Is Reason All We Need to Know Truth?

This new teaching position is the most intellectually exhausting job I’ve ever had, but also the most rewarding.  Interacting with bright kids over deep, weighty, and complex topics day in and day out expends so much of my mental energy that I’ve concluded that the only way I’ll ever write regularly on my blog this year is if I just concentrate on issues I’ve been discussing with my students.

I’m currently wrapping up a unit on Reason as a “way of knowing”  (other ways of knowing we will consider include perception, emotion, language, and even faith).  For each of way of knowing, we reflect on what we can know through this particular faculty and how it helps us make sense of the world.  Then we reflect critically on the problems with them, including their limitations and even their potential dangers/abuses.  So this week we discussed whether there were some areas of experience where reason has no real function.  Students identified such domains of experience as love, morality, and creativity as areas where reason seemed inadequate to comprehend at best.  Some debated the extent to which reason was needed in such experiences.

Eventually the problem of how we misuse reason to ‘rationalize’ immoral actions emerged.  I conveyed to my students an unforgettable lesson I had learned about this problem in a special history class I took in college on just the Holocaust.  Prior to about 1942, the Germans did not murder the Jews in concentration camps, for this concept had not yet been developed.  Their method, as they swept east through Poland and into the Soviet Union, was to line up all the Jews captured in a town or village in front of a freshly dug ditch, shoot them in the back of the head, and bury all the bodies in an instant mass grave.  It was because this method was so inefficient that they replaced it with the concentration camps.

Letters written by German soldiers to family back in Germany show the power of rationalization at work in even the most horrific human behaviors.  A common rationale was to acknowledge the severe emotional difficulties the soldiers experienced in killing innocent people but to use this reality to solicit admiration for the soldiers who were willing to set aside these emotional inhibitions and overcome these painful experiences out of a sense of duty to their country and the good of society.  This argument was even made with a sense of self-pity that they had to be the ones to perform these awful, but necessary acts.

The problem with reason as a way of knowing is that reason always has to start with something that is not based on reason:  we are always reasoning from something (i.e. premises) to something (i.e. conclusions).  So our reason is only as reliable as means for knowing truth as these starting points.  These starting points may be supplied by our unquestioned and even subliminal assumptions, prejudices, ambitions, desires, loyalties, none of which are essentially rational but are emotional, even spiritual.  These starting points will determine where reason will lead us such that even if our arguments are valid (having a correct structure) they are not necessarily true.  Yet the application of reason gives them the deceptive appearance of truth.

Whether reason leads us to the truth depends on whether we are sincerely seeking truth and whether our belief-forming processes, to borrow a concept from the preeminent American philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, are functioning correctly.  The real problem with reason then is really a problem with us.   We use reason to distort reality because sin has distorted us such that we do not seek truth but suppress it and that we form false beliefs far more readily than true ones.  Thus, the Apostle Paul describes those without the light of God’s Word as living in their “futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17-18).  Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky meant when he said, “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”  Everything is permissible because anything can be rationalized.

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