The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Human, Reason, and Human Reason

So suppose you come to think that the application of human reason to the problems of the world is in most cases futile. Suppose you think that it is folly and hubris to try to "understand" the world, whether through philosophy, hard science, social science, or whatever. What have you left? What I want to suggest is that what you have left is a choice between nihilism and faith. Nihilism acquiesces in the absurdity of life and underwrites a lot of literature and film (but mostly people reading fashionable magazines in fashionable coffee houses in university towns). Nihilism is, I think, a failure of nerve, a form of cowardice. I do have some respect for true Nietzscheans, I would have made a good one myself. Sadly most nihilists suffer from a serious lack of nerve and basically go mystic (Thomas Nagal's book on the meaning of life is a good example. I also think of what Bertrand Russell self-describingly said of Marx: that "he had a cosmic optimism only theism could justify"). If one maintains one's faith in the intelligibility of the universe (remember that ex hypothesi we have lost our faith in science as the final arbitrar of intelligibility) I think one must rest upon the reliability basic human intuition (think Thomas Reid here). We are persons and we ultimately understand the world from the inside out as persons. This includes science. The fundamental explanans of science is causation. Our understanding of of causation comes from understanding ourselves as agents in the world bringing about change. (In terms of rationality of theism Plantinga's God and Other Minds comes to mind here.) I may not be able to solve semantic paradoxes, but I know when my wife is angry with me or when I have hurt my daughter's feelings (and I know what I need to do about both (note the uselessness of ethics here, I don't need to be told what I need to do, I just need motivation to do it). I - being human - understand the human. Being a reflective human I understand that the human predicament is inherently paradoxical and mysterious. (here again Pascal or Wendell Berry's "Life is a Miracle") Being human I understand that this points to the divine in a way that science can also point but not capture (not measure, weigh, contain). Now all too often this line of thought ends in some Emersonian transcendentalism or vague, sticky Romanticism (Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress description of romanticism comes to mind here). I think, though, that the human is the key to history as well. I could blog for hours about historical explanation, but suffice it to say I think the key is the human. One can get inside the heads of historical figures in a way undergraduates never dreamed of (I'm thinking here of the "How do you know what they thought, you weren't there" objection). I know because I am human. I am, therefore I think. When you look to history, as one should, to see if anyone has spoken about the human predicament, one figure stands out: Jesus of Nazareth. Kreeft points out that if you take two distinctions -- that between the sages and the non-sages and those who have claimed unique divinity and those who have not -- the only sage to claim to be Deus is Jesus. Socrates didn't, Siddhartha, didn't. Moses and Mohamed only claimed to be prophets. Jesus claims to be YHWH. When I read the story of Jesus, even just as if it were a novel, I humanly understand that this character was neither fool, fooled, nor maker of fools, except of course in that beautifully ironic sense of Paul's. So, if asked why I'm a Christian, I may well answer: "it's only human." [N.B. There may be a Reidian defense of science, but I don't think it has much plausibility. I think the Reidian stuff only works for basics and I don't find the superstructures supportable from the basis Reidian foundationalism provides. (I can, however, see a much less ambitious science based on Reidian principles. I've even sketched one myself.) I suppose one could say that losing one's faith in science/philosophy is itself a failure of nerve, but A. I think its simply an inductive inferences from the history of science/philosophy and B. the only grounds I can see for it are theistic (see Whitehead, Tennant, and Plantinga's naturalism argument).]

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