Authority and Reason: Non-Christian Views

“There are those, of course, who deny that they need any form of authority. They are the popular atheists and agnostics. Such men say that they must be shown by “reason” whatever they are to accept as true. But the great thinkers among non-Christian men have taken no such position. They know that they cannot cover the whole area of reality with their knowledge. They are therefore willing to admit that there may be others who have information that they themselves do not possess…So everywhere and in all respects the lesser minds are bound to submit to the authority of greater minds…

The natural man will gladly allow for the idea of authority if only it be the authority of the expert in the use of reason. Such a conception of authority is quite consistent with the assumption of the sinner’s autonomy.

On the other hand the conception of authority as something that stands “above reason” in unacceptable to the natural man. But it is not easy to distinguish in every instance when authority is considered to be “above reason.” There are some forms of authority that might seem, at first sight, to be “above reason” while in reality they are not…

1. First there is the need for authority that grows out of the existence of the endless multiplicity of factual material…For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance…It is this conception of the ultimacy of time and of pure factuality on which modern philosophy…has laid such great stress…

It is of the greatest import to note that the natural man need not in the least object to the kind of authority that is involved in the idea of irrationalism. And that chiefly for two reasons:

A. In the first place the irrationalism of our day is the direct lineal descendant of the rationalism of previous days. The idea of pure chance has been inherent in every form of non-Christian thought in the past. It is the only logical alternative to the position of Christianity according to which the plan of God is back of all…the idea of  pure factuality or pure chance as ultimate is but the idea of “otherness” made explicit. Given the non-Christian assumption with respect to man’s autonomy the idea of chance has equal rights with the idea of logic.

B. In the second place modern irrationalism has not in the least encroached upon the domain of the intellect as the natural man thinks of it. Irrationalism has merely taken possession of that which the intellect, by its own admission, cannot in any case control. Irrationalism has a secret treaty with rationalism by which the former cedes to the latter so much of its territory as the latter can at any given time find the forces to control…irrationalism has promised to keep out of its own territory any form of authority that might be objectionable to the autonomous intellect. The very idea of pure factuality or chance is the best guarantee that no true authority, such as that of God as the Creator and Judge of men, will ever confront man.

2. There is a second kind of authority that the natural man is quite ready to accept. It does not spring, as did the first, from the fact that the intellect can by definition not control the whole realm of chance. It springs from the fact that even that which the intellect does assert about the objects of knowledge is, of necessity involved in contradiction. F.H. Bradley’s great book, Appearance and Reality, has brought out this point with the greatest possible detail. The point is not that the many philosophers who have speculated on the nature of reality have actually contradicted each other and themselves. The point is rather that in the nature of the case all logical assertion with respect to the world of temporal existence must needs be, it is said, self-contradictory in character. On the assumptions of the natural man logic is a timeless impersonal principle, and facts are controlled by chance. It is by means of universal timeless principles of logic that the natural man must, on his assumptions, seek to make intelligible assertions about the world of reality or chance. But this cannot be done without falling into self-contradiction. About chance no manner of assertion can be made. In its very idea it is the irrational. And how are rational assertions to be made about the irrational? If they are to be made then it must be because the irrational is itself wholly reducible to the rational. That is to say if the natural man is to make any intelligible assertions about the world of “reality” or “fact” which, according to him is what it is for no rational reason at all, then he must make the virtual claim of rationalizing the irrational. To be able to distinguish one fact from another fact he must reduce all time existence, all factuality to immovable timeless being.  But when he has done so he has killed all individuality and factuality as conceived of on his basis. Thus the natural man must on the one hand assert that all reality is non-structural in nature and on the other hand that all reality is structural in nature. He must even assert on the one hand that all reality in non-structurable in nature and on the other hand that he himself has virtually structured all of it. Thus all his predication is in the nature of the case self-contradictory.”

(Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 123-127)


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