Wednesday, April 28, 2021

“Faith in the reasoning process”

Recently a visitor to my blog stopped by and took some time to submit a comment on my latest entry. The visitor did not give a name, posting under a moniker consisting exclusively of the Greek letter Psi. At first, with my still ailing eyes (cf. here), I thought the visitor was self-identifying as a pitchfork, and perhaps that was the intention (you know what they say about first impressions…). Or perhaps it’s supposed to be a psitchfork? Or perhaps the commenter is a fan of Sye Ten Bruggencate and the Greek letter is now being used as a fraternal symbol for this, or it’s code for allegiance to Pat Robertson, given that the Greek letter also carries the value of 700. Or, perhaps it’s a physics reference. Who knows!

Unfortunately, the commenter removed the comment, for reasons unknown to me. But I still have a copy of the comment, so I thought I’d post some thoughts in reply since the question raised by the commenter (to whom I will refer with the ignominiously gendered pronoun “he” at the risk of sending some readers to a padded safe space) provides a good opportunity to make some points. So now that the complicated stuff is out of the way, I will proceed with doing just that. 

The comment began as follows:
I was watching a video in which Christopher Hitchens had a discussion with Pastor Wilson, and Wilson stated "someone who bases everything on reason has faith in the reasoning process. What's wrong with saying that? Why can't you say "I have faith in reason"?"
Speaking directly to the pastor’s question, a person can say anything. Out of his mouth come the words of his own choosing, and those words mark him before other men. Nothing will prevent him from speaking the words he chooses, and nothing will prevent his hearers from forming their own opinions about what they have heard. So of course, one can say “I have faith in reason,” just as one can say “the moon is made of green cheese.”

The question is whether or not such claims are meaningful and truthful. And here, since presumably the commenter directed his question to me, I would focus on whether or not the claim “I have faith in reason” is philosophically meaningful and, in turn, whether its philosophical meaning is truthful.

Much of the meaning of the clause “I have faith in reason” depends on what is meant by the notion “faith” and the expression “to have faith” as intended by the speaker. Colloquially, the notion “faith” is one of those words which defies consistent and stable meaning. What it means seems to depend on whom you ask, and when you ask, and unfortunately the commenter does not explain what he understands by ‘faith’, nor does the quote he attributes to Pastor Wilson.

For Greg Bahnsen, faith is just another term for ‘belief’. For Earl Nightingale, faith is just another word for ‘persistence’. In casual conversation, faith is often just another word for truth, as in the expression “Terry put his faith in Alicia’s leadership abilities.” Such expressions are in my view rather harmless. Yet others take ‘faith’ to signify some kind of act of will, such as acting as though something were the case regardless of whether one believes it to be the case. Some religious people have explained as much to me in personal conversations. Having “great faith” in this sense could lead one into some serious trouble, as when he applies such determination to a rocky stock market. Caveat emptor!

Very often, however, the implicit meaning behind expressions of ‘faith’, especially in a religious context, suggests some means of knowledge other than reason. It often implies the possession of knowledge, couched in terms of a belief, which facts ascertained by means of reason are simply not available or at any rate would not support. After all, if the facts available to a thinker support his conclusions, he would not need some alternative to reason in order to arrive at those conclusions. Thus when someone claims to know something by faith, he has deviated from reason, which can only signal that what he claims to know is in fact not supported by facts.

The commenter continued:
And, indeed, one cannot ask for "proof" or "evidence" that reason works, for one would be using reason in order to reach that conclusion -- we cannot get outside of our minds and then confirm that our reason is correct; one must take reason for granted (i.e., "assume" reason) and then build their system from there.
Using reason to reach a conclusion is certainly not fallacious. And I know of no rule which says that we cannot apply reason to itself. Reason is the means of identifying and integrating facts available to us ultimately by means of perception. To say that we cannot apply reason to itself is to say that identification and integration of facts are off limits to the process of identifying and integrating facts. But why? What facts were identified and integrated to deduce this conclusion?

So while it may be true that “we cannot get outside of our minds” (I’m very pleased to stay inside mine), this in itself does not suggest, let alone necessitate, that one cannot confirm that his reasoning is correct. On the contrary, we can check our work, as it were, to make sure we haven’t made a mistake. Does this mean that we take reason for granted? Speak for yourself, for I do not! Reason is a conceptual faculty, and once one explores and grasps what this means, it’s hard to see how one would take this faculty for granted. Many do in fact take their minds for granted, but I don’t think any of us should. Our minds are far too important to treat casually.

Perhaps the confusion that the commenter is experiencing here has to do with his understanding of what reason is. Rand defined reason as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (see here). No doubt many people take many things for granted, but I see that as a liability rather than a mark of informed wisdom.

If reason is in fact a faculty of the human mind, as Rand holds, then it should be something we can discover and investigate. Thus, there should be relevant facts which we discover in that investigation that we can identify and integrate. But what faculty would we use to do this, if not the very faculty itself?

I suppose what throws many thinkers off is the fact that reason itself is not something we can perceive directly. But I cannot perceive my perceiving directly either, yet that does not stop me from perceiving, nor does it stop me from acquiring awareness of the fact that I do in fact perceive. I am aware of objects by perceiving them, and I am aware of my perceiving of objects by turning my awareness on itself. The claim that one cannot apply reason to itself, as a means of identifying and integrating the faculty by which we identify and integrate what we discover, strikes me as an extension of the assumption, as wrong as it is, that introspection is impossible at worse or invalid at best. But this is not true: self-awareness is in fact one of the prized virtues of man’s cognitive abilities. Try it sometime. There’s lots to discover. Are you afraid? You should be. Learn to confront your fears.

The commenter wrote:
And it seems to me that Ayn Rand agrees with this fact: "An axiomatic concept... requires no proof or explanation, but [is that] on which all proofs and explanations rest." (As Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p.56)
Yes, Rand did write this. But where did Rand ever identify reason as an axiomatic concept? She nowhere did. So I suspect that the commenter has dropped some very relevant context here and, as a result, has wandered into the realm of equivocation. Come back! It’s not too late to course-correct.

The commenter then wrote:
Another book you also read is "Five Views on Apologetics" in which Habermas stated, "Frame argues that rationalists must accept reason as an ultimate starting point, just as empiricists assume sense experience, and so on. So, the Christian may begin with Scripture as a legitimate starting point... While the rationalist uses reason and the empiricist uses sense experience as tools from which to construct their systems, Frame assumes the system of Scripture, from which he develops his Christian theism."
It's good to turn our attention to the question of one’s starting point, for this is key to it all. The quote above from Habermas suggests that one can just pick and choose, by preference or fiat, what his starting point might be. Today it’s reason, tomorrow it’s sense perception, the next day it’s Scripture, the day after that it’s steak and potatoes. Habermas’ very statement suggests a rather capricious view on these matters. But he overlooks many aspects of a starting point that are not negotiable.

One’s starting point, in fact to qualify as a starting point, must be (a) something we have direct awareness of, (b) something real (as opposed to imaginary), (c) implicit in all acts of awareness, (d) conceptually irreducible. This is the beauty of Rand’s system, for her starting point – the axioms of existence, consciousness and identity – fulfills all of these criteria in one fell swoop. Plus, all other systems must assume the truth of these axioms all while pretending that something else can serve as one’s starting point.

Again, Rand does not identify the concept ‘reason’ as an axiomatic concept, nor does she identify the process itself as her starting point. We begin with the objects of our perceptual awareness as an exhaustive whole, implying the totality of all that exists and grasped explicitly by the concept ‘existence’. Hence, Rand’s famous dictum “existence exists.” Only once we have consciousness of objects is consciousness itself something available to be conscious of, so we do not begin with consciousness as our starting point, as if consciousness could obtain in a vacuum, without something to be conscious of. To say that one is conscious is to say that one is conscious of something – that is, some thing independent of consciousness of which one has consciousness.

Notice that “Scripture” is not self-evidently true, neither is it implicit in all acts of awareness, nor is it conceptually irreducible. It’s questionable whether we even have direct awareness of whatever it is that the term “Scripture” denotes. If it is supposed to denote a specific bound tome consisting of paper pages and a leather cover, that is certainly not a generality implicit in all awareness – it would be a specific concrete particular. If that concrete particular is in a specific person’s library, most human beings will never have awareness of it at all. If “Scripture” denotes a mental construct, then we cannot have awareness of it by means of perception, and as such it is not something that is either implicit in all awareness or conceptually irreducible. I could go on, but it should be clear that “Scripture” cannot possibly be one’s legitimate starting point. Indeed, even to make the claim “Scripture is my starting point” is to assume the truth of Rand’s axiomatic concepts, thus conceding the debate at the outset to Rand’s position.

Furthermore, the word “Scripture” is itself a broad term assuming an enormous context, much of it purported to be historical details, which, by the very nature of the case, we could not have direct awareness of. Did Abraham actually have a son named Isaac? How can one know this? Yes, we know that a storyline holds that a man named Abraham had a son named Isaac, but how would one go about validating this? Indeed, even to ask the question is to concede that we’re not dealing with something fundamental to human cognition here.

The commenter closed his comment with the following question:
So, I wonder what you would respond to this theistic claim. What would you respond if one claimed "You have faith in reason and sense-experience because there is no proof and evidence it is correct. Therefore, I can also believe whatever I want without proof and evidence"?? 
I would appreciate if you could reply!
Hopefully the commenter, if he reads this, finds some of the points I made above informative. But here I’ll made an additional point about proof which is often overlooked. In essence, proof is the conceptual process of tracing that which is not perceptually self-evident back to that which is perceptually self-evident. If I perceive an object, I have direct awareness of it; its existence is thus perceptually self-evident to me. I do not need to assemble a proof to secure my awareness of the object. Perception is the anchor of conceptual thought, and if one’s (purported) starting point is not perceptually self-evident, it’s not a starting point.

So while the commenter’s statement “I can also believe whatever I want without proof and evidence” may in fact speak for his view on these matters, it would be a case of tactless projection to suggest that such a view (implied by the use of “also” here) accurately summarizes the Objectivist position. Nothing could be further from the truth, which makes me question whether the commenter is indeed interested in discovering it.

If the commenter is in fact interested in learning more, I’d encourage him to start with my Dec. 2006 entry The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson. I do hope the commenter checks out your 2006 entry The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence. I'd be curious to read 'his'" response.

bc said...


Not sure if you've seen this news but Sye is no longer involved in apologetics because of "moral failings". (for the time being at least)

CallidusPhilo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bahnsen Burner said...

bc, thank you for posting the link about Sye Ten Bruggencate, the undefeated champion of apologetic performance sports. I had not seen this. News of this sort brings home the point I sought to make in my 2013 entry Dear Apologist: Can you Demonstrate that You're the Real McCoy? Apparently in Sye's case, the answer is no?

I wish him emotional maturity.


Bahnsen Burner said...

CallidusPhilo, I replied at length to someone by email. I'm guessing that was you? There was no name.

Have a joyous weekend all.


Jason mc said...

It's too bad that Sye feels the need to shut down his hobby, assuming he was getting some amount of joy out of it. What does his 'moral failure' have to do with the validity or soundness of philosophical arguments? I know, he's supposed to be "walking the walk" and being an example to his community, if he's speaking with authority. (Just for the record, I don't think it's a moral failure to have a girlfriend.)