Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The dangers of reasonableness

In the spirit of the past couple of explanatory posts I want to touch on some basic terms and why I think they are important. Many of my concepts, at least the ones I really think are worth listening too, stem from thinking similar to the work of an American expatriate, Francis Schaeffer. Although Schaeffer's work is not as popular as it was in previous decades, his straightforward, succinct arguments proved to be a style I really took a liking to. My first introduction to his work was through the deceptively slim volume Escape from Reason. In this book, large, complex philosophical topics were discussed in shockingly precise, simple terms which honored the full spirit and technical meaning of the ideas. For an author to attempt a feat is rare in small books, especially books attempting to cover that large an historical date range.

Schaeffer really goes after it in some of his titles and it shows. One example, from Escape from Reason, is the use of a prolonged metaphor of nature. Having seen him attempt to capture some extremely big ideas and succeed invited me to try, to a lesser degree, to write about a few of my own topics. For example, returning to my own blog's three themes, faith, rationality, and, the unknown, I would like to touch for a moment on my personal take on one of these works: rationality. The word ratio comes from Latin. It can be seen here,
and it rose in the usage listed below starting in 1630,
1630s, "reason, rationale," from L. ratio "reckoning, calculation, business affair, procedure," also "reason," from rat-, pp. stem of reri "to reckon, calculate," also "think" (see reason). Mathematical sense is attested from 1660.
In reviewing the etymology for ratio more closely, I see a meaningful correlation between the third meaning,
early 13c., "statement in an argument," also "intellectual faculty that adopts actions to ends," from Anglo-Fr. resoun, O.Fr. raison, from L. rationem (nom. ratio) "reckoning, understanding, motive, cause," from ratus, pp. of reri "to reckon, think," from PIE root *re(i)- "to reason, count" (cf. O.E. rædan "to advise; see read). Meaning "sanity" is recorded from, late 14c. Phrase it stands to reason is from 1630s. Age of Reason "the Enlightenment" is first recorded 1794, as the title of Tom Paine's book.
In fact, one, "to reason, count", hits the nail right on the head. Now, before I dig into it too far from the angle of "to reason, count", I want to say that many of the terms apply to me at other times. But, as for this one term it really zeroes in on a key usage of them term as I want to emphasize it.

Going back earlier to philosophy, however, I see a curious phenomenon. For example, Newton's use of ratio was to measure. As I am fond of quoting, "One is not engineering if they are not measuring." "Why is this important?" you might ask. Platonic philosophy has a major root itself in Pythagoreanism. Yes, that Pythagoras. Why the obscure philosophical footnote? When Platonism, and, later, rationalism, sought to universalize truth as a quantifiable substance, this proved to be a major, revolution in philosophy. Why? Because numbers carried with them remnants of the Egyptian priestly caste's mystical roots. Numbers, as it were, possessed, in and of themselves, a sort of transcendental power previously reserved in other faiths for other entities and other entities along. For example, in Judeo-Christian faiths, goodness was a divine attribute of God and God alone. When pythagoreanism sought to overthrow the theistic model of a divine God and a divine order based on that God with a naturalistic model based in the transcendental nature of quantity and numbers.

Now, I recognize that was a lot of heavy conceptual stuff, but, even in today's science, whose roots can be traced back to the pythaogreanism. Let's take an idea we can examine from both a Biblical and pythagoreanism. The majesty of God can be seen in a divine characteristic of nature: the paradoxical unfathomability of who God is. For instance, when Christians look at something like an unfathomable truth, it glorifies God. Because we are limited and recognize the unlimitedess of God, we can conclude God is of an entirely different spiritual order of being. In this sense, nature proves God's greatness because it demonstrates our limitedness. We intuitively recognize, for instance, that God can, with his power, known the depths of an abyss and, in simple terms, demonstrate such knowledge, whereas we humans, when we attempt to conceptualize, or, more rashly, understand and conceive, of such a truth, perhaps imagining lines measured in miles, from one point to the next, and, after some point in time, failing to realized, we as humans simply cannot know this.

In reality, we stand, measuring, reasoning, reckoning, trying to grapple with how great He is and, the truth is, we can't. There are questions of which we can conceive, for instance, how large is your love Lord, and, if He tried to provide some physical analogy, like my love for you is infinite, our human minds cannot get around this. It is this, the fundamental inability of human reason, to grasp the magnitude of God, his ways, his love, his nature and being, that make reason itself a poor human trait upon which to hinge our estimation of God. Another way of putting it is to focus on what reason, as used popularly in human thought, works to do. Reason measures, reason analyzes, and, reason tries to quantify truth. But, there are some things which are not meant to be measured, analyzed or quantified. Love is not a number. Grace is not a thing best understood in bar charts and graphical models.

Reason is, by many a man, held to be the highest human virtue we can possess. Yet, I contend that reason, because it attempts to transform the invisible into something tangible, is an inferior pinnacle. If you have to reduce one thing to something else in order for it to be the best you can have, it cannot be the highest form attainable. The problem is that there are things which cannot be known, which cannot be fathomed, and, which do not yield to man's powers and this belittles us, it reminds us of our place in the universe. Many would rather create this false distinction between the reality, there is more than us which we cannot control or grasp, and, that scares us. And, yet, some accept what is greater than man at face value and live with the more honest stance that our knowledge, power and place in the grand scheme of things is limited.

Sure, this mystical attempt to reduce the universe to a set of characters, as used by language, whether that is ordinary spoken language, or, the more abstruse languages of science and math, is noble. We are attempting to take this universal experience, life in the cosmos, the unknown and the wholly unknowable, and, put it down into codified symbols so we can prove to each other, we really are seeing what we see. Yet, is it necessary that we have proof of life when to demonstrate it we must in fact be alive in the first place? Why do we dread that feared concept, the unreasonable, so much? Death, love, life, all the great mysteries that make being worth experiencing would somehow be lost in the codification of truth known as reasoning. Beyond reason is a place of reality that approximations, ideas, and, understandings with which our minds cannot contend. Pure life, as it is living, is unreasonable, irrational, and, the premise that reason is in fact the greatest measure of man is merely a control mechanism people try to put on each other.

When we fail in our reasonings. When we cannot fully explain, that is, put into words, something, it gives people an opportunity to swoop in and take advantage of our "inferior" intellects. The constant war for meaning and importance rages on, and, knowledge--with our pursuit for the power it promises to give control over others--beckons us forth. We stand, together, ashamed at our powerlessness and utter dark truths, realities and bold declarations of what is, was, and, will be, hoping that our utterance, our mark on the universe, will make us stand out. That it will someone differentiate us as ones more understanding, more in control, more powerful, in the ways that matter. This, I fear, is the dark side of reason: a way for men and women to rank and order each other, even if only in their own minds, so as to create an unnatural form of order, ambivalent of truth and built on artificial grounds.

Counting, ordering, organizing, ranking, and, defining are not supernatural truths, although, at times, supernatural functions of being mandate the mind and reason be used. However, when reason, used as a means to dehumanize people into orders of things, and, to rob life of its raw, visceral power, is seen for what it was meant to be, a way to observe and study life, its original nature does not seem so mechanical and lifeless. In my mind I see reason, as it used today, as a clinical instrument, a tool meant to attempt to grab raw life and put it in a jar for study, reflection and observation. Sadly, this is not what life is. Life is meant to be lived, not analyzed, broken down into particles and reduced to lesser truths. Something is lost in the translation from reality to concept, from truth to idea.

In today's world, it would seem, reason has replaced real inquiry and dialogue with objectification and computation. Although there has been a shift in the highest ranks of physics talk from Newtonian billiard ball mechanics to Einstein's world of endless shape-shifting forms, there has not been a similar movement in other areas of inquiry. In fact, the methods of inquiry used by the sciences hundreds of years ago proved to be so effective people temporarily suspended the theological divide between the domain of God and the domain of creation as if it were all the subject of science. Sadly, many people are erroneously conducting theology, more in the informal arenas of their own personal lives, as scientists than theologians. Holiness, awe and reverence have been substituted for rationality, practicality and pragmatism.

What good, it now seems, is the goodness of God if it cannot be defined? What is love if we cannot map it to a biochemical model of human being? How valid is truth if it cannot withstand the rigors of prepositional logic? The cart has been put before the horse and reason is now the God of man. Whereas truth once prevailed, even with its humbling realism and the inevitable frailty of mankind being made known immediately upon beginning the search for truth, reason presupposes, and, forces with its supposition, the arrogance of man. Results are determined valid only before the inquiry is started and the measure of man is in a way the mirror. What we deem true must meet criteria before we can actually start exploring and that sort of pre-fabricated exploration of reality, where the destination is known from the first step, can never foster real understanding. For, there are truths reason cannot grasp. There are ways man cannot know in this mortal shell. And, there are reasons which divine law prevents us from ever seeing this side of death.

I face death. Reason cannot tell me, no matter how hard I try, what lies on the other side of that great chasm. There are countless myths, poems, symbols, and, allegories indicating this. But, unable to live with our frailty, people have robbed life of its mysterious unreasonableness and chosen to throw away the key to truth. Such a transformation, from thinkers as mystic explorers at one time to android machines in the present, leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Reason I must at times, for making sense is the job of the philosopher. But, as all honest men and women must do, I have to, at certain crossroads, admit, even I, for all my preparedness, all my maps and gear, cannot always see or know what it is I face. Death, being my most recent enemy combatant reason demands that I be honest yet again. I could pretend like I have all the answers and give myself the thin blanket of delusion for the sake of temporary peace of mind. I, rather, chose to live, as God made me, unable to reason myself out of this one. God, help me to find that greater function of which reason is but a shadow and for which truth is the natural language.

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