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.

Are modernism and Christianity incompatible?

John Loftus claims that modernity is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity, something I’ve discussed before, and addressed again in my “teacup” analogy.  Could he be right?

Of course, Loftus believes that modernism (the operative Western worldview which is based on rationalism, a belief in progress, and which depends heavily on the scientific method) is good. He would believe this, because he is as modern as can be, and this is what modernism teaches. It is all very circular: Modernism presumes that progress is inherently good. We as a species know more today than we did yesterday (but not as much as tomorrow).  Evolution is progressive, not regressive. Every day, in every way, we get better and better. It’s all a load of hooey, but even though you realize this, if you take time to really think through what you believe about a great many things, you will find that you, too, think this way. It’s in the water, it’s in the air – every day of our lives we eat and breathe modernism. Even what is being passed around as postmodernism is 90% basic modernism.  As Loftus once pointed out to me, even I’m modern.

However, I am aware of it.

I don’t think that everything about modernism is bad; for example, reason and logic are good, in its place. The scientific method, as a tool, is also good. However, what modernism did was to shrink the worldview around these elements, and added a belief in the inevitability of progress and a disdain for anything pre-modern, other than as an object of study. Progress says that the worldview enlarged; however, in reality, by dismissing everything it didn’t want to deal with, in actuality the worldview shrunk. (See the aforementioned Teacup Analogy).

As I have expressed in my Teacup Analogy, it is my current hypothesis that if you try to shrink Christianity to fit within the constraints of modernism, you’re in trouble, because in order to do so, the terms of modernism require you to not just shrink Christianity, but rather to chop off the corners of Christianity to fit within modernism’s round hole (sorry for switching metaphors). The problem, as I see it, is that modernism is an inadequate and defective worldview, and in order to address Christianity completely within modernism as Loftus does is to render Christianity inadequate and defective as well.

I am not sure, however, that the great apologists would agree with me.  I would be very interested to hear what someone like William Lane Craig (who I would tend to place at the top of that list) would say about my hypothesis.  Loftus, in the post I linked to above, has challenged Craig (and any other Christian apologist) to debate him on the issue of Christianity vs Modernism, which I think would be very interesting. Are Christianity and modernism incompatible, or can a complete Christianity survive entirely within the confince of modernism?

The question of unbelief

How could you forsake the love of God that way
Don’t fade, you’re staying here with me
Don’t fade, I need to know that someone still believes

– Don’t Fade, Glen Phillips

A week or so ago John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity (a very interesting site) asked Christians to tell him why he didn’t believe:

But since you believe we will be punished by God in hell (however conceived) if we don’t believe, then you need to offer some explanations for why we don’t believe. Surely a good God like yours wouldn’t punish us if we weren’t deserving of it, right? And surely your God wouldn’t punish us for our disbelief without offering us a clear testimony with sufficient evidence to believe, right?

Now, John’s testimony is that he was a Christian, received a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and studied under William Lane Craig. But, over time he came to unbelieve in God – an opposite response of what we’d generally expect. And, there are others who have similar stories.  John suggests three possible reasons for not being able to believe: ignorance, willful disobedience, and a failure to experience God – all good questions to consider.  Concerning the question of ignorance, is disbelief merely a matter of not enough information?  In John’s case, I would have to presume the answer is no; he’s got a theology degree, and I haven’t.

As far as disobedience goes, he asks a very profound question in response: “Who in his right mind would be willfully disobedient of that which he knows to be true, if the truth is that he will go to hell if he is?”  Of course, the question of being in one’s right mind is another issue. I suppose one could hypothesize that unbelief is a type of psychosis resulting from the inability to reconcile the sinful nature with a works-oriented theology, like Paul describes in Romans chapter 7.  It’s really an interesting thought, along the same lines as, “does OJ really think he’s innocent?”; but it’s not an idea I would pursue at this point.

I think that John’s 3rd option – a failure to experience God – deserves some real thought.  A hard-core double-predestination Calvinist would probably pick this option and write these atheists off as merely people whom God has rejected.  However, I’m not a Calvinist, and I don’t think the answer is that simple. On this question, John writes:

Have we just failed to experience God in our lives? Do we need to experience something that we didn’t? What kind of experience do you mean? A miracle? Well, whose fault is that? God knows what we need to believe, and if so, why doesn’t he provide it? If God did the greater deed, by sending his son to atone for our sins, then why doesn’t he do the lesser deeds by providing us the evidence and experiences we need to believe?

It’s somewhat interesting that John wrote this post last week, as I’ve been thinking about this question myself. Why, indeed, do some people appear to be blind to what seems to be the clear revelation of God?  I believe that God, indeed, has revealed himself, and quite clearly, as Paul writes in Romans 1:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Part of the answer, at least for some, might be answered by Loftus’ own proposition that modernism is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity.  We differ, however, in that John believes modernism to be the superior worldview, whereas I take an opposite view.  Perhaps – at least in part – buying into modernism is tantamount to planting seed in a field of weeds; the clear result is that faith is choked out.

I began this post quoting Glen Phillips, who is perhaps my favorite singer/songwriter. He seems to understand faith and doubt in a way that I find quite remarkable, being he’s not a Christian, or even necessarily religious (per an interview in 2004; although, the song “Thank You” on his latest album implies he’s at least a Theist).  I’ll end this post with a verse from “Dam Would Break” that seems relevant to this discussion:

What is this ice that gathers round my heart
To stop the flood of warmth before it even starts
It would make me blind to what I thought would always be
The only constant in the world for me
And every hour of every day
I need to fight from pulling away
And if my mind could only loose the chain
The dam would break

Debunking the new atheism

For some strange reason, I subscribe to a few atheism blogs. Lately I’ve added Debunking Christianity to the list, although I’m not sure how long it will stay; I’ve been largely bored and unimpressed with level of writing and thinking there. But, just when I thought I’d never agree with John Loftus on anything, he surprises me by doing a thoughtful review of John Haught’s new book, God and the New Atheism.  Here’s an interesting excerpt from Loftus’ post, in which he agrees with some of Haught’s criticisms:

As a theologian and philosopher of science, Dr. Haught effectively dismantles what I consider to be a few naïve understandings of the new atheists regarding faith and the scientific method. It’s a common mistake that applied and theoretical scientists unaccustomed to understanding the philosophy of science make. Is faith a belief without evidence? No. Do scientists come to their conclusions based solely on the evidence? No.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the new atheists, since I truly appreciate the impact they have had in raising the level of awareness for skeptics, but Haught is correct here, if in fact that’s what they think. Anyone who has seriously looked into the philosophy of science and read Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Ian Barbour, Frederick Suppe, Paul Feyerabend, and even Karl Popper knows that science is not completely objective, that facts are theory laden, and that certainty as a goal is impossible to achieve, which leaves room for faith. Popper, for instance, talked of science progressing by “conjectures and guesses.” Feyerabend even argued that there is no such thing as the scientific method! Scientists themselves are people with passions, prior commitments, and/or control beliefs. In fact, there are many beliefs we have for which we have no evidence, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued–such things as I’m not dreaming right now, that I’ve existed for longer than 24 hours, that I am not merely a brain in a mad scientist’s vat which is being caused to remember the events of today in the year 2030, or that we’re not all living in something depicted by the movie the Matrix.

Granted, he doesn’t agree with most of Haught’s thinking, and I’m the last person to try to imply that. However, I’m impressed with Loftus’ intellectual integrity here, something which does indeed distinguish him from the crowd.  At least in this post.