Analysis and Meaning

by Chris Swanson


Great thinkers are often great by being gadflies to their culture. They see deeply into the problems of the time. Of course, a large number of not-so-great thinkers are also busy identifying problems. Come to think of it, young children are problem spotters too, as any parent who has pronounced an inconsistent judgment can attest. It seems as if the skill of finding problems is not limited to the great thinkers at all; we are all aware at some level or other when things are not “right.”

While some of the many problems of humanity may be said to be solved, many others continue to plague us. For every proposed solution, later thinkers uncover some aspect of the solution that has been overlooked or misrepresented. One intractable problem that many of the great thinkers of the past have addressed is this: What role should rational analysis play in our lives? While the topic of rational analysis may not be in the forefront of most people’s thoughts, the age-old debate over it has profoundly affected all our lives. And the debate rages on.

Before describing the debate, however, let me define the term. By “rational analysis,” I mean the process of using rational and logical means to break down questions into their parts, to find the causes or underlying structure. As often as not, rational analysis attempts to find principles that serve as the basis for a systematic treatment of some discipline. Rational analysis is often associated with philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians. It has been used with great success to discover truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.

One of the most celebrated uses of rational analysis was that of Isaac Newton. Newton examined a variety of natural phenomena, both terrestrial and astronomical. He examined the conclusions of previous scientists, both the good and the bad. His great contribution was to select from a myriad of concepts, rules, and phenomena the foundational principles of motion. From those basic principles, he was able to reason in a direct mathematical way to a fairly complete solution to an age-old problem. His solution, the law of gravity, has been one of the most significant findings in the history of science.

If rational analysis has been used with such great success, what then fuels the debate over its use? One side argues that rational analysis is the most reliable tool we have for gaining knowledge and that without it we become gullible. But the other side argues back that rational analysis is empty of any meaning; it may answer “how” but not “why,” and, therefore, it is a useless tool.

Consider some examples. The Enlightenment of the 1700s was a period of optimism. Rational analysis, such as Newton used, promised great things. New vistas of knowledge were opening up, and scientific achievement was praised. The intellectual heritage of the Middle Ages was seen as flawed, authoritarian, and limited. The Enlightenment movement was an attempt to overcome the intellectual errors of the past.

But the success of the Enlightenment was not without costs. In medicine, for instance, researchers were gaining new understanding of how the human body functions, but man was seen as a machine. In economics, the structure and processes of modern economy were being worked out, but a man was “labor” rather than a person. In physics, the secrets of the solar system came to light, but the system was seen as a mechanical clock rather than the creation of an involved, loving God.

One response to the sterility of the Enlightenment was Romanticism, which emphasized the individual, expressions of feeling, the beauty of nature, and the imagination. The Romantics of the 1800s explored these themes in their artmaking, trying to capture the natural side of humanity. They saw science not as a solution to our problems but as a potential danger.

Another response to Enlightenment thinking can be seen in the clash between Christianity and science in early twentieth-century America. A growing rejection of religion pervaded the universities; religion was “unbelievable” to rational modern sensibilities. One school of thought even believed that empirical evidence was the only reliable source of knowledge, thus denying all so-called metaphysical conclusions. Any non-scientific academic pursuit was discouraged, and thus the social “sciences” emerged during this period. Some religious leaders, rightly recognizing the problem with Enlightenment thinking, responded by retreating into cultural isolation. Rather than engaging academia on its terms, they took refuge in faith over reason. They rejected university learning and affirmed certain fundamentals of Christianity, thus giving rise to Christian fundamentalism.

Both those who reject and those who embrace rational analysis recognize legitimate problems with the opposite position. Both sides of the debate make good arguments for their position.

On the one hand, those who distrust the rational analytical stream of thought have good reasons to distrust it. It promises solutions to our problems and fails to deliver; technology creates cars, but it also creates bombs. Rational analysis is often complex and convoluted, hidden in technical jargon. Thus its conclusions are not easily accessible or easily judged.

Furthermore, some of those who use rational analysis seem more interested in impressing men than finding truth. They wow us with their subtle thinking and impressive arguments that claim to prove preposterous sounding things. Their goal is to make a splash, not understand truth. For them, rational analysis is a game. Take “string theory” as an example. It purports that the universe is made up of some ten or more dimensions. If this is true, then it is beyond our ability to imagine and, for that matter, beyond our ability to verify experimentally. According to one well respected critic in the physics community (Lee Smolin author of The Trouble with Physics), string theory’s popularity is largely based on the many careers tied to its success. He claims that string theory has been a detriment to progress in fundamental theory.

And lastly and most importantly, rational analysis tends to ignore meaning. For instance, rational analysis of astronomical data may provide conclusive evidence that other stars have planetary systems. But what does this mean? Why is it important? What does it say about life in the universe and about God’s activity there? The answers to these questions depend mostly on our philosophical presuppositions. Technology, political science, and economic analysis presuppose rather than propose answers about what is valuable and meaningful; they do not, and in a sense cannot, address questions of meaning, which are philosophical.

On the other hand, those who embrace rational analysis and distrust the romantic stream of thought have good reasons to distrust it. Without rational analysis, how are we to protect ourselves from “false prophets,” savvy advertisers, and propagandists? How are we to live in a world that we do not understand? We may pursue an economic policy because it seems fair and just when, in the end, it simply exacerbates injustice. We may believe passionately in a particular doctrine that ends up being antithetical to the biblical message. We may trust the words of an earnest and sincere friend that seem good but are not. When open, rational inquiry is discouraged, our tools for discernment are impaired.

So then, where do we now stand in this age-old debate? Is rational analysis so flawed as to be untrustworthy? In many ways, our culture has answered that question with a resounding “yes” and abandoned rational analysis. For instance, our culture has largely abandoned rational dialog in American public life; instead, rhetorical techniques more effectively persuade people and achieve a specific goal. Further, our culture no longer sees finding the truth as an attainable end; rather, all “truths” are the shared, but arbitrary, choices of the culture. Distrust and pessimism have encroached upon our collective consciousness, so that even the most hallowed disciplines are called into question. Philosophy, for example, once seen as the pinnacle of human thought, is today commonly ridiculed or scorned. Lastly, the rational scientific program begun early in the twentieth century has failed; suffering and injustice are rampant. Science and rational analysis have failed to deliver, and for this reason rational analysis has been found wanting. The court of culture has not judiciously weighed each side of the debate over rational analysis, but instead has just proclaimed rational analysis defunct.

Consequently, our culture—in keeping with the Romantics who rejected Enlightenment thinking—has elevated the role of personal experience and “connection” in decision making. The younger generation, in particular, trusts what they themselves have seen, heard, or felt. Some people may still pursue rational analysis, but it no longer has the authority in our culture that it once had.

The obvious problem with abandoning rational analysis, however, is this: an unexamined experience is subject to powerful new techniques of persuasion. For example, some people believe that the Apollo missions to the moon were faked for political reasons. These sorts of beliefs are born in communities where word-of-mouth and “sincerity” are powerful influences, but where careful analyses of the implications of such beliefs is lacking. We always view personal experience through the “filters” of our beliefs and desires, yet these filters are affected by many subtle cultural messages, messages that tend to discourage rational inquiry. Carefully examining our filters, our beliefs, through the process of rational analysis can help us sort out what is and is not true.

We must, of course, recognize the limitations of rational analysis. Not every belief can be proven. For a variety of reasons—some obvious, others not—we cannot restrict our conclusions to those that have been scientifically verified or mathematically deduced.

First, we are finite. The sheer volume of our beliefs and conclusions precludes our examining and testing every idea we have. And many of these beliefs are so obviously true that analyzing them would be a foolish and pointless use of time. Why, for instance, should we join those who doubt that our senses are reliable or that Jesus existed?

Second, we are prone to error. The best and most trained minds make mistakes in their thinking all of the time. While effort and reflection can often weed out mistakes, mistakes are always potentially present.

Lastly and most importantly, rational analysis is necessarily founded upon a set of assumptions. A person never begins from a blank slate, even in logic or mathematics. Yet, we rarely recognize or critically question our assumptions; often, we just absorb them from the culture in which we grow up and live, and consequently, our assumptions are subject to the beliefs and prejudices of that culture. Some of the greatest, most logical thinkers of the past have been the least critical of their culturally adopted foundational assumptions. Einstein, for example, made radical new proposals in physics, but philosophically he adopted many of the prevailing views of his contemporaries.

We all desire to align ourselves with what is true about reality. We do not seek to live a life of delusion. But God has placed us in a condition of uncertainty. He has called us to choose our course without being able to prove unassailably that we are right. We do not have the luxury of choosing whether we will or will not “believe”; we can only choose whether we will believe well or poorly.

How, then, should we think about rational analysis? What role, if any, should it play in our lives? Can it aid us in forming our beliefs and understanding our experience? Is there value in sorting out why we believe what we believe and putting those beliefs on a firmer footing? And is rational analysis only for more “scientific” questions and pursuits? Perhaps I am tipping my hand, but I end with an invitation: I invite you to analyze the question further for yourself.

Copyright October 2008 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson