Thursday, January 21, 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 Quodlibeta)


Doctor Logic said...

But how do we know that the wind moves the trees?

Well, if I disable tree movement, the wind keeps going. Also, a single gust of wind moves from one tree to the next.

I can even generate a gust of wind and watch its effect on different trees, and on non-trees, too.

However, this is nothing like cognitive science. If I immobilize the neurons (trees), the thinking (wind) stops.

Thinking only occurs in brains that have the physical capacity for memory and computation. There's no telekinesis. And there's no evidence that the non-physical part of mind (if such a thing exists) has any function whatsoever. If we already have a cause for thinking in the physical, it is silly to suppose there's a missing non-physical ingredient.

Jim S. said...

The wind analogy only goes so far. We do directly perceive the wind, for example, by the sense of touch; we feel the wind blowing in our faces. As you say, we can artificially generate wind as well. That doesn't transfer over because we can't artificially generate thought, at least not yet.

So take these out of the equation. Say all we have to work with is that we see trees moving and posit either that the trees movement makes the wind or the wind makes the trees move. If we were able to make a tree move artificially, like a fan, it would, in fact, generate some "air displacement", i.e. wind. If we kept trees immobile, we would no longer perceive the wind, since our only method of perceiving it no longer shows any signs of it. One could therefore claim that we have scientific evidence that the wind is in some sense dependent on the trees, but the trees are not dependent on the wind. Nevertheless, this would obviously be false.

Timothy Mills said...

I can see that Chesterton and Lewis' arguments would be persuasive if you already accept that meaning can only be derived "from above" - ie, from some non-physical source. This is not a position I find compelling, though, so their arguments fall rather flat.

Chesterton's complaint, "how can I be certain", is very telling to me. He is right, of course. If we take our understanding to be entirely dependent on physical structures that were evolved rather than designed for understanding, then we cannot be certain.

But a requirement for certainty is a rather terminal prerequisite for any epistemology. We are limited, fallible beings. Any of our perceptions or ideas may be in error. I don't see that any worldview can dig us out of that particular hole. That is simply the human condition.

So, while it forces us to be humble, uncertainty need not be paralysing in the way that Chesterton and Lewis fear. As a humanist and a scientist, I take uncertainty as my jumping-off point: what a joy it is that I have so many questions to explore, that everything is not already answered for me. As a pragmatist, I find provisional acceptance of reality to be adequate. I take the world to exist, and my thoughts to correspond to reality. That works for me most of the time. When I find that I'm wrong about some particular point, I work to correct my understanding.

Jim S. said...

You raise some important epistemological issues. It seems to me that knowledge has to be defined down in order to accommodate it within a naturalistic worldview. But that's too simple an answer to whether knowledge has to be infallible to qualify as such.

As to the persuasiveness of the Lewis-Chesterton argument: it purports to be a demonstration of why knowledge can't be defined from the ground up. I couldn't say to an atheist, "Your argument against God's existence isn't compelling, because I believe in God." That claim is precisely what the argument calls into question.