Donald T. Williams, PhD
P.O. Box #800807
Toccoa Falls, GA. 30598


Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 132pp., pbk.

C. S. Lewis's famous debate with Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic club over the validity of his argument in Miracles for the self-defeating status of naturalism may or may not have produced much clarification of the issues, but it definitely produced a tendentious interpretation of Lewis's career: that he was so mortified at being defeated that he gave up rational apologetics from then on. Never mind that many of the people who were present either thought Lewis had won or that the debate was a draw; never mind the fact that he revised the relevant chapter in a later edition of Miracles to meet Anscombe's objections and published several subsequent essays on apologetics. Why let mere facts stand in the way of a good myth?

Victor Reppert first destroyed the "Anscombe Myth" in "The Lewis-Anscombe Controversy: A Discussion of the Issues," Christian Scholar's Review 19:2 (1989). It is good to see that discussion brought forward for a new generation of readers. If Reppert had done nothing else, he would have performed a valuable service here. It is to be hoped that more people will read his complete review of the evidence in the new book and that this particular bit of arrant nonsense will finally be put to rest. But Reppert's goal is much broader: to bring Lewis's argument for theism up to date and see how it fares after all these years. He concludes that the argument from reason is still a good one.

Reppert begins with his review of the Lewis-Anscombe debate and then moves on to a discussion of a healthy approach to apologetics, rejecting fideism (just believe) and "strong rationalism" (Christian truth is so evident that any rational person should accept it) in favor of "critical rationalism" (Christian apologists can show that Christianity is a reasonable option). I find myself wishing there were a middle position between his "strong rationalism" and "critical rationalism." He points out well the problems with strong rationalism of the Josh McDowell type. But . . . if Christianity is really true, the universe ought in the final analysis to reflect that truth. One doesn't want to be able to offer nothing more than one reasonable alternative among many. I feel this problem at the end of the book, where I believe Reppert has earned the right to be at least a bit less tentative than he is. Naturalists really can't defend naturalism without cutting off the limb they are wanting to sit on . . . but Reppert is not willing to say that this is irrational? How self defeating must a position be before we are willing to say so?

Also, it doesn't seem to me possible to give a complete account of the issues surrounding apologetic method without dealing with 1 Cor. 2:14. It would seem that one would have to get past that verse somehow in order to see the amount of irrationality as being as evenly distributed between believers and non-believers as Reppert seems to imply. Or, to put it more accurately, I should say that irrationality may well be tragically fairly evenly distributed in fact, (I unfortunately think he is right about that), but there should be a difference in theory. Christians don't have to be as irrational as they are; non-Christians do. They have no choice but to be irrational at some point, because they have set themselves against the rational universe that God actually made. I think this is a pretty important distinction that I wish had come out more clearly.

When Reppert turns to the argument from reason itself, he does a good job of guiding us through the issues. The argument on p. 68 is especially fine. "If a materialist says that she believes in materialism because she perceives the reasons for believing it, then I take it she is committed to the existence of reasons," and therefore has to explain how they can exist in a materialist universe. It is really the same argument that Socrates used at his defense: How can you believe in flute playing and not believe in flutes? How can you believe in divine effects and not believe in the gods? Reppert has updated it and applied it to the existence of reasons in a useful and persuasive manner. His refutation on pp. 100-101 of the notion that reason could have been produced by natural selection is also good. The "inadequacy objection," which argues that non-scientific explanations do not explain, is one of the biggest hurdles the argument from reason has to face. Reppert's question on p. 111 is an excellent response to it: "Is it more dangerous to the scientific enterprise to suggest that a comprehensive "scientific" account of cognition cannot be correct, or to suggest that truth should not be the goal of our rational deliberations?" That is a question that we need ask more insistently.

When I tried to update Lewis's argument in "Some Propositions for a Theistic Argument," Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, 14:1 (1991): 70-81, I focused on the fact that a naturalist universe is by definition a deterministic universe. The laws of physics determine everything because the universe, being uncaused, exists a se and therefore by definition cannot be other than it is. It seems to me that this fact needs to be stressed, for it provides a simpler way of defeating Anscombe's objections. It really doesn't matter whether chains of reasoning caused by non-rational causes can happen to have been valid or not, unless we are free to choose between them on a non-deterministic basis. If nobody can help believing what he believes, whether it be rational or irrational, then nobody is in a position to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted truth claims or to urge his own truth claims with any moral force. Valid chains of reasoning might occur, but nobody--including the naturalist making truth claims for naturalism--would be in a position to benefit from them. Reppert implies all of this when he talks about the problem of knowing that one is rational, but it seems to me that his case would be strengthened by bringing it out more clearly.

Over all this is a very fine book, one of the few books on Lewis that actually contributes something useful to our knowledge of him and our understanding of the things he talked about. I hope it will have the success it deserves.

Updated Jan-25-2005