Faith and Reason – Part 3

On the one hand there are the pro-reason folks: atheists, skeptics, naturalists, humanists, and Marxists. On the other hand there are the pro-faith folks: theists, mystics, supernaturalists, religious believers, New Agers, and Existentialists. The pro-reason people are anti faith and the pro-faith people are anti reason. The big question is:

Q1. Which is better, reason or faith?

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Some of the pro-reason crowd thinks that faith has its place in life, and most pro-faith people would object to being characterized as being anti reason. Many would claim that faith and reason do not conflict with each other, and that a person can be both pro reason and pro faith. This viewpoint raises more key questions:

Q2. Is faith a real alternative to reason?
Q3. Do reason and faith sometimes conflict with each other?
Q4. Do reason and faith have separate and distinct intellectual jurisdictions, so that they
can never come into conflict with each other?

Question (Q1) cannot be settled until we have clear answers to two basic conceptual questions:

Q5. What is reason?
Q6. What is faith?

Since we are among the pro-reason crowd, it makes sense to start with (Q5), and then when we have a clear answer to that question, to move on to (Q6). In my previous post on Faith and Reason (08/29/08), I started to look at an important and related question:

Q7. Can we justify rationality?

If we can justify rationality, then we will have a firm pro-reason position to start from in addressing (Q6) and ultimately (Q1). Dealing with (Q7) will also involve answering (Q5). If we can justify rationality, then we will have justified reason, at least in the sense of “reason” intended by the contrast between faith and reason.

To determine whether we can justify rationality, we must first clarify this concept:

Q8. What is rationality?

My dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition) gives three different definitions of “rational” that seem relevant:

1. Having or exercising the ability to reason.
2. Of sound mind: sane.
3. Consistent with or based on reason; logical: rational behavior.

Definition (3) seems the best for this context. In trying to justify rationality, we are trying to justify the idea that one should base beliefs and actions on reason or logical thinking. However, the two other definitions also have relevance. It seems to me that what we have here is different degrees or levels of rationality.

There are two main types of mental deficiency: mental disorders, and mental retardation. People who suffer from mental illness are to various degrees irrational. People who are mentally retarded might not be irrational, but they are deficient in rationality. Even so, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded still have or exercise the ability to reason. They too are “rational animals” who are capable of drawing inferences from facts and experiences. They can perceive objects in their environment, remember events, and draw conclusions based on their perceptions, beliefs, and memories. The thinking of mentally ill and mentally retarded people may not in general be as clear and as logical and as well-informed as the thinking of people who don’t have to deal with these conditions, but it is still human thinking.

If we set aside people who have serious mental disorders and people who are mentally retarded, and just consider people who are mentally healthy and normal, then such people are, in general, capable of a greater degree of rationality. Yet we know that “normal” people are not always rational and logical in their actions and beliefs. People of normal mental health and capability are often unreasonable and illogical (How else can we explain the fact that 50% of the US wants McCain to be our next President?). In fact Freud, Marx, and Sartre agree that humans are the “irrational animal” in that human thinking is all-to-often clouded by irrational impulses and drives (e.g. wishful thinking), by false consciousness (socially-fostered delusions that serve to maintain an unjust status quo), and bad faith. So “mentally normal” does not mean reasonable or logical.

At the upper end of the scale, we have mentally normal people who are also reasonable and logical. We could use the positive label “critical thinker” to categorize this sort of person. Just as there are degrees of irrationality among the mentally ill, so there are also degrees of rationality among critical thinkers. Critical thinking involves intellectual skills, habits of thought, intellectual virtues, and experience with conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some critical thinkers have stronger intellectual skills than others. Some have stronger intellectual virtues than others. Some have more experience than others in conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some have a clearer grasp than others of key intellectual standards.

To be continued…