The Place of Reason and Science

If you’re looking to build a house, a hammer is an indispensable tool.  But it is not the only tool you’ll need.  To build a house, you’ll need a large array of tools and materials.  To insist that a hammer, and only a hammer, is the sort of tool you need to build a house is, at best, impractical.  It may also be delusional.

Reason is a tool.  It is one aspect of human capability by which we interact with and understand the reality which we inhabit. But it is not the only capability we have with which to interact with and understand reality.  Likewise, science is a tool, a powerful methodology by which we have come to increased understanding of our universe and the way that it works.  But just as it would be impractical to insist on building a house using only a hammer, likewise it would be impractical, and perhaps delusional, to insist that science is the only way in which we are able to understand the universe we inhabit.

If a hammer could speak, it would be able to discourse on driving nails.  It could speak to force and resistance, density and composition.  A hammer, if it could speak, however, would be a poor authority on the light spectrum.  A hammer is not for measuring light.  It is for driving nails.  In this same way, science is only good for particular things: namely, formulating hypotheses about cause and effect and testing those hypotheses through repeatable activities.  Science can tell us the how of a thing.  It is not, however, capable of telling us the why of a thing.  Science is not useful for philosophy, or poetry, or love.

One of the crippling effects of the Enlightenment and of modernism more generally is that it takes one aspect of human experience, discursive reason, and elevates it to the primal authority for all of human experience.  This, of course, is not sustainable, and thus there was the reaction of romanticism, which is reason’s opposite: the elevation of feeling, emotion, experience itself as the primal authority for all of human experience.  These suffer from the same problem: taking one tool from the tool box, throwing out the rest, and making that tool do the work of all the other tools.

It is not simple coincidence that our society has an almost religious devotion to technology.  The reductionism of discursive reason is the same force which pushes and presses all of human experience into the constraints of technology.  We have long since transferred the ends of human experience to the ends of technological production.  This technological reductionism runs more and more human experience, from government to social interactions to procreation.  Technology, the birth child of discursive reason, is its own end, its means its own justification.

It has not always been this way.  This is a recent development, deriving from the Renaissance down through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Aristotle, like other of the ancients, provides a contrasting schema of different kinds of thinking in the Ethics, VI.3: “Let those powers with which the soul discloses truth by affirming and denying, be five in number, and these are art, knowledge, practical judgment, wisdom and intellect” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics tr. Joe Sachs, Focus 2002, p. 104).  Art has to do with the knowledge of craft and producing things, from carpentry to writing.  Knowledge has to do with demonstration and deduction.  Practical judgment is the realm of ethical and political choices.  Wisdom has to do with universal knowledge inducted from long experience.  And intellect is the intuitive grasp of universals, both as ultimate universals and in ultimate particulars.  All of these kinds of human thinking rely on each other, though they are also distinguishable from one another.

The point here is not to resurrect an Aristotelian schema of categories of thought.  It is, rather, to bring some correction to a distortion.  The modern understanding of reason is, itself, deficient in comparison to the fullness of human experience.  Modern understandings of reason discount all but “knowledge” (or, what Aristotle elsewhere calls “discursive reason”) as having any value.  This “hammer” of discursive reason then gets misapplied to a wider variety of human experience.  Ethical and political considerations, which necessarily admit to a number of possibilities along a spectrum of virtue, are narrowed to a pinpoint precision of which practical judgment is incapable, or are lent an authority of deductive reasoning of which particular premises are incapable of producing.

Due to the necessarily skeptical nature of deductive reasoning, causes are simplified, complexities are reduced, and in the process human experience is stripped of its richness.  “Love” is “deduced” to be nothing more than biochemical reactions.  Sexual intercourse is stripped of its spiritual and procreative teleologies and made to be nothing more than biological functionality.

The problem with reason is that reason is necessarily limited in its usefulness to material considerations.  If there are immaterial realities, reason cannot know them (though it may opine about them, but opinion is not knowledge).  Immaterial realities are beyond the sort of knowledge reason concerns itself with; reason is incapable of fluency in that language.

Reason denies spiritual realties not because it is capable of disproving them—it cannot disprove that which it cannot discern or comprehend—it denies these realities because it cannot admit of any reality not subsumed to its authoritative discretion.  Ancients as far back as Sextus Empiricus recognized that reason’s demand of proof is a demand it cannot itself satisfy.  That is to say, reason begs the question of its own authority, and by this slight of hand places itself as the authority over all human experience.

Aristotle says much more about human thinking than the small quote we have provided here.  He places that human thinking in a richer context of human desire and freedom of choice that interplay in the formation of human virtue or excellence.  And even human thought itself is placed in a fuller context of divine thinking in both his work, On the Soul, and the Metaphysics.  But our point here is both smaller and larger: to reveal the puniness of the modern experiment when it comes to reason and human experience and to offer the beginnings of a robust correction.

The Romantic reaction to modernism was flawed in that it simply reified the modern paradigm and flipped it around.  But it was a necessary corrective.  Human experience is much more than discursive reason.  That human experience has authorities of similar weight and significance to reason.  This is not to say that we do not bring to bear the usefulness of reason in the realms of human love, art, craft, technology and so forth.  It is simply to say that we do not limit such things to the discriminating judgment of discursive reason alone.

We recapture the fullness of human experience by admitting a fuller and richer understanding of thought, intellect, reason than what is given us by the modern experiment.  Discursive reason is a necessary and important (and powerful) tool.  But it is not the only one.  Not even of the types of thinking humans engage in, let alone in the large swaths of experience that make up the human condition.

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