Continuing on with Andrew Davinson’s essay regarding “reason” and the postmodern shift he also notes the habit of some Christians to use modernist understandings of reason and to accept some of the foundational aspects of the Enlightenment project. I have noticed this too and it always seemed very ironic to me. On the one hand I have had atheist dialogue partners tell me they subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth, to then turn around and see evangelical professors in Christian universities (See J.P. Moreland) subscribing to same. Huh? That alone should solidify the claim that all evidence is interpreted evidence and that the presuppositions we bring by faith (whether we assert there is no God—or there is a God) to our correspondence theories will still dictate we come to different conclusions regarding how we interpret the same reality and the same set of facts.
Specifically he brings up the book “Reasons to Believe” by Scott Hahn, which demonstrates it is not only evangelicals who are more modern than they realize in their reasoning. The idea is that there is something called “reason” which is shared by everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike) prior to any religious/philosophical or ideological commitments. Hahn asserts there are four propositions that are universally accepted as true and the best starting points for conversations regarding God’s existence.
These four are noted as follows:
1. The principle of non-contradiction: “Something, (Let’s call it A) cannot be both A and not A at the same time and in the same way.”
2. The general reliability of sense perception: “Our senses correspond to reality as it exists independently of our perceptions.”
3. The principle of causality: “For every effect, there must be a cause.”
4. The notion of self-consciousness: “I know that I exist, even if I try to pretend that I am uncertain about everything else.”
Again, supposedly these are four universal principles of reason shared by everyone regardless of whether they are theists or atheists. But, as noted by Davison: “This is an odd claim to make at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
He speaks to each principle. As to number one, he notes that “Fully respectable branches of mathematics, for instance, deny the principle of non-contradiction, as so various sorts of postmodern philosophy.”
As to number two, he writes that, “Science and philosophy of all sorts qualify the reliability of sense perception, confirming a point already made in this essay: perceiving is already a work of interpretation; we have no access to ‘reality’ in an uninterpreted state.”
As to number three, he points out that, “The principle of causality, as Hahn calls it, is particularly frowned upon today in philosophical circles. The populace at large may still think in terms of causation, but the academy have been trying their best to invalidate the category of ‘cause’ for centuries.”
Finally, as to number four, he writes that, “This was the position of Descartes (Discourse on Method)… [and]It came under withering attack over the last century, not least because it presupposes that we think in isolation. This is not true; we think in terms of words and concepts that we share as a group and from which we have learned from the community to which we belong.”
Davison then goes deeper into each to show how, not only are they not shared universal understandings- they simply fail to do what they are touted to do. For instance, as to the principle of non-contradiction he writes:
The world is by turns predictable and unpredictable, logical and strange. ‘Something cannot be both A and not A at the same time and in the same way’, claims Hahn. Maybe not, when it comes to logic but that leaves a great deal unsaid. Few matters really worth discussing are sufficiently clear-cut to be thought about in these terms. The subjects most worthy of human attention are a moving target when it comes to logic: people, fears, hopes and loves.
Hahn’s first principle ignores the paradoxes we encounter throughout life. Christian theology contains paradoxes, and in the long run this goes in our favor. Our knottier or stranger doctrines do not impose paradoxes upon an uncomplicated reality; the paradoxes are there already. As every human being knows, life throws up mysteries and contradictions all the time. The foundationalist approach to apologetics can easily seem out of touch with daily life when it suggests that human reason is at root something serene.
So both atheists and some Christians have the same problem here. They are seeking to convince people of their views but are using a strategy that relies upon a foundationalist modern approach that has been severely undermined. It still has some sway among a popular audience but it has no traction in the academy and what that means is that the popular audience will eventually catch up. Then what? Until atheists and the Christians who use this approach can answer the critiques established over the several last decades against this approach and address the postmodern turn, they simply have no standing. It would be like a Catholic theologian addressing an issue in a comprehensive and historical sense and for it to become evident he had never heard of the Reformation! And it doesn’t mean he need agree with the Reformation (just as the atheist or Christian needn’t agree with the postmodern turn) but he (and they) must recognize and address it at least in a way that suggests they’ve taken the time to understand it!
It also must give both the atheist and the Christian (I should say some atheists and some Christians) pause to find each using the same strategy and approach and coming to diametrically opposed conclusions. I would love to hear each explain how that rather telling outcome is possible if “reason” is objective, neutral, and universal.