Thursday, September 12, 2013

C.S. Lewis's Argument against Naturalism, part 4

In the first three posts of this series, I presented C.S. Lewis's argument from reason, which argues that naturalism is self-defeating. In this and the following post, I will present the objections raised against it by Elizabeth Anscombe.

A Summary of Anscombe’s Criticisms
G.E.M. Anscombe, a Christian philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, presented a paper critical of Lewis’s argument from reason, as presented in his book Miracles, in February 1948 to the Socratic Club in Oxford, and which was published later that year as the premier essay in The Socratic Digest. She was not the first to criticize Miracles,{1} but the objections she raised were by far the most significant. Her essay primarily argues that Lewis employs terms with dubious definitions, and when they are corrected, the argument no longer holds.

Irrational and nonrational
Anscombe quotes Lewis’s dictum that “no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.”{2} However Lewis chose examples where the natural processes which influence someone to reach particular beliefs are known to mislead him into false beliefs (such as delirium tremens). It simply does not follow from this that all natural processes do so. “A causal explanation of a man’s thought only reflects on its validity as an indication, if we know that opinions caused in that way are always or usually unreasonable.”{3} “… it is only because we already know that men with delirium tremens see things that are not there … that we dismiss a man’s belief by ascribing it to delirium tremens.”{4}

Part of the problem here is that Lewis uses the term “irrational” in too broad of a sense. An irrational cause for a belief would be an invalid argument that lets one believe what one wants to believe. On the other hand, when we say that a belief is caused by something like delirium tremens, these are not irrational in the same sense as the former causes are. Rather, “they are conditions which we know to go with irrational beliefs or attitudes with sufficient regularity for us to call them their causes.”{5} Such natural causes may be “non-rational” in the sense that they are just bare facts rather than propositions, and as such, have no truth-value. This is not the same thing as being irrational, however. By conflating irrational causes and nonrational causes, Lewis has committed a category mistake, and this calls his argument into question.

Anscombe illustrates this with Lewis’s example of a man afraid of a dog. If a man says a dog is dangerous and, when asked how he knows, gives insufficient grounds for this belief, it is irrational. However, if a man says a dog is dangerous and, when asked how he knows, begins to tremble and shake his head, his belief is not based on insufficient grounds: it is completely groundless. It is caused by some event in his past or some dysfunction of his psyche, and so is nonrational rather than irrational.

Paradigm case
Anscombe goes on to challenge Lewis’s claim that we have to believe in the validity of reason. “You can talk about the validity of a piece of reasoning, and sometimes about the validity of a kind of reasoning; but if you say you believe in the validity of reasoning itself, what do you mean?”{6} Here, Anscombe is challenging Lewis’s claim that if we can call an isolated belief irrational if it springs from irrational causes, we can equally call all of our beliefs irrational if they are all the result of irrational causes.

Her point is that in order to understand valid reasoning, we would have to have an example of it.{7} As such, to question the validity of all reasoning appears nonsensical, since it would imply the possibility of there being no valid example of reasoning, and so no concept of valid reasoning could ever be formed. Moreover, part of our understanding of valid reasoning comes from contrasting it with invalid reasoning. Yet we would need at least one example of each in order for such a contrast to take place. “Anscombe here is employing the Paradigm Case argument, an argument against the possibility of meaningfully raising certain skeptical questions.”{8}

Antony Flew -- an atheist philosopher who participated in the Socratic Club, and even took part in a debate on Christianity and Plato later that month -- illustrates this by comparing it to hallucination. There is nothing problematic about asking whether a particular perception is hallucinatory or real. “But it is preposterous to ask whether all perceptions taken together are hallucinatory. The term ‘real perception’ and the term ‘hallucinatory perception’ derive their usual significance from their mutual contrast, and from the tests used to decide which is applicable.”{9} Suggesting that all perceptions might be hallucinations is not just a ridiculous claim: it is incoherent. “Hallucination” does not mean anything without the contrast of real perception. Similarly, an irrational belief does not mean anything without the contrast of a rational one.

Naturalistic explanations
Anscombe then asks what exactly in the naturalistic worldview would prevent any of the reasons for a belief from applying. If we are asked for an explanation of a particular belief, “what in the naturalistic hypothesis prevents that explanation from being given and from meaning what it does?”{10} The naturalist scenario, at least as naturalists understand it, does not preclude someone believing something and giving an explanation for this belief when challenged.

In fact, this leads to a great irony in Lewis’s argument. He condemns attempts to refute beliefs based on their allegedly irrational credentials, such as Freudians claiming that traditional beliefs are the result of psychological processes in the subconscious. This, however, is presumptuous and inappropriate. We should judge a belief on whether or not it is true; any other factors are simply irrelevant.{11}

Yet after condemning this fallacy, he turns around and commits it himself. Any belief with irrational causes is thereby invalidated; so if all beliefs have irrational causes, all beliefs are invalid. Recall his claim that, if naturalism were true, “The finest piece of scientific reasoning is caused in just the same irrational way as the thoughts a man has because a bit of bone is pressing on his brain.”{12} But to dismiss a belief because it has irrational causes is precisely the Bulverism fallacy. To argue that a belief is made invalid by such irrational causes “does not follow at all. Whether his conclusions are rational or irrational is settled by considering the chain of reasoning that he gives and whether his conclusions follow from it.”{13} Regardless of whether someone reached a belief for irrational or nonrational reasons, we cannot, on those grounds, reject it. The validity of a particular belief is not determined by whether the person who drew it did so in accord with the correct logical procedures, but whether we can do so upon further investigation.

Reasons and causes
This leads to the heart of Anscombe’s critique, that one type of explanation does not rule out another type. Lewis had assumed that giving a naturalistic explanation of a particular belief was incompatible with giving a rational one, in fact that any given phenomenon has only one complete explanation. Anscombe argues to the contrary that the rational and naturalistic explanations are just two different ways of describing the same phenomenon; both can be correct simultaneously.

As a Wittgensteinian, Anscombe was content to view different types of explanations as different “language games.” A “full” explanation would be one which fully answers the questions of an inquirer. As Victor Reppert writes,

… there can be many explanations for the same event. For example, if we ask, “Why is the soda can sitting on the bookshelf?” I can answer correctly, “Because I put it there yesterday,” or “because I wanted it to be recycled,” or “because no one has knocked it over,” or “because the shelf holds it up,” or “because of the law of gravity,” or even “because it is cylindrical,” which explains why it stays put on the bookshelf and doesn’t roll around. We must admit, with Anscombe, the question-relativity of explanations and also that different explanations can be given for the same event.{14}

Such explanations “are not mutually exclusive. They are not even in competition.”{15}

Lewis, essentially, has confused the causes of a belief with its grounds. His failure to distinguish between irrational and nonrational causes leads him to use other terms in an ambiguous manner as well, specifically the terms “reason,” “why,” “cause,” “because,” and “explanation.” When we ask why someone believes something, we can answer in terms of what caused the belief, or we can answer in terms of what grounds the belief. The former would yield a nonrational answer, while the latter would yield either a rational or an irrational one. Both answers would begin with “because,” but would be a different type of explanation.

Anscombe’s point is that these two types of explanation do not contradict each other. They are merely describing the same thing from different perspectives. Anscombe even adds on to the naturalistic and rational explanations of a belief two more: one can give a psychological explanation why one has a belief, and one can give a personal history explanation of why one has a belief.{16} None of these explanations are in competition with each other, and all can be true of the same belief simultaneously.

Anscombe goes into some detail about the difference between a causal-type of explanation and a grounds-type of explanation. Lewis seems to be arguing that if a belief has an irrational or nonrational cause, the person believing it did not reach that belief by reasoning. If the belief turns out to be true “we regard it as accidental.”{17}

But this is not the role that reasons play in our beliefs. Causes are mechanical, physical regularities based on observation. Reasons “are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.”{18} So, in contrast to Lewis’s claim that reasons are “a special kind of cause.”{19} Anscombe seems to think that reasons are not causes at all. Thus, reasons and causes are completely different spheres, different language games, that have nothing to do with each other. “It appears to me that if a man has reasons, and they are good reasons, and they are genuinely his reasons, for thinking something -- then his thought is rational, whatever causal statements we make about him.”{20}

In the notes of the discussion following Anscombe’s presentation, and a supplemental comment by Lewis,{21} he acknowledges the difference between causes and grounds, but argues that a belief could only be considered rational when its cause is the recognition of its grounds. If one only arrives at a belief because of causes that have nothing to do with the grounds, then it seems that the grounds for that belief play no role in one’s holding of it. The final assessment of those in attendance was that Lewis “would have to turn his argument into a rigorous analytic one.”

Anscombe’s critique can be reduced to the following points, not necessarily of equal importance, and some of which bleed into each other:

1. Lewis conflates different types of nonrational processes: just because some nonrational processes lead to false beliefs, it does not follow that all do so.

2. Lewis conflates nonrational processes with irrational processes. If his argument is that having irrational causes for a belief invalidate it, it does not follow that nonrational causes do likewise.

3. The paradigm case argument. Suggesting that a position would invalidate all reasoning is nonsensical, since we would not be able to understand what these terms mean without examples of both. It would erase the distinction between valid and invalid reasoning. However, this distinction may be the only way we can understand what valid or invalid reasoning is.

4. There is nothing in the naturalistic worldview which would prevent a person from giving a rational explanation for a belief and meaning it.

5. Bulverism. Lewis, ironically, commits his own fallacy. A belief is not justified by how it was formed, but by whether or not it is true.

6. Lewis fails to distinguish between a belief’s grounds and its causes. Both may use the same terms (“reason,” “why,” “cause,” “because,” and “explanation”), but they are two distinct types of explanation that do not preclude each other.

In the next post in this series I will analyze these points in more detail.


{1} See, for example, Robert Eisler, Review of Miracles: A Preliminary Study, by C.S. Lewis, Hibbert Journal 45 (1946-47): 373-77.
{2} C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st ed. (London: Bles, 1947), 27.
{3} G.E.M. Anscombe, “A Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting,” in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, vol. 2: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 231.
{4} Ibid., 224.
{5} Ibid., 225.
{6} Ibid., 226.
{7} It should be pointed out that Anscombe leaves this point open: she writes, “Whether you would adopt this method or some other (though I do not know of any other) …” (ibid., 226)
{8} Victor Reppert, “The Lewis-Anscombe Controversy: A Discussion of the Issues,” Christian Scholar’s Review 19 (1989): 37.
{9} Antony Flew, “The Third Maxim,” The Rationalist Annual 72 (1955): 64-65.
{10} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 226.
{11} 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), 271-77; idem, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock, 215.
{12} Lewis, Miracles, 1st ed., 28.
{13} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 227.
{14} Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 66.
{15} John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 74.
{16} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 230-31.
{17} Ibid., 228.
{18} Ibid., 229.
{19} Lewis, “Bulverism,” 275.
{20} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 229.
{21} Ibid., 231-32; C.S. Lewis, “Religion Without Dogma?” in God in the Dock, 144-46.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Monday, September 09, 2013

Counting the days

I've argued before that I don't think the days of creation in Genesis 1 should be understood as calendar days (or solar days, human days, "normal" days, or whatever). The Hebrew word for day, yom, can be defined -- in fact can be literally defined -- as an extended period of indeterminate length, and if you think it should be understood metaphorically that opens up even more possible definitions.

One common objection to this is that when yom is modified by a number (e.g. first day, second day, etc.) in the Bible, its meaning is restricted to a calendar day. There are a few problems with this, but the biggest one is that it's false: yom plus a numerical modifier is used in the Old Testament to refer to a period of indefinite length. The best example of this is Zechariah 14:7-8 which uses the phrase yom echad (day one) to refer to a long period of time. Many translations do not translate that phrase as "one day" or "day one" but that is the Hebrew phrase. Here's the passage:

It will be a unique day [yom echad], without daytime [yom] or nighttime [layelah] -- a day known to the LORD. When evening ['ereb] comes, there will be light [or]. On that day [beyom] living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. 

This verse tells us that there is a day known only to God in which there will be no daylight and no night, and which will encompass the annual seasons. As such, the day in question is an extended time period. The significance of this passage is threefold. First, obviously, it gives us an example of yom being used with a numerical modifier to refer to a long period of time. Second, the word yom is used twice in close proximity, but has two different definitions: daylight and an indefinite period of time. This is precisely what I'm claiming is the case in the account of the first day of creation in Genesis 1:5, which reads

God called the light [or] "day" [yom], and the darkness he called "night" [layelah]. And there was evening ['ereb], and there was morning -- the first day [yom echad].

If Zechariah 14:7-8 uses yom to refer to daylight, and yom echad to refer to an undefined period of time, there's nothing unusual in claiming that Genesis 1:5 has these same two definitions as well. In fact, these passages are the only two instances of "yom echad" in the entire Old Testament. This strongly suggests that the first day of creation was not a calendar day.

This leads to my third point: Zechariah 14:7-8 also contains several of the other terms in Genesis 1:5, such as or (light), layelah (night), and 'ereb (evening). That makes it the closest semantic parallel to Genesis 1:5 in the Bible. In order to defend the calendar-day interpretation, one would have to say that all of these parallels -- the same words, as well as yom echad referring to a long time period in close proximity to yom without modification referring to daylight -- are irrelevant. I'm afraid I don't find that position to be credible.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Saturday, September 07, 2013

British Authorities have Decided that Selectively Aborting Girls is not a Crime

In China in 2011, there are 118 male births for every 100 female births. That’s pretty typical for the last few years and is the highest ratio of baby boys to baby girls in the world. As far as we can tell, the natural rate is a preponderance of 105 boys born for every 100 girls. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that there is a surfeit of males in the most populous country in the world. As Steven Pinker noted in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the civilising effect of women on young men is one of the most important ways that male aggression can be curtailed. In other words, too many guys are good for nobody. No one seriously doubts that the mismatch between the sexes is caused by selective abortion, and that this is exacerbated by the one-child policy of China.

On the controversial question of abortion, I’ve always felt Bill Clinton put it best when he said that it should be “safe, legal and rare”. But there should be no controversy about the equality of men and women. Both the sexes have exactly the same right to life. To abort a foetus just because it is female is a fundamental offence against human rights. In the UK, it is also illegal. All this makes the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) not to prosecute two doctors who agreed to perform sex-specific abortions bewildering.

The CPS and the police have spent fourteen months investigating allegations made in the Daily Telegraph. In two cases, the evidence is strong enough for a prosecution, but the CPS have said that this would not be in the public interest. Jenny Hopkins, the CPS lawyer in charge of the case, appears to believe that aborting a female foetus is not a criminal offence, merely a breach of professional ethics. For this reason, she wants to the General Medical Council (“GMC”) to deal with the case. However, the GMC have already said that they cannot take the place of the CPS.

In the oddest part of her statement, she states that the level of harm to the victim was relevant. In fact, she implies that there was no harm to anyone as the journalist who approached the doctors was never going through with the abortion. This shows a disturbing level of naivety on the part of Ms Hopkins. Does she imagine that these doctors were picked by the Daily Telegraph at random? Clearly, the likelihood that illegal selective abortions have taken place in the past cannot form part of the case against the doctors. However, Ms Hopkins admits that there is already sufficient evidence for a prosecution. Presumably she also sees nothing wrong with speeding as long as there is no intention to crash.

The case must be reviewed by an independent and accountable third party. That review must include in its terms of reference how the CPS could reach such an irrational decision in the first place. As for the CPS itself, it is clearly not fit for purpose. Many people were shocked when it refused to prosecute Simon Harwood for the killing of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in April 2009. Even when they were forced to change that decision, the CPS failed to achieve a conviction. As recently as June this year it was revealed that a murderer had to be retried because the CPS prosecutor was “incompetent”.

It is high time for the CPS to be disbanded. Its role should be given back to local prosecutors who will be ultimately responsible to elected Crime Commissioners. Unlike the bureaucrats of the CPS, Crime Commissioners are accountable to their electorates. If one of them were crazy enough to decide it wasn’t worth prosecuting doctors for agreeing to abort a foetus just because it was female, it is unlikely the public would keep him or her in post.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Monday, September 02, 2013

Tom Holland's account of the origins of Islam: "In the Shadow of the Sword"

Last year, I reviewed Islam: the Untold Story, a television show on the origins of Islam hosted by the author Tom Holland. I thought that Holland’s revisionist thesis didn’t quite convince, although the show was well worth watching. I’ve now gotten around to reading Holland’s book upon which he based the show: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

To recap, the traditional story of Mohammad’s life and early Islam, as recounted in many books (not all of which are by Karen Armstrong), is usually presented as strictly factual. Even if we discount the angel Gabriel dictating the Koran, we supposedly know lots about Mohammad’s activities, trade, family and sayings. We know he was born in Mecca, fled to Medina and later returned to Mecca in triumph. Many people imagine that all this information is set out in the Koran itself. But, of course, it isn’t. The Koran is nothing like the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. It contains almost no history or biography. Almost all the facts about Mohammad’s life come from biographies written a couple of hundred years later. Given that Mark’s Gospel was written only 40 years after Jesus’ death and historians have not been able to agree on how much of it is factual, it is odd that there isn’t more scepticism about the activities of Mohammad. When we actually subject the sources to criticism, we find we know almost nothing about him or what he said.

Holland sets out all this background in an exhilarating first chapter. In fact, like a Bond film with a fantastic pre-credits sequence, the rest of In the Shadow of the Sword never quite hits these heights again. That’s not to say the rest of the book isn’t a good read. The last couple of chapters are also excellent. It’s just there does seem to be a lot of padding in between.

The need for padding isn’t Holland’s fault. His aim is to explain the rise of Islam in the context of the clash of the Roman and Persian empires during Late Antiquity. He doesn’t use the later Islamic sources on Mohammad’s life at all: this is history based on contemporary and third-party sources, just like it ought to be. But since Holland is writing for laypeople, he has to present a vast amount of background material in order for his story to make sense. It’s a sad reflection on British education (and the decline of western civilisation in general) that Holland cannot assume his readers will have already read Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety. He can’t even assume that they’ve read John Julius Norwich’s History of Byzantium. Hence the padding.

Still, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Holland has constructed his narrative with great skill to ensure that we absorb the points that he will bring up again later when he covers the rise of Islam. Thus, we learn about the rabbinical schools of Sura and Pumpedita; the origin of the Zoroastrian scriptures; and the Arab mercenaries of the Caesars and Sassanids. Only then does Holland serve up the main course on how Islam came to be.

The strange thing is that the television show seemed a lot more radical than the book does. Holland’s account of Islam’s rise is revisionist only in the sense that it reads like ordinary history. There’s nothing flaky here. Mohammad existed and he wrote the Koran pretty much as we have it today. He based himself at Medina and won lots of Arabs over to his cause. Then they poured out of Arabia, conquered the Persian Empire and almost destroyed the Byzantines as well. That’s not to say Holland’s account of the formation of Islamic orthodoxy in the ninth century isn’t fascinating stuff. The tensions between the Caliphs and the conquered Zoroastrians, both of whom tried to construct a model of Islam to suit themselves, are beautifully explicated. And if all this sounds like the battles over Trinitarianism in the fourth century, that’s a parallel that Holland is keen to bring out.

Holland’s most striking scepticism is about the location of Mecca. He presents a good deal of circumstantial evidence that Mecca was chosen as the central shrine of Islam by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in the 690s. This location, we’re told, was well to the south of the House of God identified in the Koran. In other words, Mohammad didn’t come from Mecca and had probably never even heard of the place. The trouble with this thesis is that Holland makes it quite clear that everyone knew perfectly well where the House of God originally was. He doesn’t provide a particularly compelling reason why Abd al-Malik moved it south or any slam-dunk evidence that it was moved at all.

Overall, In the Shadow of the Sword is a book that anyone interested in the origins of Islam must read. It’s enjoyable and well written (although Holland’s rather arch style of prose can be a little tiresome at times). That it is also an outsider’s perspective on a complex subject is one of its strengths as well as a disadvantage. It is a shame there is very little else, outside the specialist academic literature and Islamic apologetics, that we can turn to for an alternative perspective.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum