Thursday, July 31, 2008

Faith in Reason, Pt. 1

Once I had faith in reason. I though that it could unravel the riddles of life, that it could give certainty about life's purpose and God's existence (to name only two).

But that faith has slipped away over time. Reason, I now believe, is largely impotent if it works on its own. (At least it is impotent when it consider the great questions. About the lesser questions - What do I have for dinner? What's the chemical composition of table salt? - it seems adequate to its task.) Why believe this? My experience of the conclusions of the philosophers.

Here's what I mean. On any issue of any importance (life's purpose, God's existence, etc.), philosophers always, always come down on different sides. (I used to joke to my students that, about any philosophical issue at all, some philosophers say p, some say not-p, some say that we cannot know whether p or not-p, and some say that it was a pseudo-issue to begin.) But this isn't because some are better informed or more intelligent than the rest. Rather, philosophers who disagree are, as a rule, equally well-informed and equally intelligent.

Now, consider your own philosophical conclusions in this light. (I do mine.) Let us say that you have come to the conclusion (Descartes' and Plato's conclusion) that the mind is a non-physical substance. Some philosophers agree. Some disagree. But those that disagree are no less capable philosophers than are you. (This is an irrefutable empirical fact. I can be easily seen if you will but open your eyes.) Their view is just as well-informed, their arguments just as powerful.

Now, which of you is most likely to be right? Of course, since your views contradict, at most one of you is right. But which? It seems obvious to me that you are just as likely to be wrong as your opponent. Your and your opponent are equally likely to have made some subtle mistake that vitiates your argument. (We can say this at least about the philosophers - where they make mistakes, they make subtle ones.) But if this is so, it seems that one can have little faith in the cogency of one's own arguments. They might be good, they might not; and at present (and it would seem into the indefinite future as well) there is no way to know which it is.

Consider this too. Likely you have come to believe that some argument you once thought cogent really is not. I've done this a number of times. I once thought that mind was material, and thought that my arguments for this compelled assent. I now think precisely the opposite. Mind is immaterial, the arguments for its materiality are flawed, and the arguments for its immateriality are quite strong. Now, what is the probability that I'll do such an about-face in the future about this or some other issue? Surely it isn't negligible. Indeed I think it great enough that one must take the possibility of an about-face seriously. But if this is so, any claim to knowledge is vitiated. If once can be forced by reason to abandon a view that reason once led one to accept, one does not know.

My conclusion is this: the pervasiveness of philosophical dispute (and of change in philosophical opinion) makes philosophical knowledge impossible.

But what is the method of the philosophers? Reason unaided. No appeals to authority, just reason and reason alone. But then we must say that reason unaided is impotent to settle the issues that it sets itself.

If asked, this would be one of the many explanations I'd give of my conversion to Christianity. Reason can't answer the vital questions of my life. Christianity can, and does.

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