Friday, June 06, 2008

The Rational-Irrational Dialectical Tension

Prelude: What follows is the first interaction I had with a person who e-mailed me after reading my blog post critiquing an aloof atheist.


I apologize for not returning your e-mail earlier. I am very busy with caring for a sick family member, performing pastoral responsibilities, and working a full-time secular job. You asked a series of questions, but due to time limitations, I'll take the time to answer only the first one in some detail. You asked,

What exactly is the “rational/irrational dialectical tension” (or “dialectic”) and why will it kill the atheist intellectually?

The “rational/irrational” dialectical tension is a particular problem found within unbelieving thought and it has different manifestations. Every non-Christian philosophy contains an element of the rational/irrational dialectical tension in every non-Christian approach to life. For instance, take rationalism (I’m not talking about the rationalist school of epistemology, but the mode or manner of thinking). The strong point of the rationalist motif is that any philosophy must assume that the universe is rational, in the sense that it is capable of being given rational description via the use of language. Thus, anybody that attempts to do philosophy assumes that the universe is capable of rational description through use of language. Anything that is non-rational (in the above sense) can’t be spoken of, and if this is the case, then it can’t be reasoned about, and if it can’t be reasoned about then you can’t say that it exists. Thus, if you can’t speak of it, then it can’t be reasoned about, if it can’t be reasoned about, then it can’t exist. And so, everything that does exist is rational.

For Christians, we acknowledge that the world is fully knowable to God and it’s knowable to us insofar as He reveals knowledge about it to us via general and special revelation. Thus, the assumption that reality is rational is quite normal and natural for the Christian because we believe that God knows everything and we believe that we can know things to the extent that He reveals His knowledge to us. So, the knowability of reality is not a problem for the Christian.

The non-Christian, however, faces a different situation. Why should the non-Christian assume that the universe is describable in human language? Non-Christians must assume that the universe is fully knowable to someone other than the Christian God. Either to another god, to all men, or at least to an elite group of thinkers. That is, the non-Christian has to assume that the universe is somehow fully knowable to another god, to all men in general, or to a subsection of all men, namely, the elite, who usually turn out to be the prevailing philosophical champions of the age.


Sooner or later, its going to become evident that the proposed rational scheme offered by the non-Christian cannot account for everything. Remember that on the rationalist scheme, the universe must be fully rationally describable via language if you’re going to philosophize at all. But, if you study the non-Christian rational philosophies even briefly, it becomes evident fairly quickly that non-Christian philosophers cannot account for everything by their rational scheme. Something appears that appears mysterious, something that defies exhaustive description. This is true of all non-Christian patterns of thought.

Secular non-Christian Rationalism

So what’s the problem with secular non-Christian rationalism? Well, the secular rationalist philosophers cannot account for all of the details of reality; they cannot account for all the particulars of experience. For example:

a. Thales – Thales was one of the early philosophers that absurdly said “all is water.” Since Thales rightly believed that all of reality must be subject to description in human speech in order to have a rational scheme, he asserted that all of reality can be broken down to water. When objectors challenged him as to how hard substances like rocks can be water he replied, “Well, it is water, even though it doesn’t appear to be water.” So Thales taught that they way things appear isn’t the way that they are. But if the way things appear are not the way they really are, then we have a huge epistemological problem, namely, you can’t count on anything if reality and appearance are not the same. So, if “all is water”, yet it cannot account for the details or the particulars of experience, then you cannot be certain of any knowledge because reality and appearance do not comport with one another and hence reality would be ultimately unknowable. Some may object that modern philosophers would never believe something so silly as to say that all of reality consists of one substance because this was only a silly notion believed by ancient Greek philosophers. Oh really?

b. Materialistic naturalism. Materialistic naturalism essentially says that all is matter. However, why do we love our family members, convict criminals upon the basis of concepts of justice, discipline our children, use the laws and principles of logic, believe in art and beauty, and think that there is something called “the mind” if all is matter? The non-Christian philosopher always tries to come up with a rationalistic scheme of things but his general scheme always leaves things out. When examined, the claim of absolute truth turns out to apply only to something purely formal, to the bare idea of truth. When the rationalist is pressed, he will generally claim only an absolute knowledge that there is truth. He doesn’t know what it is and cannot give us the content of it, but on his scheme there must be absolute truth. So, the formal claim that there is absolute truth gives us no specific knowledge and it unhelpful.

The Attempted Remedies for the Breakdown of Unbelieving Rationalism

a. Consistent rationalism. You can try to remedy the problem by being a more consistent rationalist, i.e., there must be some god, person, or all humans, can describe the universe in rational speech. As already shown, however, the schemes used don’t take into account the details of reality. So, they try to remedy the problem by saying that “Whatever escapes my rational scheme simply does not exist”. Thus, they are choosing to be thoroughly consistent. This is like the man who arrives at the airport with suitcase in hand, with some of his clothes and other belongings hanging out and dragging the ground because his suitcase has not been able to hold the load. There are things trailing out of his suitcase, and when the clerk says, “Mr. Smith, don’t you see that you’re suitcase doesn’t have all of its packing in there, its hanging out of the edges and the side.” So, what does he do in order to remain consistent with his suitcase? Well, he takes out his scissors and just cuts along the edges and says, “Whatever is not in my suitcase is not in my suitcase.” Great answer to the problem right? This also reminds you of the ancient story of Procrustus, who stretched out those on a rack who weren’t big enough to fit in his bed and chopped the feet off of those who were too tall so that all people would fit in his bed. So, just as everyone would be made to fit into the bed of Procrustus so on the consistent rationalist scheme, things that don’t fit on his scheme simply don’t exist. When Thales said that “all is water” and the objector retorted, “But when I stump my toe on the rock outside, it doesn’t feel like water!” Thales objected, “That’s because it’s not as it appears. You think it seems solid, well, it couldn’t be because we know that all is water.” In like manner, the 20th century materialist says that “all is matter” but the objector comes along and says, “But one’s love for his wife doesn’t seem to be a material object” to which the materialist responds, “well, it doesn’t appear to be so, but I’m going to be consistent with my rational scheme; which is to say, there must be some biological explanation for love.” So, rather than be driven to counter-example, the unbelieving philosopher cuts around the edges like the man with the suitcase at the airport and whatever doesn’t fit isn’t going to be considered real but illusory. Thus, we have the breakdown of a form of non-Christian rationalism. One way to try to deal with this by being even more consistent is to say that everything else is illusion. The problem with this is that on the rationalist approach to life, even illusions have to be accounted for. How do you account for fact that we’re supposedly having illusions of love or illusions about the solidarity of rocks? Even that has to be accounted for if you’re going to give a totally exhaustive description of reality. If we simply deny the existence of what eludes the rational scheme, then it will turn out that the scheme itself becomes trivial; the scheme becomes a knowledge of only it’s own structure and content, and its in that sense that it’s no help in understanding the world because you have the rational scheme swallowing up everything.

b. Less-consistent rationalism. This system still wants to maintain rationalism but wants to grant a little irrationalism within its system. In this thinking, the diversity of the world (the many) swallows up the rational scheme. Now you can’t even know if you’re rational scheme is right because if you have to say that your rational scheme has to allow for something that’s irrational, that doesn’t actually fit the scheme, then you have to wonder about the scheme itself. So, you can either say that your scheme is ultimately authoritative and cut away everything that doesn’t fit, which ends up making your scheme trivial. Or, you can recognize that your scheme doesn’t work and admit some irrationalism into it but when you do so you are undermining the authority of your scheme. Either way, the non-Christian loses the authority of his scheme one way or another. If he holds consistently to his rational scheme it becomes trivial and therefore loses any authority; and if he doesn’t hold to it consistently, it still will not have any authority! Thus, the unbelieving rationalist has many problems with his system. The Christian however, doesn’t find himself on the horns of a dilemma because he realizes that God is omniscient and thus has full, exhaustive knowledge of reality its that kind of God that shows us what reality is via general and special revelation and what is knowable to us.


The strong point of irrationalism is that it admits that the human mind is limited, it’s finite, and that it cannot serve as its own ultimate standard of truth. If you admit that, then your thinking is going toward the motif of irrationalism (I am not speaking here of the irrationalism of the school of philosophy known as existentialism or any other formal philosophical school). So again, this view admits that not all things in reality are rational (i.e., they don’t fit neatly into a rational scheme of understanding reality). Christians fit into this type of irrationalism because we are the first to admit that our minds are finite, undependable, and not the absolute standard of truth. Christians therefore acknowledge that the human mind must therefore look outside itself; it must look to God and His word for the ultimate standard of truth and for ultimate truth itself.

Non-Christians however, if they begin with the premise that the human mind is limited, finite, and somehow undependable and not the absolute standard; then non-Christians are driven to (1) deny that truth exists, or (2) that nothing can be known with certainty. So, either you can’t know anything, or you can’t know anything for sure. So, here’s the breakdown of non-Christian irrationalism.

The non-Christian irrational approach breaks down because it’s inconsistent with the non-Christian rationalist approach. The non-Christian rationalist approach says that we have to give some kind of description to the world because that’s what’s philosophy does; but then he turns around and essentially says, “You really can’t know anything”. This is like trying to mix oil and water because on the one hand you have to be able to describe the world and know something to give a description whereas on the other hand nobody can really know anything for sure. And so, you have an internal contradiction in the non-Christian irrational approach. Moreover, the irrationalist may say, “I know, that I don’t know anything with certainty”, which is an awkward position to be in because if you can’t know anything with certainty then how do you know that you know that proposition with certainty?

The Attempted Remedies for the Breakdown of Unbelieving Irrationalism

a. Consistent Irrationalism. We can be more consistently irrationalistic. This is paradoxical because we are asking for more consistent inconsistency. So, we can more consistently pursue this irrational motif by denying that we can even know the truth of irrationalism. A person can say, “Nobody knows for sure, but I’m not even sure of that” which is to say, you deny that you can even know the truth of irrationalism with certainty. But if that’s what the irrationalist is reduced to, then you must renounce any attempt to convince others that you’re right. You don’t have much of an argument left if you’ve been reduced to that. Moreover, although you can say this, the question is this: Can you really live as if nobody knows anything for sure and I don’t even know that? Of course not, and this is why short of going to the mental hospital, people cannot live consistently as non-Christian irrationalists.

b. Denouncing reason altogether. Rather than denying that you know the truth of irrationalism, you simply denounce reason altogether. Just simply choose insanity. The problem with that is that even in the condition of insanity the Scripture teaches that God can still get at you even though you’ve denied reason and are running from God by opting to be insane.

c. Less consistent-irrationalism. This is done by allowing some rationalism to enter your scheme, the problem is that you still run into the aforementioned problems mentioned in (a.).

Thus, you begin to get a basic sense for the dialectical tension in the thought schemes of unbelievers. The more the rationalist tries to live out the rationalist approach to life by developing a rational scheme that accounts for everything he is driven more and more towards irrationalism, which is to admit that his mind is finite, cannot account for all the details of reality, is ignorant of everything, and is not the absolute standard of truth. But to the degree that he says that, and is consistent with his irrationalism, he’s driven right back in the opposite direction toward rationalism. He is driven toward rationalism, because if he isn’t, then he’s going to have to admit that he doesn’t or can’t know anything but then he’s going to have to say that he knows that there isn’t anything. But then if you ask, “How do you know that you don’t know?” then he’s going to have to give an account of it or become insane. So he says, “But I do have a rational scheme”, and then we look at the rational scheme and he says that it can account for everything and on and on it goes. So it goes back and forth because we have the constant problem of having to deal with absolutes on the one hand and on the other hand deal with his own finitude. How can the finite mind come up with an absolute truth? And so, all non-Christian systems of thought are in one way or another a combination of rational and irrational ideas that are always in tension and on the move within this rational/irrational dialectic.