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The Harmony of Faith and Reason: Why Believe the Bible?

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1998)

Part I -- The Failure of Rationalism

How is it that Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) earned the title "father of modern philosophy?" What was it about his approach to philosophy that was so different from his predecessors? The answer is found in what W. T. Jones called Descartes' "supreme confidence in the capacity of the human intellect to solve all human problems."[1] As Jones explains, Descartes was "a man of his age in believing that the medieval alliance of revelation and Scholasticism must be replaced by a new and, as it were, secular instrument -- an instrument that, following the usage of the time, he called 'reason.'"[2] Descartes, therefore, was not unique. His assertion of the autonomy of the human mind was common to his day. In that sense, Descartes' right to the title "father of modern philosophy" may be disputable, but it cannot be denied that he expressed and popularized an idea which was to make an indelible impression on the mind of Western man.

The most important contribution of Descartes' philosophy and the very essence of his epistemology is found, according to Bertrand Russell, in the following quotation:

While I wanted to think everything false, it must necessarily be that I who thought was something; and remarking that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so solid and so certain that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of upsetting it, I judged that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy that I sought.[3]

Russell also identifies the fundamental problem in Descartes' cogito. Descartes committed a logical fallacy. When he said "I think, therefore, I am," he assumed the existence of what he was trying to prove. The "I" of the conclusion, "I am," was already included in the assertion "I think." If Descartes was really doubting his own existence, where did the "I" come from in the words "I think"? Following the method of systematic doubt more carefully, Descartes should have asserted only that he cannot doubt that "there is thinking." But to get from that proposition to the conclusion of his own existence would have been an impossible, task.

The result of Descartes' approach brought with it other problems as well. Again, in Russell's words:

'I think, therefore I am' makes mind more certain than matter, and my mind (for me) more certain than the minds of others. There is, thus, in all philosophy derived from Descartes, a tendency to subjectivism, and to regarding matter as something only knowable, if at all, by inference from what is known of mind. These two tendencies exist both in Continental idealism and in British empiricism -- in the former triumphantly, in the latter regretfully.[4]

Russell went on to say: "[M]odern philosophy has very largely accepted the formulation of its problems from Descartes, while not accepting his solutions."[5]

Because he began with thinking as the indubitable foundation for existence -- the body could be doubted, but thinking could not -- Descartes led Western philosophy into dualism and subjectivism. Although the intention of the project was to deduce all knowledge from an unshakable starting point, the method of systematic doubt led to a problem: having begun with the ultimacy and certainty of the human mind, Western philosophy could find nothing certain outside of the human mind.

Heirs of Descartes' rationalistic project also ended up in failure. Benedictus de Spinoza's (1632-77) philosophy, for example, consisted of working out "much more explicitly and consistently than had Descartes, the logical consequences of these [Descartes'] assumptions."[6] The assumptions Jones refers to here include more than the idea of the ultimacy of man's mind. Spinoza also received from Descartes the idea that "mathematical knowledge is an insight into an objectively existing reality" and the idea that "substance is a prime metaphysical concept."[7] But the conclusions Spinoza reached were even more problematical than those of Descartes. Using geometry for the model of philosophy and employing his definitions and axioms with inflexible logic, Spinoza concluded that all reality is one. The rigid application of Descartes' assumptions brought rationalistic philosophy back to the monistic metaphysics of Parmenides.[8]

In Spinoza's philosophy, all of reality "is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God's inscrutable nature and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are."[9] The universe and everything in it including man is, thus, reduced to a mechanical process. If this is the logical application of Descartes, his presuppositions have led us in a direction that very few are willing to follow.

But continental rationalism did not end with Spinoza. Leibnitz (1647-1716), another rationalist follower of Descartes, came to very different conclusions from either Descartes or Spinoza while using the same basic assumptions. In contrast to Spinoza's monism, Leibnitz concluded with an equally radical pluralism. The basic element in Leibniz's view was called a "monad," defined by Jones as "a center of psychic activity."[10] The details of Leibniz's view are fascinating, but unimportant for my present point, which is that Leibnitz, beginning with the same assumptions as previous rationalists propounded a worldview that fundamentally differs from theirs. The rationalist project led to conclusions fundamentally diverse and contradictory. What went wrong?

In fact, the ancient Greeks had proposed both monism and atomism, the same two extremes found in continental rationalists. What was found inadequate in ancient Greece was again discovered to be deficient in modern Europe. This is not to say that nothing was learned. European rationalism included brilliant displays of argumentation and real contributions to knowledge -- Leibnitz, for example, together with Newton invented infinitesimal calculus.[11] But rationalism could not solve the basic problems of philosophy.

Why did rationalism fail? Was it a problem in the peculiar nature of Descartes' assumptions, including a failure to find a self-evident starting point? In part, yes. Was it that even with the same assumptions men reason differently? In part, yes. Both of these are real problems. Descartes could not find the Archimedian starting point from which to logically deduce all other knowledge. Even if someone made that impossible discovery, however, we would still face the problem that men would not necessarily deduce the same worldview from it. The problems of philosophy are too broad and the processes of deduction too imperfect to lead infallibly to a single result.

But the deepest problem was in Descartes' most fundamental conviction, one that he never thought of doubting -- "supreme confidence in the capacity of the human intellect to solve all human problems."[12] For the mind of man to be the ultimate starting point it would have to supply an absolute, something which man, being relative, cannot do. Human knowledge is always dependent knowledge, something the method of doubt neglects to take into consideration.

The inadequacy of the mind of man become clear when we think what it would have been like for Descartes to apply the method of doubt seriously. He would not only have had to doubt the external world, he would also have had to doubt the words with which he was thinking, grammar, the uniformity of experience, and many other things that he did not really question. Had he really applied the principle of doubt, he would have been reduced to babbling. In Wittgenstein's words: "If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty."[13]

Descartes apparently forgot the obvious: "The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief."[14] Faith is the real starting point for thinking, the question is, which faith is true?

1. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 3, Hobbes to Hume, p. 155.

2. Ibid., p. 159.

3. Quoted in Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 547.

4. Russell, p. 548.

5. Russell, p. 548.

6. Jones, p. 193.

7. Jones, p. 193.

8. Russell, p. 553.

9. Russell, p. 554.

10. Jones, p. 224.

11. Jones, p. 220.

12. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 3, Hobbes to Hume, p. 155.

13. On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), p. 18e.

14. Ibid, p. 23e.

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