Bulverism and the AFR
A redated post from the other blog. You can read the comments using the link, though I'm not sure how illuminating they are.
Bulverism and the AFR
Pat Parks, who is working on a master's thesis on the AFR at Cal State Long Beach, sent a question about the relation between the AFR and Lewis's critique of Bulverism. If Bulverizing is a bad thing, then doesn't that imply that what causes our beliefs is irrelevant to the justification of those beliefs, and if that is so then doesn't Anscombe's critique of Lewis go through. Steve Lovell, who has written a dissertation on Lewis and philosophy, responded to this query by mentioning that he had covered the same issue in the conclusion of his dissertation. Steve's comments are in bold, followed by mine.
Bulverism and the Reasons/Causes Distinction
There was a method of ‘refutation’ that Lewis encountered so frequently that he felt he ought to give it a name. Bulverism, named after its fictional inventor Ezekiel Bulver, consists in dismissing a person’s claims as psychologically tainted at source, as in “Oh, you say that because you’re a man” (1941a: 181). The Bulverist’s thought is that if a person’s convictions can be fully explained as a result of non-rational factors then we need not bother about those convictions. Lewis deplored this sort of attack on our beliefs, seeing it as an illegitimate tactic which shortcuts the reasoning process. I argued in Chapter 5 that such ‘genetic arguments’ are often, but not always, fallacious. In general, we should find out whether or not a person is wrong before we start explaining how they came to be wrong. And of course the Bulverist’s game is very easy to play. If illicit motives may operate on one side of a debate, they may equally operate on the other. We do not (at least not always) clarify an issue by delving into psychology or personal history but rather by reasoning about the subject in hand.
If you try to find out which [thoughts] are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, [you may] go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.
In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. … [Y]ou can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology. (1941a: 180-1)
In attacking Bulverism, Lewis distinguished between reasons and causes:
Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than beliefs. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulversism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. (1941a: 182)
It is unclear how this last quote fits with the general critique of Bulverism. On the one hand we have Lewis saying that we can only find out the rights and wrong by reasoning and not by explaining (away) our opponents beliefs as the product of non-rational causes, and on the other Lewis appears to claim that the presence of such causes is incompatible with the presence of reasons. Is the problem with Bulverism that it fails to distinguish between reasons and causes and so presumes that one must exclude the other? Or is it that Bulverism is too quick to attribute beliefs to non-rational causes in the first place?
The question is interesting in its own right, but it is also interesting for the light it may (or may not) cast upon Lewis’ argument against naturalism. For if the presence of a non-rational cause for a belief does not exclude the presence of reasons, it is hard to see how the naturalist’s commitment to the presence of such causes can discredit the naturalist’s beliefs. On the other hand, if these two kinds of explanation are really incompatible, we cannot claim that the Freudian critique of religious belief commits the genetic fallacy but merely that it assumes too easily that religious belief is brought about by non-rational factors. If religious belief may have non-rational determinants (may be ‘desire based’) and yet still be warranted, then surely the naturalist’s general commitment to the presence of such determinants cannot undermine his claims to knowledge. In terms of the reasoning presented in Chapter 5, we may wonder whether Lewis’ argument against naturalism cannot be rejected on the same grounds as we rejected the Freudian critique of religious belief, that it commits the genetic fallacy. If the one argument commits this fallacy, then so too does the other. Or so it would appear.
But to commit the genetic fallacy is to take the origin of a belief to be relevant to its evaluation and then illegitimately fault the belief because of its origin. A clear entailment is that if any arguments commit this fallacy, there must be a meaningful distinction between the causal origins of a belief and the grounds of that belief. But it is at just this point that Lewis attacks naturalism. To argue that a worldview cannot accommodate the reasons/causes distinction is not to commit the genetic fallacy but to contend that within that worldview the accusation of making that fallacy would cease to have meaning. Lewis is not only not committing the fallacy, he is arguing against a view which (if his argument is correct) entails that there is no such fallacy to commit. Alan Gerwith puts the point in strikingly Lewisian terms.
[The naturalist] thesis is unable to account for the difference between the relation of physical or psychological cause and effect and the relation of logical or evidential ground and consequent. (1978: 36)
Bulverism also connects with several other aspects of Lewis’ work. In The Personal Heresy (Lewis and Tillyard 1939), Lewis argues against E.M.W. Tillyard’s view that poetry, and literature more generally, is first and foremost the “expression of the poet’s personality”, that “All Poetry is about the poet’s state of mind” and that, therefore, “the end we are supposed to pursue in reading … is a certain contact with the poet’s soul” (quoted in Schultz and West Jr. 1998: 318). According to Lewis, to read a poem as it should be read “I must look where he [the author] looks and not turn around to face him; I must make of him not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles” (quoted in Duriez 2000: 162).
I look with his eyes, not at him. He, for the moment, will be precisely what I do not see; for you can see any eyes rather than the pair you see with, and if you want to examine your own glasses you must take them off your own nose. The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him. (Quoted in Hooper 1997: 599)
If we are to treat a person’s opinions fairly we cannot treat them as facts to be explained merely as episodes in their biography, we must consider the belief in question on its own merits. This in turn means thinking about the content of the belief and not about the belief itself. In a similar manner, to read a poem ‘fairly’ we cannot treat it merely as an expression of the poet’s personality, we must attempt to see what the poet sees and not merely to see the poet.
Lewis’ assault on Bulverism is noted by Como (1998: 170), by Hooper (1997: 552) and by Burson and Walls (1998: 160-1) as among Lewis’ most important ideas, and its relevance to Lewis’ rejection of the Freudian critique of religious belief is obvious. As demonstrated in Chapter 5, that attempt to discredit religious belief is no more (and is perhaps less) convincing than the attempt to discredit atheistic belief in the same manner.
Steve and Pat: This is a little bit related to the internalism/externalism issue that was explored between my blog and John DePoe's. Something I have to keep emphasizing is that science depends crucially on some beliefs being *rationally inferred*. This entails a claim about how the belief was produced. If I say some people form beliefs because they perceive a logical relationship between the premises and the conclusion. That requires a nonaccidental confluence between cause and effect relations and ground-consequent relations which is prima facie very tough to square with the mechanism and causal closure of the physical. The AFR says that if physicalism is true, then this never occurs.
Contrast this with a case of Bulverizing. I offer a rational reason for believing in God, say, the AFR. You reply that I can't possibly believe in God because of the argument, I must believe because of wish-fulfillment. Then there are two problems. One arises if I claim that I came to believe in God as a result of reasoning. If I'm making that claim, then we have to ask what kind of evidence could show that this wasn't true. A brain scan maybe? Prolonged observation of my behavior? Even if I have a wish to believe, this doesn't show that the wish, and not the reasoning, caused the belief.
But what if I don't say that I myself came to believe in God because of the AFR. I don't make that kind of autobiographical claim myself, even though I have been inviting people for years to be able to make that autobiographical claim. For me, of course, it's one of a number of reasons I believe in God. Even if I am a theist because of wish-fulfilment and the AFR is an attempt on my part to rationalize my beliefs, nevertheless the argument is "out there" and has to be considered on its argumentative merits. Of course, this all presupposes that we live in a world in which at least some people at some times make rational inferences, and change their beliefs on that basis.
One can criticize Bulverism without committing oneself to Anscombe's implausible thesis that how a belief is formed is irrelevant to how the belief is justified.
I provide a link to Lovell's dissertation here: