Reason

Reason is the dividing line between man and animal. Human beings for eons have gazed longingly at the stars, admiring the chiaroscuro of effervescent beauty, contemplating the forces that created and govern the world, mapping patterns and movements, exploring new geometries and calculations; the glory of the heavenly bodies inspires all kinds of cognitive powers. Walk into the night with your dog, however, and point out to him to beauty of the stars, and he will likely sniff your finger and then contemplate where to mark his territory.

Why is the difference between man and every other creature so stark? A torch is ablaze inside man, an awareness of the unseen and a self-reflective spark. There is no continuity between him and the most intelligent animal; there is a clean break from creaturely cleverness to the world of mathematics, democracy, machinery, and poetry. In The Devil’s Delusion, mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski critiques the excitement in the scientific community inspired by experiments with other primates.

The idea that human beings have been endowed with powers and properties not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom – or the universe, so far as we can tell – arises from a simple imperative: Just look around… After years of punishing trials, a few [apes] have been taught the rudiments of various primitive symbol systems. Having been given the gift of language, they have nothing to say. When two simian prodigies meet, they fling their signs at one another.

Dr. Berlinski is even more critical of the community’s embrace of the human mind as an extension in complexity of the digital computer.

An idealized abacus has precisely the power of a Turing machine, and so both the abacus and the Turing machine serve as models for a working digital computer. By parity of reasoning, they also both serve as models for the human mind.

Yet the thesis that the human mind is an abacus seems distinctly less plausible than the thesis that the human mind is a computer. And for an obvious reason: It is absurd.

The absurdity, as he explains, results from the dependence of a computer or an abacus on its program, or its initial conditions, to produce anything resembling a thought. In other words, in order to “think” they require a human initiator or operator, and so are limited as analogies to the human apparatus. Nothing in the mechanistic view explains the power of human creativity, Reason, or the mere fact that, the biological abacus’s beads spinning down the wire, the person is consciously experiencing the moment.

The spark of Reason in man is perhaps the ultimate mystery in the universe. While the physical sciences gaze longingly at the expanse between man and animal, or man and abacus, there is still the theistic explanation, rising from the deep recesses of human memory, wielding a certain power that the scientific community has simply not managed to harness.

God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Rene Descartes in the 17th century left an indelible mark on civilization by contemplating Reason. Considering that any man at any time could err in his logical thought, he was willing to dismiss every argument, conclusion, proof, and demonstration in his philosophy as an error or an illusion, but before plummeting into complete radical doubt, he settled on such a sure first principle that no skeptic could ever disturb it: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

In that monumental work, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Descartes also took God’s existence as a foundational truth, the only possible guarantee that Reason itself is not an illusion, that the logical thought happening in the human mind actually reflects a logical order in the universe.

This raises the crux of the problem of Reason from an atheistic perspective. If matter is all that exists, what sense does it make for a piece of matter over here to be true about a piece of matter over there? A movement occurs in my brain, a swirling of cerebral fluid, electrical signals fire like manic gunmen, and a thought arises: the sun is made of blazing gold.

What does it mean for this thought to be true or untrue about the sun? It is obviously untrue inasmuch as the sun is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium. Yet the neurons fired, and the phrase arose and emerged as an artifact of human thought. Is this not the truth? There is the sun, perpetuating its plasmatic dance, and here is my brain, dancing to its own neural tune. Both events are real, and what is left to explain whether one event is true about the other?

Even more confusing is that, inasmuch as my companion, beholding with me the glorious sunrise over the Atlantic, would agree, my statement is true. It is surely a metaphor easily available, almost latent, in experiencing such a moment. Yet still the sun dances eight burning light-minutes away, and my neurons dance in their dark dungeon of bone. What is it precisely that connects them?

C. S. Lewis wrote about this problem on several occasions, most notably in Miracles and in De Futilitate. He is worth quoting at length. Lewis is speaking here in De Futilitate on whether logic is the result of mindless nature.

It is as if cabbages, in addition to resulting from the laws of botany also gave lectures on that subject: or as if, when I knocked out my pipe, the ashes arranged themselves into letters which read: ‘We are the ashes of a knocked-out pipe.’ But if the validity of knowledge cannot be explained in that way, and if perpetual happy coincidence throughout the whole of recorded time is out of the question, then surely we must seek the real explanation elsewhere.

…Perhaps the safest way of putting it is this: that we must give up talking about ‘human reason.’ In so far as thought is merely human, merely a characteristic of one particular biological species, it does not explain our knowledge. Where thought is strictly rational it must be, in some odd sense, not ours, but cosmic or super-cosmic. It must be something not shut up inside our heads but already ‘out there’ – in the universe or behind the universe… Unless all that we take to be knowledge is an illusion, we must hold that in thinking we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated.

The mechanistic reduction of the mind to the brain is no deeper a conclusion than the strength of its materialistic conviction. The fact of their relation, that the ability of the mind is affected by damage to the brain, no more proves their unity than would damaging a radio forever silence the electric guitar. Lewis is correct that fundamental Reason lies elsewhere, and the human mind is capable, even imperfectly, of siphoning off from some immaterial source the logical truths of the universe that are available to the senses.

Descartes also concluded that the mind is separate from the body, that no mechanism would be fit to explain the capabilities of human thought. His dualistic view of the mind and the brain is philosophically robust and scientifically prescient. It is also, as Descartes intended it to be, spiritually suggestive of the Divine, the ultimate source of Reason.


Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion.

The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

One thought on “Reason”

  1. The poem at the end here, it should be noted, is a selection from various parts of Proverbs chapter 8. It is one of my favorite poems, and should be read in full to appreciate its magnificence.

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