“It has been intimated that fallen man is both irrationalist and rationalist, and at the same time. His irrationalism rests upon his metaphysical assumption that reality is controlled by or is an expression of pure chance. His rationalism is based upon the assumption that reality is wholly determined by laws with which his thought is ultimately identical.”
-Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge
“If my own mind is a product of the irrational – if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel – how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from bio-chemistry which results from physics.’ But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Funeral of a Great Myth
When it comes to making sense of reason, the autonomous man falls prey to what Christian philosopher, Cornelius Van Til, calls the rationalist/irrationalist dialectic.
Now what in the world does that sentence actually mean? Etymologically, “autonomous” simply means self (auto) law (nomos). Those who seek to be autonomous want to be a law unto themselves. In contrast to seeking an external reference point like God to justify human reason, the autonomous man is self-referential. The autonomous view of reason has no room for a god, let alone the God of Christianity.
Rationalism is a philosophical theory that values reason above all else. For the rationalist, reason is ultimate, it’s the highest authority. Irrationalism, on the other hand, is a philosophical theory (if we can even consistently call it that) that disregards, contradicts, or casts doubt on reason and rational principles. These two theories could not be more diametrically opposed to one another. Yet the thought of the autonomous man or woman is trapped in a continuous oscillation between the two; a rationalist/irrationalist dialectic. For the rest of this post I’ll be using “man” in the “mankind” sense, which includes women.
In seeking to explain and justify his own reasoning capacities, the autonomous man finds a home in “naturalism”. Naturalism is the view that everything is ultimately the product of natural causes. This view stands in direct opposition to theism, the belief in God. The autonomous man, as a naturalist, appeals to random chance acting on matter over time for the ultimate explanation of his existence, including his reason.
Man’s capacity to reason is ultimately the product of irrational or non-rational “chance”. This is the irrationalism of the autonomous man. Ultimately, there is no rational purpose backing reality, no Transcendent Reasoner, no plan or guide- just pure chance. This is how it must be if the autonomous man is to successfully remain autonomous. If we were made by a Transcendent Reasoner, a God like the God of the Christian worldview, then this God might (and indeed does in the Christian view) require something of us. If we were created, fashioned, formed,- if there is some ultimate teleology, then we might be bound to obey such a Fashioner and disobedience might incur punishment. To believe in a God who has created with purpose is to reject autonomy for some sort of “theonomy” (God-law)- the one thing that the autonomous man is committed not to do.
So concerning the autonomous man’s theory of reality, or “metaphysic”, he’s an irrationalist- and must be if he’s to remain autonomous. Yet in his theory of knowledge, or “epistemology”, he’s a rationalist. The autonomous man seeks to judge reality by the authority of his own reason. By making himself the ultimate arbiter of truth, the autonomous man has seated himself on the judge’s bench and will pronounce guilt or innocence on every fact that enters his courtroom. There is no room for divine revelation, there is no room for a God who speaks authoritatively. Perhaps, certain evidence can be presented for a god, as long as this god doesn’t subvert his self-rule, but certainly no evidence for the sovereign God of Christianity will be entertained. As C.S Lewis rightly notes, for this modern thinker, God is on trial and man sits on the bench. At the end of the day, the autonomous man serves as God of his philosophy, whether explicitly or tacitly. For this reason, the autonomous man finds his most comfortable fit in philosophical naturalism. This is the rationalism of the autonomous man.
The autonomous man as a naturalist oscillates between his irrationalistic metaphysic and his rationalistic epistemology. The very same person who thinks that his reason is ultimately the result of random chance also believes that he can use his reason to figure everything out. The same thinker who would charge a Christian with cognitive dissonance, ironically misses the war going on between his own theories of reality and knowledge. When asked for his authority, the autonomous man appeals to his own human reason. When asked to account for this reason, the autonomous man appeals to non-rational, purposeless forces of nature. When asked to defend the irrational origins of his reason, the autonomous man seeks to give a rational answer. When asked how this rational answer came about, the autonomous man appeals to irrational or non-rational laws of physics acting upon his brain. When asked to describe the biochemical reactions that gave rise to that thought, the autonomous man seeks again to give a rational explanation. When asked about that explanation, the autonomous man admits that it itself is merely the byproduct of non-rational neurochemistry. The autonomous man’s philosophy continually undermines his own mind.
In contradistinction, the Christian worldview stands on God’s authoritative revelation as the grounds of human epistemology and God’s creative activity as the ultimate metaphysic. When it comes to making sense of human reason, the Christian worldview acknowledges that God is on the throne and His revelation properly orients us to see reality as it’s been created, including man himself. As image bearers of a rational God, man has been created to reason. The laws of thought (or the laws of logic) represent God’s self-consistency, He is who He is. Whether reason is an attribute of God or an aspect of His thought, if God is the ultimate standard of reason, then it makes sense that His image bearers would be made with the ability to reason and think His thoughts after Him.
A Christian metaphysic involves two levels of reality, uncreated and created. God as self-sufficient, uncreated, original reality, created the universe we know and inhabit. If this biblical notion of creation is the true fact of reality, we’d expect that the laws of thought cohere with the laws of things. According the the Christian view of the world, our minds run on the laws of logic as our operating system and we’ve been created in a rational universe. The universe is a series of square pegs and our mind has the square holes to necessary to systematize them.
If God is who the Bible says He is, then we can make sense of our reason. If God is our ultimate authority, we can make sense of you reading this blog post for content and using your reason to check for inconsistencies and judge the soundness of what I’ve written. If man is the ultimate authority, if man is truly autonomous, we are left in a rational/irrational dialectic ad infinitum.