Tag Archives: reason

Certainty vs Probability

Most of our life decisions and actions are not a matter of certainty vs probability. They are largely a matter of probability alone. This concept is based on my last post Knowledge vs.Truth, which described why the distinction between truth and knowledge is important.

If we govern our everyday lives — from important matters down to the most trivial — based on the degree of probability the knowledge we acquire is accurate, then why do so many of us refuse to approach  metaphysical questions the same way?

Does-God-ExistInstead, we often avoid making conclusions about what are quite possibly the most significant questions of human existence e.g. Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death etc.

Rather than drawing conclusions based on reasonable probability, we demand the answers to such questions be nothing short of absolute certain truth — a concept many deny exists in the first place.  The key point is that absolute certain truth is too rare (if it exists at all) in our universe to govern our lives by it.  Instead, we rely mainly on knowledge that has a reasonable degree of probability of being true in our approach to most of life’s questions and problems.

Those who disagree with the notion we govern our lives based on the reasonable probability of our knowledge and not proven fact might want to re-examine the conduct of their own lives.

ManhattanBecause of our limitations in this world, we are forced to draw conclusions and make decisions based on the likelihood the knowledge we possess is true, and not on the absolute certainty it is true.  More specifically, we base the level of credibility of knowledge we obtain (in any given situation) using probability — not certainty. It is practical and serves us well.  The alternative way of conducting our lives would be impractical, paralyzing, and most likely impossible —   any sort of progress would be anyway.

To demonstrate just how ingrained this principle is in our minds, a trivial example seems appropriate.

Let’s say I have eaten at my favorite restaurant at least 500 times in my life, and I never once became sick after a meal there.  That alone does not allow me to conclude with certainty I will never get sick as a result of dining there.

Carnegie-deliThere does exist, however, the remote possibility that in the future I could get food poisoning and die after consuming a tainted hamburger I ate there.  But, most of us would agree that small possibility is not a sufficient reason to stop dining there.  In fact, the more logical conclusion would lead us in the other direction. We would reasonably claim it is actually a rather safe place to eat, again based on the knowledge provided by experience.

The point is that we often face unfavorable and even horrific possibilities of the most improbable, though possible, kind; yet, we still choose to risk such tragic possibilities because the reasonable probability our knowledge we have acquired is most likely closer to truth than that very improbable possibility.

Most logical, conclusions we draw are based on this concept of reasonable probability of truth described above.  It follows logically that we seldom have the luxury of drawing a conclusion based on absolute certainty — if ever.

If we accept the notion we conduct our lives based on the sound probability of the knowledge we acquire using one of the various methods of obtaining knowledge, then why do so many of us refuse to approach our metaphysical questions in the same manner? It seems irrational.  Why, after the many years of decision making and obligatory responsibilities of life, do we conduct our lives with such consistent reason only to discard it the very instant it comes time to draw rational conclusions about what are most likely the most paramount questions of life?

ugly-windowInstead, we trade in our practice of reason for a childish demand of proven absolute certainty we only enjoy in, say, mathematics — a field of knowledge unable to provide any clarity in the pursuit of the philosophical questions mentioned earlier.

Is there anyone out there who can enlighten me as to why so many of us approach the most challenging questions in life in such an irrational manner?

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com

Knowledge vs Truth

Knowledge vs Truth seems counterintuitive, but there is a distinction to be made and it is an important one.   Instead of continuing our series on the various methods of obtaining knowledge, I decided it was a good time to pause and regain our focus on why we should do so in the first place.  These processes are relevant and important in our everyday lives because they make the pursuit of truth possible.

Knowledge vs Truth Rational Worldview Blog

The pursuit of truth is often the driving force behind our actions.  Even criminals find it necessary to increase their chances of success.  The more reliable the knowledge they receive, the more likely they are to succeed when they plan and execute their crimes.

Knowledge and truth are frequently used interchangeably, and understandably so; in many contexts it is not wholly inaccurate.  But the difference between these two abstract terms is very significant in other cases.

Battle of Gettysburg AftermathFor the purposes of this discussion, I will borrow from Merriam Webster.  Truth is the “body of real things, events, and facts.”  Examples being, respectively, buildings, a pivotal battle in a war (such as the Battle at Gettysburg during the American Civil War), and a fact — a historical one being “Germany was defeated in World War II.”

It follows logically that this body consists of both the material and the abstract — such as a mathematical law.  (An example — Euler’s identity — is pictured below).*

Eulers-identity

Truth is like reason in that it exists independently and separately from human beings.  If it were not so, future discoveries both on the planet and even in the galaxy would be impossible.  As it is, there is still so much we have yet to learn and discover about the universe and its inhabitants.

Further, the validity of truth is not reliant on the opinion of human beings.  A simple example will suffice since I do not believe this concept takes a lot of intellect to grasp.  That is: I can be the only person remaining on earth and believe with all my heart that 2 + 2 = 3, but that will never change the fact 2 + 2 = 4.

Picture of Mars by Nasa

Knowledge, defined by the same source above is: the condition of apprehending truth.  In other words, knowledge is the tool — using various methods — to acquire truth.

The more knowledge we gain about the universe, the closer we become to grasping this body of truth mentioned above.  The ideal situation is for human knowledge to mirror truth.  Given the situation, sometimes that is the case, many other times it is not.  We can have partial knowledge of something now, with the hope of obtaining complete knowledge of it later.

The various methods of acquiring knowledge bring us closer to the truth (as defined above).  We pursue knowledge, because it brings us closer to truth, and most of us do so because we’ve learned it only stands to benefit us in some way.  That does not mean truth is never painful, but most would agree in the long run, it is far more merciful than ignorance, or at least prolonged ignorance.

This post is the basis for the next one Certainty and Probability.

*Euler’s Identity is widely acknowledged as a non obvious fact that relates irrational and imaginary numbers with the very simple integer values of 0 and 1, using the basic operations of multiplication, addition, exponentiation.  

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com

Reason as a Source of Knowledge

Reason as a source of knowledge continues our series on obtaining knowledge.Atheism based on reason sign

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:

  1. brain scanthe existence and validity of reason
  2. our ability, by way of our thoughts, to access reason
  3. 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

Declaration of IndependenceReason 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.

human desireRegardless, 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.

overweight peopleThe 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.

beautiful natureTo 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…

Kona,HIIs 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.

Mauna Kea Hawaii

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?

monotheistic religionsAnd, 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.

References

Lewis, C.S. Miracles.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com