December 20, 2003


Reason and Faith, Eternally Bound (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 12/20/03, NY Times)

One might have expected the forces of Reason to be a bit weary after a generation of battling postmodernism and having its power and authority under constant scrutiny. Reason's battles, though, continue unabated. Only now it finds its opposition in the more unyielding claims of religious faith. This latest conflict is over seemingly incompatible ways of knowing the world. It is a conflict between competing certainties: between followers of Faith, who know because they believe, and followers of Reason, who believe because they know. [...]

Isaiah Berlin argued that the Enlightenment led to the belief that human beings could be reshaped according to reason's dictates. And out of that science of human society, he argued, came such totalitarian dystopias as the Soviet Union.

Reason then, has its limits. The philosopher Robert Fogelin's new book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason is subtitled "The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal" because, he argues, reason's own processes negotiate a precipice. Mr. Fogelin quotes Kant, who described a dove who "cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space."

Failing to understand what keeps her aloft and taking a leap of faith, the dove might set off in "empty space" — a vacuum — and plummet. But reason might lead to the same end: if something offers resistance then logically can't one proceed more easily if it is eliminated? So why not try?

The problem is that the bird can never fully comprehend the medium through which it experiences the world. In many ways, Kant argued, neither could the mind. Reason is still the only tool available for certain knowledge, but it also presents questions it is unable to answer fully.

Some of those questions may remain even after contemporary battles cease: how much faith is involved in the workings of reason and how much reason lies in the assertions of faith?

"Certain knowledge"?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2003 7:49 AM

Of course, Kant's entire premise in at least two of his essays was that other knowledge (that of the noumena) is unknowable at all.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 20, 2003 2:11 PM

Attaching a word to something doesn't make it knowable.

Posted by: Robert D at December 20, 2003 3:10 PM

Nothing is "knowable" from a purely rational perspective, that's the ironic beauty of the concept of Reason: it disproves itself

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2003 3:22 PM

Testable, then.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 21, 2003 12:45 AM

Reason fails its own test, making everything else ultimately untestable.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2003 9:38 AM

OJ, so can we conclude that without Reason, everything is permitted?

Posted by: Robert D at December 21, 2003 12:59 PM

That's just a pose, Orrin. I can list thousands of things that even the deepest philosophical skeptic, even Feyerabend, accept as certain without a second thought.

My favorite example is plane travel. When you go to the airport, no matter what you think about reality, it does not cross your mind that the plane, instead of lifting up into the air, is going to burrow its way to its destination. You're sure of that?

But how?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 21, 2003 6:39 PM

Faith. That's very much the point.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2003 6:45 PM

Some people have absolute faith in UFOs, but that doesn't mean they're there.

Evidence is evidence.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 22, 2003 3:40 PM


No, the faith is that they themselves exist and that their observations mean something and that evidence can be adduced and judged.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2003 4:13 PM

The alternative doesn't appear to be very successful. Of course, I'm taking that on faith. Perhaps you have tried it?

Posing aside, some forms of faith are testable within the context of our presumed existence. Others are not, within that same context.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 22, 2003 8:44 PM

"I'm taking that on faith." ends the argument.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2003 10:07 PM

But the 'faith' we see in Harry's airplane example: is it because people know Bernoulli's principle and understand it, or is it because they 'feel' safe by believing the advertising for the airlines, or is it because they just 'know' that airplanes take off and do not screech into the end of the runway?

Do people define their own epistimologies, or subscribe to the ones that are there?

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 23, 2003 4:37 AM


It's faith all the way down.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 8:00 AM

Only true for animals with imaginations.

You imagine alternative explanations to evidence. Without imagination, you would have to accept what you see.

But that does not disprove observation.

Observations are correct (valid, real, what you will) within limits of measurement and theory.

Thinking outside the box does not prove there is anything outside the box.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 5:11 PM

Thinking inside the box doesn't prove there's a box, nor a thinker.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 5:15 PM

Since OJ hasn't tried the alternative, it appears he is rather more wedded to taking as given that we all exist.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 23, 2003 6:17 PM


We all take it as given. Thank the Giver.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 6:33 PM