C.S. Lewis and Arguments

Lewis’s book ‘The Abolition of Man’, of all his books that I’ve read, has proved to be the most interesting to me, not necessarily because of its content (which is brilliant) but because of how Lewis engages with his topic, which is moral relativism – keeping this in mind, I’m going to focus on the form of his argument as opposed to the content here.

Lewis adopts a tactic that is, by all appearances, without academic integrity. His target is moral relativism, yet he doesn’t cite a single contemporary proponent of moral relativism. He doesn’t merely refrain from attacking easy targets, which any responsible philosopher should do – he refrains from attacking any target at all, easy or difficult. There’s no survey of the literature, no discussion of various religions in relation to moral philosophy, no engagement with the pragmatists, nothing. Instead, he singles out a single school textbook on the subject of reading and writing that was sent to him free of charge in exchange for a review.

Why does he go about it in this way? Why not go after the big, well-read, sophisticated schools of thought? I suspect that Lewis realized that relatively few people are actually influenced by such schools of thought – the ivory tower. Sure, some people are – but Lewis’s target, after reading through the book, becomes clear: it’s not bad philosophy, or philosophy he disagrees with, it’s bad popular philosophy. The dumbed-down kind of things one hears such as ‘Einstein proved it’s all relative, man’. This dumbed down pop moral philosophy is Lewis’s target.

Now, is it legitimate to attack popular philosophy, ignoring the sophisticated ideas of the ivory tower? One could think of the arguments of the new-atheists – a standard rebuttal is that the arguments concern a dumbed-down conception of god, and not (to give one example) the god of classical theism. Well, that may be true – but is it invalid? Lewis used, it could be argued, popular philosophy to launch a deep, powerful critique of positivism/scientism’s ethics – and his argument was anything but dumbed down.

So the question is, I suppose, is there an obligation to engage only ivory-tower positions, or can popular conceptions be engaged as a springboard to larger and deeper arguments that do, in fact, pertain to the ivory-tower positions? Another question: what’s the relation of ivory-tower positions to popular viewpoints? At what point does one get to say, ‘well, you’re just attacking an unsophisticated conception of X’?

Reading Notes

I’m almost done with Polyani’s ‘Personal Knowledge’, which has been a very interesting book. His discussions of the personal nature of logical propositions is probably the best part of the book – I can’t really recommend this volume enough for those interested in science, philosophy, philosophy of science, etc.

I’m making my way through ‘Foundation and Empire’, which hasn’t been quite as good as ‘Foundation’ so far – it’s been just a little bit slower in getting started. It’s good, obviously, but seems almost awkward in some places. Still a great book, though. I have ‘I, Robot’, somewhere, and would like to re-read that one as well. The film with Will Smith was good, but shared almost nothing but the name in common with the book.

There was an interesting section in ‘Mapping the Mind’ about the unity and disunity of the conscious experience in relation to depression and emotion – Rita Carter argues that meaning is bound up with emotion, and shows that the area called the ventromedial cortex is the brain’s emotional ‘control center’, and is the most important organ in the brain for tying all our conscious experiences and perceptions into one, meaningful unified experience. Fascinating stuff.

I skimmed through Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, specifically, the chapter entitled ‘The Social Coefficient of Knowledge’. He expounds Polyani’s ideas of ‘pre’ knowledge – arguing that it’s this social coefficient and inter-personal existence that allows us to have ‘proleptic’ glimpses of the inherent patterns and rational order/structure of the universe, which is what allows us to inquire into reality in a meaningful way. A good quote:

‘It is worth repeating at this point that the social coefficient of our knowledge, or the cognitional structure of our social consciousness, does not generate in us concepts of reality, nor does it provide our knowledge with informational content, but it does predispose us toward explicit apprehension of the rational order intrinsic to the nature of things through the informal, inarticulate way in which it reflects it.’ (p. 114)

Conceptual Confusions and Philosophy of Mind

Of all the conceptually confused areas in philosophy, philosophy of mind is probably the most confused. Think of, for example, mental causation, or the debates on the relation of brain states to mental states, or the causal relation of neurons to thoughts, things along those lines. The confusion, like all conceptual confusions, is a simple one.

Suppose one performs a scan of a brain and observes the patterns of neurons when a certain cognitive action, like thinking of a certain thing, happens – or observe certain areas of the brain lighting up when a certain cognitive action is undertaken. In short, the physiological processes that, more or less, make thought happen. This is a normal observation made every day in laboratories across the globe – the confusion arises when it is assumed that what is observed is mental causation (brain states cause mental states, or something of the sort).

Empirically, what is observed is not mental causation but mental correlation – as I’ve pointed out before, causality is a metaphysical, and not an empirical, category. Any notion of causation takes one, implicitly if not explicitly, into the realm of philosophy. If one supposes that all that is observed is all that there is, one has crossed from science into philosophy – whether or not it is done well is another story entirely.

This shows, again, how intimate the connection between science and metaphysics is. Think of an intricate braid made of two different strands of rope. While they are two distinct things, when they are intertwined correctly, they form a strong, intimate bond, as opposed to being tangled together in a lump, which serves only to prevent it from being used properly.

While of a slightly different nature than the causal confusion above, it’s easy to see how other confusions arise – for example, that neuroscience has shown that free will is an illusion. This again is simply a muddle of confused thinking – certainly brain science has a lot to tell us about the mechanical/physiological aspect of human volition (it has, and will continue to, inform us more and more of the mechanical, but not mechanistic, workings of the brain), but it has very little, if anything, to say about human freedom seen as a whole, and not merely seen as volition (which has very little part to play in a full account of freedom).

Such are the perils of conceptual confusions.

Formed by Scripture

The reading of Scripture is somewhat different than the reading of other stories, because Scripture, while open to a range of interpretations on the part of the reader, is something that shapes, forms or interprets us. We don’t read Scripture only to interpret it and to draw meanings from it (thought that is, obviously enough, an incredibly important part of Scripture reading) but to be conformed to its Truth. The Truth of the Scriptures is Jesus, in whose image we are conformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, without whom the real Truth of the Scriptures would remain hidden. This is the real goal of Scripture reading – to be conformed to the image of Christ.

While the work of the Spirit isn’t limited in any way, Christian experience suggests that certain practices lend themselves better to an open and receptive frame of mind and heart than others. The frame of mind and heart one has while reading the Scriptures really do matter – again, while the Spirit works without limit, a reading of Scripture which takes time to prayerfully and patiently meditate on the text will be of far more benefit than a quick glance in a hurried frame of mind.

This suggests something that most people are uncomfortable with, myself included: submission to something outside of ourselves in order to be shaped into something better than ourselves. We must seek to be shaped by something which claims us and calls us to account. To be conformed by the Spirit to the Truth of the Scriptures means, on our part, a forsaking of sin (or at least the concentrated effort to forsake sin).

This means that reading Scripture, if one’s reading is to have any kind of spiritual significance, requires a true submission to the Work of the Spirit in conforming us to the Truth of the Scriptures.

Controlling Narratives and Meaning

To continue from my last post, the controlling narrative has a function of determining and limiting the meanings of the smaller narratives it contains. It provides a framework through which and in which those smaller stories can be interpreted. It is something that, in interpreting those smaller stories, we are subject to.

Now, of course, in regards to Scripture, its status as a narrative isn’t as clear cut as, say, Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Scripture isn’t one seamless story – to continue the comparison, it resembles ‘The Return of the King’s’ appendix more than the actual story itself. Books of the Bible often take place years, even centuries apart. People in the Bible bear no resemblance to characters in normal narratives. Whole books of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs) are very much not narrative but gain their power and meaning from their place within the controlling narrative.

The extent and degree to which the meanings of the smaller stories are determined by the controlling narrative, I’m not so sure of. Obviously, Scripture has, in a sense, an infinite amount of meaning – there are portions of Scripture that mean something to someone that don’t mean the same thing at all to me. Depending on how one has lived, Scripture will mean different things – one who has grown up in the lap of luxury will probably read Scripture quite differently than one who has grown up in crippling poverty. God may speak to one particular person through a certain verse in a certain way and to another person through the same verse in a very different way.

And yet, even given all this, there are still limits on the meanings that can be imposed on Scripture while remaining true to the controlling narrative. Flights-of-fancy interpretation should be questioned. Health-and-wealth prosperity preaching should be questioned. Various interpretations of Scripture have led to some pretty bad things – slavery, religious war, etc. This all serves to highlight what happens when, instead of subjecting ourselves to Scripture and the controlling narrative it is/has, we allow Scripture to become a wax nose which we can shape in any way we like.

So far, I’ve been looking at how we interpret Scripture, and the limits imposed on us by the controlling narrative, which is the framework in and through which the smaller stories can be interpreted and given meaning. I think I’ve given a fair account of the role of the controlling narrative as well as a good defense for why such a thing is something we’re subject to – I’ve left out a good deal (the role of tradition, the role of community, theological concerns, etc) for now, hopefully to be touched on later. The next post will deal with how Scripture interprets us, or how we are formed by Scripture.

Allegory, Controlling Narratives and the Bible

Allegory has been a long-accepted method for reading Scripture – seeing the meaning of various stories, events and characters not in themselves so much as in a more general principle, idea or doctrine which they represent. Origen is arguably the guy who started this as a systematic theological enterprise, though it seems obvious that, at the very least, a lot of Jesus’ teachings were allegorical in one way or another.

This invites a question: when do we allegorize? Texts don’t come with handy little tags that say ‘WARNING: ALLEGORY AHEAD’. Jesus doesn’t really say, ‘This parable is an allegory for X’.

Generally speaking, allegory doesn’t happen if the text isn’t a narrative of some kind – Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories invite allegory in  a way that ‘An Introduction to Organic Chemistry’ does not. So far as I can tell, allegory happens when one is confronted with a story or narrative, and forms the belief that the ‘real’ meaning of the text lies deeper than than the the text at face-value. The process for forming this belief usually goes one of to ways: it seems obvious that the real meaning must lie deeper, or the reader thinks that the real meaning must lie deeper. The latter seems to be round about how a lot of the early Fathers interpreted Scripture, especially the Old Testament.

There are other factors, though. In isolation, a text may be demanded to be read allegorically – think of the story of Jephthah. If you were handed a piece of paper with just this story written on it, you’d probably try to come up with some kind of meaning for it, simply because that’s a pretty wild story, and there has to be some kind of deeper meaning. This is a totally natural and correct thing to do. However, the story as we have in Scripture isn’t a random tale, but part of an over-arching narrative – the book of Judges (probably the darkest part of the Scriptures). I’m not going to go into a sustained exegesis of the Jephthah story, but when it’s read as part of a larger story, a larger controlling story, then it seems that allegorization isn’t as much of an option.

The controlling narrative restricts the degree to which we can interpret a story within that narrative. N.T. Wright points out in ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, that a habit of early church interpretation was to find moral or spiritual significance to especially brutal Old Testament stories – something that didn’t need to be done because the stories were, in fact, part of a larger controlling narrative. Their meaning isn’t had on their own in isolation (like, say Aesop’s Fables or any number of folk tales, which do a fine job of imparting moral wisdom in bite-sized parables free from any real controlling narrative) but in the framework of a larger story within which they make sense without allegorization.

This is obviously not to suggest that a given story in the Bible has one and only one meaning. Christians throughout history have had certain stories speak to them in certain ways that are no doubt far from the authors original intent. God is free to speak to us however He wishes from whatever story He wishes. In responsible biblical interpretation, however, the factor of the controlling narrative must be accounted for. We are not free to give any meaning to any story in Scripture – the controlling narrative is more than a literary device because in a very deep sense, the controlling narrative also lays claim to us. We are subject to Scripture – not the other way around. When the sense of controlling narrative is lost (both in its literary form and its theological/authoritative form) Scripture becomes a screen upon which we can project any and everything with equal validity.

Tillich, Anxiety and Contingency

Paul Tillich made a point which caught my eye in ‘The Courage to Be’. He asserted that anxiety is different from fear in this way: that fear has an object. while the object of anxiety is non-being. Hm, I thought. Odd. He then went on to say that it’s not merely the awareness of non-being, but the awareness that non-being is part of one’s own being, and that it’s not so much even the awareness of non-being, it’s the experience of the ‘transitory’, such as death, that impacts our own latent awareness of our own transitoriness.

This seems to be more or less the rather obvious (though differently worded) fact that we are aware of our own contingency. We are contingent beings – we are aware of this. We aren’t necessary beings – we are aware of this. This is, as far as I can see, what Tillich can be boiled down to. And I confess that I’m at a loss to see how this is a negative thing, when pretty much all of metaphysics saw this, and, far from seeing it as anxiety over non-being, saw it as an experience of being itself (for more on this, definitely see Hart’s ‘The Experience of God’).

But I’m no Tillich scholar, so I’m open to correction. I’ll confess also that I find a lot of his writing (and existentialism in general) to be very long-winded without saying very much.