Friday, July 30, 2010

The Space Trilogy and the Argument from Reason

I can't believe I forgot this, but in my post of C. S. Lewis's shorter statements of the Argument from Reason, I left out a fascinating passage from Perelandra, the second book in his Space Trilogy (I will be correcting that mistake as soon as I post this). Ransom and Weston are discussing the purpose of life, and they make some interesting claims.

"Well, now, that's another point," said Weston. "I've been to church as well as you when I was a boy. There's more sense in parts of the Bible than you religious people know. Doesn't it say He's the God of the living, not of the dead? That's just it. Perhaps your God does exist -- but it makes no difference whether He does or not. No, of course you wouldn't see it; but one day you will. I don't think you've got the idea of the rind -- the thin outer skin which we call life -- really clear. Picture the universe as an infinite globe with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It's about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it. When we've got all the way through then we are what's called Dead: we've got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He's not in the globe -- He's outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn't follow us in. You would express it by saying He's not in time -- which you think comforting! In other words He stays put: out in the light and air, outside. But we are in time. We 'move with the times.' That is, from His point of view, we move away, into what He regards as nonentity, where He never follows. That is all there is to us, all there ever was. He may be there in what you call 'Life,' or He may not. What difference does it make? We're not going to be there for long!"

"That could hardly be the whole story," said Ransom. "If the whole universe were like that, then we, being parts of it, would feel at home in such a universe. The very fact that it strikes us as monstrous --"

"Yes," interrupted Weston, "that would be all very well if it wasn't that reasoning itself is only valid as long as you stay in the rind. It has nothing to do with the real universe. Even the ordinary scientists -- like what I used to be myself -- are beginning to find that out. Haven't you seen the real meaning of all this modern stuff about the dangers of extrapolation and bent space and the indeterminacy of the atom? They don't say in so many words, of course, but what they're getting to, even before they die nowadays, is what all men get to when they're dead -- the knowledge that reality is neither rational nor consistent nor anything else. In a sense you might say it isn't there. 'Real' and 'Unreal,' 'true' and 'false' -- they're all only on the surface. They give way the moment you press them."

"If all this were true," said Ransom, "what would be the point of saying it?"

"Or of anything else?" replied Weston. "The only point in anything is that there isn't any point. Why do ghosts want to frighten? Because they are ghosts. What else is there to do?"

"I get the idea," said Ransom. "That the account a man gives of the universe, or of any other building, depends very much on where he is standing."

"But specially," said Weston, "on whether he's inside or out. All the things you like to dwell upon are outsides. A planet like our own, or like Perelandra, for instance. Or a beautiful human body. All the colours and pleasant shapes are merely where it ends, where it ceases to be. Inside, what do you get? Darkness, worms, heat, pressure, salt, suffocation, stink."

The Argument from Reason comes in Ransom's responses to Weston: first, in his claim that the universe he's describing seems alien to us (in the sense that we don't feel at home in it). Second, in his question to Weston: why, if Reason is not veracious, bother to say anything at all? And I find it interesting that Lewis allows Weston a response: why do ghosts frighten? That's what they do. But of course, he's still giving Ransom a reason. Even in denying Reason, he is unable to step outside it.

The Argument from Reason is mentioned in the third book, That Hideous Strength, as well. I've quoted this passage a couple of times on my blog already, but it's so poignant I'm going to do it again:

Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so -- since he had been initiated -- he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believe in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men. But never, until this evening, had he been quite so vividly aware that the body and its movements were the only reality, that the self which seemed to watch the body leaving the dining room and setting out for the chamber of the Head, was a nonentity. How infuriating that the body should have power thus to project a phantom self!

Thus the Frost whose existence Frost denied watched his body go into the ante-room, watched it pull up sharply at the sight of a naked and bloodied corpse. The chemical reaction called shock occurred. ...

Still not asking what he would do or why, Frost went to the garage. The whole place was silent and empty; the snow was thick on the ground by this. He came up with as many petrol tins as he could carry. He piled all the inflammables he could think of together in the Objective Room. Then he locked himself in by locking the outer door of the ante-room. Whatever it was that dictated his actions then compelled him to push the key into the speaking tube which communicated with the passage. When he had pushed it as far in as his fingers could reach, he took a pencil from his pocket and pushed with that. Presently he heard the clink of the key falling on the passage floor outside. That tiresome illusion, his consciousness, was screaming to protest; his body, even had he wished, had no power to attend to those screams. Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul -- nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

This is the hideous strength of the title: the "strength" to deny God, to prefer hell to Him, to do everything one can in life to remove one's own humanity. If, while you're doing so, you're able to remove the humanity of others too, well, that's just gravy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This is funny

I just received a book that is extremely obscure that I've been wanting for some time. I learned of it by reading J. P. Moreland's book Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, in his chapter on the argument from mind. He addresses, at one point, the claim that naturalism -- or alternatively, determinism -- is self-defeating. It takes away any reason why we should accept naturalism or determinism because it takes away reasons. In defense of this, he quotes the existentialist philosopher and theologian Hans Jonas from his book On Faith, Reason and Responsibility. I've looked for this book periodically on AbeBooks but there has never been a single entry for it when I did. I looked for it on WorldCat, but I could only find two libraries that have it, both in California. However, a few months ago I tried (yes, it should have been obvious) and I found a copy from a used bookstore. Now I have it on my desk and am very happy.

The quotation Moreland uses is from pages 42-3 and deals explicitly with epiphenomanlism, the view that all that appears in the mind is a by-product of what the body is doing. Thus, the mind has no power itself to act; it may seem like it does, but when we decide to do something what is really happening is that the mental by-product that appears tricks us into thinking it came before the action it allegedly led to. In fact, the action appeared first, and the mental by-product appeared afterwards. It had to, unless we give the mind some sort of self-motive power, and this conflicts with naturalism and determinism. Here is the quote in full:

So much for the internal critique of the concept of epiphenomenon. More devastating still are the consequences which flow from it for everything else: for the concept of a reality that indulges in this kind of thing, for a thinking that explains itself by it, and for itself as a thought of that thinking. Here the charge is not inconsistency but absurdity.

First, what sort of being would that be which brings forth, as its most elaborate performance, this vain mirage? We answer: not a merely indifferent, but a positively absurd or perverse being, and therefore unbelievable. If living behavior were nothing but a deaf-mute pantomime, performed by supremely sophisticated physical systems without enjoyment of subjectivity, it could well be termed pointless but not strictly absurd. The show becomes absurd when it accompanies itself with music as if its predecided paces were set by it. A lie can have a function, but not here: the mechanical needs no bribe. And yet it should sound -- in will, pleasure and pain -- a siren song with no one there to seduce? A song that only sings its error to itself, including the error of being the singer? Something devoid of interest in the first place, and with no room for its intercession in the second, should stage the grandiose comedy of interest, shamming a task that is not there and a power it does not have? The sheer, senseless futility of such an elaborate hoax is enough to disqualify it as a caricature of nature. He who makes nature absurd in order to circumvent one of her riddles has passed sentence on himself and not on her and has forfeited the right to speak any more of laws of nature.

Even more directly than via the slander of nature has he passed judgment on himself by what his thesis says about the possible validity of any thesis whatsoever and, therefore, about the validity claim of his own. Every theory, even the most mistaken, is a tribute to the power of thought, to which in the very meaning of the theorizing act it is allowed that it can rise above the power of extramental determinations, tat it can judge freely on what is given in the field of representations, that it is, first of all, capable of the resolve for truth, i.e., the resolve to follow the guidance of insight and not the drift of fancies. But epiphenomenalism contends the impotence of thinking and therewith its own inability to be independent theory. Indeed, even the extreme materialist must exempt himself qua thinker, so that extreme materialism as a doctrine be possible. But while even the Cretan who declares all Cretans to be liars can add, "except myself at this moment," the epiphenomenalist who has defined the nature of thought can not make this addition, because he too is swallowed up in the abyss of his universal verdict.

Thus we have a twofold reductio ad absurdum, according to the twofold question of what to think of a reality that brings forth this futile mirage and what of the attempt of this self-confessed mirage to establish a truth about that reality. Nature as an impostor on the one hand, a theory destroying itself on the other, was the outcome of the scrutiny.

Now, the title of this post is "This is funny" yet nothing funny has been mentioned yet. Here's what's funny. I typed the above quote and planned to post it as a Quote of the Day. In doing so, I went back to and found the page with this book on it. As I copied the URL address, I looked at the picture of the book presented on Amazon. It's my book. I don't mean it's the same edition or the same publisher as the book I just bought, I mean it's numerically the same book. It has the same folds in the cover, the same discoloration on the top.

It just made me laugh.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thought of the Day

I've never understood the expression "the exception that proves the rule." Exceptions disprove rules.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Psalm 104 and the Early Chapters of Genesis

Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, but a unique one. It actually reiterates the description of events of creation week step by step; it's essentially the earliest commentary on Genesis 1. This allows us to check our interpretation of Genesis 1 to see if it's in accord with Psalm 104; if it's not, then we should go back and check to see where the misinterpretation lies.

The significance of this is that one of the things that fuels the claim that science and Christianity are at odds with each other is that some Christians insist on interpretations of the Bible which blatantly contradict the discoveries of modern science. If the problem lies in the interpretation rather than what the Bible actually teaches, this would be an important point in the debate. Of course, there are other responses one can give to the science vs. Christianity metanarrative; for example, the Bible was never intended to provide a comprehensive description of the world, nor has it been historically understood to do so. As David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, "The notion that any serious Christian thinker would even have attempted to formulate a world view from the Bible alone is ludicrous."

One significant difference between the two texts is that Genesis focuses on what was created and Who did the creating. The Psalm, however, also addresses the why: why did God create this? Its point is to show how God is in charge of his creation, and that each part has a role to play in his overarching purpose.

Here are the main parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1:

1. Ps. 104:2-5/Gen. 1:1 -- Creation of the universe
2. Ps. 104:6-9/Gen. 1:6-10 -- Formation of dry land
3. Ps. 104:14-17/Gen. 1:11-13 -- Creation of plants (for men and animals)
4. Ps. 104:19-23/Gen. 1:14-19 -- Establishment of the heavens as calendar “markers”
5. Ps. 104:24-30/Gen. 1:20-25 -- Creation of animals

Point 2 is interesting. Genesis 1 describes how the early Earth was totally covered with water, and that God brought the land out of it, raising the seabed above sea level in certain places. Psalm 104 describes this same event, but includes another point that Genesis doesn't make: "You set a boundary they [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." So after God created dry land, there was never a time when water completely covered it.

This doesn't conflict with Genesis 1, but it does conflict with how many people understand the flood chapters. It's often thought that Genesis 7-8 is describing a global flood. But Psalm 104 does not allow this interpretation. The flood could not have been global, since after God first formed the dry land, he promised to never again allow it to be completely covered with water. The flood, therefore, must have been a local event, which presumably destroyed the local ecosystem and the human race who hadn't spread out to cover the earth yet.

The only way out of this is to claim that, perhaps, Psalm 104 is not referring to the establishment of dry land during creation week but to the flood itself. In fact, this is how most commentaries that I've read understand it. Part of the motivation for this is that, after the flood, God promised to never destroy the human race by flood again. Thus, the promise in Psalm 104 to never let water cover all the face of the earth is allegedly the same promise God made after the flood.

However, the parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 confute the idea that these texts are describing the same promise. Essentially, this would require us to believe that Psalm 104 parallels Genesis 1 regarding the creation of the universe; then jumps ahead to describe the flood; then jumps back to Genesis 1 where it left off; then skips over the account of the creation of dry land (which just happens to sound exactly like what Psalm 104 is describing); then continues paralleling Genesis 1 as if the hop, skip, and jump hadn't happened. This is an incredibly ad hoc explanation; you could defend just about any interpretation using such tactics.

Another interesting issue is point 5. This describes God's creation of the animals. Genesis 1 includes the detail that God gave the earliest humans and animals plants to eat. From this, some conclude that they only ate plants. This accords with the idea that carnivorous activity -- where animals kill and eat each other -- is a result of the fall of humankind, and was not a part of God's original creation plan.

Psalm 104, however, includes carnivorous activity as part of his purpose in creation, referring to God's providence in the predator-prey relationship. Verse 21 states, "The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God". Moreover, a few verses later, this and other aspects of God providing for his creation are called "good": "These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things" (vv. 27-28). This recalls the repeated statement in Genesis 1 where God, after creating something, calls it "good". This strongly suggests that there wasn't some sort of vegetarian mandate in effect prior to the fall of humankind.

A similar passage is in Job where God challenges Job by asking him if he can do everything God does. In 38:39-40 God says, "Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?" Since this comes in a list of things of how God provides for his creation, it means that God is the one who brings other animals to the lion for it to kill and eat as the lion waits in a place hidden from them. This doesn't explicitly tie it to creation week as does Psalm 104, but it still removes the claim that it's contrary to God's providential ordering of the universe.

A potential escape hatch is that Psalm 104 refers to many things that weren't in effect during creation week. The bodies of water, for example, are there so people can build boats and sail on them (v. 26). But this ignores the fact that the Psalm is describing what the various stages in creation are for; he is describing why he created the various things he did, using Genesis 1 as a blueprint. Thus, he reiterates the order of things in Genesis, but then adds how each stage of creation paved the way for future stages, even those stages not a part of creation week itself.

But then couldn't the same thing be said of the lion hunting it's prey? That, after all, is a current phenomenon, and we do not necessarily have to ascribe it to creation week. The problem with this is that, in addition to being a creation psalm, Psalm 104 is a praise psalm. That is, it's describing the good things God has done, not the negative result of sin or the fall. The psalmist praises God for providing the lion with its food (that it kills and eats) and calls this good, just as Genesis 1 calls the various stages of creation good.

Of course, both of these claims open up a can of worms. There are other objections to the claim that animal death was present prior to the fall of humankind; there are other arguments that the formation of land in Psalm 104 is referring to the flood chapters, not Genesis 1. Nevertheless, I think this Psalm is a good starting point. It opens doors that we may not realize are open because of common interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


A must-read post at Wordverter. (rated R for language)

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Rather Obvious Point

Often when someone brings up Islamic terrorism, one of the responses given is that other religions and ideologies have their kooks as well, and we shouldn't judge Islam because it has its own share. Obviously this response is at least half true: no matter where you go in life, no matter what group you associate with, there's always going to be what I call an assh*le element. Any and every group will have people who join it for the wrong reasons, so to single out one group because of this is inappropriate.

As I say, this response is certainly half true. However, it's no more than that, because it misses something important, something very important, and in fact, blindingly obvious: Ideas have consequences. Just because every group is going to have its assh*le element doesn't mean that every group is equal in all moral respects. Some groups are going to encourage violence, others will allow it in pursuit of a higher cause, etc. Ideas have consequences, and different ideas have different consequences.

An ideology which rejects the intrinsic value of human beings -- perhaps all people or perhaps just members of other groups -- will obviously have significantly different results than one which upholds the intrinsic value of all human beings, including those who belong to people groups that are usually held in contempt. And this remains true even though the latter ideology has members who obviously don't act accordingly. For example, at the end of the film To End All Wars, the lead character narrates an aspect of the Bushido code which had been introduced earlier in the movie (I'm paraphrasing): "The individual life weighs less than a feather." The narrator responds, "What is the result of believing the individual life weighs less than a feather?" The preceding two hours of the film answer that question.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Thursday, July 1, 2010