Monday, November 26, 2012

C. S. Lewis, memes and logical positivism

Liturgically, the Christmas season is still five weeks and change away; we’re not even into Advent yet.  Alas, we’re governed by the marketing calendar, which begins to push us to buy for one holiday before the previous holiday is spent.  The leaves down here in north-central Texas just turned to fall colors yesterday, and the Muzak is already cranking out “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

This is also the time of year when American Atheists begin grunting out steaming mounds of “Bah! Humbug!” on the seemingly forgotten religious aspect of the season. 

I’ve written before on some of the problems the atheist must overcome before he can truly claim his position is rational, let alone based on scientific fact.  Largely the problems are philosophical in nature; the error lies not in the structure of the argument but in the initial assumptions.  Ultimately, if your foundation is nothing but sand, it doesn’t matter how well you build the superstructure — it will fall, and great will be the fall of it (cf. Mt 7:26-27).

But the New Atheist is, for the most part, not a philosopher.  In fact, more often than not he rejects formal philosophy, as it seemingly consists of people speculating without adequate basis in verifiable fact; as one person put it to me, it’s “just a bunch of people’s subjective opinions”.  That this demand for verifiable fact is itself a philosophical position — logical positivism — and as such suffers from self-referential incoherence[1] is an irony that passes him by.

Let me give you an example of what I mean:  Here and there, you’ll find a person who claims, “If God existed, we would be able to discover Him scientifically through the artifacts He would leave behind.”  This just begs for us to ask with mock innocence, “Okay … what artifacts would God leave behind?”  (Cue Jeopardy! music and angry spluttering.)

The atheist’s proposition is contingent on the presupposition that all real beings have material qualities that act and react in predictably material ways: if real then material; if not material then not real. But the presupposition itself can’t be proven by scientific means without begging the question (or at least committing an ad ignorantiam fallacy).  Because we can only study a tiny sliver of  the known universe, we don’t really know that all real beings are material, let alone that only material beings are real. 

Beyond that, physicists have no testable theory of immateriality, and have thus no clue how an immaterial being (or Being) would interact with the material universe.  We’ve found no “God artifacts” not because God doesn’t exist but because we don’t know what we’re looking for.  Before you can prove a hypothesis false, you have to know what conditions would obtain if it were true.  A scientific hypothesis must be both verifiable and falsifiable; if it’s neither, Science is at a loss to do anything with it.

The “real-material” identity is not an empirically established fact but an a priori assumption, a first principle among logical positivists.  Most if not all systems start from first principles that neither need nor admit of proof.  The logical positivist’s fatal problem is that his philosophy doesn’t admit of first principles; if it can’t be proven, it’s not just false but meaningless.  In short, the New Atheist holds it as a self-evident truth that there are no self-evident truths.

You’d think such a naked absurdity would cause some cognitive dissonance.  In fact, the average New Atheist, being a practical fellow, hasn’t given it a moment’s thought.  Not because he’s foolish or uneducated, but because he’s absorbed it subconsciously through the word choices of a number of different people whom he accepts as an Authority, none of whom was aware that he or she was teaching a mostly-abandoned philosophical position.

Richard Dawkins is given credit for defining memes, but C. S. Lewis described their operation over forty years before in the series of lectures printed as The Abolition of Man.  Lewis, an Oxford tutor in both English and philosophy at the time, took as his example a textbook written by two schoolmasters for fifth- and sixth-year students (roughly equivalent to American tenth and eleventh grades):

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius[2] quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it “sublime” and the other “pretty”; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust.  Gaius and Titius comment as follows: “When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. ... Actually ... he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.”  Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion.  But the authors are not yet finished.  They add: “This confusion is continually present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.”

Lewis, from this point, develops his larger theme:

Their words are that we “appear to be saying something very important” when in reality we are “only saying something about our own feelings”.  No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only.  I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial.  The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is “doing” his “English prep” and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.  It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all [bold font mine].  The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

The authors, I can’t stress enough, weren’t deliberately trying to produce “urban blockheads” or “trousered apes” incapable of noble or generous sentiment.  Just as the boy who read the book thought he was doing his English homework, the authors thought they were merely teaching English composition from the perspective of literary criticism.  In the same way, intelligent people who have never set foot in a philosophy classroom — who aren’t even agnostics in any meaningful sense — unwittingly pass the “false until proven true” meme on to the next generation by the remarks they make and the judgments they pass in the presence of children who have been given no cause to distrust their elders or question their conclusions.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that we must give automatic credence to every crackpot theory that can’t be refuted by the evidence at hand.  But if we’ve been paying attention, we’ve learned that some premisses have to be taken as true without further inquiry or attempt at proof; our belief in reason itself depends on the validity of certain presumptions that can’t be proven by reason.  Why, then, can’t we take atheism as self-evidential and place the burden of proof on theists?


[1] A proposition, premiss or position is self-referentially incoherent when it’s self-contradicting, or when it can’t satisfy its own conditions.  An example is sola scriptura, which demands Biblical support for Christian doctrine but isn’t sourced in Scripture itself.  (He shoots for the double! He scores!)
[2] Lewis tried to protect the authors from embarrassment by using pseudonyms.  In fact, the book in question is The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, by Alex King and Martin Ketley.