The Limits of Human Reason

I know there is nothing in the word or in the works of God that is repugnant to sound reason, but there are some things in both that are opposite to carnal reason as well as above right reason; and therefore our reason never shows itself more unreasonable than in summoning those things to its bar that transcend its sphere and capacity. (John Flavel)

So what do you think? Can human reason be unreasonable? The question is not as “Alice in Wonderland-ish” as it may sound. Jonathan Evans wrote an essay in the Psychological Bulletin, where he said: “Few reasoning researchers still believe that logic is an appropriate normative system for most human reasoning.” In his essay on “Deductive Reasoning,” Joshua Schechter noted that the psychological study of deductive reasoning has shown that subjects are highly prone to errors in evaluating the validity of logical arguments. They are “more likely to mistakenly identify an invalid argument as valid if its conclusion is believable.”

The above quote by John Flavel can be found within his work, The Mystery of Providence. The link is to a Google ebook edition. Flavel warned his readers to not pry too curiously into the secrets of Providence; and to not “suffer your shallow reason arrogantly to judge and censure its designs.” He said there were “hard texts” within both the work of God (creation) and the word of God (Scripture). We should modestly and humbly reverence, but not “dogmatize too boldly and positively upon them.” The opening quote occurred at this point.

Flavel then said there is nothing opposed to sound reason in either creation or Scripture. However, there are some things in both that are opposed to carnal reason and beyond “right,” sound reason. “Carnal” in a modern sense refers to bodily appetites, especially sexual ones. But the Greek sense of the term translated as “carnal” has the meaning of “the mind of the flesh.” In other words, the mind that is dominated by our flesh is the starting point for all carnal thinking, all reasoning. It makes the human mind the “judge” of all reasoning.

So our reason is at its most unreasonable when it makes the human mind the arbiter of how we think about creation and Scripture. “Beware, therefore, you lean not too much to your own reason and understanding. Nothing is more plausible, nothing more dangerous.” Right, sound reasoning places God at the center. We are to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” But we can’t with a carnal mind.

While modern psychology and philosophy would not agree with what has just been said, they do seem to indicate that human perception is not always trustworthy. Watch this YouTube video titled, “Step Into an Optical Illusion” about an art exhibit called “Demon Hill.” … You really have to watch the video to get what is coming next, so I’ll wait until you’re done. . . . Incredible wasn’t it?

In an online Psychology Today article, David Ropeik discussed the implications of Demon Hill. It elegantly demonstrated that “reason and rationality” only carries us so far. The Demon Hill room is tilted 20 degrees on one axis and 9 degrees on another, which you can SEE as you walk into it. But this visual information will simply not let your brain accept the truth. “It’s not an experience you can logic your way out of.” Or as Michael Landy, the neuroscientist in the video, said: it shows that people are cognitively impenetrable.

“You can know that what you are perceiving is wrong but you’ll still perceive it that way.” The real world is the product of physical and psychological processes that blends facts and feelings, intellect and instinct. When the two conflict, human perception gives the upper hand to instinct and subconscious gut reaction, not evidence-based reason.

When reason and evidence clashes with emotion and instinct, no matter how clear and compelling the evidence, we are ‘cognitively impenetrable’ to just the facts, and our brain literally denies that evidence if it conflicts with how our instincts—the subconscious part of the risk perception system that is beyond our control—make that evidence feel.

Ropeik said that Demon Hill is a warning and a challenge “to those who have naïve faith in the supreme powers of reason.” Sometimes we are “cognitively impenetrable” to evidence that conflicts with our deeper instincts. “We can’t ‘logic’ our way through life.” Or as the narrator in the video said: “Our experience of the world depends not on what is true, but on what we perceive to be true.” This is eerily similar to one of my favorite quotes of Cornelius Van Til:

The idea of brute, that is utterly uninterpreted, “fact” is the presupposition to the finding of any fact of scientific standing. A “fact” does not become a fact, according to the modern scientist’s assumptions, till it has been made a fact by the ultimate definitory power of the mind of man. (Van Til, Common Grace)

It seems modern psychology may agree with Flavel that our reason is at its most unreasonableness when we use it to judge those things that transcend its sphere and capacity.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”  (Isaiah 55:8-9).

We need to start our thinking, as best we can, from God’s perspective. We must seek to think His thoughts after Him.