Reason Is a Matter of Faith

2:09 PM James 0 Comments

Contrary to popular opinion, reason and faith are not enemies.  They are not opposite modes of thinking (or lack of thinking) that we must choose between.  That view is naive.  Unfortunately, many people - religious believers and atheists alike - buy in to it.  In actuality, however, reason and faith share a surprising relationship of dependence.  To quote G.K. Chesterton, "Reason is itself a matter of faith."

By faith, I mean any belief, assumption, or presupposition that cannot be verified scientifically, and is not universally true.  For instance, the belief, "Science is the only source of knowledge," is itself not something that can be tested scientifically (what experiment could ever verify the truth or falsity of that belief?).  Nor is it a universal truth, such as, "All triangles have three sides."  Thus, it is an article of faith - a metaphysical assumption.

When I speak of reason, I'm referring to the unique cognitive ability of humans to make valid deductions, or draw inferences.  No other species on earth has the ability for that kind of abstract thought.  For example, your typical five year old could tell you that if Bob is taller than Susie, and Susie is taller than Rick, then Bob must be taller than Rick.  That's a very simple deduction, but a chimp or dolphin could never do it.  They don't have reason.

Mysteriously, reason can tell us true things about the world.  Reason allowed the ancient Greeks to calculate the approximate circumference of the earth; it has allowed us to triangulate the distance of stars, predict solar eclipses, and discover new chemical elements.  Because of reason, we have been able to imagine and create all kinds of art and technology.  When you think about it, it's truly remarkable that our abstract thoughts can tell us true things about reality.  This strange phenomenon led Chesterton to reject the dichotomy between reason and faith:
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?'[1]
Chesterton believed that reason cannot explain the mystery of itself - it cannot explain why it tells us true things about the world.  That fact, according to Chesterton, one must simply take on faith.  I agree with him.[2]

What kind of theory could explain the mystery of reason?  C.S. Lewis gives us an important requirement that such a theory must meet in order to be successful:
All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning….Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished... [3]
Lewis points out that any theory of reality must make room for the mystery of reason, because that theory itself depends on reason.  If a theory were to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of reason, it would destroy itself, since one needs reason to believe the theory.

There have been many theories put forth to attempt to explain religious faith.  The most popular one is the evolutionary theory.  According to this view, belief in God evolved because it helped our ancestors survive and reproduce.  We then inherited this "trait" of religious belief and are now genetically predisposed to it.  As plausible as this view might seem, it runs into major problems - namely, it doesn't meet the requirement C.S. Lewis outlined above.  Tim Keller explains:
Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it’s only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all? [4]
Keller points out that the evolutionary explanation does not just apply to religious belief, it applies to our belief-forming faculties as a whole.  In other words, if the evolutionary theory is true, then it not only explains away religious faith, it also explains away reason.  Here's why:

Whenever we suspect that a person's belief is not based on reason, but instead is based on some biological impulse, or a physical/non-rational process, we reject his belief as unjustified.  For instance, when people say things like, "You only think this is the best sandwich you've ever had because you're so hungry," or "He only thinks she's talented because he's attracted to her," or "You only believe in God because evolution has hardwired you to," they are rejecting a particular belief because they suspect it is based on physical/non-rational processes - hunger, sexual attraction, natural selection.  In other words, most people would agree that if a belief is merely the byproduct of something non-rational, then the belief is unjustified.  If evolutionary theory is correct however, then this is not only true of religious beliefs, it is true of all our beliefs, including evolutionary theory! [5]

Think about it.  If you asked someone why they believe the earth is spherical, and they answered, "Because it will help me to stay alive and produce more offspring than my competitors," you would say their belief was unjustified.  If evolutionary theory is correct, then any belief we may hold - our rational process in its entirety - is ultimately a byproduct of its ability to help us survive and produce more offspring.  That's a problem - as Chesterton, Lewis, and Keller all pointed out.

Lest you think it is only Christians who have this worry, however, consider these words from Charles Darwin himself:
-->[W]ith 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 any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [6]Darwin was right to worry.  A strict naturalistic evolution calls into question the validity of all human reasoning.  But, as we established earlier, scientific theories depend on reasoning.  If we can't trust human reasoning, then we can't believe any scientific theory.  Thus, if the evolutionary view is correct, then we should doubt it.  The view defeats itself.  Science cannot explain reason - and reason cannot explain reason.  What is left?

To the surprise of many, the Christian faith provides a framework for understanding reason.  The Bible teaches us that God is a rational being ("Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord" Isaiah 1:18), and that he created us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27), and gave us the gift of reason.  The Bible also teaches us that this same God created the universe and gave it a rational order (John 1 says, "In the beginning was the Word (Logos)... All things were made through him [the Logos], and without him was not anything made that was made."  Interestingly, the Greek word Logos means word, reason, or logic.  The Bible literally refers to Jesus as the divine Reason!).  Thus, on the Christian view, we would expect our thoughts to tell us true things about the world, since both the human mind and the universe were created by the same rational God.  On the naturalistic evolutionary view, however, there is no good explanation for the mystery of reason.  And the attempts to explain it only result in self-defeat.

When examining the relationship between reason and faith then, we are left with an amusing irony:  contrary to popular opinion, we are not forced to choose between the two, as opposites.  It's quite the reverse.  To trust reason, one must have faith.  And the Christian faith is perhaps the best view for making sense of reason.  Surprisingly, in the end, it is faith that makes reason rational.

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1.  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 2001) page 29.

2.  Please do not misinterpret me as being opposed to reason.  I actually hold reason in high regard (although I think it is limited).  It is not anti-reason to point out that reason cannot prove its own validity.  Actually, it is irrational to claim that it can!  This is a well known problem for philosophers, and similar problems arise in areas of mathematics and logic as well.  For example, see Godel's Incompleteness Theorems.

3.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) pages 21-22.

4.  Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 142.

5.  Like Keller, when I say "evolutionists" and "evolutionary theory," I mean the strict naturalistic/atheistic kind.  There is such a thing as a Christian evolutionist.  He/she believes God used evolution to create humans.  Thus, my argument is not against the biological theory of evolution per se.  It is against the conjunction of evolution + naturalism.  For an in depth treatment of this argument, see Alvin Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," in his book Warrant and Proper Function.

6.  Charles Darwin, (A letter to William Graham - July 3, 1881)
--> Darwin Correspondence Database, (accessed March 7, 2012).