Reason as a source of knowledge continues our series on obtaining knowledge.
Because many atheists base their beliefs on reason, I decided to use their claim to both illustrate how we obtain knowledge from reason and ultimately whether atheism is reasonable at all.
Many times, our view on atheism is determined by what we take for granted to be true about reason — many times without realizing it. So, let us begin there. (If you don’t have time to read this entire post, skip down to the sections below entitled Reason as a Source of Knowledge, Is Atheism based on Reason?, and The Origin of Reason and the Matter of God.)
Whether you agree or disagree with the reasonability of atheism, you must first believe in:
- the existence and validity of reason
- our ability, by way of our thoughts, to access reason
- that knowledge is possible
It follows logically that if you disagree with any or all of these presuppositions, than you have no legitimate grounds to make any type of justifiable claim about the reasonability of atheism or the universe, whatsoever.
These three assumptions make the debate possible and provide the common ground for both theists — those who believe in God, or a supreme being or beings and atheists — those who do not believe in the existence of God or a supreme being(s).
But to prevent any confusion about such an important issue, we should first define reason, then explore its nature.
The Definition of Reason
The term reason is unwieldy and has multiple definitions, so for the sake of brevity, I will again refer to a common definition found in the Merriam Webster’s online dictionary. Throughout this post, by “reason” I mean both:
- that thing that makes a fact, theory, or principle comprehensible
- the power of comprehending and inferring in rational ways
Reason as a Source of Knowledge
Reason as a source of knowledge occurs when we draw logical inferences i.e. you know something to be true because it is self-evident (Lewis 31).
For example, if I have one dollar and you give me a dollar, then I will have two dollars. No one needed to tell me that because it is evident to me. I can look in my hands and see that I have two dollars. Another common example is: If a equals b and b is equal to c, logically, it must follow that a is equal to c.
Therefore, if reason necessitates that we draw inferences, and if both the atheist and theist alike agree that such inferences must be possible and valid (Lewis 31), then it follows that we should draw logical inferences to determine the reasonability of atheism.
Reason and Emotion
As humans, we all, at one point or another, have made decisions or drawn conclusions based on our emotions or desires rather than reason. That is not to say, however, that our reason, emotions, and/or desires cannot also be working in tandem either.
Regardless, if we have the capability of employing reason or disregarding it in any given situation, then we must infer and hold to be true that reason does not cease to exist when we do not use it to make decisions or claims.
Reason is there at our disposal, but we do not contrive or invent it. Therefore, reason must exist on its own — independent of human beings and/or what we choose to believe about it.
People who believe reason is a human construct will, of course, disagree with me but wouldn’t the reasonable conclusion that 2 + 2 = 4 still remain true even if all 7 billion people on the planet believed 2 + 2 = 3?
The Nature of Reason
Reason not only exists independently, it is a constant force or thing that is accessible at all times, in all places, to all healthy minds simultaneously. Reason outlives us. Reason is something we “tap into,” for lack of a better term.
But reason is immaterial, even supernatural — not in any religious sense, but as defined in my previous post Do you believe in the supernatural? — in that it lies outside nature. Therefore, reason is separate from nature.
If we are dependent on reason to live, even survive, (it certainly does not depend on us for its existence) then we must infer that reason is, at least in one way, superior to us or supreme. Time and time again we realize the constant, unbending superiority of reason, over our natural feelings and desires particularly when we suffer the consequences from a bad decision.
The classic example: how many people struggling to lose weight walk past a few Danish pastries, and comprehending with all the reason in the world that eating one takes them further away from a slimmer body, still proceed to eat them?
The next day they berate themselves for not using reason. In this scenario, the decision based on reason — abstaining from eating the pastry to prevent weight gain — is superior to the decision made based on desire. This is a very trivial example, but the point is to illustrate that reason is supreme and unyielding, but beneficial if we use it to guide our actions and decisions.
So, based on the inferences we’ve draw about reason itself, is it reasonable or unreasonable to believe in the validity of atheism, as the sign above claims?
Is Atheism based on Reason?
By denying the existence of a supreme being, atheism (at least in the West) implicitly posits that nature is all that exists — that it is one self-contained system (Lewis 6, 31). This view of the world seems congruent to me, until you try to base it on reason.
To claim nature i.e. the material world is all that exists, and then base it on reason — this independent, supreme, constant, omnipresent, immaterial, even supernatural thing that is separate from nature — seems very unreasonable, and even contradictory.
We’ve established so far reason is separate from nature and does not have its origin in it. After all, nature does not reason, human minds do. But if reason exists independently of human beings, regardless of how we feel or want, then where does reason come from? Better put, what is the origin of reason?
The Origin of Reason and the Matter of God
To draw a probable, though, not certain conclusion about its origin, we should do what reason tells us to do — begin to draw rational inferences. So, I will start…
Is it reasonable to say reason came from nothing and fell out of the sky to be ready at our service? No. Then, it must be more reasonable to claim it most likely has a source. If that source is not nature and if reason is not a human construct or invention, then like reason itself, wouldn’t this source also exist separate from nature i.e. that it also must be something supernatural? Yes.
Also, like reason itself, wouldn’t that supernatural source also possess the supremacy reason seems to display over our carnal wishes and emotions? Yes, that is reasonable.
If reason has a supernatural and supreme source, and if we access reason by using our minds, by way of our thoughts, can we not then conclude with some rational probability, that this source also has a mind? Otherwise, how could this source, if it did not have a mind, provide the very “thing that makes a fact, theory, or principle comprehensible to our minds,” as defined above?
Based on the rational, though not certain, inferences we’ve drawn above, we conclude that the source, or origin of reason appears to have the following qualities:
- that it is supernatural (existing outside nature)
- supreme over our natural desires, emotions, and basic instincts
- most likely has a mind, and if it does have a mind, then it must be a being with a conscious, animate existence. And, if it follows from examples in our own world that beings (from human beings to dogs and cats) are alive and active, then this being must also be alive and active.
If these three characteristics of the origin of reason are reasonable to assume based on the rational inferences that lead us here, then we have to concede that what we just described is a God, not the absence of one… because, the definition of God is a supernatural, conscious, supreme being.
Therefore, this question of the origin of reason seems to present a problem for people who positively deny the existence of a supernatural, supreme Being. Do the characteristics of reason made by the inferences above, point to a larger probability that God exists rather than that God does not?
And, if atheism seems more unreasonable than reasonable, would it not logically follow that it is more reasonable and thus, more probable, to believe in a God, based on reason alone, not on the scientific method or even any study of religion?
One thing should be clear in all of our minds — the issue of atheism vs. theism (in whatever form) is not a question of certainty — it is one of probability. Neither side can ever prove their claim in the scientific sense of the word. So, when determining our belief and claim on such an important matter, we should dispense with the language involving certainty and draw our conclusion based on what is more reasonable and thus, has a greater probability of being valid.
Lewis, C.S. Miracles. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
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