Reason and Beyond
Posted by turmarion
In going through old documents on my expansion drive, I found an essay that I had originally written for the defunct Beliefnet blog Kingdom of Priests. I don’t recall the context in which I originally wrote it. However, I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion of faith vs. reason, and the possibility of miracles. I have edited it very slightly, and will post it in “Religious Miscellany”, since it works best as a standalone essay, I think. Enjoy!
I think there are important distinctions to be made among the irrational, the nonrational, and the suprarational. “Irrational” means “against reason”–especially in the sense of “contrary to established, observable fact“–and is rightly used as a derogatory term. Examples would be believing that the Earth is flat, or that 2 + 2 = 18; or behaviorally, punching someone out because he’s wearing blue. In short, “irrational” means lacking reason in an area in which it is expected.
“Nonrational” means “not having to do with reason” and is neutral. All lower animals and computers are nonrational–they have no self-awareness* and do not reason. Even a computer does what it does automatically. Emotions and preferences are also nonrational, but not necessarily irrational. My preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate has nothing to do with reason–it’s a matter of taste–but it’s not irrational, either. No emotion is “reasonable”–emotions can be used for good or bad purposes, but they have their own domain while reason has its own area, as well. The interrelationship of emotion and reason is complex, but neither is “superior” to the other, or sufficient by itself. Reason by itself isn’t enough–as Chesterton said, the problem with the madman is not that he’s illogical, but that he’s only logical. Reason alone can’t give meaning, purpose, or proportion. In the words of the Scrpit song, “You can’t find faith or hope down a telescope”. On the other hand, emotion alone is incapable of exercising judgement. To jettison reason would put us at the mercy of every transient feeling. That way lies barbarism and chaos. True humanity is reason (or logic) and the non-rational (emotion and intuition) working together harmoniously (we hope!). To be pop-culture about it, you need Spock and McCoy!
“Suprarational” means “above rationality”. Religious (and many philosophical) ideas are often suprarational. The insight of the mystic or doctrines dealing with things beyond the material, empirical cosmos are suprarational. They can be neither investigated, proved, nor even rightly understood by pure reason alone (even Kant got that, with his “antinomies of pure reason”), but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not real or, in some sense, intelligible.
I think most reasonable (sorry!) people would have no problem with the first two categories. The third is the problem. Metaphysical materialists deny anything beyond the empirically observable cosmos, and thus tend (with a few eccentric exceptions) to dismiss mystic insights, metaphysical phenomena (in extreme cases, they reject metaphysics altogether–I’m looking at you, Neil DeGrasse Tyson), and phenomena beyond the material cosmos (God, spirits, life after death, etc.). From their perspective, the suprarational is actually irrational. Since it is definitionally impossible to “prove” or demonstrate the suprarational to a confirmed materialist, conversations between those who accept the suprarational and those who conflate it with the irrational are essentially impossible. Even if the materialist had a mystic, suprarational experience, he could always explain it away as an unknown physical or psychological phenomenon (though on the other hand he might change his views).
Thus, I stake out a tenuous middle ground. It seems unassailable to me that the mind is immaterial in part (since it is impossible otherwise to explain how we grasp objective but immaterial truths like mathematics; and also since some mystic experiences seem to me unassailably real)–thus I am as certain as I reasonably can be of the suprarational realm. On the other hand, it also seems impossible to make such notions credible to someone who rejects the suprarational a priori. Thus, while I do not think belief in God, spirits, the afterlife, etc. is irrational, I can understand how difficult it is to make this argument to a metaphysical materialist. I am also aware that many, many things previously attributed to the suprarational and supernatural have over time come to be understood in terms explainable by science and material processes.
Thus, I draw the following conclusions:
- The suprarational and supernatural exist and are objectively real–at least this much, and the existence of God, I think, can be shown to a reasonable degree of certainty to anyone of goodwill willing to look at the arguments without metaphysical bias.
- Moving on from there, I have accepted a particular religion (Catholicism) for reasons that I also think reasonable, but perhaps less evident than the broader questions of God’s existence and such.
- Having accepted my faith, there are certain supernatural aspects of it that I also accept (the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the existence of angels and demons, etc.).
- Given the competing claims of religions and the murkier issues involved, I would not necessarily expect a person of goodwill who accepts point 1 above also to accept 2 and certainly not 3, unless she’d already accepted 2 (for any given religion).
- Given 4, I don’t think that rejection of any given religion or any miracles or other supernatural beliefs it holds is a sign of ill-will. If a Jew doubts my belief in the Resurrection, or if I doubt the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, I don’t think it’s a matter of obstinacy. No religion is obvious, contra some–else we’d all be the same religion. So if someone thinks I’m crazy or deluded for believing in the True Presence, that’s fine–as long as he lets me practice my religion in peace, and as long as I have the right to view his beliefs as crazy, and leave him in peace to follow his faith. For the same reason, it doesn’t bother me if an atheist thinks the Jew, the Muslim, the Christian, and other believers are all crazy, as long as he leaves us in peace.
- Given how many things once thought to be supernatural have been found not to be so, I am not so attached to the suprarational aspects of my faith as to refuse other explanations when they become unassailable. Thus, for example, the literal account of Genesis is untenable in light of modern science; and thus it would be irrational to hold it against all evidence. So, I have core, non-negotiables (the existence of God, that Christ is His son, etc.), which if they could be falsified would force me to abandon my faith; and ancillary beliefs which are negotiable (e.g. what exact miracles were historical, the historicity of the Star of Bethlehem, etc.), depending on what we may discover, but which wouldn’t touch the core of my faith.
- For these reasons, I’m not willing to rule out a priori all supernatural or if you will, “paranormal”, phenomena tout court. There is strong anecdotal evidence for some such phenomena. However, I also realize that the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”, and that as we learn more the previously unexplained is often explicable in natural terms. Thus, my attitude towards the miraculous and the paranormal is what I’d call “open-minded skepticism”.
To give a concrete example of what I mean by this: Levitation is a phenomenon anecdotally well-attested in pretty much all human cultures throughout history. There is excellent anecdotal evidence for it, and some cases have the ring of authenticity (neutral observers, intelligent, non-superstitious observers, multiple observers at the same time, no motivations to lie, etc.). However, I am of course aware that levitation violates pretty much all of physics as we understand it, and that it has never, not even once, been demonstrated under rigorously controlled conditions of scientific observation. Thus, I’d say this about the subject:
A. I don’t reject out of hand the possibility that levitation has occurred or does occur.
B. In certain cases (some of the better documented cases of the saints, or perhaps even Daniel Home), there seems enough evidence that I’d say provisionally that levitation actually happened.
C. Such levitation I would attribute to supernatural forces (God, angels, etc.), not to unknown natural forces, since if the latter were the case, it ought to be duplicable and explicable in terms of modern physics, when in fact this is not the case.†
D. If this is the result of supernatural forces, the lack of ability to “prove” levitation isn’t a problem, since the Divine works as It wills and is not bound to providing empirical proof.††
E. On the other hand, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. In light of this, I would not commit to absolute belief in any given incident of levitation, and if evidence debunking a case I thought likely arose, I’d readily accept it. I certainly wouldn’t base my religious faith on levitation–if every supposed instance of levitation in the Christian traditions of the saints were definitively disproved tomorrow, it wouldn’t affect my faith.
F. In short–levitation may occur, and there are some instances in which I think the preponderance of the evidence is that it did occur, but evidence against it (if such evidence is available) must always be given precedence, and basing one’s faith on such a phenomenon is a gross mistake.
I would add that for any mature believer, the crux of religion is how it speaks to his place in the cosmos and the moral and spiritual demands it makes on him. It seems to me that any mature faith must always consider supernatural or paranormal phenomena (even if one’s faith condones them and even if one believes them likely) as secondary. They may happen, and that may be nice, but they cannot be controlled and it is wrong to base one’s belief and faith on them.
*I should note that this does not accurately represent my current views, or really the views I had at the time I wrote this, admittedly in haste. I think there is evidence that at least some species of animals do indeed have self-awareness. A few species may even have true intelligence, albeit of a different kind than that of humans. I have come to think this ever more likely over the years; and I am working on posts dealing with this issue, in fact. For now, suffice it to say that the issue here is not the level of awareness of animals, but the definition of “nonrational”.
†I think I would nuance this now. It may be that there are aspects of the physical cosmos that are “natural”–things we’d understand if we knew enough–but which we cannot understand or control enough to duplicate as things stand now. Perhaps at some future date our understanding will advance to the point that levitation, for example, could be performed at will. Alternately, there may be processes that are not the direct action of God, nor are they normal physical processes such as energy, gravity, etc. There may be some middle ground between the strictly supernatural (God did it) and ordinary physics. This would be what theologians sometimes term the “preternatural“. Anyway, what exactly is happening in any given instance of levitation or other miraculous or paranormal phenomena, might vary from case to case.
††In the case of preternatural, paranormal, or other such explanations, I have been very much influenced by George Hansen’s fascinating and excellent book The Trickster and Paranormal. The book resists easy summary, but Hansen’s basic thesis is that paranormal events–what in other contexts are often construed as the miraculous–are strongly associated with the Trickster archetype. Among the various characteristics of the Trickster archetype is–well, that it’s tricky. Fraud and deception often blend almost seamlessly with real phenomena, and even the most noted psychics, sensitives, and so on can’t always produce results on demand. This seems on the face of it to be a copout–“It’s intrinsically unrepeatable, so you can’t use scientific criteria!” Hansen is much subtler than that, though, and I think he makes a fair case. More generally, it is certainly true that many unquestionable events are not repeatable–history, for example. Heck, even Michael Jordan couldn’t always hit the basket! Thus, while repeatability is an important criterion, I don’t think it’s the end-all or be-all.
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