The Enlightenment is Dead: Chapter 1 – The Secularist’s Epistemological Dilemma: Deriving Rationality from the Non-Rational


“If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction?  Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic?  They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’  The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’  But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.’”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy[1]

The Age of Enlightenment is an intellectual movement that is usually dated from around the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century.  The Enlightenment view of the world, however, has continued to be influential into our current time and has even become dominant in all of our institutions.  The Enlightenment is characterized by the promotion of human reason and experience as the final judge of truth.  Although some of its leading thinkers allow a role for God in their philosophical systems, making human reason and experience the final judge of truth effectively puts man in the place of God.  God and the supernatural are excluded, or nearly so, from a role in scientific knowledge.   From its inception to the current time, the Enlightenment tradition has become more consistently atheistic.

The Enlightenment is hardly dead today in terms of popularity among the major institutions throughout the world.  It is the reigning paradigm of rationality.   But in terms of a philosophical defense, the Enlightenment is at a dead end.  The major options for defending it have been tried, and they have failed.  The history of Enlightenment philosophy is a series of failures to account for human rationality, science, and ethics.  Each new philosophical system within the tradition tries a new angle to solve the problems of the previous ones, only to suffer its own debilitating problems.  The views vacillate between emphasizing the particular or the universal, between the individual or society, between sensation or abstract rationality, never finding a satisfying resting place.  The failure of the Enlightenment program is all the more obvious with the rise of postmodern philosophy.  Postmodernism is an admission that modernism cannot be defended.  Modernism can be defined as the view that empirical investigation yields objective knowledge about the world; such a view of knowledge draws a sharp line between religious claims and objective, scientific knowledge.  Postmodernism points out the failures of modernism, but it does not offer anything significant in terms of a positive construct for overcoming those failures.  Postmodernism is the dead end of Enlightenment philosophy.

Adherence to the Enlightenment project is particularly strong in the scientific community.  In contrast with the general public, a large percentage of modern scientists are atheists, and the higher up the ladder of scientific prestige you look, the greater percentage of atheists you will find.  Atheist scientists have produced advances in knowledge and technology that have helped define our age as exponentially more advanced than all previous ages of human history.  Modern atheists themselves almost universally equate atheism with science.  Yet, despite their passion for science and their self-image as the premier champions of science, the truth is that science is logically incompatible with the modern atheist’s view of the nature of reality.  Atheists can be, and often are, productive scientists; but science would not be possible if God did not exist.  For the good of science, the modern atheist’s false self-image should be abandoned, along with several other of their urban legends, such as that the Galileo trial was a contest of religion versus science and that the Middle Ages are accurately called the “Dark Ages” of learning.

In the Enlightenment-inspired modernist view (often referred to as “scientism,” “naturalism,” or “materialism”) that dominates modern academia, nothing exists except matter/energy, and humans are nothing but bags of molecules.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out, if that is true, then our thinking has no more significant than the wind in the trees:

Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of the primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in.  If, on the other hand, I swallow the [naturalistic] scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test.[2]

If a view of reality undermines the possibility of thinking, that is the final test that it should be rejected as irrational and unscientific.  The famous geneticist J. B. S. Haldane observed, “if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”[3]  Materialism reduces to absurdity.   Materialism is mindlessness.[4]

The problem is not merely that there is no human mind or soul, but that there is no place for laws of logic and other universal mental concepts in the naturalistic worldview.  In the naturalistic worldview, there can be no universal, necessary concepts like logic and mathematical laws because they are not material objects.  Atheists have protested that appeals to God are unscientific because we can’t put God in a test tube, but the same goes for rules of logic and mathematics.[5]  They can’t be isolated to a human brain or even all human brains because human brains and all other material objects are limited, changing, and contingent (they could possibly not exist), but the laws of logic are universal, unchanging, and necessary.  If naturalism were true, we could not know that it is true.  Naturalism is self-refuting.  The idea that there are laws of nature also goes out the window on this view, since laws of nature are described by non-natural, abstract mathematics.  If scientism were true, there could be no science.  As Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  That is what atheistic materialism amounts to – not science and reason.

Some atheists are willing to deny the universal necessity of the laws of logic and claim that laws of logic are merely human conventions.  That would mean that a society could adopt the convention that the person who wins a gun fight wins the argument.[6]  It would mean that logic would not apply outside human convention.  The law of non-contradiction would not necessarily apply at some places and times in the universe, so that it could be both true and false, at the same time and in the same sense, that particular planets revolve around a particular star.  It would mean that 2 plus 2 could equal 5, in the same way and at the same time that we say that 2 plus 2 equals 4.  If rationality is something that humans simply make up, then the universe is irrational.

The laws of logic and propositions in general are intentional, meaning that they are about something.  If I say that “It is contradictory for an object to be both round and square,” or say, “The sky is blue,” I am making statements about things.  Unlike these statements, material objects are not intentional.  A rock or a tree is not about anything.  Marks on a page can form words that are about things, but that is only because a mind imputes a meaning to those marks.  They are not intrinsically intentional.  Therefore, if your view of the world is that non-rational matter is the source of everything that exists and happens, you can never explain rationality.  You can’t say that you are thinking or communicating about anything.  Everything you think or say is meaningless.  Atheist philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg is bold enough to embrace this consequence of atheism:  “Thinking about things can’t happen at all.  The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter.  When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.”[7]  Of course, if thinking about things can’t happen at all, then you shouldn’t even have the illusion of thoughts, any more than a rock would have the illusion of thoughts.

Naturalists claim (in a leap of faith) that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter – that it is somehow produced by molecules in the brain.[8]  But even if that were possible, it would not address the main issue that I am raising:  a basis for the existence of unchanging, universal concepts.  Concepts only exist in minds, and the source of the universal, necessary laws of logic and mathematics could only be a universal, necessary Mind on whom contingent, finite minds are dependent for their thinking.[9]  Also, in order for the concepts in this Mind to relate to the material world, this Mind must be the source of the material world – a Creator of all that exists.   The existence of God – and not just any god or higher power, but one that is an absolutely rational mind and the creator of all that exists – is necessary for the possibility of rationality in the universe.  To quote Lewis again, “Unless I believe in God, I can’t believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”[10]  The phenomenon of rational human thought logically requires the existence of God because God must exist in order for logic and mathematics to exist.  As Cornelius Van Til puts it, “If God does not exist, we know nothing.  For Descartes’ formula, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ we now substitute, God thinks, therefore I am.’  The actuality of God’s existence is the presupposition of the intelligibility of the concepts of possibility and probability.”[11]

Atheism attempts to make the irrational appear rational, and the rational to appear irrational.  Faith in the Christian God is the triumph of rationality; it’s the surrender of error-prone, limited human rationality to the absolutely rational Mind that created and rules all of reality.  There could not be a more strongly rational view of reality than the biblical view that an absolutely rational Mind created and rules all of reality.  A revelation such as the Bible, that authoritatively speaks to all areas of reality, whether material or spiritual, is to be expected based on the existence of such an ultimate rationality.  An absolutely rational Mind that is the source of all reality can, by nature, communicate with rational language to rational creatures about any subject.  In contrast, atheism is nihilism, both in terms of knowledge and ethics.  It undermines science and civilization.  Atheism is a futile attempt to explain human rationality in terms of an ultimately meaningless universe.  Yet atheists present the situation as reversed, with belief in God and the Bible as the epitome of irrationalism.  They turn reality upside down.  They claim to defend “reason,” but it is a pretense of reason.  Their defense of “reason” is really a defense of the self-sufficiency of human reason.  To defend the self-sufficiency of human reason, atheists must deny human dependency on a higher rationality; they must certainly deny an ultimate rationality to the universe.  Their defense of “reason” ends up undermining the rationality of the world as a whole because it entails an ultimately non-rational universe, and human reason could never arise in a universe that is ultimately without rational character.  On their account, human reason amounts to bits of foam thrown up from an infinite, fluctuating sea of meaninglessness, and yet these bits of short-lived foam are supposed to apply universal, unchanging laws of logic and mathematics to the meaningless, fluctuating world from which they emanate.

From these brief arguments, it should be obvious that any philosophy of science that is based on naturalism will be a failure.  Accounting for rationality in a world derived from the ultimately non-rational rather than from an absolutely rational God is futile.  God is not found as the result of a scientific experiment; rather, God is the necessary precondition for scientific experiments to be possible – necessary to account for unchanging laws of logic and mathematics and the changing world of sense experience, and how the two aspects of reality can relate to each other.  There is no more reason to think that science will overturn this conclusion than to think that science might overturn the truth that 2 + 2 = 4.  The conclusion is rationally unavoidable.

The atheist’s futile attempt to account for rationality can be compared to attempts at alchemy, but more than transforming base metals into gold, atheists use their “philosophers’ stone” to explain the transformation of mindless matter into minds and universal, unchanging concepts that matter must obey (i.e., logic and mathematics).  It takes great intelligence to pull off the deception that their failures have actually been a success.  They polish turds and sell them as pearls wisdom, guaranteed to promote their purchasers to the forefront of human evolution.  I certainly don’t deny the intelligence of Enlightenment philosophers, but they are like sharp saw blades set at the wrong angle.[12]  Rather than wisdom they produce an ingenious folly.

Various non-Christian views of knowledge have been proposed to account for the possibility of scientific knowledge, but each time, the brash hypothesis is soon shown to reduce to absurdity.  Early twentieth-century atheists labored passionately to explain knowledge in terms of strict, naturalistic empiricism, and they have failed; and some of the best of them admit it.  This is the state of modern atheist epistemology (theory of knowledge) as summed up by the famous twentieth-century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell:

Academic philosophers, ever since the time of Parmenides, have believed that the world is a unity. . . .  The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this is rubbish.  I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without any unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love.  Indeed, there is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all. . . .[13]

This is the logical consequence of the modernist theory of knowledge that was dominant in twentieth-century academia:  naturalistic empiricism, that sense experience is the ultimate source of knowledge.  The adherents to naturalistic empiricism equate their view of the world with science.  Yet Russell admits that they can’t affirm that there is order to nature or even “that there is a world at all.”  This view cannot be seen as anything other than anti-scientific.  They complain about a war between religion and science, but the real war is between atheism and science.  The situation is not merely that Christianity is compatible with science.  The existence of the Christian God is necessary for the possibility of science.  Atheism undermines the possibility of science.

Modernists thought that “science,” meaning for them systematic knowledge based solely on sense experience, could be depended upon as the source of all knowledge.  Postmodernism arose as the recognition that modernism was a failure.  To fail to recognize the failure of modernism is to live in the past.  The postmodernists are still atheists, but they realize the failure of the atheist modernist program.  Modernism was atheism’s last, best attempt to explain the world without God, and postmodernism is the recognition of that failure.  Atheism has hit a dead-end.  The postmodernists do not believe that Christianity offers the solution to the problem of knowledge, but I will argue that it does.  Further, the number of options for atheists to try in order to account for knowledge is limited, and I will argue that all the basic options to account for knowledge without God have been tried and failed.  There is no escape from the necessity of God’s existence.

The Enlightenment has been a failure.   But how could it be a failure if it historically gave us science?  Because the Enlightenment didn’t give us science.  Christianity gave us science, then the Enlightenment came later and took credit for it, as I will show in subsequent chapters.  As the saying goes, they were born on third base and think that they hit a triple.  Historically as well as philosophically, science has its origin in the Christian belief in the rationality of God as the Creator, which provides the basis for the rationality of the world and the humans who study it.  While atheists kidnapped Science from its birth-mother Christianity and tried to raise her as their own, the genetic inheritance pointing to her true mother is too clear to deny.

Since the major institutions of the world have embraced the Enlightenment as the foundational rationale for their existence, and since that foundation is an irrational, delusional falsehood, the more that modern institutions become consistent with implications of Enlightenment thought and abandon all remnants of Christian ideas, the closer they move to their collapse, which would devastate human civilization across the globe.  Atheism is not the basis for science, knowledge, and progress, but for nihilism, meaninglessness, and the Abyss of human progress.   Thank God for science.  It is the rational thing to do.  It’s the only hope for the future of human civilization.

[1]  New York: John Lane Company, 1908, p. 58.

[2]  C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 21.  Also see Miracles (New York:  Macmillan, 1978), pp. 14-15.

[3]  J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds, (1927, reprint, New Brunswick, N.J., 2001), p. 209.

[4]  My main point here is to prove the existence of God for the possibility of human thinking, not the existence of the human mind or soul, but I should point out some of the arguments for the human mind.  Physicalists like to refer to the human brain as a “meat computer,” but as John Searle argues, a computer may be able to organize data, but it cannot understand it.  For example, a computer can organize Chinese language characters according to rules given to it, but a computer cannot understand the Chinese language.  John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1992).  Comparing the human brain to a computer is actually a very bad analogy.  Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain,” Aeon (May 18, 2016).  Second, Thomas Nagle argues that, while according to the physicalist account of human thinking, we should be able to describe everything from a third-person point of view, we cannot escape the first-person, subjective aspect of experience.  Thomas Nagle, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York, NY, 2012).  Third, our descriptions of experience cannot be reduced to molecules in our brains. Describing molecules is not the same as describing a feeling, like anxiety, or the experience of seeing the color red. Edward Feser, Philosophy of Mind:  A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford:  One World Publications, 2006).

[5]  “You can’t use supernatural explanation because you can’t put an omnipotent deity in a test tube.  As soon as creationists invent a ‘theo-meter’ maybe we could test for miraculous intervention.”  Eugenie Scott, “Keep Science Free From Creationism,” Insight, February 21, 1994, p. 30.

[6]  As Greg Bahnsen pointed out in his debate with the atheist Gordon Stein:

[7]  Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:  Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 2011), p. 172.

[8]  “No one has ever given an account, even a highly speculative, hypothetical, and incomplete account of how a physical thing could have phenomenal states.” Ned Block and Robert Stalnaker, “Conceptual Analysis, Dualism, and the Explanatory Gap,” The Philosophical Review 108.1 (1999): 1.  Also see Brandon Rickabaugh, “Alister Mcgrath’s Anti-Mind-Body Dualism: Neuroscientific And Philosophical Quandaries For Christian Physicalism” Trinity Journal 40NS (2019), 215-240.   Even if consciousness were an epiphenomenon of matter, the explanation of any human behavior would still be physical causation; reasons could never be given as the explanation for human actions.  Brandon Rickabaugh,“The Argument from Reason, and Mental Causal Drainage:  A Reply to Peter van Inwagen,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2017), 381; Jaegwon Kim, “Emergence: Core Ideas and Issues,” Synthese 151 (2006): 557–857; J. P. Moreland, “Mental vs. Top-Down Causation: Sic et Non, Why Top-Down Causation Does Not Support Mental Causation,” Philosophia Christi 15 (2013): 133–47; Dallas Willard, “Non-Reductive and Non-Eliminative Physicalism?,”

[9]  James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, “The Lord of Non-Contradiction:  An Argument for God from Logic,” Philosophia Christi 13:2 (2011).

[10]  C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (The Macmillan Company, 1943), p. 32.

[11] Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences (Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1978), p. 42.

[12]  Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), p. 43.

[13]  Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (London:  George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1954), p. 98.

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