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Rhyme and/or Reason

Here's a poem I love, by Ted Hughes:
Hawk Roosting 
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

There are days -- or perhaps, moments every day -- where I yearn for such simplicity. I grow weary of my own ever-vocal existential commentary and the constant moral conflict and am tempted to resent the burden of 'higher consciousness' (or whatever you want to call it). How enviable, then, the immediacy and irreproachability of non-moral, instinctual, animal existence.

The hawk inhabits the now, owning each moment, reigning over its immediate environment and, unabashed, relinquishing all claims as it moves on. All our 'nows' slip through our fingers because there is always a moment before and a moment after and we feel we must, but can't, hold all these moments together in one consistent whole, so somehow comprehending 'self'. That is hard enough but then to make sense of self in relationship to 'all'…

In my better moments I remember to be grateful for the 'gift' of reason. But nonetheless, attendant with rational thought comes the tendency and temptation towards rationalisation -- attaching sense and meaning to that which is senseless, justifying our instinctive drives with fine-sounding arguments. The 'falsifying dreams' of which the hawk is so appealingly free. Self-knowledge and the ability to distinguish between the rational and the rationalised is hard to come by and hard to recognise. Are all our dreams falsifying or do some have objective worth and truth?

Aargh, the incessancy of thinking is tiring enough without then throwing into the mix serious questions about the trustworthiness of reasoning itself. In this discussion with science-loving Christian apologist Alister McGrath, atheist astronomer David Helfand refers to an experiment in which goldfish and humans were tasked with predicting the colour of a light which flashed red 80% of the time and green 20% of the time. The goldfish learnt to predict red 100% of the time and so to maximise reward at 80%. The humans continued to try to play the 'system', resulting in strategies with worse-than-random success rates. Helfand's argument was that our prevailing determination to find patterns in randomness is what keeps us 'bound' by religion and superstitions which served us in a previous evolutionary phase but which we should now be developed enough to discard.

However, the origins of reason pose challenges not just for theism but also for naturalism.
"But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?" (Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881) 
In other words, if purely material processes produced reason, we have no reason to believe reason -- see Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism" (here's a talk -- I haven't listened to it recently so I can't remember how good it is, but he's normally a very listenable speaker).

In short, where reason comes from and whether we can trust it is up for debate. But the question of what to do with it hits us at a practical level every waking hour, really, so that we are forced to find practical responses even if we haven't got the theoretical ones figured out yet. It does seem to make life more complicated, but (experientially) it also seems integral to all that is (apparently) precious and meaningful. Not least, according to the Bible, the possibility of relationship with God. "Come, let us reason together, says the Lord…" (In Isaiah 1, in the context of repentance and restoration).

The Bible certainly seems to value reason as an important facet of what it means to be human and to encourage us to use it. I love this bit in Psalm 32 which affirms that God wants to engage with us at the level of our understanding, so that we listen and think and respond.
"I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you." (Psalm 32:8-9)
If all that mattered was conformity to correct outward behaviour then a carrot-and-stick dictatorship would be perfectly adequate, but once again it seems God is interested in so much more -- our mental development, our inner character, our knowledge of Him. [1]

It is interesting to note the strong relationship between the English words "reason" and "rational" and the Ancient Greek "logos" via its Latin translation ("ratio"). Logos has many (and many-layered) meanings in ancient philosophy; it is most succinctly translated in English as 'word' -- but carries a sense of 'consideration' or 'explanation' rather than simple grammatical implications. Fascinatingly, it is used at the start of John's gospel to describe Jesus:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."(John 1:1-5, 14)

This is rather like saying that Jesus is the answer to all the world's philosophy. Another astonishing claim! For me, not only have I found it immensely reassuring (if the end of reason is Jesus then there is a concrete cause for hope when we take the terrifying risk of intentionally seeking truth), I have also found it remarkably congruent with my experience of reality. To quote C.S. Lewis:
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." (C.S.Lewis, from "Is Theology Poetry?", 1945)

[1] I'm reminded too of the Book of Acts -- which I've been reading loads lately. It's really exciting and instructive to see how the early disciples began to make sense of what they'd just been witness to. The gospels (especially the three synoptics: Matthew, Mark, Luke) read like a whirlwind of remarkable and yet-to-be-processed facts. That is, they are not reported through the interpretive lens of Christian theology. In Acts you begin to see more clearly, along with the disciples, something of what it all means, but in a way which is clearly tied to and consistent with the historical nature of the prequel accounts. I think if we just had the gospels and the letters, I for one would worry whether it was in fact a bit of a leap to get from the events to the theology. Acts appears as a very stable bridge between the two. Anyway, this has turned into a big 'aside'; the point I was going to make was simply the frequency with which Paul's evangelistic work is described as 'reasoning' -- "Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures…", "…he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there…", "…he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus…", "…as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgement, Felix was alarmed…" (Acts 17:2, 17:17, 19:9, 24:25, and more…)


HG Mike said…
Don't you think that reason is too often held captive by world-view? That 'pure' reason is another (Greek-based) idealism - maybe a contender for 'Idol of our times'? All of the 'reasons' in Acts use the Gk word 'dialogue' implying an active, participatory 2-wayness often lacking in our personal journey's of reasoning (but fulfilled, partially in your blog!).
Yeah, totally. Your comment also reminds me that the objective, intellectual sense in which the word is normally used by no means encompasses the entirety of our meaningful (i.e. truthful) interaction with/understanding of reality. In fact, my own faith didn't primarily grow out of a process of reasoning so much as an experience of relationship and grace. I marvel and delight in the extent to which it consistently holds up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny (and it is important to me that it does so, because I am not interested in living in a false reality), but it wasn't that which brought me into that relationship initially or which sustains it now. So my take would be that faith stands to reason but it also transcends it -- it is 'the gift of God' as per Ephesians 2:8 This also means that people who aren't so much into thinking stuff through can have an equally meaningful experience of relationship with God through Jesus -- because the important thing is whether or not what they believe is true, not whether they have all the answers as to *why* it's true.