Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reason and the Supernatural

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis provides a fascinating argument on how our use of reason points to the existence of the supernatural. To understand the supernatural, though, we must first define what we mean by the “natural.” According to Lewis, “The Natural is what springs up, or comes forth, or arrives, or goes on, of its own accord: the given, what is there already: the spontaneous, the unintended, the unsolicited.”[1] The Naturalist assumes that this is all there is. However, if “any one thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it [a naturalistic] explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins.”[2] According to Lewis, our use of reason is just such a thing that defies naturalistic explanation.[3]

Reason implies inference. If we directly witness a phenomenon through our senses then we do not conclude it’s truth based upon reason but rather through our immediate observation. If however, we use our powers of inference to draw additional conclusions based upon the things that we have witnessed with our senses, then we have resorted to reason. If I conclude that the sun rose this morning because I witnessed it, I have not arrived at that conclusion through reason. However, if I infer that the sun must have risen this morning because it has risen every other morning during my lifetime, even though I have not left my house and have not personally witnessed the sun today, then I have reached my conclusion through reason.

Naturalists advance their arguments through the use of reason. They present various evidences and infer that Nature is all there is. But if Nature is “the whole show,” then everything, our reasoning abilities included, must have developed of their own accord. This begs the question of whether a naturalistic explanation for our reasoning abilities can be found.

According to natural selection, useful traits are preserved. The ability to use inference to point toward truth (as opposed to flawed inferences that point to falsehood) is useful. Therefore, people with the habit of drawing objectively truthful inferences would be at a competitive advantage and this trait would be passed on to their offspring. This is a particularly important point for naturalists. They must concede that objective truth exists in order to avoid finding themselves in an un-affirmable contradiction (by claiming the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth). Explaining how we came to develop our habits of inference is hardly reassuring if those inferences do not point to the objective truth that naturalists and super-naturalists both acknowledge exists. Thus naturalists must justify within their worldview not only that we use inference but also that our inferences are reliable.

But the statement, “inferences that point to objective truth are useful” is itself an inference. The naturalist may collect evidences of how these types of inferences have proven to be useful in the past, but the supposition that they will continue to be so and will therefore generally be preserved is an inference. How are we to know that this inference is true? Should we come to that conclusion because it is useful? That is begging the question. We can only conclude that our reasoning abilities point to ontological truth by using our reasoning abilities. That is circular reasoning. After all, if our reasoning abilities actually pointed to falsehood, we may be absolutely convinced that they point to ontological truth but we would be unfortunately mistaken. Unless we first presuppose the value of our reasoning we can never prove that we have the ability to know ontological truth. All truth ends up being unknowable. This brings the naturalist back to the same problem of un-affirmability, being forced into the position of “knowing” that all truth is unknowable.

Naturalists may respond that they are willing to presuppose the value of reason. But this is precisely what they must not do if they are to be consistent with their worldview. Their basic premise is that all things can be explained by naturalistic means. But by presupposing reason, they are now claiming that all things other than reason itself can be explained by naturalistic means. If we grant any exception then there must be at least one thing outside the natural. Therefore, our ability to reason through inference shows that at least for this one thing, the supernatural must exist.

[1] Lewis, “Miracles,” 214 (emphasis in original).

[2] Lewis, “Miracles,” 217.

[3] The ensuing explanation is a summary of Lewis’ argument in his chapter titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” in the book Miracles along with a few of my own elaborations. Lewis, “Miracles,” 217-23.


Igitur said...

"If we directly witness a phenomenon through our senses then we do not conclude it’s truth based upon reason but rather through our immediate observation."

I think that if we are being careful, we should think that there is still an inference to be drawn and that reason can be engaged, though not necessarily. A reflective person might acknowledge to himself the fallibility of the senses and that therefore the perception of an event does not necessarily entail its actual occurrence. He might still come to the conclusion that the event actually took place as a result of an inference drawn from various points of evidence that suggest the existence of the external world and the relative reliability of the senses, fallible as they are. An unreflective person might immediately conclude that the event took place upon his witness of it, but the fact that the unreflective person ignores the philosophical issues surrounding perception and the existence of the external world does not mean that the problems are not there to be pondered.

I realize that this is tangential to the point of this post.

Igitur said...

The fact that a natural explanation for the existence of the capacity to reason is something understood through reason does not mean that the natural explanation for the existence of reason does not exist.

Your criticism of the naturalist in this post rests upon an allegation that he is begging the question. However, the challenge you are posing itself begs the question. The challenge is for the naturalist to provide a reasonable explanation that does not engage reason. This is impossible.

Ten Minas Ministries said...


Thank you very much for your comments and the interest you have shown in the Ten Minas blog. If I could be permitted a brief response to your comments, perhaps I may clarify precisely what this post was intended, and not intended, to demonstrate.

You say that the challenge raised by my post begs the question. I am not certain that a challenge ever can beg the question as question-begging by definition applies to claims, and my challenge in itself makes no claims. Its intention is simply to point out that the naturalist cannot logically conclude the full import of his or her claims.

As with any argument, we must begin with an agreed-upon starting premise. In my post, this premise is found in C.S. Lewis’ proposed definition of the “natural.” I accept his definition; specifically that the “natural” is “what springs up, or comes forth, or arrives, or goes on, of its own accord.” Our second premise would build upon the first. Specifically, it would be that “naturalism” is the claim that the “natural,” as defined above, is all there is. Specifically, every phenomenon we witness has a naturalistic explanation.

The post then asks the question of whether the naturalist can consistently prove that naturalism is true. But as I pointed out (and as you seem to concede in your closing comments), it is impossible to prove that our reasoning abilities have a naturalistic explanation. Once we concede this impossibility, we have demonstrated at least one phenomenon for which the naturalist cannot carry his or her burden in proving naturalism to be true. For the use of reason, naturalism is merely assumed.

The naturalist could object that theism also cannot prove a supernatural explanation for our reasoning abilities, and I would be perfectly happy to concede this point. But personally I do not find this to be as worrisome for theism as it is for naturalism. Theism does not per se deny that the natural exists. It does not claim that the immediate cause of every phenomenon is a supernatural cause. Plenty of phenomena are the result of prior natural phenomena. For the theist, then, every phenomenon must be explained by either a natural or a supernatural cause (or perhaps even subnatural if such a thing could exist). Theism leaves these doors open. It is naturalism that is attempting to close all but one. You point out that even if we cannot derive a natural explanation for our reasoning abilities that does not mean such an explanation does not exist. True enough, but I could just as easily turn the tables on the naturalist. Just because we cannot derive a supernatural explanation for our reasoning abilities does not mean that a supernatural explanation does not exist.

The point is that either one of these options is acceptable to the theist. For naturalism to be true, however, only one will do. Perhaps I do not take this argument as far as Lewis. I am not claiming that it disproves naturalism. However, I am claiming that it demonstrates that naturalism cannot be affirmatively proven and it should cause some existential concern.

There are two men. Each man is facing two doors and they must choose one through which to travel. For the first man, one door holds certain death whereas the other holds life. For the second, both doors lead to life. The fact that only one of these men is faced with a life and death decision does not necessarily mean that he is going to choose the wrong door. But which man would you rather be?

Thank you again for your time and your contributions to this discussion.

Ken Coughlan

Igitur said...

"I am not certain that a challenge ever can beg the question as question-begging by definition applies to claims, and my challenge in itself makes no claims."

Your challenge implies a claim (something like: reason qua method must derive its compelling force from something extra-rational) and upon the challenge you come to a conclusion (naturalism fails). This is an argument even though it is not grammatically framed as one. It begs the question because its conclusion is assumed by its premise.

I do not concede that it cannot be proven that it is impossible to prove that our reasoning abilities have a naturalistic explanation. I refer you to the first paragraph of my second post.

Ten Minas Ministries said...


We must be clear about what I mean by “our reasoning abilities.” I am not merely speaking of our ability to rationalize from premises to conclusions. I am specifically referring to our ability to reason to ontological truth rather than falsehood. If in fact we claim that this phenomenon (i.e., reasoning abilities capable of pointing to ontological truth; valuable reasoning abilities) exists, then the naturalistic worldview requires that this phenomenon has a naturalistic explanation. Even if we assume that the naturalist could rationally prove a naturalistic cause for our raw reasoning abilties, that only gets him or her part way. The phenomenon is not merely that we reason but that we reason our way toward truth. How can the naturalist provide a naturalistic explanation for this last element?

There are two possibilities for the value of our reasoning abilities: either they are capable of pointing to ontological truth or they are not. How could you ever know which of these is true if the only tool you have to conduct the evaluation is the very reasoning abilities that you are investigating? Perhaps those abilities lead you to conclude that they point to ontological truth, but if they in fact pointed to falsehood, isn’t that precisely what you would expect them to conclude?

My argument was not that our reasoning abilities must find their compelling force in something extra-rational. My point was that their value must be presupposed. There is a difference. Something is presupposed precisely because it is impossible to find any compelling force for it. But even though we cannot demonstrate any compelling force to accept it, we simply cannot function unless it is true.

ALL worldviews depend upon the value of our reasoning abilities as a starting premise. It is impossible to ever evaluate the value of our reasoning abilities without using those same reasoning abilities in the process. In order to even begin any logical evaluation, we must first presuppose the value of our reasoning abilities. Therefore, this starting premise must be presupposed.

This conclusion is in no way implied by my challenge. My challenge was simple: Can the naturalist support his or her claim that "every phenomenon we witness has a naturalistic explanation?" This is why I have stressed the importance of agreeing upon our starting premises. If we agree that this is an accurate definition of the naturalistic worldview (and perhaps the additional premise that valuable reasoning abilities are a phenomenon we witness to exist), then I do not believe the naturalist can support the sweeping claim implied by their worldview. They may claim that every phenomenon has a naturalistic explanation, but they cannot prove it. For at least one phenomenon they must simply assume their worldview to be true.

Thank you again for your contributions.

Ken Coughlan

Mark Waggoner said...

I really appreciate your blog. There are very few people out there willing to some of C.S. Lewis' more challenging writing, let alone discuss it. I often find people's eyes glazing over as I try to explain Lewis to other church members.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for the kind feedback Mark. Up until last week I taught an adult Bible Study class. C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, so he came up from time to time and I confess to sympathizing with your plight sometimes when it comes to the glazed over looks. As of this past weekend I switched off to teaching Jr. High and High School students. I felt that there is a real need to reach an age group when people are just starting to really think for themselves, but I may also have just made the challenge of presenting an interesting and coherent explanation even harder!