A Dark Age of Reason

Bob Drury

Adam’s sin weakened the will and darkened the intellect of all his progeny. God promised a redeemer to remedy the human condition.

Every time I read the address, which Pope Benedict XVI gave in 2006 at the University of Regensburg, I become more impressed with his outline of the surge in faith and reason in western civilization and its dissipation in modernity. He identifies its origin in the confluence of the Divine Revelation of God as the Logos and the logos of Greek philosophy spanning the few hundred years before Christ.

Faith and reason flourish in the Christianization of Europe and reach a crest in the Middle Ages. The modern descent into the darkness of irrationality, begins in the late Middle Ages with a tendency to exalt the will of God over the intellect of God, the Logos. Benedict calls this demeaning of rationality, the dehellenization of western thought.

It is often said that God can create anything he wills. Yet, it is seldom said that creation is as much an act of God’s intellect as his will. God, e.g. could not create a unicorn, because unicorn is not the nature of anything. It is a cut and paste visualization of the human imagination.

The human mind can only know the nature of an entity a posteriori. To know more fully the natures of things is the never ending quest of the finite, human mind. It is impossible for man to conceive of a creatable nature a priori. This is evident in that knowing fully the nature of any entity is beyond human capacity, even though the entity lies within the scope of human experience.

In this essay I wish to draw attention to three familiar signposts along our descent into the darkness of irrationality, which is modernity.

Faith as sincere, not rational

One recent signpost was noted by Joshua Schulz in his commentary on the majority decision of the Supreme Court in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. According to the Court, faith and morals cannot be legally viewed or defended as rational. The criterion for its legal admissibility is not rationality, but the sincerity of the individual’s belief.

On page 5 of its decision, the Court noted, “It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” On page 38, the Court stated, “Here, in contrast, the plaintiffs do assert that funding the specific contraceptive methods at issue violates their religious beliefs, and HHS does not question their sincerity.” http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf

What sets us apart from the animals is our ability to think of who we are and what it means to be human. Our self-knowledge derives from our relationship to reality, where reality is rational independently of our knowledge of it. It is faith, morals and metaphysics which makes us human. Yet, these subjects are not within the scope of rational legal argument, according to the Supreme Court.

What is left to make us human is science. However, science is a remote god whom we adore solely because of his ability to surprise and awe through technology. Take away technology and science would be the butt of everyday humor. You can surprise and, in that sense, awe a dog, but you can’t discuss morals with it. Similarly, you can’t discuss morals with another human, if only science is rational.

Human rights as self-evident, not discovered by rational argument

The enlightenment of the 18th century did away with the superstition of faith and morals, replacing superstition with science, liberty, equality and fraternity. Within that enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence struck a mighty blow to reason when it declared that human rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are self-evident. No argument of reason can support the content of that which is self-evident.

The right to abortion, the right to die, the right to homosexual marriage are not open to rational discussion. They are self-evident human rights. President Obama did not reconsider any rational arguments which supported his earlier stance against homosexual marriage. His ‘feelings’ about homosexual marriage ‘evolved’ until he recognized it as a human right.

Recently on TV, sports commentator, Jason Whitlock, said his views evolved from being homophobic to supporting gay rights. Evolution is something which happens. It isn’t rational. As soon as anything is labeled a human right, rational discussion ceases because rights are self-evident. One’s feelings evolve until one is able to see something as a human right. Both the process, which is the evolution of feeling, and the end result, which is the perception of a human right as self-evident, are beyond the scope of rational discussion.

R. J. Snell in an essay on the end of debate, refers to the position of Josh Barro of the New York Times as banning rational support of traditional marriage and denigrating rationality itself:

“One gets the sense that Barro interprets every attempt to make an argument against him as proof that the other side is benighted and wicked, as if reasonability renders a position illegitimate. Worse: that to offer reasons in favor of such an obviously oppressive position renders the person illegitimate, not just the position. To argue, then, is to be proven wrong by the mere fact of making the argument.”

Science alone as the rational pursuit of truth

The third signpost or illustration of our descent into irrationality, to be noted in this essay, is the widespread inability to see any distinction between science and philosophy.

In the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005, witnesses for the defense argued that random mutation and natural selection was an insufficient scientific explanation in specific instances and that the philosophical explanation of intelligent design, was scientific and should be taught in science class. The Court ruled that intelligent design was a concept of faith, a form of Creationism, not scientific and not to be taught in science class. The court did not distinguish between philosophy and science, but between faith and science.

Science is the determination of mathematical relationships among the measurable properties of material reality. It is the pursuit of a small, circumscribed area of truth. It is popular to claim that the only pursuit of truth is science, thus denying the rationality of philosophy and theology. Philosophy is the determination of what principles must be true, if what we experience of reality is to be possible.

Yet, those who would be expected to support rationality betray it. They argue in this dark age that a philosophical conclusion is not philosophical, but scientific and should be taught as science. Their philosophical position would have been better served by questioning if evolution, by means of the random (not natural) generation of mutations and their natural (not random) differential survival, is science or philosophy.

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11 thoughts on “A Dark Age of Reason”

  1. “Adam’s sin weakened the will and darkened the intellect of all his progeny”

    It’s more like, the ascent of man from cave to skyscraper propelled his will in
    such a way that intellect sharpened to the point where man now has more faith
    in science than God.

    1. “Man in the skyscraper” may have more faith in science, but he is sadly ignorant of both science and God. Frankly, I don’t expect the situation to improve over the next few decades; public education is broken because (among other things) we no longer have a public consensus about what it is even supposed to do.

    2. We are at the pinnacle of a fall – like the king’s answer in ‘ Amadeus ” when Mozart asked what was wrong with his composition, the cause of today’s
      malaise is ” Too many notes. “

    3. In the brilliance or darkness of intellect how would you classify the statement of Cornell University physicist, N. David Mermin, “We now know that the moon is not demonstrably there when no one is looking.”? I think this a good example of the darkened human intellect in spite of the wonders of modern technology, which we all acclaim. Of course, not all
      physicists would agree with Mermin. In the judgment of physicist, Alexander Sich, the statement is philosophically inept.

    4. It fits the description of that theory stating when something is observed it is
      not the same as when unobserved. The act of viewing changes the reality. It
      speaks of maya or illusion of which we humans with our very limited senses
      and grasp of dimensions can truly know nothing of the universe.

  2. As for Intelligent Design, it is pseudoscience. One problem is that it depends on “specified design” but only specifies the design post hoc. For example, if I were to drop a clump of coffee grounds while transferring them from the coffee maker to the trash and they just happened to fall in the shape of the continent of Australia, that would be remarkable; if things like this happened to me all the time, I would certainly think an explanation would be in order, since it requires an intelligence to arrange coffee grounds in the shape of Australia. On the other hand, it does not require an intelligence to make Australia look like itself. That, however, is essentially what ID advocates do. They do not have the foggiest idea what the ideal design for a particular biological molecule might be, so they are unable to use that as a standard. Their standard is, in fact, just what they see in nature. Nor do they seem to be phased by the differences in biomolecules with the same function. Are they *all* supposed to be evidence, or just the “best” ones, with everything else blamed on the Fall? And if they say (correctly), “Well, each of these occurs in a different biological environment and context, and it is impossible for us to fully determine all the plusses and minusses of any given design,” then they clearly are unfit to judge the intelligence of any putative designer.

    Even more significantly, what if they estimate that the intelligence needed to design a particular system is, say, that of a team of 20 engineers working with the top supercomputer available today. That would mean, of course, that 30 engineers with the top supercomputer in 5 years should be able to do better. Even its most ardent advocate cannot claim that ID is able to yield evidence of omniscience.

    If we’re dealing with finite numbers, though, we can look at the history of life on earth as an example of a giant genetic algorithm. There are estimated to be about 10^30 bacteria on earth today (neglecting all other life), and a ballpark estimate for the number of generations they have gone through is 10^11. A lot of problems an be solved by a genetic algorithm with 10^30 individuals reproducing through 10^11 generations. Have ID proponents performed any scaling analysis to estimate what “artifacts of intelligence” such a program could be expected to produce? If not, they are still in no real position to draw conclusions, only to ooh and ah to their hearts’ content.

  3. “God, e.g. could not create a unicorn, because unicorn is not the nature of anything. It is a cut and paste visualization of the human imagination.” You mean like Archaeopteryx, Ambulocetus, and the top quark?

    You can easily make a case that human beings can imagine things God has not chosen to create. You can even make the case that human beings can imagine things that God could not have made because they involve deep contradictions not obvious to either our intellect or imagination. You would find it difficult to prove that a unicorn is such a contradiction, though. Or perhaps you simply mean, “God could not create a unicorn because God did not create a unicorn,” which still contributes nothing.

    1. Everything of which I know the nature (e.g. a horse), I know its nature a posteriori. Of things of which I know the nature, I do not fully know the nature, including a horse. Such are the limits of the human mind. In contrast to a horse, a unicorn is not the nature of an entity. In that its origin is the human mind, it cannot be the nature of a creatable entity. Because of its origin, the nature of a unicorn is comparable to that of a paper cut out. Only the mind of God can conceive of the nature of a creatable entity.

      I don’t know where I gave you the impression that I was anti-scientific.
      Although all material things are evidence of intelligent design, I do not agree with the specific argument known as ‘Intelligent Design’. I critiqued it in a previous post on CatholicStand, entitled, “The Odds of the Existence of God”.

    2. I don’t FULLY know your nature, but I know, or I think I know, that you have a mother. I do not know or even think I know that you have a sister. For the sake of argument, let’s say that you don’t, but that I suppose you do. There is still no reason to suppose that it is an impossibility that you could have had a sister, just because it is not the case. If, on the other hand, you have a sister and I even meet her, I still would not know her full nature. I don’t even know my own full nature.

      Well, the same thing is true of a putative animal like a unicorn. We cannot know beforehand if it exists, and there is no particular reason to guess one way or the other. By all appearances it does not exist — unless you accept the identification of the rhinoceros with the unicorn, which has some historical validity but which undermines what we now mean by “unicorn”. On the other hand, there are other animals that were not known but which could be predicted, as I can “predict” the existence of your mother. It was predicted beforehand that there should be some animal that is transitional between what we think of as birds and what we think of as reptiles, and Archaeopteryx fit that bill very nicely — even though, of course, certain details could not have been predicted. I suppose my point is that even if we first encounter a person or an animal in the imagination, her or its possible existence is not ruled out.

      Sorry, I thought you were endorsing ID. It’s a sore point with me, as I think is obvious.

  4. Pingback: Why Secular Humanists Can't Cope With Islam - BigPulpit.com

  5. Your point about Josh Barro:

    ““One gets the sense that Barro interprets every attempt to make an argument against him as proof that the other side is benighted and wicked, as if reasonability renders a position illegitimate. Worse: that to offer reasons in favor of such an obviously oppressive position renders the person illegitimate, not just the position”

    But that is their whole point – they don’t want to convince anyone of the truth of their position. They want to make the opponent’s position socially unacceptable. So they are engaging in a political campaign in which their supporters are supposed to constantly SHAME people into compliance. They feel that if this shaming behavior can be implemented widely enough, they will win.

    This indicates that they 1) Don’t believe they can win on logic and argument and 2) that they control enough influential media outlets to make their views mandatory on society.

    They feel that this is the way racism was made socially unacceptable, so why not do the same thing with gay marriage?

    This is sad, because this indicates they really believe that racism is not inherently immoral, it is socially unacceptable because it is socially unacceptable.

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