The Religious Sense

Friday, April 21, 2006

Chapter 2: The Second Premise: Reasonableness

How do we know if something is reasonable? Say I go to a party wearing a flak jacket and a helmet. In response to my strange attire my friends ask why I am dressed like a soldier. If I reply that it is for my safety, in case anyone at the party should shoot me with a rifle, I would be called either a silly jester or a lunatic. My attitude would be unreasonable.

The second premise for understanding the religious sense is reasonableness, "the capacity to become aware of reality" (12). Reality, as described in Chapter 1, must be imposed by the object onto man. Reason, continuing with reality hand and hand, is man's unique capability to take in reality and find certainty.

We must beware, however, because like many other seemingly straightforward words, the definition of reason has been constricted and devalued from its real meaning. Reason is often thought to be synonymous with demonstrable. If I can show through an experiment, through a demonstration, that adding nutrients to soil makes plants grow taller, then I am said to have reasoned it. Surely, this process of scientific inquiry and demonstration is part of reason, but it does not encompass all of it.

Much of reality cannot be known by demonstration. For example, I can prove that the desk I work at is made of wood, but I could never go back and show all of the steps that brought this table into existence. Even if I could demonstrate the very beginnings of my desk, from its construction by the carpenter back to the development of the tree it came from, I would eventually come to a point where I could not demonstrate how matter came into existence at some point.

Another way reason is constrained is to equate it with logic. Logic is concerned with consistency; I can develop a logical outcome given any set of assumptions. If I assume that the strongest houses are built with straw, then it is logical to conclude that houses should be built from straw as much as possible. When the wind blows and knocks the roof onto my head it becomes apparent that when "the premises are wrong, perfect logic will produce an erroneous result" (14).

Reason contains different methods for knowing different types of things. It is flexible and agile. For things that can be demonstrated, scientific and empirical analysis are great tools of reason. To reach a rational conclusion for a set of givens, logic is another fine tool of reason. But there is another facet of reason, one which tells us about human behavior, about moral certainties. It is hardwired into our nature as humans; it lets us be certain about the most important things around us - our relationships with others. Does he care about me? Can I trust him? Am I intruding?

To arrive at certainties about relationships we have been given the fastest of methods almost more like an intuition than a process... man needs it to live in the instant. (19)

I cannot demonstrate that my mother loves me, but I can intuit it through many signs that converge on only one reasonable answer: my mother indeed loves me.

Giussani makes two interesting points about this existential human certainty. First, the more I share someone's life, the more I am certain about him and his identity. Secondly, the more "powerfully one is human" (20), the more he can be certain about another person based only a few signs or indications. People who are alive and aware in their humanity can trust others because they understand "the reasons for believing in another" (20).

One who has a "knack" for a certain subject needs only a clue to intuit the solution to the problem, while everyone else has to work labouriously through every step. The knack for being human entails possessing much humanity. (20)

We speak about the same thing in my therapy classes here at University; therapists who have a great awareness of every part of their identity and who have plumbed the depths of their unconscious can more easily detect subtle signals in other people. There is the nervous smile that betrays a hidden fear, there is the word choice that shows a denial: "I guess I'm worried a little bit," there is the darting of the eye which manifests a deep emotion. We all have the ability to sense these things through our elementary experience, but it takes refinement and practice to have a deeper perception.

One application of reason's method of moral certainty is faith. Faith is "an adhesion to what another affirms" (21):

If I have reached the certainty that another person knows what he says and does not mislead me, then to repeat with certainty what he has affirmed with certainty, is to be consistent with myself. (21)

The Christian has faith, but so does the atheist scientist. The experiment he performs is grounded in past research and in principles that are assumed to be true. To go back and sequentially verify everything that his predecessors have concluded would be tedious and unreasonable. If we acted like this in our use of reason we would be forever stuck in the stone age.

To return to the fundamental discussion of the premises regarding how we know the religious sense, or any object, let us remember that the object of study dictates the method for how it is known (I need to look at something on my desk to know it, I cannot know it by "thinking" up its existence). Intertwined with this notion is the fact that reasonableness is essential for applying our method of gaining knowledge, about either scientific fact or human moral certainties; reasonableness is our ability to become aware of reality.


  • I confess I have a difficulty with this criteria, so I've started making lists of reasonable things:

    it's reasonable to sleep at night and be awake during the day; to eat only at mealtimes; to use things according to their purpose.

    I also try to teach my kids to use things according to their purpose.

    By Blogger Deep Furrows, at 12:38 PM  

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