PH101: What is “Autonomous Reason”?

I recently came upon an excellent question in a Facebook forum – one that deals with the nature of reason. The question was (in part): “What does ‘autonomous human reason’ mean?” If you have spent any time studying Enlightenment philosophy and/or Presuppositional Apologetics, then you have seen the phrase “autonomous human reason” thrown around quite a bit. Yet, despite its wide use, its meaning is more assumed than defined. In what follows, I seek to provide an explanation that helps to provide a background to the question.

A Short History

The idea of autonomous reason saw its heyday in Enlightenment philosophy (and since). While there may have been thinkers prior to the Enlightenment who held to some form of autonomous reason, thinkers in the 17th century and onward sought to emphasize human reason over any authority outside of humankind–particularly any form of divine authority.

To understand the Enlightenment, one needs to study the history of philosophy and theology prior to the 17th century. Around the 1300s or so, some theologians and philosophers grew dissatisfied with some of the outlandish doctrines and questions that others within the Church pursued. For instance, one question Aquinas pursued in his Summa was whether an angel could occupy several spaces at once (scroll down to Article 2). By the late Middle Ages, thinkers began to toy with the idea of bringing doctrine to the bar of reason in hopes to avoid the pursuit of questions like Aquinas’.[1]

With the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, we see thinkers begin to shed reliance upon Scripture in areas like science, and a renewed emphasis in the study of Greek and Hebrew began to reveal some questionable doctrines within the church (based upon poor translations in the Septuagint). While much good came from the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, some thinkers interpreted their times as a call to jettison any reliance upon Scripture and to make reason the bar of truth.

Autonomous Human Reason

Since the Enlightenment, secular (and some theistic) thinkers have relegated Scripture to anything but God’s Word—it became merely ancient literature, or devotion literature for one’s personal piety. Unseated from the throne of truth, human reason became that by which all knowledge submitted.

Human reason alone was sufficient to understand the world in which we live, to tackle life’s ultimate questions, and to improve the quality of life for future generations. The rapid growth in scientific knowledge and progress gave credence to the idea that human reason was sufficient in itself to pursue and attain truth. Hence, the idea of “autonomous” human reason—human reason is not beholden to any other authority other than reason itself.

With the entrenchment and further development of Enlightenment thought, the concept of autonomous reason has been taken up by Christians and non-Christians alike. Some non-Christian thinkers decry anything that seeks to encroach upon reason’s authority and sufficiency. Some Christian thinkers view autonomous human reason as man in his sinful state—devoid of faith in and submission to the Word of God.[2] Though both parties are directly opposed to one another regarding truth and the nature of reason, they both agree (at least) that human reason can be autonomous.[3]

But, is this true? Can human reason be autonomous? Now, I want to move beyond description to provide a critique of the concept of reason’s autonomy.

Is Autonomy Possible?

The problem with the discussion on autonomous human reason is that much is assumed and little is explained about what “autonomous” means, and what “reason” is. Let me deal with the latter point first. We intuitively know what human reason is, but views on the nature of reason vary among thinkers (Christian and non-Christian alike). Thinkers tend to take for granted what reason is and develop their work around an assumed definition of reason. This leads to ambiguity—everyone using the same word but with different meaning. As such, any dialogue that touches upon the topic of reason tend to be ships passing in the night. With Enlightenment thinking well-entrenched after four centuries, it’s high time that the nature of reason is revisited and clarified.

In regard to what “autonomous” means, I believe what we have here is another case of assumed meaning without explanation. “Autonomous” tends to be used in the sense of absolute autonomy. So, when secular and Christian thinkers (specifically presuppositionalists) use “autonomous reason,” they tend to use it as absolute autonomous reason. So, for the atheistic naturalist, autonomous reason is reason that is absolutely free from any authority. For the presuppositionalist, autonomous reason refers to the unbeliever who is absolutely free from the divine authority of God (as revealed in his Word).

If I am correct in my assessment here, then there is a problem—there is no such thing as absolute autonomous reason. No one—believer or not—is free from divine authority. God is has not only revealed himself through his divine revelation, he has also given us his general revelation. Further, he has created all mankind, and all mankind is dependent upon God for their very being. That is, everyone depends on God for every breath, for every waking moment. We depend on God for his sustaining the world—that it operates as he created it (which entails the continuance of our reasoning faculties). We are contingent beings; we are not necessary beings. As such, there is no point at which a human being (Christian or not) is absolutely autonomous…ever.

Further, no one is ever autonomous from authority. Sure, one may not have faith in Christ, and thus does not submit themselves to the authority of God and his Word. But, this does not mean that they are absolutely autonomous. Here are several ways in which every person depends on other things for their knowledge:

  • We rely on the authority of others to inform us about events, causes, etc. of which we have no expertise. We trust our doctors that their diagnosis is correct. We trust engineers that our bridges, buildings, vehicles, etc. will hold up and function properly. The list can go on, but the simple fact is clear—we put our trust in others to help inform what we know.
  • We rely on our senses to inform what we know. Though some branches of modern philosophy limit knowledge to what can be analyzed and logically verified, knowledge is far more robust. In fact, you first came to “know” the moment you were born. Your senses informed you that the moment you exited the birth canal, something was different. Your sense of smell and touch helped you to identify who your mother was (and who wasn’t). Your sense of sound informed you of your familiar surroundings. Just as we were dependent upon our senses as an infant, we are dependent in our adulthood on our senses to inform what we know. Our reason is not autonomous from our senses.
  • We rely on the laws of nature. Human reason relies on our body functioning as God designed it to do. Even more, our bodies rely on gravity remaining as it is here on Earth, that the pressure inside and outside our body remains equalized, that the laws that govern the electrical impulses in our brain act as intended, and so on, and so on. One cannot reason without the world functioning as God created it to function.
  • We rely upon and use the laws of logic. For instance, one cannot be and not be at the same time. An idea and its logical contradiction cannot both be true at the same time. Our very ability to think, reason, and dialogue with others necessarily entail the basic laws of logic. Without these laws, communication devolves into chaos. Human reason entails a reliance upon the laws of logic.

Authority, then, is not a narrow concept, relegated only to divine authority. Authority is anything that informs human knowledge and to which one submits because they lack the sufficient expertise or ability to know on their own.[4]

Human reason is finite, and thus relies on something outside of itself. Some tend to appeal to reason as if it’s something outside of humanity. For example, if one just “appeals to reason” or “uses reason,” then they would see that they’re wrong. But, reason isn’t something outside of humanity. Reason isn’t something that we can appeal to. Rather, it is something that we use, for it is something given to us by God by virtue of being created in his image.

Further, reason is not something that someone has and another does not; rather, reason is one’s ability to analyze, judge, and synthesize ideas and perceptions to inform, add to, and correct how one understands and operates within the world. So, reason is universal in the sense that it is an ability—a faculty—given to each individual to use.

If we are to use the concept of “autonomous human reason”—a concept that I believe can be helpful—then the concept needs to be clarified and explained. As is, it is an ambiguous and problematic concept that only muddies the waters of an already convoluted discussion.

[1] Note that my account here is a far cry from a specific, detailed historical account. I am trying to generalize something that covers several centuries. Further, there are numerous nuances within Medieval thought regarding some of the doctrines (like Aquinas’) of the Church. However, I believe what I state above is a fair, generalized interpretation of some of the thinkers that led up to the Enlightenment.

[2] This is an attempt to summarize presuppositionalism’s view of autonomous reason. I realize that it is not a sufficient definition, as it is more complex than this.

[3] I want to qualify what I’ve written in this paragraph by saying that not everyone (Christian or not) believes human reason is autonomous. What I’ve discussed in the paragraph above are the two ends of a spectrum. There are other views on human reason that fall in between the two. However, these views in the middle tend not to emphasize the autonomy of human reason.

[4] I’m struggling here for the right words and clarity. The idea I seek to present here is that “authority” has a broader meaning than is traditionally used. Further, “trust” is another word with broader meaning. That is, we do trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation, and in no one else; but, we also use trust in a non-salvific manner as well. We trust our doctors, our teachers, our accountant, etc.

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