Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Limits of Reason

“There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” -- Proverbs 14:12

The ability to reason separates man from the animals and gives him dominion over all of the earth. Simply put, it is the most important attribute we possess. With it we can create or conquer, protect or destroy. Reason allows us to unravel the workings of the physical universe and gives us the ability to discern natural law. It makes us self-aware, forcing us to ponder our own existence and the origin of it.

The answer to this question determines not only where we came from but where we are going and how we choose to live. And on this critical question, reason does not leave us in the dark. Understanding the things we all have access to, namely ourselves and the world around us, leads to the undeniable conclusion of the existence of God.

Perhaps the most basic way to reach this conclusion is the argument from simply observing the material world itself, which dates back at least as far as Aristotle in the 4th century before Christ. The argument has been pondered by philosophers and theologians for centuries. The five ways of Thomas Aquinas may be the most thorough and famous form of it. In thousands of pages, Aquinas painstakingly makes the case, providing, as contemporary philosopher Edward Feser explains, a metaphysical argument based on the empirical observations of the here and now that is conceptually impossible to refute. In fact, rejecting its presuppositions makes understanding reality, including the ability to do science, impossible. While the argument builds on a set of premises that should each be rigorously examined and understood, the entire proof can be curtly expressed like this: you exist, therefore God exists.

Condensing the volumes into a few mangled lines, here is my paraphrase of a key strain of the argument: being cannot be denied without contradiction. If one claims not to exist, he is asserting that claim using his own existence. Now, being is distinct from non-being. Something is not nothing. Furthermore, something cannot come from nothing. It is also known that man and everything in the universe is dependent on something else for existence given their finite character and their constant motion or change. There must be a first cause for existence and for the motion or change that defines the material world. There cannot be an infinite regress of causation. There must be a first cause. In order to be the source of existence and motion or change, that first cause, by definition, must have an independent nature that is unchangeable. It must be the unmoved mover. It must exist by itself as pure actuality or pure being. In order to have created everything and to continually sustain it, this independent entity must have several attributes, among these are it must be immaterial, infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient.

It requires no special revelation to derive this conception of God and it is a syllogism that cannot be logically refuted. No other explanation for the origin of life is consistent with reality and simply observing the material world makes the argument self-evident, as the Apostle Paul explains, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

This theoretical conception of God aligns with only one worldview: Judeo-Christian revelation. The ancient Israelites did not sit and ponder an abstract divinity using metaphysics. They encountered divine intervention that has been recorded in the writings of their patriarchs and prophets. That intervention, impressed upon a nomadic tribe of outcasts, was unlike anything the world had ever seen. It, and it alone, revealed a God that has the exact same attributes as the conjectural version of the creator that philosophers would later derive on their own. No other religion describes such a God. Their revelation foretold of the Christ who would embody these attributes in the flesh in order to redeem humanity.

These are the two pillars that point toward God. One is derived from “what has been made” and is built entirely on logic. It is a theoretical model of what God must look like based on what we know about ourselves and the universe around us. The other is divine revelation, which transcends reason but nonetheless can be understood through it. God's word has withstood unrelenting attacks by skeptics from the onset. For thousands of years it has been vindicated, time and again, by its own transforming and prophetic passages and the historical record. Scripture describes, in inexhaustible detail, who God is and our relationship toward Him and our fellow man. Both of these pillars are in perfect harmony with one another and both perfectly explain reality.

Unfortunately this does not settle the matter. Reason commands so little of our decision making that it is easy to discard the evidence before us. Fallen man is beset by physical and psychological limitations that constantly impede on his rational thought. We are hampered by illness or injury, stress and anxiety, and a finite amount of intelligence. Far worse than all of that is how we exercise our free will. When we can think clearly we usually choose not to. We are driven by selfishness, jealously, anger, and greed, habitually seeking to ingratiate and elevate ourselves at the expense of others. These powerful desires and afflictions blind us to truth.

Man is limited in his capacity to understand but, far more importantly, we have no desire to do so. We willfully ignore the evidence and choose to live in a state of ignorance, believing theories and superstitions that are internally contradictory because they ostensibly provide us with the semblance of autonomy we crave. As St. Timothy explained, we find ourselves “always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”. Or as the Psalmist declared, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

These are the limits of reason. It is not a failing of it but of us. When we reject God, we are also rejecting reason itself. We lose our ability to think rationally and neither logic or history can change our minds. As Jesus explained, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” We substitute “darkness for light, and light for darkness” and the only perfectly reasonable answer to existence appears to us as foolishness.

It is not always this way. “Come now, and let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” says the LORD. He promises that all those who diligently seek will find, through the help of His Spirit. This has been true for so many skeptics whose intent was to disprove Scripture but did so with a sincerity and earnestness. In doing so they received life and the world around them began to make sense.