Being Reasonable

The following is taken from C.S. Lewis’ essay called “Why I am not a pacifist” written in 1940 and found now in a book called “Compelling Reason” published by Harper Collins in 1996.

“….. Reason – by which I do not mean some separate faculty but ……, the whole man judging, …… about truth and falsehood.

Now any concrete train of reasoning involves three elements:

Firstly, there is the reception of facts to reason about. These facts are received either from our own senses, or from the report of other minds; that is, either experience or authority supplies us with our material. But each man’s experience is so limited that the second source is the more usual; of every hundred facts upon which to reason, ninety-nine depend on authority.

Secondly, there is the direct, simple act of the mind perceiving self-evident truth, as when we see that if A and B both equal C, then they equal each other. This act I call intuition.

Thirdly, there is an art or skill of arranging the facts so as to yield a series of such intuitions which linked together produce a proof of the truth or falsehood of the proposition we are considering. Thus in a geometrical proof each step is seen by intuition, and to fail to see it is to be not a bad geometrician but an idiot. The skill comes in arranging the material into a series of intuitable ‘steps’. Failure to do this does not mean idiocy, but only lack of ingenuity or invention. Failure to follow it need not mean idiocy, but either inattention or defect of memory which forbids us to hold all the intuitions together.

Now all correction of errors in reasoning is really correction of the first or the third element. The second, the intuitional element, cannot be corrected if it is wrong, nor supplied if it is lacking. You can give the man new facts. You can invent a simpler proof, that is, a simple concatenation of intuitable truths. But when you come to an absolute inability to see any one of the self-evident steps out of which the proof is built, then you can do nothing. No doubt this absolute inability is much rarer than we suppose. Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they ‘can’t see’ some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either from some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all. But when the inability is real, argument is at an end. You cannot produce rational intuition by argument, because argument depends upon rational intuition. Proof rests upon the unprovable which has to be just ‘seen’. Hence faulty intuition is incorrigible. It does not follow that it cannot be trained by practice in attention and in the mortification of disturbing passions, or corrupted by the opposite habits. But it is not amenable to correction by argument.

Before leaving the subject of Reason, I must point out that authority not only combines with experience to produce the raw material, the ‘facts’, but also has to be frequently used instead of reasoning itself as a method of getting conclusions. For example, few of us have followed the reasoning on which even 10 per cent of the truths we believe are based. We accept them on authority from the experts and are wise to do so, for though we are thereby sometimes deceived, yet we should have to live like savages if we did not.”

It is worth reading the whole article and, indeed, all of C.S. Lewis’ essays and writings are worth reading. From the above we can see that – according to C.S. Lewis – every judgement about truth and falsehood depends on three elements: Facts, intuition and reasoning. C.S. Lewis goes onto argue that intuition is in-built and has to be learnt from childhood and cannot be argued against. It is the framework from which you start. For me that intuition is the Word of God. I start with believing what God has said in His Word and assess every fact and line of reasoning from that base.

The reason I wanted to highlight and reproduce the passage from C.S. Lewis is because of something that seems self-evident to me and I think many others: There is a crisis occurring in many people’s minds when it comes to all three of the elements: Facts, intuition and reasoning. The Internet is awash with “Facts” on everything. People’s intuition is not normally based nowadays on the Scriptures and many people cannot or will not reason.

One example is the moon landing that happened 50 years ago yesterday. I was 9 years old at the time and remember it well. There were thousands of people directly involved in engineering and building the rockets over 10 years. 13 massive Saturn V rockets took off from Cape Canaveral. The blast was so enormous that you had to stay at least 3.5 miles from the launchpad to be safe. 1 million people turned up to see the Apollo 11 launch alone. Over 100 million people watched the live pictures from the moon and saw and heard the astronauts talking and putting up the flag, etc. More recently a satellite called Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been sending back pictures of the places where the different moon missions landed. Despite all this evidence and facts, many people still believe that the moon landing was a faked Hollywood story.

Of course such scepticism is not unusual and considering the amount of falsehoods people have believed over the centuries en masse, it is wise to be sceptical. My first problem with unreasonable scepticism though is that it has its origin in a lie told by someone:

A false witness shall perish,
But the man who hears him will speak endlessly.

Proverbs 21:28 (NKJV)

If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 (NIV)

According to C.S. Lewis in the passage above, there are two main things that cause people to believe a lie about something: 1. they want to because of some passion or other; 2. they are too lazy to give the matter enough attention. In the second case people lazily accept the statements they read or hear without questioning the source, verifiability or motives behind the propagator of the statements.

But he also points out that probably fewer than 10% of the facts we believe have been reasoned out. Normally we just accept them on authority. Hence the joke that people make about “Well, if it is written on the Internet then it must be true.” The Internet becomes the authority usually for those who are not paying attention to why someone has said something. The initial lie, e.g. the flat earth hoax, gets picked up by thousands as truth. It is no wonder that the Scripture says:

Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
19 is the man who deceives his neighbor
    and says, “I am only joking!”

Proverbs 26:18-19 (ESV)

Many people make the mistake of thinking they can deceive people and think that is harmless.

One of the complaints many people have about the Scripture is that God seems devoid of humour. If, by this, we mean that God doesn’t play tricks on people then, yes, He is devoid of that kind of humour. Practical jokes are not in His repertoire of ways of dealing with humans.

They shouldn’t be in ours either.