Reason & Its Rivals

When faced with an unexplained phenomenon it may seem apparent that the best response is to investigate it. We can then assemble the data we have collected through our investigation, evaluate it and construct an hypothesis which explains the phenomenon with reference to all relevant facts. The obviousness of this approach, however, is a cultural construct rather than a ‘natural’ one. There are other potential responses to phenomena we do not understand and the investigative method merely happens to be the one which has become dominant in the West and in those regions under Western influence.

In the face of things we cannot explain we could be pragmatic, simply accepting our inability and finding ways to work around it. Alternatively we could consult an authority which we trust and accept its explanation for the matter in hand. Indeed, for practical purposes even in the scientific West these are the two approaches most of us adopt most of the time for most phenomena. We lack the time or skills to investigate every single thing we encounter so we either just deal with it or we take on trust the explanations offered by authorities in whom we have faith- parents, teachers, newspapers, scientists.

Of course we could argue that for the latter approach we are simply pursuing the investigative method at second hand since the authorities we rely upon have already pursued the matter on our behalf and, crucially, if we replicated their methods we would arrive at the same results which they have. This may be so but nonetheless we are still trusting that they have considered all the relevant facts and only the relevant facts and that their hypothesis is the only reasonable explanation for them which  is a series of big assumptions for us to make.

The word ‘reasonable’ introduces the idea of rationality to the process. Any explanation which does not conform to reason, in the Western perspective, cannot be accurate. Again, this is a culturally conditioned response. The idea that the universe is necessarily rational is the outcome of a thought process which began in the ancient world from the concept of a rational Divinity who ordered the cosmos in His likeness. Classical Greek philosophy took this as a starting point for investigation since there would be no point to investigating an irrational universe as it would be unpredictable. Christianity transmitted Classical Greek thought throughout Europe and laid it down as the foundation of philosophy and investigation.

As mediated by Christianity the Hellenic approach had certain dimensions added to it- each human life was considered to be of intrinsic worth, forgiveness was seen to be the key element of conflict resolution and so on. What was never lost was the primary importance of reason. Though divine revelation in the form of sacred scripture and sacred tradition was added to the datum which investigators were required to consider the principle laid down by Augustine- “If it happens that the authority of Sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning, this must mean that the person who interprets Scripture does not understand it correctly” (Quoted by John Paul II re Galileo) always held true. At least, it held true in theory if not in practice, believers are not always the best representatives of their own beliefs.

A Catholic might think that the West has being going to hell in a handcart ever since the Renaissance but the dominant schemas produced since that time- post-Medieval, post-Catholic, post-Christian- have held to the Classical principles as mediated by Christianity specifically the primacy of reason and the intrinsic worth of human life (although it might be argued that the justifications offered for the widespread practice of abortion demonstrate both the misuse of reason and the shifting sands upon which we construct the definition of what constitutes a human life to which we attribute value.) Where these principles are violated as in Nazi Germany or the mistreatment of refugees subsequent corrections always occur, though often after a huge price is paid in human suffering.

It may seem that credit for the victory of reason in the West should be given to the Greeks and that the Christian contribution has simply been that of preserver of truths which need only be stated to be accepted. The history of the Islamic world, however, should act as a corrective to this notion. Greek thought played a significant role in early Islamic civilisation and, indeed, it was from this source that many classical texts were re-introduced into Europe to play their part in developing Western thought. This occurred at a time when Muslims were engaged in a fierce philosophical battle between Mu’tazilism which argued that reason was the final arbiter in deciding right from wrong and Ash’arism which argued that divine revelation was the primary source of knowledge. The Mu’tazilites lost, were designated heretics and ceased to exist.

Ash’arism’s victory was a prelude to developments in Islamic thought which held that God, and therefore the universe He created, was not bound by reason which is a human category. Attempting to explain God and the universe by reason alone was a futile exercise. What was necessary was to develop an understanding of the contents of divine revelation which would tell us all we needed to know. Understanding was less important than acceptance and, anyway, reason was not a useful tool in helping us to understand.  The science that the Islamic world went on to develop was the science of hadith, that is, an exhaustive study of the sayings and deeds attributed to the founder of Islam and his companions. Knowing with accuracy what these were (and many of the hadiths are acknowledged to be unreliable or seemingly contradictory) would provide us with all the guidance necessary to our lives.

An example of this kind of approach can be seen in the practice of kissing the Black Stone in Mecca during the pilgrimage. The second successor of Muhammad, Caliph Umar, said

 ‘No doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit anyone nor harm anyone. Had I not seen Allah’s Apostle kissing you I would not have kissed you

There is really no theological justification for kissing a stone in Islam, indeed one would think it is precisely the kind of act that would be prohibited by a strict monotheistic  devotion to a transcendent deity, however since the Prophet did it it must be the will of God for all believers to do it. No rational justification is required in the presence of a revelation.

I’m not arguing that reason is incompatible with Islam as such, the Mu’tazilites clearly thought that it was, many Muslim scientists and thinkers are excellent users of the rational principle. What I am arguing is that the Greek philosophical principles are not self-evidently true and that if they have become necessary components of modern Western thought it is because they were preserved, enhanced and transmitted by thousands of Christian thinkers over thousands of years. Western civilisation may have taken a different turn had this Christian guardianship been overthrown and defeated as seemed likely to happen many times over the past two millennia. The contemporary question is ‘has Christianity outgrown its usefulness?’  Can the West afford to discard it and rely on the scientific method alone as the underpinning structure for its philosophies and values? I think the answer to that could only be ‘yes’ if the West found a convincing argument to demonstrate a) that the universe is rational and b) why the universe is rational. Absent those explanations then any philosophical construct will be based upon unexamined first principles which we accept pragmatically, because they are there, or on authority, because we trust our predecessors who accepted them. That is, reason will base itself on the two alternative approaches to the investigative method I outlined at the outset. And that would be unreasonable.


(I acknowledge the debt this post owes to the Regensburg Lecture of Pope Benedict XVI)

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My other blog is Catholic Scot





  1. When dealing with a long term international drift towards a particular kind of culture and set of values it may be more useful to think in terms of centuries than years or decades. Over time and despite variations in particular countries or during particular papacies Catholicism considered as a whole offers the most coherent and consistent opposition to the modernist drift. For that reason it is often identified as the chief object of hatred by the leading advocates of the emerging zeitgeist. Orthodoxy is hampered by disunity and by the particular stance they take on Church-State relationships. The Vatican has an independence from national states which enables it to stand firm in ways which, say, Orthodoxy in Russia cannot do. Moreover we cannot rule out the possibility of reunification of the Churches and such unity will retain a special role for the Apostolic See in Rome.

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