The World Comes From Reason and This Reason Is a Person

A reflection on the idea that “The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person.” (Joseph Ratzinger). The intelligibility of the world and the personal nature of the Logos.

I was recently reading Introduction to Christianity, written in 1968 by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. One line from the introduction really stood out to me:

“The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person.”

I think this may be the most perfect and succinct expression of what I believe. Most of the topics that interest me could be traced back to this sentence. It contains two important ideas:

1. The world is rational.

2. The world’s rationality comes from God.

That the world is rational is consistent with scientific realism, which is the view that the world described by science is real. It’s a view that I think, or at least hope, most people would agree with. Its connection to the second idea – that the world’s rationality comes from God – is not obvious. Many people believe that the world described by science is real without believing in God. Or believe in God and that the world described by science is real without connecting these two ideas. But I think these two ideas are necessarily linked. The reason the world is rational is because its rationality is God’s rationality.

Another thing I like about this statement is that it can be understood in a few ways, all of which I agree with. And the different interpretations have to do with different meanings of “come from” and “reason”, at least in this English translation of Ratzinger’s statement. That the world “comes from” reason we can understand to mean that God creat-ed (past tense) the world and that God is continually creat-ing (present tense) and sustaining the world. By “reason” we can understand “reason” as the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments and “reason” as a cause, explanation, or justification. Both work. So we get these four interpretations and their combinations:

“The world comes from reason”

1. At the point in time when the world came into existence it came from reason.

2. The world continues to exist in the way that it does from reason.

“And this reason is a Person”

1. Reason, as such, is a Person.

2. A Person is the reason, or cause, for the world existing.

Before digging further into this let’s look at a longer version of the quote from Ratzinger:

“The God who is logos guarantees the intelligibility of the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God and the reasonableness of God, even though his understanding infinitely surpasses ours and to us may so often appear to be darkness. The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person, is Love–this is what our biblical faith tells us about God.”

The intelligibility of the world is fundamentally connected to scientific realism because it’s really what makes science possible. What are some ways in which the world is intelligible scientifically? Here are four:

1. When controlled experiments have predictable and repeatable results.

2. When the results of controlled experiments have predictable and repeatable distributions.

3. When variables in controlled experiments vary in proportion to other variables.

4. When previously unknown laws can be derived from previously known laws and confirmed by experiment. 

I include predictable and repeatable distributions because the results of experiments very often are distributions. This can either be because of variations in conditions that we can’t completely account for or because the aspect of nature itself that is being measured actually is a distribution in essence. In the first case the reason for the distribution is a limitation on our knowledge, something epistemological. In the second case the distribution is actually a property in nature itself in its essence or being, something ontological. In either case there is regularity and predictability. Even if the individual data points are not predictable their distributions are. And I think that still counts.

These four kinds of intelligibility are all basic to scientific practice. In an unintelligible world science would not be possible.

I think the novelist Cixin Liu portrayed this well in The Three Body Problem. In that novel aliens are interfering with the results of particle collider experiments to keep humans from making any progress in their scientific knowledge. One scientist describes it to a colleague using an analogy with billiard balls, a classic case of predictable physics:

“Imagine another set of results. The first time, the white ball drove the black ball into the pocket. The second time, the black ball bounced away. The third time, the black ball flew onto the ceiling. The fourth time, the black ball shot around the room like a frightened sparrow, finally taking refuge in your jacket pocket. The fifth time, the black ball flew away at nearly the speed of light, breaking the edge of the pool table, shooting through the wall, and leaving Earth and the Solar System.” (The Three Body Problem, 70)

Of course science would be impossible in that kind of world. And really we wouldn’t even get as far as attempting science because the existence of physical life depends on the regularity of matter, cellular structures, and biochemical reactions. A truly unintelligible world is difficult to imagine because it’s not the kind of world we could live in. It would be a lot like the formlessness and void, the tohu va-bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) in Genesis 1:2, before God imposed order on it.

In science we are in the business of characterizing the world’s regularities. That there are such regularities in the first place we appropriately take for granted. Why and how these regularities are there in the first place is not a scientific question but a philosophical, and specifically metaphysical question. Though we can certainly be interested in that question as scientists as well. It seems like the kind of question that would not be answerable from inside the system. As a comparison, computer programs and video games also have regularities. But these come from their developers. The program has a programmer who is not part of the program. The original regularity and structure of the system comes from the outside. I understand the regularity and structure of the real world to come about in a similar way.

If the world comes from reason then what would it mean for this reason to be a person? Both that the world comes from reason and that this reason is a person are statements of faith. But there are also reasons to believe them that support that faith. That reason is a person has both philosophical and scriptural support. 

First on the philosophical support. In a previous episode I looked at the argument from eternal truths, an argument for the existence of God. In Edward Feser’s version of the argument he considers three possible versions of realism: Platonic realism, Aristotelian realism, and Scholastic realism. He describes these three possibilities in this way:

Platonic realism: abstract objects exist in a “third realm” distinct from either the material world or any intellect. 

Aristotelian realism: abstract objects exist only in human or other contingently existing intellects. 

Scholastic realism: abstract objects exist not only in contingently existing intellects but also in at least one necessarily existing intellect.

These options have some similarity to three options I’ve proposed as possible explanations for the rationality of the world:

1. The rationality of the world is independent of any intelligent beings.

2. The rationality of the world is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in the world.

3. The rationality of the world is the rationality of a mind that grounds the world.

I think the idea of the world’s rationality being a conditional property is the most immediately plausible and straightforward, even though I think it is ultimately inadequate. It would be something of the form:

1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.

2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.

3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.

I think that happens to be true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain or give grounding for the world’s intelligibility, why it is that way in the first place.

Edward Feser establishes scholastic realism, the view that abstract objects exist in at least one necessarily existing intellect, by a process of elimination; eliminating Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism for what he sees as insuperable objections. I won’t go into the insuperable objections to Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism here but just refer those interested to Feser’s text, and move on now to the scriptural foundation for seeing reason as a person.

First, what is the alternative to a personal nature? It would be an impersonal nature. For example, in the times of classical Greece and the Roman Empire the stoics and other educated people understood the world to be governed by logos (λόγος).  Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC) said all things come to pass in accordance with the logos (γινομένων γὰρ πάντων κατὰ τὸν λόγον, ginomenon gar panton kata ton logon). The Stoics had a concept of logos spermatikos (λόγος σπερματικός), understood as the generative principle of the world that creates all things. Very similar to Ratzinger’s statement that the world comes from reason. But an important difference was that the Greeks and Romans did not understand the logos to be personal, but impersonal; law without a lawgiver. What then are we to understand from the following Biblical passage?:

“In the beginning was the Word (Λόγος), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3, KJV)

From this passage alone, in the prologue to John’s gospel, we might still understand the Logos to be an impersonal, generative power. Both share a common principle that it is by the Logos that all things are made. But the Gospel writer then makes clear that this Logos is not impersonal at all and actually became, of all things, a human being:

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14, KJV)

The Logos was made flesh, the man Jesus of Nazareth. This Incarnation allowed other human beings to see and know God. Up to that point man had seen no form in God, as had been made reiterated to the Israelites in the Torah:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16, NKJV)

John acknowledges that this had been the case. But with the Incarnation of Jesus things change.

“And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, KJV)

“No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (John 1:18, KJV)

Jesus then could rightfully say:

“He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9, KJV)

Not that they are the same person. That would be a misunderstanding of the Trinity, “confounding the persons”. But in Jesus of Nazareth human beings could see God in the flesh, as a fellow human being and as a person.

As a person God has a mind, a will, self-consciousness, and awareness. What’s more God has all these things in greater and in more perfect measure than we do. We are created in God’s image. So these personal attributes as we find them in ourselves are patterned after their more perfect form in God’s personal attributes.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) described this well in his Summa Theologiae:

“‘Person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature—that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature. Hence, since everything that is perfect must be attributed to God, forasmuch as His essence contains every perfection, this name ‘person’ is fittingly applied to God; not, however, as it is applied to creatures, but in a more excellent way; as other names also, which, while giving them to creatures, we attribute to God… Although the word ‘person’ is not found applied to God in Scripture, either in the Old or New Testament, nevertheless what the word signifies is found to be affirmed of God in many places of Scripture; as that He is the supreme self-subsisting being, and the most perfectly intelligent being.” (Summa Theologiae 1.29.3)

What’s the upshot of that? Here’s how I think about it. Do we really matter? We certainly matter to each other. But we’re not always fair to each other. And we’re not in control of the world so we’re limited in how much we can actually do for each other. If the world comes from an impersonal source that source is indifferent to us. Whether we live or die, thrive or suffer. But if the world comes from a person we can matter to him. And the witness of scripture is that we do. We matter to God and God is powerful over all other forces. Paul’s message in Romans 8:31-39 is spot on:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”