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Faith and Reason

There is no necessary tension

By Edward Spence

According to Martin Luther (1483-1546), “reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has”. Ever since those (in)famous words were uttered, faith has traditionally been pitched against reason. However historically concrete the division between reason and faith is, it is not clear whether philosophically the dichotomy holds true. As it turns out, the struggle between the embattled twins might only be apparent and illusory. In reality, it might only prove a mere lovers’ tiff.

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, thought that reason was a mere slave to passion, describing our belief in the very existence of the natural world as irrational and based ultimately on animal faith. He arrived at that startling conclusion through a series of impeccable logical moves based, of course, on reason.

This was also the conclusion arrived at by Rene Descartes, the 17th century’s foremost philosopher and founder of the scientific method of enquiry. He thought that ultimately belief in the external world could only be supported by a prior belief in God’s existence as empirical evidence based on sense perception was subject to radical skeptical doubt.

Unfortunately, Descartes’ ingenious rational arguments, like those of Thomas Aquinas before him, failed to prove God’s existence. David Hume’s brilliant counter arguments in his Dialogues on Religion demonstrated that the arguments for God’s existence though ingenious were not sound and therefore not convincing. Of course, as Hume himself conceded, although the arguments for God’s existence are unconvincing and inconclusive, their failure does not prove the opposite, namely, God’s non-existence. At the end of the Dialogues, Hume remarks, that belief in God is ultimately a mystery.

If these philosophers are right and neither the existence of the world nor that of God can be conclusively proven by reason, does it all come down to faith in the end? In a word, yes. But faith must itself be rational, it cannot be blind. Ultimately we must have faith in reason. Faith and reason are two sides of the same coin.

Ever since Plato posed the question “why be moral?” (The Republic, Book II), philosophers have been trying to discover the answer to that question. Namely, whether reason could provide morality with its own rational authority; a secular authority, moreover, that had no need to acquire its legitimacy from the proven existence of a benevolent God. 

Contemporary rationalist philosopher, the late Alan Gewirth of the University of Chicago, has provided a convincing argument to demonstrate that morality can derive its authority from reason alone. Belief in God is not a necessary condition for acting ethically. Morality has its own rational and independent authority. Thus the answer to Plato’s question “why be moral?” is that acting morally is required by our inescapably intrinsic and shared human rationality. 

However, for the diehard skeptic the problem arises again with the question “why be rational?” Why not be irrational and immoral, especially if you are a nihilist who believes that the world is a chaotic and valueless vacuum. If reason cannot justify its own authority because that would be circular, where might the answer lie?

Plato who first posed the question about morality’s authority came up with a possible answer in his dialogue the Symposium. Using Plato for direction, I want to suggest that faith in reason can only ultimately be based on love, specifically a platonic love of the Good.

This love is not merely intellectual and abstract but experiential and present in the world. Although transcendent it is also immanent. It is immanent in the world through our ability to experience the aesthetic dimension of the Good through an appreciation of the beautiful. It is this experience, which when perfected through contemplation and self-reflection makes the transcendent Platonic Good present in our own lives. Recall the last time you took a walk on the beach or through a forest or more mundanely but not less strangely familiar, as all love is, took your dog for a quiet walk in the park. As Plato concedes, this is a mystical love.

Influenced by Plato, there is textual evidence in St Augustine’s writings (especially the Confessions) that he saw Plato’s Good as equivalent to God. Thus Augustine’s knowledge of God comes primarily not from the logical language of rational arguments but primarily through the language of love. If as John the Evangelist tells us, “in the beginning was the Word (logos)… and the Word was God”, then our faith in logos (the Greek word for both “word” and “reason”) is timeless and in spite of all our rational attempts to explain it, remains for the most part a mystery.

Is faith in reason warranted? As Galileo tells his closest friend in the play by Bertolt Brecht the Life of Galileo ‘I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if I did not have faith in the capacity of my fellow human beings to reason’. If Plato is right, and I suspect he is, the gap between faith and reason, philosophy and religion, can be bridged by love.

As Diotima, the mystery woman from Mantinea tells Socrates in the Symposium, philosophy, the art of reason, is a lover: an intermediate between the human and the divine. Unlike morality or rationality, love is self-justifying. For the question itself “why do we love?” provides the answer.

For no one who is in love can ever doubt the reality of true love.   

Dr Edward Spence teaches applied ethics at Charles Sturt University.


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