Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann religion versus reason

January 19, 2013 • 2:34 pm

This is the last quote I’ll put up from Walter Kaufmann’s magnificent book Critique of Religion and Philosophy. This one, from pp.  220-221, is on the incompatibility between religion and reason. (I don’t agree with the first sentence of the third paragraph if by it Kaufmann is agreeing to some extent with religion’s claim that we can know things about the universe without using empirical methods.)

In one way, morality will soon go the way of astronomy, physics, and biology:  to be sure, it will not become a science; but Christians, too, will soon concede the need for rational discussion of moral questions as well as the relevance of observation—and then Christianity will adopt the position that morality is not of ultimate significance. Today, some Christians may still object: if morality is not of ultimate significance, what is? But it is far from self-evident that rules about permissible and impermissible sexual relations should be more crucial for religion than whether the earth revolves around the sun or whether man is a cousin of the gorilla.

Reason and observation alone will never tell us what to do and how to live; whom, if anybody, we should marry; or how many, if any, children we should want. But it does not follow that religion must answer these questions. Nor does it minimize the crucial distinction between informed and uninformed decisions or between responsible and irresponsible choices.

Christianity has been right in insisting on the limitations of reason and observation; but it has vastly exaggerated them while failing to recognize its own limitations: again and again it has claimed competence in areas where it had none. And from the very beginning it has conceived itself as an enemy of reason and worldly wisdom; it has exerted itself to impede the development of reason, belittled the achievements of reason, and gloated over the setbacks of reason.

In principle, many outstanding Roman Catholic thinkers have maintained that reason and religion need not be enemies but could be complementary.  But the peace effected by Roman Catholicism was based on the enslavement of reason, upon its employment in the service of propositions which it was not allowed to question.  The vaunted synthesis of reason and faith depended on the stake. When the stake lost its tyrannical effectiveness, the revolve of reason and the long war between reason and faith came to dominate the intellectual history of the West for centuries.

Traditional Christianity has been deeply authoritarian in matters of truth. It has made a supreme virtue of unquestioning docility. Though Luther was initially opposed to authoritarianism, his truculent disparagement of reason drove him back into this tradition; for he soon discoverd that where conscience and conviction are supreme no safeguard remains against fanaticism, stupidity, and immorality. Many a modern Protestant has looked upon the later Luther with embarrassment, thinking: “What a falling off was there!” But it was not caprice that led to Lutheran authoritarianism: the issue on which Luther had staked his Reformation had been unsound. The dichotomy between authoritarianism and the anarchy of the supremacy of conscience is pernicious. But what alternative remains where reason and observation are ruled out of court?


28 thoughts on “Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann religion versus reason

  1. Reason and observation alone will never tell us what to do and how to live; whom, if anybody, we should marry; or how many, if any, children we should want.

    This would be true, but it is not the whole truth — and deceptively so.

    If you desire any of a number of very common and sensible things for a human to desire, then you can make conclusions about all those things and more.

    There are selfish personal gains to be had from marriage and children — companionship, sharing of workloads, satisfying the evolutionarily-instilled desire to pass on one’s genes. Tax benefits, even. There are also losses, too — loss of privacy and independence, for example, in addition to a financial burden.

    Reason is perfectly suited to weighing those advantages and disadvantages in general, and further in the specific to, for example, decide if a certain potential spouse is the right one.

    While it may be true that it is ultimately necessary to take certain first principles as a given, as axioms, so what? Everything else can be readily enough derived from those first principles, in much the same way that all of geometry is derived from not all that many initial axioms. What matter other than idle curiosity that uncommon (and often self-defeating) initial premises lead to different conclusions? Objecting on such grounds is as silly as suggesting that you can’t somehow “justify” a great circle navigation route from San Francisco to Hong Kong over the Aleutian Islands because, if the Earth were aspherical then the shortest distance would be something else. So what? The Earth is (basically) a sphere, and great circle routes save time, fuel, and money. Hypothetical alternate geometries are as irrelevant there as are hypothetical alternate initial premises for morality.



    1. “evolutionarily-instilled desire to pass on one’s genes.”

      I see that referenced so much. Isnt that a myth? I would argue that we have an evolutionarily-instilled desire to do things that end up causing us to pass on our genes, like have sex and take care of offspring, but there is no actual evolutionarily-instilled desire to pass on one’s genes. That couldnt really evolve, since it would require our primitive ancestors to not only understand the concept of passing on traits, but to have the ego to care.

      Good comment though.

      1. Please look up the term “synecdoche” and try to understand why it applies to Ben’s usage of “desire to pass on one’s genes”.

        Also related, Dawkins’ definition of the phrase “gene for X” in “The Selfish Gene”.

  2. One of the best parts in the book, is the section which deals with a dialogue between Satan, God and an Atheist. Following is an excerpt which is cool:
    Satan: I still do not understand what it is that, you think, exists, or in what way it exists. Does God take up space as you do?
    Christian: Of course not.
    Satan: Why, then, do you say that he exists?
    Christian: Surely, many things exist that do not take up space.
    Satan: Name three.
    Christian: Does a dream take up space? Or a feeling? Or a thought?
    Satan: Is God a dream, a feeling, or a thought?
    Christian: Certainly not.
    Satan: Try again.

    1. I’m surprised the Christian didn’t immediately cough-up the “love for my wife” trope.

      I bet that woulda stumped ‘ole Beelzebub.

  3. Apparently Walter Kaufmann is an acknowledged expert on Nietzsche (perhaps you already said this in one of your recent website posts — and please notice I didn’t say (shudder) “blogs”).

    I found this out the other night while cruising through the Wikipedia entry on Karl Marx, and winding up in the Wikipedia entry on commodity fetishism.

    Every time I embark on a Wikipedia adventure like this, I always realize just how much time was wasted in my youth on religion and television.

  4. Those last three sentences really hit the nail on the head. That is exactly right and a devastating argument against the prevailing ethos favoring faith, and acommodationism.

  5. Haidt in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” pretty much pulls the stool out from under both “reason” and “religion” when it comes to “morality.” All one needs is a dash of Dual Process Theory a la Kahneman, slather in a bit of Moral Foundations Theory, and a pinch research that Haidt et al. have done, some appreciation for the evolutionary pressures/constraints on individuals who are members of social species, and, Bob’s your uncle: (moral) “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Evolution wires us up to “be moral,” or to do what’s necessary to insure the survival of the individuals and group structure upon which we (the individual members of the social species and group) depend for our survival.

    I digress. All of the Abrahamic religions would have one believe that “the religion determines the morality.” Haidt shows just the opposite. “Morality” comes first, then comes the need to justify the position. Many have taken the position that we (homo sapiens) have created religion in our own image. Haidt’s work pretty much shoves it in the face of religion.

    There is no way to do this topic justice in this small place. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems . . . this especially. I just wanted to throw the gauntlet down . . .


    1. I haven’t read the book, although I have read about the book. I am skeptical about some of Haidt’s conclusions as I understand them.

      Problem #1. The morality comes first conclusion is contradicted by the facts that morality is rooted in how the world works and we can understand how the world works only by observation and reason. As a result, morality is dependent on, and thus second in sequence and relative to, reason.
      Problem #2. Conservatives have a more complete and balanced, and therefore better morality than liberals is based on the claim that all six of the value pairs that Haidt singles out as underlying morality have equal merit. However, Loyalty/betrayal and Authority/subversion transfer responsibility for making decisions from oneself to another, or to others, which can concentrate power into the hands of crazy and immoral leaders. So the liberal approach of splitting these “moral foundations” into tiers and placing Care/harm and Fairness/cheating into the upper tier while placing the latter two pairs into the lower tier results in better morality. Haidt is mistaken to insist tat all six foundations have equal merit.

      1. Hola Explicit Atheist – I’m really not trying to be a wise-ass when I say this, but I would encourage you to read the book and see if you feel the same way after having read it. This isn’t the place for a book review so I won’t do this. I understand what you’re saying, but I strongly believe that what you’re saying is based on an incomplete understanding of what he is saying. I am going to resist the temptation to go into detail about why I think that because this is not the venue for it. These comments must be brief and in this situation, the cost of brevity would be the loss of nuance and this is a fairly nuanced topic. The ideal venue for a conversation about this would be a good microbrewery somewhere . . .

        If you are interested enough in the topic to invest the time in reading “The Righteous Mind,” I would encourage you to do so. In the end, it is of no import at all where you end up in your thinking. I can guarantee that the journey will be most interesting . . .


        1. Decent point on “morality comes first”. Which morality? Morality has clearly changed over the course of human history.

          Maybe it’s just Haidt trying to be sensationalistic where he should have said something more like “protomorality”.

          1. And “Oh, I have an awesome response to this but there just isn’t space” is an annoying and kinda condescending way to respond to people.

  6. “Christianity has been right in insisting on the limitations of reason and observation”

    I would agree that there are limits to reason and observation, but anyone can point this out. When Christianity tries to make the case, they tend to have something in mind to fill the perceived shortcoming, which ends up being nonsensical.

    So the quote is fair enough in a superficial way, but not if one follows through with the reasoning _why_ Christianity makes the argument: Not as a humble check on our abilities, but to smuggle in something ineffable in their place.

    1. This is exactly right. I do not think that Kaufmann was giving credence to non-empirical methods in the sentence Dr. Conye objects to. It is simply right to say that there are limits to what we can observe and verify. However, the only logical stance to have about such things is an admission of ignorance. Hence the pitfall of the classic argument from ignorance.

      As the saying goes: “Science does not know everything, but religion does not know anything.”.

    2. That is also what Kaufmann is saying. You seem to be suggesting Kaufmann is missing the part about why religions make that argument, but he is not.

    3. There may be limits to reason and observation, but they can never be sidelined completely, or we open the door to – absolutely anything. If we have intuitions or revelations that might have truth in them, we still have to apply reason and observation to judge their value. Sadly, religious people do this, when they do it at all, in a completely capricious way.

      It’s very like creating a work of art, intuition and (for want of a better word) revelation creating the raw material, and reason and observation shaping it into something artistically “useful”. That could be why religion and art fit together so very well, so that much religious art is very beautiful. (Though the border into kitsch is often crossed.)

  7. “In principle, many outstanding Roman Catholic thinkers have maintained that reason and religion need not be enemies but could be complementary. But the peace effected by Roman Catholicism was based on the enslavement of reason, upon its employment in the service of propositions which it was not allowed to question.”

    One extreme example of this is John Henry Newman, often praised as a great Catholic intellectual. He generally opposed the spread of what he deemed dangerous knowledge, keeping books he deemed unfit for students locked in his desk. Some Catholic thinkers have some creative ideas, albeit in the service of a mistaken world-view (i.e. creativity without proper checks & tests) but for Newman it all boils down to the stable solid certainties of the church which must remain unchallenged, period!

    1. I must be getting old: I always read any website for a while before I post anything there.

      Still, it does offer advantages. 🙂

  8. “Christianity has been right in insisting on the limitations of reason and observation;’

    And I would add to this the necessity of axiomatic statements to reasoning and elucidation of truth.
    Axiomatic statements are accepted without proof but may be evaluated for reasonableness by their capacity to lead to coherent interpretations of empirical data.

    For example with respect to origins we have two axiomatic statements :
    1. “In the beginning God..”
    2. “The cosmos is all there is , ever was and ever will be..”

    Which provides the more coherent explanation for what we understand about life and evolution in the 21st century ?

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