Reason Eats Itself


Have you considered the possibility that ‘Reason’ might just be taking us all for fools?  That it gives us just enough truth for us to trust it on a day to day basis but on the really big questions it’s just playing a game of bait and switch?  In what follows I will argue that Reason might not be the pan-reliable guide to truth that we might first assume and I will take, as an example of where reason appears to dash itself upon the rocks – the question of the origin of all things.

But first, I’m a big fan of the old crotchety German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, not because I think he was right on many issues, but more because of the grand and wonderful ideas he explored.  I do think he was right, however, on his central epistemological conclusion … namely, that ‘Reason’ is rather ‘two-faced’ if I can put it that way and constrained by the way the world ‘appears to us’.  Kant maintained, in the ‘Antinomies of Reason’ section of his seminal work ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’, that reason, when properly applied to certain ‘big’ questions, appears to lead to contradictory or antithetical positions.  To take the example above, of the origin of the universe etc., where does reason lead us?  Well, it would appear that ‘Reason’ leads us down two mutually exclusive blind alleys.

On the one hand we have the cosmological argument, supported by Big Bang cosmology, which reasons from causation in the present to a First Cause somewhere in the past which itself is uncaused, and yet which is the causal explanation for all things.  Yes the cosmological argument identifies this First Cause as ‘God’ and this is just one of many errors indicative of cosmological arguments.  There is no reason why, if there is a First Cause, it should be ‘God’ and not a seemingly endless identity parade of other possible candidates.  Equally, the very concept of an uncaused cause is highly problematic as it would be the very embodiment of circular logic.  The child who asks very simply, ‘Who made God?’ is rightly and intuitively curious about the ‘Why?’ of God.  ‘Why does God exist?’ or ‘Why was there a First Cause?’ are perfectly fair and rational questions and no child or adult for that matter should be happy with the circular answer … ‘God/First Cause is an eternal being, which means he/it has no cause’.  This is not an answer to the question, ‘Why does X exist?’ but merely a definition of X; of whose existence we seek a rational explanation.  One cannot answer questions pertaining to existence with definitions…

Here, regardless of the problems with the concept of an Uncaused-First-Cause, reason leads us to something intuitive – a beginning, a start, out of which everything else can potentially be explained.  The argument from a First Cause has the science of the singularity on its side and the empirically supported facts which reinforce our belief that all things, time and matter, gravity and all the laws of physics came into being in a cosmic “NOW” 13.7 billion years ago before which there was … well, who knows right?  Potentially there was ‘nothing’ before the Big Bang.

But on the other hand, ‘Reason’ leads us away from the idea of the First Cause to the concept of infinite regression.  In fact, reason, it would seem, offers up only these two metaphysical options, and curiously, presents us with reasons which seem to justify both in our minds.  If not a First Cause(s) then reason takes us on an even weirder journey, plunging us back before the Big Bang to a consideration of what, if anything, might have come before.  Reason has always been unhappy with circular logic just as it is unhappy with the idea that something can come out of nothing.  Circular logic is an inescapable problem for the First Cause concept, whether the First Cause be ‘God’, ‘gods’, or some other weird and bizarre candidate.  But the alternative is just as problematic, the idea that there never was a First Cause because prior to the Big Bang there stretches an infinite series of beginningless causes, endless multiverses with no start to it all and potentially no end either.  This is because reason cannot tolerate what we call in Philosophy, ‘Reasoning ad infinitum’ for the same reason that it cannot tolerate circular reasoning … because neither options actually explain anything.  Both lead to logical fallacies which are, in any other philosophical context, symptoms of a bad argument or a bad idea.  How is it, therefore, that on the biggest philosophical question of all, reason, our trusted guide in all things, can lead us to two and only two conclusions neither of which we can accept by the standards set forth by reason itself?

My answer is thoroughly Kantian; but for different reasons than Kant himself would have offered.

We begin by asking from where and how did our reasoning capacities originate?  Which takes us back to a consideration of our evolutionary history.   We can even ask, ‘Why do our reasoning capacities exist?’  And, ‘Why do they have the form and structure they presently have?’  Surely the answer to these questions concerning the origin of our reasoning faculties must be the same answer as for everything else which exists … It exists because it works.

Perhaps we can say that our reasoning abilities exist because, either:

  • Our ability to reason has benefited us and has contributed to our own survival as a species.


  • Our ability to reason has neither benefited us nor contributed to our survival as a species but has had a negligible effect.

If our reasoning capacities had a deleterious effect on our survival then it seems plausible to conclude that, given other environmental factors and the element of competition between rival species for food and resources, it is unlikely that homo Sapiens would have survived as long as we have.  Therefore, I think it is beyond doubt that our reasoning abilities have served our survival as a species thus far.  But if our reasoning capacities exist in their present form only insofar as they serve our own survival, can they really be a reliable instrument for apprehending objective truth?  And could this explain why ‘Reason’, so reliable in every other regard, seems to consume itself when applied to the biggest question of all?



One thought on “Reason Eats Itself

  1. Excellent point…this is one reason I think it is important not to be to confident in logic when it is in stark contrast to an obvious truth as in the apparent logical assumption that you cannot get an ought from an is.


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