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David Hume probably never told this joke, but it illustrates a central tenet of his philosophy:
Two men are riding on a train from London to Edinburgh. One of the men is reading a book, and after he finishes each page, he rips it from the volume and casts it out the window.
After observing this action for a few minutes, the other man inquires, "Sir, why are you throwing book pages out the window?"
"Why," the first man replies, "obviously to keep the elephants off the tracks. If we should collide with an elephant, a great loss of life could result."
"But, sir," cries the second man, "there are no elephants on the tracks!"
To which the first man responds, "Effective, isn't it?"
Article originally appeared in
What makes this joke funny, of course, is that the first man thinks his throwing the torn pages from the train is what keeps elephants off the tracks, when the real reason is that elephants do not roam loose through Great Britain. Hume would never make such a mistake about cause and effect because he denied that there was any sure way to reason about causes and effects in the first place. He also denied that we have any direct knowledge of the external world, or that there was any reason to trust that the future would be like the past. This denial of cause and effect, of objective reality, and of the continuity of nature amounted, on Hume's part, to a clear rejection of the use of reason as a reliable guide to truth.1
Hume's skepticism about reason reveals a fatal weakness in the atheist's armor and puts a sharp sword in the hand of the Christian apologist. Atheists can give no reason why they should value reason, and Christians can show how anyone who believes in reason must also believe in God.
Rational & Non-Rational Thoughts
The problem for atheists is that they deny the supernatural world. For them, in the words of Carl Sagan, the cosmos, with its energy, matter, time, and space, "is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."2 In this naturalistic world, ideas are mere epiphenomena, a surface appearance caused by something real, like the apparent pictures caused by the real pixels on a TV screen. When we "think," the atoms in our brains move, causing the thoughts. The physical atoms are the cause, and the thoughts are merely the effect of their physical movement. There is nothing "metaphysical" involved. Thus, Bertrand Russell avers that all human beliefs are but "accidental collocations of atoms."3 The way the atoms in our brains happen to move is what dictates what our thoughts will be.
We all know, of course, that some thoughts do have chemical causes. LSD and other drugs can produce sensations, perceptions, and thoughts in our brains that have no relation to the outside world. In this respect, the atheists are right. But then they apply this limited type of experience to all experiences of thought and, in consonance with their naturalistic worldview, leap to the conclusion that all thoughts are physically caused.
But thoughts that are physically caused are not caused by reason. Thus, they are non-rational by definition. And we are rightly suspicious of non-rational thoughts. No one trusts the drug-induced ravings of a friend on a psychedelic trip. Indeed, we try to protect the friend from acting on the illusion that he can fly or deflect bullets.
Atheists, having strapped on the skis of physically caused thought, cannot stop anywhere on the mountain of rationality, but must descend into the valley of non-rationalism. But here they encounter a problem. If there is no criterion of rationality, how does one evaluate his thoughts? When John Nash, whose story is told in A Beautiful Mind, was overcome by phobias and obsessions, he thought his way back to health by rational therapy. He tested each thought by the outside standard of reason and thereby decided which thoughts to trust and which to dismiss.4 Atheists, however, have no outside standard. Even the real world, which they admit really is outside their brains, comes into their minds only through perceptions. Because these perceptions, as they believe, are entirely caused by physical changes in their brains, they have no way of distinguishing the valid ones from hallucinations.
Since atheists believe that the cosmos is all there is, and since reason is not made up of energy, matter, time, or space, atheists have no valid reason to believe in reason. How ironic that so many of them call themselves "Brights" when they are unable to shine the light of reason onto their thoughts.
A Brief History of Reasoning About Reason
The idea that, without God, there is no reason to trust reason has an ancient pedigree. The first thinkers to realize the impotence of reason without a God to empower it were the Greek skeptics, who doubted the ability of logic to lead to truth.A hundred years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had based their philosophies on inerrant reason, the Sophists arose and claimed that they could teach anyone to use logic convincingly to argue any point. They believed that for every conceivable argument, an equally valid opposite argument could be offered. Illustrating their point, an orator named Carneades in Rome gave equally persuasive speeches for and against justice on successive days in 155 b.c.5
A second attack on atheistic reason came in the eleventh century from the Muslim Al-Ghazali, whose book, The Destruction of the Philosophers, argued from optical illusions that we cannot trust our senses, and from logical paradoxes that we cannot trust reason.6
Seven centuries later, about the same time that Hume's skepticism was developing in Scotland, Pierre Cabinis in France boldly proclaimed that "the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile."7 Hume's own attack roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but instead of a refutation, he only produced further critiques, one of practical reason and the other of pure.
After Kant, Charles Darwin realized that his brain taught him that it and a monkey's brain shared a common ancestor, but he then ironically asked, "Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind?"8 Shortly after Darwin, Arthur Balfour, a thinker who later became prime minster of Great Britain, pointed out that since empirical science can give only a non-rational source for human beliefs, such science must be supplemented by a belief in God if human thinking is to have any validity.9 Noted atheist biologist J. B. S. Haldane realized that "if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true." In order to escape what he called sawing off the branch he was sitting on, he felt compelled to believe in something like a mind that exists behind nature.10
Closer to our time, C. S. Lewis highlighted the fatal self-contradiction of naturalism, showing that a materialistic view of the universe leaves no place for rational thought.11 Thus, naturalism is autophagic,
devouring itself, much like the Unitarian bumper sticker that imperiously orders us to "Question Authority."
Alvin Plantinga has presented the self-contradiction of naturalism as a defeater of belief in evolution by natural selection, demonstrating that if we start with the presumption that such evolution is true, we will then believe that everything about ourselves, including our belief in Darwinian evolution, can be accounted for in terms of natural selection, a profoundly non-rational process. Thus, true believers in the neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis must acknowledge that their belief is not rational, that they have no rational reason to trust their minds to believe that evolution (or anything else, for that matter) is true.12
Cosmologist Paul Davies also shows the inability of naturalism to account for rational thought. He allows that evolution explains why our minds allow us to avoid dangers and to find mates, but he then argues that natural selection cannot account for our rational human minds, with their ability to understand everything from atoms to black holes.13 Davies has been backed up by the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who calls the evolutionary explanation of human reason "laughably inadequate."14
Hawking's Unconscious Irrationality
Several years ago, Steven Hawking, who holds Isaac Newton's chair at Trinity College, Cambridge, published a book, The Grand Design, which he thinks willexplain everything without the hypothesis of God. On the opening page he says, "Philosophy is dead," meaning that speculation about the universe is pointless, and only "science" will lead to truth.15 Hawking seems to forget that trying to do science without philosophy is like trying to do language without grammar. Philosophy is not so much a separate branch of investigation as the rational way we conduct all investigation.
Hawking uses the alleged death of philosophy as a cover for such absurd statements as, "Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."16 He apparently does not notice that gravity is not an independent entity that can do things on its own, but is only a "personification" of the tendency of masses to attract each other. When Hawking posits gravity as the "creator," he gives no account of gravity's own origin, nor does he recognize that, without mass, there is no gravity. Hawking's unconscious irrationality, like the conscious rebellion of earlier thinkers against rationality, is just the latest example of how abandoning God leads the atheist to abandon reason.
The Fruits of Abductive Reasoning
Thus far we have seen how thinking about reason reveals a fatal weakness in the atheist's armor. Now let's see how it puts a sharp sword into the hand of the Christian apologist.
Belief in reason frees the mind from naturalism as from a prison, for it allows the mind to enter into a world containing spiritual realities. Once reason gets its spiritual foot in the door, the entry of God cannot be far behind. In order to maintain one's trust in reason, one must come to trust in God.
The argument from reason to God is not one of deduction, or induction, but of abduction, or inference to the best explanation. Given that any situation can be explained in an infinite number of ways, we look for the explanation that best accounts for it. Abductive reasoning is the key to the situational riddles kids love:
You enter a room and see Billy and Sally lying dead on the floor, surrounded by puddles of water and broken glass. They have no wounds on their bodies, and they have not been poisoned. What happened? How did they die?
Out of numberless possible explanations, the correct answer is that someone knocked over their bowl and broke it. Billy and Sally are goldfish.
Let's now use abductive reasoning to discover the best explanation for human reason itself. Whence comes the capacity to reason correctly?
Either human reason comes from a naturalistic, non-rational cause, or from an immaterial, rational cause. More than twenty centuries' worth of thought has established that purely physical forces cannot give rise to rationality: matter can't even give rise to mind, much less to rationality. Thus, human reason must arise from a rational source. Apart from the physical universe, then, there must exist a non-human rational mind, and this mind must be the source of human rationality. Since human rationality enables people to reason rightly—to evaluate their thoughts and see which ones are logical and coherent, and which ones aren't—rationality cannot be the product of their own minds, but must come from outside and enable them to control their minds.
In addition to adjudicating between human thoughts, this rationality also empowers people to understand the created order, the cosmos so beloved by Carl Sagan. How ironic that Sagan's favorite word for the universe was cosmos, which comes from a Greek word meaning "beauty" and bespeaks its order and intelligibility. Not only inside the human mind does reason rule, but also outside of it; reason seems to have imposed its laws upon the whole created order. Because reason reigns both in the physical universe and in man's consciousness, humans can comprehend both worlds. They can order their thoughts and understand the cosmos. When thinkers realize that a trust in reason leads them to the acknowledgement of a non-human, immaterial Mind that also stamped its mark on the universe, they soon discover that they believe in God.
The Two-Edged Sword
The idea that reason exists independently of humans and that it shapes the world originated with the Greeks. Six centuries before Christ, Heraclitus said there was a logos, a word or reason, by which the world was created.17 The men against whom the Sophists rebelled, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all believed in the logos and in the spiritual reality which it and God inhabited.18 Around the time of Jesus, Philo said that this logos was God's creative principle, and John's Gospel identifies the logos with God the Son, through whom everything was created.19 So Greeks, Jews, and Christians have long linked our human ability to reason with God's existence, and our ability to understand the world with his creativity.
When Descartes created modern philosophy by questioning everything he did not know directly, he eventually reasoned that God must exist. Cogito; ergo sum began a process that finally convinced him that there was a God.20 His train of reasoning was long and involved, but more recently, Oxford mathematician John Lennox, in a response to Hawking's book, has, like Anselm before him, been able to telescope this complicated argument into a simple deduction: Cogito; ergo Deus est: I think; therefore God exists.21 Einstein marveled that the most incomprehensible fact about the universe was the fact that it was comprehensible.22 Lennox explains why it is so: both the universe and the human mind come from the logos. And the logos is God. QED: Cogito; ergo Deus est.
So Christians have a sharp, two-edged sword. They can ask atheists why they trust in reason, and then show them that, without God, such a reliance is blind faith. Then they can show them that the best explanation for the existence of reason andfor the intelligibility of the universe is the God of the Bible. "In the beginning there was logic" (John 1:1). •
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