Wednesday, January 30, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Sensible Supporters

In analyzing John Beversluis’s revision of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, I think some things have to be clarified, it is important to understand what the book claims to do. To do this we have to distinguish four different types of responses to Lewis:

1) Hagiographical supporters. These are writers who read Lewis and say, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “Well, that about wraps it up for atheism” (or whatever else Lewis happens to be attacking). Richard Purtill and Peter Kreeft certainly sound like this sometimes.
2) Sensible supporters. Sensible supporters hold that Lewis’s apologetics are far from flawless or that a few Lewis quotes are hardly sufficient to demolish whole philosophical traditions. Sensible supporters realize there may be rough edges to sand off and ever errors to correct. However, with proper philosophical development, Lewis’s arguments have real positive apologetic force. Obviously, this is where I would put myself, along with Steve Lovell and Thomas Talbott.
3) Loyal opponents. Loyal opponents think Lewis is an honest, serious, and competent thinker. However, they also maintain that in the final analysis Lewis’s arguments are unsuccessful. Erik Wielenberg falls into this category, as does Beversluis, in spite of some passages in the first edition that might have suggested to some that he belongs in the fourth category below.
4) Hostile critics. These are people who think Lewis is not only wrong, but either stupid, ignorant, insane or wicked, someone who deserves to be laughed off the intellectual stage. S. T. Joshi would be an example of one of these, and in spite of some patronizing praise, would A. N. Wilson.

Beversluis’s central claim is that Lewis’s apologetics are entirely unsuccessful, and that his popularity as an apologist is the result primarily of rhetoric rather than intellectual substance. Assessing this claim is going to be more difficult than it looks. The reason is that a criticism directed again a popular apologist from an earlier generation has involves issues you don’t have when you are dealing with a trained philosopher working in the contemporary analytic tradition. The reason that this is so is that the terminology, the style of argumentation, form a set of common expectations by which we judge each other in contemporary philosophy. But even in dealing with our philosophical predecessors, not all errors in argument are created equal. For example, as I discuss in my book, David Hume’s famous “Of Miracles” employs a mathematical probability theory that no one today would take seriously and which leads to absurd consequences. Whether that results in his argument being judged an “abject failure,” as John Earman suggests that it does, or whether some less severe estimation is in order, is a matter for further argumentation. Could a present-day admirer of Hume, armed with an up-to-date Bayesian probability theory, get the kind of result that Hume was aiming at? I, like Earman, would say no, but to establish such a claim would take more than pointing out the errors in Hume’s mathematical probability theory.

Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris, in his review in
Faith and Philosophy, makes this claim concerning Beversluis’s first edition:

My main philosophical criticism of this book is that Beversluis seldom comes anywhere near digging deep enough to really appreciate a line of thought suggested by Lewis. All too often he gives a facile, fairly superficial reconstruction of a line of argument, and after subjecting it to some critical questioning, declares it bankrupt and moves on. What is so disappointing to the reader who is trained in philosophy is that in most such instances a few minutes of reflective thought suffice to see that there are very interesting considerations to be marshalled in the direction Lewis was heading, considerations altogether neglected by [Beversluis].

It is a mistake to expect Lewis to have arguments sufficiently polished to pass muster in present-day philosophical journals. Lewis, of course, simplifies them for general consumption. The real question is whether they provide legitimate insights that can be developed into good philosophical arguments. If someone is tempted to think that Lewis can do all of our thinking for us, then it is worthwhile to be reminded that there are things the skeptic can say back. However, this is hardly sufficient to establish a verdict of abject failure against C. S. Lewis.

An example of this would be Lewis’s claim that quantum-mechanical indeterminism is a “threat” to naturalism. Clearly, this is not a claim that I would want to defend. Nevertheless, when we look at Lewis’s overall argument against naturalism, we find that amending naturalism to include quantum-mechanical indeterminism will not get around the difficulty that Lewis is posing for naturalism in the argument from reason. Getting a better, more adequate definition for naturalism, one that leaves Lewis’s central insights essentially in place, is an easy task for a trained philosopher who is a sensible supporter such as myself. So yes, a criticism can be lodged against Lewis, but the criticism isn’t terribly far-reaching.

My own efforts with respect to the argument from reason have been along these lines, attempting, in Morris’s words to draw those “interesting considerations to be marshaled in the direction Lewis was heading.” To get a verdict of abject failure you need to show that there is nothing apologetically fruitful in those considerations. As you might expect, I don’t think that either edition of Beversluis’s book, or Wielenberg’s book for that matter, achieves that goal.

The other danger here, of course, would be to attribute more credit than he deserves in developing the idea, when the actual nuts and bolts of the argument are developed by subsequent people. But, at least with respect to the AFR, I still judge that Lewis's contribution is substantial enough that to justify the title of my book. But you may disagree, of course.


Edward T. Babinski said...

You left out the category of Christians who are hostile to many of Lewis's views (finding many of them dubious at best and damnable at worst). Some of them question whether Lewis was "saved" at all.

Hallq said...

I've looked at Joshi's comments on Lewis, and I frankly don't recall anything worse than what you attribute to Beversluius--what did you have in mind?

Jason Pratt said...

They'd fall under category 4, Ed: "Hostile critics. These are people who think Lewis is not only wrong, but either stupid, ignorant, insane or wicked, someone who deserves to be laughed off the intellectual stage."

Victor didn't distinguish between Christian and non-Christian in either of his opponent categories. Though admittedly he only put up sceptical examples. So I guess you could add Van Till to category 3 and, um, the guy who wrote _Skeleton in the Wardrobe_ to category 4?

Actually plenty of theologians might take strong exception piecemeal to Lewis and so fall piecemeal into category 3. Obviously I think Lewis fails to successfully argue for annihilationism, even though I usually fall strongly into category 2. N.T. Wright has a well-known (and frankly kind of petulant, IMO) animosity to Lewis' smackdown of liberal biblical criticism in "Fernseed and Elephants" (despite the fact that they both end up saying much the same thing for much the same reasons on much the same topics within that range). Joseph Pearce (don't know whether he would count as a theologian) couldn't stand Lewis' non-Catholicism so much he ended up quasi-inventing Lewis' Catholicism to compensate. One of Lewis' best friends, Tolkien, couldn't stand the unorthodox (and so by appearances anti-Catholic) version of Christ in the Narnia series; and was naturally even more upset by the rather more pointed and intentional anti-Catholicism of Lewis' final theological book (_Letters from Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer_).

Any of those/us would still largely fall into the second category, while also having enough problems to classify as third category on a limited basis. On the other hand, heavy supporters of presuppositionalistic theology like Van Till and (to pull a semi-random name out of a hat) John Piper, while they might appreciate Lewis' intentions, would ultimately have to say that in the final analysis Lewis' arguments must be unsuccessful (as a matter of principle). So they'd end up much more in category 3, as loyal opponents. Ditto various Mormon apologists, who typically love Lewis but obviously aren't going to be able to accept his basically orthodox apologetics broadband.



Victor Reppert said...

I don't think you'll find anything in Joshi that is the equivalent of Beversluis's rejection of the Anscombe legend (the biographical argument, not the philosophical case on behalf of Anscombe's criticisms, which he does make), or Beversluis
s criticism of overly hasty attacks on the trilemma argument, which he thinks he did refute but insists it requires careful analysis to refute it.

It's been awhile since I've read Joshi, but the tone seemed pretty harsh and dismissive to me.

Chris said...

Great blogging, Victor. And thanks for your great book.

As a long time studier of Lewis and as a philosopher, would you grant it fair to say that Lewis sometimes did not show his full capacity as a philosopher as he wrote at a popular level?

And is it fair to say that the criticisms and rejections or and refinements and restating of Lewis’ arguments is typical of any high profile philosopher? For example, one ought to beware of quoting Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am Not a Christian’ or J. L. Mackie’s ‘The Miracle of Theism’ as a complete authority against Christianity as much as quoting Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’ or Lee Strobel’s ‘Case for Christ’ for it? Or worse, Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ or Geisler Norman’s ‘I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist’?

(I must add I would not usually put Strobel anywhere near Lewis but just for the sake of argument).

How highly could one objectively rate Lewis among the intellectual heavyweights of the last century (against the likes of Russell, Flew etc…)?

Lastly, whats the chances of getting my copy of CSL’s DI signed by post? :)


Chris B

Victor Reppert said...

I prefer not to rate Lewis, and indeed to rate various thinkers because they are not engaged in the same enterprise. Plantinga and Lewis are involved in projects that overlap but have different audiences, and different expectations. I thought that Lewis had been victimized by an unfair degree of academic snobbery which I thought deserved to be reversed.

Anonymous said...

Lewis is a metaphysical, epistelogical, and moral realist, and thus stands in a long tradition tracing to Aristotle, Aquinas, and others. Yet he wrote at a popular level. Beversluis analyzes him from the perspective of a technical philosopher. This approahc, then, does not first articulate Lewis's arguments on the level at which Beversluis engages. However, it is not that difficult for those of us who appreciate and understand and represent the tradition Lewis was speaking for to place Lewis's arguments and the trajectory of his thought in more sophisticated terms. When that is done, the Beversluis critique weakens dramatically. Stay tuned.