Reason – higher, lower and none

People who argue that faith in God is irrational must have in mind a system of thought that, by contrast, is a paragon of rationality.

The only alternative to faith is the absence of faith, which implies an ability to explain the world in some other, purely empirical and materialistic but nonetheless rational, terms.

Those who attempt to do so are so intellectually lame that they have to lean on the crutch of science, which to them means natural science only. Yet Jacques Maritain shows in many of his books that both philosophy and theology are sciences too – and higher ones, specifically because they use a tightly structured intellectual apparatus to investigate first principles: causes, not just effects.

Dostoyevsky described first principles as ‘accursed questions’. It’s the job of philosophers and theologians to provide rational, or if you will scientific, answers.

But for now let’s agree to use ‘science’ in a strictly natural meaning. We then arrive at two pairs of words setting an intellectual barrier that no science can ever scale.

For anyone familiar with Wittgenstein’s work, one pair is the words ‘what’ and ‘that’. For anyone familiar with the work of Wittgenstein’s predecessors, the two words are ‘essence’ and ‘existence’.

Wittgenstein postulated that the realm of natural science is what the world is, not that it is – and especially not why it is. Philosophy is a higher science because it takes inquiry beyond what, and theology is higher still because it leads inquiry all the way up to why.

It was Aristotle who first began to investigate the juxtaposition of ‘what’ and ‘that’ or, to use the philosophical terms, ‘essence’ and ‘existence’. His work was developed and taken to the next level by Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest philosopher, and definitely the greatest theologian, in history.

Darwin’s slapdash theory of evolution by natural selection is these days touted by ignoramuses like Dawkins as the explanation of everything. He’d know how ridiculous this sounds had he taken the trouble to read the most basic of philosophical texts.

Evolution is a gradual rearrangement of the existing biological material. But that material has to exist to begin with. After all, before things evolve, they have to be. Or, to use Thomistic terms, before we ponder their essence we need to explain their existence.

Even if we accept the Darwinist dogma of a steady evolutionary progress from primitive organisms to more complex ones, that won’t even begin to explain the provenance of the original substance whence it all began. Whether that primary substance is described as a single cell or some mysterious primordial soup is only a question of semantics.

“Even if” in the previous paragraph communicates doubts about the validity of Darwinism even on its own terms. I’ve commented many times on the evidence con, which stands to reason much better than the evidence pro.

Since this isn’t my purpose here, I’ll only cite one statement that seems sufficient to end this discussion before it even began: “When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory.”

Which obscurantist creationist said that? Actually, this is a quotation from an 1863 letter written by Darwin himself. Alas, neither he nor his fanatical followers were willing to “descend to details”. What attracted them was the destructive political and cultural clout of Darwinism, not its scientific accuracy.

The essence of physical life is within the domain of natural science. The existence of it isn’t. Yet even natural scientists have to proceed from metaphysical assumptions they borrow from the higher systems of thought.

Above all, they have to be confident that the laws of nature they study are rational and universal. The honest thinkers among them, those whose minds are free of ideological biases, realise the sheer impossibility of a system of rational and universal laws ever appearing haphazardly in the absence of a rational and universal law-giver.

They may be able to explain the essence of, say, gravity – what it is. But they can’t explain its existence, how and why it came about in the first place. If they are indeed honest thinkers, they will realise this isn’t just something science hasn’t yet got around to explaining. They’ll know that metaphysical questions can’t have physical answers by definition – which doesn’t obviate the need for answering them.

A neurophysiologist equipped with sophisticated scanners may know the makeup of the brain, its functions, what intensity of thought produces what blips on the scanner displays. But give him another thousand years and infinitely more sophisticated scanners, and he still won’t be able to describe the mind in purely empirical terms, nor even define thought.

Though such things are outside the range of science, they undeniably exist. They may be ignored or dismissed, along with all philosophy and theology, but that would be tantamount to cowardly intellectual surrender. If things exist, man’s mind will seek to understand them – such is our ontological essence.

That’s why great scientists see no contradiction between their discipline and faith. Those inclining to philosophy, which is to say most great scientists, also realise that faith is an essential part of epistemology, even as applied to their own fields.

All rational inquiry starts with intuition. Theologians will describe it as faith; philosophers, as a premise or presupposition; scientists, as a hypothesis. Call it what you will, but this is the start-up mechanism activating reason.

Once activated, reason holds its premise to the tests of the relevant discipline. For the scientists, the test will consist in gathering and analysing empirical evidence. Philosophers and theologians will apply the testing equipment indigenous to their disciplines, of which logic is the most basic one.

They will also use the scientist’s tools of empirical evidence, seeking to find evidence that will either support their premise or refute it. Once they’ve found adequate support and no refutation, they are satisfied that the premise is true – just as the scientist is satisfied his hypothesis is valid once he has found that his experiments are sound and repeatable.

The difference is that the scientist may make a mental note of the metaphysical nature of physical laws, but he’ll then tuck that note in the back of his mind. In the front of his mind will be his day job: analysing the natural phenomena within his immediate sphere of expertise.

A thinking believer will build his intellectual structure on the foundation of intuitive faith in God. Such faith is a gift, akin to the intuition of a scientist who knows in his gut, before setting up any experiments, that his hypothesis is true.

The word ‘gift’ presupposes a donor, which is what theologians mean when saying it’s God who chooses people, not vice versa. Yet, just like a scientist, a thinking believer will then test the value of this gift both empirically and intellectually.

For his faith to survive intact, he has to be convinced that it activates a system of thought that explains the world to his satisfaction, or at least better than any other system.

Thus my lifetime of study and contemplation has led me to be convinced that man in general and Western man in particular can only be properly understood by someone who understands Christianity – and Christianity can only be properly understood by someone who knows it’s true.

Someone looking at quotidian problems from high above can see their interlinks more clearly than someone who is mired in their midst. That’s why an atheist philosopher is a contradiction in terms – if he really is a philosopher, he can’t be an atheist.

The nature of Christian intuition is mystical, its onset often sudden. Yet the intellectual history of the world proves that high reason, that of a philosopher, is a structure that can only be erected on the foundation of a mystical longing.

Low reason, that of an accountant, needs no such thing. This is the dominant type of rationality fostered by modernity, which explains its moral, aesthetic and intellectual decline.

Modernity brainwashes its adherents to believe that low rationality is all there is. This has an element of self-fulfilment to it: because people think so, low rationality is all they can get. And while a higher system can understand the lower one, the opposite isn’t the case.

One can’t despise a person for having no religious feeling any more than one can despise someone who has no ear for music. Compassion is more appropriate — and quiet amusement when an atheist talks about Christianity being irrational.

14 thoughts on “Reason – higher, lower and none”

  1. “Jacques Maritain shows in many of his books that both philosophy and theology are sciences too – and higher ones”

    The American philosopher Mortimer Adler stated that since the time of Aquinas there has been no significant advancements in philosophy. I am not sure if that is true or not, but if true, what does that say about philosophy?

  2. That the elect character of human kind should depend on the ‘true’ knowledge of an understanding Christian is a disturbing thought. It fosters a suspicion that homo sapiens, the sole remaining hominid, is in Darwinian terms a mal-adaptation. Could D.H. Lawrence be right to suggest that the sooner it disappears the better?
    To the extent that your understanding of Western man originates in the Abrahamic Scriptures of Genesis, will the chosen people survive the Maccreadie explosion?

    1. Isaac: It’s that free will again, God’s most precious gift. The choice of a path to take is left to us, and we are free to follow any one. If God had made us all believers by fiat, we wouldn’t be people created in his image. We’d be automata, or else puppets on a string. In that case, it wouldn’t be clear why he bothered to create us in the first place.

      1. A man can choose to behave as if he believes, but he can’t choose to believe. Rod Dreher is perhaps the most illustrative example of this type. Look at any picture of the man; and you’ll see doubt behind his eyes, that most terrible doubt.

  3. Fantastic! Thank you.

    Funny, I started an e-mail last night on this very subject and ended up deleting it rather than sending it to you as I figured you had seen some of the baiting comments and could refute them much easier and far more eloquently than I could ever hope. This is yet another entry that I will save and reread over and over, hoping some of the argument will seep into my feeble brain for future use.

    I do have a fair amount of science in my educational background, but far too little philosophy (that I have tried to remedy as I age). I still have notes from a lecture… “If the cosmological constant was off by even 10^99 (10 to the 99th power) no planets would have formed. Considering that there are an estimated 10^80 molecules in the universe, that level of precision is like sending someone off to 10,000,000,000 different universes and asking him to pick one particular molecule.” There are similar arguments on the strength of the gravitational force. No natural law giver? Seems to be *extremely* unlikely.

    1. No, thank you. Every writer, even those pretend not to be hubristic, likes praise. I did acquire some clarity on this subject, but through no effort of mine. It just happened, one day, overnight.

  4. “Such faith is a gift, akin to the intuition of a scientist who knows in his gut, before setting up any experiments, that his hypothesis is true.”

    Well put! I’ve been trying to explain this to people for decades without success. Every significant human achievement starts out as a mystical divine gift. Those who receive it and accept it are truly blessed, and those who do not receive it or reject it are truly cursed.

      1. Being without God is the very definition of being “cursed”; I’d rather face an angry or vengeful God than a remote God or none at all.

  5. Any atheist or agnostic is in fact a more fanatic believer than Christians, since those people actually worship the all-powerful self-organising matter, imbuing it with the ability to automatically evolve from simple to most sophisticated forms. This belief borders on insanity.

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