Restoring faith in reason amid skepticism, doubt, and fake news – Catholic World Report

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Something beyond reason, beyond the horizontal plane of human thought, has to break through in order to restore confidence that there is truth, and that reason can find it.

Restoring faith in reason amid skepticism, doubt, and fake news – Catholic World Report
(Image: Tim Marshall/

Catholics are rightly fond of quoting Pope John Paul II’s opening line in his encyclical Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” This sentence sets the tone for the subsequent tour de force in which the saintly pope makes a “strong and insistent appeal” that “faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy” (48).

The encyclical addresses multiple audiences, including professional philosophers who “have developed a deep-seated distrust of reason” (55) because they have deemed universal truth, the end that reason exists to seek, as non-existent or unattainable. In this view, reason has no purpose; it is a compass without a magnetic north to orient it.

In other words, philosophers have lost faith in reason. The complementary unity of faith and reason that John Paul championed fell apart first with the undermining of faith in God, and then, as a consequence, with projecting this faith onto Man as the meaning of the universe.

Philosophers’ lack of faith in reason has trickled down to the general populace. Confidence in reason has been so shaken that today a few people look in the mirror and believe they are not what they see.

How did we get here? St. Thomas Aquinas and his scholastic counterparts found reason the worthy handmaid of theology in a synthesis of faith and reason. Through reason, we can know the truth of things as we contemplate them; in St. Thomas’ words in the Summa Theologiae, “truth is the equation of thought and thing.” Through faith, we know where all things are directed—to Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the light.

Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, by contrast, were so confident in reason’s power that they jettisoned faith as a legitimate source of human knowledge. Only reason, they argued, provides an unbiased, unshakeable foundation for civil society. Anything else—faith, authority, religion, custom—impeded the work of pure reason.

Ironically, the dean of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), inadvertently prepared the destruction of the principle of sola ratio, or reason alone: Kant insisted that we cannot know the truth of things. We can know external facts such as height and weight, but we cannot equate our thoughts to things in themselves. Nor can we know God, who resides beyond the sphere of reason.

It took the unspeakable cataclysm of the First World War to expose how Kant’s neutering of reason’s power rendered sola ratio a futile endeavor. If reason cannot really know things, there can be no truth, no universal standards, no hope beyond what we can see. As the Enlightenment’s mission failed, the collapsing movement sired two offspring: Modernism, which emphasized individual expression over reason, and Postmodernism, which deemed all knowledge relative to the eye of the beholder or the culture of the inhabitant. The German historian Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) expressed this latter situation bluntly in his Decline of the West: “There are no eternal truths. Every philosophy is the expression of its own and only its own time.”

This grave skepticism toward truth remains today when it comes to questions of first principles, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. It has also defiled our ability to consider even basic data—we now have “fake news” and “alternative facts.” More subtly, it hinders us from forming the most basic statements about reality: consider how often we soften truth claims with “just,” “sort of,” or, perhaps the most confused of all, “kind of, but not really.” Without truth, we live in a “non-binary” world where nothing is true or false; everything is grey.

But it is the transgender phenomenon, above all, that flips the concept of truth on its head: rather than equate the thought to the thing, it subjects the thing to the thought, to the point of mutilation or creative surgery to conform reality to a thought disembodied from reality.

How do we get out of this mess? Skepticism, which is anti-reason, cannot be easily defeated by reason and rational argumentation. Something beyond reason, beyond the horizontal plane of human thought, has to break through in order to restore confidence that there is truth, and that reason can find it.

St. John Paul proposes the answer: “It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true” (56). The pope means supernatural faith, which enlarges and enlivens reason by providing it a transcendental goal toward which it can stretch with all its powers.

But for the skeptics of reason, religious faith is even further away. We must begin by convincing skeptics to accept faith in the generic sense of trust. Despite René Descartes’ methodical doubt of his senses, which was the precursor of Kant and of today’s predicament, our most basic sense experiences—beginning with stubbing one’s toe—lead directly to an exercise of reason, one we know we can trust through the pain we feel. Though the particular pain is felt only by the wounded individual, pain is a universal human phenomenon, as is hunger, tiredness, and a host of other experiences. Just like that, we have found a universal, transcendental truth that is not, in the words of philosopher Eva Brann, in Feeling Our Feelings, “culturally jigged.”

Reflection on the human condition is a path back to restoring faith in reason. It may not be an obvious place to start with the enlightened members of our society denying the duality of human sexuality. Yet human experience, especially that of pain, is the surest way to equate thought with thing, that is, to know the truth.

And if we can become confident that we can know the truth with this one experience, perhaps we can let the truth set us free to trust reason again.

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