Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A part of Lewis's "locus classicus" I tend to avoid discussing

This is from the third chapter of Miracles.

CSL: But', it will be said, 'it is incontestable that we do in fact reach truths by inferences'. Certainly. The Naturalist and I both admit this. We could not discuss anything unless we did. The difference I am submitting is that he gives, and I do not, a history of the evolution of reason which is inconsistent with the claims that he and I both have to make for [32]inference as we actually practise it. For his history is, and from the nature of the case can only be, an account, in Cause and Effect terms, of how people came to think the way they do. And this of course leaves in the air the quite different question of how they could possibly be justified in so thinking. This imposes on him the very embarrassing task of trying to show how the evolutionary product which he has described could also be a power of 'seeing' truths.

VR: Here Lewis presents the Darwinian objection to his argument from reason. Antony Flew's statement of this response is here:

Flew: A]ll other things being equal and in the long run and with many dramatic exceptions, true beliefs about our environment tend to have some survival value. So it looks as if evolutionary biology and human history could provide some reasons for saying that it need no be a mere coincidence if a significant proportion of men’s beliefs about their environment are in face true. Simply because if that were not so they could not have survived long in that environment. As an analysis of the meaning of ‘truth’ the pragmatist idea that a true belief is one which is somehow advantageous to have will not do at all. Yet there is at least some contingent and non-coincidental connection between true beliefs, on the one hand, and the advantage, if it be an advantage, of survival, on the other.

VR: Lewis replies in this way. I have de-emphasized this line of response because I am inclined to suppose that this response begs the question. Can he be defended here?

But the very attempt is absurd. This is best seen if we consider the humblest and almost the most despairing form in which it could be made. The Naturalist might say, 'Well, perhaps we cannot exactly see--not yet--how natural selection would turn sub-rational mental behaviour into inferences that reach truth. But we are certain that this in fact has happened. For natural selection is bound to preserve and increase useful behaviour. And we also find that our habits of inference are in fact useful. And if they are useful they must reach truth'. But notice what we are doing. Inference itself is on trial: that is, the Naturalist has given an account of what we thought to be our inferences which suggests that they are not real insights at all. We, and he, want to be reassured. And the reassurance turns out to be one more inference (if useful, then true)--as if this inference were not, once we accept his evolutionary picture, [33] under the same suspicion as all the rest. If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning. If, as I said above, a proof that there are no proofs is nonsensical, so is a proof that there are proofs. Reason is our starting point. There can be no question either of attacking or defending it. If by treating it as a mere phenomenon you put yourself outside it, there is then no way, except by begging the question, of getting inside again.

Steve Lovell responds: Lewis evidently saw the possibility of such a response, but thought that it begged the question. He claimed that it amounted to the naturalist arguing for the reliability of his cognitive faculties, and that if those faculties really are in doubt such an argument should not persuade us. But this seems like a poor response to Flew. Flew is not trying to remove doubts about our cognitive faculties, he is attempting to stop those doubts from arising in the first place.

Well, that's what I would have thought, and that is why I have not emphasized this aspect of Lewis's argument. Have I missed something here? I believe Jason Pratt thinks that I am.

I am linking to Lovell's excellent discussion of the AFR.


At 1/18/2007 10:45:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning.

It seems, if we were to accept this, that would kill epistemology. It seems more a call to skepticism than anything else. The structure of the argument, in a nonskeptical vein, should be at two-step attack: 1) Assume that human reasoning is epistemically valuable. 2) Argue that this skill couldn't have evolved via natural processes.

To then make a claim like the above undercuts the first step in the attack.

How much do the Balfour-philes focus on studies of common mistakes in human cognition that are typically weeded out only after the study of formal logic or mathematics? Such results suggest that what is especially unique about humans is not an innate ability to reason well, but our ability to use external symbol systems in a feedback loop which modifies our cognitive practices. This feedback loop allows us to escape some of our natural tendencies in reasoning (e.g., while it is common for humans to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent, once this inference is made public and subject to empirical scrutiny, it becomes eliminated as an acceptable inference rule: it isn't built into our nervous systems).

Most importantly, these arguments are sort of a tempest in a teapot in the absence of a good theory of animal cognition: if we don't know the basic architecture(s) of animal cognition, it is hard to argue about whether it could have evolved. Psychology has been building serious models of animal cognition for about 50 years, neuroscience has been studying it about the same amount of time, and we are nowhere close to having an accepted theory of such things. My bet is that in 100 years this debate will be approachable from a more empirically informed viewpoint, as there will be a naturalistic consensus based on solid data.

There will still remain philosophical questions then, I'm sure, but they will be better posed (right now it's like philosophers arguing about the nature of space before Newton).

At 1/18/2007 11:55:00 AM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

BDK wrote: It seems, if we were to accept this, that would kill epistemology. It seems more a call to skepticism than anything else. The structure of the argument, in a nonskeptical vein, should be at two-step attack: 1) Assume that human reasoning is epistemically valuable. 2) Argue that this skill couldn't have evolved via natural processes.

VR; That in a nutshell, is why I'm not a fan of this line of argument. It sounds too much like a Skeptical Threat Argument. It seems as if someone could argue that if there are supernatural beings those beings might cause false beliefs, therefore supernaturalism undercuts confidence in reasoning. One could reply by saying that a good being would not systematically mislead us, but that would be to use inference as well, which is supposed to be "on trial."

The rest of your comment, I think, deserves a separate treatment. Right now I'd like to hear from people who are willing to defend this aspect of Lewis's argument.

At 1/18/2007 11:59:00 AM , Blogger Jason said...

This is going to _seriously_ delay me commenting on your radio interview and the Wielenburg essay, y'know... {s} (I mean commenting on the actual Wielenburg essay rather than commenting on something in the comments. {wry g})

I've got to finish up a construction drawing at work, and then try to figure out if I can present a reply in anything like a feasible commentary length (or even in anything like a feasible length for a letter-to-possibly-post-as-an-entry.)

Until then, I will mention that in the email (where I was doing a crit on some proposed encyclopedia entries Victor was writing on CSL's apologetics in general and the AfR in particular), I specifically pointed out that in MaPS chp 3 (2nd edition) Lewis explicitly _AGREES WITH_ the general efficacy of biological evolution in building up effective mental behaviors. ("A conditioning which secured that we never felt delight except in the useful nor aversion save from the dangerous [for instance], and that the degrees of both were [for instance] exquisitely proportional to the degree of real utility or danger in the object, might serve us as well as reason or in some circumstances better." p 19 in my edition, about a page before the portion Victor is referencing. My emphases.)

Lewis is here thus agreeing with the Darwinians; and it is this portion (not the paragraph Victor first references) that matches in topic the quote Victor borrows from Antony Flew. Consequently, then, Lewis is not disagreeing with the basic notion being represented by the quote from Flew, soon afterward at the climactic summary (to coin a phrase) of his argument. He's doing something very different--and far more 'dangerous'. {g}

(Not-incidentally, the first paragraph Victor provides is not one of the two Darwinian objections Lewis anticipates to his AfR. Lewis is only drawing a distinction there, about something he and the 'Naturalist' both admit. The first anticipated objection to the AfR is actually in the second paragraph Victor quotes.)

But if Lewis is _not_ actually replying against the sort of thing represented by the paragraph from Flew, then what _is_ he doing?

I still have a drawing to do this afternoon. {lopsided g} But the answer is going to be linked to the answer to this question: why does Lewis expect the "Naturalist" to try to justify our that our justifications can be possibly competent?

Jason Pratt

At 1/18/2007 04:42:00 PM , Blogger Jason said...

I've got a reply written now, but as it runs 2500ish words (hey, it's less than _some_ things I've sent!), I'm going to let it sit overnight, comb through it again in the morning, and then send it along as an email. Unless you'd prefer it to be here in the comments. I'm okay either way.


At 1/20/2007 01:27:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Bryan Kromenacker I read your book, VR, like a year ago and not only was it a key to the developement of a philosophy, but also an incredible relief to know that at least one other human out there was thinking along the same lines as I am. I had no idea you had a blog, I am like sweating, I am so excited. This is virtually all I think about every single day I look forward to some awesome reading and discussion.
My brother and I were just discussing Lewis's argument from a universal morality and decided that it did not bind the naturalist to reject naturalism because naturalistic evolution cannot be shown to be incapable of producing a sense of morality because it is useful for survival, much like Flew's argument here.
Meaning, free will, and the universal assumption of all thinking people that our thoughts are ABOUT the universe and not a mere product OF the universe do bind the naturalist to reject naturalism because meaning and free will presume a supernatural. The naturalist may refer to meaning and free will and speak as if his thoughts are about the universe, but all he can defend is the sensation that or the illusion of meaning, free will, and rational inference. Flew:[true beliefs about our environment tend to have some survival value] His use of the phrase "true beliefs" is unacceptable. He must replace it with "accurate data" or the "sensation of true beliefs". Flew is using a vocabulary that his philosophy does not allow, therefore his argument must be rephrased using the naturalist vocabulary before it can be judged.
I have come to the conclusion through Lewis that naturalism and supernaturalism cannot be arrived at by way of reason. All that can be known in the strictest sense through reason alone is that "I exist" the next step is to make an assumption (based on gut feeling?) of what I will allow to be counted as true: the naturalist only accepts objective science, supernaturalist accepts objective science and subjective experience.
I appologize if my vocabulary is imprecise, I'm not a professional philosopher--I get most of my language from Lewis (1920's).


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