Is philosophical reasoning intrinsically good or bad?
Thank you for your kind words about the book; I’m glad it’s been helpful. Let’s see if I can answer your questions.
Reasoning is good in itself. God created our powers of reasoning along with everything else, and at the end of His creation he pronounced what He had made good (Genesis 1:31). Jesus teaches that we are to love the Lord our God not only with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, but with all our mind (Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). In Isaiah 1:18, where God desires to teach His wayward people how desperate their condition is, He says “Come, let us reason together.” At another place in Isaiah, He challenges those who have departed from His ways to vie with Him in reasoning (43:26). When King Nebuchadnezzar’s madness ended and his reason returned to him, he praised God (Daniel 4:36-37). The author of the book of Ecclesiastes is commended because he “weighed” the traditional sayings or proverbs, and weighing is an exercise of reason (Ecclesiastes 12:9). In 1 Corinthians 10:15, Paul challenges the Christians of Corinth to test his words by reasoning: “I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say.” Peter instructs those who deal with seekers to reason gently with them: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). When Paul was summoned by Felix, the Roman governor, he reasoned so persuasively about justice, self-control and future judgment that Felix was unnerved (Acts 24:25). To demonstrate from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, Paul used reasoned arguments (Acts 17:2, 18:4, and 18:19). Even apart from the Bible, by reasoning from the Creation, man recognizes that there is an eternal and powerful Creator (Romans 1:20).
The problem with reasoning isn’t that reason is bad, but that fallen creatures reason badly. Yes, reason alone teaches us that there is a Creator, but from time immemorial people have suppressed this knowledge (Romans 1:18-19). What the world calls “wisdom” is not true wisdom, and the wisdom of the Gospel seems folly to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-29, 2:4-8). Therefore, so-called human “wisdom” is not sufficient to teach the Gospel — our minds need God’s grace (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). In fact, all too often human “wisdom” is nothing but a craving for novelty — an itching to hear something new (Acts 17:21). Against this kind of “philosophy” Paul sternly warns (Colossians 2:8, 1 Timothy 6:20). If we Christians are to practice philosophy — and I believe that we are — then we must practice it in a different way, “for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 4-5, NIV). Our charter, as Christian thinkers, is Paul’s command in Romans 12:2 (NIV), “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove” — that means test — “what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Now: How can we go about reaching people who say they believe in reasoning “alone”? One thing I often do is point out to them that there is no such thing as reasoning “alone.” Consider: Could a person prove, by reasoning, that reasoning works? Of course not; any such “proof” would be circular, and as everyone knows, circular reasoning proves nothing. Then how does the reasoner get his confidence in reasoning? He certainly doesn’t get it by reasoning “alone”; he takes the reliability of reasoning on faith. What this shows is that faith is not the opposite of reasoning, as silly people often think; rather, faith is necessary to the act of reasoning itself. No one can choose whether or not to have faith; the only choice open to him is where his faith should be placed.
Suppose someone answers this by saying, “Okay, I admit that I have faith in reasoning. But I refuse to have faith in anything else; reasoning is the only thing in which I’ll place my faith.” There are two problems with this way of reasoning about reasoning. First, it’s arbitrary. Once a person admits that one act of faith is reasonable, on what grounds can he argue that all other acts of faith are unreasonable? Second, it’s shortsighted. The first thing that any honest person learns about his reasoning powers is how limited they are. He can find out some things with them, but he cannot find out the most important things with them. God, who created human reason, must have known this. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if God wants us to know more about Him than just that He exists, He would have given our reasoning extra help to know the things that it couldn’t reach by itself. That’s why He has given us biblical revelation.
You see, to know the limits of sight is not to be blind; true blindness lies in refusing extra light when it is offered.
Does this help? May God bless your reasoning; may He illuminate your intellect; may He, by the power of the Spirit, so renew your mind that you will indeed be transformed; may He grant you a spirit not only to “prove,” but to abide in, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.