Faith and Reason – Part 3

On the one hand there are the pro-reason folks: atheists, skeptics, naturalists, humanists, and Marxists. On the other hand there are the pro-faith folks: theists, mystics, supernaturalists, religious believers, New Agers, and Existentialists. The pro-reason people are anti faith and the pro-faith people are anti reason. The big question is:

Q1. Which is better, reason or faith?

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Some of the pro-reason crowd thinks that faith has its place in life, and most pro-faith people would object to being characterized as being anti reason. Many would claim that faith and reason do not conflict with each other, and that a person can be both pro reason and pro faith. This viewpoint raises more key questions:

Q2. Is faith a real alternative to reason?
Q3. Do reason and faith sometimes conflict with each other?
Q4. Do reason and faith have separate and distinct intellectual jurisdictions, so that they
can never come into conflict with each other?

Question (Q1) cannot be settled until we have clear answers to two basic conceptual questions:

Q5. What is reason?
Q6. What is faith?

Since we are among the pro-reason crowd, it makes sense to start with (Q5), and then when we have a clear answer to that question, to move on to (Q6). In my previous post on Faith and Reason (08/29/08), I started to look at an important and related question:

Q7. Can we justify rationality?

If we can justify rationality, then we will have a firm pro-reason position to start from in addressing (Q6) and ultimately (Q1). Dealing with (Q7) will also involve answering (Q5). If we can justify rationality, then we will have justified reason, at least in the sense of “reason” intended by the contrast between faith and reason.

To determine whether we can justify rationality, we must first clarify this concept:

Q8. What is rationality?

My dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition) gives three different definitions of “rational” that seem relevant:

1. Having or exercising the ability to reason.
2. Of sound mind: sane.
3. Consistent with or based on reason; logical: rational behavior.

Definition (3) seems the best for this context. In trying to justify rationality, we are trying to justify the idea that one should base beliefs and actions on reason or logical thinking. However, the two other definitions also have relevance. It seems to me that what we have here is different degrees or levels of rationality.

There are two main types of mental deficiency: mental disorders, and mental retardation. People who suffer from mental illness are to various degrees irrational. People who are mentally retarded might not be irrational, but they are deficient in rationality. Even so, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded still have or exercise the ability to reason. They too are “rational animals” who are capable of drawing inferences from facts and experiences. They can perceive objects in their environment, remember events, and draw conclusions based on their perceptions, beliefs, and memories. The thinking of mentally ill and mentally retarded people may not in general be as clear and as logical and as well-informed as the thinking of people who don’t have to deal with these conditions, but it is still human thinking.

If we set aside people who have serious mental disorders and people who are mentally retarded, and just consider people who are mentally healthy and normal, then such people are, in general, capable of a greater degree of rationality. Yet we know that “normal” people are not always rational and logical in their actions and beliefs. People of normal mental health and capability are often unreasonable and illogical (How else can we explain the fact that 50% of the US wants McCain to be our next President?). In fact Freud, Marx, and Sartre agree that humans are the “irrational animal” in that human thinking is all-to-often clouded by irrational impulses and drives (e.g. wishful thinking), by false consciousness (socially-fostered delusions that serve to maintain an unjust status quo), and bad faith. So “mentally normal” does not mean reasonable or logical.

At the upper end of the scale, we have mentally normal people who are also reasonable and logical. We could use the positive label “critical thinker” to categorize this sort of person. Just as there are degrees of irrationality among the mentally ill, so there are also degrees of rationality among critical thinkers. Critical thinking involves intellectual skills, habits of thought, intellectual virtues, and experience with conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some critical thinkers have stronger intellectual skills than others. Some have stronger intellectual virtues than others. Some have more experience than others in conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some have a clearer grasp than others of key intellectual standards.

To be continued…

Religious Experience – Recognizing God
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
Please Support the Ultimate Counter-Creationism Resource, Troubles in Paradise (TIP)!
Rape them Atheists!
About Stephen Law
  • Charlie

    On the one hand there are the pro-reason folks: atheists, skeptics, naturalists, humanists, and Marxists. On the other hand there are the pro-faith folks: theists, mystics, supernaturalists, religious believers, New Agers, and Existentialists. The pro-reason people are anti faith and the pro-faith people are anti reason.

    Oversimplified, propagandistic nonsense. Atheists are “pro-reason” and theists are “anti-reason”? Is this a joke?

    No wonder almost nobody takes this blog seriously.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to Charlie…

    Your objection would carry more weight if you had bothered to read more than just the first paragraph!

    [Side comment- One problem that many Christian theists have is failing to read passages in context, including passages of the Bible. Proof-texting is a widespread bit of uncritical thinking among Christians, even well-educated Christians.]

    If you read beyond the first paragraph you will see that I am mostly raising questions here rather than arguing for conclusions.

    The conclusions that I argue for are general conceptual points that have little to do with theists vs. atheists.

  • Charlie


    Your reply would be more worthwhile if you didn’t make so many baseless assumptions. For your information, I did read the whole entry, fallacies and all.

    [Side comment- One problem that many illogical atheists like Bradley Bowen have is failing to read passages in context, including passages of the Bible, and making baseless assumptions about people they've never met. Sloppy reading and thinking are widespread among atheists, especially illogical atheists like Bradley Bowen]

    Hey Brad, let us know when you’re ready to think clearly and when you’re ready to stop relying on pathetic propaganda and soundbites.

  • Jim Lippard

    While I don’t agree with Charlie’s overall assessment, I think your opening paragraph puts Marxists on the wrong side of the ledger. It may be materialist dogma, but it is religiously held dogma nonetheless. The division you draw is also certainly as hyperbolic as this song from “Moral Orel,” but at least you note correctly that it is an “oversimplification.”

  • al fin

    All ideologies are faith-based, whether or not a supernatural force is explicitly invoked.

    One needs to understand the limits of human reason and cognition, and to acquire just a bit of humility on the path. It is not about scoring points. It is about achieving greater understanding.

    It is naive in the extreme–and a sign of youthful inexperience–to take an “our side vs. their side” approach to this type of argument.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to Charlie…

    “Your reply would be more worthwhile if you didn’t make so many baseless assumptions. For your information, I did read the whole entry, fallacies and all.”

    Even my mother could make such a general and unsupported criticisms. I hope that you can do better than this.

    If there are “many baseless assumptions” and “fallacies” in my essay, then perhaps you could do me the favor of pointing out one or two specific examples of such errors?

    Until you provide specifics, your objection is just an emotional outburst unworthy of serious attention.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to Jim…

    Yes, many Marxists are dogmatic and uncritical thinkers. Some Marxists are, however, more open-minded and capable of thinking critically.

    I don’t think of myself as a Marxist, but I have great respect for Karl Marx’s attempt to evaluate social practices and beliefs in an objective and empiraccly-based fashion.

    When I put Marxism on the pro-reason side of the ledger, I was thinking about Marx as the father of Sociology, and as a critical thinker who looked to empirical facts rather than socially-fostered prejudices to answer important questions about society.

  • Jim Lippard

    Bradley: “I have great respect for Karl Marx’s attempt to evaluate social practices and beliefs in an objective and empiraccly-based fashion.”

    Well, I disagree, since I think Hegelian historicism is anti-empirical nonsense.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Response to Jim…

    Did you mean historical materialism? From Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy (“Karl Marx”):
    “Historical materialism — Marx’s theory of history — is centered around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power. Marx sees the historical process as proceeding through a necessary series of modes of production, culminating in communism.”

    Or did you mean historicism in the following sense (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Philosophy of History”):

    “A third important thread within philosophical reflections on history concerns the relation between history and the constitution of humanity. In what sense are human beings ‘historical’ creations? How do human beings relate to our historical origins? How do human culture and human nature reflect and embody history? Historicism is the view that human creations—meanings, values, language, institutions, and culture—are historical products, the results of previous historical circumstances, and that historical change is in turn the result of historically constructed persons. So human beings are both historically constructed and historically creative. Universalism, by contrast, maintains that people are essentially the same, whether in ancient Egypt or contemporary Brooklyn; so the task of historical explanation is to discover how people much like us might have been led to act as they did.”

  • Jim Lippard

    Perhaps I’m overestimating the extent to which Marx was influenced by Hegel’s historicism (that there’s an inevitable sequence of stages of development through the thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern), based on Marxists who advocate dialectical materialism. But yes, my intent was to refer to Marx’s particular philosophy of history–historical materialism–to the extent that it follows Hegel. (And not to refer to historicism in the sense in the passage you quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

    My view is that German philosophers whose last names begin with “H” tend to produce impenetrable prose of little value.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Response to Jim…

    I only have had one graduate level course in Political Philosophy. It did cover Marx, but the focus was on moral aspects of his thinking (exploitation, alienation, and surplus theory of value). That was about 15 years ago too, so many of my Marxism-ladden brain cells have died or become non-functional.

    According to Flew, Dialectical Materialism is a metaphysical theory, and Historical Materialism is a theory in the social sciences (history/sociology). Dialectical Materialism was discussed by Engels and not by Marx. Englels did the philosophical/metaphysical thinking for Marxism. Marx was focued on historical, economic, and sociological issues.

    Let’s start with the metaphysical theory of Dialectical Materialism. Materialism was conceived of in contrast or opposition to Idealism. Idealism being conceived of as making Mind or Consciousness primary and Matter secondary: Matter being dependent on Mind.

    Materialism was mostly a negative concept (like atheism), the rejection of Idealism. More positively, Materialism was the idea that Matter was primary, and Mind or Consciousness secondary: Mind being dependent on Matter.

    I am a Materialist, in this sense, and I think you are as well.

    What is DIALECTICAL Materialism? This derives from Hegel’s idea of Dialectic (changes come about as the result of struggle and opposition which results in something new, a synthesis of the opposing forces). Dialectical Materialsm, should be contrasted with other sorts of Materialism, such as Atomistic Materialism, Mechanistic Materialism, Reductionist Materialism, and Eliminative Materialsim. A key difference being that Dialectical Materialism allows for the production of truly new things or substances. Mind or Consciousness, for example, can be viewed as more than an illusion (as in Reductive and Eliminative Materialism). Mind can be viewed as something new that arises out of internal forces and tensions in Matter.

    At this very high level, Dialectical Materialism seems appealing to me. It appears to be a form of Materialism that one might call “Evolutionary” Materialism. It makes room for recognizing Mind and Consciouness as real phenomena while at the same time holding to the primacy of Matter.

    The tie to Evolution is interesting. Darwin’s theory of Evolution seems like an example of Dialectical Materialist thinking. Darwin was opposed to teleological explanation in biology. He challenged the idea that there was a master plan and a designer of living things, and that the history of life was purposive. He thus challenged an IDEALIST conception of the history of life and proposed a MATERIALIST conception of the history of life.

    Furthermore, the primary engine of change in Darwin’s theory is the struggle for survival in the face of limited resources. It is out of the struggle between individuals of a species and competition between different species, that drove changes to living things, and that even accounts for something radically new in the universe: Minds.

    To the extent that the Theory of Evolution is an example or application of Dialectical Materialism, I’m inclined favorably towards this sort of Materialism.

    Is Dialectical Materialism “anti-empirical”? Perhaps. It depends on what you mean by “anti-empirical”. If you mean simply that it is contrary to empirical facts, then I would like to know which facts you have in mind. If you mean that it is non-scientific, that it is not subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation, then I’m not sure whether that is a valid or strong objection to a metaphysical (i.e. philosophical) theory. If you mean it is anti-scientific, then I’m inclined to disagree, but would like to hear more about why you think so.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Since Jim has not responded to my defense of Dialectical Materialism, I will raise an objection to my own comments.

    As a metaphysical theory, I take it that the scope of Dialectical Materialism is very broad. It is an attempt to say something of significance that applies to virtually all types of change: physical, mental, spiritual (if there is such a thing),biological, psychological, social, and historical.

    Given this very broad scope, it is not surpising that some examples (such as the Theory of Evolution) can be produced that have some fit with this metaphysical theory. However, a few positive examples does not provide much support for a theory of such scope. Think of all the different types of change that can occur. There are many types of just physical change: acceleration, deceleration, direction of motion, temperature, heat energy, color, sound, shape, size, weight, mass, electrical charge, radioactivity, magnetic field, acidity, surface roughness, etc.

    Can all of the various types of physical changes be meaningfully explained in terms of struggle or opposition of two forces that leads to evolution of a new type of entity or force? This seems extremely unlikely.

    The idea behind Dialectical Materialism might be useful in explaining some kinds of change (such as the evolution of new species of plants or animals), but the fact that chemistry and physics have progressed quite well without any such universal explanation of all types of physical change indicates that Dialectical Materialism has little to offer us.

    I would say that Dialectical Materialism is “anti-empirical” in the sense that it simply does not fit the facts. It is a very broad theory that might fit with a few types of change, but that fails to fit or explain many types of change that occur.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Historical Materialism is narrower in scope that Dialectical Materialism, and it is supposed to be a theory of history, and thus subject to empirical confirmation and disconfirmation. Also, Historical Materialism derives more from Marx, while Dialectical Materialism is more from Engels.

    Before I comment on whether Historical Materialism is “anti-empirical”, I want to point out that Marx made a contribution to the development of critical thinking:

    “Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

    Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

    In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte and Spencer. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwin’s Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many deep probings of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

    In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a land-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology, Folkways, in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination…”

    Excerpted from: “A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking”

    {Taken from the California Teacher Preparation for Instruction in Critical Thinking: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations: State of California, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Sacramento, CA, March 1997. Principal authors: Richard Paul, Linda Elder, and Ted Bartell }

  • Einzige

    To briefly come to the defense of Jim in the midst of this voluminous barrage of verbiage, here is a snippet of what Karl Popper has to say about Marx and his “Sociological Determinism” in Chapter 13 of The Open Society and Its Enemies

    One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world’s most influential fighters against hypocrisy and pharisaism. … In spite of his merits, Marx was, I believe, a false prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true… [H]e misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. …Marxism is a purely historical theory, a theory which aims at predicting the future course of economic and power-political developments and especially of revolutions. …There is no reason why we should believe that, of all sciences, social science is capable of realizing the age-old dream of revealing what the future has in store for us.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to einzige…

    Nice quote from Popper.

    It appears to support both my view of Marx as an exemplary critical thinker (openmindedness, sense of facts, influential fighter of hypocrisy), and also Jim’s view (Marx was a false prophet).

    I agree with both points. Marx saw working class people being exploited in capitalist nations by the owners of the means of production. He predicted that the workers would eventually figure out that they were being exploited and would join together in a revolution that would eliminate the capitalist system.

    Instead, communist revolutions took place in non-capitalist countries, and the predicted revolutions failed to take place in capitalist countries.

    I think one reason why the revolutions did not occur was the success of labor unions and another was the influence of labor parties or labor-leaning parties (e.g. Democrat Party) in bringing about compromises between the interests of the working class and the owners of the means of production. Nowadays there is also the fact that working class people can have partial ownership in the means of production by owning stock in companies.

    One small caveat: predicting an “inevitable” revolution of workers seems a bit like predicting the second coming of Jesus. Unless one specifies a date, these prediction cannot be falsified. To the extent that Marx’s prediction was open-ended like the prediction of the return of Jesus, this key claim is “anti-empirical” in the sense that it is not subject to empirical falsification.

    However, the more time that goes by without a workers’ revolution in capitalist countries, and without Jesus appearing in the sky, the less plausible the prediction, so historical facts do appear to have relevance to evaluating these predictions.