Reason as a Guide to Reality

This is a reprint from Wheat and Tares. It was the first of my “reason as a guide to reality” posts.

Did you ever hear the one about the dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac? He stayed up all night wondering if there really was a dog.

Like many people, I’m curious about the nature of reality and really do sometimes stay up all night wondering about… well, just about anything.

A while back I wrote this post about the ramifications of a comprehensible God. If God and reality are comprehensible then using reason and rationality to explore reality is a worthwhile goal. But if God and reality are not fully comprehensible, then reason and rationality will only work haphazardly, and therefore are not reliable guides.

A Slice of PI

What I find so fascinating about logic and reason are that they do work. For example, what is the value of PI?

PI is defined at the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle. In school, I was always taught to use 3.14 as the value for PI. But actually this is just an approximation. Supposedly, PI actually goes on infinitely past the decimal, apparently never even repeating. You can’t even turn PI into a fraction in the form of one whole number over another, so this makes it a classic so-called “irrational number.” .

But have you ever thought to ask how they know all that? How do they even know that the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle is approximately 3.14?

Do they take a measuring tape and measure it and find out its 3.14? I confess, I once read a book that suggested actually trying to measure the circumference and radius of a circle to calculating PI this way. I got 3.16 as my answer. Presumably the reason I didn’t get the right answer is because my measuring tape wasn’t infinitely accurate and because my circle wasn’t a perfect circle.

Actually, true circles doesn’t even exist in physical reality. But if true circles don’t exist in real life, then how the heck can we confidently say that the ratio of the circumference to the radius of something that does not exist is 3.1416…etc?

Maybe since true circles are just imaginary anyhow that’s how we came up with it? If I decide that there is something called a barf-fat and it only exists in our minds, then can’t I pretty much make up anything about it that I want? If this is true, then why can’t we just take a vote and decide to change the value of PI to 3. Now personally if PI had a value of 3 there would be many advantages over an infinitely long number that is impossible to memorize. Think about how much easier it would be to teach children about PI if its value was 3. Plus, think of all those mathematics and physics equations that use PI that would suddenly be easier to calculate. Since circles don’t really exist except as figments of our imagination, I am going to personally start writing to my congressmen today to make sure the “PI is 3” law passes the next time congress meets.

What is Real?

So just exactly how do we know what the value of PI is if we can’t measure it?

Well, here is one way you could do it. Take a look at the following picture that I took from Mathematics for the Million: How to Master The Magic of Numbers. I love this book because it teaches math from a historical perspective, showing what problems the ancients were trying to solve as they discovered various mathematical principles.

 Computing PI

 

As this picture shows, we can take our ‘imaginary’ perfect circle and pretend to split it up into boxes. The boxes actually come in two sets, those that bound our circle (i.e. the circle is inside of the boxes) and those that our circle bounds (i.e. the boxes are inside the circle.) 

Now imagine that each of these boxes is exactly equal in width. Note that this means that the “inner” and “outer” boxes in a quarter section are all exactly the same except for one box. In our example we have one quarter circle with 9 boxes and one with 10. But other than that extra boxes, the boxes are identical.

 

Calculating PI

Now let’s assume that our circle is a unit circle, so by definition its radius is 1. It doesn’t matter what it’s “1” of. It could be 1 foot, or 1 inch, or 1 mile. It does not matter for our purposes so long as it’s “1” of some unit. Maybe think of it being “1” on one of those number lines that you used to draw on back in high school that had no units.

Now if you remember back to your old geometry days, you might remember that the area of a circle is PI*Radius^2. [1] Given that our radius is known to be 1, we know that means the area of our circle is equal to PI because 1 squared is still 1 and PI X 1 = PI.

Now if we know that the boxes are exactly equal in width and we know the radius of the circle is 1, then we already know the width of each box. From here we can use geometry to figure out the area of the boxes. [2]

The end result is that we now have the area of two sets of boxes, one that is known to be larger than the area of the circle and one that is known to be smaller than the area of the circle. For our example picture, the result would be 3.44 for the outer boxes and 2.64 for the inner boxes. So we can now be absolutely certain that PI is less than 3.44 and greater than 2.64.

Now double the boxes. Then double them again. In fact, double them as many times as you have patience for. The end result is obvious: you are now able to calculate PI to any level of precision you want. Just keep adding boxes until the upper and lower bounds match out to as many decimal places as you wish. Throw the rest away. [3]

You now know at least one way to calculate PI.

What is so fascinating about it is that you know it works. In your heart, now that you understand how it’s done, you know it’s completely reliable. Legislating what PI is now seems as silly as voting on whether or not the dinosaurs once lived on the earth.

Now how is it that a purely mental concept like a circle – and remember, it does not physically exist anywhere in universe – can have such a specific and computable characteristic like PI?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because circles really do exist. I can’t get over the significance of this. Something that only exists in our minds actually and really objectively exists and we can prove it beyond doubt. Mathematics is real.

I also can’t miss the display of beauty in math and reason demonstrated by this example. I’m left with several questions worthy of further discussion:

  1. Why is it that made up things can really exist objectively?
  2. Is Math (like circles or PI) “invented” or “discovered?”
  3. I mentioned that this example was “beautiful” to me. Is that a subjective “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing? Or could beauty be objectively real too?
  4. What do we even mean by the word “beauty” in the first place? Why is math, nature, and my wife all beautiful? Is that one word for three things or one word for one thing?
  5. Do you feel God’s presence when you see math work like this? If not, do you at least feel awe for “something” when you see the above example?

Notes

[1] See Mathematics for the Million, p. 217 and p. 154

[2] Mathematics for the Million, p. 217-218 for full details

[3] Actually, this algorithm to solve for PI is what we call intractable. Though in principle we can find PI to any arbitrary decimal point, in practice once you get past a certain point the procedure becomes too computationally intensive and even a super fast computer will never complete prior to the universe collapsing into a big crunch – at least not with current technology. There are better ways to find PI that aren’t so process intensive using calculus. See this link here for details.

54 thoughts on “Reason as a Guide to Reality

  1. Nice post Bruce.

    Regarding question no. 3, yes, beauty seems to be objectively real, at least in it’s purity. Truth is beauty, beauty truth. Everything else is deception: the true beauty (or ugliness) hidden beneath beautiful or ugly skin, and the ugliness or beauty in our eyes which deceives us of the true nature of things.

  2. I think beauty can be both subjective and objective. I know that I find particular things and people beautiful that many others don’t.

  3. Bruce writes, “Why is it that made up things can really exist objectively?”

    It so happens that A/T addresses this question.

    Bruce writes, “I mentioned that this example was “beautiful” to me. Is that a subjective “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing? Or could beauty be objectively real too?”

    A/T addresses this as well, since both truth and beauty are among the “transcendentals”, which are, in a sense, convertible with one another: That which is true is good, that which is good is beautiful, etc.

  4. A/T makes it a tautology then rather then something that can be explained (i.e. broken down into simpler parts). Okay, fair enough.

  5. I’m not sure how it’s a tautology. There are reasons for saying they are convertible, it’s not just pulled out of the air.

  6. This time I won’t make the mistake of trying to explain it out of context. It’s covered in an introductory manner in that book I recommended.

  7. You stole my joke! That joke is a test for people I meet. If they get it, we can be friends. I also use this saying “I’ve been desperately trying to save my marriage for the last 35 years.” I first heard that joke (about dog?) in a convocations here at the university (it was just a college then). I was, seriously, the only person who laughed. And I did, out loud.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about otherwise. Seriously. No lie. I. have. no. clue.

  8. Annegb, you crack me up. :)

    It’s simple. If you take a circle and split it up into squares you can approximate PI. If you split it into more squares, you can approximate it more precisely. Therefore, you can approximate it to any degree of precision you choose. Actually, pretty simple in concept.

    Did that clarify it?

  9. “If God and reality are [fully] comprehensible then using reason and rationality to explore reality is a worthwhile goal.”

    I don’t agree with this one bit. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it is a “worthwhile goal”.

    I think questions 1 and 2 go hand in hand. Consider chess or tic-tac-toe: once one has a certain set of rules in place, then whether a person is in check mate or has tic-tac-toe or not is an objective question. However, this doesn’t mean that there is something intrinsically binding about those rules which were agreed upon in the beginning.

    However, like you said Bruce, some sets of rules simply serve our purposes better than others. Nobody plays tic-tac-toe with a 37×37 board and there are countless “alternative” versions of chess which would be significantly less interesting.

    Thus, the 3×3 game of tic-tac-toe and the standard version(s) of chess were not merely invented in some utterly arbitrary way. Rather, it was discovered that these particular sets of invented rules just worked better than the alternatives.

    The same can be said for math and reason. These are sets of rules which are very interesting and serve our purposes very well. However, I don’t see any reason to see them as binding in any deeper sense than the rules of chess of tic-tac-toe.

  10. Ok, firstly, brilliant post.

    Another mathematical truth that blows my mind is the fact that 0.9 recurring = 1. Not only is it infinitely close to 1, it actually equals 1. It does not approximately equal 1. It actually equals 1.
    The reason this astounds me is because, on the one hand, it is mathematically demonstrable that no matter how many 9s you add on after a decimal point, you will never create a quantity that equals 1. 0.9 is pretty close to 1. 0.99 is even closer. 0.999 is closer still. And so on. But you’ll never actually get there. And yet, on the other hand, it is also mathematically demonstrable that, eventually, you do get there. If anyone’s interested as to how you demonstrate it I can write up the proof, but unless someone asks me I won’t, because no matter how exciting I find it, you’ll probably find it rather dull.

    So what this shows us (or what it seems to indicate, at least), is that contradiction is seemingly built in to the fabric of reality. Somehow, 0.9 recurring equals 1, and yet no matter how many 9s you put after the decimal point, you will never equal 1.

    “I’ll tell you why. It’s because circles really do exist. I can’t get over the significance of this. Something that only exists in our minds actually and really objectively exists and we can prove it beyond doubt”. Ok. This is where I disagree with you, and I disagree because what you’ve come up with is essentially the Ontological Argument for the Existence of a Perfect Circle. We can calculate pi because pi is dependent upon the definition of a circle. If we all share the definition of a circle as being a perfectly round shape, regardless of whether or not a perfect circle exists somewhere in reality, we know that if it did, it would be perfectly round. And thus we can calculate, theoretically, that if a perfect circle existed, it would have the ratio pi as one of its properties. None of that proves that somewhere in reality there exists a perfect circle, just that if there did, it would have the ratio pi.
    I feel like I’m probably misunderstanding the point you’re trying to make here, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. I don’t believe they can…but, again, I feel like I’m misinterpreting your post somewhat.

    2. I’m not sure. And I don’t really think it’s possible to know. All we know is that it seems to make some kind of sense to us. Whether that’s because of some inherent desire for things to make sense on our part, or because we’re somehow observing and stumbling upon some gret eternal principle, I haven’t the foggiest idea. I would default to saying mathematics and reason are invented/subjective, simply because while we can be certain that we feel it makes sense (and thus it is at least subjective), we don’t know that this means it really makes sense in reality. So we know that it is at least subjective, but we have no reason to believe it is objective as well as subjective. So I default to it being merely subjective.

    3. Again, same as 2. No idea. I would go with subjective, simply because there is no evidence for it being objective.

    4. Once more, I have no idea. I don’t have many ideas, in case you haven’t noticed. I know what beauty feels like to me, but I’m not sure how to communicate that feeling to another person.

    5. Yes, I feel awe for something. Exactly what that means, I’m not so sure.

    So, basically, I don’t know that reason can tell us a whole lot about reality. And even if it can, I don’t know that the picture it paints of reality is always entirely consistent.

  11. MormonBrit writes, “Another mathematical truth that blows my mind is the fact that 0.9 recurring = 1.Not only is it infinitely close to 1, it actually equals 1. It does not approximately equal 1. It actually equals 1. … So what this shows us (or what it seems to indicate, at least), is that contradiction is seemingly built in to the fabric of reality.”

    Then is it built into the fabric of reality that .9 recurring also does not actually equal 1? For that matter, is it also built into the fabric of reality that contradiction is *not* built into the fabric of reality? : )

  12. annegb, if it makes you feel any better, as soon as I saw there was pi and math involved in this post, I stopped reading. I love you, Bruce, but the only math I do these days involves figuring out margins and percentages so I can sell stuff, and that is hard enough for my math-challenged brain. But it appears your way of thinking excites other people besides me, and that is a very good thing.

  13. Jeff G. writes, “The same can be said for math and reason. These are sets of rules which are very interesting and serve our purposes very well. However, I don’t see any reason to see them as binding in any deeper sense than the rules of chess of tic-tac-toe.”

    But you’re creating a paradox. If reason is not binding, then I see no reason to consider your reasoning in this comment as binding. Therefore I’m free to continue considering reason to be binding. But if reason is binding, then I have to consider your reasoning in this comment as binding — in which case I must conclude that reason is *not* binding. Etc.

  14. Agelius,

    I think you’re missing the point, namely that you are not bound to think or live in terms of paradoxes. You can say that I’ve violated the rules of reason by creating a paradox, and I’m free to simply shrug my shoulders and carry on. Paradoxes are internal to the very game that is in question, a game which we are under no obligation to play. Of course you are free to reject the rules of reason as they apply to this very argument, but in so doing I essentially win the argument.

  15. Jeff:

    Yet here you go arguing your point using the very rules you say are not binding. So I am free to shrug my shoulders and go on my merry way, continuing to believe, contrary to your perfectly valid arguments, that reason is in fact binding — but then if it is binding, that forces me to accept your argument as binding, which forces me to believe that it’s not binding, and the paradox starts all over again.

    Yes, you can shrug your shoulders and carry on. And when you argue that reason is objectively not binding, I can shrug my shoulders and carry on believing that it is objectively binding. The problem is, if assertions aren’t supported by reason, then all they are is assertions; and if we aren’t bound to accept the (presumably valid) reasoning that backs them up, then we have no way of persuading each other — which leaves you with no way of persuading me that reason is non-binding.

  16. Agellius:

    Yet here you go proving my point that the rules are not binding by going on your way without properly responding to my point.

    Here’s my argument:

    Claim P: Logical argumentation is not intrinsically binding upon us.

    (1) Suppose that there is no objection to (P), other than the charge of self-defeat.
    (2) The charge of self-defeat cannot be leveled against me without pragmatically accepting (P).
    (3) If you accept (P), then I win the argument. (4) If you reject (P), then it must be for some reason other than the charge of self-defeat.

    Thus, you must either admit that my point is valid or you must present a different objection to it.

  17. Jeff G says: “I don’t agree with this one bit. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it is a “worthwhile goal”.”

    “worthwile” in the sense of “productive.” Nothing more.

  18. Bruce,

    I guess I’m unsure about what, exactly, the philosophical approach to religion and faith is supposed to be producing.

    I’m not sure that faith can be scrutinized by philosophy without it being altered in some way, and I’m not convinced that such “alterations” are always for the best.

  19. Fair enough.

    But I think reasoning things out about God makes sense, even if it has to be speculative.

  20. I think everybody agrees with that to some extent or another…. But I worry that some people will be taken in by the idea that philosophy and science are the exclusive arbiters of “proper” belief and reason, thereby leading people out of the church as it did me.

    My posts over at Newcoolthang.com are aimed almost entirely at undermining that rationalistic tendency and stand in stark contrast to your m.o. ;)

  21. I don’t follow you.

    You seem to be arguing,

    1. If the only objection to the proposition that “reason is not binding” is that it is self-refuting, then

    2. The charge that “reason is not binding” is self-refuting cannot be leveled without pragmatically accepting that “reason is not binding”.

    I don’t see where 2 comes from.

    You write in a separate comment addressed to Bruce, “I worry that some people will be taken in by the idea that philosophy and science are the exclusive arbiters of ‘proper’ belief and reason, thereby leading people out of the church as it did me.” This is not the position I am arguing for, lest you thought it was, although I think I made that clear in our other discussion.

  22. Agellius, assuming that reason tells us anything reliable about the fabric of reality (which is by no means a foregone conclusion), yes, it is my understanding that it is built into the fabric of reality that no matter how many 9s you add after a decimal point, you will never quite reach 1. You could always try it, if you didn’t have a life and had a lot of spare time. It is mathematically true that 0.9 does not equal 1, nor does 0.99, nor does 0.999, nor 0.9999, nor 0.99999. So no matter how many 9s you write out (even an infinite number of them), you know that the next 9 you write out will still not give you a value that equals 1, merely one that is very close to it. That is a mathematical fact. And yet, it is also mathematically demonstrable that 0.9 recurring does in fact equal 1. So eventually, if you could theoretically write out an infinite number of 9s, you would in fact eventually reach a number that equalled 1. Now, of course, the fact that the 9s are infinite means that you couldn’t write them all out, but if you could, you would have 1.
    Now, I’m open to the possibility that this is more a problem with the human ability to comprehend eternity than a fundamental mathematical contradiction, but at first glance, it does seem to be contradictory.

    If there is this contradiction built into the fabric of reality, then it is true that reality is self-contradictory. And yet, this is itself contrary to what reason tells us: reason tells us that if 0.9 recurring does not equal 1, then it cannot also equal 1.

    I am not certain that reason is a reliable guide to reality, simply because it is based on nothing more than intuition. We just “feel it in our bones” that 0.9 recurring cannot both equal 1 and not equal 1, that a shape cannot be both three-dimensional and two-dimensional, that a perfect circle cannot have three sides. There comes a point when reason itself cannot be reasonably proven to be reliable, because it rests solely on human intuition.

    I act as if reason is a reliable guide to reality solely because I can’t help it. iIt’s the strongest intuition I have, so when it comes to logic I just follow my natural human impulses and intuitions. I cannot do otherwise.

  23. Jeff G,

    Feel free to also put your links to your posts over here to give the contrast. I approve! In fact, feel free to link to your posts as you make your counter points as often as you want.

  24. Agellius,

    My comment was meant to turn the “self-refutation” response back on itself by showing that the rejection of (P) is a perfectly consistent option.

    If we suppose that (P) is true, then we are not obligated to believe (P). But in acting as if we were not obligated to believe (P) we are pragmatically accepting that (P) is true. In other words, rejecting (P) in our words requires us to accept (P) in our deeds.

    Of course when people level the “self-refutation” objection, they do so by isolating the proposition as a counter-factual. This, to me, just isn’t good enough. I’m more than open to hearing other objections to (P), but the self-refutation objection has never carried much weight in my book.

  25. Jeff:

    You write, “If we suppose that (P) is true, then we are not obligated to believe (P).”

    You lose me after your first step. You’re saying you’re not obligated to believe that something true is true??

    If anyone else gets what Jeff is driving at and could explain it in terms that a knucklehead like me can understand, I would appreciate it.

    You write, ‘[W]hen people level the “self-refutation” objection, they do so by isolating the proposition as a counter-factual. This, to me, just isn’t good enough.’

    I’m not saying that “reason is not binding” is self-refuting. I’m saying that arguing the point using reason results in the paradox that the very reasoning used to prove the point proves that you need not accept that reasoning. So arguing that “reason is not binding” is a pointless exercise. And if you can’t establish it by reason, then all you can do is assert it. And why should I be persuaded based on mere assertion?

  26. I’m saying is that if the only objection you have to (P) is that of self-refutation, then you can’t help but accept (P) on some level.

    The standard objection to any kind of relativism or post-modernism is that of the pragmatic contradiction: what you are doing in making the relativist claim contradicts the relativist claim itself. Thus, you cannot make the relativist claim *without abandoning philosophy/reason*. This last part is an indispensable part of the self-refutation objection, for there is no contradiction in simply being a relativist.

    I’m not really making a relativist point here. Instead, I am making a negative claim about the obligation which we have toward philosophy/reason. I am saying that it is not the case that we have an obligation not to abandon philosophy/reason.

    I am suggesting that “formal reasoning is not universally and intrinsically binding” is a Godelian statement of sorts akin to the statement “this statement is unprovable”. Yes, it is a paradox, which means that it is NOT false. You could also say that it is not true either…. But this is kind of the point I am trying to make, namely, that the question of whether or not to confine ourselves to the rules of reason is not a question which can be decided solely by an appeal to reason.

  27. Jeff:

    You write, “I’m saying is that if the only objection you have to (P) is that of self-refutation, then you can’t help but accept (P) on some level.”

    I still don’t see why I’m *bound* to accept on any level that reason is *not binding*.

    You write, “the question of whether or not to confine ourselves to the rules of reason is not a question which can be decided solely by an appeal to reason.”

    As I said before, I am not arguing that we must “confine” ourselves to philosophy/reason.

    In any event, I think what you’re saying is starting to sink in.

    I am, however, brought to a new point, which is: When we say “reason is not binding”, what do we mean by “binding”? Binding in what sense? Binding on the will, i.e. do we mean a moral obligation to obey the dictates of reason?

    Or do we mean binding on the intellect? My position is that reason is binding on the intellect, since the intellect is defined as “that which reasons (in intelligent beings)”. The will is not bound by reason, at least not strictly, since we are all capable of acting against reason. But the intellect is bound by reason self-evidently: We can’t reason against reason, at least not on purpose (although we could perhaps force ourselves to think a thought which we actually know is unreasonable).

    If you mean binding on our beliefs, then I agree in a sense: For the most part, people want to believe things that are reasonable. I don’t think anyone deliberately adopts a belief which they know to be contrary to reality. I don’t say that people can’t fool themselves, because they can.

    And sometimes, faith causes us to act in ways which appear contrary to reason, for example if I could escape pursuing Nazis by suffocating my baby in order to keep it quiet, yet I let the baby live and my whole family gets killed, that may appear irrational on one level; yet it’s perfectly rational in the context of the Christian faith, wherein it’s better to lose your life, than to lose your soul by committing a grave sin.

    So, what exactly do you mean by “binding” when you say that reason is not binding?

  28. That is a much more interesting question, indeed. I have been assuming that we are discussing whether it is binding on the intellect: how and what ought we to think and believe?

    The pro- and pre-modern mindsets are probably the easiest to contrast:

    According to which set of rules ought we conform our thoughts and beliefs:

    Reason, experience and nature
    or
    culture, authority and society?

    My answer is “yes”. The very idea that one set ought to trump the other is wrong. Mine is a thorough going pluralism which rejects the hegemony of any individual or set of rules.

  29. Jeff:

    You write, “I have been assuming that we are discussing whether it is binding on the intellect: how and what ought we to think and believe?”

    I would distinguish between thinking (by which I mean reasoning) and believing. Belief is an act of the will, whereas thinking is the act of the intellect.

    That’s why I say it’s not impossible to believe things that are unreasonable, because you can simply decide to; although the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time, choose to believe what they think is in accord with reason: what there is good evidence for, or what seems to make sense. But it is impossible to think things that you know are unreasonable.

    You write, “According to which set of rules ought we conform our thoughts and beliefs:
    Reason, experience and nature or culture, authority and society? My answer is ‘yes’.”

    My answer is precisely the same. However, I also think it’s reasonble to base our beliefs on culture, authority and society, as well as experience and nature, and I would not do so if I thought it were not (and I bet you wouldn’t either).

  30. I think you misunderstand my position.

    I’m not saying that R/E/N and C/A/S will always or even usually agree with each other.

    I am saying that CAS can, does and should trump REN some times.

    Deeper still, I am denying that we can reason about which set of rules we *really* should be following when the two sets come apart. To sit down and argue about whether or not we should sit down and argue is no less biased than obeying the Bible because the Bible tells us to. Furthermore, to invent some third set of rules by which we might settle this debate only leaves us with a more complex version of the same problem where we must decide whether to follow the first, second or third set of rules.

  31. Jeff:

    You write, “I am saying that CAS can, does and should trump REN some times.”

    I agree that authority can trump reason. I don’t feel that I personally grasp my church’s teaching on, for example, birth control, but I accept it based on the Church’s authority to teach the doctrine. But can society trump reason? I don’t see how.

    Maybe I need some examples from you, of each of CAS trumping each of REN, before I can say whether I might agree.

    You write, “Deeper still, I am denying that we can reason about which set of rules we *really* should be following when the two sets come apart.”

    Then how do you decide?

  32. Well, if you’re reasoning about whether you should or should not reason, you’ve already decided to use it. I’m not terribly familiar with his arguments, but I’m thinking that the decision must be rather Kierkegaardian in nature.

    I get the feeling that you only allow authority to trump *your* reasoning because you assume that there must be some rational validation for what that authority says that you are simply not aware of yet. What I am suggesting is that sometimes authority and society do and ought to trump reason even when there is no such rational validation at all.

  33. Jeff:

    You write, “Well, if you’re reasoning about whether you should or should not reason, you’ve already decided to use it.”

    Well, no. If the question is, whether to use REN or CAS when the two conflict, using reason to decide which of the two to use, is not the same as deciding to use REN or CAS. Using the birth control example, I may decide to use reason (REN) to decide whether to use birth control, or I may decide to rely on the Church’s authority (CAS) to decide whether to use birth control. Using reason to decide on the latter, is not using reason to decide whether to use birth control.

    You write, “I’m not terribly familiar with his arguments, but I’m thinking that the decision must be rather Kierkegaardian in nature.”

    I’m not sure what that means. Do you flip a coin, or what?

    You write, “I get the feeling that you only allow authority to trump *your* reasoning because you assume that there must be some rational validation for what that authority says that you are simply not aware of yet.”

    No, that’s not what I mean. I allow an authority to trump my reasoning because I have made the decision to place my trust (i.e. faith) in the authority. I’m speaking specifically of the Catholic Church, of course. Having placed my faith in Christ, I also place my faith in the Church which Christ authorized and empowered to teach in his name.

    As to the teaching on birth control specifically, I accept it because it’s part of my faith, period — whether you believe that or not.

    Another example is the male-only priesthood: The Church teaches that Christ commanded that it be this way. I don’t know that we can prove logically that only men are capable of being priests. But Christ commanding that it be so, is sufficient, whether he provided rational justification or not. And again, people argue whether Christ did in fact command it. But the fact that the Church has taught formally that he did, is sufficient for me. I don’t demand further rational justification, nor am I even particularly curious whether there is one.

    I elaborate further on this theme, here: http://agellius.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/what-does-it-mean-to-assent-based-on-faith/

    I will say that my decision to place my faith in the Church’s authority is based on reason, specifically, that Christ is God, therefore whatever Christ says must be true, and whatever he commands must be trustworthy. In that sense it’s reasonable of me to do so.

  34. “If the question is, whether to use REN or CAS when the two conflict, using reason to decide which of the two to use, is not the same as deciding to use REN or CAS.”

    Of course it is! After all, why did you use reason rather than tradition to decide when to use each one? Are you then going to say that you used reason to decide that you should use reason to decide whether or not you should use reason? You see, it’s the exact same question at a different level. There is no escaping the circularity of justifying any such decision.

    Of course, this circularity in reason does not necessarily bother me so long as embracing other circularities (such tradition or some other set of rules) is given the same kind of leeway.

  35. Jeff:

    You write, “Of course it is! After all, why did you use reason rather than tradition to decide when to use each one? Are you then going to say that you used reason to decide that you should use reason to decide whether or not you should use reason?”

    No, it’s not the same. I agree you can’t go on to infinity, using reason to decide to use reason to decide to use reason, etc. I never said otherwise. What I said is that you can use reason to decide whether to use reason to decide a specific question; and doing so, is not the same as using reason to decide the question; because you may end up using reason to decide *not* to use reason to decide the question.

    For example, there could be a good reason to not use reason to decide whether to use birth control; the reason being, that the Church has already taught that birth control may not be used; therefore you may use reason to decide to rely on authority.

    Let me ask you this: Earlier I pointed out the distinction between intellect and will: The intellect is our capacity to apprehend, make judgments, and reason; the will is our capacity to decide which action to take. Reasoning is an act of the intellect, belief is an act of the will.

    The question here, then, is what moves the will to decide whether to use reason or something else, in order to make a decision?

    Going back to the birth control example: I am married, and will either use birth control in my marriage, or I won’t. My will would like to use it, to avoid the trouble and expense of having kids. But my intellect steps in and says, “The Church forbids it”. My will then has to decide between my desire to have sex without having kids; and my desire or obligation to obey the teaching of the Church. I therefore weigh the two options: using which capacity? Apparently, the intellect. The will, in and of itself, is not capable of weighing options, because weighing options requires making judgments, i.e. judging one option and then the other.

    The will decides after the outcome of the operations of the intellect, though it may submit to the intellect or not. For example, the intellect says, “It’s more important to obey the Church than to have sex without having kids”. The will can decide to use birth control nevertheless; or it can decide to submit to the judgment of the intellect and not use it. If it does the former, the person will experience inner disharmony, the feeling that it’s not doing what it knows it should do; whereas if it obeys the intellect, the person will experience harmony between intellect and will, and have the feeling that it’s acting rightly.

    Do you contend that there is some other human capacity besides intellect and will, which we may use to decide such questions?

    I just want to get this straight, because I suspect we’re talking on two different levels or something. Perhaps I’m talking about the inner operations of the mind, and you’re talking about external sources or criteria, such as culture or authority, which we (using intellect and will) have to decide between.

  36. “…because you may end up using reason to decide *not* to use reason to decide the question.”

    I guess I assumed you couldn’t have meant this, since this is exactly what I have been doing all along and exactly what you have been criticizing me for doing.

    As for the will/intellect issue, I have never found any use for such pseudo-psychological objects. I would never be convinced by any argument based in such distinctions, nor would I ever expect anybody else to be either.

    I am very much a product of the linguistic turn in philosophy where language and reason are both public standards, rules which are inter-subjectively enforced. Such private rules as are supposed to hold for individual wills, intellects, etc. simply do not make much sense to me.

  37. Jeff:

    You write, “I guess I assumed you couldn’t have meant this, since this is exactly what I have been doing all along and exactly what you have been criticizing me for doing.”

    You must have been misunderstanding me. I have said more than once (in this thread and others) that I have no problem making decisions based on authority, tradition, etc., and not based reason only.

    You write, “As for the will/intellect issue, I have never found any use for such pseudo-psychological objects. I would never be convinced by any argument based in such distinctions, nor would I ever expect anybody else to be either. … Such private rules as are supposed to hold for individual wills, intellects, etc. simply do not make much sense to me.”

    I don’t know what you mean by an “argument based on such distinctions”, or “private rules as are supposed to hold”, etc. We don’t have to argue about it, and I’m not asserting any particular rules. All I’m saying is, that we may be talking about two different things: I, the internal operations of the mind, and you, external sources of information. I have no problem acknowledging tradition, culture, authority, etc. as valid external sources of truth. When I argue that reason underlies our reliance on these sources, I’m talking about the internal workings of the mind, specifically the intellect and will, which weigh the alternative sources of truth and decide which one to rely on in a given situation. What exactly is your problem with this scenario?

    Do you contend that there is some other operation of the mind, besides intellect and will, which makes these decisions for us? If so, what do you call it? How does it work? Does it flip a mental coin, or what? Or is it just a complete mystery?

  38. “All I’m saying is, that we may be talking about two different things: I, the internal operations of the mind, and you, external sources of information. I have no problem acknowledging tradition, culture, authority, etc. as valid external sources of truth. When I argue that reason underlies our reliance on these sources, I’m talking about the internal workings of the mind, specifically the intellect and will, which weigh the alternative sources of truth and decide which one to rely on in a given situation. What exactly is your problem with this scenario?”

    This is a fantastic way of putting it, if only because I disagree with almost everything said here.

    Reason is not something the intellect just does on the “inside” utterly independent of what happens “outside” in society. Formal reasoning (which is what I objected to in the post) is something which society teaches us to do and it is society which tells us whether we are doing it right or wrong.

    One set of rules which society teaches and enforces are those of Modernism. There are, however, other such sets which often come in conflict with this set (pre- and post-modern).

    Most importantly – and the point which I see you resisting – there is no set of rules which is able to affirm one set of rules over another from some perspective which is outside the debate in question. All such appeals must beg the question in some form or another. We can only begin weighing these alternatives from the mindset which we happen to be in now and go from there.

    There is no deciding what mindset we happen to be in right now. Thus, we can make a decision as to what mindset we *will* embrace, but this decision will itself be based in rules which we already have – even though it could have been the case that we decided from an entirely different set of rules.

    The point of disagreement between us, as far as I can tell, is that I say all forms of thought are contingent, whereas you insist that somewhere (the intellect?), somehow there must be a set of universal rules of thought – an Archimedean point – from which the choice between pre-, pro- and post-modern can correctly be made. This, I say, is impossible.

  39. A useful analogy is that of language. There are various ways in we can speak or think, but there is no such thing as speaking or thinking *in general*. If you are to speak or think, you must do so from within one among many sets of socially shared rules. And there is no “ultimate” language that can tell us which language or thought process is the “real” or “true” one.

  40. An odd position for a Mormon to take, since Joseph Smith seemed to think that there *was* some kind of perfect language. I can’t make heads or tails of what he meant, but that was his view, indisputably.

  41. Jeff:

    You write, “Most importantly – and the point which I see you resisting – there is no set of rules which is able to affirm one set of rules over another from some perspective which is outside the debate in question. … We can only begin weighing these alternatives from the mindset which we happen to be in now and go from there,” etc.

    What I see you resisting is that I’m not talking about rules at all. I’m talking (at the moment) about the distinction between the internal operations of the mind, and external standards and “rules”.

    I think the human mind works pretty much the same in everyone (not saying there can’t be exceptions), since we all have the same nature. I won’t argue whether it uses some universally valid set of rules of reasoning, or intuition, or peer pressure, or mental coin-flips, or anything in particular — “working the same way” could mean that we all switch between various methods of pursuing truth. I’m just saying that the mind is not identical to whatever rules and standards might exist outside it and clamor for its attention in whatever way. Can we agree on that at least?

  42. No, I don’t think we can agree on that. If all your are talking about is the brain as a physical organ, then you can have it since I don’t see anything interesting in discussing that.

    Once we are talking about minds, however, we are already discussing social norms with public criteria. The mind is necessarily social and extended inter-subjectively by inter-personal rules.

  43. As far as validity, normativity and justifiability go, it’s intersubjective rules all the way down. And for that reason, it’s contingency all the way down.

  44. What, then, is a mind to you?

    I understand you to say that none of us has his own mind; there is no mind that may be identified as “Agellius’s mind” or “Jeff’s mind”. Do you agree that that is implied by what you’re saying (since you said “no” to the question, “do you agree that the mind is not identical with external rules, norms, etc.”)?

  45. Of course there are separate minds, just like there are separate baseball players. But trying to talk about any of them as a baseball player without appealing to the intersubjectively agreed upon rules of baseball talk is absurd. It is these very rules which make such people baseball players at all.

  46. Again, ordinary language use also serves as a close analogy, for even though the rules by which we judge somebody to be an English speaker are completely public, this does not preclude the existence of individual speakers.

  47. “Of course there are separate minds, just like there are separate baseball players. But trying to talk about any of them as a baseball player without appealing to the intersubjectively agreed upon rules of baseball talk is absurd. It is these very rules which make such people baseball players at all.”

    If it’s true that “of course there are separate minds”, then there must be a distinction between my mind and the “many sets of socially shared rules”; since if there were no such distinction, then all our minds would be identical with the “many sets of socially shared rules”, and therefore identical with each other, and there would be no separate minds. Yet when I asked whether we could agree that the mind is not identical to “whatever rules and standards exist outside it”, you answered “no”. I assume you’re changing your answer now, or else maybe we had a miscommunication before.

    Anyway, so we agree that there are separate minds. Now my question is, what is it that distinguishes my mind from the “communal mind” – by which I refer to the “many sets of socially shared rules”, or “social norms with public criteria”, or whatever you want to call it. If my mind is not identical with the communal mind, then there must be something about it that differs from the communal mind. What is that difference, exactly?

  48. The same thing that separates a baseball player from the game of baseball, an English speaker from the English language. So too, there is a difference between a formal reasoner and the rule governed activity of formal reasoning.

  49. “The same thing that separates a baseball player from the game of baseball, an English speaker from the English language. So too, there is a difference between a formal reasoner and the rule governed activity of formal reasoning.”

    Yet if you know more than one language, you can use one language (in your thoughts) to decide whether to use a different language. And you could use one language to decide whether to use another language to decide which language to use.

    I agree this can’t go on to infinity. So the question is really, what language will you use by default? It seems you would say something like, whatever language is dictated by intersubjective rules or influences at a given time. But why *must* that be determined by things outside you? Why *can’t* it be something within yourself that determines your default? How do you *know* it’s something outside and not inside?

    In the case of language, presumably your default would be the language you first learned. Then again, some people learn two or more languages from birth. Can’t the person do a mental coin flip to decide which language he uses at any given moment (i.e. choose one arbitrarily)? It seems to me he could either choose one based on his mood, or based on whether there are people around with whom he is conversing in one language or another, or any number of other reasons. But even if he is around people who are speaking Spanish, he can still determine within himself to think in English if he chooses.

    The fact that the different languages have their origin outside of him, doesn’t prove that he has no say over which language he uses.

    By the same token I don’t understand why, if the individual mind is separate from the communal mind, the individual can’t decide for himself which “mode” of truth-seeking to employ at a given moment. To say that it can’t, is to say that the individual mind is controlled by the communal mind, as if its thoughts are not its own thoughts, but only echoes of the thoughts of the community.

    I’m not convinced that that must be the case. To my mind, you have asserted it but have not demonstrated it.

  50. I’m not denying that people can make individual decisions. Rather, I am saying that the justification for any such decision – the degree to which any act is in accordance with any set of rules – is necessarily a social phenomenon. Just like a person can decide what language to speak or what to say in any given language, but hey do not get to decide whether any such noise that they is proper English (or even English at all!). What counts at being rational – what counts as behavior which can properly be labeled ‘rational’ is not something any person gets to decide without any appeal to inter subjective rules.

  51. Of course, my ultimate point is that we are all bi- or multi-rational and that science has no right to call itself the ‘true’ rationality against which all others are measured.

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