Home > Apologetics, Atheism, Book Review, Debate, Philosophy, The Bible, Theism > Notes on Victor Reppert’s Book: ‘C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea’- Pt1: Criticisms of Naturalism.

Notes on Victor Reppert’s Book: ‘C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea’- Pt1: Criticisms of Naturalism.

Reppert’s book focuses primarily on naturalism, using various rationalistic¹ arguments against such in an attempt to promote theistic conceptions of the mind, and the world (namely, that God, as defined by Christianity exists). I want to generally share some notes on this today, firstly we might want to see how Reppert defines and treats naturalism:

Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as a result of supernatural causation. The most popular kind of naturalism is known as materialism or physicalism. Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter, and physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics. (Reppert, 2003, p.46-7)

He notes that there might be some slight differences in naturalism and materialism (relating to the status of non-matter linguistic structures such as propositions for example), but argues for the sake of his purposes that anything counts as naturalistic if it:

… posits a closed “basic level of analysis,” and if all other levels have the characteristics they have in virtue of those the basic level has. If the base level is mechanistic but is not composed of matter, then we would have naturalism without materialism. If we have a basic level that is composed of matter but it is not to be described by physicalism (I’m not sure how that’s possible), then we have materialism without physicalism. However, if the argument that I am proposing works against physicalism, it will work against nonphysicalist forms of naturalism as well. (Reppert, 2003, p. 47)

He continues by way of example, and as a bridge to his argument, how a purely physical universe, defined by science as starting with the big bang, containing material substances that act without purpose (being based on the laws of the universe) come together, guided by evolution, to further propagate the species. Reppert states that the issue for him likes in our brains, which use “rational inference”, but if they are created and driven by evolution, as they seemingly are on a physicalist’s worldview, they must also be explained at the most basic level of analysis. But, he asks, the most basic level of analysis is physics, and rational inference does not operate at this level, and thus we have our first problem with explanations proposed by physicalism.

Here he turns to secular philosophers Keith Parsons and Daniel Dennett to try and tease out what exactly is meant by the term “most basic level of analysis”. Parsons states that to explain material bodies, we can look at more fundamental bodies to explain them, and even more fundamental bodies to explain them. But, the problem is we must hit a rock bottom, or fundamental explanation (if we want to avoid absurdities like an infinite regress). Parsons doesn’t see this as a problem at all:

At present, rock bottom would be the powers and liabilities of such entities as quarks and electrons… to say that there is no explanation why a quark, given that it is a fundamental particle, has the powers and liabilities it possess, seems tantamount to saying that there is no explanation of why a quark is a quark. Surely, anything with different powers and liabilities would not be a quark. (Parsons, 1989, p. 91-2 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p. 48)

With this Reppert has shown that fundamental explanations within physicalist philosophy are flawed, that is, flawed in the sense that under the physicalist view we have properties (rational inference for example) that need explanation, that currently do not have one. To Reppert naturalistic explanations are fundamentally “nonpurposive” ones:

For if some purposive or intentional explanation can be given and no further analysis can be given in nonpurposive and nonrational terms, then reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause in the universe, and this strikes me as a huge concession to position such as theism, idealism and pantheism, which maintain that reasons are fundamental to the universe.(Reppert, 2003, p. 51)

More than just nonpurposive, naturalistic explanations at the most basic level occur either out of natural necessity or chance (p. 87), which problematizes the question of rational inference even more. Do we have free will under such a system? Could we? How can we make purposive, rational decisions when at our most fundamental level we are a closed system, based on random physics?

… it is my contention that a consistent physicalism leads to the conclusion that there are no mental states with propositional content, and if such states were to exist they would be epiphenonmenal, that is, without any causal efficacy. What is more, there is certainly the possibility that what is conducive to discovering the truth might not be conducive to survival and vice versa. We night survive better not knowing the truth but by believing just those falsehoods that would be most conducive to survival. (Reppert, 2003, p. 89)

Citing Dennett the author asks what purpose could there possibly be in a physicalist view of the world, one in which rational inference seems unlikely or is at the very least, problematic? To quote Dennett:

Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is independent of “meaning” or “purpose”. [Evolutionary theory] assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist’s sense of the term: not ludicrous or pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition for any non-question-begging account of purpose. (Dennett, 1976, p.171 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p.49)

Reppert states that under the physicalist view the only “purpose” one can speak of is that of the function of something, and a Darwinian one at that, for example the function of the heart is to pump blood. More than this, to Reppert “meaning” and “reasoning” must also have similar explanations, that is in the final analysis the explanation must be mechanistic and nonpurposive (and as we’ve seen, borne out of physical necessity or chance).

Reppert has more to say on naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but for now, lest you become bored, let us leave it here for today. If you’re looking for a quick response to some of this, check out my blog on Nielsen’s naturalism, here).


Reppert, V. (2003). C.S Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove IL.  Intervarsity Press.

1: That is, the use of reason as a grounding for knowledge rather than, say, experience.

  1. April 19, 2016 at 8:32 am
    • April 23, 2016 at 2:19 am

      Thanks so much for your thoughts Edward!Really illuminating stuff!

      • April 23, 2016 at 5:11 am

        Thanks very much Rob. You seem like a guy who enjoys as I do learning more and pursuing questions for their own sake.

  2. April 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

    Here is how I would argue the naturalist’s position, strictly philosophically. Consider that individual atoms are not the same as molecules. And the ways that molecules interact with one another involve dragging around the individual atoms of which they are a part, based on the overall dynamics of those interacting molecules. And the same idea, of higher level dynamics moving around individual molecules in a larger cellular organelle or dynamic system remains true as you move up from the level of individual molecules and how they interact. Therefore, how individual molecules interact is not the same as how cells interact with each other, or how tissues, organs interact with one another, and at each point the individual atom is being moved by far wider and larger dynamics, right up to the electro-chemistry dynamics taking place inside sensory and nervous systems that takes in the world via a panoramic view, sights, sounds and memories, increasingly overlapping from birth (especially among large-brained vertebrates, or even large-brained cephalopods, etc.) Each organism takes in the panoramic view of colors and contacts with nature and with other organisms in its vicinity and has feelings of hunger, fear, anger, attraction. In other words, organisms are driven not by individual atoms but by the experiences, wants, needs of the entire organism and its overall dynamics, including social dynamics with others of its kind.

    Even a human separated in a closet from the sights and sounds of all other humans at birth will not speak any language. And a human put into a sensory deprivation tank for lengthy periods will start to hallucinate and could mentally deteriorate if denied input from the outside world for weeks or months. And philosophers know little about what goes on immediately before each thought appears, or word is chosen to type, or why sometimes wild thoughts seem to appear out of nowhere.

    As for the “C” word, “consciousness,” philosophy uses it like an easily defined static noun, but it appears to be an active process and that process lay along a spectrum from different types of wakefulness to restfulness to sleep, even dreaming. So consciousness appears to be more like an active verb than a static noun, which is not out of line with determinism. Even during dreamless sleep, which takes up the majority of sleep each night, the brain remains quite active. And sleepwalkers are unconscious also, walking, driving, eating, all without dreaming. A study published in August 2014 by “an international team of researchers compared the brain activity of patients who were awake, asleep, drugged with anesthetics, in comas or suffering from ‘locked-in syndrome,’ in which the body appears trapped in a coma-like state but the brain is active and aware. The researchers stimulated these subjects’ brains with a magnetic field and used EEG to trace the pulse’s path. The brains we might think of as conscious and those we think of as unconscious reacted to the stimulus in distinct ways. ‘If the patient is awake, the electrical “ping” can travel all around the brain, but if they’re unconscious, the “ping” tends to stay localized and just fades away like a sonar blip.’ This bolsters an existing theory of how consciousness works. Mashour, who also studies neural correlates of consciousness, has repeatedly found evidence that — contrary to conventional­ wisdom — sensory networks in the brains of unconscious people remain locally functional, but intrabrain communication has broken down. The neighborhood’s lights are on, in other words, but the Internet and phone lines have all been cut.”

  3. April 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

    Nor is any of what I said new. See this restatement of what was already said, with quotations added from Robert Sperry and Marvin Minsky:

    What if mental processes are not determined “wholly” by the motion of “individual atoms” in our brains? Would that leave supernaturalism as the only alternative? What if the brain’s overall dynamics naturally “took control” of the motions of individual “atoms” within a larger dynamic flow? Or consider the way all the atoms in our bodies are configured very differently than those same atoms in rocks or air and water, and hence, the body’s overall dynamic functioning is very different from that of inanimate matter. But that doesn’t mean our livers, kidneys and hearts function “supernaturally.”

    According to Roger Sperry, psychobiologist and well known philosopher of brain science, “Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces…

    “We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics…that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen…

    “And the molecules of higher living things are… flown… galloped… swung… propelled… mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties–aims, wants, needs–possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower. This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.

    “As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation.”

    One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a “quantum computer” one day).

    Hence, Sperry’s naturalism does not appear to pose any “cardinal difficulties” for itself.

    Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of computer science, notes in a similar vein, “Even if we understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The ‘laws of thought’ depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells, but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, ‘general’ laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, ‘general’ laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular…

    “It is not a matter of different laws, but of additional kinds of theories and principles that operate at higher levels of organization… Each higher level of description must add to our knowledge about lower levels, rather than replace it.”

    And contrary to Lewis’ claim that “[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends,” cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study “perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality… The conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these ‘modes of representation’ relate to one another… They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words… Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses… Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research.

    “Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised… Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin.” After all, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.

    So it’s true that atoms do not appear to be able to think logically nor rationally. Individually and on a purely atomic level, atoms show no evidence of doing so. But a naturalist might add that this need not apply to the arrangement of atoms found in the human brain-mind dynamic system. Those atoms are arranged in an order and working in unison based on higher dynamics and input that is itself indebted to an evolutionary progression of species over time, and developing a socially conscious organism like human beings requires a process of cerebral development and sensory input that a baby processes on its way toward adulthood, a baby raised by other humans.

    And as another naturalist (I think he is, but he could have been a brain-mind monist Christian theist) summed up the question:

    “My own (unoriginal) view is that ‘consciousness’ is an emergent property of a large network of interacting neurons. The network observes itself, because each part of the network interacts with other parts of the network, so the various parts of the network create a ‘virtual reality’ for each other. It is not a big leap to then see how the experience that we call ‘consciousness’ is one and the same as this ‘virtual reality.’ Also, the network is coupled to its external sensors (e.g. eyes, ears, etc).”

    Some favorite quotations I have pondered when thinking further about the mystery of how brain-mind dynamics function…

    Self Analysis

    Aren’t they odd, the thoughts that float through one’s mind for no reason? But why not be frank? I suppose the best of us are shocked at times by the things we find ourselves thinking.


    But how is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat people’s brains–those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts? People go about laden with germs; they breath creeds and convictions on you as soon as they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them–the monthly Reviews seem to have room for little else. Wherewithal then shall a young man cleanse his way; how shall he keep his mind immune to Theosophical speculations, and novel schemes of Salvation? Can he ever be sure that he won’t be suddenly struck down by the fever of Funeral or of Spelling Reform, or take to his bed with a new Sex Theory?


    ‘I must really improve my mind,’ I tell myself, and once more begin to patch and repair that crazy structure. So I toil and toil on at the vain task of edification, though the wind tears off the tiles, the floors give way, the ceilings fall, strange birds build untidy nests in the rafters, and owls hoot and laugh in the tumbling chimneys.

    Smith’s remarks on Edification remind me of this quotation from a young and up and coming philosopher:
    I will begin with two ordinary cases of weakness of will. First, a case of akrasia (the state of acting against one’s better judgment) at bedtime. I am watching television and I realize that it is 2 a.m. I am tired, and I know that I really should go to bed. Tomorrow morning the Formal Epistemology Workshop begins, and I would like to attend as much of it as possible so I can learn something about formal epistemology. But the witty dialogue of the Buffy rerun and the winsome smile of the redheaded supporting actress have their grip, and even as I tell myself that I really should go to sleep, I stay where I am and keep watching television for another hour. (Neil Sinhababu, “The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended,” Philosophical Review 118.4 (2009), pp. 498-99)

    The Goat

    In the midst of my anecdote a sudden misgiving chilled me–had I told about this Goat before? And then as I talked there gaped upon me–abyss opening beneath abyss–a darker speculation: when goats are mentioned, do I automatically and always tell this story about the Goat at Portsmouth?


    These exquisite and absurd fancies of mine–little curiosities, and greedinesses, and impulses to kiss and touch and snatch, and all the vanities and artless desires that nest and sing in my heart like birds in a bush–all these, we are now told, are an inheritance from our prehuman past, and were hatched long ago in very ancient swamps and forests. But what of that? I like to share in the dumb delights of birds and animals, to feel my life drawing its sap from roots deep in the soil of Nature. I am proud of those bright-eyed, furry, four-footed or scaly progenitors, and not at all ashamed of my cousins, the Apes and Peacocks and streaked Tigers.

  4. April 19, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Other brain-mind posts you might find illuminating! http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/search/label/brain-mind

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