Friday, August 01, 2008

Faith in Reason, Pt. 2

In Part 1 of Faith in Reason, I said that, if I were asked to explain my Christian belief, I would begin with the impotence of reason to answer the questions that it sets for itself.

But I expect that critics will respond thus:

Let's say we agree that reason is impotent in the way you think. But from this nothing about the truth of Christianity follows. If reason is impotent, we must be skeptics about the big questions - the purpose of life, God's existence and the rest.

I certainly do agree that, from the impotence of reason alone, Christianity does not follow. But where reason cannot see, another faculty begins to discern the outlines of a greater truth. At times, I call this "the heart". Others call it "the conscience". There is within us a capacity to discern moral truth, a capacity that cannot be reduced to reason or to emotion alone. It is, I believe, sui generis - unique in kind. Where reason is silent, it speaks.

It speaks in me. It always spoke in me. When I was still a materialist and an atheist, my most deeply held convictions were moral. I believed that all persons were of equal worth, that the interests of all were of equal importance, and the root of evil was the denial of this.

This I still believe. I don't think that this conviction admits of rational proof. But I do no think that it needs proof. Nor do I think that my conviction is simply a way that I feel. It is genuine belief - genuine knowledge I would say. The equality of worth is, in itself, quite clear and quite obvious; and that by which I discern its truth is the conscience, is the heart.

So here then is my view. Reason is impotent. Mere emotion is not adequate to the task of discernment of moral truth; emotion does not yield knowledge. In the space that is left when reason and emotion retreat, conscience speaks; and it directs us to the truth.

How does this link up with Christianity? Over time, I have come to the opinion that Christianity best articulates what conscience first revealed to me. So it isn't that Christianity follows from the impotence of reason. Rather it's that, when reason knows its place and is silent where it cannot lead, another (and I should think better) faculty can speak; and if thought through, Christianity is the inevitable end.


Anonymous said...

If God isnt obviuous to you right now, he/she wont be obvious when you get to "there", wherever "there" could possibly be.

There is always only the Divine Presence right now.

There is always only now---The Divine Presence in its Radiant Fullness.

Franklin Mason said...

Please read more carefully. I never said that God's existence was obvious, nor that it was not obvious.

Peter Lupu said...


Here where I see a problem with your point on this and previous post.

You argue that
(1) Reason has its limits.

I agree.

(2) Beyond the limits of reason other faculties take over.

I agree.
But, then, you draw the following conclusion:

(3)"if thought through, Christianity is the inevitable end."

I find two problems with this conclusion: the first is an apparent inconsistency; the second is very close to a fallacy.

(i) The inconsistency problem:
In your conclusion you maintain that *thinking* through would lead one to conclude that Christianity is true. But thinking belongs to reason and by (1) and (2) you have excluded reason at this stage of the game. So how can one use "thinking through" anything beyond the limits of reason. This is the inconsistency.

(ii) The fallacy problem:
You seem to argue that Christianity is the *inevitable conclusion* of a moral consciousness and, thus, anyone who has any moral consciousness will inevitably accept Christianity. But this conclusion certainly does not follow from (1) and (2) alone. Someone might agree that reason has its limits and that where reason leaves off another faculty, say a moral consciousness, takes over. But one can consistently maintain also that this moral consciousness might lead one to another religion or even to no religion at all.
So do not see how your conclusion follows here unless of course you already presupposes that Christianity is the only true religion one must inevitably accept (Why?) and that religion is the only position consistent with a moral conscious. I deny both of these claims and I accept (1) and (2). This shows that (1) and (2) are compatible with the denial of (3).


Franklin Mason said...

Well said.

I have a response to the first. To the second, I could give only vague hints. If I can, I'll return to the second later.

But for the first. The moral conscience, I think, provides something like the essential first premise for the move to religion. That first premise - summed up in the Gospels as the love of God and neighbor (or, if you think there's not God, then only love of neighbor) - cannot be given rational proof. It lies entirely beyond the power of reason to discover. But once reason has been given this first premise, it can begin to consider its consequences, and those consequences I think lead one to Christianity.

I realize now that this idea was not well put. It was there, inchoate, in the back of my mind. You brought it out. Thank you.

Peter Lupu said...


(A) I am sorry it took so long to respond. I am currently burdened by a personal matter of a tragic nature which occupies most of my time and mental energy. I shall try my best to keep up with these discussions but occasionally it may take some time.

Now, to your response.

(B) Your last post indicates that your current position can be stated in two steps:

1. Step One:
The "first premise", as you call it, is beyond reason and hence is established by non-rational means. In this sense it is a "quasi-axiom".

2. Step Two:

Once certain quasi-axioms are established then, you argue, reason can be applies to derive further consequences.

(C) Two comments on this model:

(a) The two step model of your position I have just outlined does not support the two principal propositions your original post maintained:

(i) The proposition that the non-rational faculty of consciousness (Step One above) will inevitably deliver a quasi-premise that is theistic in nature. It may deliver a quasi-premise that is shared by several religious (including non-theistic ones) as well as non-religious outlooks;

(ii) The proposition that " once reason has been given this first premise, it can begin to consider its consequences, and those consequences I think lead one to Christianity."
I do not see any demonstration to the effect that even if we grant that the first quasi-axiom is of a theistic nature it would non-trivially entail via the application of reason any propositions that are distinctively Christian in nature. And the reason for this problem is obvious, provided by 'entail' we mean deductive inference:

Unless you allow a trivial form of deductive entailment (e.g., disjunction introduction) a valid form of deductive entailment cannot introduce into the conclusion something that is not already present in some form in the premises. And since the quasi-axiom need not include anything specifically Christian, the conclusion cannot include any such element either.

(b) Even if we cannot employ reason to establish first-principles (or axioms) it does not mean that we cannot employ reason in demonstrating that proposed first-principles or axioms are useful and/or are likely to be true. For instance, we may employ reason to evaluate the whole system of propositions that emerge from the first-principles or axioms. Reason here is employed at the "meta" level to evaluate the axioms. Other methods may be available as well.


Martin said...

Mr. Mason, i have a question that i have been wondering about ever since i have began reading about the logic of religion (to make up a name).
You and and many others make the arguement that belief in God is justified because of the observation that quote "There is within us a capacity to discern moral truth, a capacity that cannot be reduced to reason or to emotion alone. It is, I believe, sui generis - unique in kind. Where reason is silent, it speaks."

Why does the existence of "it" (the ability to discern moral truth) logically necessitate a belief in religion?

Why cant someone believe that the existence of "it" is explained by the evolutionary phenomenon called consciousness? Why cant rationality and or evolutionary consciousness lead to "the ability to discern moral truth"?
And even if that, like believe in God, cant be proved then isnt the former more desirable simply because it doesnt do away with rationality all together?