Reason, Risk, and Meaning: Balancing Humility and Confidence


Whenever I hear someone claim that they only believe what is demonstrated by reason and science, I want to smile. If that person is in my presence I try to suppress it, lest they think I am making fun of them, which only results in their launching into a grand (and often irritated) defense of both as the way to truth.

It is not that I don’t believe in reason or value science. It’s just that both reason and science work best with a large dose of humility. Thinking either is the only way to knowledge or the sole arbiter of disputed questions, is like thinking the only thing you need to build a house is a hammer. As they say, if you only have a hammer, every problem appears to you to be a nail.

I have explored the limitations of reason (in an informal way) in The Skeptical Believer (yes, it’s too long), but I will simply affirm, as I do there, that it is my reason that informs me about reason’s limitations. In fact it’s the first thing reason tells me.

Of course all ways of trying to understand reality need a big dose of humility. All political, religious, artistic, social, philosophical, scientific (ad infinitum) understandings should be subject—by the person who holds them—to questioning, corrections, counter evidence, and so on. Few of us are genuinely willing to allow our central convictions to be questioned—especially as we grow older.

The rationalist would say this exactly his or her point. Doubt, skepticism, evidence are their bread and butter. But, alas, they too rarely apply these things to their own methodology. They are not sufficiently skeptical, for instance, about skepticism and rationalism as an sufficient approach to life.

Humility is a very good thing when it comes to world views. But it should not be used as a cover for timidity. We can be humble and confident at the same time. Humble about how much we know or can prove, but confident that certain risks are worth taking. The risks necessary, for instance, to affirm meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth. These words are out of favor in intellectual circles these days, which makes it all the more necessary to affirm them and make risky claims about them.

Unaided reason is not sufficient. Neither is affirming only what we can measure and prove. The more important something is in living a meaningful life, the less likely it is that it can be proved. That’s an assertion I can’t prove, but my reason (and my experience) tells me that it is not an assertion that I should expect to be able to prove. Which is not a good reason not to assert it.

See how rational I am?