Repost: Syllogisms that Demand a Verdict

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content. It is interesting to me in retrospect that I first encountered Lewis' trilemma in the apologistic works of Josh McDowell, to the point where for a long time I wrongly assumed that Lewis would not have been associated with the trilemma because he'd been talked up to me as a better thinker than that.]



Narnia Recap: Edmund has eaten and drunk the White Witch's magical food and is now compelled by an unnatural hunger for more magical food -- he will obey her orders unquestioningly in order to procure more Turkish Delight. The Witch has also ordered Edmund not to tell anyone of their meeting together. Now he has met up with Lucy and they return to the wardrobe door and step out of Narnia.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 5: Back on This Side of the Door

   BECAUSE THE GAME OF HIDE-AND-SEEK was still going on, it took Edmund and Lucy some time to find the others. But when at last they were all together (which happened in the long room, where the suit of armor was), Lucy burst out:
   "Peter! Susan! It's all true. Edmund has seen it too. There is a country you can get to through the wardrobe. Edmund and I both got in. We met one another in there, in the wood. Go on, Edmund; tell them all about it." [...]
   And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn't made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down. [...]
   And Edmund gave a very superior look as if he were far older than Lucy (there was really only a year's difference) and then a little snigger and said, "Oh, yes, Lucy and I have been playing -- pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true. Just for fun, of course. There's nothing there really."

As a child, of course, this scene felt like a dreadful betrayal: Lucy has been deeply depressed for days that none of her siblings believe her fantastical tale of a magic world on the other side of the wardrobe door, and now against all chance, one of her siblings can verify her story. And instead, he calls her a liar all over again.

As an adult, however, I find this scene to be interesting for a number of new reasons. First off, I don't consider this to be "one of the nastiest things in this story", contrary to what Lewis tells us. Indeed, I consider this scene to be so saccharine in comparison to what is to come that I'd almost suspect him of self-parody here. A little boy telling a tale on his younger sister for various potentially-valid-reasons doesn't distress me nearly so much as a world where God has decreed that little boys can and should be turned over for brutal execution if they engage in bad behavior. I hold God to a rather higher standard than I hold Edmund, you see.

Second off, I actually see Edmund's betrayal here as an unintended consequence of the White Witch's order in the last chapter not to tell anyone about their meeting. Let's run through this logically: Edmund has been infected with a magical food that will cause him to do anything -- including gorge himself to death -- in order to obtain more of it. He's incredibly hungry and he wants more now, and the only way he can get some is to bring his siblings to the Queen's castle. The smartest thing he could therefore do is say, oh, yes, the magical world is absolutely real, come see now! and lead the others to the Queen's house immediately. He doesn't do this highly logical thing, and thus we must ask "why not?"

It is my belief that he doesn't confirm his being in Narnia because he realizes -- consciously or otherwise -- that the older children will ask him questions. Lucy just assumed that Edmund stood around in his shorts and shirt in the snow for 30-60 minutes, but Peter and Susan are smarter than that. Edmund isn't totally blue-skinned and shivering, which would indicate that he's been wrapped in something warm and eating something heated -- just as Lucy has been doing at Mr. Tumnus' house. Who did Edmund visit and how has he kept warm all this time? Edmund isn't going to be able to lie his way out of this because he doesn't have enough of an idea of Narnia to know what will or won't be plausible -- Lucy has been incurious up to this point, but once he starts spinning tales, she will call out any lies she spots. ("Oh, ah, I went to a... um... naiad's house, and she fed me sugar cakes and..." "Mr. Tumnus said the nearest naiad community is a mile away, and they haven't had sugar since the Calormen trade embargo last year!")

So while Mr. Lewis would have you believe that Edmund acting completely against his self-interest and against the magical-compulsion-spell-order the Witch put on him a few minutes ago is evidence of him being a selfish jerk, I believe it's more realistically read as evidence of a magical command backfiring because the commander (The Witch) didn't think through the logical implications of her command.

   Edmund, who was becoming a nastier person every minute, thought that he had scored a great success, and went on at once to say, "There she goes again. What's the matter with her? That's the worst of young kids, they always -- "
   "Look here," said Peter, turning on him savagely, "shut up! You've been perfectly beastly to Lu ever since she started this nonsense about the wardrobe, and now you go playing games with her about it and setting her off again. I believe you did it simply out of spite." [...]
   "You didn't think anything at all," said Peter; "it's just spite. You've always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we've seen that at school before now."

And now I should explain something I said last time in the comments where I accused Peter of being a bully and indicated that his behavior pushes Edmund even more into the Witch's camp.

I don't think Peter is wrong in being frustrated here. The children have been sent away from their parents and Peter seems to be trying to fill the "jocular father" role where he tries to keep everyone with high spirits and focused on adventure and lovely distracting things. Instead, his plans have backfired: every "hide-and-seek" game or exploring day he tries to organize ends up with Lucy in tears over some ridiculous fantasy world and then she goes and sulks for days because no one believes her obviously made-up story. And none of it is allowed to tide over because Edmund keeps teasing her and whipping her up into a frenzy. That would be very frustrating indeed.

However, Peter doesn't limit his criticism of Edmund here to (a) the specific, near-term examples provided, and (b) to immediately correctable behavior. Instead he lashes out at Edmund with broad accusations that are unfair, inappropriate, and are unfixable. Peter levels the broad accusation that Edmund "always" has bullied "anyone smaller" than himself, but this almost certainly is unfair and untrue - it is not possible that the Edmund we have seen gently teasing Lucy is the terror of his school and preys equally harshly on every smaller classmate.

Since I get the strong impression from the text that only Edmund has been to the "bad school" that will later be blamed for causing him to go wrong, the accusation is also uncomfortably inappropriate in that Peter seems not to have first-hand knowledge of this bullying: are the Pevensie parents reading Edmund's report cards at the dinner table ("does well in maths but bullies every child shorter than himself") or has Peter been listening at doors? Either way, the accusation will be embarrassing for Edmund, who will feel that Peter has breached a private issue, and thus reconciliation becomes much less likely.

Last of all, the accusation is utterly unfixable: how can Edmund alter his current behavior to please Peter? If the argument were kept to the immediate need ("Look, I know Lucy is taking this move too hard, but you need to stop talking to her about this magic world business."), then Edmund could respond with an attempt to mend the offending behavior, but once the argument has been cast to the broad and complex past ("You're a beastly spiteful bully and you always have been."), there's not an immediate solution that everyone can live with. Then, also, "beastly" and "spite" aren't words that most people are going to easily back down from.

I don't blame Peter for his actions here, because Peter is a child in a difficult circumstance with no training in constructive argumentation. My goal is not to move the Villain Hat from Edmund to Peter -- I think they're both victims in this story. However, I do certainly feel that Peter's behavior is a form of (inadvertent) bullying and I don't blame Edmund for not being thrilled with Peter for the next few chapters, because frankly I wouldn't be thrilled with him myself.

   It was an unpleasant evening. Lucy was miserable and Edmund was beginning to feel that his plan wasn't working as well as he had expected. The two older ones were really beginning to think that Lucy was out of her mind. They stood in the passage talking about it in whispers long after she had gone to bed.
    The result was the next morning they decided that they really would go and tell the whole thing to the Professor. "He'll write to Father if he thinks there is really something wrong with Lu," said Peter; "it's getting beyond us." So they went and knocked at the study door, and the Professor said "Come in," and got up and found chairs for them and said he was quite at their disposal. Then he sat listening to them with the tips of his fingers pressed together and never interrupting, till they had finished the whole story. After that he said nothing for quite a long time.

It's worth pointing out at this stage that this novel -- Lewis' first in the Narnia series -- was written and dedicated to his god-daughter Lucy Barfield. It's also worth pointing out that the cool, treats-the-kids-like-adults-and-is-delightfully-eccentric professor whose house they've been sent to live in is very clearly (at least to my eyes) an author insert character for Lewis: he's the hip, with-it elderly uncle who has a big exciting house and leaves the children alone to amuse themselves and get into all kinds of magical adventures. He's emotionally distant, which is a very convenient plot device in that it provides the children autonomy, but it also means that they have zero emotional support during this trying period in their lives.

   Then he cleared his throat and said the last thing either of them expected:
   "How do you know," he asked, "that your sister's story is not true?"
   "Oh, but -- " began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man's face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, "But Edmund said they had only been pretending."
   "That is a point," said the Professor, "which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance -- if you will excuse me for asking the question -- does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?"
   "That's just the funny thing about it, sir," said Peter. "Up till now, I'd have said Lucy every time."
   "And what do you think, my dear?" said the Professor, turning to Susan.
   "Well," said Susan, "in general, I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true -- all this about the wood and the Faun."
   "That is more than I know," said the Professor, "and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed."
   "We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
   "Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
   "But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.
   "Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

And that's how The Professor proved the divinity of Jesus, too.

The Professor has set up a rather silly syllogism which goes something like this:

Major Premise: All statements are either true, or lies, or madness.
Minor Premise: Lucy's statement is neither a lie (based on past behavior) nor madness (based on obvious sanity).
Conclusion: Lucy's statement is therefore true.

Can we play a game in the comments called "Spot the Problem"? There are several that I can see right off the bat. First and foremost, the major premise is far too limited: all statements are not either unadulterated truths or outright lies or mental illness: Lucy may well believe her make-believe stories to be true without being a liar or mentally ill. (Indeed, this statement rather reminds me that Lewis didn't have children of his own -- a few nights of looking for the monster that Junior just saw before you brought the light in, I swear, dad! under the bed and in the closet would have clarified this truth/lies/madness issue up in a hurry.)

Second, while a charge of lying/illness is a serious accusation to level at a person who has otherwise always been truthful/well, it should also not be lost on The Professor that Lucy is a very young girl who has undergone a serious shock to the system: she's been evacuated from her home because the city she lived in all her life is being bombed heavily by a war that is currently reshaping the continent next door and she may never see her mother or her father or her home ever again. That sort of thing carries with it the possibility for a few changes in character.

Thirdly, beyond that, we simply cannot logically say that past behavior is enough evidence to satisfy a syllogistic statement: I do not believe it is sound reasoning to logically infer that there are monsters in the closet that can appear and disappear at will just because Junior wholeheartedly believes there are and he's such an honest and intelligent boy in all other respects.

Of course, Lewis probably didn't live his life genuinely believing in the fantasies of his darling god-daughter, but this Truth/Lies/Madness argument will pop up in quite a few Christian writers in an attempt to logically infer the divinity of Christ. This particular argument usually looks like this:

Major Premise: All statements are either true, or lies, or madness.
Minor Premise: Jesus'/The Apostles' statements of Jesus' existence/divinity/resurrection were neither lies (based on willingness to die for their beliefs) nor madness (based on obvious sane behavior/writings).
Conclusion: Jesus'/The Apostles' statements are therefore true.

The argument, expanded out, is that neither Jesus nor the Apostles could have been lying about Jesus' divinity because who sacrifices their lives for something they know to be a lie?

This argument contains as many or more issues than believing in the Closet Monster. Once again, statements cannot be boiled down to Complete Truth, Complete Lies, Obvious Mental Illness. A tremendous number of people have had experiences -- in some cases shared experiences -- that seem not to have happened in the literal, physical sense. It would be foolish to argue that every person who has ever been abducted by aliens or who has seen Bigfoot or who has met Elvis post-1977 is either a liar, obviously mentally ill, or telling the complete, unadulterated truth.

The issues with the minor premise are legion. We do not actually know what Jesus or the Apostles said or did -- assuming they all actually existed -- since there is no one living today who witnessed their statements or actions. We have a body of literature that claims certain things about Jesus and the Apostles, but in order to take that body of literature at face value, we'll have to climb through another Truth/Lies/Madness syllogism. We do know that many people have been willing to die in support of something they knew to be a lie, because they felt the greater cause was more important or because they felt they had no other choice at that point -- look at, say, the Jonestown massacre and how many people died knowing that they had helped Jim Jones fake his many miracles. We know also that intelligible writings do not indicate a completely clean bill of mental health, just as we also know that people can experience hallucinations and "life-like" dreams without necessarily being or acting mentally ill in any other respect.

To make an argument like this is to argue in bad faith. Five seconds of deliberation would have been enough to provide examples of children who say false things without being Habitual Liars and of children who believe fantastical things without being Obviously Ill. Five minutes of research into history would be enough to provide examples of people who die for false things without being Illogical Fanatics and of people who believe extremely unlikely things without being Obviously Ill. If your argument only works when you've already made up your mind -- for instance, that Lucy is correct or that Jesus is divine -- then it's not a logical argument at all: it's a statement of faith. And that's fine, but you need to own up to that.

It is possible, perhaps, that The Professor is a satirical character: a "learned" man whose learning leaves him hopelessly stuck in his ivory tower, and who applies fallacious syllogisms to simple problems involving lonely children. But it's worth noting that in this very particular instance, The Professor is right -- Lucy's Narnia experience is true -- and it would seem that Lewis expects us not to argue with the result.

Let's continue on.

   "Well, for one thing," said Peter, "if it was real why doesn't everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn't pretend there was."
   "What has that to do with it?" said the Professor.
   "Well, sir, if things are real, they're there all the time."
   "Are they?" said the Professor; and Peter did not know quite what to say.
   "But there was no time," said Susan. "Lucy had had no time to have gone anywhere, even if there was such a place. She came running after us the very moment we were out of the room. It was less than a minute, and she pretended to have been away for hours."
   "That is the very thing that makes her story so likely to be true," said the Professor. "If there really is a door in this house that leads to some other world (and I should warn you that this is a very strange house, and even I know very little about it) -- if, I say, she had got into another world, I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time. On the other hand, I don't think many girls of her age would invent that idea for themselves. If she had been pretending, she would have hidden for a reasonable time before coming out and telling her story."

It's the oddest thing, but almost every night I move into another world -- a world which only I can enter and which never seems to be available for other people to step into. Indeed, the world only lets me in when it wants to -- I can't enter the world willy-nilly whenever I want. The most fantastical things occur in this world, and the time seems to pass differently there -- I can spend hours or even years there with only a few minutes passing in this one.

I am, obviously, talking about my dreams, but I would expect The Professor to nod and say that this alternate universe was one he himself predicted in some long-distant thesis.

Looking over the last passage I feel a twinge of doubt. I initially said that Lewis/The Professor probably wouldn't take at face value claims of alien abduction and Bigfoot sightings, but his "nothing is more probable [than other worlds all over the place, just round the corner]" statement makes me think that maybe he would believe in Bigfoot. If so, I have a Bridge to Terabithia I'd like to sell to The Professor.

Interestingly enough, reading through this entry, a lot of this puts me in mind of James Randi's writings in "Flim Flam" where he discusses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingly Fairies incident. Randi writes in his usual heavy style:

England at that time was not yet ready to mature out of the mindset that Queen Victoria had left as her hallmark: the notion that the world was a rather predictable place and that everything was secure and stable. Little girls were always innocent and frivolous. Evil men had heavy brows and wore black. People were forever classified by birth and education. And so it went. It was the tenor of the time.

Holmes himself, though apparently an intellect of huge proportions, could not have survived outside the fictional world that Doyle wove about him. For his deductions to be correct, the consistency of his world was absolutely necessary. People in particular had to conform to type; otherwise Holmes would have been hopelessly wrong. It was just this rather naively invented universe that Doyle imagined into existence and projected about himself, and it accounts in large measure for his fanciful interpretation of phenomena that he came upon only late in life -- the wonders of spiritualism.

Doyle lost his son Kingsley in World War I, perhaps another reason for his tum toward spiritualism. In any case -- and in common with others of influence -- he was drawn to this latest fad, which had been started in America (by two other girls, the Fox sisters) and had taken not firmly in England. It had-become a recognized religion under the general term "spiritualism," and it flourished during the war, with so many available spirits to call upon. Doyle became one of its most ardent supporters, and his heir often remarked on the sad fact that he spent some £250,000 in his pursuit of this nonsense.

An excellent and popular author, yes. A great thinker, no. Doyle was dependent on a special, manufactured world for his conclusions to be correct. Such a special world was entirely fictional, for as we shall see, little girls are not always truthful, experts are not always right, and authorities do not always see with unclouded vision.

Randi is heavy-handed, as always, but his attack on Sherlock Holmes' usual deductions from people's outward appearance, behaviors, and habits is well taken. It is possibly rather dangerous to subscribe to a world-view where "generally truthful" little girls are to be taken at face value and assumed to be honest, regardless of the likelihood of the things they say. This is not to say that there aren't magical worlds just around the corner, but rather that instead of dispensing the advice "Let's believe Lucy until proven otherwise," The Professor might have been more helpful to say, "Let's be nice to Lucy and provide her some distance on the issue. How about a picnic this evening and maybe some charades?"

Interestingly, Randi also ties in to another issue that bugged me about this chapter, the "Narnia time" being "evidence" in Lucy's favor. When Randi enumerates out "the major hallmarks of paranormal chicanery", he writes for #4:

4. Faults discovered in the story or performance tend to prove the phenomenon real, it is agreed, since a clever trickster would not make such basic errors. Examples: It was said that if Elsie had been really trying to make photo number one a good fake she would have posed Frances looking at the fairies, not at the camera. Consider the other possibility: If Frances had been looking at the fairies, it would have been hailed as perfectly natural! Either way, Frances wins. And when Jeane Dixon, the alleged prophet, predicts an event that does not come to pass, she is acclaimed for having been honest enough to give it a good try anyway

Presumably if Lucy had been gone for hours and hours, her story would have been equally credible.

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