“I will not read Aristotle . . .” he said, throwing the book against the wall. Why wouldn’t the student read the greater philosopher? Because he found Aristotle boring and in disagreement with basic ideas he thought were true.
This was not reasonable. We shouldn’t measure the worth of an idea by our opinions on the style of its containing prose. Everyone bemoans the loss to culture that we were left only Aristotle’s lecture notes and not his finished works. Given that our civilization owes a great debt to his ideas, the effort likely is worth the pain, even if his prose is “boring.”
But the student’s second problem -- quickly rejecting an idea because it doesn’t fit preconceptions -- is even worse. If the idea comes from a serious source (and Aristotle is nothing if he is not serious) then we owe it serious attention.
We should be reasonable.
Now if you are a Wheatstone type, then you agree with this statement, but a truism can become harmful when misunderstood or misapplied.
Few of us want to be as unreasonable as the Aristotle-bashing student, but a great many of us are, despite our goals. Partly this is because we ask too much of “reason.” We try to use it for things that it wasn’t made for. An iPhone is a useful tool, but it is a poor choice for driving nails. Trust me. So with reason.
We need to learn to think well.
Thinking well begins with our basic experiences, intuitions, and whatever God hardwired into our souls. People also pick up any number of ideas from the atmosphere, the way I have just picked up a cold from some student. Also like my cold, some such ideas become part of life, but are a distinctly unpleasant part of it. Just because we have caught an idea doesn’t mean we benefit from it. That’s why it is so important to examine them.
There are four ways to examine our ideas, each with its own uses.
First, we should abandon false ideas. This is obvious, therefore easy to forget. It also doesn’t help with everything. Sadly, some ideas such as “God exists” are not as obviously true or false as other propositions like “my iPhone now has a crack in it.”
Second, it is wise to see how an idea fits in with other things we believe. An idea may seem plausible when considered alone, but contradict or disharmonize with other concepts that we are more justified in believing. It is a bad idea to pick up beliefs that are only useful when we ignore everything else that we hold true!
Third, we can look to our ideas’ conclusions. Ideas always spawn consequences when we believe them. One way to evaluate what we think of the world is to see if the consequences of our thoughts are tolerable. If some desirable legal right that I claim will harm the rest of humanity, perhaps I should seriously question whether I am right about my rights.
Finally, a reasonable person should take stock of their ideas as a whole. Once a year I try to describe the “big picture” for myself. What do I believe as a whole? What are my current answers to the most timeless questions? Sometimes we get so lost in working out the debatable details of our views that we forget to see whether the whole still satisfies us!
Many a Marxist in Russia had excellent ideas about people in the abstract. Many a Marxist built marvelous hospitals and schools. Yet their entire view of reality also led to a chain of concentration camps stretching across Russia. If my ideas, however excellent by themselves, and however nice in their application, would lead to such consequences, to such a whole picture of the world, then I should abandon them immediately.
Now what should be obvious (despite our desires to the contrary!) is that certainty is not possible in this life, however reasonable we might become. We can be as logical as Spock, as wise as Buffy’s Giles, or as virtuous as Batman, and still fail.
But God knows that God’s very existence gives me hope. There is a pattern to the universe, an order for morality and creation that we can find. Christianity promises that this God came and revealed Himself to us. That revelation should give us guidance to many pressing problems.
Because of God’s revelation, we can be saved from false certainties and allowed to wonder, question, and explore without the terror there is no bottom to our doubts.