Mar 26 2009

The Limitations of Reason

As I’ve reported once before, Jeff Carter at Sophie’s Ladder has recently published a series of posts summarizing the history of philosophy as it relates to the limitations of reason. As he states in the opening of his “summation” post,

This series has demonstrated the limitations – and therefore the inadequacy and failure – of reason not only in dealing with metaphysical / spiritual matters, but also in securing a foundation for reason itself. Every attempt to justify reason as a power superior to or even adequate for comprehending the metaphysical / spiritual has failed.

Now, I freely admit that I am not an expert, having bailed on my philosophy major fairly early on in my education.  However, I think a lot, so that counts for something.  One thing I did excel in was logic.  As I’ve spent the last twenty-something years analyzing and countering arguments, I do a pretty good job at it.  However, I have always been intrigued by the knowledge that not only are there limitations to reason, there are other logical systems. As Russell Shorto quotes Jonathan Ree in Descartes Bones – A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason:

“… the theory of knowledge and the theory of human nature which with it; the concepts of an idea, of mathematical laws of nature … are so fundamental to modern consciousness that it is hard no to regard them as part of the natural property of the human mind. But, in fact, they are a product of the seventeenth century, and above all in the work of Descartes.”

I am also aware that built into modernism – our current Western worldview that resulted from the Cartesian revolution – is the concept of progress, so we asume that our system of logic is necessarily better than anyone else’s; in fact, we cannot conceive of any other system of logic as having any merit whatsoever.

What the series at Sophie’s Ladder does is demonstrate that all attempts to prove the superiority of reason have failed; we believe our concept of reason has to be true, but we really have to accept it on faith.  As Jeff commented on my earlier post, this series is foundational to a response he is writing of John Loftus’ approach to atheism.  Recently John has been touting his “Outsider Test of Faith” (OTF), where he challenges Christians to give up their presuppositions in order to view Christianity as an outsider would.  However, his whole system is nothing more than a house built on sand, as he does not apply the same test to his own presuppositions, which he calls “control beliefs.”  I pointed this out to John, and one of his followers thought it ridiculous that I suggest such a thing.

Of course, his OTF is really just selective application of Godel’s Theorem, which in essence is that no logical (mathematical) system can prove itself – you have to prove it from outside the system.  I am really looking forward to Jeff’s response to Loftus (actually, I’m more interested in Loftus’ response to Jeff).

On the other hand, I believe that it is possible to disprove a system from within the system, in this case, using reason and logic to show the limitations of reason and logic.  The only reason that the New Atheists (I’ll include Loftus in that group, although he distinguishes himself) can continue is that they don’t understand the philosophical mess they are in; or else they do, but are in denial.

While I cannot prove this, at least yet, I am back to thinking that the real issue with most of the atheist apologists is not philosophy or lack of evidence or logic; rather, it is a moral issue, and a faith issue.  In other words, they have chosen to believe what they believe, so that they do not have to believe something else.

Again, I highly recommend the series at Sophie’s Ladder.  It’s very well-done, and concise enough to really provide a big-picture view of the issues related to faith and reason.