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C. S. Lewis and the “Argument From Reason”: An Examination and (Modified) Defense, Part V

August 22, 2012

Objection #2:  G. E. M. Anscombe and Different Types of Explanations

A second, important objection to Lewis’ argument is that Lewis does not distinguish between irrational and nonrational causes[1] nor between different types of “explanations” of the same event.  These are the argument first proposed by G. E. M. Anscombe against Lewis, and Berversluis spends considerable space, not only in presenting Anscombe’s argument in detail, but chronicling the debate that took place between them.  Though Lewis does not explicitly mention so , Berversluis effectively shows that Lewis’ second edition of Miracles takes into account Anscombe’s objections.  The pages devoted to this section are not only philosophically potent, but historically fascinating as well.

The first objection that Anscombe makes against Lewis is that he fails to distinguish between irrational and nonrational causes.  Because this objection is primarily waged at the first edition of Miracles we will bypass it and move onto the second part of her argument that still applies to Lewis’ second edition.  According to Anscombe, Lewis could make the following rebuttal to her point of distinguishing between irrational and nonrational causes:

 That kind of explanation…would show that what the person said was not caused by reason at all, but by nonrational processes.  Although the person offered arguments in support of what he said, since everything we say can be fully explained by nonrational causes, his arguments would also have been derived from a chain of nonrational causes.[2]

However, this will not work, according to Anscombe, because Lewis is failing to distinguish between causes and reasons.[3]  That the reason a person comes to a particular conclusion is through a process of logical reasoning is no way undermined by the fact that the cause is a physical event (i.e. mental/chemical processes).  At least, Lewis does not show how it is undermined, for he confuses the cause of a person’s thinking and the reasons a person thinks the way he or she does.  Beversluis writes, “If we distinguish the ground of a conclusion from the cause of the asseration of that conclusion, the alleged incompatibility disappears…It follows that the naturalistic explanations of human thought ‘have no bearing,’ on the validity of human reasoning.”[4]

Anscombe bolsters her argument by showing how different—and equally valid—explanations can be given for a single event, depending on what a questioner wants to know.  Beversluis makes the point this way:  “To say that human thought can be fully explained in terms of causal laws does not preclude other kinds of noncausal explanations.  There is no single explanation that is the explanation, that is, the right and only explanation and everywhere the same.”[5]  Anscombe, in fact, offers four kinds of “full” explanations depending on the question being asked.  First, there are causal explanations that “explain in terms of physical law”; second, there are logical explanations that “explain by showing the connection between ground and consequent”; third, there are psychological explanations that “explain why a person, in fact, believes something”; and fourthly, there are personal history explanations that “explain how someone come to hold the view he holds.”[6]  The point of all this is that none of these explanations invalidates the other explanations; there is not one explanation “to rule them all.”

Beversluis follows this conclusion and develops it in a somewhat different way.  Rather than “granting that explanations in terms of nonrational causes fully explain thought causally and then introducing other kinds of noncausal explanations, we can deny that explanations in terms of nonrational causes fully explain mental events.”[7]  In “explaining” why Beethoven wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote his Fifth Symphony, the psychologist may provide causal reasons such as his compulsive need to succeed, while the musicologist may explain, that Beethoven didn’t give up because he saw that the piece had promise, and continued to work with it—much like a potter does with clay—until it was what he wanted.[8]  The question Beversluis asks, then, is:  “Why should we concede that either of these kinds of explanation fully explains what they set out to explain?”[9]  In fact, Beversluis goes so far as to admit that it is very likely that, in terms of psychological explanations (i.e. a class of “nonrational” explanations), we will never be able to fully explain the creativity of a person like Beethoven.  In an intensely revealing statement, Beversluis all but admits the “unexplainability” of certain types of thinking:

 Even if we assume for the sake of argument that Beethoven was ‘driven’ by an irresistible creative urge to compose, that still does not take us very far toward a full [emphasis his] psychological explanation of why he composed it or anything else, for that matter.  Part of the reason is that in the case of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth we are talking about a series of unique events in need of explanation, whereas in talking about creativity in general we are talking about a class of events that fall under the scope of some scientific law.  And it is unlikely that we will ever get explanations of creativity in general [emphasis mine]—not to mention the creative process of a giant like Beethoven—based on any known laws of psychology.[10]

Beversluis seems to be saying that there are classes of events—in this case, creativity—that are so unique, or phenomenal, that he (at least) is doubtful that any full psychological explanation can be given.  This, though, sounds eerily familiar to what Lewis is saying about the “phenomenon” of reasoning itself.

In response to both Anscombe’s objection and Beversluis’ slightly different formulation of it, I would like to make several points.

In regards to Anscombe’s objection, I believe she largely succeeds in demonstrating that Lewis has not completely shown that the process involved in reasoning and the physical processes that cause thinking “events” are incompatible.  Therefore, if we look at my formulation of Lewis’s argument, we may take issue with point (v).  Though naturalism and reasoning might seem incompatible, it has not been shown that they are, in fact, so.  Beversluis’s words are apt here:

If I argue ‘If it rains, the picnic will be cancelled; the picnic was not cancelled; therefore, it did not rain,’ my argument is valid because it instantiates a valid argument form known as modus tollens:  If p then q, it is not the case that q; therefore it is not the case that p.  To be sure, my chain of reasoning is caused by a series of physiological or neurobiological events that take place in my brain.  But how does that impugn the validity of my argument?[11]

Thus, as far as Lewis’s argument depends on us accepting the “wholly distinct” separation of the reasoning process and the physical process that causes the thinking event, it fails.  There is no logical contradiction between these two spheres of thinking.

However, I am not persuaded that Anscombe’s objection has the force that it might initially seem to have.   For it depends on the acceptance of her reasoning that different explanations can be full explanations in an equal way.  While I accept that depending on the question being asked, an explanation can serve as the entire explanation to that question, I believe there is a question that precludes all other questions:  the question of “ultimate meaning.”  That is, I could pose the following question:  what is the ultimate explanation (or cause) of the reasoning processes in our brains?  Or, what lies behind all other reasons for our reasoning processes?  If this question is posed, then in a naturalist framework, we must admit that the ultimate, final explanation is that our reasoning processes are due to a series of chemical processes in our brains.  Now, this may not prove that our reasoning is thereby invalid, but it does bring up the issue of significance or value.

Nature or material is value-neutral.  Atoms, particles, and the like, no matter how sophisticated the conglomeration (i.e. living beings) are ultimately meaningless, just as in naturalism, the universe itself, is ultimately meaningless.   If that is so, then because the most fundamental answer to the question of what is the “explanation” of human reasoning is that it is a result of chemical processes, we must conclude that the process of reasoning, is in the end, ultimately meaningless or valueless.  We may assign value to it based on function and arrive at a type of Utilitarian explanation to the “function” of reason, but we can hardly say that in the grand scheme of things, our reasoning has any intrinsic value to it.

Yet, what a far cry this is from how we typically approach the idea of reasoning!  I doubt very much if Beversluis would want to draw the conclusion that his entire life’s work—that of philosophy—is ultimately meaningless or valueless.  While, at a cognitive level, he may accept the fact that subjective, personal value is all he may ever assign to his own reasoning, and reasoning itself, at a deeper level, I wonder if he does not recoil at this.  Do not we who are engaged in philosophical endeavors, seeking truth for truth itself, believe that our endeavors are meaningful or valuable beyond our own personal opinion—or even beyond our biological need to survive as posed by evolution?  If so, then we must, at least, see the explanatory power of Lewis’ argument.  To believe in naturalism is to acknowledge that our reasoning faculties are ultimately a result of random, natural, evolutionary processes, and while they serve an evolutionary survival function, beyond that, they are ultimately valueless.

As for Beversluis’s formulation, by admitting that explanations rarely serve as the full explanation of our reasoning processes and acknowledging that psychological explanations in particular will likely never be able to explain unique aspects of our reasoning processes, such as the process of creativity, he is conceding to what appears to be the inexplicability of the process of reasoning.  He is acknowledging there is a part of the universe—namely our reasoning faculties—that cannot fully be accounted for.  Sure, he may acknowledge that undergirding all of this is a physical brain with physical processes; but that is not something a theist will necessarily deny.  What the theist will want to affirm, however, is that there is more than the person’s merely physical processes in reasoning:  that there is personhood and volition involved that makes such reasoning uniquely and phenomenally human.  While Beversluis goes this far in his understanding of the uniqueness of one aspect of our reasoning—creativity—it is not something that his naturalism will easily allow for.  Beyond the assertion that naturalism can account for such a phenomenon as human reasoning because obviously the fact that humans exists shows such a phenomenon exists, there is no defense of how naturalism can account for it.  Thus, by acknowledging the inexplicability of reasoning, Beversluis strengthens Lewis’s claim that reasoning is something that, in naturalistic terms, cannot be accounted for.

[1] At least in the first edition of Miracles.

[2] Beversluis, 156-157.  This is, of course, Beversluis’ summary.

[3] Ibid., 157

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 158

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 167.

[8] Beversluis uses this example of Beethoven to make his point, 167-168.

[9] Ibid., 167.

[10] Ibid., 169

[11] Ibid., 165.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2012 7:36

    Hey man, great job tracking the arguments. I wanted your take on the view that after Lewis’ debate with Anscombe, he felt “obliterated as an Apologist” (a quote from one of his letters) and gave up formal apologetics in favor of writing the story of Christianity in allegorical form through the Chronicles of Narnia. This came up in my Hauerwas-led apologetics class this past semester. Hauerwas isn’t a big fan of Lewis, and implied that Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein, the philosophical instigator of postmodern/postliberal Christian thought) persuaded Lewis that the best apologetic is simply to present the Christian story. I believe Beversluis addresses this (myth?) in his book, and I was wondering if you had any more knowledge on this topic than me?

    Also, I think it’s worth noting that Anscombe herself was Roman Catholic, so her debate with Lewis was “in-house,” and not simply atheistic-antagonism. Rather, I think she was concerned with sharpening Lewis’ argument (though she never really offers her own apologetic because I doubt it interested her). I’m sure you know that, but I wanted to offer that for your readers 😉

    • September 7, 2012 11:15


      I didn’t see this comment until recently! 😛 Actually Beversluis does comment on Anscombe/Lewis exchange and the “myth” of Lewis’ apologetic days being over. I will try to find the area in Bev’s book today and post a quote or two. He was very balanced in portraying the debate…and it’s worth reading that section just to get the context. Oh to have been around during the days of Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Lewis, Russell, and so on! Though, just reading about them makes me realize how dumb I am as a (wannabe) philosopher. haha.

  2. October 28, 2012 5:50

    Well written! I think you would enjoy the following article criquing Bev as well.
    I am a student at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena and enjoy philosophy as well. Keep up the good work!

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