Posted: Jun 16, 2010 1:42 pm
by Will S
[Following discussions in a couple of other threads, 'Non-theists - why should I not believe? ' and 'Redefining Faith', I have been motivated, for better or for worse, to write the following mini-essay. Need I add that comments and criticisms will be welcome?]

Very often in discussions between religious people and non-religious people, a religious person will say something along the following lines:

    Science is all very well. It is enormously powerful; it has solved lots of problems. But it has its limits; there are issues which scientific method cannot address, and problems which it cannot solve.
Of course, this statement is almost invariably followed by a 'therefore'. Sometimes it's a stupid and crude non sequitur, for example:

    Therefore, we must believe what's in the Bible.
Or sometimes it may sound more reasonable. Often it's along these lines:

    Therefore, we must recognise that there are other ways of finding out about reality, such as our intuitions or our emotions, and we should use these to supplement or even to correct what we learn from science.
The second of these caveats certainly sounds plausible. Surely, it's clear that in everyday life we find out a very great deal without using science? So science seems to be limited in the kind of way that the religious person claims. However, I suggest that this whole argument is misleading, and for one simple reason: it relies on a definition of science which is woolly and unsustainable.

For many or most people, the word 'science' suggests the use of elaborate equipment: telescopes, microscopes, mass spectrometers etc. It also may suggest elaborately designed experiments, and the use of advanced mathematical techniques: calculus, the analysis of variance etc.

But, of course, as good scientific text books are careful to point out, these things are not fundamental to science. The scientist may use elaborate equipment or elaborate mathematics, but, at bottom, scientific method is no more or less than 'applied common sense'. (Of course, some of the results of using 'applied common sense' may seem to violate other conclusions which we've reached using common sense – but that is a different issue.)

There is no hard-and-fast distinction between scientific method and applied common sense. In his thinking, the scientist doesn't say, 'Now I am abandoning common sense, and switching over to scientific method' – unless he means that he is now going to become more careful and more rigorous in drawing his conclusions. For, there's nothing else that's special about scientific method; it's simply part and parcel of the ways in which we investigate anything at all.

This is neatly illustrated by the fact that our perceptions of what counts as a scientific instrument change with time. We would scarcely regard a pair of binoculars or a pressure cooker as a scientific instrument, but a few centuries ago, they most certainly would have done so.

So, scientific method is a part (and not a very clear-cut part) of what we can more helpfully call 'rational method', that is, the whole business of making observations, either directly with our senses or via instruments, and deducing conclusions from them, using either simple or more elaborate logic or mathematics.

Accordingly, if the religious person is going to pursue the line set out above, what he really ought to be saying is, something like this:

    Reason is all very well. It is enormously powerful; it has solved lots of problems. But it has its limits; there are issues which reason cannot address, and problems which it cannot solve.
This is, clearly, more controversial, and more difficult to argue. Can it be argued at all?

I think we have to accept that there may well be issues which reason can't address, and problems which it cannot solve. (Perhaps we should say human reason, but this isn't very helpful, because it's not easy to see how we could ever comprehend super-human reason!) This conclusion seems obvious once we recognise that our brains evolved to deal with a particular set of problems relating to reproduction and survival. So it seems likely that there are problems which our brains simply can't cope with – for example, perhaps the problem of consciousness is one of them. (Indeed, what seems to me to be so surprising is not that human reason is limited, but that, considering its origin, it can achieve so much.)

But if human reason is limited in this way, can the religious person tell us how to overcome these limitations? As far as I can see, he can't – he's in the same boat as the rest of us.

He may tell us to rely on a sacred book, or on the pronouncements of a religious authority (himself, perhaps!), but, as soon as we ask why this particular sacred book, or this particular religious authority, if he responds at all, he has to use … (wait for it!) ... reason! For example, he has to argue that the Bible can be distinguished from all other books because of certain facts relating to the Bible's history, or that the intuitions of some particular religious authority are especially valuable because of facts relating to the person's life. In other words, competently or incompetently, he makes a direct appeal to reason. The only other thing he can do is dogmatically to repeat his assertions.

The unavoidable conclusion is that, when we are trying to find out the truth about things, reason trumps everything, and nothing can trump reason.

It seems to me that, these days, only a very few people ever claim that the truth of religion can be established by reason, and these are mostly on the evangelical fringe. However, at one time the view was fairly widespread. For example, in Victorian times, a prize was offered for the best essay on 'the best way of proving Christianity to the Hindus'. Note the word prove; it's not easy to imagine even the Templeton Foundation funding such a competition today!

Indeed, you can see this approach largely preserved in the work of Christian apologists of the previous generation, who tended to argue that anybody who approached the subject with an open mind would probably end up a theist and a Christian. For better or for worse, they relied on reason. For example, C S Lewis wrote: ' I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.' Also, he puts these words into the mouth of a senior devil advising a junior devil on how to bring a man to perdition: 'The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth'.

Can you imagine many present day apologists putting it as clearly and baldly as that? Today, they seem to say, routinely, that 'reason can take you only so far …' They imply that, beyond reason, there's a … something – only we're never told exactly what it is.

So, in conclusion, and to put it a bit brutally, I suggest that a great deal of religious polemic is devoted to using reason in an opportunistic, even deceitful, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, kind of way. Time and again, I find myself wanting to say to religious people, in the grim words which the Bible attributes to Festus: 'Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go!'