paperbacks, 1955), 41-42; idem, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st ed. (London: Bles, 1947), 43-48, 2nd ed. (London: Collins, Fontana Paperbacks, 1960), 38-42.
{24} Lewis, Abolition of Man, 13-35.
{25} C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock, 212-13.
{26} Ibid., 215.
{27} Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 13-35.
{28} C.S. Lewis, “Religion Without Dogma?” in God in the Dock, 135-38.
{29} Ibid., 136.
{30} Ibid., 136-37.
{31} Ibid.
{32} H.H. Price, “Reply,” Socratic Digest 4 (1948): 98-99. J.R. Lucas (Freedom of the Will [Oxford: Clarendon, 1970], 116 n. 2, 174) refers to Price’s essay as “The Self-Refutation of Naturalism.” This is actually the subtitle for the fourth part of Price’s reply.
{33} Lewis, Mere Christianity, 41-42.
{34} C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (1942; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 32. Thanks to Victor Reppert for drawing this to my attention.
{35} Lewis, Abolition of Man, 91; idem, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, 21; idem, “Miracles,” in God in the Dock, 27; idem, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock, 52-53; idem, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in Christian Reflections, 72; idem, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” in Christian Reflections, 89; idem, “Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (1949; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 103-104; idem, “Is Theology Poetry?” in Weight of Glory, 135-36, 138-40; idem, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper. (1986; San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987), 73-80.
{36} C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 49-50, 62-63; idem, That Hideous Strength (1946; New York: Macmillan Paperback, 1965), 357-58.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I have read parts 1 and 2 with and interest.

It does indeed seem strange that matter can end up producing thoughts about itself. But surely the reason we trust those thoughts, e.g. in scientific enquiry, is that they lead to verifiable results. I.e we can rely on our thoughts in a similar way that we rely on our senses. If the results of our sense of sight did not tally with those of our sense of touch for example, we would consider our senses unreliable. Similarly, if everytime we added 2 and 2 we arrived at a different result we could conclude that our reasoning was in principle unreliable.
So although we may not be able to explain how this ability of matter arose that does not preclude the possibility that it did arise by natural processes.

I'm probably missing something here though with my simplistic notions. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of philosophy - or who can think more clearly - could shed some light?

There seem to be parallels to the argument against the possibility of free will in a naturalistic universe. I can't see any possibility of free will in such a universe but I've been told that I'm wrong. I've yet to be convinced though.

Jim S. said...

Thanks for the comment. This will be addressed to some extent in future posts. For now I'll just say that you're suggesting we'd notice if our cognitive faculties were not reliable. But our ability to notice such things, on naturalism, is just one more function of our cognitive faculties. The argument alleges to show that our cognitive faculties' reliability is incompatible with naturalism. If it succeeds, it would apply to our ability to notice whether or not they are reliable, since such an ability is a cognitive function. We don't get to assume some cognitive function is reliable, since the argument calls all cognitive functions into question.

Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for replying. I've just noticed you've posted part 3. So I'll read that first before asking any further questions....
Keep up the good work!