What exactly do we mean by "Autonomy"?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Philip, Feb 15, 2010.

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  1. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    A precise definition would be useful--"any system that does not accept God" is a given. The question is why the term is implicitly broadened to include Christian non-presuppositional epistemologies.
  2. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman


    I like to think about this in a way that is easiest for Calvinists - metaphysics compared to epistemology.

    Those of us who are Calvinists understand that the Arminian and the unbeliever both believe that there is some aspect of reality that is independent of God, i.e., self-determining. This is metaphysical autonomy.

    Van Til has argued similarly that there is no aspect of reality that is self-interpreting. The unbeliever thinks that his mind is the ultimate criterion of truth and falsehood, i.e., that there are at least some aspects of reality that can be interpreted without reference to God. He believes he can interpret these areas (most importantly himself) autonomously.

    The Biblical position iis that every fact is both created by God (in terms of being being) and governed by God's comprehensive plan (in terms of becoming becoming). Thus no fact can be properly interpreted without reference to God. The attempt to do so is an assertion of epistemological or intellectual autonomy, in the same way that a "free will" Arminian asserts metaphysical autonomy.

    ---------- Post added at 03:31 PM ---------- Previous post was at 03:18 PM ----------

    Autonomy: noun Lit: self-law 1. an assertion of independence from the self-attesting triune God of Biblical revelation; 2. an assertion that something other than the triune God of Biblical revelation is self-attesting
  3. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    But this all asks a question: what about the senses? Are I and the unbeliever seeing different things when we both see a tree? True, we may interpret its significance differently, but it seems to me that the sensory interpretation is the same.

    Also, what do you mean by "his mind is the standard"? This seems to be either a) an obvious statement since standards of proof are always dependent on the audience b) simplistic, since his mind has a standard too (aka: I like this better, this makes more sense, this is logically consistent, this is consistent with experience, etc.).
  4. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    First, I think the meaning of the word depends on who is using it and in what context. With that in mind, I'm assuming you're asking what Reformed theologians who discuss issues like epistemology mean when they say it. I think what "autonomy" means to them is the notion that one may interpret facts correctly without acknowledging that they must contextualize them in the light of God's existence and revelation.
  5. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    So the unbeliever is not interpreting the fact that there is a tree outside my window when he says, "It is a maple" because he would not say "God created it."
  6. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    When I say "his mind is the standard", I mean the standpoint of the unbeliever whereby he says "I will determine the criteria of what is true and false, and what is possible and impossible. If God's claims and demands do not live up to my standards of [rationality; empiricism; experience; desire; science . . .] then I will not believe it. What the net of my mind can't catch ain't no fish." So in the garden, the Serpent suggested to Eve an alternate standard of judging the desirability of the forbidden fruit. Eve's proper response should have been, "whether or not it is pleasing to the eye and desirable to make me wise, I will not exalt my mind to a position of judgment over the word of God, but I will submit my mind to God's word because He is the Creator and I am the creature." Then Adam should have killed the Serpent.

    The unbeliever and the believer see the same tree when they are looking outside the window. The tree is independent of them or of their perception of it. But every act of perception is conditioned by the unbeliever's principle of autonomy. There is no perception apart from interpretation. That is what is meant by the claim that "there are no brute facts." So when I say the word "maple", as a Christian, I implicitly mean "maple created by the triune God and governed by His comprehensive plan". The unbeliever, using the same word, means "maple not created by a God who has inescapably revealed Himself in every fact of my experience and comprehensively governs everything that comes to pass." To borrow from Calvin, the unbeliever has yellow lenses epoxied to his eyeballs, and everything is yellow to the jaundiced eye.

    Does that make sense? I am very eager to communicate this clearly because it is an issue dear to my heart and I believe is deeply important for Christians to understand.
  7. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Philip, I believe that some Van-Tillians would indeed make that inference. One of my professors used to say that unbelievers have no true knowledge of anything, by which I think he meant that even in very obvious cases such as mathematical tautologies - "2 plus 2 equals 4" - the unbeliever does not have true knowledge of that statement because he is unable to give an adequate basis for his assertion. I confess I struggle to see the usefulness of such a definition of autonomy.
  8. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    To perceive is to interpret.

    I guess my question is what epistemology (how I know there is a tree) has to do with teleology (the story of how the tree got there). Do some supposedly "autonomous" epistemologies carry with them teleological implications that are dependent on God?
  9. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    To piggy back off of Ben; another often sited example Van Til used was the concept of a buzz saw with a crooked blade. Van Til says that the unbeliever/"autonomous man" is like a buzz saw that cuts remarkably well, however, the blade is crooked and always cuts the wood at the wrong angle. What Van Til meant was that the unbeliever can surely reason and interpret the facts around him, but he can never reason and interpret facts rightly, he is always crooked in his reasoning and interpretation. For behind all facts and interpretations resides the One who has created and interpreted the facts already. So Van Til said that we as Christians must "think God's thoughts after him" and interpret the world around us in light of the revelation of God.
  10. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Teleology deals with final cause, what the tree's purpose is. Teleology, of course, was central to Aristotelian science. To explain something you must have knowledge of its causes, specifically it's final cause. Modern science has, with exceptions, been hostile to the very idea of teleology. Nietzsche, a logical positivist, very clearly denies all teleology in A Genealogy of Morals. He says (roughly) that the great mistake of science is concluding that, for example, the hand was made to grasp. Rather, the life-will of an organism wished to grasp, and used the hand to do it. His point is that that things don't exist for purposes; we create purposes through instruments at our disposal.
  11. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    I'm not sure I understand the question (maybe it's too late at night), but I would say that an act of interpretation is to apply a "universal" concept to a "particular" fact. To say there are no brute facts is to say there are no particulars that are not involved in universals. The two most fundamental universals that every particular participates in are (1) created by God and (2) governed by God's plan. So I don't believe we can segregate epistemology and metaphysics or ethics (perhaps what you are calling teleology, which I usually understand to be related to final causes, rather than origins).
  12. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Couple of things here:

    a) Calling Nietzsche a logical positivist is grossly anachronistic and inaccurate. Logical positivism was a movement in analytic philosophy starting in the 1920s. Nietzsche is probably the father of 20th century continental philosophy and died in 1900.

    b) Teleology is not completely rejected by science--it just has decided to deal with physical reality. Thus, if it cannot find a physical reason for something, it either a) continues to probe (modern physics) b) moves on (biology).

    I would argue that calling it a tautology is enough of a basis--tautologies are necessarily true (pun intended).

    I would have to see some very strong reasons to believe this simply because it simply contradicts the way we all think and act.

    For example: in analytic philosophy, I've been reading some G. E. Moore and very often he seems to be right. In many instances, it seems that his atheism is an afterthought--only inserted in as an aside, with no connection to its context. Is the rest of his thought automatically bad reasoning just because of the gaping hole? In other words, while he has no foundation, can't we salvage the bricks and reuse them?
  13. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Ok, Philip, since I was being picky, I certainly can't fault you for being picky back. I will make the much weaker claim that many scholars have pointed to Nietzsche as embodying many of the ideas of later positivism, at least scientific positivism, such as Ernst Mach's philosophy of science.

    Regarding your example of Moore, I'm not sure where your difficulty is arising. I don't know any mainstream Reformed philosophers that would disagree with the notion that unregenerates can be right about many things (in a qualified sense). In fact, I think that is what the "autonomy" language is supposed to indicate, that the unregenerate is illegitimately taking claim for whatever correct beliefs he may hold because he must borrow from Christian foundations but does not acknowledge that he is doing so.
  14. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    Mach and Nietzsche were contemporaries. Which scholars linked Nietzsche to logical postivism? I am not trying to be combative, I am truly curious, because I have read most of the Nietzsche corpus as well as the main secondary texts and don't remember and am a little surprised if this is the case (other than his rejection of metaphysics, which I don't believe is a uniquely logical positivist position in the 20th c.).

    I would not say that the unbeliever has no knowledge. I would say that on the basis of his assertion of autonomy, knowledge is impossible. However, the unbeliever is inconsistent, and because he is created in the image of God and lives in God's creation, it is impossible for him to be consistent with his principles. He lives on borrowed capital. As Van Til would say, atheism presupposes theism.

    The mathematical example is a good one. What does 2 + 2 = 4 mean? It is possible to say it is a tautology, but that represents a very specific position within the philosophy of mathematics, and would imply that we can never learn anything new or be surprised by mathematics. Vern Poythress has an excellent article on this (his first PhD is in mathematics from Harvard). But the unbelievers can't even agree on what that equation means.

    The reason this question of autonomy is important is because it is ultimately an ethical question: can epistemology be segregated from ethics, i.e., can there be neutral reasoning? In every area of investigation, the unbeliever investigates and interprets reality on the basis of his principle of autonomy, but all the while he implicitly presupposes the Christian preconditions of thought. From Paul to Augustine to Calvin, the Reformed tradition has maintained that no aspect of existence is self-determining or independent of God (neutral). The presuppostional tradition, appealing to Paul, Augustine and Calvin, has emphasized the extension of the sovereignty of God to the intellectual realm: that no aspect of human knowledge is self-interpreting or independent of God (neutral).
  15. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    The problem is that with Moore his correct beliefs and his atheism are not clearly at odds. It may be an afterthought, but his atheism in no way contradicts his common sense philosophy. He may find it hard to account for such things, but then again, he would see no such need. The only way for us to say that his "borrowing" is illegitimate would be to prove that his claims necessarily presuppose Christianity. Otherwise, it's just an assertion.

    The problem is that the language of autonomy asks questions that the unbeliever sees no need to answer. I think there is a proper use of the term, but I'm not quite sure whether the standard Van Tillian use is quite correct. It seems (to me at least) to exclude certain epistemologies that are perfectly orthodox but aren't presuppositional.
  16. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Presuppositionalists would disagree one of two ways. They would say either that you have mistaken his beliefs for correct when they are truly incorrect, or that you have just failed to follow through in finding the contradictions. According to presupp, all non-Christians are necessarily incapable of producing any correct beliefs that are not at odds, somehow, with their core worldview.

    Yes, I believe this is the whole point of presuppositional philosophy, or at least strong modal TAG. TAG was supposed to provide an ultimate defeater to any challenger. With TAG, a presup. can shoot down a non-Christian theory without even knowing anything about it. Aren't transcendental arguments convenient?

    I share your ambivalence.
  17. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    So they say--I have yet to see it proved.

    I notice you say "supposed"--is it possible that the TAG operates on assertion rather than argument?
  18. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    I agree with both of you on this one. It does seem that TAG, the strong modal form, is more assertive than anything else (If you listen to Bahnsen he always says Christianity is true and all others are false by the "impossibility of the contrary", and yet he never really explains this, logically speak, or argues in depth for it, to my knowledge). I don't think Van Til and Bahnsen are worthless, though, they still have some great points to make on apologetics. I prefer Frame's interpretation of Van Til, for the most part, and consider myself something of a Van Tillian/Reformed epistemologists crossbreed. Dr. James Anderson, Steve Hay and others at Triablogue, Paul Manata, Dr. Greg Welty, and to some extent Dr. Michael Sudduth (I'm pretty sure he does not consider himself a Van Tillian, like the others, but he does have sympathies for Van Til) are doing excellent jobs showing compatibilities between Van Til and Reformed Epistemology.
  19. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    I am going to be way jumping into the middle of an intense debate here but I thought I might weigh in on this one. I was, ironically, watching "Tool Time", Tim the Toolman Taylor erlier, I think thats the name anyway, and his middle son( in the show) Randy, I believe, and Randy gave an excellant example of the concept of autonomy. He decided he was not going to go to church, which he found hypocritical, and he didn't see why the churches could claim to be the final word on God.

    His problem was autonomy; he decided what the criteria for truth would be for any religion. He set the bar and wanted God to meet that bar, this is of course not reconizing that it is God who sets the bar( Creator-creature distinction). But one thing that I didn't see discussed here that I find to be intimatly connected to the idea of autonomy is the idea of aurthority.

    Now for Descarte he shrugged off the church's authority and claimed that reason was the ultimate authority in knowledge, but ethics cannot rely on reason as its ultimate authority so Descarte must be fundamentally wrong ( I can elaborate on this if anyone likes but I thought I would save space and not).

    Locke comes along and humbly disagrees with Descarte and declares that the senses are the ultimate authority in knowledge ( I recomend reading the first section of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding). But in philosophy we know that any argument who's only foundation is empirical data is commiting a formal logical fallacy.

    So this brings us to Van Til. You see Descarte and Locke were autonomous because they located their own ultimate authority in themselves, Their reason or Their senses, and they failed to provide an absolute authority for knowledge. Van Til pointed us to God's revealed Word as our ultimate authority and because this Word is from the Creator himself we can rely on it as an ultimate authority for knowledge, and so we locate our authority in the Creator verses the creature.
  20. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    I guess a simple answer would be that the unbelieving world has gradually been more and more consistent with its anti-theistic presuppositions. G. E. Moore was superseded by the logical positivists, who were superseded by Wittgenstein and Quine, who were superseded by Rorty, etc. Not that none of them had interesting insights along the way, but they have failed to provide the necessary basis for human knowledge. The intellectual elites of non-Christian thought have degenerated into total epistemological skepticism and pessimism. At any major college or university, the prevailing climate of opinion will be that there is no objective truth, that human reason has no privileged claim to truth, and that science is just one way of interpreting reality among many equally legitimate others. This is also the prevailing climate of opinion in society at large (but they still want better iphones and Wiis). Western thought has followed in the path of Greek thought, which also could not justify its confidence in human reason and rapidly degenerated in to radical skepticism. The Western confidence in human reason was based on the Protestant Reformation's confidence in the propositional truth of the Bible, but having rejected the Bible, this confidence has slowly collapsed.
  21. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    You know what I couldn't agree more!
  22. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    I'd like to comment on the whole TAG issue. I have never read Bahnsen's other books on apologetics, I have read many articles and am working through his Van Til book again, so I can't speak for them but no where do I find him laying out this argument in it's syllogistic form that the word TAG, I believe, refers to. I think the reason for this is that this is more of a method of apologetical debate verses a syllogistic one-size-fits-all type argument.

    If you view it as a method than I think the ambiquity that some have pointed out goes away. For example I will employ the same method of argumentation against an atheist and a muslim but the content of the debate will be differant.
  23. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    I recommend reading this article my James Anderson , he touches on the topic a bit. http://www.proginosko.com/docs/IfKnowledgeThenGod.pdf
  24. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    The trouble is that even in that context, it isn't compelling at all--even for me as a believer. The trouble is that it simply asserts the impossibility of the contrary without proving it. Even if you could demonstrate the absolute absurdity of the unbeliever's set of presuppositions, it would not prove the existence of God, but the skill of the debater.

    So if we could only convince the unbeliever to accept God's authority we wouldn't have this problem . . . but on what basis will they accept that authority. Just because an apologist has proven that I have no basis for thought is no reason for me to accept God as a basis--it's a non sequitor.

    Let's say I was debating governmental theory and my republic-advocating opponent was able to prove that my monarchist position was logically inconsistent and had no basis. Then he says, "Since monarchism is clearly false, you must find a new basis by accepting republicanism." All I have to say at this point is, "Ok, maybe monarchism is a bad position, but that's not a reason for me to accept republicanism." Using a negative method, all you can prove is that your opponent is wrong--you cannot prove that your own position is right. Indeed, a critique may be valid regardless of who is delivering it.

    On what basis can we get the unbeliever to accept God's authority?
  25. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    There is no argument by which we can get the unbeliever to accept God's authority. His rejection of God's authority is an ethical problem, not an intellectual one. I learned apologetics from one of Van Til's students, but his emphasis was a little different than Bahnsen's. I do admire Bahnsen's work for certain situations: specifically, highly polemic scenarios where you want to show the total foolishness of the unbeliever's worldview. But this has got to be less than 1% of actual situations. But the way I understand, apologetics is preferably a transition into sharing the gospel, because only the truth can create the ears that hear it. Have you listened to Bahnsen's debate with Stein or Tabash? They cannot answer any of his questions. What is the solution to the inductive problem, for instance? I am not aware of any serious contender for a solution to that problem other than Biblical theism, and they've had time to think about it. Russell, for instance, recognized the seriousness of the problem.

    Which brings me to the answer I gave before: When the premier intellectual elites among academic unbelievers have all come to the conclusion that objective knowledge is impossible, that human reason is simply a cultural prejudice, that empirical science is simply one way of interpreting reality among many viable alternatives, and that there is no objective foundation for ethical propositions, why is it so difficult for Christians to agree that anti-theistic worldviews simply cannot provide the cognitive foundation for understanding human experience? Once again, I'm not trying to be combative, but I think this is a very serious question that Christian defenders of legitimate non-Christian intellectual autonomy really need to answer. I'm not saying you're defending such autonomy either, but you said you haven't found the argument compelling.
  26. ValiantforTruth

    ValiantforTruth Puritan Board Freshman

    I have thought of a few questions that pinpoint what I see as some of the fundamental points of disagreement between presuppositionalism and the other schools of apologetic thougth. I am not necessarily asking for answers to these, just offering them as food for thought.

    1. Has God really inescapably revealed Himself in some way to every human being, so that they are all without excuse?

    2. Can the unbeliever's rejection of God's authority and revelation in principle be a purely intellectual problem, or is it always ultimately an ethical problem, i.e., suppressing the known truth in unrighteousness?

    3. Think for a moment in terms of the philosophical categories of being and becoming. If the ultimate truth about every fact in the universe is that it is (a) created by God (being) and (b) in every subsequent moment governed by God's exhaustive plan (becoming), how can an unbeliever correctly interpret any fact of reality without submitting to these truths?

    4. Is there some portion of reality that does not reveal God, or does every aspect of creation reveal God in some way?

    5. Are there some areas of human investigation that are self-interpreting (e.g., a human being)?

    6. What is the solution to David Hume's problem of induction on the basis of any non-Christian epistemology?

    I may update this post with other questions if they come to mind.
  27. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    You raise excellant points ones I do believe require answers so I will attempt. As far as Compellingness goes that is a subjective thing, which I don't mean to imlpy that you have no objective reasons for believing this, so perhaps you could lay out some of the reasons you have for beliving this (if you have already posted some just refer me to them)?

    As far as arguing by assertion, I would agree with you if that is what we pressupositionalists were doing but I don't think we are. The method of argumentation that I employ is to examine the pressupositions of my opponant for logical consistancy and then, the most crucial element, to apply them to reality to see if they make sense out of it, as we experiance it. An atheist can believe all day long that murder is wrong but have no justification for beliving it. If a hindu stopped you from walking out in front of a bus than that would not mix well with the belief that reality is illusionary( I know hindu philosophy is more complex than this but this is what I think it boils down to).

    Only God can get people to accept His authority. Your example nicely touches on the first part of the method that I believe is the one taught by Van Til, but it doesn't go far enough and compare worldviews to reality. If something I said doesn't make sense than just let me know.
  28. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    The problem is not with TAG itself, but with the strong modal claim that some attach to TAG (others may say it is a part of TAG itself, I would disagree), which claims that all other worldviews besides Christianity will be inconsistent/contradictory (Which Bahnsen and Van Til seem to cliam, and Frame rejects). It is this part of TAG which is mere assertion/it seems ultimately unprovable. One would need omniscience in order to make such a claim, in that one would have to examine every worldview that ever was, is, or will be and show their inconsistencies.

    I would agree with all of Ben's points above, I just think it is impossible to exhaustively prove them (especially 3).
  29. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Well if by TAG you mean that syllogistic one size fits all argument than I would agree, but if you mean it as a method to be employed than that's different. I don't see how a worldview other than christianity could ever be consistant/non-contradictory?

    Keep in mind that the accussation of "arguing by assertion" only stands if the person refuses to validate their P.O.V., I don't believe I have done that, and I know that Van Til/Bahnsen have not done that either. I don't believe I ever just said "here it is, believe it or not", that in my opinion would be "arguing by assertion". If I have done that in any of my posts just please point them out so I can clarify. Also I am curious as to what kind of proof you are looking for, remember I said this is a method that is to be deployed. What unbeleiving worldview out there could ever possibly ultimatly make sense out of reality as a whole? Name one that this method could not destroy?

    The Bible tells us that all unbeleiving worldviews are inconsistant/contradictory, and it is omnisciencent. Presupossitional apologetics doesn't allow us to leave what we know is true about creation and mankind at the door when we engage in the apologetical pursuit.

    I agree with all of Ben's points too, but I would need to know what kind of proof you are talking about, don't assume I know?
  30. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

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