Friday, November 20, 2020

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


g said...

In the paragraph that begins "Lewis overstates his case again", I think your less-overstated version still goes a bit too far. "He should have said that either we can know nothing, or else at least some of our thoughts have reasons and no causes." Not even that! Even if all our thoughts have causes as well as reasons, we can still know things. (At least in a reasonable sense of "know" that allows for a bit of fallibility; I personally am entirely comfortable saying that we don't know anything so securely that we should think it literally impossible that we're wrong.)

Lewis is right that "a belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless". But he jumps from that to saying that if there are any causes at work at all then all is lost, and that's not true even at the level of individual beliefs.

Suppose something to do with testosterone biases men towards thinking that triangles have three sides. Then we unfortunate males will tend to be more charitable towards arguments leading to that conclusion. But that doesn't mean those arguments are wrong! If I show you a mathematically valid proof that triangles have three sides[1], it isn't made any less valid by the fact that you and I both want to believe it. (But that fact does mean that anyone else observing us should take our belief as weaker evidence than they otherwise would, until they've checked the argument for themselves; and if they too happen to be male, they should take their own approval of the argument as weaker evidence than they otherwise would.)

We need to be careful in cases where our beliefs have causes as well as reasons. That's all.

[1] Not that it's clear what that would mean. Triangles have three sides by definition.

Paul King said...

I also, remain unconvinced by Lewis’ argument,

If the mind is a naturalistic entity, ultimately a product of naturalistic processes as we (more or less) understand them, then rational thought would be a product of those processes. Unlike Lewis’ examples the explanations in terms of causes and reasons would be complementary - different views of the same thing. Lewis examples are not that at all - he offers competing explanations on the same, mental level, which do not address this issue at all. (I recommend the discussion of reductionism and holism in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach).

It therefore seems to me that Lewis does not even consider naturalistic explanations of the mind, let alone refute them.

Aonghus Fallon said...

"I believe I am in love." Reason or Cause?