Friday, November 30, 2007

Reason as Evidence for God

I recently recommended Doug Wilson's book Persuasions: A Dream of Reason Meeting Unbelief, to someone in our church who was looking for apologetics reading. Unlike most books about the reasonableness of the Christian faith, this one is written as a narrative, reminiscent of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Each chapter follows the main character, Evangelist, who, while on his way to the City, encounters travelers heading in the opposite direction toward the Abyss. Each traveler represents a non-Christian worldview or philosophy of life, and in the course of his exchanges with them, Evangelist both defends the Christian faith and identifies the problems with their alternative perspectives.

After reading the book, my friend shared his reactions via email. Overall, he was impressed by Wilson's argumentation and felt he did a very good job of substantively addressing important issues in relatively little space. My friend did, however, take issue with how Wilson, via Evangelist, addressed an atheist named Mark. My friend said:

With Mark, for the Evangelist to argue that reason, being a product of random forces, cannot be trusted, nor said to produce a "true" or "false" result is, while technically correct, not a very persuasive argument. It's possible that the chemical reactions resulting from random processes that Mark calls reason are really just random processes, but in the end, it doesn't matter in terms of whether the atheist should believe in God.

Since I devoted some time to responding to my friend's criticism, I thought I'd make my effort serve double duty by posting an edited excerpt of my reply below:

The argument from rationality for the existence of God is one that C. S. Lewis popularized in his book Miracles and that contemporary Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert (author of C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and owner of a blog devoted to discussion of the argument) have advanced.

One has to keep in mind that the dispute between the atheist and the theist doesn't consist merely of disagreement about particular facts but is in actuality a clash of worldviews, systems of interpretation that rest on certain presuppositions about the nature of reality, the sources and scope of human knowledge, and ethics. All of these are intertwined and interrelated. What one believes in one area has consequences for another. For example, if I assume that reality consists exclusively of matter and material processes, a necessary consequent is that there are no such things as objectively existing moral truths. Likewise, claims to knowledge of moral absolutes would be inconsistent with the belief in such a universe. What the argument from reason asks is, given our belief that we are able to form true beliefs that correspond to the world outside our minds and that we are able to make reliable inferences and deductions, what kind of universe best accounts for or grounds these phenomena.

In Miracles, Lewis contrasts the naturalist and the supernaturalist. The former, he says, contends that reality is a closed system in which every state of affairs can be explained (at least in principle) in terms of some prior state of natural affairs. He writes (quotations are from the 1978, Collier Books paperback edition):

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can't go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord. Inside that total system every particular event (such as your sitting reading this book) happens because some other event has happened; in the long run, because the Total Event is happening (6).

Lewis maintains that all that is necessary in order to demonstrate that naturalism is false is to identify something that operates independently of the system.

If Naturalism is to be accepted we have a right to demand that every single thing should be such that we see, in general, how it could be explained in terms of the Total System. If any one thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it that kind of explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins (12).

He then sets out to demonstrate how reason fits the bill as one phenomenon that cannot be accounted for in completely naturalistic terms and is therefore evidence that nature is not all that exists.

Lewis starts by stating that the possibility of knowledge and science depends on the validity of reasoning. When we use words like "therefore," "must be" and "since" with respect to beliefs of which we are certain, we are only correct to the extent that our beliefs actually correspond to what is the case outside our minds. "But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them -- if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work -- then we can have no knowledge" (14). He quotes J. B. S. Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms" (15).

Lewis proceeds by stating that in a sentence such as "Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday," the word "because" indicates a cause and effect relation. Eating the lobster had the effect of Grandfather being ill. In a sentence such as "Grandfather must be ill today because he hasn't got up yet" (and we know that he has characteristically been an early riser), "because" does not indicate cause and effect (not rising early isn't what caused Grandpa's sickness). Rather, "because" here indicates the reason for our belief that Grandpa isn't feeling well.

Lewis notes that this relation is what logicians call Ground and Consequent. According to a purely naturalistic or materialistic (in the philosophical sense) scheme, all our beliefs are simply physical events that are the effects of prior physical (and non-rational) causes. And, as Lewis points out, "a train of thought loses all rational credentials as soon as it can be shown to be wholly the result of non-rational causes" (26).

The argument from reason sets before us two sets of presuppositions and asks which set provides the necessary preconditions for what we all take for granted, namely the validity of reason and our ability to form true beliefs about the extra-mental world. On one hand there is the belief that mind and rationality emerged from non-rational material processes in which case our beliefs are not the results of processes of reasoning but are thrust upon us by our biology. On the other hand is the theistic presupposition that rationality has always existed and is ultimately behind life. The atheist rejects belief in the existence of God in the name of rationality and science. However, he or she holds to a worldview in terms of which rationality, logic, and knowledge are unintelligible. In his review of atheist Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, noted Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers a condensed version of the argument:

From a theistic point of view, we'd expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable. God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge. But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naïve hope. The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.

If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable—a reason for rejecting that belief, for no longer holding it. (Example of a defeater: suppose someone once told me that you were born in Michigan and I believed her; but now I ask you, and you tell me you were born in Brazil. That gives me a defeater for my belief that you were born in Michigan.) And if he has a defeater for that belief, he also has a defeater for any belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties. But of course that would be all of his beliefs—including naturalism itself. So the naturalist has a defeater for naturalism; naturalism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.

The argument from reason is what is formally known as a reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) argument that seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of a position when taken to its logical ends. It's somewhat of an involved argument but I think it's actually quite sound regardless of whether or not a particular person is persuaded by it.


Hugh said...

KP, thanks for posting this. Your blog just makes me smile... I was wondering where you disappeared to -- glad to see you're back!

It's funny how the same subjects tend to pop up in unrelated places; on my way into work this morning I was listening to Doug Groothuis lecture on design arguments and he referenced much of the same material.

It's a slight tangent, but have you given any thought to J.P. Moreland's recent ETS paper as it relates to these issues? I imagine somebody like Douglas Wilson could stimulate a robust discussion about Dr. Moreland's concerns regarding "over-commitment" to the Bible. Thoughts?

KP said...

Hugh, thanks for stopping by and leaving an encouraging word. Demands on a number of fronts have greatly reduced my blogging activity.

It broke my heart that I couldn't attend ETS this year, especially after learning of Moreland's paper. It's on my "to read" list and after I've done so, I may just post my reactions. My immediate thought, however, is that the charge of "over-commitment" to the Bible doesn't stick to American evangelicalism.

Keep smiling!

dconnery2 said...

KP, Your readers might be interested in some of the comments about JP's paper over at

Steven Carr said...

Naturalists believe that dreams are not ways of discovering facts about what really exists.

Could God have made dreams one of the ways that we discover truths about the world?

In Luke's Gospel an angel appears to Joseph in a dream.

Were Joseph's cognitive faculties working reliably when he concluded that a real angel had appeared to him in a dream , giving him a real message from God?

Hugh said...


When you ask if God could have done something, you are essentially saying, "For the sake of discussion, let's grant that God exists." Having granted a god of some sort, you go on to ask if this god could have done something -- reveal truths through dreams.

I know these are just comments on a blog, but I think you need to be more precise. What sort of god are you granting? Is it a god who can do what you're asking or not? How you define "God" really determines the answer to your question.

Now, as to whether the god you have defined actually exists, that's another question...

Steven Carr said...

Does a god exist who communicates by dreams?

That is the question for Plantinga.

Is he prepared to state in public that what happens in the dreams of Christians is sometimes real events, and that real angels communicate using 'reliable cognitive faculties' ie dreams?

Let Plantinga say dreams are sometimes real in public , and make a fool of himself, or henceforward never say any more about what the Bible says about 'reliable cognitive faculties'.