Monday, July 15, 2013

C.S. Lewis's Argument against Naturalism, part 1

The following series of posts are an adaptation of a thesis I wrote for one of my Master's degrees.

Introduction and Background
So many books have been written about C.S. Lewis, that there are actually books to simply catalogue them.{1} His influence, however, has been more on the popular level than in academia. This is largely Lewis’s doing: he wanted to write for the common man, the layperson, rather than the scholar. Unfortunately, the result of this has been that professional philosophers and theologians often do not treat him with the seriousness he deserves. Lewis, however, taught philosophy at Oxford in the beginning of his academic career,{2} surrounded himself with philosophers all his life,{3} and had “outstanding philosophical instincts.”{4} Thus, the first chapter of a recent philosophical book defending him is entitled, “Taking C.S. Lewis Seriously.”{5} One of the minor premises in this series of posts is to point to several examples where Lewis anticipates issues that have since come to the fore in analytic epistemology.

Initial statement of argument
One of Lewis’s arguments is that our reasoning capacities cannot be accounted for on naturalistic premises, and so we are forced by the fact that we reason to posit a supernaturalist worldview. His most extensive treatment of this argument is in his book Miracles, but he expressed it many times in his writings. For example:

We are certain that, in this life at any rate, thought is intimately connected with the brain. The theory that thought therefore is merely a movement in the brain is, in my opinion, nonsense, for if so, that theory itself would be merely a movement, an event among atoms, which may have speed and direction, but of which it would be meaningless to use the words “true” or “false.”{6}

Another example:

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 [science] 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.{7}

These two quotes succinctly express the three aspects of Lewis’s argument. First: if matter is all that exists, our beliefs are entirely caused by purely material processes, since there would be no other processes available to cause them. In which case, they are not the result of following the logic of an argument to a valid conclusion. As such, our beliefs are not logical or rational, and are therefore suspect -- including the belief that our beliefs are entirely caused by purely material processes. Materialism is therefore a self-refuting hypothesis: if it were true, we could have no reason for thinking it to be true.

Second: physical events are brute facts, and so it is nonsensical to call them true or false. A physical object is not “about” another physical object. Thoughts, on the other hand, are about things, and can be true or false. Therefore, our reasoning processes are more than physical events.

Third: the pattern our reasoning takes must also be the pattern by which physical reality acts. Lewis sees such a correspondence as enormously implausible on materialistic grounds. For random physical events to produce such a correspondence would be like an explosion producing order; not merely order, but information; not merely information, but information about itself.

Lewis’s argument is thus more modest than similar arguments from consciousness or “noölogical arguments.”{8} In fact, Lewis explicitly states that he is “not maintaining that consciousness as a whole must necessarily be put in the same position [as reason]. Pleasures, pains, fears, hopes, affections and mental images need not. No absurdity would follow from regarding them as parts of Nature.”{9}

Following John Beversluis and Victor Reppert -- a critic and an advocate respectively -- I will refer to this as the argument from reason.{10} This argument can be divided into two parts: the first half argues that nature by itself cannot account for human reason, and the second half argues that something other than nature must therefore be posited. While Lewis took the argument in a specifically theistic direction, he also suggested, “There are all sorts of different ways in which you can develop this position, either into an idealist metaphysic or a theology, into a theistic or a pantheistic or dualist theology.”{11} Because of this ambiguity, here I will only examine the first half of the argument, the refutation of ontological naturalism.

Christian philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe criticized Lewis’s argument at a meeting of the Socratic Club at Oxford in 1948,{12} and Lewis was forced to reformulate it in response to her objections. In this series of posts, I will look at Lewis’s original version of the argument, analyze Anscombe’s objections with the help of several philosophers who have commented on the exchange, and see whether Lewis’s reformulation holds up to scrutiny.

A note on terminology: Lewis originally presented the argument from reason by contrasting valid and invalid inferences, and then moved from this to refer to valid and invalid reasoning in general. Anscombe challenged his use of the terms “valid” and “invalid,” and Lewis, in his response at the Socratic Club,{13} conceded the point, and suggested the terms “veridical,” “verific,” or “veriferous” in its stead (the latter two being neologisms). I think the most appropriate terms for what Lewis is trying to say are “veracious” and “veracity.” Nevertheless, to avoid going back and forth between different terms at different stages of the argument (he also occasionally uses the term “sound”), I will simply employ “valid” and its derivatives throughout, unless a direct quote employs a different term.

Background and sources
Of course, this argument was not original to Lewis. Perhaps the earliest argument that there is something self-defeating about any kind of mechanism or determinism, whether materialistic or otherwise, was expressed by Epicurus when he wrote, “The man who says that all things come to pass by necessity cannot criticize one who denies that all things come to pass by necessity: for he admits that this too happens of necessity.”{14} Consequently, such arguments are sometimes called “Epicurean” arguments.{15}

Similarly, arguments that mind cannot be reduced to matter were made in the ancient world by many authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Augustine.{16} Following the latter, the medievals developed the doctrine of divine illumination, which held that the acquisition of knowledge requires the action of God.{17} In the modern era the irreducibility of mind found expression in the writings of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, and others.{18} Lewis’s argument about the correspondence between our minds and the universe also has a long history behind it. Thomas Oden cites Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Peirce, Bergson, and others as defenders of it.{19}

While there is thus a tradition behind Lewis’s argument, there are three particular sources that informed him. The first is one Lewis cites in his autobiography:{20} his friend Owen Barfield. Barfield was a theosophist, and while he failed to convert Lewis that far,{21} he did manage to convince him that there is an inconsistency between accepting that mindless matter is the bedrock of reality, and also “that abstract thought (if obedient to logical rules) gave indisputable truth.” This, however, seemed inconsistent: “If thought were a purely subjective event, these claims for it would have to be abandoned.”{22} Mind, Lewis concluded, must in some sense be independent of the natural world.

A second source of Lewis’s argument is the philosopher and British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Balfour wrote several philosophical tomes defending the idea that “familiar beliefs” -- beliefs about the validity of ethics, aesthetics, and especially reason -- cannot be justified on materialistic terms,{23} receiving criticism from the likes of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.{24} Lewis never cites Balfour in his statements of the argument, but he does refer to Theism and Humanism as “a book too little read,”{25} and lists it as one of ten books that exerted the most influence on his thought.{26} Balfour’s impact on Lewis’s version of the argument has only recently been recognized,{27} but it has been sufficient for Theism and Humanism to be republished with the subtitle The Book that Influenced C.S. Lewis.

A third source is G.K. Chesterton. In Orthodoxy (in a chapter entitled “The Suicide of Thought”), Chesterton argues that “If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.’”{28} Similarly, in an essay entitled “The Wind and the Trees,” Chesterton compares the view that the mind is able to move the body, and therefore transcends the body, to the idea that the wind moves the trees. Just as we see the trees move and posit an unseen force moving them (the wind), so we see the body move and posit an unseen force moving it (the mind). This is the “great human dogma.” On the other hand, “The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind.”{29} This is the view that the body moves the mind, and that everything appearing in the mind is actually a product of the body. In this case, we try to explain the unseen in light of the seen rather than vice-versa. This might be reasonable except for the fact that it leads to the very absurdity that the argument from reason postulates: “The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts -- including that one.” All thinking must therefore “treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority,”{30} and this cannot be done if it is “an accident of environment.”

Lewis revered Chesterton as having “more sense than all the other moderns put together,”{31} and seems to obliquely refer to Chesterton’s essay in the same place where he praises Balfour:{32} “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.”{33}

Of course, Lewis was extraordinarily well read, so these three were not the only influences on his development of the argument from reason. When he needed a succinct statement of it, he turned to J.B.S. Haldane: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”{34} The physicist Arthur Eddington, whom Lewis quotes for different points,{35} also presented a version in his lecture Science and the Unseen World.{36} One wonders whether Lewis had Eddington in mind when he wrote how science had compelled some “modern physicists” to “think about realities [they] can’t touch and see.”{37}

Further influences beyond this, however, are conjectural. Prior to, and concurrent with, Lewis’s original argument (as published in the 1940s), similar arguments were made by H.W.B. Joseph, A.E. Taylor, Wilbur Marshall Urban, and others.{38}


{1} Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (London: HarperCollins, 1996), 801.
{2} C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955; London: Collins, Fontana Paperbacks, 1959), 177-78.
{3} John Beversluis, “Surprised by Freud: A Critical Appraisal of A. N. Wilson’s Biography of C. S. Lewis,” Christianity and Literature 41 (1991-92): 191.
{4} Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 12.
{5} Ibid., 11-28.
{6} C.S. Lewis, “Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (1949; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 103.
{7} C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in Weight of Glory, 135.
{8} Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 160-75; Robert M. Adams, “Flavors, Colors, and God,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 243-62; J.P. Moreland, “Searle’s Biological Naturalism and the Argument from Consciousness,” Faith and Philosophy 15 (1998): 68-91; idem, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 77-103.
{9} C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st ed. (London: Bles, 1947), 32, 2nd ed. (London: Collins, Fontana Paperbacks, 1960), 29.
{10} John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 58; Victor Reppert, “The Argument from Reason,” Philo 2 (1999): 33-45.
{11} C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (1967; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 65.
{12} 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), 224-32.
{13} Ibid., 231-32; C.S. Lewis, “Religion Without Dogma?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (1970; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 144-46.
{14} Epicurus: The Extant Remains, ed. and trans. Cyril Bailey (1926; New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), 112-13, fragment XL.
{15} Ted Honderich, A Theory of Determinism, vol. 1: Mind and Brain; vol. 2: The Consequences of Determinism (1988; Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 1:360-73, 2:42-52, 2:101-4, 2:153-7; Christopher Hookway, “The Epicurean Argument: Determinism and Scepticism,” Inquiry 32 (1989): 79-94.
{16} Plato, Phaedo §97ff; Aristotle, De Anima III; Plotinus, Enneads IV, vii, §6; Augustine, On Free Choice I-II.
{17} Rudolph Allers, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine on Illumination,” Franciscan Studies 12 (1952): 27-46; Robert Pasnau, “Henry of Ghent and the Twilight of Divine Illumination,” Review of Metaphysics 49 (1995-96): 49-75.
{18} Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 2, 6; Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, iii, §28-9; x, §5-6; 9-11; Leibniz, Monadology, §17; Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B419-20; idem, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 64-65; Henry E. Allison, “Kant’s Refutation of Materialism,” The Monist 72 (1989): 190-208; Ben Lazare Mijuskovic, The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments: The Simplicity, Unity, and Identity of Thought and Soul from the Cambridge Platonists to Kant: A Study in the History of an Argument, Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées, vol. 13 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974).
{19} Thomas C. Oden, The Living God, Systematic Theology: vol. 1 (1987; Peabody, MA: Prince, 2001), 147-50.
{20} Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 167-68. Incidentally, this was published several years after Anscombe’s criticisms.
{21} Ibid.; Lewis, Miracles, 1st ed., 101; 2nd ed., 87.
{22} Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 167.
{23} Arthur James Balfour, A Defence of Philosophic Doubt: Being an Essay on the Foundations of Belief (London: Macmillan, 1879); idem, The Foundations of Belief: Being Notes Introductory to the Study of Theology, 6th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1896); idem, Theism and Humanism: Being the Gifford Lectures (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915); idem, Theism and Thought: A Study in Familiar Beliefs: Being the Second Course of Gifford Lectures (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923).
{24} Bertrand Russell, “Mr. Balfour’s Natural Theology,” in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 8: The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Other Essays, ed. John G. Slater (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986), 99-104; G.E. Moore, “The Value of Religion,” in G.E. Moore: The Early Essays, ed. Tom Regan (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986), 101-20.
{25} Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” 121.
{26} Lewis, “Ex Libris,” The Christian Century 79 (June 6, 1962): 719.
{27} Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, 100 n. 17.
{28} G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 33.
{29} G.K. Chesterton, “The Wind and the Trees,” in Stories, Essays and Poems (London: Dent, 1935), 183.
{30} Ibid.
{31} Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 171, 178.
{32} In addition to their influence on Lewis, there is an interesting connection between Balfour and Chesterton: they were both founding members of a metaphysical society that met between 1898 and 1908 (Kenneth Young, Arthur James Balfour: The Happy Life of the Politician, Prime Minister, Statesman and Philosopher 1848-1930 [London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1963], 161).
{33} Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” 139.
{34} J.B.S. Haldane, “When I Am Dead,” in Possible Worlds and Other Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1929), 209; cf. idem, “Some Consequences of Materialism,” in The Inequality of Man and Other Essays (1932; Hammondsworth: Pelican, 1937). Lewis quotes Haldane in Miracles, 1st ed., 28-29, 2nd ed., 19. Ironically, Haldane later changed his mind, retracting precisely this quote (“I Repent an Error,” The Literary Guide 96 [1954]: 7, 29).
{35} Lewis, Miracles, 1st ed., 126, 181, 2nd ed., 108, 155.
{36} Arthur Stanley Eddington, Science and the Unseen World (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 27-38; 50-67.
{37} C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942; Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour & Co., Inc., 1990), 14.
{38} H.W.B. Joseph, “Mechanism, Intelligence and Life,” Hibbert Journal 12 (1914): 612-32; idem, An Introduction to Logic, 2nd rev. ed. (1916; Oxford: Clarendon, 1950), 410-13; idem, Some Problems in Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 8-15; A.E. Taylor, “Freedom and Personality,” Philosophy 14 (1939): 259-80; idem, “Freedom and Personality Again,” Philosophy 17 (1942): 26-37; idem, Does God Exist? (London: Macmillan, 1945), 44n, 112n; Wilbur Marshall Urban, Fundamentals of Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1930), 418-19; idem, Beyond Realism and Idealism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1949), 235-38.

(see also part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

1 comment:

Steve Weatherbe said...

So I woke up in the middle of the night in a two star hotel in Venice thinking about Lewis's argument vs naturalism, but unable to remember what it was. Fortunately I found your blog on it ,Part Six, and backtracked to this one.
It seems to me Anscomb's refutation is like the so-called post ergo propter fallacy.
It is not really a fallacy to argue that x caused y just because your premise that y follows x is inadequate.
Similarly Lewis's argument is not wrong even though it conflates, as Anscomb would have it, the non rational with the irrational. It is merely, technically, inadequate. It does not cover every case. It covers every case but one. It covers all the cases where the explanation for the universe's existence as entirely natural, physical and random are wrong, but not the one random occurrence when that randomly produced explanation happens accidentally to be right.
It seems another instance for the naturalists to rely on the multiple universes thesis. Maybe I can go back to sleep.