Reason

Sometimes it is easy to think that our struggle to maintain faith is a result of exchaning faith for reason. But there is a lot more to reason than we might realize. Reason always operates in accordance with a standard. And that standard is fundamentally a choice we all have to make. 

A common experience among many struggling to maintain their faith is the feeling that Christianity seems less and less reasonable. Without question it is difficult - maybe even impossible - to believe something we think is untrue or irrational. However, might it be possible that the reason we find Christianity to seem so unreasonable is that we have an improper assumption about what reason is? In this article I want to ask the question, what is reason and what good is it?  

I listen to a lot of people explain why they no longer believe in Jesus. One of the most common reasons is that Chrisitanity fails the test of reason. Few people put it in those exact words, but that sentiment gets expressed quite often. When I try to unpack just what that means, I commonly hear "reason" cashed out as an ultimate standard by which belief systems can be evaluated. And upon evaluation Christianity failed to meet the standar.

 

However,I'm not convinced that reason is an ultimate standard somewhere out there that we can use to acquire true beliefs by. In fact, I don't think "reason" is really a thing at all. It’s better understood as a process, or a psychological activity we engage in. Reason is something we do. We reason.  We engage in reasoning by using our cognitive faculties. We weigh claims, draw inferences, make evaluations and arrive at conclusions. But to speak of reason as though it’s a thing in itself is to reify it.[1] If we do want to think of reason as a thing, a good analogy for doing so is to view it not as the ultimate standard for what is rational to believe, but as a tool we use to aid us in coming to true conclusions.

When we think of reason as a tool, that it’s not an ultimate standard becomes readily apparent. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to compare reason with a familiar instrument such as a circular saw. A circular saw consists of a circular blade, an adjustable guide, a handle, and a trigger. The guide can be adjusted to various angles so that when the trigger is pulled, the saw will cut according to the angle of the guide. Set the saw at a forty-five-degree angle and it will produce a forty-five-degree cut. Set it at twenty-two degrees and it will produce a twenty-two-degree cut. Reason is like the circular saw in that the results it produces are also dependent on, for lack of a better term, the angle it’s set at. In the case of reason, the angle is the starting assumptions or presuppositions of the person using it. This is why given the presuppositions or explicit beliefs it has to work with, reason can bring two different people, pondering the same issue, to two opposite, and yet very rationally consistent conclusions. The problem isn’t with reason as a tool but with reason as the ultimate authority that sets the “angle” of the saw. This isn’t an indictment against reason. But it is to say that reason isn’t an ultimate standard of truth. Something else plays that role. In assessing truth claims and evaluating evidence one must always reason according to a reference point; a presupposition or set of presuppositions that act as the ultimate authority or standard by which truth claims are measured. To see this, imagine the following scenario.

 

You’re planning a trip to see your brother in Toronto. You know that I have some familiarity with Toronto and so you ask me if there’s a subway stop at Spadina Avenue, which is near your brother’s home. I think about it for a minute and tell you that the Toronto subway system doesn’t have a stop at Spadina Avenue. Unsure of whether I know what I am talking about you look at a map of the subway system published by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) which indicates that in fact there is a stop on Spadina Avenue. You inform me that you believe that the TTC knows more about their subway stops than I do. In doing so, you have attributed more authority to the TTC than you have to me. The TTC functions in this scenario as your authority and will therefore determine what you think is a reasonable or rational course of action in getting to your brother’s house. You reason that an efficient and effective way of getting to your brother’s house is to take the subway and get off at the Spadina stop. All of this makes perfect sense based on your ultimate standard of truth, the TTC’s map. Had you believed me instead of the TTC map, you wouldn’t have reasoned in a similar fashion. Maybe you would have concluded that taking Uber was a better way to get to your brother’s place. But taking the subway would have seemed irrational given that you accepted me as your ultimate standard for evaluating your choices. In both cases, your reason was doing its job. The only difference in the conclusion you arrived at was not because of reason, but because of the authority, you chose to recognize as your ultimate standard.

Reason is always involved with the human search for knowledge; but it must always choose its standard. The standard will be something that acts as an authority by which all other claims will be judged. Now, it’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with this. We must take some authority or standard for granted when reasoning. Otherwise, we would never be able to reason at all. But reason is not that standard.

Now, when it comes to determining what’s true and reasonable it doesn’t seem like we have any other option than to trust our intellect. What else can we do but accept what our intellect tells us is worthy of belief? I think this is right. In fact, we can only believe what makes sense to us, or perhaps more accurately, we can’t believe claims that we find to be nonsense. But do we have a choice of what our ultimate criterion will be? I think we do. We are regularly faced with the decision as to whether we should trust our own unaided judgment or rely on someone else. And without thinking about it we usually default to ourselves as the ultimate standard of truth. 

This happens when we uncritically take the nebulous collection of our own insights, intuitions, feelings, understandings, and what we take to be self-evident as "reason". Then we reject anything that isn’t in line with it as unreasonable. What this means is that we ourselves are the ultimate standard of truth! Reason, it turns out is simply shorthand for “My intellect and its collection of beliefs is the authority and final standard of truth.” 

I want to suggest that instead of taking our own intuitions, desires, and feelings to be the final stanrd by which we reason, we need to give that honor to something else for two reasosn. The first is that there is so much about reality that we don't know, and so much of what we think we know is shaped by socio-cultural and historic factors. Tht being the case, how could a person so limited in their capacity and knowledge of reality act as the ultimate standard of what is reasonable? Second, if we want to really know what claims are reasonable to believe, we need a standard that has a comprehensive, and clear understanding of reality. 

 

There are many competing options as to what standard we should choose. For example, there is the scientific community, the Quran, the sayings of the Buddha, the numerous Hindu scriptures, the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, or entire philosophical systems. Each of these claims to be sources of truth and ultimate authorities that set the “angle” of our reason. So too does the Bible. It claims to be a revelation from God that speaks truthfully about everything that it teaches. With so many choices how do we decide which authority to submit our reasoning to? Or do we just stick with being our own final authority?

 

The answer is by uncovering which ultimate authority is able to explain and provide meaning to the world as we experience it. We assess a final authority by asking which proposed authority, as we work out its consequences, provides an adequate foundation of the human experience (logic, science, reason, morality, language, identity, dignity, causality, etc.). In short, which one makes reasoning even possible and which ones undermine the possibility of knowledge? To do this we look at each claimed authority and evaluate it on its own terms.

For example, why, given atheism's assumption about reality being birthed by chance and directed by a process that is concerned not with truth and rationality but survival, should anyone ever trust the reasoning which led them to adopt naturalism as a view? It was Darwin himself who said “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[2] Indeed. How could a non-rational process produce a rational mind? C.S. Lewis said it best:

 

Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by- product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course, I can’t trust the arguments leading to atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.[3]

 

That's why Lewis came to believe that the God of the Bible is the only explanation for why reason is a trustworthy process at acquiring knwledge. In other words, unless Christianity is true there is no accounting for rationality at all! How then can it be irrational? It's tempting to elevate our own intuitions, feelings and beliefs to the level of being an ultiamte standard according to which we reason but in the end, it won't lead us to the truth. If the existence of the God of the Bible is the only explanation for why engaing in reasoning is at all worthwhile, then any argument that is offered against Christianity fails from the start. 

I'm not saying that this is a knockdown argument for why Christianity is true. If only it were that simple! Instead, I offer it as something to think about. Sometimes there is much more to how we reason and reach conclusions than we realize. Becoming aware of this can be helpful in evaluating what we think about the claims of Christianity. 

 

[1] To reify means to make a process a concret thing.

[2] Charles Darwin, “To William Graham 3 July 1881,” Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge University, accessed December 29, 2020, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-13230.xml

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (Nashville: B&H Group, 2000), 32.

Material in this section is taken from John Marriott and Shawn Wicks, Before You Go: Uncovering Hidden Factors in Faith Loss. (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Press, 2022).