Reason, when it is used properly, gets us to the truth of things. It inherently separates the certain from the speculative, the scientific from the superstitious, the true from the false, the important from the trivial, even the moral from the immoral.
And it provides the grounds for belief. For belief is a conclusion based on rational certitude, or at least on a very high likelihood of certainty. If neither of these two circumstances are evident, belief should be withheld pending further analysis and review. Rational review of the essential facts, the rational deductions, the strength of the case, all should precede belief, particularly about any significant question such as metaphysical or moral ones.
But reason’s reputation has fallen on hard times. Its once vaunted position and power has been diminished as science became the dominant method for ascertaining truth. Over the last four centuries, reason’s dominion waned as we came to believe physical demonstrations of truth were the only real truths about which we could be truly certain. Assertions of truth that could not be demonstrated empirically were increasingly viewed as matters of opinion.
But this inversion of science’s primacy over reason, despite its wide acceptance, is false for several reasons.
First, the assertion that science is the only way to find truth cannot be tested scientifically. Secondly, the case for science as the sole source of truth must be made with reason, not with science. Thirdly, the assertion of science’s dominance belies the composite nature of the empirical method which is guided by reason from hypothesis development to conclusions and every intervening step in the empirical process.
It is clear that science is contingent on reason. Reason is the primary way of knowing. It guides the sciences’ empirical inquiries and is crucial in our use of these scientific truths in the many applied sciences and related industries. Reason is essential in our search for the truth, no matter where we look for it, be it in the tangible realm of our lives or in its many intangible dimensions.
Yet we have lost sight of reason’s place in finding the truth about life’s many intangible aspects beyond reason’s role in all the physical sciences. And our exaggerated preconceptions about science’s capability and our faulty preconceptions about reason’s inability hamper our use of reason; these preconceptions can cause us to overlook or deny the other truths we sense and need. For truth is all around us, if we just take the time to think through matters rationally and rigorously.
Let’s take a look at a few examples to see how much truth is right in front of us, waiting to be discovered. We’ll start with a tough one, the single most important question anyone at any time can ever ask: Does God exist? That’s a big question. It is our most crucial question, regardless of our intuitions, our guesses, our hypotheses. For the implications of this question are so vast, so complex, and so deep it almost defies our comprehension and even our imagination.
There are just two possible answers: God exists, or God does not exist.
Can reason get us to the truth about God’s existence? We can know without the merest hint of doubt that the truth about God’s existence, one way or the other, is certain. God’s existence, one way or the other, can be established by thoroughly examining the evidence for each alternative.
There is no middle ground here. No room for compromise. No appeal to the primacy of personal perception. The truth about God’s existence is a matter of science and reason, a matter of fact. Anyone may have an opinion, but their opinion may be right or wrong depending on the evidence. Either God exists or God does not exist.
So, who is right about God’s existence? Briefly, let’s consider the case using reason alone. If, as atheists presume, there is no God, then all we have left is the universe: matter, energy, space, time. That’s it. This is “naturalism.”
Logically, that means everything must be explained by appealing only to those physical things. How, then, do we explain the human mind and our rational abilities that are inherent in scientific investigation? Limiting human consciousness and thought to the material world of matter and energy means thinking is merely a matter of neural activity, the activity in our brains.
Our sensation of thought, according to naturalism, is just that: a mere sensation, a temporary phenomenon of biological activity, a byproduct of neural firings. Our rational processes are just active neurons. But what if someone thinks irrationally and illogically? Are they wrong? Isn’t their thinking just following a different physical neural path or sequence? And if consciousness and thought is only physical activity, then reason itself becomes just neural activity.
Sound reasoning or flawed reasoning aren’t really different if all there is to reasoning is its biological manifestations. If all reasoning and knowing is simply biological, then there is really no way to distinguish between sound or fallacious reasoning. And if reason is undermined by a materialist perspective, the power of science is lost as well. We have no way of really knowing anything, if reason is only biological, merely neural biochemical events.
For if we are just biochemistry, we have no way of knowing that all we are is biochemistry. The argument against the existence of God beginning with the assumption that there is nothing beyond the physical cosmos implodes on its own as a result of its naturalistic assumptions.
But looking at the physical cosmos from the possibility of God’s existence takes us in a far different direction. If we understand that everything that exists is an effect and every effect must have a cause, a prior cause, then the entire cosmos traces back to an initial cause or causes. Nowadays we call this the “big bang” – the first moment of space and time, matter and energy.
But what caused this initial dawning of the entire cosmos? Space, time, matter, and energy are all effects that must have a cause. That is just a law of logic and a physical reality of science. If we discover the initial cause of the big bang, what caused that cause?
Sooner or later we must see that there must be an uncaused causer, a cause without a prior cause; it must be a non-contingent cause of great power, capable of decision making, capable of creating everything from nothing. Why? Because it is a rational necessity based on the logical and scientific law of cause and effect. There is no way around this law, despite appeals to infinity or multiple universes.
We see how reason, the same reason used in mathematics and in empirical investigation, can be employed most effectively to get to the truth about other crucial questions. Let’s look at another big topic not rooted in science to demonstrate the rigor of reason and its ability to get to the truth about other important aspects of life. That is the question of religion.
Like the existence of God, the question about the truth of religion presents the same dynamic structure. First, we must ascertain a comprehensive list of all the real possibilities when it comes to religion and religious belief. Second, we must be certain how each possibility is different, unique from the other options on this exhaustive list. Thirdly, we must examine the evidence for each of those distinct possibilities.
There are essentially six different categories of belief about the question of God, the basic theological premise of any given religion.
First is atheism. Atheism denies that there is any god, deity, or divinity of any kind. Next is agnosticism, which claims that knowledge about such a divine entity is unknown or unknowable. Deism is a belief in some kind of higher power that could be a being or a force of some sort, though generally this divine entity is distant and uninterested in human affairs.
Pantheism is the belief that everything is god or part of some kind of cosmic consciousness, as in Buddhism. Polytheism is a belief in many gods who are beings or persons, such as the Greek and Roman gods or the Hindu religion.
Finally, there is monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. The major monotheistic faiths are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These monotheistic faiths entail many different theological, philosophical, ecclesiological and moral beliefs, but they are all monotheistic religions.
In summary, these are the options: There is no god (atheism). There is no way to know about god (agnosticism). There is some obscure divine being/essence (deism). Everything is god (pantheism). There are many Gods (polytheism). There is one God (monotheism). This is an exhaustive list. Not only is it exhaustive, but each of these possibilities is mutually exclusive. There is no way to fuse, combine, or synthesize them.
What we can know for certain is only one of these six possibilities can be true. All the others are wrong. Despite our modern penchant for compromise or avoiding judgement, only one of this limited number of real possibilities can be true. Reason and reality dictate the existence of only one truth about God, despite our proclivity to mask these real differences behind a façade of inclusion and sensitivity.
Examining the evidence for each of these types–be it rational or moral, scientific or philosophic, intuitive or historical–is essential to finding which is the truth about the question of religion. But the presence of an exhaustive list of mutually exclusive possibilities tells us with utter certainty that there is one possibility which is right and true and all the others are wrong.
We know when reason is employed inside the realm of science, its inherent power is undeniable and undeniably useful. For science relies on reason to expand human knowledge. But reason, more directly applied to the ultimate and crucial questions of life, leads to remarkable truths about the deep context and rich content of our daily lives.
Reason, rightly and rigorously used, leads all who use it to the essence and substance of life. It reveals the truth about life and the actual limits of human knowledge. It shows us the ultimate meaning of life and the moral means by which we are to pursue this.
For reason illumines the truth. Its shows us goodness and love, order and beauty. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, “Reason in man is rather like God in the world.”
• This is the second of a three-part series on The Triumph of Truth. The first, “The Triumph of Truth: Overlooking the Obvious”, was published on July 27, 2020.