Reason, Arguments, And Truth

Reason, Arguments, And Truth November 3, 2021

Wooofer: Palamas / Wikimedia Commons

Faith and reason are both important; the two complement and correct each other, so that when properly working together, they make sure we are not led astray. Reason helps us purify our understanding of the faith, while faith provides various principles which reason can never provide for itself. Reason can only direct us forward, it can never establish anything in and of itself. It can only develop what has been given to it; it cannot create. If what is given is little, what reason will provide is little. It would be foolish to assume the only truth is that which we can establish by reason alone. This is because we need to give reason its proper foundation, its proper seed. It never knows the truth in and of itself.

When dealing with theological matters, those who have little to no experience in spiritual matters, therefore, can be led astray if they think that all they need to do is believe what they can reason out for  themselves. This is because they pridefully discuss matters which are beyond them and their experiences. They don’t know enough to make sound arguments. St. Gregory Palamas understood this, which is why he was often critical of those who engaged theology. All they did was make rational arguments based upon uncertain, sometimes erroneous, premises. Or else they engaged scholarly studies, which could serve them some good if they read and believed the right things, but without spiritual experiences, without a way to judge scholarly arguments, they could easily be led to believe the wrong conclusions, especially as such studies encourages them to focus merely on what they can reason and think such activity, by itself, is enough. But it is not enough for they will not be able to know the truth in this fashion: “Someone who has faith in his own reasoning and the problems which it poses, who  believes he can discover all truth by making distinctions, syllogisms and logical analysis, can neither know the things of the spiritual man directly, or believe in them.”[1]

Truth is not established through logic; logic only helps us delineate and discuss the truth which we have come to apprehend. We cannot create the truth. We cannot prove the truth through logic. The truth, ultimately, is not revealed through such arguments; arguments only help us in our understanding of that truth. If we do not have some experience of it ourselves, then our rational arguments, no matter how sound they are, will leave us wanting. Start with the wrong premises, and logic will lead you to the wrong conclusion. It is for this reason why Palamas said that for every word, every argument which we could make in favor of the truth, someone else could provide arguments against it:

Every word,” it is said, “argues with some other word.” But what word can argue with life? We think that it is impossible to know yourself by methods of distinction, argument and analysis unless you free your nous from pride and evil by laborious repentance and active asceticism. Someone who has not worked on his nous by these means will not even know his own poverty in his domain of knowledge. [2]

Only those who have, with their mind, apprehended the truth will be able to discern which arguments best represent that truth. It is pride which makes us think we can, through reason alone, prove the truth. How do we expect to do so when those truths transcend the human intellect to comprehend? We can apprehend it. We can experience it. But we must not, out of pride, think we can invent irrefutable arguments which will lead people to hold the same belief as we do. Our experiences will differ. Our apprehensions will differ. Our relationship with the truth will differ. What Palamas suggests is that we must find a way to lead people to share in our apprehensions, to share in our experiences (or to have faith in them, if they cannot have them themselves). Then, our arguments will help them, not because those arguments will prove what we know, but because they will help elucidate and explain what it is we have apprehended in common. This is why Palamas, in arguing against pure rationalism, would employ all kinds of arguments in favor of what he had to say; their purpose is to persuade people to follow after him, to share in his experiences, so that they can perceive and apprehend the truth for themselves (or to realize and understand better what they have already experienced). Thus, like many before him, he suggested what is most important is what we do. How we live out our lives reveals the truth better to others than if we tried to reveal the truth to them through arguments alone: “As for us, we believe that the true doctrine is not what is known through words and arguments, but what is demonstrated in people’s works and lives. That is not only the truth, but the only certain and immutable truth.” [3]

Palamas did not deny the value of theological science, but he understood its limitations. He wanted all who would engage it to be humble. Faith is important, and so if a person accepted, without experience, what others truly have experienced, they do a good thing. Nonetheless, if they try to add to it arguments from reason without first having an experience of the truth itself, their pride will have them stray from the truth. But because of their faith, they will not stay as far as those who would try to use reason as the sole foundation for their knowledge. Such people tend to apply it skeptically to all things, until at last, either all they have is nothing but pure skepticism, or they will have seen through the limitations of reason and so find themselves capable of using it properly, not expecting to prove all things through it, but rather to elucidate those things which they have come to know or believe. This connects with his greater theological enterprise, because Palamas tells us that what we come to believe is what we see and experience of the truth as it presents itself to us; that is, we know God, not through God’s essence, nor by what we can deduce about it through our reason, but by God’s activities, the uncreated energies of God. For it is those energies which reveal what we can apprehend of the truth for ourselves.


[1] St. Gregory Palamas: The Triads: Books One. Trans. Robin Amis (Wellington, Somerset: Praxis, 2002), 103 [This is from the complete translation of the first book, which is not otherwise found in in the Westerns of Spirituality Volume of the Triads that I normally use].

[2] St. Gregory Palamas: The Triads: Books One, 104.

[3] St. Gregory Palamas: The Triads: Books One, 104.


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