Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is James Randi a full-time, specialized activist for reason?

Here, on May 16, 2014, I asked for the name of anyone in the USA who is a full-time, specialized activist for reason. I received several suggestions. One was James Randi (b. 1928). Is he a specialized activist for reason?

Unfortunately no one has yet published a biography of James Randi's long, productive career. Trying to decide whether Randi is worth furher investigation as a candidate, I studied three publications, one about and two from Randi. First, the long and informative Wikipedia article [1] does nothing to substantiate the claim that Randi is a full-time, specialized activist for reason. To the contrary, the article makes clear that, though Randi likes reason, he has been focused on two other goals: 
  • GOAL 1: Investigating the claims made by a variety of individuals, such as advocates of extrasensory perception, and, where those claims are shown to be false or even fraudulent, overturning ("debunking") the claims.
  • GOAL 2: Defending the methods of science, and, as a corollary, refuting pseudo-scientific claims (for example, by supporters of homeopathy). Thus Randi rightly takes both a positive approach to science and a negative approach to pseudo-science (and "flim-flam" in general).
Randi explains and supports science, but he is not a full-time, specialized promoter of reason. Science is not reason. Science uses reason in particular ways, but is not the same thing as reason.* Nor does Randi, as far as I can tell from the titles in his list of publications, contrast reason with mysticism, thereby explaining both reason and mysticism.

The second publication I examined was an informative and entertaining lecture by James Randi on his own channel, "skeptitube." This video is apparently a recording of a lecture he gave at Caltech in 1992.[2] Here Randi describes himself as a "skeptic." He says nothing about promoting reason. He conducts an imaginary experiment. The conclusions he draws are severely limited, which is appropriate for science. A philosopher, by contrast, can survey the world around him and draw general or even universal conclusions—for example, about the nature of reason. Randi's lecture supports science, not reason. They are not the same.

A third sampling of Randi's long list of works is an article he wrote for an online journal he apparently established. The article is "Science, Pseudoscience: the Differences."[3] Once again, the subject is science, not reason. And once again Randi is an able defender of science, but he has little to say about reason. Minor points in his article raise questions about Randi's philosophy, particularly his epistemology. For example, after placing the words the truth in scare-quotes, thus throwing doubt on the idea, he says that truth is unreachable, "though in spite of Zeno's Paradox, we do eventually and essentially get there. But let's not examine that can of worms." (p. 1 of a five-page printout) 

Does Randi think that truth is possible? Or is Randi a philosophical skeptic, a person who believes that knowledge is impossible, at least to some degree? Either way, his dismissal of discussion of a "can of worms" is not the stance of a specialized, full-time activist for reason. Such an activist would welcome every opportunity to strengthen confidence in reason by solving puzzles about it.

Randi also makes clear (p. 1) that he opposes religion because religion is based on faith and rejects "reason, investigation, and logic." Randi does not go further in describing either mysticism or reason. So, here too there is evidence of Randi's personal support of reason but no full-time specialization in activism for reason.

In summary, working only from these three samples and from his newsletters which I read decades ago, I can say James Randi has had a long, productive, successful career as a defender of science and an exposer of "flim-flam." He is not a specialized, full-time activist for reason. Randi's relationship to reason is analogous to the imprint a seal makes in wax. The imprint in the wax is a result of the seal. Likewise, Randi's work in supporting science is a result of his respect for reason, but respect for a subject is not the same as specializing in promoting it.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

For the meaning of reason, see my post on August 25, 2009:

[1] "James Randi," May 18, 2014,

[2] James Randi, lecture on proving the negative,, 1992. I am not certain of the location and time of this lecture.

[3] James Randi, "Science[,] Pseudoscience: the Differences,", no date of publication.

Friday, May 16, 2014

$100 Finder's Fee: Can you name a full-time activist for reason?

I am offering a small finder's fee to the first person who can identify a specialized activist, in the USA, working full-time to support reason as a specialized subject. Identify means providing the activist's name and a link to him. Support means explicit, sustained advocacy as a career path. Reason means the human faculty that integrates sense-perceptions into concepts, creates principles, forms generalizations, develops theories, and so forth—all following logic as the art of noncontradictory identification of the facts of reality. 

(An example of a specialized activist is Alex Epstein of Center for Industrial Progress. For the distinction between specialized and general activism:

The specialized activist for reason would be taking steps such as:
  • Collecting a flood of examples of the use of reason, from history and today.
  • Showcasing the tools of reason: induction, deduction, reduction, analysis, and so forth.
  • Defining reason at various lengths, for a variety of audiences.
  • Showing the benefits of reason in our world today.
  • Contrasting reason with mysticism—examples of it, its nature, its many forms, and its consequences in history and in life today.
The specialized activist for reason would engage in various tasks such as:
  • Writing weblog posts.
  • Producing videotapes or podcasts.
  • Welcoming interviews on radio and television.
  • Engaging debaters on university campuses and elsewhere.
  • Writing magazine articles.
  • Lecturing on reason in general or specific facets of reason and mysticism.
  • Conducting seminars.
  • Teaching classes.
  • Writing books.
If you know of such a person (or organization), please comment below or email me at

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: They Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

P. S. — If you are aware of no such person but you think there should be a full-time activist for reason and you would be willing to support him, please tell me. Perhaps we can collaborate, if not immediately, then perhaps in the future. My resources are small, but I am prepared to donate $2000/year to that person to support his work. 

In the movement that supports a philosophy of reason, the time has come for someone to speak for reason: full-time, radically, and at length.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

BkNotes: Nichols's Conversation of Faith and Reason

Aidan Nichols, Conversation of Faith and Reason: Modern Catholic Thought from Hermes to Benedict XVI, Chicago, Hillenbrand Books (Liturgy Training Publications), 2011, 222 pages.

AUTHOR. Aidan Nichols is a Dominican theologian. (p. iv) He is a "historical theologian" (p. 1), that is, he focuses on studying the history of theology. He is also a "fundamental or dogmatic theologian, concerned to found more securely the faith of the Church." (p. 1) Thus he is both descriptive and prescriptive in his work. He seeks to draw his prescriptions from the descriptions. (pp. 1-2)

AUDIENCE. In his foreword to Conversation of Faith and Reason, Matthew Levering (a professor of theology, University of Dayton) says that Aidan Nichols, the author, wrote Conversation for readers "looking for high-level discussions of how humans come to know, to desire, and to express the truth about God and human beings"; the book is not for readers "who seek popularized depictions of faith and reason." (p. iv) 

Levering's warning to readers is understated. Unless you are already familiar with the issues and history of this subject, you will need to read slowly, take notes, and research some of the many names that Nichols includes in his complex account. This slim book requires a lot of effort, but it helps identify the roots of Catholic activism for the Church's support of both faith and reason (as the Church defines it).

SUBJECT. Conversation of Faith and Reason is a chronological examination of Catholic theologians as they examine the nature and interrelationship of faith and reason (that is, theology and philosophy) within the Catholic worldview. The Table of Contents outlines the book. Each of the eleven chapters discusses one or two theologians. The period which the book covers is mostly 1800 to 2005, but the author—and the theologians he discusses—refer back to Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, and others. Most of the theologians examined in the main chapters were Europeans who were, at one time or another, working in academia. Five of the thirteen men in the debate also became popes.

The chapters are:
1. Introduction.
2. A Kantian Beginning: George Hermes.
3. A Catholic Hegel? Anton Gunther.
4. The Response of Fideism: Louis Bautain.
5. Magisterial Interventions: Gregory XVI and Pius IX.
6. Return to the Schoolmen: Joseph Kleutgen and Leo XIII.
7. Embodying the Leonine Project: Etienne Gilson.
8. The Philosophy of Action: Maurice Blondel.
9. The Dispute over Apologetics: From Blondel to Balthasar.
10. A Synthetic Outcome? John Paul II's Letter Fides et Ratio.
11. From Cracow to Regensburg: Benedict XVI.

The introduction features a brief history of Catholic views of the nature of faith, from the Old Testament writers to the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council declared that there are two kinds of faith. The first is a merely human faith: We accept a revelation as believable because it fits within what we already know as acceptable. The second is divine faith: We accept a revelation because God, the supreme speaker of truth, said it. To have this sort of faith, the believer must have received God's grace. (p. 15)

So far as authoritative or classical sources for Catholic thought are concerned—Church Fathers, doctors, ecumenical Councils, papal definitions of doctrine, there the position, taken by and large, may be said to stand as the nineteenth century opens. (p. 15)

THEME. Most of the book is devoted to presenting and discussing the main Catholic theologians of the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, to anyone studying Catholic philosophical or theological activism today, the author's own views are key. He is an activist through his teaching and writing.

The main point of the book is that the selected theologians have understood reason, faith, and their relationship in a variety of ways. Sometimes popes were able to synthesize those varying views; and sometimes popes overruled some of the interpretations. For example, Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) identifies the sides of the debate, says Nichols. (p. ix)

What are Nichols's definitions of reason and faith? He draws from three sources: "Scripture, Tradition, magisterium." (p. 2)

Faith comes from hearing. It is the welcoming acceptance of a message issuing from Christ and his apostles, an 'apostolic preaching' which ... is confirmed by divine acts. These acts may be outer and public in the form of 'signs' of some description ... or they may be inner and altogether personal, invisible movements within the human soul. ... To sum up the conclusions so far: for the New Testament, taken very broadly, faith is the reception of a message. (p. 3)

Nichols says that Saint Paul believed faith to enable individuals to "only glimpse its own object remotely." (p. 4) Saint John, however, thought of faith and knowledge as nearly synonymous. (pp. 4-5) Faith, according to John, is essentially mystical. (p. 5) 

In discussing Augustine's saying, Crede ut intelligas ("Believe that you might understand"), Nichols defines "believing." "What Augustine meant by 'believing' is, at its most intense and comprehensive, a form of religious understanding where, under the enlivening action of charity, faith 'expands into a theological elaboration and mystical penetration' of its own object." (p. 7) Nichols further offers Thomas Aquinas's definition of faith as "the habit of mind whereby eternal life begins in us, causing the mind the assent to things that do not appear." (p. 5)

Nichols also discusses definitions of reason. Among the beliefs of the Latin Church fathers, Nichols says, "reason" meant "reasoned account" or "coherent explanation." (p. 5) Following the laws of logic is a necessary condition of rationality, but not a sufficient one. (p. 17) In looking at Enlightenment era thinkers' views of the nature of reason, he finds major differences. (p. 17) Nichols is a moderate pluralist: He sees various traditions each having its own meaning of "reason." However, he does not surrender to pluralism. He suggests a minimum definition of (1) following rules of logic in (2) argumentation from principles and to principles. (p. 18)

Nichols thinks that humans have one form of reason, the form they share (in a limited way) with God's reason. If you set aside that sharing, then there are a variety of forms of reason ("multiplicity of rationalities"). He names metaphysical reason, existential reason, and aesthetic reason. Divine reason is the unifier, for those who believe in God. (pp. 19-20)

The sentence that best captures the theme of the book is: "Revelational thinking assists both conceptual amplitude and argumentative solidity, desirable qualities of philosophical reason as such." (p. 211)

STYLE. Nichols is generally clear when he relates the history of the "conversation" among Catholic theologians—the names, places, and times. Nichols is often unclear when he attempts to describe the theological views of those theologians. One reason might be because the theologians wrote about subjects that do not exist, such as God, the Holy Spirit, and revelations. Clearly describing the nonexistent is difficult. A second reason for lack of clarity in Nichols's account might be that his sources, the theologians he examines, were themselves unclear in their own explanations. Some were influenced by Kant and Hegel, who wrote in a floating, rationalistic and therefore vague style. 

(By rationalism I mean the notion that the key to correct thinking is merely to make sure that all of our conclusions follow syllogistically from our premises, never mind where those premises come from; reason, by contrast, begins with sense-perception and proceeds inductively and deductively from there.)

Here is an example of rationalistic writing:

In its activity, divine grace constitutes a higher principle which overarches natural created reality. In giving access to this higher principle, faith englobes reason without truncating it. Divine grace in its essential supernaturality is not counterposed to the natural experiencing, reasoning and knowing subject as though it were antithetical to that subject in the latter's native modes of moving around the world. ...The difficulty about faith for post-Renaissance people is that they do not approach their rational and free 'I' as naturally  ordered beyond itself. Not surprisingly, then, Christian faith, originating in the divine action of revelation, loses for them its proper intelligibility. (pp. 18-19)

CONCLUSION. For a slow, careful reader, Nichols's Conversation of Faith and Reason offers a convenient one-volume summary of Catholic theologians' views of faith, reason, and their relationship. Though the book focuses mostly on the 19th and 20th centuries, it also surveys the Church's long earlier history. Unfortunately the book is difficult to read because of the author's style.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here: