What is reason?
In the previous essay, I presented faith and reason as two wings on which the human person is meant to soar into the contemplation of truth. Human beings can learn to fly with both wings, but in our contemporary culture people tend to think they must choose between faith and reason. One of the main reasons why, is that our contemporary culture operates on a superficial notion of what reason is. In the popular mind, reason tends to be reduced to science, i.e. modern, experimental science. To identify reason with science is a position commonly called scientism. The first step in learning to fly with both wings is learning to see through scientism to a deeper understanding of reason.
Let us begin with a definition of science. The Science Council of the United Kingdom proposes the following definition of science on its website: “Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.” It is likely that scientists from throughout the world would agree with this definition.
The website goes on to say that this systematic methodology includes objective observation, measurement and data, evidence, experiment as a benchmark for testing hypotheses, induction, repetition, critical analysis, and verification. The primary examples of scientific research are clear enough for us to have an idea of scientific methodology.
Because contemporary people tend to reduce reason to science as so defined, truth too, tends to be reduced. What is truth? In our society, when most people hear the word “truth” they automatically understand it to mean, scientifically verified facts or information. A deeper understanding of reason, we shall see, leads to a deeper understanding of truth.
There is a major price to pay for holding a scientistic account of reason and truth. For if reason is limited to science, and truth is limited to scientifically verified facts, then it very much seems there are no true or rationally verifiable answers to questions about God, about morality, or about the meaning of life.
First, concerning God. According to the definition of science given by the Science Council, science deals with the natural or social world. God, however, is beyond the natural or social world. Science, therefore, by its very definition cannot settle the question of God’s existence or attributes. If reason is limited to science, then by definition, reason also cannot settle these questions.
Second, concerning moral claims. Given the methodology of science outlined by the Science Council, moral questions cannot be settled by science. This is more controversial, since there are some scientists and philosophers who want to claim that science can make moral claims and settle them. But the more predominant position is that science and morality are completely separate. The former deals with facts, using its own proper methodology, while the latter deals with values and has its own proper methodology.
Influenced by the claims of the 18th century philosopher, David Hume, many ethicists hold that one can never move from factual claims to value claims. One can never go from a claim about the way the world is, to a claim about the way it ought to be. Furthermore, many philosophers and scientists hold that the method of science is powerful and makes such rapid progress precisely because it steers clear of value claims or claims about the way things ought to be. For these reasons, many people (and certainly the popular mind) are persuaded that moral precepts or moral codes are outside the range of scientific verification. Again, if reason is science, and science cannot settle moral questions, then reason cannot settle moral questions.
Third, questions about the meaning of life or meaning of reality cannot be settled by science. For science, it seems clear, is not designed to raise such questions, propose answers to them, or verify those answers. If we ask a physicist, biologist, or chemist what life is all about, we may get an answer. But it is not the physicist speaking as a physicist or a biologist as a biologist who proposes that answer. Psychologists sometimes raise the question of meaning, and argue that the issue is of central importance to human health and therapy, but even the psychologists who explore the issue tend to claim that meaning is utterly subjective. In other words, there is no objectively true and scientifically verifiable answer to the question of life’s meaning. Rather, each person constructs his or her own meaning like a spider spinning a web out of itself. If science is all we have to go on, then what shall we say about the meaning of life? There is no scientific answer to the question, and since reason is limited to science, there can be no rational answer.
Reason knows nothing about God, can settle nothing about morals, and knows nothing of life’s meaning. Unfortunately, these are not merely theoretical implications. Large numbers of people in our society, especially many students on our college campuses, go through life with the assumption that there is no rational and objective answer to the questions of whether or not God exists or of what His attributes would be. It is often taken for granted that there is no way to settle moral questions other than with a vote. Many are convinced that there is no universal, true, rational, accessible, verifiable answer to the question of what life is all about. The reduction of reason to science has left multitudes of people without a moral or spiritual compass. Their lives become subjective journeys where they alone determine where they are going. When this Godless, guideless, meaningless form of existence is put forward as a philosophy, the philosophy is called nihilism. It is a belief in nothing as ultimate. In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II described nihilism as a significant issue of our times. He realized that a common and shared civilization could not be sustained on such a basis.
Many secular and non-Christian philosophers have come to the same view. Years before Pope St John Paul II wrote his encyclical, one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century, Edmund Husserl, foresaw a major crisis coming for western civilization as it tried to run on the basis of modern science alone.
However, there is no need to embrace such a narrow or reductionist account of reason. Science is a good way to know facts, but science is only one way of knowing among many. There are other ways of knowing. Consider, for example, literature. Reading Shakespeare offers an abundance of insights into profound truths about life. “What’s done cannot be undone” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1). When we read that sentence in light of the text and our experience of life, it encapsulates many deep and objective truths that science could never verify.
There is another account of reason. It is more ancient, richer, and more open to reality as a whole. Reason, on this account, is sapiential. Reason here is the capacity for wisdom. Wisdom is an all-embracing understanding of reality as a whole in light of ultimate causes, especially in light of the end or goal of all things. In order to be capable of such wisdom or such an all-embracing understanding of reality, reason must be receptive to reality in all of it aspects: the quantifiable and the non-quantifiable, the measurable and the immeasurable, the observable and the non-observable, the tangible and the intangible, and the sensible and the intelligible.
Reason is not prejudiced against God, against moral truth, or against the meaning of life. Rather, reason understood as wisdom, is open to such questions, seeks answers to them, and is capable of finding true answers to them. Wisdom does not deny modern science, but goes beyond it. Modern science alone, especially when it denies that there is an end to all things, can never deliver wisdom. Something more than science is needed for wisdom, and something more than science is available. Reason is this something more, and reason is capable of an open and fruitful inquiry into reality as a whole. This entire series on evolution and Christian faith is a task that illustrates the work of reason understood as wisdom. It seeks to bring a synthetic whole to one’s vision of the world by seeking the causes for all that we can experience and understand.
The Church understands reason in this ancient, richer, and more open sense. Because the Church understands reason as wisdom, the Church teaches that human reason is capable of arriving at some limited knowledge of God’s existence and attributes, at solid insight about moral truth, and at a deep grasp of the meaning of life. Furthermore, reason understood as wisdom is open to receiving a divine revelation if God should so deign to give us one. It is even capable of detecting signs of authentic divine revelation and distinguishing this authentic revelation from counterfeit rivals.
Nihilism is not necessary attribute of human existence! There is objective truth that we can attain as we seek the answers to the most important matters in life. However, be forewarned that our aptitude to know these things is limited in many ways. Seeking truth is often difficult and one must persevere if one wishes to attain it. But the truth is there. It is real.
On the sapiential account of reason, truth is more than just scientifically verified facts. We can distinguish between Truth with a capital “T” and truth with a small “t”. Truth with a capital “T” is an understanding of reality as a whole. Truth with a small “t” is one of the truths or facts about the world. Science helps to verify many facts about the world, it delivers many truths, and no wise person wants to deny solidly established scientific facts. But if reason is something more than just science, if reason inherently seeks Truth and wisdom, then reason is inherently driven to an understanding of it all – the meaning of reality. And if reason questions the meaning of all things, perhaps God in His goodness may speak to our questions with answers from on high. What then, would faith be, except believing God’s answers to the questions that we ask with the reason that He has given us?
— Rev. James Brent, O.P.
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Image: The Thinker, Rodin Photo Credit: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (CC BY-SA 4.0)