"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, April 27, 2006

B16 on the rationality of faith

As Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope wrote several works of theology that addressed, among other things, the relation between faith and reason. Among those, IMHO, the two best are Introduction to Christianity and God and the World. Yet expounding how those books do it would take up the next week's worth of posts. In this setting it's more convienient to discuss his most recent statement on the topic, made in an astonishingly good Q&A session with high-school and college students.

In a post a few weeks ago, I first cited it along with other intriguing statements he made in the same session. Here's the pertinent passage for today:

To come to the definitive question, I would say: either God exists or he doesn't. There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of the creative Reason that stands at the beginning of everything and is the origin of everything—the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom—or one upholds the priority of the irrational, according to which everything in our world and in our lives is only an accident, marginal, an irrational product, and even reason would be a product of irrationality. In the end, one cannot "prove" either of these views, but Christianity's great choice is the choice of reason and the priority of reason. This seems like an excellent choice to me, demonstrating how a great Intelligence, to which we can entrust ourselves, stands behind everything.
That's one of the best ways of putting the question that I've ever seen. Is reason or the irrational more basic?

If one believes, as did Bertrand Russell, that there is no Creator and "the world is just there, that's all," then bedrock reality is just unreasoning, brute fact. Reason in such a world is a natural capacity adaptive for survival and, for those with the time and wit, helps to invest life with values and meanings that we invent. But such things die with us. There is no "purpose," no objective "point" to the whole thing, and the Universe doesn't care what we make of it instead.

The theistic alternative has it that the world makes more sense than that. There is an explanation for the world's existence, and what such an explanation would have to cite—a rational intelligence—would also indicate a purpose, an objective "point" to the whole thing. Surely it is at least as reasonable to believe that the existence of the world is explicable in terms of a reason or reasons than that the world is mere brute fact. Why suspend the search for explanation just when it gets most interesting? Why not ask: "Why does the world exist?" One can of course, as did Russell and as do many atheists, so limit what counts as explanation as to rule out, even in principle, any explanation for the world's existence. But that's the sort of narrow-mindedness of which only those who pride themselves on their broad-mindedness are capable.
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