Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's Wrong with Human Reason?

This illustration helps explain the ideas in this article (click to enlarge).

A lot of Christian thinkers attack human reason as not being very good. In Romans 3 Paul criticises a common philosophical argument against God as mere 'human reason'. So what's wrong with human reason?

Well, the only thing wrong with human reason is that it's finite - it's limited. Because only God can be fully infinite (as there can be only one infinity), creatures had to 'lose' (in a manner of speaking) God's way of reasoning to be created, and the result is finite reasoning, which is infinitely less than the reasoning of God. The problem is that finite reasoning just can't understand everything about God.

I'll illustrate how this might work in practice using some examples from mathematics.

Let's say that you wanted to solve an incredibly hard mathematics problem. Let's say that you wanted to test whether all numbers follow a certain prediction. A mathematician wouldn't look at every number to find out the answer; that's impossible (for us). They'd find some technique that would allow them to figure out the answer after looking at a large but not infinite selection of numbers. Whereas God, with infinite reasoning, could look at *every* number to figure out the answer. God could solve e.g. the Riemann hypothesis by looking at every number there is, an actually infinite series of numbers. God could do the same for every mathematical problem.

Now, if God were finite, then we could eventually come to understand God using our reason. If God were finite, then understanding God would be like understanding a very difficult but ultimately graspable concept. But because God is an actual infinity (see what I mean by this here) then understanding all the mysteries of God would be like looking at every number (as in the above example). We can use 'shortcuts' to talk about God - e.g. say that God is loving - but we cannot actually understand God through limited reasoning. As Paul says in Romans 11:33 "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out!"

The difficulty that every creature faces in understanding God is bigger than not being able to 'search out' His ways. There's a different kind of 'logic' applying in the infinite world compared to the finite world, that we just can't grasp very well.

Here's an example of finite logic versus infinite logic. In finite terms, 1 + 1 = 2, and one orange plus another orange makes two oranges. That's the logic of the finite world. Now, let's try to put infinity into the finite world. We don't know the value of infinity, so let's just say that infinity = 'X' and leave 'X' undefined. If infinity = X, then according to human reason X + X = 2X, so infinity + infinity = two infinities. But we know that infinity always remains infinity. You cannot take anything away, or add anything to infinity to change it. So infinity + infinity = infinity. So X + X equals 2X... but X + X in this case also equals X! That implies that 1 = 2.

But, you might say, human reason actually can understand infinity because at least we know that these puzzles exist...

But is that really the case? What kind of reasoning do humans use to understand the infinite? Finite reasoning. What kind of reasoning fits best with the infinite? Infinite reasoning. So shouldn't we be drawing mainly on infinite reasoning to understand the infinite, i.e. to draw conclusions about it, and make judgements as to its nature?

Christians believe (in the philosophical interpretation of this essay) that if we looked on the infinite with infinite reasoning then we would understand all mysteries of God. The problem is that to create us God had to give us a form of reasoning that is monumentally 'cut down' compared to what He has. A side-effect of this severely cut down form of reasoning is that we need to use the 'tool' of faith to understand the infinite (God) in the way that He really is (Hebrews 11:6).

OK, why is it such a big problem that we can't understand all the mysteries of God, or the logic of the infinite very well? What's so significant about this?

Well, just like we can't understand God fully, the fact that we have finite reasoning means that we can't understand other people fully!

Let me explain... it's the fact that we have finite reasoning that makes humans unable to fully understand themselves, other people, and God, and this allows us to be tempted by sin.

How so? Well, there's something about infinity that is incredibly perfect and wonderful, such that when people see infinity as it really is they give unconditional love and understanding to whoever they see. Because God encompasses all of infinity, the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). God's infinite nature is why God deserves the most love, honour, and respect above anyone else when He is perceived by a mind that desires to follow infinite reasoning (Rev 4:9-11).

We know that God is infinite, but what is less well-known is that when God made us in His image He used His power to put "eternity (i.e. infinity) in our hearts" - Ecc 3:11. In other words, the good news for humans is that there's a divine spark in all of us as well. Because we have infinity inside us (i.e. our soul), the same love, honour and respect that applies to God also applies to humans to a lesser (but still great) degree. So if anyone saw you or me as we really are - if they saw our soul - then they would love us unconditionally forever. In such a way do we receive the next greatest commandment from the Bible "You shall love your neighbour as yourself".

Why is it that everyone who looks on infinity as it really is (i.e. who follows infinite reasoning) will love God and other people with all their heart, mind, soul and strength? How does that come about? I don't actually know with finite reasoning. It comes somehow from infinity, in a way that finite reasoning just can't understand.

If we only had infinite reasoning, then we would never struggle to love others and God with all our strength, any more than we currently struggle to figure out whether one plus one equals two. That's why it is impossible for God to be tempted by evil. God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13) because He knows these infinite truths through His reasoning. On the other hand, humans can never know these infinite world truths through our reason (infinite reasoning always being inaccessible to humans) but only through our moral sense that comes from our soul. Because our finite reasoning knows nothing about infinite reasoning the way God knows, humans are continuously tempted to act against infinite reasoning, which is sin (i.e. not being perfect).

Of course, finite reasoning can be used to honour the truths of the infinite world - for example, using reason a scientist can cure a terrible disease and help many. But it can also lead us astray very easily. As David Hume famously said "It is not contrary to [finite] reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger". Hume here illustrates how disconnected finite reason is from morality.

It's humanly impossible to do justice to infinite reasoning because we would only see why we should be perfectly good if we understood infinite truths. But we can't understand any infinite truths through our reason, so we simply can't know why we should always be perfect in a way that would actually be effective (although we can understand infinite truths on an emotional level). Because we can never know these things, human beings, consequently, can never be perfect without a miracle from God.

When the apostle Paul says that 'All have sinned and come short of the glory of God' I believe he refers to three things: a) We have no hope of avoiding the temptation to sin because we have finite reasoning, b) We know whenever we sin that we shouldn't sin through the witness to infinite truth given by our soul, and c) We are fully responsible for our sin because we have free will through our soul (which is a gift from the infinite world).

In my interpretation of hell, these three things together force God to push the infinity that He's loaned to us really far away from Himself, in order to separate the part of Himself being used to sin from Himself, and this results in earthly suffering, and in the same way later on, hell (Gen 2:15-17; Romans 1:18-19).

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