RELIGION, RATIONALISM AND THE SCIENTIFIC OUTLOOK

Written by Vladimir Moss

RELIGION, RATIONALISMAND THE SCIENTIFIC OUTLOOK

 
The scientific outlook, or empiricism, is the methodology which declares that the only reliable way of attaining non-mathematical truth is by inferences from the evidence of the senses (mathematical truth describes the structure of inferential and deductive reasoning). This principle, first proclaimed by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning (1605), rejects the witness of non-empirical sources – for example, God or intuition or so-called “innate ideas”. The reverse process – that is, inferences about God and other non-sensory realities from the evidence of the senses – was admitted by the early empiricists, but rejected by most later ones.[1]

By contrast, the religious outlook, while not rejecting the evidence of the senses, admits other sources of truth – especially Divine Revelation.

In accordance with this difference in the kinds of evidence they admit, there is a difference in the nature and structure of the authority that science (in its more “advanced”, materialist form) and religion rely on. Science relies on the authority of millions of observations that have been incorporated into a vast structure of hypotheses that are taken as “proved” – although in fact no hypothesis can ever be proved beyond every possible doubt, and science advances by the systematic application of doubt to what are thought to be weak points in the hypothetical structure. For, as John Donne said, “new philosophy [science] calls all in doubt”.[2]

Religion and science (in their most characteristic forms) are also motivated by different spirits. The spirit of true religion is the spirit of the humble receiving of the truth by revelation from God; it does not preclude active seeking for truth, but recognizes that it will never succeed in this search if God on His part does not reveal it. For Wisdom “goes about seeking those worthy of her, and She graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” (Wisdom 6.16). In science, on the other hand, there is a Faustian spirit, a striving for power over nature, rather than simply knowledge of it, which is incompatible with the true religious spirit (as opposed to the spirit of magic). Thus Bacon thought that the “pure knowledge of nature and universality” would lead to power (“knowledge is power”, in his famous phrase) and to “the effecting of all things possible”.[3]

Bacon compared science to the knowledge of essences that Adam had before the fall – “the pure knowledge of nature and universality, a knowledge by the light whereof man did give names unto other creatures in Paradise, as they were brought to him”.[4] “This light should in its very rising touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so, spreading further and further should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world.”[5] “God forbid,” he wrote, “that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world: rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creatures.”[6]

As J.M. Roberts writes, Bacon “seems to have been a visionary, glimpsing not so much what science would discover as what it would become: a faith. ‘The true and lawful end of the sciences’, he wrote, ‘is that human life be enriched by new discoveries and powers.’ Through them could be achieved ‘a restitution and reinvigorating (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power… which he had in his first creation.’ This was ambitious indeed – nothing less than the redemption of mankind through organised research; he was here, too, a prophetic figure, precursor of later scientific societies and institutes.”[7]

This striving for power over nature indicates a kinship in aims, if not in methods, between science and magic. For, as Fr. Seraphim Rose points out: “Modern science was born out of the experiments of the Platonic alchemists, the astrologers and magicians. The underlying spirit of the new scientific world-view was the spirit of Faustianism, the spirit of magic, which is retained as a definite undertone of contemporary science. The discovery, in fact, of atomic energy would have delighted the Renaissance alchemists very much: they were looking for just such power. The aim of modern science is power over nature. Descartes, who formulated the mechanistic scientific world-view, said that man was to become the master and possessor of nature. It should be noted that this is a religious faith that takes the place of Christian faith.”[8]

True Religion, on the other hand, does not seek power over nature, but obedience to God. It relies on no other ultimate authority than the Word of God Himself as communicated either directly to an individual or, collectively, to the Church, “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3.15), which preserves and nurtures the individual revelations. Doubt has no place within the true religion, but only when one is still in the process of seeking it, when different religious systems are still being approached as possible truths – in other words, as hypotheses. Having cleaved to the true religion by faith, however, - and faith is defined as the opposite of doubt, as “the certainty of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1), - the religious believer advances by the deepening of faith, by ever deeper immersion in the undoubted truths of religion.

When the differences between science and religion are viewed from this perspective, the perspective of Orthodox Christianity, there are seen to be important differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. For from this perspective, Catholicism is more “religious”, and Protestantism – more “scientific”. For Protestantism arose as a protest against, and a doubting of, the revealed truths of the Catholic religion. From an Orthodox point of view, some of these doubts were justified, and some not. But that is not the essential point here. The essential point is that Protestantism arose out of doubt rather than faith, and, like Descartes in philosophy, placed doubt at the head of the corner of its new theology.

How? First, by doubting that there is any organization that is “the pillar and ground of the truth”, any collective vessel of God’s revelation. So where is God’s revelation to be sought? In the visions and words of individual men, the Prophets and Apostles, the Saints and Fathers? Yes; but – and here the corrosive power of doubt enters again – not all that the Church has passed down about these men can be trusted, according to the Protestants. In particular, the inspiration of the post-apostolic Saints and Fathers is to be doubted, as is much of what we are told of the lives even of the Prophets and Apostles. In fact, we can only rely on the Bible – Sola Scriptura. After all, the Bible is objective; everybody can have access to it, can touch it and read it; can analyse and interpret it. In other words, it corresponds to what we would call scientific evidence.

But can we be sure even of the Bible? After all, the text comes to us from the Church, that untrustworthy organization. Can we be sure that Moses wrote Genesis, or Isaiah Isaiah, or Paul Hebrews? To answer these questions we have to analyze the text, subject it to scientific verification. Then we will find the real text, the text we can really trust, because it is the text of the real author. But suppose we cannot find this real text? Or the real author? And suppose we come to the conclusion that the “real” text of a certain book was written by tens of authors, none of whom was the “inspired” author, spread over hundreds of years? Can we then be sure that it is the Word of God? But if we cannot be sure that the Bible is not the Word of God, how can we be sure of anything? Thus Protestantism, which begins with the doubting of authority, ends with the loss of truth itself. Or rather, it ends with a scientific truth which dispenses with religious truth, or accepts religious truth only to the extent that it is “confirmed by the findings of science”. It ends by being a branch of the scientific endeavour of systematic doubt, and not a species of religious faith at all.

If we go back to the original error of Protestantism, we will find that it consists in what we may call a false reductionist attitude to Divine Revelation. Revelation is given to us in the Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth”, and consists of two indivisible and mutually interdependent parts – Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Scripture and Tradition support each other, and are in turn supported by the Church, which herself rests on the rock of truth witnessed to in Scripture and Tradition. Any attempt to reduce Divine Revelation to one of these elements, any attempt to make one element essential and the other inessential, is doomed to end with the loss of Revelation altogether. The Truth is one irreducible whole.

Where does this false reductionist attitude come from? Vladimir Trostnikov has shown that it goes back as far as the 11th century, to the nominalist thinker Roscelin. Nominalism, which had triumphed over its philosophical rival, universalism, by the 14th century, “gives priority to the particular over the general, the lower over the higher”. As such, it is in essence the forerunner of reductionism, which insists that the simple precedes the complex, and that the complex can always be reduced, both logically and ontologically, to the simple.[9] Thus the Catholic heresy of nominalism gave birth to the Protestant heresy of reductionism, which reduced the complex spiritual process of the absorption of God’s revelation in the Church to the unaided rationalist dissection of a single element in that life, the book of the Holy Scriptures. As Trostnikov explains, the assumption – against all the evidence – that reductionism is true has led to a series of concepts which taken together represent a summation of the contemporary world-view: that matter consists of elementary particles which themselves do not consist of anything; that the planets and all the larger objects of the universe arose through the gradual condensation of simple gas; that all living creatures arose out of inorganic matter; that the later forms of social organization and politics arose out of earlier, simpler and less efficient ones; that human consciousness arose from lower phenomena, drives and archetypes; that the government of a State consists of its citizens, who must therefore be considered to be the supreme power.

We see, then, why science, like capitalism, flourished especially in the Protestant countries. Protestantism, according to Landes, “gave a big boost to literacy, spawned dissent and heresies, and promoted the skepticism and refusal of authority that is at the heart of the scientific endeavor. The Catholic countries, instead of meeting the challenge, responded by closure and censure.”[10]

However, it is misleading to make too great a contrast between science-loving, democratic religion and science-hating authoritarian religion. Much confusion has been generated in this respect by Galileo’s trial, in which, so it is said, a Pope who falsely believed that the earth was flat and that the sun circled the earth persecuted Galileo, who believed on empirical evidence that the earth circled the sun. But the truth, as Jay Wesley Richards explains, is somewhat different. “First of all, some claim Copernicus was persecuted, but history shows he wasn’t; in fact, he died of natural causes the same year his ideas were published. As for Galileo, his case can’t be reduced to a simple conflict between scientific truth and religious superstition. He insisted the church immediately endorse his views rather than allow them to gradually gain acceptance, he mocked the Pope, and so forth. Yes, he was censured, but the church kept giving him his pension for the rest of his life.”[11]

“Bruno’s case was very sad,” Richards continued. “He was executed in Rome in 1600. Certainly this is a stain on [Roman Catholic] church history. But again, this was a complicated case. His Copernican views were incidental. He defended pantheism and was actually executed for his heretical views on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other doctrines that had nothing to do with Copernicanism.”[12]

In fact, neither Holy Scripture[13] nor the Holy Fathers[14] ever denied the idea of a spherical earth. “The truth is,” writes David Lindberg, “that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle who doubts that the Earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the Earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.”[15]

The truth is that both science and religion depend on authority – that is, the reports of reliable men about what they have seen, touched and heard (the Resurrection of Christ was verified by Thomas’ touch). And just as false reports can lead to false religion and superstition, so can they produce false science. Moreover, the reports on which both religion and science are based may have an empirical character: the emptiness of a tomb or the touch of a pierced side, on the one hand; the falling of an apple or the bending of a ray of light, on the other. Both seek truth, both rely on authority. The difference lies, first, in the kinds of truth they seek, and secondly, in the nature and structure of the authority they rely on.

There is no contradiction between true science and true religion. This was understood even by the prophet of the scientific revolution, Francis Bacon. Thus he wrote: “Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy [science] may incline the mind to atheism, yet a farther knowledge brings it back to religion; for on the threshold of philosophy, where second causes appear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest cause may ensue; but when the mind goes deeper, and sees the dependence of causes and the works of Providence, it will easily perceive, according to the mythology of the poets, that the upper link of Nature’s chain is fastened to Jupiter’s throne…”[16]

In fact, true science is the product of Christianity. As C.S. Lewis writes: “Professor Whitehead points out that centuries of belief in a God who combined ‘the personal energy of Jehovah’ with ‘the rationality of a Greek philosopher’ first produced that firm expectation of systematic order which rendered possible the birth of modern science. Man became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator…”[17]

This is one of the reasons, argues John Darwin, why such advanced pagan societies as Ming China, which had a tradition of empirical research and technical inventiveness, nevertheless failed before the onslaught of Christian Europe. In China, he writes, “for reasons that historians have debated at length, the tradition of scientific experimentation had faded away, perhaps as early as 1400. Part of the reason may lie in the striking absence in Confucian thought of the ‘celestial lawgiver’ – a god who had prescribed the laws of nature. In Europe, belief in such a providential figure, and the quest for ‘his’ purposes and grand design, had been a (perhaps the) central motive for scientific inquiry. But the fundamental assumption that the universe was governed by a coherent system of physical laws that could be verified empirically was lacking in China…”[18]

The scientific outlook, properly understood, must not be confused with rationalism. The scientific outlook is a way of approaching the study of non-mathematical, sensory reality; as we have seen, it is by no means incompatible with the religious outlook, which allows other ways of approaching that reality. However, in time empiricism became not only a methodological or epistemological, but also an ontological principle, rationalism: the principle, namely, that reality not only is best discovered by empirical means, but also is, solely and exclusively, that which can be investigated by empirical means. Non-empirical reality that is inaccessible to reason and sensory experience simply does not exist. Thus according to rationalism, man’s reasoning mind is not made in the image of the Mind of God, but the whole of reality, including God, is made in the image of man’s reason.

Rationalism, being a child of Protestantism, in turn gave birth to the great movement in European thought known as the Enlightenment, which has provided, together with the irrationalist movement of the Counter-Enlightenment, all the major elements of the modern atheist world-view.

J.H. Randall, Jr. describes the Enlightenment programme as follows: “It was from the spread of reason and science among individual men that the great apostles of the Enlightenment hoped to bring about the ideal society of mankind. And from there they hoped for a veritable millenium. From the beginning of the [eighteenth] century onward there arose one increasing paean of progress through education. Locke, Helvétius, and Bentham laid the foundations for this generous dream; all men, of whatever school, save only those who clung… to the Christian doctrine of original sin, believed with all their ardent natures in the perfectibility of the human race. At last mankind held in its own hands the key to its destiny: it could make the future almost what it would. By destroying the foolish errors of the past and returning to a rational cultivation of nature, there were scarcely any limits to human welfare that might not be transcended.

“It is difficult for us to realize how recent a thing is this faith in human progress. The ancient world seems to have had no conception of it; Greeks and Romans looked back rather to the Golden Age from which man had degenerated. The Middle Ages, of course, could brook no such thought. The Renaissance, which actually accomplished so much, could not imagine that man could ever rise again to the level of glorious antiquity; its thoughts were all on the past. Only with the growth of science in the seventeenth century could men dare to cherish such an overweening ambition… All the scientists, from Descartes down, despised the ancients and carried the day for the faith in progress.”[19]

There were obvious deficiencies in this optimistic view of the world. In the first place, it failed to explain the existence of evil - prejudice and bad education could hardly account for all evil. If this was the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz claimed, why did the terrible earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 take place? Some fault in the harmony of God’s laws? Or a deliberate irruption of God’s wrath into a sinful world? In either case one had to admit, with Voltaire himself, that “the world does, after all, contain evil”, and that either nature was not harmonious and perfect, or that God did intervene in its workings – postulates that were both contrary to the Enlightenment creed.

 

Secondly, it failed to satisfy the cravings of the religious man; for man, again contrary to the Enlightenment creed, is not only a rational animal, but also a religious animal. For, as Roger Scruton writes, “Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, Hume, Smith, and the Scottish Enlightenment, the Kant of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone – such thinkers and movements had collectively remade the God of Christianity as a creature of the head rather than the heart. God retreated from the world to the far reaches of infinite space, where only vertiginous thoughts could capture him. Daily life is of little concern to such a God, who demands no form of obedience except to the universal precepts of morality. To worship him is to bow in private towards the unknowable. Worship conceived in such a way offers no threat to the Enlightenment conception of a purely legal citizenship, established by a social contract and maintained by a secular power.

 

“As God retreated from the world, people reached out for a rival source of membership, and national identity seemed to answer to the need...”[20]

 

The cult of the nation did not really get underway until the nineteenth century. But already in the first half of the eighteenth century, as we have seen, the religious cravings suppressed by Enlightenment rationalism were seeking outlets in more emotional forms of religion, the very opposite of enlightened calm. Such were Methodism in England and Pietism in Germany, Revivalism and the Great Awakening in America and “Convulsionarism” in France. In some ways, however, these very emotional, passionate forms of religion worked in the same direction as the cult of reason. They, too, tended to minimise the importance of theology and dogma, and to maximise the importance of man and human activity and human passion. Thus in American Revivalism, writes Cragg, “conversion was described in terms of how a man felt, the new life was defined in terms of how he acted. This was more than an emphasis on the moral consequences of obedience to God; it was a preoccupation with man, and it became absorbed in what he did and in the degree to which he promoted righteousness. In a curious way man’s activity was obscuring the cardinal fact of God’s rule.”[21]

 

The French revolution was to bring together the streams of Enlightenment rationalism and irrational religion in a single, torrential rebellion against God… The rationalists became adept at explaining religion in naturalistic terms. Religion was simply a “need”, no different in principle from other needs, as Freud later tried to demonstrate. Of course, no religious person – or rather, no person, religious or not, who simply wishes to examine the facts objectively - will find such explanations even remotely convincing. But it must be admitted that, unconvincing though their explanations might be, the Enlightenment philosophers managed to convince enough people to create whole generations of men possessing not even a spark of that religious “enthusiasm” which they so despised.

 

Were they happier for it? Hardly. The immediate result of the Enlightenment was the French revolution and all the revolutions that took their inspiration from it, with all their attendant bloodshed and misery, destroying both the bodies and souls of men on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Science and education have indeed spread throughout the world. But poverty has not been abolished, nor war nor disease nor crime. If it were possible to measure “happiness” scientifically, then it is highly doubtful whether the majority of men are any happier at the beginning of the twenty-first century than they were before the bright beams of the Enlightenment began to dawn on the world. Condorcet wrote: “The time will come when the sun will shine only upon a world of free men who recognise no master except their reason, when tyrants and slaves, priests, and their stupid or hypocritical tools will no longer exist except in history or on the stage”. That time has not yet come. Most men do indeed “recognise no master except their reason”. But there are still tyrants and slaves (and priests) – and no discernible decrease in human misery. It is especially the savagery of the twentieth century that has convinced us of this. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write: “In the most general sense of progressive thought the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”[22] And as Nadezhda Mandelstam writes: “We have seen the triumph of evil after the values of humanism have been vilified and trampled on. The reason these values succumbed was probably that they were based on nothing except boundless confidence in the human intellect.”[23]

And the reason why “boundless confidence in the human intellect” has brought us to this pass is that, as L.A. Tikhomirov writes, the cult of reason “very much wants to establish worldly prosperity, it very much wants to make people happy, but it will achieve nothing, because it approaches the problem from the wrong end.

“It may appear strange that people who think only of earthly prosperity, and who put their whole soul into realising it, attain only disillusionment and exhaustion. People who, on the contrary, are immersed in cares about the invisible life beyond the grave, attain here, on earth, results constituting the highest examples yet known on earth of personal and social development! However, this strangeness is self-explanatory. The point is that man is by his nature precisely the kind of being that Christianity understands him to be by faith; the aims of life that are indicated to him by faith are precisely the kind of aims that he has in reality, and not the kind that reason divorced from faith delineates. Therefore in educating a man in accordance with the Orthodox world-view, we conduct his education correctly, and thence we get results that are good not only in that which is most important [salvation] (which unbelievers do not worry about), but also in that which is secondary (which is the only thing they set their heart on). In losing faith, and therefore ceasing to worry about the most important thing, people lost the possibility of developing man in accordance with his true nature, and so they get distorted results in earthly life, too.”[24]

The problem is that “reason is a subordinate capacity. If it is not directed by the lofty single organ of religion perception – the feeling of faith, it will be directed by the lower strivings, which are infinitely numerous. Hence all the heresies, all the ‘fractions’, all contemporary reasonings, too. This is a path of seeking which we can beforehand predict will lead to endless disintegration, splintering and barrenness in all its manifestations, and so in the end it will only exhaust people and lead them to a false conviction that in essence religious truth does not exist.”[25]

And yet such a conclusion will be reached only if the concept of reason is limited in a completely arbitrary manner. For, as Copleston points out, the idea of reason of the Enlightenment philosophers “was limited and narrow. To exercise reason meant for them pretty well to think as les philosophes thought; whereas to anyone who believes that God has revealed Himself it is rational to accept this revelation and irrational to reject it.”[26]

But the Enlightenment philosophers not only limited and narrowed the concept of reason: they deified it, and in deifying it they reduced it to absurdity. This has been well demonstrated by C.S. Lewis. Although Lewis’ argument is directed first of all against two later products of the Enlightenment – Marxism and Freudianism – it applies in a general way to all attempts to enthrone reason above everything else: “It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the colour of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and is scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

“We have recently ‘discovered that we exist’ in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days, it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are ‘ideologically tainted’ at the source.

“Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of things ought to be asked. The first is, Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

“If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and the Marxist are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

“The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, then we must ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

“In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ This is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

“I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that ‘the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world’. Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that ‘the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting’. For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

“I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

“Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend on reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

“The alternative is either self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a ‘taint’ in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

“So we see there is a justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does ‘I know’ involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

“But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’. Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes in worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on the certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the result of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes…

“It is admitted that the mind is affected by physical events; a wireless set is influenced by atmospherics, but it does not originate its deliverances – we’d take notice of it if we thought it did. Natural events we can relate to another until we can trace them finally to the space-time continuum. But thought has no father but thought. It is conditioned, yes, not caused…

“The same argument applies to our values, which are affected by social factors, but if they are caused by them we cannot know that they are right. One can reject morality as an illusion, but the man who does so often tacitly excepts his own ethical motive: for instance the duty of freeing morality from superstition and of spreading enlightenment.

“Neither Will nor Reason is the product of Nature. Therefore either I am self-existent (a belief which no one can accept) or I am a colony of some Thought or Will that are self-existent. Such reason and goodness as we can attain must be derived from a self-existent Reason and Goodness outside ourselves, in fact, a Supernatural…”[27]

Thus Lewis does not decry Reason, but vindicates it; but only by showing that Reason is independent of Nature. However, in doing this he shatters the foundations of Enlightenment thinking, which is based on the axioms: (a) Truth and Goodness are attainable by Reason alone, without the need for Divine Revelation; and (b) Reason, as a function of Man, and not of God, is entirely a product of Nature. Lewis demonstrates that even if (a) were true, which it is not, it could only be true if (b) were false. But the Enlightenment insisted that both were true, and therefore condemned the whole movement of western thought founded upon it to sterility and degeneration into nihilism.

The whole tragedy of western man since the Enlightenment – which, through European colonization and globalization has become the tragedy of the whole world - is that in exalting himself and the single, fallen faculty of his mind to a position of infallibility, he has denied himself his true dignity and rationality, making him a function of irrational nature – in effect, sub-human. But man is great, not because he can reason in the sense of ratiocinate, that is, make deductions and inferences from axioms and empirical evidence, but because he can reason in accordance with the Reason that created and sustains all things, that is, in accordance with the Word and Wisdom of God in Whose image he was made. It is when man tries to make his reason autonomous, independent of its origin and inspiration in the Divine Reason, that he falls to the level of irrationality. For Man, being in honour, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless cattle, and is become like unto them (Psalm 48.12).

Vladimir Moss.

July 11/24, 2009.



[1] The transition from the early to the later empiricism is marked by David Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1747), in which he writes: “While we argue from the course of nature and infer a particular intelligent cause which first bestowed and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a principle which is still uncertain and useless. It is uncertain because the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience. It is useless because… we can never on that basis establish any principles of conduct and behaviour.”

[2] Donne, The First Anniversarie (1611), quoted in Roy Porter, The Enlightenment, London: Macmillan, 1990, p. 130.

[3] Bacon, New Atlantis; see Porter, op. cit., p. 17.

[4] Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Book I, 1, 3.

[5] Bacon, The Interpretation of Nature, proemium.

[6] Bacon, The Great Instauration, “The Plan of the Work”.

[7] Roberts, The Triumph of the West, London: Phoenix Press, 1985, p. 160.

[8] Rose, in Monk Damascene Christensen, Not of this World: The Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose, Forestville, CA: Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, 1993, p. 594. Again, C.S. Lewis writes: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.” (quoted in Fr. Seraphim Johnson, “A Sane Family in an Insane World”, www.trueorthodoxy.net/a_sane_family_in_an_insane_world.htm.)

[9] Trostnikov, “The Role and Place of the Baptism of Rus in the European Spiritual Process of the Second Millenium of Christian History”, Orthodox Life, volume 39, № 3, May-June, 1989, p. 29.

[10] Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, London: Abacus, 1999, p. 179.

[11] Richards, in Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, pp. 162-163. “The historian William R. Shea said, ‘Galileo’s condemnation was the result of the complex interplay of untoward political circumstances, political ambitions, and wounded prides.’ Historical researcher Philip J. Sampson noted that Galileo himself was convinced that the ‘major cause’ of his troubles was that he had made ‘fun of his Holiness’ – that is, Pope Urban VIII – in a 1632 treatise. As for his punishment, Alfred North Whitehead put it this way: ‘Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.’” (Strobel, op. cit., p. 163)

[12] Richards, in Strobel, op. cit., p. 163.

[13] Cf. Isaiah 40.22: “It is He Who sits above the circle of the earth”. So the Pope need not have worried.

[14] St. Gregory of Nyssa calls the earth “spherical” in his On the Soul and the Resurrection, chapter 4.

[15] Lindberg, in Strobel, op. cit., p. 164. On this controversy, see Peter De Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London: Bantam Press, 1988, pp. 221-231.

[16] Bacon, De Augmentiis, quoted in B. Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, London: Chatto & Windus, 1946, p. 30.

[17] Lewis, Miracles, London: Fount, 1998, p. 110.

[18] Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, London: Penguin Books, 2008, pp. 198-200.

[19] Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind, pp. 381-382; quoted in Fr. Seraphim Rose, Genesis, Creation and Early Man, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2000, p. 318.

[20] Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, London: Continuum, 2002, p. 43.

[21] Cragg, op. cit., p. 181.

[22] Adorno and Hokheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1972, p. 3; in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, p. 487.

[23] Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope.

[24] Tikhomirov, “Dukhovenstvo i obshchestvo v sovremennom religioznom dvizhenii” (“The Clergy and Society in the Contemporary Religious Movement”), in Khristianstvo i Politika (Christianity and Politics), Moscow, 1999, pp. 30-31 (in Russian).

[25] Tikhomirov, “Dukhovenstvo i obshchestvo…”, op. cit., p. 32.

[26] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 6, part II, New York: Image Books, 1964, p. 209.

[27] Lewis, “’Bulverism’ or the Foundation of 20th Century Thought”, in God in the Dock, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 271-275, 276. Alvin Plantinga has recently produced a similar argument to refute Darwinism. See Jim Holt, “Divine Evolution”, Prospect, May, 2002, p. 13.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company