One of the major mistakes made by fully half – if not more – of the Enlightenment philosophers was a turn toward pure materialism. This turn was born from the false belief that everything in the universe could be or would eventually be explained by logic and reason, and that science was the path to such discoveries and understandings. I say this is a false notion because it demonstrably false, yet many of the problems of our modern society are the product of people who have insisted and acted as though it were. I can’t speak to the particulars of what drove most of these Enlightenment aged thinkers to embrace this notion that everything is and can be explained in material terms, but, when you read their writings, you’ll discover a reoccurring themes. In short, the people who label the previous periods “Dark Ages” and embraced materialism all did so because they believed ‘science’ had freed them from the bonds of religion and the need to explain the world in terms of God. Sadly, this shows how little these philosophers understood logic and reason, not to mention science: sadly, because the entire Western world is now paying a tremendous price for their ignorance and arrogance.
Logic has limits. It can help us to understand many things. It can even help us determine some things with absolute certainty. Case in point: there are many people who would tell you that we can’t know anything about the true nature of reality; that everything is just a creation of our own perception, and that we can never be certain that even that is real. But this is a self-induced deception. We most certainly can know something about reality, and we can know it beyond all doubt. This is the beauty of René Descartes’s simple but powerfully elegant statement:
“I think, therefore, I am.”
Now, it is true that we may not know the true reality of our nature, or of the universe, but those words prove that we can be absolutely certain that we are. Even if someone challenges us by asking “How can you know you actually think,” we are still thinking about that challenge, so the truth of Descartes’s words still stands. But logic is just a tool, and like all tools, it has its limits.
One of the limits we’ll be most concerned with on The RTC is this: logic cannot prove or disprove the truth of an abstract or non-material concept. This is why we cannot prove or disprove the existence of a Creator. When I was earning my philosophy degree, my basic logic professor put a formal proof on the board. If I remember correctly, it was only four lines (logic uses a form of shorthand formula very similar to mathematical equations). He turned around and challenged the class. Was it sound? Yes. Was it valid? Yes. Was it rational? Yes. “So,” he said, “I just ‘proved’ that God exists.” Then he erased a couple of words in two of the lines, switched them, and suddenly, he had just proved that God does not exist. This is the problem with issues such as morality: man can devise a sound, rational and valid argument for nearly anything that is not material in fact. Consequently, man can never devise a universal moral law that is not subject to challenge, and as long as a society’s moral law is subject to challenge, man can never design a stable society. This is the problem with moral relativism: if we accept that what is right for one may not be right for another, society will quickly devolve into anarchy as any law – any law – becomes a moral atrocity to the sensibilities of someone who doesn’t recognize it. Unfortunately, if one thinks only in material terms, one is very likely to overlook this fact because one has made a god of logic and/or science, and recognizing this fact suddenly amounts to blasphemy. And, as it is with all blasphemy, those who are devoted to the faith will reject it and stone the blasphemer.
The work of John Stuart Mill is a great example of what I am trying to explain. Mill was part of the Utilitarian movement. Mill is very appealing to people of widely differing ideologies, partly because it is so tightly argued (his logic is generally very good), but also because it is so adaptable to so many different desires. Many Libertarians are especially fond of Mill; as are some conservatives, but few people realize that he and his work were among the founding principles of the Fabian Socialist movement. Now, I ask you, if Mill was one man writing about one idea, how is it that this idea has been embraced by three very different ideologies, all three of which are generally at war with one another? It is because of this limit of logic and the ability to adapt an argument to suit any purpose when dealing with intangible matters.
For this reason, we need to possess something that logic doesn’t address very well: wisdom. Now, logic still deals with things such as wisdom. This school of logic is called metaphysics. It’s just that, if basic logic dealing with the material has limits, metaphysics has even more. In fact, no one has ever been able to so much as to provide a definitive definition for metaphysics. One might say that it takes wisdom to know what it is when you see it, as well as to know what it is not. We won’t worry about metaphysics right now. The only thing we need to take from this post is that, when dealing with matters that are not strictly and totally material in nature, wisdom is of paramount importance. It is the only sure means by and with which we can apply our use of logic and reason. But one word of caution: wisdom is not to be mistaken for feeling or desire. Just because we ‘feel like’ something is one way, or we don’t ‘believe’ it isn’t another, this is not sufficient enough to constitute as wisdom – especially if we have allowed our desires to cloud our judgment. No, wisdom is something much more and, unfortunately, much like metaphysics: darn hard to explain and/or define.