Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who's your favorite philosopher?

C. S. Lewis admirers are often criticized for the excessive devotion to Lewis. Consider the following comment about he secondary literature on Lewis, written in 1985 by John Beversluis:

“Sections devoted to biography read like hagiography. We seldom encounter a mere fact about Lewis; accounts of his behavior, attitudes, and personal relationships are instead reported in the wide-eyed manner of the impressionable disciple. To describe him as a wonderful friend is a lamentable understatement; we must be assured that no one ever was a better friend. To praise him as brilliant in debate is entirely too lukewarm a compliment; we are told that C. S. Lewis could have matched wits with any man who ever lived. To endorse him as a Christian apologist of the first rank is altogether inadequate; his apocalyptic Vision of Christianity must be likened to that of St. John on the Isle of Patmos. After a while, one longs for patches of sunlight to dispel the reverential haze. One tires of enduring these excesses and of having to plow through equally ecstatic testimonials in book after book.”

To put this into perspective we might ask this question. Most people have some thinker that they really like, whose ideas they believe to be underestimated by the philosophical community, or the community of thought at large. Some people just love Quine, or Russell, or Plantinga, or Kripke, or whoever. Many admirers of Wittgenstein are thought to have been hagiographical in their admiration, including my former teacher Peter Winch. One faculty member at Arizona State University that I knew used to have a picture of Rudolf Carnap in his office with the a sticker on it that said "top philosopher." I have seen similar devotion to Friedrich Nietzsche. People get interested in writing about Nietzsche, say, because they think they can bring out some of Nietzsche's ideas and show how they make sense in present day thought. But there are inherent limitations with any thinker. Any thinker is, to some extent, a product of a particular time and place. Some thinkers have good broad and general ideas, but do not provide as much technical development as we would like to see. In fact, if someone isn't a product of the sort of intellectual climate known to us as "contemporary analytic philosophy," we can guarantee that their ideas won't be developed on a technical level well enough to satisfy the analytic community. Any thinker will have biases and blind spots that those who follow after him or her will have to compensate for.

The idea is not to bow down before your favorite thinker, but to sit on his or her shoulders, and may see a few things that thinker did not see.

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Not to Defend C. S. Lewis

This post, by Keith Parsons on John Beversluis's new edition, highlights the kinds of harsh criticism Beversluis received when the first edition of his book came out. The passages quoted there, however go beyond simply harsh to criticizing Beversluis's competence and intellectual honesty. As I understand it from him, I'm the prime example of a Beversluis critic who managed to avoid denunciatory rhetoric. I can understand what upset some of Beversluis's other critics, but what they forgot is that however much we may like some thinker, real progress in understanding and developing that thinker's thought is a product of debate between critics and supporters. My main beef with many books that have been written about Lewis is that they show little sense of what someone who is completely skeptical of what Lewis is doing is likely to say. Without an interaction with a critical perspective, you might as well not write your book, because nine times out of ten Lewis said it better than you ever could.

It may be a little while before I get to this book, but when I do, I will give it a full and fair response. I had a boatload of disagreements with the first edition, and unless I change my mind in a huge way when I read the new edition, I'll have plenty of disagreements with it as well. But while it is sometimes necessary to be sharply critical, charges of bad faith against an opponent are impossible to prove and of little value anyway. Once they start flying around, it becomes difficult or impossible to restore the discussion to a civilized tone. Discussion surrounding Intelligent Design is an excellent example.

Since he considers my replies to him to be fair and competent, I confidently anticipate that admirers of my book will find his to be an enlightening though challenging read, where discussion of my book is concerned.

Lewis is a figure that attracts strong reactions, both positively and negatively. Because he does, people on both sides ought to make a special effort to keep the discussion civil and productive.

Plantinga and the argument from Beauty

This discussion on Ooblick's blog uses Plantinga's brief reference to what he calls The Mozart Argument as a reason why atheists snicker at Plantinga. Not every atheist snickers at Plantinga--I wish people would read Keith Parsons' God and the Burden of Proof as a detailed and fair, though critical, treatment of Plantinga's ideas. In "Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments" Plantinga was giving brief presentations of a number of theistic arguments,, without necessarily giving them a full endorsement. The treatment of the Mozart Argument was admittedly sketchy. But there are arguments along those lines that have been developed in more detail by Mark Wynn, and we discussed it a few months back.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Anscombe Debate and the Anscombe Legend

I think some notes need to be made with respect to the relationship between the Anscombe debate and the Anscombe legend. It seems to me that one can maintain that the exchange between Anscombe and Lewis must, in the last analysis, be adjudicated in Anscombe's favor, without subscribing to what I have been calling the Anscombe legend. The legend says that, as a result of his debate with Anscombe, Lewis realized that he had been completely wrong and gave up on Christian apologetics. Further, this caused Lewis to abandon the "adult" world of rational discussion of religion in favor of the emotional, childlike world of Narnia. It was the legend that Philip Pullman was alluding to in the interview I quoted.

John Beversluis, in the first edition of his book on Lewis, wrote that "the arguments that Anscombe presented can be pressed further, and Lewis's revised argument does nothing to meet them." In a later paper reviewing A. N. Wilson's book, he took Wilson to task for overestimating the psychological impact of the Anscombe incident but his comments did not indicate a change in his views on the success of Lewis's actual argument or the philosophical effectiveness of the Anscombe critique. So he withdrew his previous acceptance of the Anscombe legend, but not the Anscombe critique.

In the very issue of the Socratic Digest in which Anscombe essay appeared, Lewis presented an argument against naturalism which he thought could meet Anscombe's objections.
I think the Anscombe critique is decisive only if certain Wittgensteinian doctrines that she presupposed are true, doctrines that I consider to be highly counterintuitive, to say the least, and which would be rejected by most people on the naturalist side. But even if pursuing Anscombe's points further completely refutes Lewis's arguments, the Anscombe Legend would still be completely bogus.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Answers to questions on the AFR

Anon: Naturalism is sometimes described as the view that there are no supernatural beings, which kind of presupposes that we know what the terms supernatural and natural mean.

There can be other "levels" of explanation, so long as there is no mystery as to why one level arise if it is fully and completely made out of the lower level. So, for example, once the bricks and their locations are given, the existence of the brick wall follows from it, even though each brick in the wall is a size other than the wall itself.

DA: Does reasoning require violation? In other words, if the whole of existence is one physical cause after another, it seems to me that violation is impossible. When Lewis says that, "If this certainty merely represents the way our minds happen to work... then we can have no knowledge." Is he talking about the need for there to be a violation of nature in order for our insights to be real?

VR: Reasoning has to be governed by logical law rather than physical law, so that if physical law would require an atom be in a certain position, but the fact that someone is thinking rationally would require that it be someplace else, the laws of reason have to be able to override the blind operation of the matter obeying physical law. At the same time I am not comfortable with the idea of violation, since the laws of matter presuppose that nothing outside the system is interfering, and that would not be the case here.

John Loftus: So if it is true that you have abandoned Christianity for atheism, we need an explanation for that fact. That wouldn't necessarily imply that I had a theory of truth I was defending. So if you say "I was persauded to be an atheist because of, say, the problem of evil" I cannot hold to a theory of mind that says, for example that the actions of my mind are completely determined by Freudian complexes, such as the Oedipus complex. If your motives for atheism were fully and completely Oedipal, then we'd have to say your atheistic arguments are a rationalization.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Stanford entry on the counterfactual theory of causation

What happens to the noncausal view of reasons if we accept this kind of analysis of causation?

Beversluis's preface to the second edition

Also available at Debunking Christianity.

Fodor on mental causation

"if it isn't literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and my believing is causally responsible for my saying. ..if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it's the end of the world. ( Fodor, A Theory of Content and Other Essays, Cambridge, Mass, Bradford Book/MIT Press, 1990, p. 156; quoted in Stich, Deconstructing the Mind, New York, 1996, OUP, p. 169)

Monday, December 03, 2007

More on the Lewis-Anscombe controversy: a further reply to anonymous

The question, of course, is whether Anscombe thought Lewis had adequately formulated the argument against naturalism, or whether the she really thought the argument fundamentally wrongheaded. Her response to Lewis's revision suggests to me that this was not her response to the revised argument. So long as we don't have an answer to Lewis's question, we cannot rule out the possibility that the naturalist is stuck with saying:

"Nothing. Beliefs (if they exist at all given naturalism--of course this is denied by eliminativists) are strictly epiphenomenal. It seems to us that we hold beliefs for good reasons, but if we examine how these beliefs are produced and sustained, we find that reasons have nothing to do with it. We think they do, but this is just one more example of the 'user illusion.'"

If this is the only answer the naturalist can give, the Lewis-style argument against naturalism hasn't fallen yet. There are principled reasons for thinking that that is where the naturalist is forced to go, if the naturalist is consistent. I have a number of arguments, having to do with the nature of intentionality, truth, mental causation, logical laws, the unity of consciousness, and the reliability of our rational faculties that suggest to me that these questions are genuinely open. It isn't just a matter of our not happening to have a naturalistically acceptable solution right now (but we will have it as soon as we do enough brain science) it is that there is a logico-conceptual gap between the mental and the physical that looks for all the world to be unbridgeable.

There's still a problem of mental causation that, so far as I can tell, has not been satisfactorily solved by naturalists. Look at Jaegwon Kim's extensive work on the subject if you doubt me. Absent some antecedent confidence that a solution exists, we can't say that there we can confidently await a solution.

Anscombe's final response lacks the firm confidence of this statement in the original critique:

EA: But someone who does maintain it cannot be refuted as you try to refute him, by saying that it is inconsistent to maintain it and to believe that human reasoning is valid and that human reasoning sometimes produces human opinions.

The most she claims is that it hasn't been refuted by the revised argument as formulated. There is absolutely nothing in Anscombe's final comments to suggest that no such argument could be formulated.

Anscombe's concession to Lewis

Anscombe: "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.

This seems to me to be a puzzling statement. To say that something is genuinely someone's reasons just is to make a claim about how those beliefs are produced and sustained. If the reasons have nothing to do with how one actually not only comes to hold but also continues to hold a belief, then we've got problems.

That means naturalists need a solution to the problem of mental causation, (a problem that has gotten a lot of discussion in the philosophical literature) or we can't say that the evidence for evolution convinced Darwin or Dawkins to accept evolution. This is why Anscombe rightly noted that the answer to this question is crucial.

CSL: But even if grounds do exist, what exactly have they got to do with the actual occurrence of the belief as a psychological event? If it is an event it must be caused. It must in fact be simply one link in a causal chain which stretches back to the beginning and forward to the end of time. How could such a trifle as lack of logical grounds prevent the belief's occurrence or how could the existence of grounds promote it?

Now suppose the only answer consistent with naturalism is "Nothing. Beliefs are strictly epiphenomenal. It seems to us that we hold beliefs for good reasons, but if we examine how these beliefs are produced and sustained, we find that reasons have nothing to do with it. We think they do, but this is just one more example of the 'user illusion.'"

If that were true, then naturalists would be implying that we are all, including naturalistic philosophers and scientists, are in the same boat with Steve the dice man. So when Anscombe says "We haven't got an answer" to Lewis's question, she is implying that her critique of Lewis's argument is incomplete, even though she might have some legitimate questions about how the argument was formulated in the revised chapter.

Anscombe's response is inconclusive as to whether, in the last analysis, Lewis's argument is good or bad. On the one hand she doesn't think Lewis has given a complete argument for the incompatibility of reason with naturalism. On the other hand, she doesn't think the naturalist has a successful answer for the central question that Lewis presents. She seems to think she won a battle, but not necessarily the war.

I am linking to the revised third chapter by Lewis.

Steve the dice-man

A passage from my response to the Anscombe controversy, which shows up in several pieces of mine.

If you were to meet a person, call him Steve, who could argue with great cogency for every position he held, you might be inclined to consider him a very rational person. However, suppose that on all disputed questions Steve rolled dice to fix his positions permanently and then used his reasoning abilities only to generate the best-available arguments for those beliefs selected in the above-mentioned random method. I think that such a discovery would prompt you to withdraw from him the honorific title “rational.” Clearly, we cannot answer the question of whether or not a person is rational in a manner that leaves entirely out of account the question of how his or her beliefs are produced and sustained.

It seems to me that how beliefs are produced and sustained is crucial to assessing whether someone is rational. If it is a consequence of the fact that everything in the universe occurs as a result of the motions of a fundamentally non-teleological substrate that reasons never really affect the actual occurrence of belief as a psychological event, then there has to be something wrong with a world-view according to which everything in the universe occurs as a result of the motions of a fundamentally non-teleological substrate.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Plantinga on Dawkins

The God Delusion is full of bluster and bombast, but it really doesn't give even the slightest reason for thinking belief in God mistaken, let alone a "delusion."-Alvin Plantinga