Becoming as Rational as We Think We Are


G. K. Chesterton once said that the “whole modern world is at war with reason.”
“The tower,” he added, “already reels.”

In what sense can this be true? When we think of ourselves in all of our modern glory—unadulterated by the myths and superstitions of the past, don’t we think of ourselves as more informed, more enlightened, more rational than we have ever been? Indeed, we do, but is it due to the fact that we are, or the less sanguine fact that we understand less than ever before what reason is and how we have deviated from it?

Perhaps the chief reason we consider ourselves rational is our mastery of scientific technology. When Jesus spoke of moving mountains, he was speaking of a thing quite impossible for his hearers. For us, however, it is not only not impossible, but not uncommon. We dynamite through mountains to make way for roads, and lay them waste in our search for coal. We can even transform them into islands by the simple expedient of damming a river and making a valley into a lake.

Science looms large in our view of ourselves. We are like Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, in the German legend, who lusts for power over nature and, after selling his soul for knowledge, accounts himself a god:

Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.

Faust, a scholar and alchemist, is encouraged by the magician Cornelius to study the magical arts—“to be renown’d”:

And more frequented for this mystery
Than heretofore the Delphian oracle.

Like Faust, we mistake power for knowledge, and knowledge for wisdom.

In fact, magic provides an interesting comparison to science. Despite the disdain with which the modern scientist views the magician of old, there is a serious question as to whether he is really so different after all. Both concern themselves with power—most particularly, the power over nature. The modern scientist would like to say that his tools are natural and rational while the magician’s are supernatural, and hence irrational.

But is this true?

Before the advent of reason, there were the gods: mythology, which interpreted the world on the basis of the imagination, provided men with their explanations of the world. Then came the philosophers with their rational account of reality, based upon the intellect. The mythical (or poetic) and the rational accounts of the world were consolidated in the Christian worldview, which was at once both religious and reasonable, and which reached its zenith in works like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica during the Middle Ages.

But then came science.

The science of the 18th century proposed to dispense with the need for spiritual and imaginative theories of things, and sought to explain the world on the basis of rational principles—or at least empirical ones. It came with a new method—two methods, in fact. The first was mathematics, and the second, empirical investigation. By these two mechanisms, men would interpret the world.

The new science pictured the world through a new analogy. Before Galileo and Isaac Newton, the world was seen as an organism. It would now be seen as a machine. We—and many scientists in the natural sciences—still think of nature in terms of Newton’s mechanistic view of the world: as the outworking of particles bumping into each other. What most people do not know is that this view of the world was utterly destroyed by 20th-century physics.

“The physics that came of age in the 17th century,” says philosopher Joe Sachs in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics,

and seemed to have answered all the large questions by the nineteenth, [limped] toward the end of the 20th century in some confusion. Mathematics and technology have coped with all the crises of this century, but the picture of the world that underlay them has fallen apart.

The most sophisticated and successful scientific theory ever devised is quantum theory. “No one,” said the late physicist Roger S. Jones, “has ever made a measurement that quantum theory could not correctly predict.” No other scientific discipline can boast as much. But quantum theory, far from providing us with a rational account of nature, has actually undermined it. Quantum theory is not just a scientific theory; it is a theory about science. It is, says Jones, in his Physics for the Rest of Us, “a radically new conception of science.” Far from giving us certainty about nature, it has given us the opposite: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is, in fact, “the very cornerstone of the quantum theory’s foundation.”

The chief question leading to the development of quantum mechanics historically was the question of the composition of light. Light was originally seen as made up of particles. But experiments in the early 20th century led some scientists to conclude that light was not made up of particles at all, but of waves. The problem facing physicists in the early days of quantum theory was that the two theories were completely inconsistent: light could not be made up of both particles and waves—logically, it was one or the other. How did they settle this question?

Their answer consisted of saying that light is now seen as being made up of “photons.” But what is a photon? A photon is a “wave-particle”! But if light cannot be both waves and particles, then how can it be a wave-particle? The answer, said Neils Bohr, the pioneer of quantum theory, lay in the principle of “Complementarity.” “This principles states,” says Jones:

that our descriptions of the micro-world present mutually exclusive views that are inconsistent with each other but which are complementary. The different views complement each other in the sense that all views are needed to form a complete picture.

Summer2_1-25_flattened.inddIn other words, there is no answer. The principle of Complementarity is just a nice-sounding way of saying that nature is at bottom irrational—at least according to quantum theorists. More surprising still, however, is that physicists do not deny this. In fact, the principle of Complementarity is their way of embracing it.

The occult forces science thought it had dispensed with in the 18th century reasserted themselves in the 20th with a vengeance. “The progress of science has now reached a turning point,” said philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. “The stable foundations of physics have broken up …. The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible.”

There is a sense in which the new magic of quantum physics is worse than the old magic of the astrologers and the alchemists. At least the old magic thought that the way to master the world was to understand the elements—to know what they are. Faust would “canvass every quiddity thereof” in his quest for power. But modern science has given up on canvassing the quiddity— the “whatness”—of things.

“Quantum theory denies that phenomena have any inner reality,” says Jones:

It provides answers only for the results of actual experimental observations, and it tells us nothing about what happens between our observations …. Quantum theory provides us with remarkably accurate quantitative predictions of atomic phenomena, but it denies us any picture of the inner workings of nature.

Science—or at least the reigning theory in physics­—has given up on the reality of reality—because it cannot provide a rational account of it. It has dispensed with the whatness, the “quiddity,” of things in the interest of simply gaining predictive control over it. “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is,” said Neils Bohr. “Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

“The hope of finding objective, infallible laws and standards,” says mathematician Morris Kline, “has faded. The Age of Reason is gone.”

The gods of ancient man were arbitrary and capricious, but, with the advent of Christianity, these were replaced by a rational God. Not content with that, however, man took his place during the Enlightenment as the highest of beings, only, in short order, to use his own power to displace himself, with nature as the highest of all things—and now nature at its most basic level has turned out to be arbitrary and capricious, and so man is back where he started.

Although the scientific revolution is still seen by many as a shift from religious dogmatism to a more direct study of nature, the real significance of the scientific revolution was in the fundamental shift in what questions were being asked about nature. Before Galileo, thinkers asked about the what and the why of nature. But with the advent of Galileo and Newton, there was a shift to questions concerning the how. Scientificdescription displaced philosophical explanation—or, in the case of Galileo and Newton, the first was mistaken for the second. While Aristotle had sought the cause of a falling body, Galileo thought that the formula d=16t^2 really explained falling objects.

Galileo pointed out “that he was going to investigate and demonstrate some of the properties of motion without regard to what the causes might be,” says Kline. “Positive scientific inquiries were to be separated from questions of ultimate causation, and speculation about physical causes was to be abandoned. Galileo may well have put it to scientists: ‘theirs not to reason why, theirs but to quantify.'”

Summer2_1-25_flattened.indd“Newton’s Principles is an epitaph to physical explanation,” says Kline.

We will never find a fully rational account of the world in what has come to be called the “Age of Reason”—the scientific age—not because science is wrong in any important sense, but because it is incomplete. “Science,” says philosopher John Haldane, “cannot provide an ultimate explanation of order.” Much modern secular thought mistakenly views science as a sufficient foundation for a comprehensive view of the world. Science “works”; it produces tangible results. But something deeper is needed to “canvass the quiddity” of the world than mere mathematical description. Only a view of the world that comprehends the causes of things can pretend to constitute a rational view of the world, but modern science has either confused causation with description, or (as in the case of quantum theory) abandoned the search for causes altogether.

The most thoroughly rationalistic period of history, ironically, was the Christian Middle Ages. “It was preeminently an epoch of orderly thought, rationalistic through and through,” says Alfred North Whitehead in The Origins of Modern Science. It was also an age which had subsumed the classical attitude toward nature, “the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles.” It was the same attitude that motivated the early scientists—and that animated Einstein in his protest against the irrational implications of quantum theory.

Whitehead pointed out that it was only in a Christian civilization that the original goal of science—to explain the world in rational terms—could have come about in the first place:

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.

Part of the faith exercised by classical thinkers in general, and the great medieval Christian thinkers in particular, was a faith in the order of the cosmos. “Faith in reason,” says Whitehead, “is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery.”

In the New Testament, God is Himself identified with reason: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” says the writer of the Gospel of John. The Greek word logos not only meant speech or discourse, but thought or reason. To some it was also a reference to the animating and ordering principle of the universe. One scholar goes so far as to say that the verse could just as easily have been rendered, “In the beginning was the Logic and the Logic was with God and the Logic was God.” It sounds awkward, but it is not without justification.

The rational element, later developed by Greek thinkers, was there from the very beginning. Whatever you believe about the chronological order in which God created the world, there is one thing undeniable about the Creation account in Genesis: it is logical. And part of the rational aspect of the Creation account is its clear hierarchy; it begins at the bottom of things, so to speak, and moves to the highest created thing: man. “What stands out,” says Leon Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom, his great commentary on the book of Genesis, is the “utterly logical and intelligible structure of the entire account”:

The main principles at work in the creation are place, separation, motion, and life, but especially separation and motion …. Thus, we could say that the fundamental principle through which the world was created is separation. Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos largely through acts of separation, division, distinction.


Kass points out that the word “divide” or “separate” appears explicitly five times in the Creation account.

In the traditional Aristotelian logic (not the modern logic of the mathematicians), defining and dividing or classifying are essential elements. God employs a series of consistent divisions in His ordering of the world. Kass points to the observation of the philosopher Leo Strauss:

[From] the principle of separation, light [which allows discernment and distinction]; via something which separates, heaven; to something which is separated, earth and sea; to things which are productive of separated things, trees, for example; then things which can separate themselves from their courses, brutes; and finally, a being which can separate itself from its way, the right way.

Why is it that plants are introduced in the Creation account before the sun? In a logical ordering, this makes complete sense: the division between those things which do and do not inhabit regional space is more fundamental than the division between those things that have and do not have the ability of local motion, as the accompanying chart shows.
This rational universe created by a rational God is also productive of a rational creature: man. “In the cosmology of Genesis,” says Kass, “human beings clearly stand at the peak of the creatures.” Under the Darwinian view, which is purely mechanistic, this cannot be. “Never use higher or lower,” Darwin wrote. “Insofar as evolutionary theory offers any standard for higher and lower,” continues Kass, “that standard could only be a standard of success, namely, most surviving offspring—in which case, at least in Chicago, the cockroach would be the highest being.”

Man is not only the end of Creation insofar as he stands at its termination; he is also the end of Creation as being its goal or purpose. “Man is the ultimate work of creation,” says Kass; “He is the last of the creatures listed in hierarchical order, and once he appears, the work of creation is complete.” And just as man is the very purpose of Creation, man himself has a purpose. As a rational animal, one created in an orderly way by an orderly God, he is designed to seek the order in things. All of history is a testimony to the rational craving of man—the desire to find the causes of things and to bring order to apparent chaos. No theory of the world that stops at description will satisfy this built-in thirst for the rational truth of reality.

The modern tendency is to see in science an explanatory scheme that will fill the vacuum created by the decline in the influence of classical philosophy and Biblical theology. But in order to offer itself as an explanatory scheme, it must actually explain, which its most candid advocates admit it does not do. Science will either have to give up its pretensions to explaining the world (as Niels Bohr and other quantum theorists have candidly done), or cede back to the philosophers and theologians the mantle of explanatory authority, a course of action Faust proposes to himself:

O, something soundeth in mine ears,
“Abjure this magic, turn to God again!”

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.

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