Book review: “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason”

I decided to return this week to one of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis. But this time, I would be reading a book about Lewis rather than one straight from the horse’s mouth. I appreciate a good explication, such as such-and-such’s ingenious Planet Narnia, but this time I settled on Victor Repport’s C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea. Sounds a little edgy, right?

And edgy it most certainly is! Repport takes on the very foundation of modern scientific materialism, the basis on which most everything you are taught from your first chemistry class in junior high to advanced physics and beyond in college. Repport outlines three “levels” of materialism, each making more specific assumptions:

Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as the result of supernatural causation.

Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter.

Physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics.

Repport revives a seemingly discarded yet provocative idea proposed by Lewis in his book Miracles. I read Miracles about seven years ago shortly after returning from my LDS mission. It was a little more difficult to take in when compared with, say, Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce, because it gets into some pretty heady philosophical ground. But I got the gist of what he was saying, and I had never heard an argument like it. It goes like this, as summarized by Repport:

C. S. Lewis’s dangerous idea…[is that] the world thus analyzed has to have scientists in it. And scientists draw their conclusions from evidence, and in so doing they engage in rational inference. But can rational inference itself [be so] accounted for..? Lewis’s contention was that it could not, that if you tried to account for the activity of reasoning as a byproduct of a fundamentally nonpurposive system, you end up describing something that cannot be genuinely called reasoning.

Chew on that one for a minute. If everything is just made up of random collisions of atoms without any real purpose, how can something as purposeful as rational thought ever arise? Repport further breaks up the dangerous idea into a syllogism to help see every point of the argument:

  1. No thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.
  2. If materialism is true, then all thoughts can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.
  3. Therefore, if materialism is true, then no thought is valid.
  4. If no thought is valid, the thought “materialism is true” is not valid.
  5. Therefore, if materialism is true, then the thought “materialism is true” is not valid.
  6. A thesis whose truth entails the invalidity of the thought that it is true ought to be rejected, and it denial ought to be accepted.
  7. Therefore, materialism ought to be rejected, and its denial ought to be accepted.

Now, I hadn’t thought about this line of argument before. Perhaps others might try to discard it by citing Darwin, how something as complex as an eye or a human could emerge from the primordial slime. But the argument is on a different level: not necessarily the material, but the logical. Rational thought can’t be broken down into constitutive parts, so how would it be built from the ground up?

Rapport talks about the difficulties of making theistic arguments in a philosophical setting, as most philosophical discussions today are made on atheistic assumptions. He includes a few criticisms in this regard that, as a theist myself, I definitely agree with. The first is the condescending attitude that is often employed when encountering theistic arguments:

Another obstacle to the serious consideration of Lewis’s arguments is just plain snobbery. I once presented a paper on the ex-change between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe at a secular philosophy department where I was a visiting instructor. In that paper I argued (as I shall argue later in this book) that Lewis’s argument against naturalism could surmount the challenges that Anscombe posed for it. Most of the faculty there told me that I had not persuaded them that Lewis’s argument was a good one, but I had shown that Lewis had adequate responses available to him to meet Anscombe’s challenge. One older professor of known positivist tendencies told me that I had written a good paper on reasons and causes, but the main problem with it was that I had chosen a “patsy” (Lewis) to devote my energies to. Never mind that I had (apparently) successfully defended Lewis against Anscombe, he was still a patsy and not worthy of serious discussion. It is sometimes presupposed by those who are familiar with the technical side of a discipline like philosophy that no one who is not similarly a “professional” has anything serious to say. But of course “professionalism” in philosophy is a rather recent development: the majority of those who have made significant contributions to philosophy over the past twenty-five centuries would not qualify as “professional” philosophers in the contemporary sense.

On a related note, there seems to be such a confidence in the underlying assumptions to science that it becomes its own kind of cult, what Rapport refers to as scientific fideism. He quotes Richard Lewontin:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material causes, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot not allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who believes in God can believe in anything. thing. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, the Miracles may happen.

Rapport is humble in his conclusions, acknowledging that this one seemingly nit-picky thing isn’t going to be enough to topple materialism, nor is he trying to do that here. But it does give food for thought, and I would hope invite a similar stance of humility for materialists out there.

While I did appreciate some Lewis nostalgia, I didn’t quite feel like I got my dose of Lewis. Rapport’s book was good, but it just wasn’t the same reading a secondary source. Granted, Rapport had some specific work he wanted to do fleshing out some of Lewis’s ideas. But still. I may need to go back and re-read some classic Lewis sometime now.

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