Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On The Reasonability of Faith

Yesterday I found myself surfing blogs and landed at one of my favorites, Secondhand Smoke. The author (Wesley J. Smith) writes on life issues, bioethics, and human exceptionalism, and as a member of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, he occasionally takes up the issue.

I noticed this post having to do with Oregon's DWDA and commented on it; visit the thread to see the conversation. Another commenter asked me a question, and it sparked a couple of pages in response. ("Poke the amateur philosopher/theologian with a stick, and see if she moves!") I decided to post the full text here for any interested readers.

The question:

@Kathleen Lundquist,

What you seem to be saying is that something that’s not in the scientific literature can’t exist — which seems to be placing an awful lot of trust in “soft” sciences like psychology and psychiatry. Do you believe that if enough people label a thought irrational then that’s conclusive evidence of irrationality; that rationality is something that requires a majority vote? Just asking.


My response:

To clarify: I don’t regard psychiatric/psychological theory as supremely authoritative in all situations; I’m not a psychologist or Jung devotee or something like that. My familiarity with the field and its guiding principles comes from: 1) several stints throughout my life of working in my parents’ office (Dad practiced clinical psychiatry for 35 years, Mom was a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner) and my relationships with them; 2) my 15-year career as a medical transcriptionist in other contexts, including reading and editing thousands of psychiatric medical records; and 3) my relationship with my older brother, who was diagnosed at age 14 with paranoid schizophrenia (he’s now 51) and our family’s experience as consumers of mental health care. As I mentioned before, I’m just trying to find and express logical arguments against PAS that might carry weight with some readers, and since most folks agree that any wish to die has at least some psychological component, I’m trying to cite facts that are relevant to the discussion – and at least let people know that, contra Mr. Eighmey, there’s no consensus in psychiatry that PAS is now a neutral or acceptable act.

Here’s a G.K. Chesterton quote that perfectly illustrates my point of view on rationality; I hope you and Wesley won’t mind if I post the whole long thing:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. [from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy]

As you might guess from this, I make a distinction between the concepts of “rationality” and “healthy, integrated human consciousness”. Rationality (i.e. facility with logic) is a component of a healthy mind; some are born adept at it, most others can be taught to reason ‘if A=B and B=C, then A=C’ and construct an argument, etc. But it’s not everything; a person can be impeccably logical and quite insane. To put GKC’s point another way, the madman isn’t the one who’s lost his reason; the madman is the one who has lost his perspective, i.e. his ability to perceive and process information that threatens to reconfigure his tightly closed mental circle.

There might be said to be concentric circles of rationality, wider and wider webs of theory and belief systems that explain more and more of the humanly perceptible phenomena in our universe (including experiences that seem to go beyond the five senses). My own construct would place the, as you say, soft science of psychiatry/psychology with its rational, codified methods of observation and study within the wider circle of American medical practice as I’ve experienced it (which contradicts some of those theories), placing that within the general knowledge of history and culture I’ve absorbed as an American citizen, placing that within my Judeo-Christian worldview, which is the lens through which I observe, interpret, and integrate as much of my knowledge and experience as I can to perceive meaning and purpose in my life. In the types of discussions we have here at ShS, I do my best to locate common assumptions or axioms from whatever circle I can find, and construct a logical edifice from there. Whether my efforts change any minds is another question entirely.

I have this to say (again, best expressed by Chesterton) regarding faith, evidence, and dogma that may help you understand how I and many other religious people perceive the relationship between faith and reason:

Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.

If it comes to human testimony, there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence, being constrained to do so by your creed. [GKC, Orthodoxy]

For another picture of the relationship between faith and reason, feel free to peruse an essay I wrote several years ago for Catholic Exchange:

This is probably much more than you expected, but as I said, I found your question interesting. Thanks for reading.


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