Friday, February 26, 2010

Mere Materialism: Chronicles of Nonsense

That is the title of my review of Victor Reppert's book, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (InterVarsity Press, 2003). Originally published in 2004 in Christian Research Journal (27.3 [2004]: 46-47) my review has been posted on my personal website for several years. I reproduce it below for the readers of the Return to Rome blog:
Supporters of the current dominant understanding of the origin of the universe and life assert that all existing things are ultimately material, which includes you, me, the mountains, the streams, the cell, and your pet. They also claim that undirected material processes unencumbered by an intelligent agent account for everything. The intricacies of the human eye, for example, can be explained by natural selection: the eye is the result of random mutation working on a primitive light patch possessed by a less-developed nonhuman ancestor with far fewer cells and far less information content in its DNA than we, its legacy, possess today.

In order to defend this point of view, the materialists must draw inferences derived from reasoning; that is, they must have the ability to think, exercising the powers of a rational agent. According to the materialists, however, reasoning is an activity of the brain, a wholly material entity, like the kidney or large intestine that is subject to the forces of natural selection and random mutation, not to mention the laws of physics and chemistry. If reasoning is the result of "nonrational" causes, however, such "reasoning," including the reasoning on which materialism is based as a philosophical theory, cannot be trusted. Consider this illustration: if while playing Scrabble, the letters randomly spell "materialism is true," should I change my belief and embrace materialism? Of course not, for this collection of letters is the result of nonrational forces; but if the brain's "reasoning" is like the random string of Scrabble letters, then its apparent contentions - including the claim that materialism is true - are arrived at in no more rational a fashion than the phrase "materialism is true" on a Scrabble board.

In response to this conundrum, suppose one were to show that reasoning is not reducible to brain function and that a being whose thinking is not exhaustively accounted for by material processes has the power of reason. This argument would support, and be consistent with, an understanding of reality such as the Christian worldview, and which has room for all sorts of nonmaterial entities such as souls, moral properties, God, and minds.

Christians should applaud this response even though it is inconsistent with the materialism that dominates today's academic world. In the words of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, it may "allow a Divine Foot in the door." "Materialism," according to Lewontin, "is absolute.'"[1] This means, of course, that it is not a conclusion inferred from premises. It is instead a first principle about which its devotees are apparently unwilling to harbor doubts or entertain the possibility that if one finds divine footprints, perhaps a Divine Foot made them.

A version of this "argument from reason" gained a wide reading when it appeared in 1947 in C. S. Lewis's book, Miracles. Victor Reppert, in C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: A Defense of the Argument from Reason, reacquaints us with this argument and offers a robust and highly readable defense of it. Reppert is a serious scholar whose 1989 dissertation in philosophy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ("Physical Causes and Rational Belief: A Problem for Materialism?"), wrestled with the problems Lewis raised. Reppert begins C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea with a brief presentation of Lewis as a thinker. He weaves together pivotal events in Lewis's life, both personal and intellectual, with his own assessment of Lewis's critics and why Lewis should be considered a significant thinker whose work has lasting importance in Christian apologetics. Reppert rightly says it is unfair to judge Lewis's work according to an unreasonable standard that requires that it be critically pristine in order to carry any philosophical weight. He argues, rather, that Lewis, like any historically important thinker, should be assessed by the quality of the intellectual conversation his arguments put in play. The question, therefore, is not whether Lewis's arguments are without flaws; the question, rather, is whether the arguments Lewis offered can be honed, improved on, and more carefully wrought by Lewis's admirers, who see in his writings a special wisdom worth advancing. Reppert shores up Lewis's argument, and in the process he offers persuasive rebuttals to the argument's critics.

In his second chapter Reppert offers a lesson on how to evaluate and categorize different Christian assessments of the apologetic enterprise. Dividing these assessments into three categories - fideism, strong rationalism, and critical rationalism - Reppert makes the case for placing Lewis in the latter camp. Reppert defines this view as holding that the best arguments for Christian truth are plausible and reasonable, but they are not conclusive proof. The strong rationalist, in contrast, contends that there is "proof that ought to be accepted by all rational persons" (p. 37).

Chapter 3 focuses on an evaluation of the historical account of Lewis's argument and the legendary encounter over its plausibility, which actually took place at Oxford between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe, the late Christian philosopher. Reppert separates fact from fiction, offering a historically balanced treatment that reveals - contrary to atheist legend – that Anscombe's public critique did not trounce Lewis out of the apologetic enterprise. In fact, Reppert concludes that with a few conceptual clarifications, some of which Lewis included in the revised edition of Miracles, the argument not only survives but also continues to pose a potent challenge to philosophers who contend that materialism can adequately account for the power of reason.

In the remaining chapters, Reppert first offers six formulations for reasoning (chap. 4). He then argues that because rationality cannot be reduced to matter, some form of mind-body dualism is likely true (chap. 5). He concludes with a response to the objection that nonmaterialist explanations are inadequate (chap. 6).

This book is truly a gem. It is philosophically rigorous, and it is must reading for any Christian professor who teaches apologetics or any student who wants to be equipped to defend his or her faith in the public square; yet, it is also accessible to the serious nonacademic Christian. It is written, fittingly, with a clarity and workmanship like unto that for which Lewis himself is well known.

1. Richard Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons," review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Cradle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books, January 9,1997,32.

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