Friday, November 20, 2020

When Did You Start Reading "When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus"?

Dear Andrew

I would very much like to read your 20,000 word appreciation of Cerebus the Aardvark in a pretty PDF format with added jokes and rarities from the Rilstone Vault. But I don't want to commit to paying you a dollar every time you publish something for the rest of my life. Is there anything you can do about that. 

A Dedicated Reader

Dear Dedicated 

Thank you for your letter. You can have a copy of the PDF of your very own if you send me $14 / £10.50 (the equivalent of a $2 pledge).


Dear Andrew

The money is on the way. Are you going to put the booklet out as a physical book as well. 

A Grateful and Dedicated Reader 

Dear Grateful and Dedicated

I don't know. Maybe I should?


When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus? 
80 page booklet / 20,000 word essay plus extras / pretty layout

10: 42

“Does ‘I know’ involve that God exists?”
asks Lewis. 

SPOILER: He thought the answer was “yes”. 

The purpose of Bulverism—the reason he started his lecture by talking about it—is to illustrate the distinction between what-he-calls “causes” and what-he-calls “reasons.” 

“I believe that my bank account is in credit because I’ve added up the figures and they come out positive” is a reason. 

“I believe my bank account is in credit because I am the sort of chap who always hopes for the best” is a cause. 

“Elizabeth was a good Queen because she prevented a religious civil war” is a reason. 

“Elizabeth was a good Queen because sexy ladies—mummy— phwoah!” is a cause. 

“I believe there is a spider in the room because I have observed the cobwebs” is a reason. 

“I believe there is a giant purple spider in the room because I have taken a lot of drugs” is a cause. 

Lewis expects us to agree with him that things are true if there are reasons to believe them; but that mere causes can’t possibly lead to the truth (except maybe by coincidence). 

“Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs” he writes.

It isn’t that Bulverism is false. A chemically induced state of mind might make you hallucinate a giant spider. There could be some possible world in which the action of testosterone on the brain made males miscount the number of sides geometrical figures had. The problem with Bulverism is that it wilfully confuses reasons with causes. 

“Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes.” says Lewis.

I think Lewis slightly mis-states his case here. There would be nothing wrong with me trying to show that I am a socialist because I have rational, logical and evidence-based beliefs that socialist economics increases the general good whereas you are a Tory because you were raised to be a Tory and have a sentimental attachment to Union Jacks and the royal family. The fallacy occurs when I assume that I have reasons and you have causes without showing it first. 

Lewis’s whole argument has been building up to this. If arguments have non-rational causes, they are invalid: everyone agrees with that. If you have adopted a theory about the ethics of war in order to avoid getting shot at, then it is not a theory about the ethics of war. If your theory of classroom discipline is based on the fact that you think using the cane is fun, then it isn’t a theory of classroom discipline. 

If one side can employ the nuclear option then both sides can. I think that triangles have three sides because I am a man—but you think triangles have two sides because you are a woman. Pacifists are pacifists because they are cowards, but soldiers are soldiers because they are blood-thirsty. I agree with corporal punishment because I am cruel; you disagree with it because you are sentimental. If this were true—if  everyone's opinions came from non rational causes rather than rational reasons— no rational argument could ever take place and knowledge would be impossible. 

And, says Lewis, with the air of a conjurer pulling a particularly impressive bunny out of a particularly small hat, if materialism is true then this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. 

There are writers who know one big thing and there are writers who know lots of little things. In his own field, English Literature, C.S. Lewis is master of the Little Thing. He knows facts. He knows details. I just re-read his essay on the literary impact of the King James Bible. It scares me and makes me sad and makes me a little cross about the superficiality of my own education. He has read everything. He quotes French translations of the Bible and 17th century attempts to put it into blank verse and the less famous bits of Bunyan. He knows his vulgate from his Septuagint, and he can synthesise the whole thing into a theory. He takes it for granted that you can’t study English literature until you are fluent in Anglo-Saxon, and when asked to write a book about English literature in the sixteenth century he sat down and read English sixteenth-century literature. All of it. 

But his religious writings are very often birds’ eye views. He has three or four Great Big Theories, and he is damned well going to carry on hammering at them. If you sit down to read his minor, secondary essays, you can play a little game: is this one going to be one of the ones that says that all the world’s mythology prefigured and anticipated the story of Jesus? Is it going to be one of the ones that says that modernist interpretations of the Bible are logically incoherent? Is it going to be one of the ones that says that you can’t make a choice between different moral systems? Or is it going to be one of the ones which proves that human reason has a supernatural origin? 

He comes back to this last one over and over again. In a purely mechanistic universe, logical inferences are impossible. But if logical inferences are impossible, how do we know we are living in a purely mechanistic universe? How, indeed, do we know that we are living in a universe at all? One writer has gone so far as to call this C.S. Lewis’s "dangerous idea" — in contrast to Darwin’s dangerous idea about natural selection. But Lewis didn’t make it up. He attributes it to J.B.S Haldane, although it goes back even further: 

“For 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. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” 

It is a clever argument. Let us suppose we are randomly generating data: say by pulling letters out of a Scrabble set. (Lewis liked Scrabble. He played it in Greek and Elvish with one of his famous writer-friends.) What comes out may occasionally appear to be words: but we do not attribute any significance to them because we believe they have a non-rational source. If we found that our random scatterings of letters kept producing sentences; and if those sentences kept turning out to be true; we would not say “Oh: it turns out that randomness sometimes produces sense”. We would say “Something other than randomness must be at work here.” Lewis’ own example is very much of its time. Irrational, physical causes can affect what we hear on the radio: but we don’t think that they are part of the weather- forecast. We call them “interference”. If everything which came through the radio was interference, we would stop listening to it. 

“A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” 

Lewis overstates his case again. If all our thoughts have causes, but no reasons, we could know nothing. If some of our thoughts have reasons and some have causes, then we have some hope. He should have said that either we can know nothing, or else at least some of our thoughts have reasons and no causes. When you have eliminated the ideas that are caused by your upbringing and your position in the class structure and what you had for breakfast and the drugs you have been taking, what you are left with is knowledge. If the Usual Suspects—the Freudians and the Marxists and the post-modernists—were right, then what you would be left with when you had eliminated all the “causes” would be zero. Human beings are only the intersections of multiple subjectivities. Lewis insists that when we have eliminated subjectivity, what we are left with is not zero, and that part which is not zero may be called knowledge. 

What he is doing is not entirely unlike what Descartes did: systematically doubting everything which it was logically possible to doubt in order to discover what was left. 

What was left, it turned out, was geometry. 

In his book God’s Funeral, A.N. Wilson makes the devastating point that Lewis did not find the argument convincing when he was still an atheist. He had a First in philosophy; he lectured in philosophy: he must have heard Haldane’s argument. But he became a Christian for different reasons: because he felt that God was pursuing him; because he believed that his deep feelings of “joy” had spiritual significance; because his friend Tolkien demonstrated to him that the doctrine of the Atonement made sense as a story. These are not bad reasons for adopting a religious faith. But they are religious reasons. They are not rational reasons. Lewis was not argued into faith: no-one ever is. The Socratic club was build on a false premise. After he was a Christian; when he started throwing himself into the life-or-death Socratic arena and giving avuncular talks on the wireless, Lewis started to deploy the argument from reason. 

One cannot help but remember Wilson’s partial rebuttal of the Trilemma, C.S. Lewis’s logical proof of the divinity of Christ. It’s an interesting argument, he says, but it can’t really be that simple. If it were, then there would be no atheists. 

Lewis takes the idea and runs with it. It is a logical fallacy to say that thoughts are natural events; because that means that the thought that thoughts are a natural event is itself a natural event. But the only alternative is that thoughts are a super natural events: that reason and logic are not part of nature. There has to be something outside the normal chain of cause-and-effect which can reason and know things and from which our own ability to know things derives. Therefore a supernatural consciousness exists outside of space and time. A supernatural consciousness outside of space and time is what we mean by God. Q.E.D.. 

Lewis is not done yet. Can it really be true that only people capable of following this rather involved chain of reasoning can know that this supernatural consciousness exists? Well, yes: that is why the common people need to accept what philosophers and mystics tell them. 

Suppose that our little minds really are derived from this big mind. How would that work? How does the big mind outside the universe get into the little minds inside it? It makes sense if you think that the big mind created the universe. Which, conveniently,  we do. How would that work? Well, our little minds are capable of creating things, in a way, when we use our imagination. So quite likely the big mind’s power of creation works like the imagination; or put another way, our faculty of imagination is a reflection of the big mind’s power of creating things. You might almost call it...I don’t know... "sub-creation". Did I mention I’m playing scrabble with Tolkien on Thursday evening? 

So now we know: and all because Mrs Bulver didn’t believe her husband when he started to explain basic geometry to her. 

If Lewis had gone to Kirkpatrick and argued that God must exist because there must be an unmoved mover, or a first cause; or because the universe shows signs of having been designed, Kirkpatrick would have demolished him. The argument from reason allows Lewis to continue to believe that you can only to get to truth through logic: while acknowledging that you can’t prove God’s existence that way. God is necessary in order for Kirkpatrick’s rational universe to exist. It is not love that moves the sun and the other stars: it is reason. He doesn’t quite say that Logic is God, but he comes perilously close to saying that God, like Kirkpatrick, is a purely logical entity

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

 My nice Patreon supporters have been invited to vote about what I might write about next.

Bill Mantlo and God are tied in first place, with terrible 1970s kids shows with excellent theme tunes making a good showing. No-one is interested in Spider-Man or folk music.

Friday, November 13, 2020

When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus?

Advanced preview for Patreons: 20,000 word essay + surprise rarities from the Rilstone vaults. 

9: Politics

Finally, we come to the use of Bulverism to refute political claims. 

Lewis says: 

The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally communists must be bad economists because we know why they want communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

“In reality, of course”. A huge explosion should go off in our heads at this point: at least as big as the one little Ezekiel experienced when his Mum and Dad had the row about the triangle. Ursula Le Guin made fun of Lewis and Tolkien for belonging to a cosy little High Church club and regarding everyone else with patronising disdain. 

“In reality, of course.” Of course.... 

There are, as the fictional Joy Davidman said in Shadowlands, at least four buried assumptions: 

1: Communism and Capitalism are economic doctrines which can be judged as true or untrue. 

2: The only way of finding this out is through reasoning 

3: The claim that Communists and Capitalists want Communism or Capitalism for some reason—and all other psychological theories—amount to mere name calling and low abuse. 

4: Communists and Capitalists honestly believe in the truth-value of their respective doctrines. Once you have pointed out their logical or factual errors, they will change their minds. The Bulverists, on the other hand, are arguing in bad faith. 

This last point was very important to C.S. Lewis. He says elsewhere that what is really hard in Christian apologetics is getting people to understand that Christians believe in Christianity because they think it is true. “They always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort”. The devil Screwtape is pleased whenever he catches humans saying “Believe in this, not because it is true, but for some other reason”. 

And that is the cardinal difficulty of Bulverism. 

People do in fact believe in things for lots of reasons other than them being true. Political beliefs are not like geometrical theorems. They aren’t like historical facts. Politics, by it's nature, is about what you want to be true: what you believe the good society would look like. You can’t find out who is in the right simply by reasoning. Liberals and conservatives really are looking at things from different angles. 

“But surely, Andrew, there is such a thing as evidence-based politics?” 

Well, up to a point. If we all agree that everyone should get the medical attention they need regardless of their ability to pay for it, but that the overall cost of medicine to the country should be kept as low as possible, then the question “Is socialised medicine better than subsidised national insurance?” is theoretically answerable. We have established what we mean by “better” and are now haggling about the price. 

Again: we can find out whether a harsh, punitive prison system is better than a humane, rehabilitative one: once we have agreed about what we mean by “better”. Perhaps the crime rate goes down when you replace the treadmill and solitary confinement with job training and counselling sessions? That certainly proves that the humane system is the better one: always assuming that “less crime” was what you were trying to achieve. 

Indeed, to push the hottest button of all: either the murder rate is higher in states where the supreme penalty is life imprisonment than it is in states where murderers can be killed, or it isn’t. If we want there to be less murders and are prepared to go with whatever works, then the argument about capital punishment can be answered to three significant figures and a statistical margin for error. 

If someone chipped in with “You only think socialised medicine is good value for money because you are a Star Trek fan” and “You only believe that prisoners should be helped to reform because you are a freemason” you would have my permission to call them a Bulverist. 

But arguments about locking people up, hanging them or paying their medical bills almost never come down to these kinds of factual points. They turn on disagreements about what we mean by good. 

Some people believe that it would be wrong for the state to spend even one cent of their hard-earned wages on the health care of even one black poor person. And others believe that it is morally wrong for a private company to make a single penny our of another human being’s sickness. Some people believe that all human beings should be treated humanely, however wicked they have been. Others believe in a thing called “justice” that requires that bad people should be made to suffer, even if it does no good at all. Nice people think it is wrong to kill a helpless prisoner in cold blood, no matter what he has done. Nasty people think that vengeance is an absolute moral imperative. They don’t say vengeance, of course: they say “closure” or “justice for...” or “expressing society’s outrage.” But they think that executions are an ultimate, not an instrumental good. 

Capitalism and communism are not two different theories about how we reach an agreed goal. They are two different ideas about what the goal is. Capitalism places a higher value on freedom; communism a higher value on equality. Communism cares more about the condition of the lowly worker in the factory; capitalism more about the right of the wealth creator to create wealth. And what you see as good depends greatly on which side of the table you are standing. What is good for me may not be good for you; what is good for you may not be good for me. 

“Oh: but if I am a good man, then I will not pick the side which is good for me; but the side which is good according to an objective moral standard.Yes: an objective moral standard. The objective moral standard that you were taught by your parents, teachers, writers and political leaders, all of whom happened to be of the same race and class and religion as you. Once you have corrected the skewed perspectives of the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right you can see that the table really is rectangular. And very conveniently, rectangular tables are the ones which allow me to keep my nice house with its nice furniture and carry on paying the man who polishes the table slightly less than he needs to live on. It’s not my fault. French polishers are paid less than home tutors. It’s how the universe works. It’s what God decided. I don’t make the rules, I just tell you what they are. I have no opinions on any subject in the world. 

“We all know” why communists are communists and “we all know” why capitalists are capitalists. Well, yes. Communists think, rightly, that communism will benefit people of their own class, and capitalists think, rightly, that capitalism will benefit people of their class. I think that we get on better when we admit that frankly. I am Labour because Labour will stand up for the working man and you are Tory because the Tories will stand up for the bosses. I want an extra pound an a hour and a months paid leave; not because there is some value free geometrical formula which proves that is the correct wage; but because I want my members to have a pleasenter, healthier life. You want not to pay an extra penny or give workers a single day off, not because high wages and paid holidays are contrary to the Tao, but because you want your members to be free to make money for themselves and their shareholders. So we go at it hammer and tongs for an hour, and compromise on ten shillings and a fortnight in return for increased productivity and flexible tea breaks. 

That’s how politics works. I think that’s probably how politics ought work.

Friday, November 06, 2020

8: Morality

I am a pacifist
You say that because you are a coward. (Hidden motive.)

I agree with corporal punishment
You say that because you are a sadist. (Psychological cause.) 

The case of agreeing with pacifism “because you are a coward” and approving of spanking “because you are a sadist” are rather more ticklish. 

Lewis is correct that these are taunts which are thrown at people who hold those particular opinions, and that those taunts are hardly ever fair. But they are not non sequiturs. “You enjoy inflicting pain and therefore claim that inflicting pain is sometimes necessary” is a much better argument than “You lost your mother at an early age and therefore think that an English Counter Reformation would have been a Bad Thing.” 

Lewis concedes (in Miracles) that if the allegation (“you like hitting people”) were true, then the claim (“you sometimes have to hit people for their own good”) would be refuted. 

“Such taunts may be untrue, but the mere fact that they are made by the one side and hotly refuted by the other shows clearly what principle is being used. Neither side doubts that if they were true they would be decisive.” 

But it is a rather gigantic “if”. 

If I say that pacifists are cowards, I am not so much refuting their argument as denying that they are making an argument at all. I am saying “I will not respond to your arguments about turning the other cheek and the sanctity of life, because they are not your real reasons for refusing to join the army.” At best, I think that you chose to believe that all life was sacred because that premise would lead to the conclusion you desired. At worst, I think that pacifism is just a word cowards invented to make their cowardice look less cowardly. Lord Soper and Vera Britten and Ghandi were only ever making meaningless noises. 

About five years before he addressed the Socratic Club on the subject of Bulverism, Lewis explained to a room full of conscientious objectors Why He Was Not a Pacifist. Mr Kirkpatrick would have given him very high marks for this essay. He establishes early on what he means by pacifism (the general proposition that war is wrong under all circumstances). He states under what criteria he would judge pacifism to be true (if it were self-evidently true; if you could deduce it from first principles and empirical facts; or if moral authorities accepted by all parties said it was true.) He proceeds to make a series of propositions and refutations: 

Proposition: Helping people is good; harming people is bad: war involves harming people; therefore war is wrong. 
Refutation: In some cases the only way to help one person is by harming another 

Proposition: War is a great evil: if everyone were a pacifist, there would be no wars 
Refutation: Unless everyone becomes a pacifist immediately, then the nations which permit pacifism would be annihilated by the ones who do not. 

You may or may not agree with his conclusions  I have explained my difficulties with the essay elsewhere -- but I don’t think that there is any question that Lewis is playing fair. He is honestly examining the case for pacifism and honestly showing why he rejects it. If someone showed him the flaw in his reasoning, he would change his mind; and he believes that the same is true of the conscientious objectors he is arguing with.

Lewis does not say that the conscientious objectors only believe in pacifism because they are cowards. He pointedly confesses that he is probably the least brave person in the whole room: a rhetorical flourish, of course, but a good one. But he does suggest that if you have applied reason and logic to a question and come up with an answer that is very different from that of your nation's poets and philosophers and statesmen and religious leaders, you have to entertain the possibility that “some passion has secretly swayed your mind.” 

“There is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.” 

War is so horrible, and staying at home so comparatively desirable, that the pacifists have given too much weight to certain arguments and too little to others, and come to the wrong conclusion. 

Lewis has, in that sense, said that the conscientious objectors believe in pacifism because they don’t want to go to war. But he hasn’t accused them of putting forward a non-argument. He has just said their wish for it to be true has caused them to make an error. 

I should be inclined to call this “weak Bulverism”; and to call the stronger claim—that pacifism is just so much tommy rot that chickens use to distract our attention from the fact that they are yellow—“strong Bulverism”. 

If you say that every time I see a painting of an impressive, finely dressed, regal female I fall on my knees crying “Mummy! I shall worship you for ever and never believe anything bad about you!”, and that is why I admire Queen Elizabeth [The First] then you are a Strong Bulverist. You are trying to place me outside of the realm of rational discourse: insinuating that my historical opinion is a superstition or a faith position or a psychosis. If this is what Lewis means, then I think he is tilting at straw windmills: you hardly ever come up against a Strong Bulverist in real life. 

But what about the person who says that my taste for strong, regal women means I have a tendency to give too much weight to the arguments that Elizabeth [The First] was a successful monarch and too little weight to the arguments that she was a poor one? What about the person who says that my fear of being broke may have caused me to shift a decimal place or mistake a minus sign for a plus, and that it would be a good idea if I went back and checked my figures? Let us call these Weak Bulverists. Weak Bulverism undoubtedly exists: and it is not necessarily a fallacy.

Lewis says that the process of working out if pacifism (or anything else) is true is like—can you guess?—a geometrical proof. 

If you can’t see that if A=B and A=C then B=C then you are an idiot and nothing can be done for you. But if you can’t understand a more complex proof, then you aren’t a moron; you just aren’t very good at geometry. 

“You can give a man new facts You can invent a simpler proof, that is a simpler concatenation of intuitable truths. But when you come to an absolute inability to see any one of the self-evident steps out of which the proof is built, you can do nothing.” 

He starts to talk about how you might teach geometry to a schoolboy: 

“Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they ‘can’t see’ some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either form some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all.” 

--I can’t understand my trig, Sir.

--Can’t, or won’t?

--But it’s too hard: I have no idea what four pie ar cubed over three means.

--No, it’s not too hard. You are too lazy. You don’t want to learn. Come out to the front...

7: Subjective Beliefs

Elizabeth [I] was a great queen 
You believe that because you have an Oedipus complex. (Psychological)

“Elizabeth [I] was a great Queen” is a subjective belief. It may be very widespread. It might be one of those truths where “opinion is divided” only means  “I think she wasn’t, everyone else thinks she was”. But it isn’t a necessary truth like A+B>C and it isn’t an empirical fact like “I have six pounds five shillings and threepence in my current account.” 

Many different things feed into my believe that a particular historical figure was “great”. Including, of course, the way my culture defines the word “great”. Perhaps I think Elizabeth [I] was a good Queen because she beat the Armada: perhaps you think she was a rotten Queen because she allowed Walsingham to chop her cousin’s head off. I think she was a great Queen because she established the Church of England; but I would say that because I’m a protestant. You think she was a terrible Queen because she took England away from the true church; but you would say that because you’re a catholic. 

It could very well be true that many people believe that Elizabeth [I] was a great Queen because they tend to attribute a quality called “greatness” to a particular kind of powerful woman. The Elizabethans created a myth around the Queen as the mother of the nation; the Conservative party did something rather similar with Mrs Thatcher. The idea that this myth has affected her reputation; and that there is a Freudian explanation for its potency is not a hopeless non-sequitur. 

I believe that Henry V was a great king because Shakespeare wrote a mighty heroic play about him: I don’t know the first thing about his actual reign. 

I believe that Winston Churchill was a great Prime Minister because it is part of my country’s national story that he defeated Hitler: I couldn’t begin to make a serious assessment of his administration. 

I think the Nazis were evil because Nazis were the baddies in the war comics I used to read when I was a kid. That certainly doesn’t make my belief that the Nazis were evil incorrect. But it does tell you something about the kind of belief that I have. Someone who has made an extensive study of German history and understands the National Socialists as a political movement and not as a collection of cartoon villains understands the evil of the Nazis on a much deeper level than me. He probably wouldn’t use the word evil, though. 

You might want to say that I believe that the Nazis were evil, but the historian really knows that they were. The patron of C.S. Lewis’s club drew a distinction between “true opinions” and “knowledge”. Strictly speaking, you can’t “know” that Elizabeth [I] was a great queen or that the Nazis were evil. The word “knowledge” should only be applied to necessary, axiomatic truths. 

Such as, for example, the truths of geometry. 

George VI was still king of England when Lewis wrote this essay: until 1952 there had only been one Queen named Elizabeth. It is rather endearing that Walter Hooper still insists on putting pedantic square brackets around the Roman numeral.

6: Facts

My bank account is in credit.
You say that because you hope it is. (Psychological cause.) 

I am unwell
You say that because you are a hypochondriac. (Psychological cause.) 

“My bank account is in credit” and “I am ill” are facts about the world. You can’t be irrefutably certain of them in the way you can be irrefutably certain of a geometrical theorem: banks and accountants and doctors make mistakes. But they are questions with knowable answers. The account is either in the red or in the black; the man is either sick or he isn’t. But “You think you’re ill because you’re a hypochondriac” and “You think you have money in the bank because you hope you do” are not non- sequiturs. People do sometimes think they have illnesses when they really don’t. People do sometimes over-estimate how much money they have in the bank because they are scared of being poor. (Lewis was the opposite: he would think that he was about to go bankrupt and then find that he had several hundred pounds in his current account that he’d forgotten about.) If Andrew is the kind of person who thinks that every itch is evidence of skin cancer, then “oh, you think that because you a hypochondriac” might be a very reasonable response. But “For God sake just get the doctor to check it out” would be better.

5: Axioms

Two sides of a triangle are longer than the third. 
You say that because you are a man. (Irrelevant.)

A + B > C is a geometrical truth. It can’t be disproved; it can’t be doubted; and we can’t even imagine a world where it wasn’t true. The only way Mrs Bulver could have contradicted Mr Bulver’s assertion would have been to say “You only think that because you are working on a Euclidean plane: triangles work differently on spheres”. 

However, consider the following: 

a: 2.4 + 2.4 = 4.8. If we are allowed to round to the nearest whole number, then 2.4 can be expressed as “2” and “4.8” can be expressed as “5”. So we could say “2+2=5”. 

b: Two apples plus two oranges do not make four apples or four oranges. 

c: Two plus two makes four, but two rabbits plus two rabbits may very well make several hundred rabbits. 

d: The correct answer to the question “What is the difference between 1 and 6?” is "5". But "One is even and one is odd" and "One can be drawn with only straight lines and the other can be joined with only curved lines" are also correct answers. 

e: Can you think of a five letter word which becomes shorter if you add two letters to it? 

The Right Wing Internet becomes enraged by this kind of thing. “The liberals want to teach our kids that 2+2=5 like Orwell warned us!” they cry. “Cultural Marxists say that the answers to sums are whatever they want them to be!” Mrs Margaret Thatcher, of blessed memory, affected to be outraged that some schools taught “non-racist mathematics”. 

But maths is a learned language; and one’s reaction to these edge-cases, ambiguities and double meanings might be affected by your culture or background. Boys might solve riddles better than girls; older children might see the answers quicker than younger ones. The claim that a man and a woman might perceive geometry differently is not inherently ludicrous: there might conceivably be a circumstance under which “You think that because you are a man” was a reasonable thing to say.

4: Mrs Bulver's Theorum

So. Come to the common room to hear Dr C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters prove logically that God created the Universe and then explain how He did so. Nothing too challenging: he’s got nearly an hour in which to cover it. 

But he doesn’t start with God. He starts with two elderly Victorians having an argument. 

What are they arguing about? What else but geometry? 

Some day (says Lewis) I am going to write the biography of Bulverism’s imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century. 

Very droll. But what point was Lewis making? 

We all know what an ad hominem argument is. You can’t prove your client is innocent on the basis of the evidence; so you say that the prosecution lawyer is a rogue, a fool, and what’s more, that he’s wearing a silly tie. You can’t explain why a 45% income tax on earnings above £150,000 would be impractical and unfair; so you go on and on about that time the leader of the opposition didn’t sing the words to God Save the Queen. Obviously this is a particularly egregious error when you are talking about geometry. 

We also know what it means to beg the question: to take your conclusion as your starting point; to take as proved the very thing which needs to be proved. My learned friend says that my client is a murderer: but how can you believe someone who would falsely accuse an innocent man? You have heard the witness say that he was on the other side of town when the crime was committed: but how can you trust the word of a murderer? 

Mrs Bulver is arguably guilty of a third offence against logic: she has introduced something irrelevant into the discussion. If there was a widespread belief that gender affected perception of Euclidean geometry, there might have been an excuse for saying that her husband believed in the inequality of triangles because he was a man. If he had said “I believe that this tie goes well with this shirt” she might perfectly well have replied “You say that because you are colour blind.” 

In the course of the essay, Lewis proposes eight further examples of Bulverism; four more turn up in his book on Miracles. Each of them is arguably circular, since they assume that the speaker is in the wrong. All involve an ad hominem argument: three attribute the opponent's beliefs to psychological causes; the rest allege an ulterior motive or vested interest. None of them commit Mrs Bulver’s fallacy of irrelevance: in each case the motive or cause has some plausible connection to the belief. The American Internet generally uses Bulverism as a synonym for personal attacks: but strictly speaking an argument needs to be both ad hominem and circular to qualify. 

Lewis examples fall broadly into four categories: axiomatic; facts; subjective beliefs and religious and political beliefs. Let's look at them one at a time...

Friday, October 30, 2020

3: The Socratic Club

The essay on Bulverism was presented to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944.

The Socratic Club was an Oxford student society. Despite its name, it wasn’t a club for people studying Greek philosophy or the works of Plato: it existed specifically to debate the case for and against Christianity. The student who started the club stuck up a hand-written notice inviting “all atheists, agnostics, and those disillusioned about religion or think they are” to come to the common room for a little chat. Astonishingly, quite a number turned up. The university rules required that student societies be sponsored by a member of faculty, and the Socratic Club rapidly became C.S. Lewis’s baby. 

The club was named after Socrates because it wanted to promote Socratic debate—elenchos. It was dedicated to the proposition that truth was adversarial. The best way of finding out if God existed was to get a Christian and an atheist together and watch them have an argument. Lewis says that he honestly tried to find credible opponents; and a number of Big Name Atheists—Jacob Bronowski, Iris Murdoch, J.B.S Haldane and C.E.M Joad—spoke at the club. But Lewis came to see it in gladiatorial terms. This wasn’t a mutual inquiry after truth. This was an “arena” in which Lewis either “wiped the floor” with his opponent, or else was himself “obliterated”. He talks about “coming under fire” from the atheists and dealing with the “recoil” of his own arguments. And he thinks that the debates are dangerous: “you [atheists] risk nothing: we [Christians] risk all.” 

We do not have a complete record of what C.S. Lewis said on this particular evening. Lewis’s essay was reproduced in the Socratic Digest: but only the first section, running to some 2,000 words, is printed in full. The rest of the speech is summarised by the editor, presumably from contemporaneous minutes. Other Socratic Club papers run to about 6,000 words, so what we have is the first 15 minutes of a 45 minute speech. Bulverism, then, is not much more than an introductory joke. Lewis would not have stood up in front of a university debating society simply to explain that the arguments ad hominem and petitio principii are logical fallacies. 

Lewis is doing what he always does. He starts out talking about something apparently trivial; and gradually peels off the layers until we see that he has really been talking about the meaning of the universe or the end of the human race. In Mere Christianity he starts out talking about two men arguing over a seat on a bus and ends up talking about Natural Law and the existence of God. In the Abolition of Man he starts out talking about a silly English textbook which conflates factual accuracy with artistic merit and ends up talking Natural Law and the existence of God. 

There is nothing wrong with this as an approach to popular apologetics. “I saw two men arguing on a bus yesterday, and do you know it made me stop and think...” is a better lead-in to talk about ethics on the wireless than “Since the dawn of time philosophers have wondered where our sense of morality comes from...” Proper philosophers do it too. Socrates once sat down in a market place and asked a slave boy a series of very simple questions. From his answers, he demonstrated (to his own satisfaction) the transmigration of souls and the existence of perfect forms. 

The questions were questions about geometry.

2: Bulverism

Wikipedia defines Bulverism as the practice of assuming a speaker’s argument is invalid and then explaining why the speaker came to make that mistake. 

TV Tropes defines it as the practice of saying “You’re only claiming X to be the case because you want X to be the case!”

It is a silly word. It was made up by C.S. Lewis in order to make fun of a silly mistake sometimes made by silly people. He mentions it only once, in a light-hearted introduction to a serious religious lecture. He doesn’t use it consistently. Sometimes Bulverism is a rather dishonest rhetorical trick; sometimes it is a logical fallacy; and sometimes it is a very serious metaphysical error.

But Lewis’s silly word is frequently used seriously by conservative Christians. If you ever dare utter the phrase “you only think that because...” then someone from the American Internet will pop up and accuse you of Bulverism.

The website WriteAtHome uses the word to describe any allegation of conscious or unconscious bias. Do you think that a set of statistics about the benefits of home schooling may be skewed because they were collected by an organisation which exists to promote home schooling? You are guilty of Bulverism. Wonder if a certain individual wants government spending on state schools reduced because they happen to run a private tutoring business? You’re a Bulverist. Suggest on the other hand that state school teachers want the state education system to carry on so they can keep their jobs? Stop Bulverizing.

Another site, StandToReason (“Clear thinking about Christianity”) applies the word to claims that there are psychological or sociological components in the formation of religious belief. “You believe that Christianity is true because you were born in a Christian community”. Bulverism. “You believe that Christianity is true because you need a psychological crutch”. Bulverism.

A more extreme example comes from an essay called The Creepy Normalisation of Bulverism on a website called Intellectual Take Out. (I wonder if the writer really meant “creeping”?) It seems that Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, the Frankfurt School, Jacques Deriedda, Cultural Marxism and identity politics—henceforth known as “the usual suspects”—were all Bulverists. At any rate, they have created a culture in which “people of even moderately conservative views are fair game to be Bulverized”. It seems that leftists assume that the motives of the “oppressed” (with scare quotes) are always good and the motives of the non-oppressed (without quotes) are always bad. And this was what Lewis was warning us about. “You only say that because you’re (white) (Christian) (a man) (cis)!” is the go- to example of Bulverism.

It is true that in each case, someone has used “you only say that because...” as a rhetorical formula: you think that home-schoolers get good academic results because you support home-schooling; you believe in Christianity because you have a psychological or spiritual need for support; you don’t believe in the existence of racist micro-aggressions because you are a white person. But are all these cases fallacies? Are they all the same kind of fallacy? And are they the kind of fallacy that C.S. Lewis was making fun of?

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1: 1914

From the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen, C.S. Lewis was taught by a private tutor named William Kirkpatrick.

Lewis devotes a whole chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, to Kirkpatrick, who he calls “the Great Knock”. He builds him up into a mythical figure—a Dickensian eccentric, an arch-rationalist and a formidable teacher. “Hammer of priests and kings, true lineage of Rousseau, Hume and Voltaire”, says Lewis. (He had a notion of writing his autobiography in blank verse, in the manner of John Betjeman, but thank goodness he abandoned it.) Prof. Kirk in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has been called an affectionate portrait of Kirkpatrick: although what the old freethinker would have thought about being made a mouth-piece for Lewis’s Christian trilemma can only be imagined. 

Lewis’s account of his first meeting with Kirkpatrick is pretty well known. Lewis, who grew up in Ireland, made a comment about the Surrey landscape, and Kirkpatrick insisted that he defend it logically. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?” It seems to have been a good little lesson in dialectic. First you define your terms (Lewis couldn’t) and then you must define your premises (Lewis didn’t have any) and then you show how you got from one to the other (Lewis couldn’t). Lewis had been making small-talk: Kirkpatrick was hoping for a syllogism. “By a wild landscape I mean [X]; my evidence about Surrey included [A], [B], and [C]; since [X] does not follow from [A], [B] and [C] I formed the expectation that Surrey would not be wild.” But it was a strange response to “The landscape here is wilder than I expected.” Kirkpatrick thought that philosophical dialectic was the only possible mode of discourse. 

There is nothing wrong with reasoning; with arguing; and with expecting a pupil to have facts and evidence to back up his point of view. But Lewis claimed that Kirkpatrick was a “purely logical entity”. And he seems to think that logic and emotions are incompatible. (This was before Star Trek.) Lewis’s father had warned him that Kirkpatrick was the sort of teacher who might put his arm around a boy or even kiss him on the forehead, which Lewis would have hated. Having been forced to define his terms while chatting about the scenery, Lewis says that Kirkpatrick putting his arm around a boy was no more likely than Kirkpatrick standing on his head. But is it not possible that Kirkpatrick treated his older pupils in one way, and his younger pupils in another? Lewis was not a child, but a very clever young man who had been badly served by the English public school system. Kirkpatrick could see he had the potential to be a brilliant academic. So very probably he treated Lewis like a grown-up because that was how Lewis wanted to be treated. It is very telling that Lewis thinks it impossible that you could love logical argument and also give a child who needed comforting a little hug. 

Kirkpatrick was, incidentally, the only person ever to call Lewis by his first name, Clive, rather than by his self-chosen nickname, Jack. 

Lewis takes it for granted that logic and reason must always take the form of argument; and describes arguments with Kirkpatrick in violent, martial terms. In his ridiculous poem, he portrays Kirkpatrick as a jousting knight. 

“He drove with lance in rest and loud Have-at-thee on the foe...
Oh Attic nights. And rigour of debate!
Shrewd blows. Parry and thrust. No quarter.” 

In Surprised by Joy, he compares arguing with him to boxing: 

“After being knocked down sufficiently often I began to know a few guards and blows, and to put on intellectual muscle. In the end I flatter myself I became a not contemptible sparring partner.” 

Arguing with Kirkpatrick was like being hit; but he didn’t mind. He rather liked it. Half a century later, he compared arguing with his wife to a fencing match. He sometimes deliberately argued badly because he loved it when she beat him. 

Kirkpatrick claimed not to have any opinions. Lewis says that a friend, who presumably thought that it was bad manners for chaps to argue about politics and that they should agree to differ, carelessly said that they just looked at things from different angles. Kirkpatrick jumped in: 

‘What do you mean? Are you asking me to picture Liberals and Conservatives playing peep-bo at a rectangular Fact from opposite sides of a table?’ 

Obviously, the speaker did not have a clear and distinct idea of what he meant by “angle”: he was just using a colloquial expression. But Kirkpatrick’s analogy is very telling. 

There are Facts. There are observers. And Facts look different depending on the observer’s point of view. I perceive the table as a trapezium with angles of, say, 45 degrees and 135 degrees because I am standing to the left of it. You perceive its shape differently because you are standing to the right. “Agreeing to differ” or “having an opinion” implies that my view of the table and your view of the table are equally valid and there is nothing more to be said. But by the application of reason—by having an argument—we can work out that the table is, in fact, rectangular and that the angles are, in fact, 90 degrees. When Kirkpatrick said that he had no opinions he was claiming that he has used reason to get beyond his own perspective and sees reality as it really is. If he was a liberal, that was because liberals are the ones who have worked out that tables really are rectangular. If you had shown him the error in his reasoning he would have changed his conclusion. 

Kirkpatrick was an atheist. When he died, Lewis was shocked to hear that he asked to be cremated without any ceremony or memorial. So he would presumably have claimed that atheism was not the perspective from which he looked at the table, but the table itself. For Lewis, to be a Christian meant deciding that dear Kirkpatrick had been wrong about the most important thing in the universe. Some people might have said “My tutor’s logic turns out to not be the whole story: for some questions you have to go by spiritual intuition”. Lewis, on the other hand, maintained that Christianity was true according to Kirkpatrick’s logical methods. He spent much of his life trying to win the argument with his long dead mentor. 

It is very striking that the analogy Kirkpatrick drew—the one which stuck in Lewis’s mind—came from geometry. 

And the word C.S. Lewis used to describe Kirkpatrick’s teaching methods was elenchos. 

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