Relying on Reason is not a Faith Position
What I want to analyse here is a clip from a debate between the late Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson. Wilson’s claim is that both atheists and theists equally hold a faith position – atheists have faith in reason, theists in their respective holy books.
“I have faith in the Bible, you have faith in reason”
Wilson tries to argue that both atheists and theists operate in the same way intellectually. When a theist makes a claim about the world, their starting point, or “axiom”, is their Holy Book. For an atheist, their equivalent starting point is reason itself.
As Wilson goes on to say, there’s no way one can justify the reasoning process and so trusting in the reasoning process is an act of faith. The atheist must have faith in reason and so is a person of faith in the same way that a theist is.
When a theist tries to justify their faith by pointing to sections of their holy books they are charged with the objection that they’re appealing to what they need to prove, and of circularity. Wilson claims that atheists are hypocritical in applying this charge. Atheists can’t appeal to anything other than reason in order to justify the reasoning process, and so should be vulnerable to the same charge of circularity.
If this argument were valid, it would show that theistic positions are no worse than atheistic ones. I hope however you already have some idea of why this argument falls flat.
Atheism does not make as many leaps of faith as theism (if any at all)
The simplest rebuttal is to say that theistic positions are worse than atheistic ones because they have to make at least double the number of leaps of faith as atheistic ones. If we play ball for a minute here and accept the charge that trusting in reason is a leap of faith, then fine, but the theist has to make this leap too.
Holy books say nothing about the laws of reasoning, yet it is surely true that no human can survive without them. We use reason all the time whatever we’re doing. The theist has to make two leaps of faith, they have to make one for their holy book, but also one for reason.
Perhaps the atheist can be charged with having faith in some sense, but theists, by definition, have to take at least one extra leap of faith than atheists.
Is trusting the reasoning process and act of faith?
The contention that atheists have to have faith in reason is a much more difficult one to rebuke. There is no way we have of justifying the reasoning process without using the reasoning process itself. We can’t even say that the reasoning process is justified because whenever we’ve used it it has worked. This is an inductive argument and as I have touched upon here: Induction: The Rocky Foundations of Science it is very unclear whether inductive arguments can really be justified.
But in order to justify something, we automatically have to assume the laws of logic and reasoning. To justify something is to provide a deductive argument with the conclusion being what you’re trying to justify. But this means if we’re charged with justifying our trust in reason we can assume the laws of deduction, and hence reason, and the proof is trivial.
This may seem altogether unsatisfying and perhaps even circular but it reflects a fundamental truth. To say I have to justify reason without assuming the laws of logic just doesn’t make any sense. Without reasoning, we have nothing, literally nothing. It makes no sense to try and justify reasoning without using reasoning because as Hitchens says “Logic is the attempt by humans to make sense”. Without logic, we can’t speak sense and so can’t even formulate the question “how do you justify logic”, because the word justify would be undefined.
A much more effective question, or at least a question that makes sense, that a theist can ask is to ask an atheist to provide an argument for why reasoning works. The atheist can however provide the beginnings of an explanation and hence and answer to this question. Of course we don’t yet know for certain why it is that we can comprehend the universe, it’s one of life’s great mysteries, but we can make some preliminary suggestions.
We’re fairly sure that the universe itself is logical in its structure. The things within it obey precise mathematical laws which are essentially statements of logic. We can then appeal to evolution by natural selection. It seems plausible to suggest that creatures whose brains can comprehend the underlying logic of the universe are going to be much better at surviving than creatures that can’t. Survival is all about using the world around you in order to prolong one’s existence, a creature that can understand the world around it would, I imagine, fare much better than one that can’t. So it’s not surprising then that we’re able to comprehend the logic of the universe at least to some extent.