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The Fire of Reason

Presented to the UUFC on 12/12/93, on the 200th anniversary of completion by Thomas Paine of Part 1 of the "Age of Reason." This was accompanied by three readings: Verses V and VI of "The Garden" (Andrew Marvel) ("The mind...annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade."), an excerpt from the "Age of Reason" concerning "thoughts...which bolt into the mind of their own accord." and a story from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography in which he justifies eating fried cod, rather than hewing to a "vegetable diet," by observing that big fish eat smaller ones. The reference to Vaclav Havel concerns a speech, reprinted in the NY Times on March 1, 1992, in which he said, in part, "The end of Communism has brought a major era in human history (the Modern Age) to an end." Paragraph 4 is stolen unabashedly from Paul Simon. Finally, the last twelve words of paragraph 5 are taken from the UUFC's regular chalice lighting verse.


Darkness before the beginning of time, before the moment of creation,

before the Big Bang.

Darkness of ancient history, darkness of superstition, darkness of ignorance.

Hello, darkness my old friend, I've come to speak with you again:

We have just, as good UUs who would not curse the dark, lit a small light, affirming, once again, the light of truth, the warmth of community, the fire of commitment.

I have no fault with commitment and the warmth of community fills this room, this place of celebration and concern.

However, I have grave misgivings about the light of truth for I think that some here would hold that it shines only from the fire of reason.

Ah, truth:

Last summer I attended a senior, by invitation only, conference in my field and heard a presentation of the results of an experiment which seemed almost too good to be true. I rose and began to joust verbally with the speaker. Giving ground grudgingly, he asserted in defense of his work, "But this is new!" I replied that, while it might be new, the more important question was whether it was indeed true.

In science, as in much of life, we have come to depend upon reason, the organized working process of the rational mind, to distinguish those things which are true from those which are untrue. We all have an indwelling metaphor of the light of truth flooding the dark shadows of superstition and belief, revealing facts in their purity and causing falsehoods to shudder, to shrink, to slink away. We think of the Renaissance as an intellectual and cultural rebirth, a new sunrise, dispersing the unreasoned shadows of the Dark Ages.

My own metaphor for reason, that fire from which shines forth the light of truth, has been the sacred pillar of flame in Ryder Haggard's novel She: The heroine of this novel is Ayesha, the original "she who must be obeyed," who was fated to live forever if she periodically renewed herself by bathing in a living flame. However, the penalty for being unworthy, which she eventually paid, was to be devoured by the flame, to have all the weight of years descend on her body in an instant and thus to perish. So it is that I have previously seen reason: as a purifying flame through which truth may pass unblemished but in which untruth is consumed.

Reason was seemingly a constant inhabitant of the house in which I grew up. My father was, among other things, well schooled in mathematics and in logic and was fully committed to the power of the rational. One of my earliest memories of him was his not infrequent demeaning exclamation, "Come now, be reasonable!", usually uttered when he was losing ground in an argument.

And yet, reason was not always unchallenged in that household. One of our family stories concerns a large cloth doll, with a wonderful china head and eyes that closed when she was put to bed, with the endearing name of Emily. I remember Emily as she nursed both my sister Naomi and I through a bout with scarlet fever when we were already both far too grown up to play with dolls.

This is how the story goes: When my father and mother were courting in England, where they both grew up, they went to a funfair where various games of chance and skill could be played. One game was the familiar one of knocking down pyramids of bottles with a small hard ball. Although the fee was very small, the grand prize was this large doll. My mother decided that she wanted the doll and tried to persuade my father to have a go. He, the perfect logician, pointed out the difference in cost between the small fee and the large doll, suggesting that there must reasonably be very little chance of winning. Nevertheless my mother insisted and, as you already have probably guessed, he won the doll on his first try. Fortunately for me and my sister, their relationship survived this setback!

This story, almost a parable, perhaps entitled "The High Brought Low," illustrates that many things which are highly improbable are, in fact possible. We all know of such experiences and many have had them personally: the chance encounter on the street leading to a job or a marriage, the winning lottery ticket, the missed airplane which later crashes.

I remember an instance of the opposite principle, that is, that things which may be probable are nonetheless impossible, which occurred during my undergraduate training in physics. Once after I had assayed a particularly abstruse flight of fancy, my undergraduate advisor exclaimed with exasperation, "Jonathan, you must learn that many things which are probable, simply aren't possible!" What he meant, translating from the language of physics, is that there are events for which one can calculate a statistical probability of occurrence but which cannot occur, or have not occurred, for reasons generally external to the calculation. The most common explanation of his for such a conclusion was simply that the universe is not yet old enough.

Despite these and other odd incidents of life, I grew up in a household in which reason was nearly undisputed king and faith or belief, if she dwelt there at all, remained far from sight. I have trained as a scientist and an engineer and for more than 30 years gave my undivided allegiance to reason.

Now I am not so sure that this was altogether a good idea. And my uncertainty begins with the naming of names, the consequences of using labels.

JBS Haldane, the great English biologist, amused himself and others by writing a series of stories about a thoroughly modern magician who wore a business suit and lived in a small London apartment. Mr. Leakey, Haldane's wonderful invented alter ego, is a bit of a curmudgeon, and is constantly complaining about how the modern world and its scientific and technological developments make life difficult for a working magician. One of Mr. Leakey's most striking complaints, however, has to do with the naming of names: He deplores the practice of Christian missionaries of baptizing volcanoes and giving them saint's names - this ruins them in Leakey's eyes, making their sulfur and brimstone unusable in the casting of his spells.

Mr. Leakey's complaint reflects a widely held belief that naming things, especially in the necessary and sufficient way that is required before we can have a reasoned argument about them, actually achieves something positive. That is to say, that attaching a name to a problem contributes to its' rational solution!

There are various kinds of names or labels: some merely bounce off but some stick:

Here's an example of a non-stick word:

If I have a dog, and I call its' tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Of course, it still has four (or maybe three) since calling a tail a leg doesn't make it so.

Here's an example of a sticky label:

The next time you kiss a person on their lips, remember what is attached to the other end.

And people's names are so sticky that they come to be handles by which we grasp and hold onto them in memory.

Well, I have difficulty remembering people's names. I can assure you that describing my problem as "nominative aphasia" or the CRS Syndrome (Can't Remember... well, you get the idea) may make for entertaining talk at a party but doesn't do anything to solve the problem.

Let me say further that I think that the seemingly rational process of naming things may even make problems worse by obscuring our vision.

Suppose a small girl asks you, "Why is the sky blue?" Depending on your turn of mind you might say, "Would you like it better if it were green?," "It's blue because God made it so," or, "That's just the way it is!" Children are often satisfied with such explanations for a time, but sooner or later, they will run into a physicist who will discourse at great length about atmospheric scattering and Rayleigh diffraction, thus attaching words and names to the problem. And the child, now perhaps a young adult, may be well satisfied, perhaps for the rest of her life.

I am not: telling me that Rayleigh diffraction makes the sky blue may be a satisfactory answer to the "how does the blue get up there" question, useful if I wanted to design a new planet, but it contributes nothing to answering the "why is it there" question. And further, if I am to think of Lord Rayleigh every time I look at the sky, then I may see him in my mind's eye, complete with mutton chop whiskers. Thereafter, he and his whiskers will always get in the way of my appreciating the celestial shade of the sky and of my real sense of wonder of why it is so, why it is there.

Perhaps Leakey's complaint was really that thinking about Saint Somebody distracted him from his real business of making magic.

And I think that there are examples of naming names, leading to uttering words in rational discourse, where the results do not merely obscure our view but are more profound and damaging.

Some years ago I was involved in the search for a senior researcher in a relatively new field to fill a very important university post. The position involved great prestige, control of considerable funds and the leadership of a large, highly regarded research unit. The search committee found a person whom they considered to be perfect in all respects and negotiations began. However, after issues of salary and benefits, moving expenses, etc. had been settled, the candidate made an additional request: he asked that one of his colleagues, like himself a full professor, but in a related but more traditional field, also be given an appointment at the university. At first the search committee thought nothing much about this request, since the two professors, let us call them Able and Baker, had collaborated for many years, and discussions were started to bring it about. But then a remarkable thing happened: one member of the committee asked, "If Able (the candidate) is so good, why does he (or we) need Baker?" This simple question once asked could not be taken back; the words stuck. The question, even though unanswered, proved fatal to Able's appointment to the position and, in retrospect, I think marked the apex of his career, since he never seemed so strong or well regarded afterwards and his research funding declined.

Ah, the naming of names; the power of rational argument.

Lao Tzu, the old master, still speaking to us with insight across five millennia of human experience, counsels:

The Way is eternally nameless.

As soon as one begins to divide things up, there are names.

Once there are names, one should know when to stop;

Knowing when to stop, one thereby avoids peril.


I think that we have not avoided peril, we do not know when to stop the division, the naming of names. We have fallen into the heresy of scientism, of arguing that the universe is finally rational and ultimately knowable, that we may discern first causes and, because we can do so, we must reject any unreasoned source of truth.

Blinded by the light of truth, we have fallen into the fire of reason and we burn, we burn.

For reason explains love as mere pheromonic action and reaction, diagnoses dreams as consequences of indigestion and argues finally that humans are mere machines.

Well, this one machine, as it ages, finds less and less satisfaction in knowing what and more desire to know why. As Vaclav Havel, speaking about the end of the modern era, remarked, "We must try harder to understand than to explain." And understanding, true wisdom, often seems to elude rational argument:

A young man, a student physicist with a weak grounding in Newtonian mechanics, seeks out a wise man living deep in the hills and inquires as to why the earth stays in its place in the heavens rather than falling into the sun. In this well known story, the sage replies that the earth is borne on the back of a great elephant, which stands on the back of a still greater turtle and, anticipating the next query of the young man, the sage exclaims, "It's turtles all the way down!"

If the US Congress had not recently done the right thing for the wrong reason, as it often does, deep in the heart of Texas, in the SuperCollider1, in several years the search would have begun for the so-called Higg's Particle, the final or first cause needed to complete the modern standard theory of matter. At least Leon Lederman had the honesty to call the Higgs Particle what it is, in a recent book of the same title, The God Particle. And even if "the God Particle" is found elsewhere sometime in the future, we will merely have gotten more what but no more why, more explanation but no more understanding, from this enormous investment of wealth.

Don't misunderstand me: I like science and technology. Pragmatically, they enable, enlarge and enrich life and will continue to do so, to degrees quite unpredictable and astonishing. And they frequently achieve great beauty and provide intellectual reward. But as I leave science for other pursuits, I look back and say, "Oh, it's been so good to know you but we must each know when to stop to avoid peril."

Furthermore, I am not sure that science is even such a reasoned pursuit as we think it is. Scientific experiments can only chose between alternatives, between known answers. New ideas, new insights, come, as Thomas Paine says, as voluntary visitors worthy of a civil reception and careful examination. We do this, without inquiring as to the origin of insight or intuition, each secure in our self-image as a reasonable creature, a user of the tools of rational argument and the scientific method. But in the last analysis, in Benjamin Franklin's words, it is so convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

We cannot hope to learn first causes. Even in something as simple as arithmetic, we must accept that the universal rule for addition, by which we argue that one and one always equals two, must be taken on faith, for no formal proof of this equality exists. Gödel has even argued that no system of reasoning can possess within it its' first cause or fundamental axiom: that all axioms are external or, in common language, must be taken on faith.

When we were young, we told each other ghost stories and were terribly, deliciously frightened.

When we grew older, we became wiser and ceased to believe in ghosts, because we could not prove their existence.

Can we now achieve true wisdom and accept that whether or not we believe in ghosts has nothing to do with their existence?

On the other hand, maybe it is turtles all the way down!

My Friends:

The days draw in, each day the sun rises further to the south and flees the advancing night more quickly.

Now is the time to gather our family members and pets about us, to nestle and cuddle, to tell stories perhaps true and yet, perhaps, untrue; ghost and goblin and prince and princess stories; stories of whales and pirates and space ships; tall tales of giants and short tales of everyday heroes; even stories of a right proper old elf;

Now is the time to suspend disbelief;

To seek sweet understanding rather than cool explanation;

To unfold in the warmth of community.

For this winter will end and we shall, with the aid of both reason and nonreason, of rationality and belief, emerge once again into the light.

1 See also "Chaos". I continue to be struck by similarities between the SSC and the Tower of Babel of biblical parable.