Monday, September 25, 2006

The critique of unreason

Lee Harris at the Weekly Standard goes through Benedict XVI's defense of reason and I think most Belmont Club readers will find it rewarding. In it, Harris examines Benedict's argument that we cannot abandon reason, even in approaching the unknowable; even in trying to understand God, whether you believe in Him or not. Otherwise all conceptions, even the most monstrous, are possible. To reject an abomination, we must have a reason. And to have a reason we must first acknowledge reason itself.  Here are some excerpts from Harris' article:

For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an atheist; yet in his own critique of modern reason, he makes a remarkably shrewd point, which Ratzinger might well have made himself. Modern scientific reason says that the universe is governed by rules through and through; indeed, it is the aim of modern reason to disclose and reveal these laws through scientific inquiry. Yet, as Schopenhauer asks, where did this notion of a law-governed universe come from? No scientist can possibly argue that science has proven the universe to be rule-governed throughout all of space and all of time. As Kant argued in his Critique of Judgment, scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through: It is a necessary hypothesis for doing science at all. But where did this hypothesis, so vital to science, come from? ...

For example, Ratzinger notes that within the Catholic scholastic tradition itself, thinkers emerged like Duns Scotus, whose imaginary construction of God sundered the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." For Scotus, it was quite possible that God "could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done." If God had willed to create a universe without rhyme or reason, a universe completely unintelligible to human intelligence, that would have been his privilege. If he had decided to issue commandments that enjoined human beings to sacrifice their children, or kill their neighbors, or plunder their property, mankind would have been compelled to obey such commandments. Nor would we have had any "reason" to object to them, or even question them. For Scotus and those who followed him, the ultimate and only reason behind the universe is God's free and unrestrained will. But as Ratzinger asks, How can such a view of God avoid leading "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness?" The answer is, it cannot.

The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus pondered this question in his debate with the learned Persian. How can a god who commands conversion by the sword be the same god as the emperor's god--a god who wished to gain converts only through the use of words and reason? If Allah is happy to accept converts who are trembling in fear for their lives, with a sword hovering over their necks, then he may well be a god worth fearing, but not a god worth revering. He may represent an imaginary construction of god suitable to slaves, but he will not be an image of god worthy of being worshiped by a Socrates--or by any reasonable man.

Benedict's questions were not directed against Islam any more than they were directed against the modern West. But they were intended to challenge a thread in both Islam and Western culture. One that places itself above any standard; and for whom all is permitted. Fyodor Dostoevsky once described the edge of the Western precipice in Crime and Punishment and elsewhere observed that the only really urgent questions were the Eternal Questions. So if you have a little time on your hands, read Lee Harris and ask them of yourself again.


Blogger Pyrthroes said...

There is a transcendent Immanence that creates all entities, and only those entities, which do not create themselves. Does this transcendent Immanence create itself?

Logicians of classical bent will recognize this as a variant on Epimonides' "paradox of contradictory self-reference": Epimonides the Cretan says, All Cretans are liars. Is he telling the truth?

This is the "formally undecidable" proposition that sank Bertrand Russell's "Principia", and that Kurt Godel used in his seminal work on "completeness and consistency" in mathematics. As many have noted, transcending Epimonides by denying the realm of logic leads to contradiction, and as Russell famously noted, "Give me a contradiction, and I can prove anything." (If one is equal to zero, then truth and falsehood are identical; and from such a proposition, anything and everything obtains.)

On 'tother hand, an all-powerful Old Man with white whiskers, dwelling beyond Space and Time, stirring the quantum pot with a relativistic finger, presents difficulties more numerous and more bizarre. Mayhap we have Something rather than Nothing due to a non-volitional "emergent order" from a cosmic energy-flux... nothing exists in isolation; no two point-particles of mass/energy can be identical; therefore their necessary midpoint flucuates. "Flucuation" generates wave/particle duality; three interacting points become chaotic; and out of Chaos and dark Night, Euryname and her World Serpent conceive a Cosmic Egg.

Granted fundamental premises, all else must folllow. Tamam.

9/25/2006 09:17:00 PM  
Blogger sam said...

Dialogue vital for Christianity and Islam, says pope:

Dialogue between different faiths "cannot be reduced to an optional extra", he said, adding that it was rather "a vital necessity" on which "in large measure our future depends".

The pope told the diplomats that he had called the meeting in order to "strengthen the bonds of friendship and solidarity" between the Vatican and Muslim communities, and offered his wishes to Muslims worldwide during the month of Ramadan.

Dialogue Vital

9/25/2006 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...


You’re correct that reading Lee Harris’ commentary, as well as the Pope’s speech (see itself, is a worthy use of our time. As others have noted, the speech was directed at Western audiences and not only to believers. We operate under philosophical templates bequeathed to us by the Greeks, Romans, and “Biblical faith”, and the Pope was calling on us to examine those understandings and templates.

It is an unfortunate aspect of this age of emotion and subjectivism (one woman’s opinion is just as valid as those of dead males Voltaire, Plato, or Adam Smith) that we have lost the ability to argue why our way is the best, or even whether “the best” is determinable in a random and capricious universe.

The Pope, and in his own way, GWB, are trying to stave off an escalation in Islamic-Western conflict that will lead to calamitous destruction. When civilizations clash, the men with the biggest guns win, and the conquerors’ religion follows closely behind. The denizens of the New World bowed before the conquistadores’ god. So did the natives of Polynesia and Africa, under the assumption that the Christian God must have power that theirs didn’t. It may be only when their land lies in ruins that the followers of Mohammed will listen to reason.

9/25/2006 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

If God were omnipotent, He would have the power to will Himself out of existence. So, why hasn't He?

9/25/2006 10:32:00 PM  
Blogger Free West said...

Superb theological, moral and historical scholarship is now on the path toward airing out in public the odious nature of the Islamic cult. The multitude of self-contradictory assertions abound.
For example, the Big Lie that Islam is one of the three "Abrahamic" faiths. The MSM, like Newsweek, keep broadcasting such an unfounded platitude is really just appeasement.
The concept of the "God" of Islam, as Franz Rosenzweig had pointed out over eighty years ago, is nothing more than a sad neo-pagan parody of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.
The Islamic "God" is a form of idolatry for the arbitrary and tyrannical Oriental Despotism that has ruled South Asia and the Middle East for many centuries. In addition, as Hilaire Belloc also pointed out, this warrior cult started out as a crude heresy inspired not so much by the spirit of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but rather by the ritual and accouterments as suited primitive nomadic warriors.

9/25/2006 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger Deuce ☂ said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/25/2006 11:12:00 PM  
Blogger Deuce ☂ said...

..."Schoomaker first raised alarms with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June after he received new Army budget outlines from Rumsfeld's office. Those outlines called for an Army budget of about $114 billion, a $2-billion cut from previous guidelines. The cuts would grow to $7 billion a year after six years, the senior Army official said.” where to get the money?"...

This country is awash in money. It is an absolute disgrace that the privileged class does not send it's own into the military. How many sons of Congressional leaders, sons of Hollywood, graduates of Harvard or Princeton? A pittance. It is a far greater imbalance than the corrupted draft process of the sixties and seventies. 

They do not want to send their kin, fine. Let them send their money. Harvard has a 31 billion dollar endowment. The billionaires like Gates and Turner are lining up to fix the planet by donating billions because they have billions and do not know what to do with it. There has never been more conspicuous consumption or waste of energy on roads jammed with SUV’s. I am not talking about them in Iowa or Montana where they are needed, but in eastern affluent neighborhoods where they are not. If the army needs thirty billion dollars a year, tax luxury SUV’s, gas guzzler taxes, a surtax on incomes over one million dollars per annum, excess elite university endowments, a luxury tax on entertainment, music and movies. Give the working class military, a chunk of America's bling. It will be the only patriotic thing they will ever give.

9/25/2006 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...


America's taxpayers provide a Public Good for all mankind by holding the international system together and keeping out chaos. Ensuring navigation of the seas. Preventing the formation of terrorist enclaves, etc, which no other single country could undertake.

As such it invites the Free Rider problem. Here's the example that Wikipedia gives, but you could just as easily substitute the word "Europe" or whoever in the appropriate places.

For example, consider national defense, a standard example of a pure public good. ... Public goods give such a person incentive to be a free rider.

Suppose this purely rational person thinks about exerting some extra effort to defend the nation. The benefits to the individual of this effort would be very low, since the benefits would be distributed among all of the millions of other people in the country. Further, there is a very high possibility that he could get injured or killed during the course of his or her military service.

On the other hand, the free rider knows that he or she cannot be excluded from the benefits of national defense, regardless of whether he or she contributes to it. There is also no way that these benefits can be split up and distributed as individual parcels to people. So the free rider would not voluntarily exert any extra effort, unless there is some inherent pleasure or material reward for doing so (such as, for example, money paid by the government, as with an all-volunteer army or mercenaries).

The incentive is to sit on the sidelines, quaff wine and bitch. And let someone else provide the National Defense. Yet it is perfectly rational behavior, from a certain point of view. The way around the Free Rider problem is to create an overarching institution that can charge everyone for the benefit they receive. But the US is not about to levy taxes on France in exchange for real services; although the UN is perfectly read to levy taxes on everyone to provide for illusory ones. When you think about it, there's a market opportunity out there for either alliances or Empire. Since Empire is out, then it's building alliances. So if the US treats its allies better than its friends, well, its quid pro quo.

9/26/2006 12:11:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Brenegar said...

To reason is to understand the consequence of an idea, or a decision or a specific action. To reject reason as inherent in nature is to deny that anything has any necessary or affective connection to anything else. We rid ourselves of both our responsibility for our actions and for the responsibility to resolve the problems we create. And the problem with much of the church is the rejection of reason and the adoption of revelation as the sole purveyor of truth. Whatever truth is found in revelation, it requires reason to interpret it well. Sadly, I find that we live in a time of delusion and anti-reason. And our only hope is to seek wisdom from the ancients both Greek and Hebrew, to provide an an understand of how to live in a world without reason.

9/26/2006 04:32:00 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through:

You don't begin assuming that, or anything. There's a combination of curiosity and hope, and you play around. Most often, you don't find anything.

If you find something good, often it can be expanded to cover more things. Otherwise it's just a curiosity.

Consider computer simulations, which underneath follow a known rule, but not the sort of rule you're seeking, which is a much simpler one. There's no ``assumption it follows a rule.'' That's if anything irrelevant to the whole endeavour.

You'd prefer if anything not to use the computer, but you'd lose the ability to investigate entirely.

9/26/2006 05:00:00 AM  
Blogger Tim P. said...

Scotus' concept of a God whose preeminent characteristic is Free Will is fundamental to an ethical theory known as Divine Command theory, which as a Christian and as a philosopher I think is endemically flawed. Many people think it is impossible to escape the Divine Command theory because they lack a thorough understanding of what omnipotence actually entails. These are generally the same sort of people who get hung up by absurd questions about God being able to create a rock to big for him to lift.

I think one of the best ways of protecting God's power and keeping from defining him as a capricious tyrant is found in the Divine Character theory. In the Divine Character theory God's character is what directs how he acts. Instead of "God has unlimited power and can do whatever he wants," it is "God is God and cannot not be God." That is, God's only constraint (and constraint is a flawed word here) is that he is himself. Once you determine that God's identity is of preeminent importance you can set to work on finding out who this God is, what his character is.

This theory provides room for a God who isn't capricious (that doesn't mean he's safe or tame by any means, it means he won't arbitrarily change good and evil because he has a bad hair day), and a God who can be recognized much easier (much easier to argue that God's character doesn't allow for conversion by the sword...).

If you're interested in the vagaries of the Divine Character theory do a google search on it.

9/26/2006 07:07:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Thank you for pointing out this wonderful essay. The Pope's ability to attract attention at this level surprises and delights me.

For the purpose of discussion, the following gets at what I think is the heart of Harris' argument:

1. Since Kant became required reading in European universities (around 1830), reason has been reduced to 'propositions which can be empirically confirmed.' This has always been troubling, since propositions like Darwin's theory of evolution cannot be empirically confirmed. Nor can axioms like 'the law of gravity' be completely documented. This has evolved into 'if it cannot be empirically proven, it doesn't matter, nor does any individual who engages in attempts to answer such questions (popes, etc).'

This mood was given voice by the first comment to your post by Ilia Capitolina:...
"I wish G'd would mind his own G'd damn business. Same goes for his priests."

Harris is quite aware of this complaint and restates this complaint somewhat better English: "You are merely saying that modern reason excludes God; we who subscribe to the concept of modern reason are perfectly aware of this fact. Maybe it troubles you, as a Christian, but it doesn't bother us in the least."

2. Harris then asks "If modern reason cannot concern itself (with propositions which cannot be empirically proven), then it cannot argue that a God who commands jihad is better or worse than a God who commands us not to use violence to impose our religious views on others. To the modern atheist, both Gods are equally figments of the imagination, in which case it would be ludicrous to discuss their relative merits. The proponent of modern reason, therefore, could not possibly think of participating in a dialogue on whether Christianity or Islam is the more reasonable religion, since, for him, the very notion of a "reasonable religion" is a contradiction in terms. "

This is the 'self contradiction' argument, which Alexis alluded to when writing:
"If God were omnipotent, He would have the power to will Himself out of existence. So, why hasn't He?"

3. Harris then crushes this childish reply, which unfortunately has vast popularity. He claims that the difficulty of the question does not absolve one of the responsibility to answer. "If the individual is free to choose between violence and reason, it will become impossible to create a community in which all the members restrict themselves to using reason alone to obtain their objectives. If it is left up to the individual to use violence or reason, then those whose subjective choice is for violence will inevitably destroy the community of those whose subjective choice is for reason. Worse still, those whose subjective choice is for violence do not need to constitute more than a small percentage of the community in order to destroy the very possibility of a community of reasonable men: Brute force and terror quickly extinguish rational dialogue and debate."

9/26/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger RattlerGator said...

I like the (perhaps indirect) focus on the duality of Pope Benedict XVI and Joseph Ratzinger. A man who welcomes the challenge of reason and a Pope welcoming the challenge of leading his flock.

The Harris piece is fantastic and demonstrates that the Pope may be even more politically brilliant than previously thought.

Me thinks this lecture is going to have a devastating impact in academia -- students will be armed, now, with an armor far better able to withstand the never-ending assault on faith, even as they are further inculcated with the ability to question the world in which they live.

9/27/2006 12:11:00 PM  

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