Basic Assumptions Of Reason

In his Unpublished Lectures On Theology Charles Finney refers to what he calls ‘first truths’ of Reason. He includes these in a broader category which he refers to as the ‘intuitions of consciousness’. The latter includes intuitions of self-awareness, intuitions of sense, intuitions of conscience, and intuitions of the ‘pure Reason’. Finney suggests that each of these areas of intuition derive from different faculties of our personalities. Although it is valid to distinguish them in this way, it is also appropriate to consider them all under the rubric of Reason, when the latter is conceived in the broad sense of all our personal experiences in consciousness.

Finney believes that we not only undeniably intuit the laws of Reason, the experiences of sense, and the laws of conscience, but also that we naturally intuit the existence of God. He believes all of these affirmations are known with certainty, and cannot be denied by rational agents like us. I wish in this article to examine these claims.

It would be interesting if one could show what an ‘intuitive perception of God’s existence’ looks like, or prove we all have it. Unfortunately, Finney warns against trying to prove first truths, or basic intuitions, because if the proof fails, it might lead people to doubt the claimed proposition really is a ‘first truth’ or undeniable intuition. But this could also simply be a convenient avoidance of the need to substantiate what otherwise is only a bare assertion. The sense in which it would seem that such ‘first truths’ and ‘basic intuitions’ can be argued for, and the sense in which they ought to be argued for, is to show that even someone who denies the ‘intuition’ in question must assume what they deny. Either they assume what they deny in their theoretical reasoning or in their practical reasoning that leads to action. These ways of proving intuitions coincide with the areas of philosophical knowledge claims known as a priori and a posteriori reasoning. The first deals with what can be known by Reason alone, without the help of experience. The second reflects what is known through experience.

In other words, to ‘prove’ the validity of a ‘first truth’ or ‘basic intuition’ we need to show that whether or not people deny such concepts in theory, they must live by them in practice. But it might also be helpful to refer to these concepts as ‘basic assumptions’, rather than as ‘truths’ or ‘intuitions’. The latter suggest that they are known to be true, whereas the former indicates only that they must be assumed to be true, while recognizing that they cannot be substantiated or ‘proven’ directly. Rather, it is only on the basis of the assumption of the truth of such basic assumptions, that all other forms of proof can get off the ground. Although such axioms must be assumed if any reasoning or practical living is to follow, their unavoidability does not concretely substantiate them. All we can say is that from our perspective, as the type of beings we are, we must assume these things to be so, and are not free to avoid assuming this. This may be because these things are actually so, but it may also simply be due to things distinctive to type of beings we are and the way our own minds process things.

Laws Of Logic And Belief In The External World Are Basic Assumptions

The first area where we would see the idea of a basic assumption would be in the realm of the laws of logic. The most prominent of these is the law of non-contradiction. Here it does appear we must assume its truth even in the attempt to deny it. Something would be a basic assumption, when it must be assumed to be true if one is to even be able to reason and think at all. It as a basic law of thought. Such logical assumptions are the most basic to our beings. They are something we must assume to think at. But there are also basic assumptions we must utilize if we are to act at all. The fact we cannot act like something is not so also does not prove it is the case. But for all practical purposes, we must assume it to be the case.

It seems belief in the existence of a material universe, or of other minds, are in this second category. They are not basic assumptions of our thought life. We could think, without assuming anything beside ourselves exists. But we cannot act as though there is not a material universe. We have to assume it exists, if we are to live and carry on our lives. But this fact does not prove it is not all an illusion. All we can do to substantiate our belief in an external world is to point at it. It does appear to be there, but we cannot prove it is. Anything we did to try to prove it exists would have to assume it does before the proof could be attempted. So for all practical purposes we are forced to live from this basic assumption. Some people think this means it must exists, but there are other alternatives.

Finney suggests in his Unpublished Lectures that consciousness implies the not-consciousness. Sartre made a similar point in Being And Nothingness when he spoke of consciousness as consciousness of something. He claimed a consciousness posits itself as not alone, but as an awareness of that which is not itself. But it does not seem inconceivable that there could be a consciousness that was self-conscious solely of its own thoughts. We also know consciousness can exercise imagination, being aware of thoughts of objects that are not real. We also know consciousness can dream, and perceive itself to be actually experiencing what it dreams. We know consciousness can experience memories of past events that are not now occurring. Lastly we do experience consciousness that seems to be of an actual external world. All these different experiences do posit themselves to be what they seem to be. But we cannot ultimately prove any of them. We simply must accept them as a basic assumption, because that is how they seem. Whether or not they are direct intuitions of what they appear to present to us, we cannot say. We simply cannot live without accepting them. So for practical purposes, we can and should accept them as true. They are true, from our perspective.

Richard Swinburne expresses this fact of rational epistemology in what he calls the ‘Principle Of Credulity.’ It is totally rational to act on the assumption that something that appears to be the case actually is. But this does not fully prove it is. This also does not prevent additional evidence from entering into the picture that could lead us to abandon a basic assumption, through counter-evidence. My believing I see you at the end of the block is a reason for believing I do. If you suddenly walk up to me from behind, I now must reject my prior belief I was seeing you. If I believe I am standing at the edge of a cliff, that is reason to believe I do. If a suddenly wake up in my bed, although it takes a bit of convincing initially, I should accept I was not at the cliff. Try telling that to your three year old when he wakes up from a falling dream!

Moral Law Is A Basic Assumption

The existence of moral law also seems to be a basic assumption. Although we might attempt to deny moral law, in every social-personal context where we find ourselves, we experience the sense of obligation and value, and are required to make such judgements. These are basic assumptions we must live by if we are to interact with the world. This is the argument Paul uses in Romans 2, that all men have ‘moral motions’ (to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase). This does not prove that right and wrong are objective realities, but for all intents and purposes, from our perspective we must act on the assumption they are real. To do otherwise would be to go against what appears to us to be true. This would be to act irrationally.

This does not prevent us from analyzing a particular moral judgment that we ‘intuited’ and coming to conclude it was in error. Just as I can come to believe I was mistaken that I was seeing you down the street, I can come to believe a particular moral judgment was in error. But the assertion of its error assumes a different moral stance instead. Are there values, and right and wrong, objectively? They are as certain as our belief in a physical universe. We need to make moral judgments and value judgments if we are to live at all, just like we must assume an external world to live at all. So for practical purposes, they are objective. This does not remove the epistemological fact these are basic assumptions our nature requires us to affirm.

Is God A Basic Assumption?

So we come to the claim that God’s existence is a ‘first truth’ of Reason, an ‘intuition’, or a basic assumption. How does one show God’s existence to be a basic assumption of our natures? It is clear that reasoning itself does not require the belief there is a God. God’s existence is not a central tenet of structuring a logical argument, or making a truth claim. While he may be the explanation for why we are here and can think at all, the basic ability to think does not require us to posit God’s existence. Clearly if God exists then God thinks, yet is not required by this fact to posit the existence of a God external to himself, simply because he can think. So the existence of rationality does not require the existence of a rational creator of that rationality.

Is God’s existence a basic assumption we must affirm if we are to act? When we deny we perceive God to exist, are we latently assuming God does exist, the way we would be latently assuming an external world exists by acting, even though theoretically denying the world’s existence? Clearly we must act on the assumption there is an external world, if we are to act at all. We may reason that the world does not or may not exist. In fact, we are not required logically to affirm there is an external world. But we are required practically to assume this world’s existence, if we choose to act. Clearly we must also assume there is right and wrong, when we experience what appear to us to be moral values and the sense of obligation, and choose to interact with our fellowmen. But this also we can do without assuming God exists. All we need is the nature of a moral being, and the related experiences, to arrive at the basic assumptions associated with this nature in reference to moral truth.

A Priori Argument That God Is A Basic Assumption

Finney appears to offer two explanations for how we know God exists. One is a priori and the other a posteriori. The first seems to be his belief that our experience of conscience and moral obligation includes within it the direct affirmation of a moral governor to whom we are accountable for our moral action. But this affirmation on Finney’s part is not truly a priori, but seems to be an inference from the experience of the sense of authority that conscience presents itself with. Moral law asserts itself as obligatory, something we have over-riding reason to obey. This experience of accountability can be inferred to suggest someone we are accountable to. This is what Finney seems to assume. But in truth, it appears that it is moral law itself we are accountable to. Any moral governor that exists would only derive his authority from this law itself. He would not give this law its authority. So again our perception of moral law and obligation does not seem to provide any clear a priori evidence there must be a moral governor. It appears it is the perceived authority of moral law that is being confused by Finney with a person, who is then inferred to exist.

Again, the ultimate ‘disproof’ of this a priori claim that moral law means there is a moral governor seems to be the fact that God also experiences moral law, yet need not infer from this a moral governor to whom he is accountable. Since God has always existed, he would not find himself required to believe a personal creator might have created him. Since we all had a beginning, this possibility is a valid potential inference. But neither infinite past existence nor finite past existence relate directly to whether we are accountable to moral law. The experience of moral obligation appears to derive directly from the nature of a moral being, in the form of mind, will, and emotions. When these traits exist in a being, moral law will follow.

There is nothing in the characteristic of ‘being created’ itself that causes moral law to arise. So the inference from moral law to a creator does not appear to follow. Even if we have a moral governor, this is so not because there is a being who created us. Creating someone does not give someone the right to rule others. Only if moral law requires someone to take up the role of moral governor, and someone exists who is qualified so to rule, does the reality of moral government become actuated. This latter is not inherent to the existence of moral law itself, and is not experienced as a directly intuited implication of moral law. It is a contingent empirical matter that requires further evidence to substantiate it.

A Posteriori Argument That God Is A Basic Assumption

What is Finney’s a posteriori argument to God’s existence? Finney seems to claim belief in the existence of God is a necessary correlate to the basic assumption of the law of causality. This argument is essentially the cosmological argument. It is an attempted inference from the believed ‘first truth’ of causality, to an empirical implication. If every event needs a cause, there must be a personal being at the beginning of the chain of changes we see in the universe, since only a personal being has the power to begin such a series. My initial impression of this argument is that the nature of personality and its ability to begin causal series does form a good inductive argument to a personal ‘mover’ of the universe. It does not necessarily imply a creator of the universe, since it is motion the argument looks to for its evidence, not existence per se.

But I have yet to be convinced some sort of cyclical motion that has always been going on is entirely inconceivable. If we think of the chain of causal events as a single file line of existent objects acting on each other, one after another, then motion could not have been an eternal feature of reality since eventually we would run out of things to fill the chain. There cannot be an infinite number of things that actually exist. This would imply directly that a personal being capable of beginning such a causal series must have preceded this. But this does not remove the possibility of cycle, that things earlier in the chain end up being re-acted upon by things later in the chain. Here we would visualize not a single chain, but a circle of existent things.

Cyclical views of the universe form this kind of theory. Their present success or lack thereof do not prevent the essential possibility that things could have always been in motion, and acting on each other cyclically. There are certainly a lot of things in nature that appear quite cyclical. Water evaporates to become a gas, then cools and becomes water again. The food chain is a big cycle. So this concept is certainly conceivable. With our lack of knowledge of the entire universe, we cannot make grandiose claims of what is or is not possible on a cosmic, metaphysical scale. So although causality does form a good indicator of what might be the case cosmologically, it does not form an impenetrable barrier to alternate viewpoints. 

The Position Of Agnosticism

I think the above shows that nothing in our basic way of living, be it reasoning, acting, or making moral judgments, even our assumption of the law of causality, requires the assertion of a being external to ourselves, who made us. Many aspects of our experience do point to that as a possibility. In fact, it is one of the only two possibilities there are. But that a person must be entirely unreasonable and immoral to suggest the other naturalistic possibility simply ignores the complexity and vastness of the question. There are arguments on both sides of the scale. How does one assert with certainty which one is correct? Must one commit to a position, or can one express doubt in one’s own abilities to come to a conclusion?

This seems the position of the agnostic. He simply refuses to commit to a view he does not feel he can fully substantiate. As a result he does not affirm or deny God exists. But he can still reason, because belief in God’s existence is not required for the laws of logic to work. He can still act, because belief there is an external world does not require belief it is not an ultimate brute fact. He can still make value judgements and live a moral life, since these things derive directly from the fact he has mind, will, and emotions. None of these behaviors appear to contain a latent assumption God exists that he is simply not recognizing.

He recognizes that life may in fact have behind it a personal beginning and God. He simply does not believe he has sufficient evidence at this time to conclude this is so. But he is still open to this God coming into his experience and affirming his existence, just like other minds he encounters do. The fact he has no experience of a more personal nature that God exists actually adds to his evidence God possibly does not exist. If God is there, he could make himself more evident. One would also assume such a God would want to make himself more evident. The fact he does not do so is what we would expect, if there were no God. But still, God might have his reasons for not being plainer. But until evidence sufficient to convince him God exists is forthcoming, there is nothing immoral in our agnostic failing to act on this belief. As long as he lives by the light he actually has, and remains open to further evidence, he is doing all he can do, given the circumstances.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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