0. Introduction

In my recent discussions with Jimmy Stephens (here and here) we discussed his version of presuppositionalism. According to Jimmy, a non-Christian like myself makes a very fundamental assumption which he sees presuppositionalism as challenging. That assumption is about autonomy. When I reason about things, I presuppose that my use of reason is ‘autonomous’. But what does ‘autonomy’ mean?

  1. Kantian Autonomy

One way of thinking about what autonomy means is with reference to Kant’s classic article, What is Enlightenment? In that, Kant describes the opposite of autonomy as ‘nonage’, and defines it as such:

Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.”

Given this, we could think about autonomy as the ability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.

Kant is quite explicit about the reasons for nonage:

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”

The idea is that resting your understanding on that of others, and not thinking about something for yourself, makes life easier. One simply does not have to bother with all that ‘disagreeable business’, and can get on with something else more fun.

Despite the obvious attraction of nonage, Kant strongly recommends against it. He considers it to be a kind of intellectual immaturity. This state of immaturity has an intrinsic vulnerability associated with it, as it requires that one is beholden to ‘guardians’, authorities such as ‘books’, ‘pastors’, ‘physicians’, etc, to be making decisions on your behalf. If you do not understand how your diet works, if you have no idea what makes eating one thing better than eating another, then you are entirely dependent on someone else to tell you what to eat. In this way, you are vulnerable to them exploiting you.

Of course, we are all in this position when it comes to many things, and nobody can be an expert in everything. I am dependent on my doctor to tell me which treatment to take, on my mechanic for what to do to my car engine, etc. Kant is not suggesting that everyone becomes entirely dependent on nothing but their own understanding.

What Kant is promoting is the idea that society as a whole should be such that it has no authority too sacred that it cannot be challenged in public. The reason he is making this plea is that the supposed benefit that nonage can have for the ‘minor’ has as a correlate a benefit to the guardian that she defers to. The guardian is given power through the authority they gain when one let’s them make decisions on their behalf. Thus, each guardian of knowledge has an interest in restricting the public use of reason:

I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” … We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”

So while it is in the tax collector’s interest if you do not question too much what your taxes are going on, and they will encourage you not to, we must not resign ourselves completely to the position that they cannot be questioned. It is a central pillar of ‘enlightenment society’ that these aspects of the state can be called into question by citizens. In fact, the freedom to be able to do so is constitutive of enlightenment. One must be free to use one’s own reason, to question all authorities, otherwise we are vulnerable to being exploited, like a mechanic who charges you for work that does not need to be done, or a tax collector who takes more money from you than is needed and keeps it for himself. The only way to avoid such things from happening is to remove any restrictions from the public use of reason. It is the only possible check and balance that there is against the pitfalls of nonage.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant makes the following memorable comments on this:

Reason must be subject, in all its operations, to criticism, which must always be permitted to exercise its functions without restraint; otherwise its interests are imperilled and its influence obnoxious to suspicion. There is nothing, however useful, however sacred it may be, that can claim exemption from the searching examination of this supreme tribunal, which has no respect of persons. The very existence of reason depends upon this freedom; for the voice of reason is not that of a dictatorial and despotic power, it is rather like the vote of the citizens of a free state, every member of which must have the privilege of giving free expression to his doubts, and possess even the right of veto.” (A738/B766)

2. Scientific Authorities

Take an example from our time – scientific authority. Most of us are relatively illiterate when it comes to scientific explanations of complex phenomena, such as climate physics, etc. Most of us do not know what the relevant equations are that govern the climate, and have not looked in any detail as to the data gathered on the topic. So when it comes to questions like climate change, are we not in a position of nonage, where we defer our decision making to authorities outside of ourselves? To some extent, the answer is yes. Climate change could be, as Donald Trump once famously remarked, a conspiracy generated cynically to deprive the United States of economic productivity by the Chinese. For those of us who are not climate scientists, we have to defer our judgement to those who are. Fortunately, there is a very large consensus in the relevant sciences that (unfortunately) man made climate change is not a conspiracy.

This consensus is not inherently suspect only to the degree that the scientific community is such that it is open to challenge its own dogmas. If this science is enlightened, then if someone had a rival model for climate change which could explain all the data just as well which showed it to be not man made, then this would not simply be suppressed due to it calling into question a ‘sacred principle of science’. Rather, it would be given the same treatment as a proposal which is in keeping with the current accepted wisdom in the field. If we are of the opinion that the scientific community allows rival explanations of phenomena to get a fair public hearing, and is subject to the scrutiny of public examination, then we should also be happy to defer to the majority (especially when there is an overwhelming consensus on a subject).

Of course, the conspiracy theorist also calls into question this aspect of the scientific community, as is demonstrated here. The point is though that they need to call this into question in order to avoid the reasonableness of holding to the position of the consensus in the field. If scientists are of one mind about man made climate change, then the only way to avoid going along with them (for us laypeople) is to call into question their public use of reason. In this way, the conspiracy theorist tacitly accepts Kant’s formulation of enlightenment, and the benefits of the public use of reason. All they want to question is whether the relevant science actually is as free and enlightened as it pretends to be. This is why it is part of the conspiracy is that peer review is flawed.

The line of thinking outlined here suggests a distinction between enlightened guardians and unenlightened guardians. The conception of climate change scientists honestly appraising competing theories, publicly critiquing each other’s ideas, and coming to an overwhelming consensus, is an example of a legitimate guardian. If this is the case, then when we defer our understanding to these guardians of knowledge, we do so with the safeguard that this public scrutiny affords. We do not have to have inspected all the arguments personally, because they have been publicly dissected by others. On the other hand, if the guardians are in fact such that they actively suppress any dissenting views, and apply criticism only to those who question the accepted dogmas, then they are unenlightened guardians. Those of us who defer our understanding to them, and transfer them power as a result of doing so, are more at risk of becoming exploited or mislead as a result.

3. Religious Nonage 

Jimmy wants to argue that when I use my reason to try to understand something, I am presupposing that I am autonomous. One scenario that I dogmatically refuse to entertain, according to Jimmy, is one where I am in fact not able to reason at all without God; a sort of necessary nonage.

This phrase ‘without God’ is somewhat ambiguous, and it requires a few words of clarification. One one hand, it could mean a sort of metaphysical dependence. If God exists and created everything, then I would not exist at all without God. If I did not exist, then I would not be able to use my reason. Thus, I could not use my reason at all were it not for God. In this sense, perhaps, my reason cannot be used without God existing.

This doesn’t seem to me to be the type of dependence that reason is supposed to have on God here though. After all, I have this same relationship to my parents. If they had not conceived me together, I would not exist. If I did not exist, I would not be able to reason at all. So I could not reason were it not for my parents existing. My ability to reason is dependent on all sorts of contingent happenings in the past, such as the chance meeting of my great great grandparents, etc. Thus, in this sense I am dependent on many things as well as God for my ability to reason.

I think that when Jimmy says that I am assuming that I am autonomous, that I can reason ‘without God’, he means that I can reason without believing that God exists. What he is saying is that if I do not believe in God then I could not form a coherent view of the world. My way of thinking would be inevitably contaminated with the false starting point and would be doomed to being incoherent somewhere along the lines as a result.

And it is not just the belief in a single proposition, ‘God exists’, that I think Jimmy thinks is required for coherent thought; it is not that some general theism is required. Rather, what is required is Christian theism. I have to believe that God exists, for sure, but I also have to believe that he has revealed himself to me in the bible, etc. It is a God who has shown himself and provided a way of thinking about things that I should accept. Thus, when you believe in God, as Jimmy does, you do not just differ from an atheist on the truth-value of one proposition, but you accept the intellectual guidance provided by God. In addition to believing the core propositions of Christianity, you treat it as an authority, as a guardian and defer your understanding to it. You use your reason only with the guidance of the religion. That is what it means to not be autonomous.

When Jimmy says that I assume that I am autonomous, he is saying that I assume that I do not have to listen to the guidance of God, as offered in the bible, but can make up my own mind about how the world works independently.

4. Do I Assume Autonomy? Should I?

One of the things that is attractive about Kant’s enlightenment vision is that it is utopian. The fully enlightened society is one where everyone is an equal, nobody has any authority which is above the public scrutiny of reason, and as such this mechanism roots out injustice and falsity. Nothing should be beyond question, and everyone should be equally free in this regard. This seems to be the only way to mature intellectually and socially, and to protect ourselves from exploitation by unjust rulers (or even covert conspiracies). I must admit, I find Kant’s utopia very attractive myself (for one thing, it makes me think of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of society depicted in Star Trek).

If we go any distance down this path, then when someone tries to say ‘Do not question – believe!’, we become immediately suspicious. Although I am not accusing him of conscious wrong-doing, Jimmy’s contention seems to have something of the quality of the person trying to restrict reason about it, and for this reason I am suspicious of it. When he suggests that maybe I am not autonomous, it feels like he is saying that I should give up my right to question his doctrine. He is saying that maybe I can’t question his doctrine. If I question whether I can question it or not, he says that I am presupposing that I am autonomous, and therefore begging the question against him.

However, I feel the strong urge to push back here. For one thing, it exposes me as maximally vulnerable to exploitation. The suggestion is that I accept a guardian as having authority over me in precisely my ability to use reason. There cannot be, by definition, any further justification for this, as it is suggesting itself as a standard of justification, or perhaps as a presupposition of justification. So I have to accept the doctrine for no reason. Thus, I am placing myself in a position where I could not know whether I was making the wrong decision, as my usual defence mechanism (thinking about it for myself) is being taken away from me. How would I know if I was being mislead? It seems like I couldn’t.

In addition, the doctrine in question, if it is being suggested as taken for no reason, is on par with every other potential doctrine. It may be that some other religion, or another sect of the same religion, etc, is suggested by someone else to me. Perhaps I meet a Muslim presuppositionalist who argues that I should accept his standard instead. There can be no question of deciding between the two, as to do so would either presuppose that I can make my own assessment of the situation (which is effectively to deny the proposition they are each offering), or to presuppose that one of them is right, and reason from that perspective, which begs the question against the other proposal. Thus, there can be nothing in principle which one could use to distinguish between two different proposed ultimate authorities like this. They have to be accepted without using your reason at all, which means accepted without reason, as a leap of faith.

If a dialetheist tried to argue that there could be true contradictions, then I seem to be faced with similar difficulties. On what grounds could I oppose their suggestion? It would be of no use for me to resort to my usual method of refutation, which is the derivation of a contradiction, as this is exactly what is being proposed to be rejected in the first place. The dialetheist does not just propose a different proposition, but a different standard of evaluation. So much is called into question, one might think, that nothing can be used to arbitrate between the positions. Thus, the decision to accept or reject the proposal cannot be made with the usual kind of justification.

But now, when faced with the proposal on the table in such stark terms, a problem seems to present itself. If I accepted Jimmy’s offer, and shrugged off my autonomous pretensions, and took on his doctrines as authorities, then what would the status of that acceptance be? It would have been an act of volition – I would have acted myself, under my own guidance. If I surrender my autonomy, then this act is my final autonomous act. And it is, in the final analysis, something which I have to do under my own guidance. It is only after I have made the leap that I can be under the guidance of the new guardian. Before hand, when I am do not accept this authority, I must act without it as an authority. Otherwise there would be no transition from one state to the other, as I would already be under the authority of the doctrine. So for the idea of transition to make any sense, it must be from a state of autonomy to a state of nonage. Even if the reply comes that there is no real transition, as we are all under the authority of God whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it seems that I have to make my own decision to acknowledge it; indeed, all that can be asked of me is to acknowledge it. If I am under the authority of God, then there is nothing I can do about that. The only thing left is to willingly submit to it or not. Yet this is an act which presupposes autonomy. Surrender to the inability to surrender is impossible without the ability to surrender. And this seems to make the proposal paradoxical.

The proposal from Jimmy seems to be to acknowledge that I do not have the ability to acknowledge anything; he wants me to do something which presupposes autonomy, to accept that I could not do anything with autonomy.

5. The Paradox of Love

This reminds me of a paradox which comes from Sartre. The idea is that love is a paradoxical state. It means wanting two incompatible things at the same time. Firstly, it is desired that your lover love you because of some quality that you possess; perhaps your kind heart, or your gentle nature, etc. If your lover loved you without there being any such quality, it would seem like there was nothing they loved about you. This would seem to evacuate the attitude of all content; there would be nothing stopping them falling out of love with you, as nothing motivates it in the first place. The decision seems no better than a random act.

So the lover needs to love you in virtue of something about you; your good qualities, etc. Yet this also faces grave difficulties. If your lover loves you because of your good nature, then if some disaster befalls you and you lose this disposition, then your lover will lose their motivation for loving you. If they loved you in virtue of your lovely appearance, then this may be doomed to be undermined as you age. Thus, the only alternative to loving you for no reason places the love unacceptably at the mercy of your continued possession of various properties. Again, this seems to evacuate the attitude of its content.

What is wanted is a paradoxical combination of being valued for some good quality or other, but also being valued over and above any of these qualities. You want to be valued in virtue of something, yet not in virtue of something. Such is the paradoxical and irrational nature of love, we might think.

Similar paradoxes affect the sexual attitude, according to Sartre. What is desired for the sadist is the objectification of the partner. A resisting partner is one who refuses to be objectified, and defies the basic desire of the sadist. Instead, what the sadist is after is for a willing partner, one who will freely, willingly, subject themselves to the objectification. What is desired is a willing surrender of will. What is desired is an object that it not an object.

While one may simply harbour a irrational desires like this in virtue of being a human with irrational drives and psychology, one cannot be rationally compelled to take on a position such as this. To the robot, or alien, if these human practices are indeed irredeemably paradoxical, then there is no way to rationalise them. They can only be things that make sense to those who are disposed to do them; one has to be built the right way for them to make sense.

It seems to me that the apologist who tries to get you to accept their doctrine, that you are not autonomous, is akin to someone with a romantic or sadistic desire. They want something which is irredeemably paradoxical. They want a willing suspension of will; the autonomous choice to renounce autonomy.

6. Conclusion

There is no real conclusion here. What is left after all of this is the vision of Kant’s utopia, where the use of reason is the only thing that keeps us free, pitted against a suggestion to willingly surrender this protection, without reason or justification. It seems to me to be an intrinsically paradoxical thing to be proposed with – yet this judgement will doubtless be deemed to be a product of my own rebellious perspective. To me it seems a paradoxical and dangerous thing to do; to not do so probably appears just as paradoxical and dangerous to Jimmy.

2 thoughts on “Autonomy”

  1. Thank you Alex! Your post was illuminating, as were your conversations with Jimmy. Please, if you get the chance, speak with him again. I’ve watched both of your conversations at least three times each.

    What strikes me as extremely difficult to understand is the presuppositionist’s inability to offer a justification for their basic claim. They only seem able to challenge the questioner at this point, demanding a justification for the question itself. This seems, intuitively, like a trick. No other type of claim I can think of puts the burden of proof upon the questioner. This makes the claim completely unpersuasive.

    Thanks again, and thanks to Jimmy as well. He was extremely helpful and seems like a great person. -Steven


  2. Sorry for the late post to this topic; I have not yet caught up with your other articles. Still, a thought struck me and I wanted to hear your opinion on it, Alex, if possible.

    Basically, it occurred to me that doesn’t Presuppositionalism itself presuppose autonomy? Or, at the very least, doesn’t it refute some of its own core dogmas? I say this because an apologetic serves to defend ones faith, ones belief in God. Yet presuppositionalists believe that God is being “that is known,” a being that everyone is already aware of and already believes in.

    Doesn’t Presuppositionalism presuppose that the interlocutor requires convincing in the first place? It would seem to me, from my very inexpert opinion, that the interlocutor would not require convincing if he did, in fact, already believe that God existed. Am I missing something (which is likely)? It seems to me that the apologetic itself implies much that it then tries to deny later.

    Well, thank you for your time. I am really looking forward to catching up with the rest of your blog! Also, if you have any other Hangouts or web-conversations planned (on YouTube or elsewhere) please post them! They are always interesting and extremely entertaining.



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