Joshua Rasmussen’s How Reason Can Lead to God is one of our favorite philosophy books written in this century. Rasmussen presents natural theology in an inventive and intellectually challenging but accessible way, writing with empathy, depth, and humor. Along the way, he uses the helpful metaphor of helping the reader use the tools of reason to construct a “bridge” to truth.
Seasoned students of apologetics will find that Rasmussen can present familiar arguments for God’s existence in a refreshing and thought-provoking way. Ian especially benefited from Rasmussen’s presentation of the “hard problem of consciousness” and the “argument from mind.”
Here, in summary, is Rasmussen’s case: the fact that human beings have a conscious, first-person perspective—an “I”—raises fundamental questions about the explanation of our existence.
For one thing, why are human beings conscious rather than unconscious? If human beings are mere survival machines, shaped by blind forces, we can easily imagine versions of ourselves who evolved with no first-person perspective at all. Human beings might have been wet-robot automata, behaving in human-like ways without any conscious experience.
If naturalism is true, our consciousness seems to have no function. The marvelous fact that we experience consciousness cries out for an explanation.
Additionally, consciousness raises what Rasmussen calls a “construction problem.” Just as a black floor cannot be made of white tiles, Rasmussen says, consciousness cannot be constructed from the material shapes and weights that make up the rest of our world.
Material properties are a qualitatively different kind of thing than a first-person “I.” For example, shapes and weights are third-person properties that can be observed by any person. Someone’s experience of “I,” on the other hand, can only be observed by one person.
Rasmussen posits that a foundational mind is the best solution to the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.” If a God exists, it follows that He might want to create first-person beings like Him.
Theism makes our minds much less surprising than if the foundation of the world is mindless. Additionally, a foundational mind—unlike material particles—would have the resources to construct first-person beings.
Rasmussen is quick to point out that the hard problem of consciousness is widely recognized by atheist philosophers. One popular atheist solution to the problem, pioneered by philosopher David Chalmers, is “panpsychism.” To put it very simply, panpsychists believe that consciousness simply exists as a fundamental, irreducible dimension of reality like up and down or space and time.
Thinking about atheist solutions to the hard problem of consciousness is a helpful reminder of theism’s ability to make startling and refreshing sense. Is the world imagined by Chalmers really so much more probable than a world with one foundational mind? Rasmussen persuasively argues that the answer is no.
Rasmussen also addresses popular objections to theism near the end of the book, including the problem of evil and suffering. This narrative flow works well because he has so carefully constructed what he calls “the bridge” at the beginning of the book, so that the last few chapters can be dedicated to challenging it.
Carmen was particularly impressed by the way that he addressed the problem of evil and suffering. Sometimes theists give very confusing answers about the problem of evil—either ignoring the implications of genuine free will, or erasing God’s loving nature towards humanity—but Rasmussen appeals to the studied art of storytelling to construct an argument that satisfies both of those requirements.
In essence, he argues that God accurately determined that the risk involved in creating free beings was worth the reward. Free beings can, unlike robots, grow to display great courage, compassion, and sacrificial love.
Rasmussen does make it very clear that he doesn't believe the fruits of evil justify evil, but he makes a reasonable explanation for why and how God could take into account the potential good of any potential evil and bring it about.
To strengthen this argument, he asks the reader to consider what makes a great story, and lists some of the following elements: adventure, exploration, progress, comic relief, cleverness, danger, consistent rules that cannot be broken at the characters’ whims, surprises, tension, and release. He also points out the importance of mystery and tragedy in good stories.
“The noblest characters in a good story could have trials where they do not see that their story is good,” Rasmussen explains. “They may not understand everything in their story that could fit together. Still, even in times of uncertainty, the stories are not over. Future scenes can bring light to previous scenes…[Also] notice that our favorite stories include bad things in them. Tragedy may occur, yet all tragedies for all souls may be transformable into something beautiful and unexpected, perhaps in later scenes.”
Carmen, being a fiction writer, found this particularly persuasive because these elements are universal. They take on different forms in different genres, but these storytelling elements are always there. Given our impulse to create such stories, Rasmussen shows that perhaps our world was designed by such a Storyteller.
“Interestingly, our world has many elements of a grand story. Our world has many scenes and many characters. Perhaps the author of the world is a coauthor, with us, of a grand story. Perhaps creatures can participate in the making of the world. The author then aims to work every problem and pain for the greater good. The more intense the bad, the more intense the opportunities for intense good.”
It is a surprisingly creative and compelling conclusion, especially since it was built upon rock-solid academic arguments for reasonable belief in God. Carmen was reminded of the words of Dorothy Sayers:
“The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man–and the dogma is the drama."
Like some of our favorite 20th-century philosophers—including William James and Simone Weil—Rasmussen is both a natural skeptic and a convinced theist. While Rasmussen’s other writing sometimes reflects doubts about or even hostility towards some of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, everything he writes in this particular book is compatible with the traditional Christian faith. We recommend it to those who are interested in an introduction to philosophy, epistemology, and apologetics.
You can purchase a copy of How Reason Can Lead to God here.