Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ramblings on Reason

Reason is a funny thing. We know it is infallible when used objectively. That is if you start with true premises and use sound reasoning you cannot end up with false conclusions. But reasoning can be biased. It can accept premises without solid reasons. It can accept unsound arguments without knowing it. We see this in other people all the time. We know because we have reasoned to different conclusions. So we convince ourselves their logic is flawed.

We are much less likely to see the problem in ourselves. We trust our own reason beyond what is reasonable. It is a form of pride. When we really like an argument we hold onto it tightly. Even when many other arrive at different conclusions. We tend to look for specks in the other guys argument before can see the logs in out own.

The scientific method is a partial solution to this. What it does is it connects our arguments with observations. We can design an experiment to try and disprove theories we don't like. If we succeed we have a much more powerful tool to convince skeptics. Well-designed experiments are objective and repeatable. If somebody does not like the conclusion they can do the experiment themselves. They can dispute the results or show how the design of the experiment is flawed. Those are both hard to do if normal methods have been followed.

So science has allowed people to arrive at many solid truths by purifying the reason. Arguments that lead to conclusions that don't match experimental results are thrown out. So a strong consensus becomes normal.

But not all knowledge can be the subject of controlled experiments and not all observations are objective. So the scientific method becomes less useful when we move into human sciences like psychology and sociology. It is still useful but experiments are less repeatable and experiment designs are less rigorous. So reason is less purified and false conclusions are more likely. This get more extreme when moving into areas like philosophy and religion.

So what purifies our reason in these areas? Faith. When we know things by revelation we can use them to correct bad theories and arrive at consensus. If the revelation is true we are still guaranteed to arrive at true conclusions. Reason has to conform to faith and faith has to conform to reason because they both are sources of truth.

But there is a problem. When we arrive at a conclusion that we really like and it contradicts revealed truth we do have a choice. We can throw out our conclusion and thank God for keeping us from that bad path. But we can also question the revelation. That is the easier option for us because it does not involve swallowing our pride. When our reason contradicts scientific experimental results we don't even consider questioning that. We trust that process. But when it contradicts doctrine we have that choice. Do we really believe God's revelation or don't we.

This is why we need to get straight what is infallibly revealed and what is not. We need to know when we need to reorder our thinking to conform to an article of faith and when we don't. That can be a huge deal. Major systems of thought might need to be discarded. It can involve your most private thinking about how you view the world. You can't just wave your hand and avoid the question of whether something is infallibly defined.


  1. On the other hand, as John McKee says in “The Enemy Within the Gate”: “[S]ome who are utterly sincere in reprobating anything which smacks of ‘legalism’ still betray a juridical approach towards papal authority because of a hypnosis induced by the first Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility. They have discarded their son-to-father, or flock-to-shepherd, relationship in a way undreamed of by the Council Fathers, a way against which tradition cries out …. Human beings being frail, this imbalance has naturally been rife mainly among those who were already deviating from Catholic doctrine even if only by a minor angle of deflection. To them, papal decisions have been disagreeable, and they have received them, not with ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Paul,’ but with the words, ‘Is he speaking infallibly? If not, I need not accept.’ Such an attitude is out of touch with the realities of life. It is as if people would agree to travel by train only if guaranteed that the driver was incapable of error; rather, as if the flock refused to follow God’s appointed shepherd without a written guarantee ruling out any possible slip.” [p. 60]

  2. Infallibility gives us boundaries. They are good to have when we are in danger of going far astray. But God also provides us some guides to follow. The lines to avoid crossing should not normally be the focus. They are there for when we are off course. Infallibility tells you where the minefields are. But you still need to know how to get to your destination.