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Against reason

We hear it all the time, from birth to death, socialized (or deluded) to order the senselessness of our existence: This is right. That is wrong. Follow the path of righteousness and you shall find what you seek.

Right and wrong would make perfect sense if we were all created equal. What is good for me would be identically good for you. Alas, we human beings are riddled with differences; not only are some stronger and brighter, but others are born into reviled ethnic groups or abject poverty.

There is great injustice in circumstance. Yet, throwing our evolutionary impulses to the wind, we are—at least in part—driven by the desire to right these wrongs.

But if we are to discuss what is right and what is wrong for human beings in this world—as we most certainly do—then we must have some absolute standard of truth by which to measure our actions. It makes no sense to say that inequality or murder or rape is wrong if we believe in the survival of the fittest, or if we believe that good ends justify bad means.

Right and wrong are further complicated by the moral hypocrisy we sanction in our leaders and in ourselves. Why is murder wrong between two citizens in times of peace but right between two soldiers in times of war? How can liberals speak of equality and live isolated away in elitist institutions and neighborhoods?

While history teaches us the results of certain choices and belief systems, it cannot divine the future, nor can it dictate the choices you should make for yourself. In fact, according to Gandhi, “history is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love.”

You are different, no better and no worse, than any other human being to have ever graced the surface of this earth. If you want wealth and power, or if you want flattery and adoration, then others can teach you the ways to those ends. But if you want something else, if you yearn for a world that you know has never before been realized, then you must search elsewhere.

However, seekers beware: There is no reason for you to believe one way or another, no rational justification for your choice of being; it is in fact just that—a belief. I do believe there is a path to happiness. I’m just not certain that mine is the only one.

The Enlightenment fundamentally transformed what we conceive as reason, moving us to believe in the supremacy of the mind. But it did not eradicate the very human desire to understand truth. Quite the contrary, we became ever more convinced that, with science and the diligent study of discernible reality, we could realize God.

Deists like Spinoza, Newton and Jefferson believed that God is Watchmaker, setting the gears of the universe in motion and leaving them in place for our feeble brains to probe. But could not an all-powerful God change the gears, altering physical laws at random? Why is it reasonable to believe that the science we know now will be the science of the future?

Well, frankly, it’s not—particularly if one understands the revolutions in thinking brought about by advances in science. Science and reason help us understand what we are able to test repeatedly. But what if absolute truth cannot be realized through this method? What if this truth can only be found within each of us? Absence of verifiable evidence is not evidence of absence.

Carl Sagan, the famous writer-scientist, lived his life by two credos: (1) Science is never finished, and (2) We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers. While we must always heed the advice of Michael Faraday, who warned against the powerful temptation “to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in the favor of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them,” we must have the courage to ask unreasonable questions.

For when we begin to worship at the altar of reason, we will have lost the battle in our striving toward truth. And what’s worse—we will have lost the essence of what makes us human.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.

 

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