Reason, and rationality, are terms used by popular pseudo-scientific writers and authors, and YouTube hosts and podcasters, as if superior to all other schools of epistemological thought. The sad reality is that most self-professed rationalists, like Sam Harris, are really materialistic empiricists. Moreover, at least from the pen of Christianity (and Judaism and Islam as well), reason and rationalism is deeply tied to religion from the point of view of historical phenomenology. Though moderns have a hard time grasping this—because they are unread and ignorant—Christian doctrine (as well as ancient Greek philosophical dogma in Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism) maintains that the soul is the rational part of the mind. Why the confusion over reason, and what exactly does reason mean when used by the different schools who wield it as a weapon of derision or mockery?
There are two meanings of reason in philosophical discourse. One is ancient. The other is modern. The two clash as a result. People use reason in the modern reductive and empirical—thinking about what has been perceived by the senses, but think this use of reason entails the ancient understanding epistemologically. Thus, we have an impasse.
Greek philosophy made a tripartite distinction concerning the nature of the “soul.” There is the vegetative soul which controls basic bodily, or functional, corporeal organs of lifeforms. The vegetative soul is that which carries out functions such as sleeping and waking and other basic needs and appetites necessary for life. The animal soul controls the passions, or desire, as well as the physical senses and other emotions. The animalistic drive for sex in the form of reproduction, the need for nutrition, anger, love, and so on, are contained in the animal soul. Man and beast share the animal soul. Lastly comes the rational soul, which only man possesses. Plato called these three distinctions of the soul the appetitive, spirited (passionate), and logical souls. Plants contain only the vegetative soul. Animals possess both the vegetative and animal soul. Man contains all three—but we can say that man is only man in the truest and most exalted sense when he possesses the unitive quality of all three.
Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, argued that it was man’s possession of reason which made him like God (because God is Reason itself). In the Christian tradition, as St. Augustine maintained in his great work De Trinitate, “[W]e must find in the soul of man, i.e., the rational or intellectual soul, that image of the Creator which is immortally implanted in its immortality.” St. Thomas Aquinas also states that the intellectual soul is the locus of the imago Dei. If people bothered to read, instead of listening to people who haven’t read spew demonstrably false assertions about philosophy and religion, we wouldn’t have this problem of mass ignorance and confusion.
But why is the rational soul special? It is not so much that it is what makes us like God (according to the non-Christian philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero), and it is not so much that it is the image of God as per the Christian philosophers (since that assertion doesn’t fully explain what the “image” entails). What makes the rational soul special is its ability to know the Truth about Nature—the rational soul is what allows one to know the Transcendentals: The Good, The True, and The Beautiful. In other words, the rational soul is that which allows man to come to know Nature and, with free will, live in accordance with that Nature which leads to human flourishing and happiness. In other words, reason is that which allows you to know the Good and True and live in accord with the Good and True.
Therefore, the ancient understanding of reason was tied to the ancient acceptance of the metaphysic of nature. Nature is real. Human nature is real. Nature is fixed. We can come to know this Nature through reason and live by the standard of God, or Nature, which brings about human flourishing and happiness.
And this is what separates man from beast. Animals do not possess the rational soul—thus, animals do not have possibility of knowing the Truth in the metaphysical and ontological sense. Animals feel. Animals can love. But animals do not know what love is. Animals cannot come to know Nature but simply live as they are. Man, on the other hand, is the “rational animal.” Man feels. Man can love. But man can know what love is. Man can (but may not always) come to know Nature and live in conformity with Nature. Yes, conformity. To rebel against Nature is an integral part of what sin is in Christian tradition. To refuse to live in accord with Nature is integral to our animalization in Aristotle and Cicero and the classical philosophers.
So, the ancient understanding of reason places emphasis on human knowledge moving the person into conformity with Nature.
The modern understanding of reason denies the Transcendent. In denying the Transcendent it denied rationalism in the classical sense and original conception of that idea; reason as that which made humans like or in the image of God. As Hobbes argued, man’s reason is purely associated with his attempt to more easily obtain that which he desires.
In effect, modern philosophy no longer made a distinction between man and beast. They are one and the same. Man is but a random collection of matter in motion with animalistic desire the same as any other beast of the earth. Man is not special because there is no God who would have made man and given man the rational soul to know the Truths of the Cosmos. Man has desires. Man acts on those desires. Man either consummates those desires or fails to consummate those desires. If man consummates those desires he either did so with difficulty or with ease. Enter the modern understanding of reason.
Reason is about overcoming obstacles to obtain what one wants. Students of the history of philosophy and science will immediately recognize the influence of the mechanical and materialist view of science over the modern understanding (or revision) of reason. We are objects in motion seeking fulfillment of our basic desires. The use, or cunning, of reason is the implementation of adaptation to better and more efficiently obtain what our bodies seek.
Moreover, there is no free will. Man, like beast, follows the causal (mechanical) laws of nature. In effect, man already lives by the standard of nature because the standard of nature is bodily desire and nothing more than that. Man cannot choose to live against his bodily appetites and corporeal functions. Thus, there is no rebellion against Nature and therefore no sin possible for humans to commit. Those who are modestly read in Christian theology can see the Pandoras Box that is opened from this outlook of life and the world.
There is an anthropological distinction between the ancient and modern views of reason too. The ancient view is humanistic in the truest sense of that term: Human exceptionalism. Humans are exceptional creatures superior to all other lifeforms precisely because they have this gift called reason which allows them to know the world they inhabit and their nature and live by that nature. This is not a call to extermination of other lifeforms, but it is an embrace of man being at the head of creation (as the Genesis account reflects). The modern view is anti-humanist (though many of these anti-humanists claim to be “humanists”—which simply means “free from religious dogma”). The modern view is anti-humanist because it makes no distinctions between man and beast, it equates man and beast as one of the same; man is simply a different arrangement of matter in motion which makes him appear different from other beasts which have their own arrangements of matter in motion but, in the grand scheme of things, we’re all the same.
Thus, the ancient conception of reason is humanistic with a definitive claim to a fixed Nature that humans, and humans alone, can come to know and live by (wisdom or saintliness), fail to know and live by (ignorance), or reject to live by (sin). The modern conception of reason is anti-humanistic with a definitive claim to causality that nothing can escape and that all life can be universally reduced to thus eroding all distinctions in lifeforms. Humans have certain bodily, or corporeal wants, and reason is nothing more, and nothing less, than that cunning application of adaptability to more easily, and efficiently, obtain what the body wants.
The modern application of “reason” as that which understands the operative laws of the universe is not rationalism. That is empiricism. And since empiricism relies on the senses, which are contained in the animalistic part of the soul according to the ancient philosophers, empiricism is not rational. Rationalism is the epistemological doctrine that pure thought, conceptualization, unaided by the senses or experience, is sufficient to know the truth. As it relates to reason there is the employment of reason to know the Good and True (ancient reason) and the employment of reason to more easily and effectively obtain what one wants (modern reason). Modern reason, however, is not the same as the epistemological school known as rationalism. Modern reason is the utilitarian application of sensational processes to more easily obtain what one wants. That is what is meant by the modern use of “rationality.” It is, to paraphrase Hobbes, the want of health, wealth, and non-conflict. Whatever gets us these things is what is “rational.”