The 100-Year-Old Argument

Not all ideas can stand the test of time. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to publish a short essay on the 100 year anniversary of an influential argument developed by Arthur James Balfour. Though his name will be unknown to many, most will have heard, at least indirectly, of his controversial thesis.

Balfour was an interesting, if not complex, personality. Among his many achievements, he was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the beginning of the twentieth century. And in addition to being a professionally trained philosopher, he also served as the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His philosophical savvy and commitment to science converged in his now century old argument against naturalism.

C.S. Lewis revived Balfour’s arguments in 1947 through his book Miracles. Lewis maintained that Balfour’s thesis demonstrated that naturalism is self-refuting. After a debate with female philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe, Lewis reformulated the argument, stating that Balfour’s line of reasoning illustrated naturalism’s cardinal difficulty.

In his essay “Is Theology Poetry” Lewis says that Balfour’s book Theism and Humanism is too little read. And in an interview in Lewis’s last year of life he cited Balfour’s work among a short list of books to have most influenced his thought and writing. In fact, Balfour’s impact can be found, in addition to the book Miracles, in Lewis’s essays “Is Theism Important” and “On Obstinacy in Belief.”

The argument that influenced Lewis’s writings was first delivered by Balfour in the Gifford Lectures in 1914 at the University of Glasgow. His logic is known today as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) which is made popular for our generation by Alvin Plantinga, University of Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Emeritus.

Balfour had planned on continuing his 1914 lecture the following year at the University of Glasgow, but the First World War altered the plans and the lectures were not completed until 1923. Both the 1914 and 1923 lectures are in book form as Theism and Humanism (1915) and Theism and Thought (1924). Instead of rehashing his basic argument here (you can read it in Lewis or Plantiga if you are interested), I thought I would just share a couple paragraphs I underlined:

From Theism and Humanism:

“But Knowledge—the department of human interest to which I now turn—is differntly placed. The values with which we shall be concerned are mainly rational; and intellectual curiosity is the only emotion with which they are associated. Yet here also two questions arise corresponding to those which we have already dealt with in a different connection: (1) what are the causes of our knowlede, or of that part of our knowledge which concerns the world of common sense and of science? (2) does the naturlastic account of these causes affect the rational value—in other words the validity—of their results?

We are, perhaps, more sensitive about the pedigree of our intellectual creed than we are about the pedigree of our tastes or our sentiments. We like to think that beliefs which claim to be rational are the product of a purely rational process; and though, where others are concerned, we complacently admit the intrusion of non-rational links in the causal chain, we have higher ambitions for ourselves.

Yet surely, on the naturalistic theory of the world, all such ambitions are vain. It is abundantly evident that, however important be the part which reasons plays among the immediate antecedents of our beliefs there are no beliefs which do not trace back their origin to causes which are wholly irrational. Proximately, these beliefs may take rank as logical conclusions. Ultimatley, they are without exception rooted in matter and motion. The rational order is but a graft upon the causal order; and, if Naturalism be true, the causal order is blind. (Theism and Humanism, 1915, 136).”

From Theism and Thought:

“I trust that I have now made two points clear. The first is that our beliefs may be regarded as the outcome of the two quite different processes or kinds of process, the causal and the rational. The causal proceeds from antecedent to consequent, the rational from premise to conclusion.

No doubt there are elements common to both. A cause may be, and sometimes is, a reason. A reason not only may be, but always must be, an effect. Though the two kinds of process are essentially distinct, the one being concerned with the flow of events in time, the other with the connection of beliefs in logic, it is also true that every belief is without exception causally determined, and, in the last resort, determined by antecedents which are not beliefs, nor indeed physical events of any kind, but belong wholly to the non-rational world of matter and motion” (Theism and Thought, 1923, p. 31).

I came across the same basic description of the history of the brain in Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions:

“Every state of my brain is fixed by physical facts. In fact, it is a physical state. Previous states of my brain and the physical input from the world together brought about its current state. They were themselves the result of even earlier brain states and inputs from outside the brain. All these states were determined by the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry. These laws operated on previous states of my brain and on states of the world going back to before my brain was formed in embryogenesis. They go back through a chain of prior events not just to before anyone with a mind existed, but back to a time after life began on this planet. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, p. 236).”

The staying power of Balfour’s argument is perhaps best illustrated in the title of the recent, albeit controversial, book by Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. In addition to serving as Professor of Philosophy and Law at the New York University, Nagel is a self-described atheist. But, as evident just in the title of his book, he finds naturalism wanting when it comes to providing a basis for the confidence we place in our cognitive faculties.

While he rejects theism, he concedes that naturalism does not offer an “explicitly reassuring” explanation of our capacities. “The hope is not to discover a foundation that makes our knowledge unassailably secure,” Nagel writes, “but to find a way of understanding ourselves that is not radically self-undermining, and that does not require us to deny the obvious. The aim would be to offer a plausible picture of how we fit into the world.”

Many, myself included, hope (and pray) this isn’t Nagel’s last word on the subject. But it is interesting to see that Balfour’s one-hundred-year-old argument is still finding its way into print. And for those who might rightly contest the age of this argument, or its originality with Balfour,  I’ll close with a paragraph from a letter written in 1881 by a widely praised scientific icon who seems to have anticipated the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism:

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Charles Darwin in an 1881 letter written to William Graham available here.)