In an era when there is more information available than ever before, why is disciplined reasoning so rare? Wouldn’t one expect this to be reason’s golden age? Nevertheless, in political contests and in the debates surrounding the most important moral, social, and scientific issues of our time, there is a reasoning deficit. All too often, important issues are reduced to ad hominum attacks, sloganeering, scare tactics, or attempts to divide people by self-interest.
Even scientific debate, where one would expect to find a surfeit of reason, often falls prey to sloppy reasoning, with questionable extrapolation of data and poorly substantiated speculation. Often, the progression from observed or measured phenomena to conclusions lacks sound reason, reducing these conclusions to mere speculation. Sometimes, self-interest is the culprit, but more often the reasoning skills of the investigators, though trained scientists or engineers, are undeveloped or poorly formed.
In the early twentieth century, debates between G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, philosophical opposites on most issues, thrilled readers and listeners with their cogency and reliance on reason; where are their modern progeny? Ironically, many of the modern bastions of reason are Christians, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI being prominent examples. In addition to exploring revelatory truths, works like Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) display rigorous reasoning.
Reasoning relies on information, but more information does not imply better reasoning, especially when the mind is so cluttered that there is little time to reflect, or when the information that is admitted into the mind is inaccurate, passion-laden, superfluous, or irrational.
The deconstruction of reason can be laid, in part, at the doorstep of the psychological and social sciences, as these disciplines have reduced reason to the now-commonly held view that one opinion is as good as any other, my facts are as good as yours, my truths are as good as yours. When such views predominate, what is the value of honing reasoning skills? What is to be gained by pursuing truth when truth is just a conditioned or subjective viewpoint?
There are plenty of other threats to disciplined reason in our culture: a plundering mercantilism that believes economics trumps everything (an economic equation instead of reasoned debate); socialists who desires to make the state the arbiter of everything (letting the state do our reasoning for us); a consumerism in which bovine indifference alternates with irrational emotionalism; and even anti-intellectual believers who scorn science and intellectual development.
Then, there are “rational” atheists, who disparage religious belief and cloak themselves in a mantle of science and reason. Yet, they believe in black holes, The Big Bang, and string theory, the mathematics and physics of which even few scientists can comprehend. This is not to reject these theories about the universe, but to point out that such views require “faith” in theoretical physics (theories are often proven wrong or incomplete), as there are no means for the ordinary man to test these theories with his intellect or senses. We ought not cede the ground of reason to atheists, many of whom practice a superficial rationalism.
When one reasons, there is the possibility of experiencing breathtaking intellectual vistas, even Truth. But how can we learn these skills, especially when we are products of a culture that doesn’t value authentic reasoning, and of an educational system that has largely abandoned its application?
We begin by recognizing that objective truth exists, and by cultivating an honest desire to pursue it wherever it leads; we can receive good formation from what we read, listen to, and watch; we can challenge ourselves to read profound reasoners like Aquinas, Lincoln, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis; we can be receptive to considering new information, regardless of the source; we can plumb the information we receive by going deeper, verifying with independent sources, and taking time to test assertions that are being made; we can avoid making debates personal or polemical, keeping to the high ground of first principles and reason; and we can challenge conventional wisdom, even when we are ridiculed. None of these practices are contrary to our faith. Blessed John Paul II said, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”.
Reason works something like links in a chain. Each link in this reasoning chain is essential, as the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Problem is, many today are willing to “buy” a chain based on appearance alone, and with little consideration for the strength of the individual links. Reason depends on factual information, but reasoning is more than just lining up facts. Good reasoning elucidates facts and gives them meaning.
We need more men and woman who are capable of engaging the public with lucid reasoning, informed by faith, and buttressed by courage. There are many forums where disciplined reasoning can be applied: letters to the editor, blogs, op-eds, social media, and conversations with family and friends. The Church needs this, and so does our culture.