The Retortion Principle

In a mailing list, I wrote of the list’s beloved and missed founder, Graham Clinton:

I am in the process of remastering my paperback books, and came across the article at [A Strange Archaeological Find].

You can say that it’s a work of art, but the reason I’m posting this is because after writing it, with repeated allegations of ironic hypocrisy, and asked him permission to post the whole work (including the posting of his that I replied to), he said, “I don’t want toadies.” In other words, he forcefully put something he really meant, and then responded majestically to a work picking his work apart from bit to bit.

I miss that.

The basic principle I was appealing might be called “the retortion principle” or “the self-referential incoherence principle.” This principle is a theoretically modest principle, without the messianic fantasies of other winnowing forks, but it is pronounced in its effect and what it can winnow.

The now-unpopular “verification principle” says that we should only accept is verifiable from empirical data or by bare logic. And if we follow retortion, we find that the principle calls for its own rejection. It is, after something like a century, something we have no known way to verify apart from its standards.

If I may provide a pair of fictitious examples, compare the following two statements a Christian might make:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation.

And:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation (1 Cor 4:6).

There is a big difference between these two. The second example may or may not be true and it may or may not be a good and responsible analysis. I do not affirm its truth. But it does not disqualify itself.

By contrast, the first disqualifies itself immediately and without any need to check any external reference.

And I have seen many, many things that fail this winnowing fork, modest and limited as it may appear to be.

To provide one example, let me dismiss a couple of distractions for my purposes here, before showing an example C.S. Lewis seemed to be alarmed that others had so much difficulty seeing.

  1. First objection not really analyzed here: The theory of evolution, which is no longer a theory of evolution, has new features developing in geological eyeblinks in ways that make no statistical sense that is apparently reconcilable to the fossil records. Once evolutionists mocked a “God of the gaps,” where God lives in the areas unilluminated by present science. Now we have a “mechanism of producing new life forms of the gaps,” that seem to find the generation of new life-forms only in the gaps of our understanding of the fossil record.
  2. Second objection not really analyzed here: Some life-forms show mechanisms that are at least partly irreducible in their complexity, and it does not make sense statistically to assert that the basic Darwinian mechanism produces irreducibly complex biological mechanisms.

I do not ask you to avoid either objection; speaking as a mathematician, none of the people who have tried to convince me of today’s “theory of evolution” have found a way to assert their claims in a way that is statistically believable. However, I am mentioning these to ask that they be put aside as irrelevant to C.S. Lewis’s concern with any form of Darwinian evolution.

C.S. Lewis’s concern is essentially that if, as common biology implies, our thoughts and emotions and such all boil down to the biochemical, then we have reason to assert we have brains good enough to find food, but not reason to assert that we have brains good enough to find out the theory of evolution. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, true. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, false. A biological reaction is a biological reaction that is mistakenly classified as a sort of thing that can be “true” or “false.” Romantic love is just biochemical, and the same razor that slices through romantic love cuts itself on the backswing. The explanation explains away all explanation, including itself.

This is to me, a subtle and harder-to-see case of the same principle of retortion, that we should reject blades that cut themselves off in the backswing. The verification principle is self-referentially incoherent. In regards to postmodernism, neat analysis may be easier once postmodernism has been dead for centuries, but it has been commented broadly that relativism is always relativism for others’ principles, not one’s own. In a footnote, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of “The Green Book” in The Abolition of Man, discusses the authors’ own values and assumptions, documented by repeated quotes, as being just what was fashionable in certain social circles at a particular time. The authors have cut off values and assumptions, and this in principle and not just practice, but they are free to let assertion of those opinions concretely trump the principle they have asserted, which cuts up all values into meaninglessness.

In a philosophical theology class, I mentioned some argument of retortion, and the professor commented that thesis are often known to use retortion. He did not say exactly why that may be, but one possible reason, perhaps tacit, is a gentlemen’s agreement that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This leaves at least some theists free to throw stones, because some theists themselves live in thick-walled steel fortresses, at least as far as retortion is concerned. Right or wrong as theism may be, you do not need to contradict yourself from the start if you are to believe in the Christian God. You do need to contradict yourself from the start to be a materialist, because if materialism is true, no human biochemical state can in principle ever be true, and that includes belief in materialism.

I mention as possible a gentleman’s agreement; I wish to go further and say that people with self-referentially incoherent beliefs have a vested interest in not having self-referential incoherence be the sort of thing one brings up in polite company. It is attractive to have a sweeping principle that cuts through all nonsense to a core of real, genuine truth, and there is something very grand in sentiment in saying we should only believe what is demonstrated from sensory data (no comments from the peanut gallery about how we believe in an external world that extends beyond a solipsistic self, please), or logic itself. That sounds grand, striking, strong. Meanwhile, asking “Does it make a special exception in its own case?” is a much humbler-sounding question, not striking, not grand, but nonetheless a useful winnowing fork.

I would not make this argument central to any theism, and not to my own. I am Eastern Orthodox, and the Orthodox Way is much more about debugging one’s own vices than debugging poor philosophy. But I would propose, as a footnote deeply buried in the main text, that we might not be justified as adulating something so grand as the verification principle, but in apologetics and engagement with people who believe differently, this footnote might be worth looking up.

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.