Reason—within Reason Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Atheists, agnostics, infidels, freethinkers, nonbelievers, secular humanists. There are many labels. But if there is one thing dissenters from supernatural religion have in common, it may be reasoned doubt. We don’t see good reason to believe in gods and demons. We trust reason rather than revelation.

Historically, however, human reason has usually ended up endorsing the gods. The philosophers of antiquity celebrated rationality, but many conceived of reason as a mystical faculty intuiting the deeper truths beyond the earthly realm of imperfection and change. Educated elites often rejected the low-class superstitions and popular religious movements of the day. But while contemplating metaphysical necessities, high-class souls could reach toward realms that transcended earthbound reality. Theologians pressed philosophical reasoning into service to their religions. Reason harbored a potential for heresy—an overly exacting philosopher could question the Catholic Church or the Qur’an—but until modern times, doubt in the reality of some sort of divinity or cosmic purpose was rare.

Today, nonbelievers tell a story about how reason defeated religion. We learned how to do critical history and found that scriptures were religious propaganda. We figured out how to do natural science, and the gods became unemployed. With reason no longer chained by dogma, we became free to do great things. The grand march of progress may have been a nineteenth-century Christian preoccupation, but we secularized it and made the world anew.

Still, even when decoupled from organized religion, our concept of reason retained something of its transcendence. Sometimes, the supposed otherworldly aspects of reason are close to the surface. For example, the notion of mathematical elegance as a guide to truth in physics preserves an echo of high-class intellects intuiting deep realities. In other cases, the transcendent quality of reason is more subtle. If we think that science needs to be underwritten by a special scientific method, a preset collection of rules that ensures we get the correct results, we still reach for something beyond earthly realities. We might not believe in gods on thrones, but we still have ethereal principles to certify our knowledge of facts.

Once we figure out science and critical history, however, we can also turn them loose to examine our processes of reasoning. We can look at reason not as an idealized practice of philosopher-mystics and key to otherworldly truths but as an act performed by people with physical brains in messy social circumstances.

It turns out, then, that human reason is a product of evolution. Our cognition is full of shortcuts, kludges, and cost-saving measures. We sometimes track truth reasonably well, especially in everyday circumstances. But reason is still leashed to reproductive needs. Our rationality is bounded by the historical accidents entrenched by evolution and limited by resource costs. It operates in a social context of conflicting interests, and accuracy is not a concern that overrides everything else an organism may value.

Our sciences help us to overcome some of our cognitive biases and reach beyond our everyday environments. But this just means that science has a history and a sociology as well as a biology. We do pretty well in figuring out how the world works, but the process is messier than we often imagine. Reason has to be constructed, negotiated, and embedded in institutions.

Now, those of us who value reason can still interpret all these complications as mere imperfections. We might fall short of a transcendent ideal of rationality, but that shouldn’t stop us from approaching the ideal. Or, alternatively, we might suspect that such a transcendent ideal is no more real than the gods. We can reason in better or worse ways. We can be more reflective, trying to be as accurate as we can, relying less on low-cost shortcuts. We can invent devices such as math and controlled experiments to help us do better. But even with such refinements, reason is still a tool for organisms to cope with earthly circumstances. Ethereal principles do not explain our processes of reasoning.

Consider efforts to produce a recipe to crank out reliable knowledge: the scientific method. Our sciences certainly work better than consulting prophets and oracles. But whether a method works well to learn about our world is itself a fact about the world. A small army of philosophers have sought a preset method that transcends mere earthly facts and grants security to our knowledge claims. They have not succeeded. In today’s science studies, we don’t find any grand unity or overarching method to define science. Instead, we find a collection of overlapping methods, all of which are earthly ways of poking and prodding at material realities.

Without any prior method to guarantee its results, science may seem deflated. There is no certainty, no unassailable foundation on which to base knowledge. Science appears less heroic, more a process of making it up as we go along.

None of this should disturb dissenters from religion. After all, when we turn reason loose on itself, we end up with a very naturalistic, science-centered picture of rationality. Science remains a very useful, often spectacularly successful way of poking, prodding, and explaining. Nonbelievers are used to projects of demystifying claims of transcendence, bringing them down to earth. A more accurate account of science and reason only intensifies naturalistic, skeptical views that are already congenial to most of us.

There is, however, another problem. Nonbelievers hope that reason will not just deliver facts but secure morality. Pious people distrust us. They accuse us of having no foundation for being moral. Many religious thinkers claim that through their engagement with the gods, they come to know objective moral facts that are binding and authoritative. Any rational person can come to know the moral facts, and that knowledge also generates the motivation to act accordingly. Ultimately, such a morality is rooted in the divine, apprehended by means akin to how we access other transcendent truths.

Nonbelievers often want to claim a similarly robust sense of morality. Reason, we hope, will reveal the moral truths we need. Moreover, we can do better than the devout. Our morality does not depend on imaginary gods, and it comes without mindless rules and rituals. Based on our common ability to reason, secular morality is more truly universal than religious alternatives.

Unfortunately, when we investigate actual human affairs and earthly moral reasoning, we find no transcendent moral facts. What we find, moreover, is not just greater complexity and uncertainty. We have reproductive interests, better and worse social strategies, and opportunities for cooperation and backstabbing. We have social ecologies with multiple successfully reproducing ways of life, with their attendant identities and moral perceptions. These perceptions do not always agree. Sometimes, we share enough of a common human nature that almost all of us will value conditions such as freedom or security. Such values, however, often conflict with each other and are riven with internal conflicts. And with advancing biotechnologies, human nature cannot remain stable enough to fix what almost everyone will value.

Reason, we may hope, will show a way through this mess of interests and desires, figuring out which values have priority and which ways of life are acceptable. Many philosophers and theologians try to order the chaos of our values. They are like gardeners trying to impose a monoculture on a local ecology. They may have temporary victories against weeds. But nothing in our social ecologies, even when heavily cultivated, is explained by moral truths that transcend the interests of intelligent social animals. Reasoning together helps with our social negotiations, and rationality can help us bring some coherence to our various values. But the question of what we all ultimately should care about has no earthly answer.

The religious accusation that doubting the gods puts morality in jeopardy, then, has some merit. We question the gods because we find that earthly explanations work much better. But it is hard to stop after killing off the gods. We then have license to bring everything down to earth, including reason itself. Many facts, such as the facts of chemistry, remain much the same. Chemistry might become a touch messier, a degree less certain. Still, by coming down to earth, we also acquire a much better understanding of how we know such facts. In contrast, the hard moral facts that religion promised disintegrate into a chaos of competing interests. The best that an earthbound moralist can aspire to is to locally impose a monoculture and hope to defend that monoculture against its tendencies to fragment into new and different ways of life.

Most nonbelievers can accept a measure of chaos. Without transcendent, capital-T Truth, we still have plenty of earthly truths to satisfy our curiosity. Without a transcendent, universal Good, we can still attend to our local goods and try to reason through our conflicts of interest. Without transcendent beauty, we can still damn well enjoy ourselves.

But we cannot expect everyone, even in highly intellectual subcultures, to be so sanguine. Many very smart people will find the element of arbitrariness associated with earthbound values morally unacceptable. The kinds of certainty and perfection promised by transcendent truth, good, and beauty are attractive. And systems of metaphysics that bring such ideals together under the will of personal gods will be doubly attractive. Thinkers of subtlety and depth will be drawn to the notion of a transcendent reason that will provide a secure foundation for their hopes, compared to the uncertainty and frustration that accompanies mere earthly existence.

And yet, there it is. It may only be an uncertain small-t truth, but our best efforts to understand our world suggest that there is nothing transcendent. We need no gods. And we can still reason—within reason.

Atheists, agnostics, infidels, freethinkers, nonbelievers, secular humanists. There are many labels. But if there is one thing dissenters from supernatural religion have in common, it may be reasoned doubt. We don’t see good reason to believe in gods and demons. We trust reason rather than revelation. Historically, however, human reason has usually ended up endorsing …

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