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The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World

The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World

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The bigger the word, the fuzzier it gets. Any definition of ‘rights’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘religion’ will have a dozen others lurking in the shadows. In a now almost entirely forgotten article from 1955 , sociologist George A. Hillery located 94 different definitions of the term ‘community’. We can’t do without these conceptual behemoths, it seems, but rarely do they make our lives much simpler.

As with ‘community’ or’ religion’, so with ‘reason’ – with the added disadvantage that the term, already hard to pin down, has been vigorously assailed over recent decades by its massing enemies. Once upon a time, so the story goes, ancient Athenians dreamed a dream of reason. It was mercilessly snuffed out (by faith, natch) but nearly two millennia later Descartes or Hobbes or Kant or one of that crowd recaptured the dream and helped build a beautiful new world full of reason and human rights. Alas, this new world also eviscerated human sensibilities and rode roughshod over indigenous cultures and helped produce Five Year Plans and Zyklon B, and so people began to attack reason with Romanticism or with accusations of imperialism or genocide.

The space–time universe being what it is, every action apparently has an equal and opposite reaction, so this anti–rational assault forced an ever more determined reaction from rationalists, who shouted louder and stamped their feet harder and prayed ever more fervently that subjective judgment would be banished altogether and “everything that mattered [would] be demonstrated with the rigour of an algorithm”.

Julian Baggini is a “rationalist”, in the sense of being a firm believer in reason, but he is – lest I labour the word – a reasonable one, believing that “reason has been knocked off its pedestal because it was raised up too high”. His new book, The Edge of Reason, is a defence of reason that works by taking its subject down a peg or two.

The book is structured round four metaphors – the Judge, the Guide, the Motivator and the King – each pertaining to one of the (ultimately Platonic) myths of reason: that reason is purely objective and requires no subjective judgement; that it can and should take the form of our chief guide; that it can furnish us with the fundamental reasons for action; and that we can build society on perfectly rational principles. These are indeed myths, and not harmless ones. Whenever reason thinks it can fulfil these roles, it is heading for a fall.

Perhaps the key metaphor here is that of the judge, the idea that the exercise of reason obviates the need to reach conclusions or form theories “the truth or falsity of which cannot be determined by the appeal to facts and/ or logic alone.” (87) This is a key idea and one that makes repeated appearance across the wide range of topics covered in the book’s 250 or so pages, not least, religion.

An atheist himself, Baggini comes to “the eternal God argument” straight out of the blocks. In doing so, he engages seriously with Alvin Plantinga’s contention that some beliefs, including belief in God, are “properly basic”, an argument with which he (naturally) disagrees. His point, however, is not to dismiss the argument, still less to ridicule it as many a rationalist might do, but to point out that the arguments about God are “eternal” not so much because God is, but because the nature of our disagreement appears to be. These issues are supremely unlikely to be settled with reference to reason alone. The bottom line, so to speak, is that certain positions are, indeed, properly basic and even those that aren’t require the kind of personal judgement that goes beyond ‘reason alone’.

It is much the same with the other topics with which he deals. “No matter how powerful their brains, scientists tend also to listen very closely to what their guts tell them.” Philosophy’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends heavily on judgment, which itself is shaped by the idiosyncrasies of philosophers themselves; indeed “how people philosophise is largely determined by their personalities.” (78) “Some of the justification for morality is to be found by the operation of reason, but not its ultimate justification.” (156)

None of this means that reason is anything less than essential in any of these disciplines or that it is impossible to make any truth statement about any of them. Rather, the issue is that reason, in almost any serious arena in which it is deployed, is underdetermined by the evidence, and depends on the personal, even on “aspects which are unknown and unconscious” just as much as those that are “systematic and conscious”. (45)

In emphasising this point, Baggini sets out what he calls “a catholic conception of reason”. Reason is not confined to the works of logic, maths or hard sciences. Rather “rational enquiry” is serviceable in virtually every intellectual discipline worth the name, albeit in very different ways and forms. It is not “a purely objective, impersonal judge but something used by reasoners to help them form good judgements”.

Although I suspect he wouldn’t thank me for this, this comes perilously close to being a Catholic conception of reason too (indeed, the idea, as Baggini puts it, that reason is the business of being able to “provide objective reasons for belief” almost has a whiff of St Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” about it.) Take, for example, John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). There is much in this that Baggini would wholeheartedly disagree with, not least the conception of revelation that the Pope judges as essential to the right use of reason. But the two of them are in lock step on their rejection of relativistic, scientistic, and positivist attitudes to reason. They both recognise that it is the whole person, and not just some kind of disembodied mind, that thinks; that reason, in Baggini’s words, “is a human faculty that is shaped and limited by its hosts” (109), and that accordingly, reason alone will not make up that person’s mind. Baggini’s “judgement” and the Pope’s “faith” are different concepts, but they overlap. One should not, of course, push the comparison too far or pretend there is some kind of uncomplicated love–in between Christian conceptions of reason and Baggini’s.

For example, the final part of the final chapter, on the use of public reason, is unpersuasive, at least to my mind, but surprisingly so. Baggini is emphatically not one of those “theophobes” who say the religious must keep their beliefs under wraps if they want to engage publicly in debate but he does think that if they do so they are duty bound, when operating in the civic sphere, to use a language we all share, to express themselves in “universalism and not particularist terms”

But what are these terms? Where is this consensus with which we all apparently agree? A few pages later Baggini (rightly) points out that phrases like “the people” or “hard–working families” are “bogusly homogeneous”; but if there is no neat entity such as the “people”, why should we imagine there will be any consensus on acceptable and comprehensible terms with which the people debate. Roger Scruton once noted that it was remarkable co–incidence that Rawlsian public reasoning, the idea that lies behind Baggini’s argument, was so close to the natural lexicon of East Coast liberals. I fear he is right.

Indeed, I felt that Baggini’s whole section on secularism and public reasoning fell into a version of this error. He claims it is hard for any culture to be truly pluralist if it is not also secular; the UK is a pretty good example to the contrary. He says that “secularism allows freedom of religious belief”, a somewhat unfortunate assertion at a time when armed French policemen bravely fight middle–aged Muslim women on the beaches. Generally, his reasoning tells him that a ‘secular’ society is naturally more fair, equal and tolerant than one, say, with an established church and bishops in the Lords, but the evidence would suggest this is questionable.

This, I should emphasise, constitutes a relatively minor disagreement. The Edge of Reason is a fine, well–argued, broad–ranging (and much–needed) book, and Baggini is one of the most considered and (yes) reasonable voices in public debate today. He never succumbs to the stereotyping or mockery that infects so much debate on these matters, and is also relentlessly courteous in his tone, even when dealing with the obvious absurdities, such as Luce Irigaray’s lunatic suggestion that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.” Even if readers do not agree with everything in The Edge of Reason (and I suspect Baggini would be disappointed if they did), they should benefit from a book that will help them have more, and less, confidence in the powers of reason.

The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World“ by Julian Baggini is published by Yale University Press (2016)

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos
Image by Dean Hochman, Flickr, available under this Creative Commons Licence.
Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 9 September 2016

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