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Saturday, December 20, 2003

Reason in a vacuum.

There's too much crammed into Edward Rothstein's column in the New York Times this week — he jumps into the vast ocean of the "reason vs. faith" debate, commenting on everything from the anti-religious "brights" movement heralded by Dawkins and Dennett to Alan Wolfe's new book, The transformation of American religion — but the last five paragraphs are worth pondering. One is about Isaiah Berlin, my favorite philosopher, but the other four address the dangers of thinking of reason as all-sufficient:

Reason then, has its limits. The philosopher Robert Fogelin's new book, "Walking the Tightrope of Reason" (Oxford, $22) is subtitled "The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal" because, he argues, reason's own processes negotiate a precipice. Mr. Fogelin quotes Kant, who described a dove who "cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space."

Failing to understand what keeps her aloft and taking a leap of faith, the dove might set off in "empty space" — a vacuum — and plummet. But reason might lead to the same end: if something offers resistance then logically can't one proceed more easily if it is eliminated? So why not try?

The problem is that the bird can never fully comprehend the medium through which it experiences the world. In many ways, Kant argued, neither could the mind. Reason is still the only tool available for certain knowledge, but it also presents questions it is unable to answer fully.

Some of those questions may remain even after contemporary battles cease: how much faith is involved in the workings of reason and how much reason lies in the assertions of faith?

Good questions! Religious liberals sometimes treat history, cultural tradition, and even biology as the resistant atmosphere that we would do well to transcend altogether; we sometimes think that our principles are all we need, that we would fly more swiftly if we could just shed all that old stuff. Reason in a vacuum, though, won't take us anywhere. Happily, as I wrote in an essay about William Ellery Channing, resistance is good for us.

("Reason and faith, eternally bound," Edward Rothstein, New York Times 12.20.03, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 20 December 2003 at 7:49 PM

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Next: Revenge of the nerds.

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