What Reason Says About Reason
You never know when the moment of epiphany is about to happen. I was sitting in a class entitled “Christian Apologetics,” minding my own business, when suddenly I was broadsided by a professor who had the nerve to wake me from my daydreaming with a provocative statement. He said, “The facts do not settle the argument; the argument settles the facts.” “Moron!” I quickly shot back (in my mind). “Who could believe such dribble? Facts are facts, they do not lend themselves to argument, otherwise they would not be facts.” But as I continued to listen I realized that the moron in the room was me.
I began to see that reason was nothing more and nothing less than an extension of my own firmly held presuppositions; the ‘grounds’ for my opinions were simply what I had said to myself before I arrived at the opinion (Wittgenstein).
As I listened for the first time to what reason had to say about itself, it became clear that reason was, as David Hume noted, “the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” This sort of statement (though said by a brilliant and fully secular thinker like Hume) is received as ‘intellectual treason’ in minds of many today. The Enlightenment Age handed down a doctrine of reason that treated the rational functions of the mind as the ultimate bearers of truth, as THE tool that would answer all questions and systematize all decisions pertaining to life. It was hoped by its most stringent adherents that one day reason could even eradicate the very thought of a Creator God from our collective conscience.
After a few hundred years of experiment, a couple of world wars, and a basic failing of the essential notions of the Enlightenment project, it was finally conceded by many that reason was indeed flawed in that it could not provide a sure foundation for ethics, morality, justice, or even reconcile such plain notions as good and evil. A whole new brand of philosophical thinking and cultural worldview emerged: existentialism and Postmodernism, respectively.
But back to the point, what does reason say about itself? First of all, reason admits to some basic internal limitations:
1.) In a deductive argument, one can always question a premise and then question the justification given, ad infinitum. In the case of choosing which action one should take, reason can always find as many reasons for an action as it can against an action.
2.) Inductive reasoning always goes beyond the evidence.
3.) A third limitation is something philosophers have noted since at least the time of Socrates, namely that reason, through the instrument of language, distorts reality and is incapable of fully capturing reality.
At bottom, these limitations demonstrate that reason cannot provide an initial set of premises or assumptions that are guaranteed to be true. To show the soundness of this premise, simply make the contrary point and invite someone like myself to debate it with you. You will find that we will both be pulling from the same set of “facts” to make our case. In the end, each of us will go our own way believing what we personally deem to be the “truth” about the facts.
Again, one must keep in mind that we are talking about existential issues; or those issues that involved with the task of being a human being (love, hate, good, evil, God, just, unjust, etc). We are not debating whether or not 2+2 is 4, or what the amperage capacity of a 12awg conductor is. These are not issues that deal with the task of being human. Reason is put to the test when applied by human beings to their own lives. In summary, reason is one function of a human being, rather than the constitutive factor of a human being (as Enlightenment thinking would argue). If reason is to be rightly understood and used for its peak effectiveness, it must be integrated with the other functions that make up a human being. From this brief look at reason it is easy to see why many of us from the Christian persuasion simply scratch our heads when someone accuses us of choosing faith over reason, as if the two were in conflict. From reason’s standpoint, faith is a necessary first step before any other deliberation is possible.
The next article will deal with what Christianity has to say about faith: what it is and what it is not. Hope you’ll join the discussion!