Argument From Reason

By Jeff Laird

"Reason" is the ability of the mind to infer and conclude in a logical way. Many atheists claim to use their reason to deduce there is nothing besides the material stuff of the universe — no thought, no soul, and no God. The "Argument From Reason" is an intellectual exercise that says that's not possible.

Boiled down, the Argument From Reason (AFR) says that if human minds are the product of mindless physics, we cannot trust human reasoning to produce true beliefs. There is no justification for the view that reason corresponds to truth if what we think is simply an artifact of non-intelligent particle physics. In other words, the only way to justify our trust in reason is to presume it's more than just a random effect of a random process. Either "Reason" is more than a figment of a determined system, therefore Naturalism is false, or Reason is just a figment, therefore we can't trust it. Either way, one cannot rationally believe in both Reason and Naturalism.

Although this is technically an epistemological (knowledge-of-truth) claim, it strongly implies a metaphysical (nature of reality) claim. If Reason is real, or objectively valid, the AFR would indicate that Naturalism is actually false. At the very least, it demonstrates how a fundamental aspect of human experience, and a cornerstone of our ability to understand the universe, is easily explicable under theism, but inexplicable under Naturalism and atheism. Reason in and of itself argues against Naturalism.

There are several different versions of the AFR, put forward by both believers and non-believers. C.S. Lewis is one of the more famous proponents of the idea, and Victor Reppert's approach is an adaptation of Lewis's. Contrary to certain myths, Lewis adapted it in response to certain criticisms, but never abandoned it. AFR is also implied in the writings of theists and atheists such as G.K Chesterton and Thomas Nagel, respectively. Alvin Plantinga's take is known as the "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism", and is different enough to be treated as a separate argument.

First and foremost, it's helpful to know what these arguments do and do not imply. Proving the AFR wouldn't establish that God exists, but it would establish that belief in Naturalism is unjustifiable. Under most interpretations, it would serve to show that Naturalism is, in fact, false. "Capital-N-Naturalism" is the philosophical belief that nothing exists other than the mindless, material Cosmos. So, the AFR strongly contradicts worldviews such as atheism, but it doesn't advocate for any particular God or gods. All the same, it's a powerful and useful set of arguments. Many who reject God do so through a claim that Naturalism is more "reasonable," and the AFR aims to show that belief in Naturalism and belief in Reason are actually mutually exclusive.

At the same time, various versions of the AFR might fail, or be clearly refuted, yet their shared conclusion might be valid. If I were to say, "Earth orbits the Sun because yellow is a lighter color than blue," I'd be making an argument that fails spectacularly...but the conclusion happens to be factually correct. (See the False Cause Fallacy.) We can't infer that the Sun actually orbits the earth, just because my attempt to prove otherwise used invalid reasoning. So, the crosshairs of a discussion of the AFR are squarely on Naturalism, not Theism or Christianity.

Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism" (EAAN) uses a different angle, and a more specific, practical application. Plantinga notes that Naturalistic Evolution is driven entirely by survival of the fittest, but beliefs which are good for survival are not necessarily beliefs that are true. So, the EAAN claims that, if Evolution is true, one cannot justify belief in Naturalism, because of what Evolution implies about our knowledge of truth.

As an extreme example, consider a caveman who suddenly yearns to be eaten by an invisible bear. As a result, he diligently seeks out locations where he can see no animals. This way, he has a better chance of running into an invisible bear and getting his wish. This particular yearning is not just bizarre, but factually wrong. And yet, the end result is beneficial to the caveman's survival, because it keeps him away from real, dangerous animals. As such, his belief would be favored by Evolution through natural selection.

This is where the EAAN comes into play: if human reasoning was selected purely for survival value, as everything in Naturalistic Evolution must be, we cannot trust the products of human reason to be actually true. Evolution would have encouraged survival-enhancing reasoning, not "true" reasoning. It's entirely possible for our reasoning to be completely, hilariously wrong, and yet advantageous, as with the caveman and his invisible bears. In short, the EAAN says that "useful" reasoning is not necessarily "truthful" reasoning, so if Evolution by natural selection is really true, we'd have to doubt all products of reason, including beliefs in Naturalism and Evolution themselves!

Some Naturalists have tried to absorb the AFR, by claiming that concepts such as Reason are "emergent." Yet this doesn't help their cause, because "emergent", in a Naturalistic worldview, really just means "very complicated." Once a person suggests that Reason is "more than" an effect of blind physics, they're no longer operating under Naturalism, and they've implicitly accepted the AFR.

One could say the AFR is compatible with both a Biblical worldview and Biblical approaches to explaining or defending the faith. The Scriptures say those who reject God and the evidence of His existence are ultimately dealing in illogic and rebellion (Romans 1:18-25, Jude 1:10), so we need to demonstrate the reasonableness of His truth (Colossians 2:8, Proverbs 9:10, 1 Peter 3:15) in response. Approaches like the AFR aren't magic wands which instantly change a person's mind, but they are useful and important tools.

Image Credit: James; "Peek-A-Boo"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  False-Teaching

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Published 8-6-14