Reason and Human Nature (Part II): Subjective and Objective Truth

What is truth? Even if the Enlightenment assertion that reason leads to truth is correct, this theory is useless unless the premises reason employs can themselves be verified. But how can any human being driven fundamentally by a rationality that seeks to ensure survival and to justify pleasure rather than to discover truth hope to lay hold of such absolute knowledge of reality? Our senses clearly are not sufficient; individual sensory experience frequently varies from one person to the next, resulting in innumerable “facts” that may be true, but only subjectively so, reliant for their truthfulness on the imperfect minds that hold them. Reason is not entirely neutralized by subjective premises—but as its postulates are, so also will be its conclusions. Even proper syllogisms necessarily produce falsehood if they employ false presuppositions. Thus, reason must rely upon the superrational to procure objective truth.

Literally, a subjective truth is any truth that relies upon something else—a corresponding state of affairs in the physical or metaphysical world—for its veracity. In a sense, then, this universe does not provide a basis for any ultimately objectively true facts. While the universe itself and every planet, human, and quark within it (presumably) exists objectively at a given moment, any of these things, from the smallest particle to the entire universe, quite conceivably might not have existed and might not exist the next moment. Only an entity that cannot not exist can provide the basis for an unshakable truth—or, more succinctly, as St. Augustine long ago formulated, truth cannot exist objectively unless an unchanging God exists to uphold it.

Yet here is an awesome theological paradox. If God is who He claims to be—“I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV), the great Creator who does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19) in Whose necessary existence our contingent existence is wrapped up—if this is true, then our existence, thanks to His unchangeable character, is as unshakable as His. Being good Himself, God wonderfully saw fit to create the universe He deemed similarly “very good” (Genesis 1:31) in such a way that its existence would be inextricable from His and, incredibly, His existence inextricable from ours.

What, then, is truth? Truth is the facts about the world that is in an astounding sense as objectively real as the God who created it, and, of course, the facts (barely conceivable to the human mind though they be) of that God Himself. Furthermore, these facts are gathered by the senses and reason with which God equipped humanity to leave His children “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for denying their knowledge of His existence. Ultimately, reason proves to be integral to the eyes of faith that are more trustworthy than the eyes of flesh because, unlike our physical senses alone, reason can direct us to the great Truth that upholds our own existence.

Reason and Human Nature (Part I)

Lately, reason and the so-called “Enlightenment values” have been experiencing a resurgence in celebrity, finding themselves once again endowed with the ability to transform humanity utterly for the better. Before jumping to such fantastic conclusions, however, reason must be examined to determine if it truly is all that it is purported to be.

More importantly, we must determine whether humans are actually capable of reasoning–after all, a significant pool of facts suggests that we are not rational creatures. If we were, the lure of addictive substances, promiscuous sexuality, and even advertising would surely be lost on us–yet countless people are enticed by such temptations despite the better angels of their rational nature to their own destruction. Emotion, it seems, and not reason guides human decision making.

Nevertheless, are such emotionally influenced choices unreasonable? Under the literal meaning of the word, they obviously are not, because humans universally provide excuses–reasons–to justify even their most “irrational” behavior. The drug addict defends the continuation of his habit with reasons that are perfectly convincing to him, perhaps more convincing than the logic used by an attorney to persuade a jury. Both cases include an appeal to facts; the fact that heroin induces a pleasing psychological state is as true for the addict as the time, place, and method of a murder are to those in the courtroom. Despite the conventional wisdom of the Enlightenment movement, the argument based on relatively subjective facts appealed to by the former arguer and the argument grounded in relatively objective facts presented by the latter are logically parallel cases: both use indicative facts and imperative hypotheses to reach imperative conclusions. Thus, all arguments are rational, even arguments about the validity of rationality; logic is the universal language of human thought whose relationship to reality beyond our minds we will never learn precisely because we cannot process that reality without it. As the tool used to discover certain components of reality (either indicative or imperative) from other components of reality, reason renders all claims rationally equal in the absence of a hierarchy of truth, a scale that is not self-evidently verifiable or absolute.

While we may be unable to conceptualize a world without reason, this essential component of human nature–the human lust for an explanatory premise for every other premise–is still deeply intriguing and mysterious. Why can’t humans be content with brute facts? Why are we so reluctant to accept truth as incorrigible? Why do we insist on linking facts to other facts?

Moreover, these traits are particularly odd considering that both materialistic and theistic worldviews claim that the ultimate existing entity is without cause, having no reason for itself but itself. In either case, God or the universe forms the single break from the reasonedness that otherwise rules our thinking. While we insist on finding a reason to explain every material and psychological phenomenon (and a reason for that reason, and a reason for that reason, and so on), we intuitively know that an infinite regress of causes is ultimately untenable.

What, then, is the reason for this paradox of human nature? Why does the species that views all through the lens of rationality and demands a reason for everything, even its own existence, inevitably resort to a necessary being? Is this an evolutionary fluke, the result of a deviant mental pathway yet to be discarded by the hand of chance? Is it a single part of the cosmic soul craving unity with the expanse?

Or is it the mark of the great Cause Himself, who created us with a predilection for reasons so that we might eventually confront The Reason?

“…Thou madest us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” (St. Augustine of Hippo)

Stay tuned for coming discussions of subjective and objective and indicative and imperative ontological states and their role in reason.

Human Nature and Transhumanism

Is the “human condition” a condition–a factual state of affairs–or is it a condition–a physical ailment? Generally, this phrase is associated with the first definition, but the growing transhumanist movement espouses the second, as is explicated in Mark O’Connell’s recent book To Be a Machine, thoughtfully reviewed by Olga Rachello in the journal The New Atlantis. As Rachello’s review reveals, though, the central pillars of transhumanism are even more radical than this redefinition of words: transhumanism attempts to redefine human nature itself, proposing that the self is ultimately informational rather than material.

This departure from strict materialism is intriguing considering the overwhelmingly secular worldviews of contemporary transhumanists, but this fact does not necessarily indicate inaccuracy. Nevertheless, an alarming prospect overshadows the transhumanist utopia of immortality–if the transhumanists prove to be wrong, if human nature is actually inextricably intwined with human embodiment, the potentially instantaneous annihilation of mankind as we know it will necessarily pass unnoticed. The robots into which we attempt to transform ourselves won’t know there’s something missing from their experience of humanity. Barring the existence of an afterlife from which we the true humans will observe the trajectory of human (or unhuman) history, human memory will be forgotten; the subjective turmoil of human emotion that transcends data will go the way of the water closet in a world of robots. If consciousness turns out to be something more than machines and information, its loss will never be grieved.

As represented by Rachello’s review, O’Connell’s book reflectively acknowledges this grave possibility, but it does not make light of the transhumanist’s longing to transcend the feeble human frame and its inevitable demise. (This review served as an excellent whetstone for my philosophical appetite; if I have the chance to read the book myself this summer, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts more fully here.) Even though the transhumanist party has few members now, its presence, goals, and objections to the truths so many of us take for granted are momentous. Let’s hope that the respect O’Connell gives this issue in his book will become prevalent in the near future.

Morality, Atheism, & Reason

In 2007, atheist writer Adam Lee of PatheosDaylight Atheism wrote a post responding to and attempting to discredit a column from the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson in which Gerson argues that morality is ultimately untenable in the absence of God. In his reply, Lee commits a number of the blunders common to traditional atheistic moral arguments, fallacies that have been widely rebutted and thus will not be addressed here. In one of the arguments near the end of his post, however, Lee does raise an interesting point. Speaking to Gerson, he writes:

You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will—empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness—but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others—a mentality of “I win, you lose”—is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.

The utilitarian argument here presented for atheistic morality is a common (and insufficient) one, but Lee’s wording uniquely highlights one of its major flaws. Because he labels the sociological phenomenon he addresses as a “truth,’ his argument begs a pivotal question: how does he know that “happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others . . . is a mean and petty form of happiness”? Presumably, he makes this claim because his personal experience validates it, but thanks to the unavoidable principle of restricted access in human thought, neither he nor anyone else can definitively prove that this is the case for human beings in general. To assert such a claim, one must appeal to the knowledge of some omniscient psychologist—truly, to some revelation—to do so with confidence.

Indeed, the central crisis of naturalism is not a spiritual or moral crisis; it is an epistemological one. Undeniably, the existence of God is a difficult fact to incontrovertibly prove, but by even approaching the topic in a rational manner, the theist and the atheist alike make a perhaps greater leap of faith even than the theist’s belief in an invisible God by assuming that the inscrutable mind and especially the chemical complex that is the human brain can be trusted to follow a trail of rational arguments to truth in a metaphysical quandary. Even the theist is obligated to be slightly speculative to conclude that the rational mind can be trusted based solely on his belief in the existence of a rational God, but neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.

In the end, then, Lee’s mediocre argument for morality without God is potentially tenable only if God—or, if he finds God too extreme a term, some immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being that upholds reason—does exist. Otherwise, the reason on which he bases his moral framework (and presumably his atheism as well) is highly unreasonable.