C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea 

Book Review

I should have read this book--C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason--a long time ago. Like its author, Victor Reppert, I was impressed with Lewis's argument from the first time I read it in Miracles. (The relevant chapter is available online.) Unlike Reppert, I did not go on to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and write a dissertation on it--which he did do. This book is based on his dissertation. 

Reppert has some underbrush to clear away before he can actually plunge into the argument, which is that Lewis has been considered a philosophical lightweight, that this argument in particular was demolished in a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, and that Lewis was so disheartened that he gave up on Christian apologetics following that harrowing experience. Biographically, the latter two of those claims are easily dealt with by examining Lewis's later works: a revision of the argument--which Anscombe credited as being far more sound--in a second edition of the book, and his last work, A Grief Observed, as well as other shorter essays. That Lewis is not widely considered an outstanding philosopher is of course true; but Reppert places that fact in a helpful historical context. And then there's the matter of the argument itself. Whether Lewis is granted stature as a philosopher has little to do with the quality of this argument.

So Reppert takes us through Lewis's first version of it, Anscombe's responses, and Lewis's revision in response. In brief, the Argument from Reason says that, given the fact of human rationality, naturalism or materialism are poor explanations for its existing, and that an alternative to naturalism or materialism--theism--must be taken as a better explanation. Lewis sets forth this argument in nine pages; Reppert expands it into 127 actual text pages. (Richard Carrier wrote a response to Reppert that did him one better--128 pages!--to which Reppert responds here.)

Not content simply to analyze Lewis's basic argument, Reppert expands it into seven different versions, at least some of which he is quite generously posting online. (See the Argument from Mental Causation, for example.) Following this he explores explanatory dualism, dealing with the matter of how a nonphysical cause can have effects in the physical world, and how such a cause can be considered explanatory.

One of Reppert's chief virtues is that, like his mentor, C.S. Lewis, he is readable. Also like Lewis, he makes a lot of sense. His goal in the book was not to provide airtight proof of theism, but to lay out reasons to consider it a better explanation of human rationality than the materialist/naturalist alternative. On the way, he has also attempted to bring Lewis's argument into the philosophical forefront. I acknowledge my bias--as I said, I've thought the argument was powerful from the beginning--yet it seems to me that he has accomplished both objectives.

Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument From Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). 128 pages plus index. Amazon price US$10.20. 

Posted: Fri - March 2, 2007 at 03:02 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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