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Think It Through

In an encyclical letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the relationship between faith and reason titled Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  “Men and women,” he said, “have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth.” 

John Paul continues with this observation in paragraph 25 of the document, “All human beings desire to know, and truth is the proper object of this desire. Everyday life shows how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves, beyond mere opinions, how things really are… People cannot be genuinely indifferent to the question of whether what they know is true or not. If they discover that it is false, they reject it; but if they can establish its truth, they feel themselves rewarded. It is this that Saint Augustine teaches when he writes: “I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived”. It is rightly claimed that persons have reached adulthood when they can distinguish independently between truth and falsehood, making up their own minds about the objective reality of things. This is what has driven so many enquiries, especially in the scientific field, which in recent centuries have produced important results, leading to genuine progress for all humanity.” 

St. Augustine is right; no one wants to be deceived.  It seems John Paul also makes a good point when he defines adulthood as the ability to “distinguish independently between truth and falsehood, making up their own minds about the objective reality of things.”  Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) published a large body of work on noumena and phenomena that we have touched on in previous articles.  He taught that we cannot know the noumena, (things as they really are), but can only know the phenomena (things as they appear to be). We have noted however in several previous articles that intelligence is not confined to observable data alone.  Science and philosophy, reason and faith, abstraction and reflection, observation and experimentation all play a part along with a variety of other methods of knowing. 

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) made a great work of trying to find some foundational premise that was absolutely certain and could not be doubted.  Well ahead of the Enlightenment period, but of a similar mind, Descartes began by doubting everything.  He did not even rely on his own sensory observations because he realized even these could deceive him.  Ultimately, he concluded that nothing was certain except that he was thinking.  Based on this, he concluded that he himself existed, but he could be sure of nothing more.  “I think, therefore I am.”  The question of the existence of anything other than self has boggled the mind of many a student. 

Having concluded that all a person can know is what is in one’s own mind, the follower of Descartes gets confined to his or her own mind.  These cannot “think outside the box”, as it were.  Reality becomes relative.  Knowledge is reduced to probabilities.  Truth ceases to exist because is cannot be subjective.  Once truth is denied, our whole system of law and justice breaks down.  Without recourse to justice, the world would disintegrate into chaos.  It does not end well. 

Author Ralph McInerny offers an explanation of the root fallacy of Descartes’ thinking.  “Let us consider a standard case of being deceived by our senses. The stick looks crooked in water. This can cause de­ception only if it is contrasted with a case where deception is excluded. Obviously it is presumed to be a straight stick which appears to be bent when seen in water. It is when the stick is removed that we say, Good grief, it's straight. Because we say that, we take back what we said earlier about the crookedness of it when submerged. Even to describe this simple case of deception, we have to take one of those judgments as certain. Unless we do, there is no contrast, no deception. .  .  [Descartes] must trust his senses in order to doubt them, so he cannot universally doubt them. That is why this small point is indeed a big deal.”

So let’s not be deceived.  Let’s think outside the box.  Let’s use science and philosophy, faith and reason, abstraction and reflection, observation and experimentation to extend the reach of knowledge and truth. 

Follow the link to read Fides et Ratio in its entirety.