Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Razor vs. The Ass

Rabbi David Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, pp. 152, 154-155:

Several anti-theistic books appeal to Occam's razor, a rhetorical principle teaching that entities or assumptions should not be multiplies beyond necessity. It is named after William of Occam (c. 1285-1349), an English Franciscan friar and philosopher. ccam's razor is used to propose, for example, that in theorizing about the creation of the world, if one can account for it without a Creator, so much the better. Your philosophical checkbook is balanced. Not a cent wasted...

In place of Occam's razor I would like to propose that they key medieval parable for our time is Buridan's ass.

Jean Buridan (1300-1358) was a French priest. His name became attached to a parable that apparently predated him, but no matter. It still speaks to us and is worth remembering.

To put this in context recall how often the "god" of reason is invoked in writings by rationalistic anti-theists. "Reason," Sam Harris tells us in The End of Faith, "is the guardian of love." More, he writes, "I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable." Hitchens writes "...we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason."

Now reason is an invaluable tool. Without it, nothing, including faith, can flourish. But reason alone is not only dangerous but virtually impossible. Such is a ringing truth brought to us by Buridan's ass.

Imagine a donkey equidistant between two barrels of hay. Now imagine that this donkey is a rationalist, someone who will do nothing if it is not in accord with the dictates of reason. He cannot reason why one mound of hay is superior to the other. He stays in the middle trying to decide which should be his supper. Since there is no reason to move to one or the other, in time, the donkey starves to death.

Obviously Buridan's ass is a parody, although a parody with serious intent. In making fun of philosophers, Buridan was teaching that reason bleached of value starves us. Reason does not give us a reason to live, to get up in the morning, to improve the world, to help another who will not be able to return the favor. Reason is a powerful tool to accomplish ends that are established by means other than reason. The neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that when people who suffer brain injuries that destroy their capacity to feel seek to make decisions, their decisions are disastrous. Reason alone, unaided by emotion, by vision, is a poor compass to navigate this world.

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