Are Human Beings Rational?
We live at a time where our culture seems to value scientific rationalism on the one hand, but believes truth is relative and prizes individual autonomy—even if irrational—above all else. Which is it? Are human beings ultimately nothing more than a “thinking being”? Is human nature controlled exclusively by survival instinct? And where does this leave us when we think about faith in God? This week, Vince and Jo discuss the nature of man, faith, rationality, and intuition, providing some helpful ways to think about an issue that often feels like a binary choice between faith and reason.
Question Asked in This Episode:
“Is man rational?”
Hear more about this subject at our next #TrendingQuestions event at the Zacharias Institute on September 10: Am I Just My Brain? Save your seat today!
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. Our modern culture finds itself within a paradox of thought. On one hand, we have placed science and reason to a place of deity. On the other hand, we have created room for truth to be relegated to the subjective. It seems that many people can't even understand that they are living with this contradiction, but have chosen to accept it as normative. It doesn't take a lot to start wondering if this disconnect might point to the position that even our capacity for reason and rationality might be suspect. Is our ability to perceive and reason based on an incorrect view of this reality? Is postmodernism symptomatic of the fact that man himself can't actually be rational? But before we get started, Vince, could you tell our listeners a little bit about the RZIM Academy and why they should consider taking the core module, our online introduction to apologetics?
Vince Vitale: It's my pleasure. If you know RZIM but you don't know the RZIM Academy, that is an absolute must. It has only been in existence for the last five years, but it's an online training program. Ravi had gone all over the world and people were always coming up to him and saying, "I need more of this type of training, but I can't take a whole year off to go to Oxford and train. I can't take a whole year off to come to Atlanta and engage in all of the programs there. I need something that I can do where I am."
Vince Vitale: So we developed a program under Drew McNeil's leadership where we have kept as much as possible the relational aspect of apologetics. There are practical conversational goals that you go out and do and have with real people and come back and reflect on. Yet you're also receiving content through video lectures with Ravi, with John Lennox, with Os Guinness, with our most senior team, and with our team from across the entire globe.
Vince Vitale: The core module is 12 weeks long. It hits on 12 of the major areas in apologetics, and once you get through that module, it opens up elective courses in many different areas as well. I think people from about 137 different countries have now gone through the core module, and the feedback is outstanding. When you think about the fact that, I'm guessing here, but I think Ravi has traveled to maybe 80 different countries in his speaking, and to think that people 137 have taken this core model, including people in countries that it would be very difficult for us to access. It's really a reason to be very thankful.
Michael Davis: That's awesome. Awesome. So let's get to our question. This question is from Jesse . The question is, “is man rational?”
Jo Vitale: Well, Jesse, it depends which man you're asking about. As a general principle, I'd say that women tend to be pretty rational. I'm joking.
Michael Davis: I want to know if Jesse is a man or a woman asking this question, right?
Jo Vitale: I mean, potentially-
Michael Davis: I'm with you, Jesse. Solidarity. Don't even worry about it.
Jo Vitale: But Jesse, I feel like actually maybe there are two components to your question. One is the question, do we have the capacity to be rational? The second one is, do we behave rationally?
Michael Davis: No.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. I think I find he first part of that question particularly interesting because we say things all the time, don't we, like, "I'm losing my mind," or "I'm going out of my mind." Basically what that signifies is we have a sort of inherent trust in our mind. We talk about being mindful. Yet when you really think about it, do we actually even have a mind? What is a mind? Is there such a thing? We were talking last episode about how Dr. Sharon Dirckx is going to come and speak, training questions on am I just a brain.
Jo Vitale: But it's an important question. Are we just brains? Is it meaningful to even talk about minds? If we're just brains, if we're essentially just meat machines who are just kind of processing, how do you trust the processes that are going on in those machines? How do you know that the machine is even running smoothly to produce rational thought? Even if they are running smoothly, how can you actually trust that for your brain to be running smoothly would result in the outcome of rational thought?
Jo Vitale: How do you know that your mind works in such a way as to lead towards truth and reason? I think from a sort of naturalistic perspective, if you don't think that actually as human beings we're designed, if we're not the products of a rational designer or a rational process, how can actually rationality emerge from randomness?
Vince Vitale: That is a really good point. I found an article on this from The Atlantic in 2016. This is by Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale university. The article is titled “The Irrational Idea that Humans are Mostly Irrational.” Let me just read you a couple of paragraphs from this. I found it really fascinating and right along the lines of what Jo was saying.
Vince Vitale: He writes, "Last summer I was at a moral psychology conference in Chile, listening to speaker after speaker discuss research into how people think about sexuality, crime, taxation, and other politically and socially fraught issues. The consensus was that human moral reasoning is a mess, irrational, contradictory, and incoherent, and how could it be otherwise? The evolutionary psychologist in the room argued that our propensity to reason about right and wrong arises through social adaptations, calibrated to enhance our survival and reproduction, not to arrive at consistent or objective truth. And according to the social psychologists, we are continually swayed by irrelevant factors, by gut feelings and unconscious motivations. As the primatologist Frans de Waal once put it, 'Summing up the psychological consensus, we celebrate rationality, but when push comes to shove, we assign it little weight.'"
Vince Vitale: But then Bloom goes on to point out the irony. These scholars had used their rationality to come to the conclusion that all people are radically irrational. So they undermine the rationality of our reasoning processes while trusting those same processes to come to their own conclusion, never realizing that if they applied their own arguments to themselves, they shouldn't believe their own conclusion. So the whole argument assumes that this irrationality applies to everyone else except for me as I reason to that conclusion. There's this irony in reasoning to the conclusion that we are irrational.
Jo Vitale: Right. So actually maybe being out of your mind is the best place you can be if you want to be rational. It just makes sense, doesn't it? Because if, from a naturalistic perspective, we are just DNA propagating machines, if we're wired for sex and that is our strongest instinct, then actually what makes people act more irrationally than sex in the first place? That's when we're least in our right mind, if you want to put it that way. So there's a certain irony here that people talk about faith as being irrational and the idea that if you're on the side of science, that's when you're rational. But actually without faith, without God, without a designer, he put rationality into us because he himself is a rational being, then actually we can't have rationality without God in the picture. There's an absolute irony about this whole conversation.
Michael Davis: Absolutely. It is interesting. Maybe you guys can speak into this, is the fact that our modern culture has kind of deified science, but then also the whole concept of postmodernism where there is no such thing as objective truth and the fact that so many people live, even fully aware of this contradiction but are completely fine with it.
Jo Vitale: I think that's so important because I think we hold to science as long as it agrees with us, but as soon as the rubber meets the road, as soon as it says something that may go against the things that we value, then suddenly it's not so important anymore when push comes to shove. But I was even thinking about how when we trust and we turn to science to ground our sort of belief that we're rational beings. But even in doing so, we very rarely take into consideration the arguments that science itself is making it. In essence, we put faith in them, assuming they're being the rational ones without even taking the time to look at the arguments they're making to consider whether they're actually true or not. So there's a kind of irrationality even in the faith we put into science.
Jo Vitale: But then you take it even a step further because I think underlying that is some sort of idea that okay sometimes, maybe we may behave in irrational ways, but it's okay because we know the science people, and science people are always rational because they're acting according to rational processes. They're in the lab. They're working out what's true and what isn't. It's entirely reasonable. But we forget that scientists themselves are human beings who hold to beliefs that sometimes are irrational, and sometimes those very dogmas that they're holding to are influencing the outcome of their own research.
Jo Vitale: So is there such a thing as a completely rational process? I was reading recently some really interesting articles about how actually there are some really smart people who aren't even Christians but who believe in intelligent design because actually when they've looked at evolution, for example, there are some big holes in the idea that evolution can actually compellingly explain the origins of life.
Jo Vitale: So a lot of top level scientists are actually looking at the evidence and saying, "Well, actually this exhibits signs of design, just on a scientific basis." But as soon as you start to say those things, a lot of them are actually being pushed out of universities and losing their jobs over simply holding that position, which seems to me like a very unscientific reaction. If you want to be rational, you follow where the truth leads, you investigate every hypothesis, and then you look at which one has the best explanatory power.
Jo Vitale: But what that shows is that people have a belief system in evolution to such a degree that anything that threatens that, and they're being treated in irrational ways. To the extent that people, if you hold to an intelligent design thesis, the advice given to you is basically don't even admit that until you've got tenure, because otherwise you're just in danger of losing your funding and being pushed out of your job.
Jo Vitale: So all that to say, it's not like there's the rest of us out here who are sometimes rational and sometimes not. Then there are the scientific people who have rationality on their side, and then there are the crazy religious people who are irrational in their faith. Actually all of us have faith and we have reason, and we're trying to hold those two together. I think that's why those two are so important in the Christian tradition.
Jo Vitale: When you look at our history, faith and reason stand together. We believe things because we believe they're reasonable beliefs to hold. Actually we look at them, and we examine the evidence, and we put our faith in things based on the evidence. But all of us have that temptation towards behaving in irrational ways and also towards confirmation bias as well where we don't always look at things rationally because we want a certain outcome or not. So we have to look to ourselves and be aware of that desire within us, that instinct, and hold ourselves accountable to it and hold other people accountable as well.
Vince Vitale: That's a great irony, and I love the way that you put it, that actually we trust our reason because we're getting it from the scientists, and they're the most reasonable and their reasoning well. But their reasoning, to go back to Professor Bloom's quote, is precisely the reasoning which is suggesting that from a purely naturalistic scientific view, our cognitive processes are not aimed at reasoning to the truth. They're just aimed at survival. So we are becoming more aware of just how irrational we are. More and more people are talking about that, and there are some interesting examples out there.
Vince Vitale: So apparently if a patient is told that there's a 95% chance of surviving an operation, he's more likely to agree to the operation than if he's told that there's a 5% chance that he'll die from the operation. Now, it's exactly the same, but the statistics show that we're more likely to say yes in one than in the other. Or people are more likely to return their annual vehicle registrations if the bill shows up with a picture of their car. I mean, it's the same exact bill. You owe exactly the same money for exactly the same reason, but if you just show them a picture of their car, they're more likely to send it in.
Vince Vitale: The one that always got me was smoking because my parents both smoked through my whole childhood a significant amount. I always found that amazing, too. It's not like anyone doesn't know at this point that that's not good for you. In fact now you have a skull and crossbones on the package. It says smoking kills. You're literally burning your own money just for that. That's not rational, but we do it.
Vince Vitale: But these things are complicated as well because if you think about rationality or reasoning as this process of stepping back and evaluating the reasons and the considerations before coming to a conclusion, reasoning is not always the model for how we want to act. A mother whose child is about to be in danger and she's about to run out into the road and take that child from danger, you don't want that mother to reason in that situation. You don't want her to take the time to step back and be rational and reason it through and evaluate the costs and the benefits. You want her to just act on instinct. That's actually the best way.
Vince Vitale: Sometimes our instincts are actually more accurate than our reasoning. In situations where people are attacked by someone, I've read that in the vast majority of those cases people had an instinct, a sort of gut instinct, at some point just before they were attacked where they sensed danger. But then they reasoned themselves to the conclusion that actually they were being over-sensitive or actually everything was fine. Then in retrospect, if you take classes on security awareness and this sort of thing, people are saying, "Don't discount that gut instinct. It may not be rational. You may not have reasoned it through, but it can be a very important."
Vince Vitale: This is kind of a flip side of this coin because obviously we want to be rational in our faith and we want to reason to our faith, but also sometimes our responses to God and our occasioning of faith in our lives is not the process of reasoning through considerations and arguments and propositions, but it's just instinctual responses to things that God has put in our lives. I want to say that's fine, and that's actually great as well, when we just look up and see the starry heavens and we just know that God has made it. When we feel a deep sense of conviction, and we just know that God is asking us to confess to him and something we've done is not right.
Vince Vitale: If we walk into a church building and hear this community worshiping in spirit and truth and we sense the transcendence of God, we may not have reasoned through arguments there, but we may respond in faith in those situations as well. I think that that's just as good and true as the reasoning processes as well.
Jo Vitale: This is a perfect time for a Star Trek illustration. Whenever one can bring that in, you should. But I was just thinking of Spock, right? Obviously, Spock's the Vulcan here and who is sort of celebrated for being so logical. He's always frustrated with human beings because they're so illogical. But I find it interesting that even in the case of Spock, we couldn't actually write a character who was just fully Vulcan all the way. He was only rational.
Jo Vitale: Instead, in the plot with Spock, they make him half human, and he's kind of constantly fighting his human emotion, human heritage. I think the reason they can't write a character like that is because it doesn't appeal to us because there's something lacking if that is all there is to you without the rest of it.
Jo Vitale: I think that that's why it's so beautiful in scripture when it talks about loving the Lord your God, yes with your mind, but also with your heart, soul and strength. It's that we're called to love God holistically because we're holistic beings, and part of that is the way we use our minds. Yes, God has put that within us. We are designed to have rationality, to be able to reason, and that is a beautiful gift, but also there's more to us. There's our biology, our psychology, the spiritual dynamics of us as well. There's so much. We are so rich as human beings. It makes us complicated and sometimes it makes it messy, but it also makes it glorious and fun.
Vince Vitale: What most people don't realize is that actually most of our beliefs in life, we don't come to them in the way that Spock does, through that reasoning process of all of the data and the statistics and putting it together into an argument. Most of our beliefs are much more instinctual than that. If I ask you what you had for breakfast this morning, you don't go through an argument. It just jumps into your mind. If I ask you what color the wall is that you're looking at, you don't go through an argument. It just jumps in your mind. Or if someone walks into the room and says it's raining outside, you don't go through an argument. You don't say to yourself, "Well, this person says it's raining and normally this person's trustworthy; therefore it's probably raining outside." You don't do any of that. You just believe that it's raining outside.
Vince Vitale: My point is that sometimes I think people hold Christian belief in God to a different standard than we hold all other beliefs to. As soon as we're talking about God, it's not okay for our belief to just have been a direct response to experience. In that case, no. We had to have done some sort of mathematical and scientific calculation to come to the conclusion that God exists. Well, that's a bit of a double standard because most of our beliefs are not like that. Most of our beliefs, if you tell me something is true, I am rational in just believing in you. Now that belief could get undermined, but in the first instance, I'm rational in believing it.
Vince Vitale: So in the same way, when I'm a young child and my parents say to me that God exists and they give me that testimony, I'm rational in believing them. Unless somebody then gives me an objection or an argument that undermines that, until that happens, I'm rational in believing them for the same exact reason that I'm rational in believing that it's raining outside if you walk in the door and tell me that it is.
Vince Vitale: So the point is, I think, that our Christian beliefs are not guilty until proven innocent, and that's often what's underlying God debates. But actually they're innocent until proven guilty. So the reasoning is still important because we need to be able to withstand objections, but we don't need to have first reasoned through all of the arguments in order for our faith to be credible.
Vince Vitale: God can reach someone that way, but he can also reach someone in the middle of nowhere who has no access to philosophy and science and the arguments that we might be thinking about often on this show. God can reach that person just as well, and God can reach the six-year-old when his or her parents just say sincerely to him or her, "God exists and he loves you," and he just believes them on their testimony. That faith is just as legitimate as well.
Jo Vitale: I was having a conversation with someone just the other day who told me they'd moved from agnosticism to atheism over the last couple of years. But when I asked them why, what's the new evidence that he have that's pushed you in that direction, there actually wasn't anything. They just basically said, "It's just a question I didn't even think about. I just don't think about whether God exists, but I just don't think he does." But it's a classic case of that, isn't it?
Jo Vitale: So I think that the thing for all of us is, are we willing to undergo self-examination? Are we willing to be people who, when someone challenges whatever belief we've come to, perhaps with some thought and perhaps without it, just sort of that innate belief in us, are we willing to hold things lightly enough to be able to hear what another person has to say and to even look at areas in our own lives where actually maybe we're being self-contradictory?
Jo Vitale: I believe the quote is attributed to Plato when he says that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think maybe that's a place where all of us could bring some rationality into our lives. In fact, if there's one area that I feel like maybe human beings are being the most irrational is in our resistance to even asking the question as to why we're here. I mean, when you really think about it, if God does exist, that's the most important, biggest question we could ever be considering. Yet most people, like the person I was talking to, actually, they're just kind of not interested in the question. They just actually don't care. To my mind that is, if you really want to think things through rationally, that more than any other question is an important one to take account of and at least spend some time on in this lifetime. So that's one area where I think actually let's be a little bit more rational and take the big questions seriously.
Michael Davis: Well, guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well Jesse, thanks for such a good question. We've done a lot of reasoning about your question, whether we are rational or not, and the conclusion is not totally clear. But I find myself taking confidence in the fact that we worship a rational God. So I think we've landed on an appropriate conclusion. We're rational in some ways. We're not in other ways. We're confused and broken beings in many ways.
Vince Vitale: I love what Pascal says, that God's given us enough evidence to believe in God rationally, but not so much that we can believe in him based on reason alone. Yes, we need to use reason, but we also need to recognize that our reason is imperfect. And if we're to have any hope of actually coming to know in an intimate way a God who is infinite and so far beyond us, we're going to need his help. So let's strive for that rationality. Let's also recognize that God can work way beyond our rationality, and let's be thankful to him for that.
Michael Davis: Vince and Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we'll catch you guys next week.
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