The Transcendental Argument for God

The Transcendental Argument for God (to be hencefore referred to as TAG) is a philosophical argument which attempts to demonstrate that some facet of reality presupposes the existence of god. As Greg Bahnsen, one of the leading proponents of the argument, puts it, a “transcendental argument begins with any item of experience or belief whatsoever and proceeds, by critical analysis, to ask what conditions (or what other beliefs) would need to be true in order for that original experience or belief to make sense, be meaningful, or be intelligible to us.”1

In use of the TAG, the experience, or facet, of reality commonly given as an example is logical absolutes. These are things like the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and so forth. In other words, the theist demands that the atheist account for an absolute like “x cannot be both x and non-x.” According to TAG proponents, the only way of accounting for logical absolutes is to presuppose the existence of god. The argument can be stated as follows:

1. If god does not exist, logical absolutes do not exist.
2. Logical absolutes do exist.
3. Therefore god exists.

For this critique, I will approach the TAG in three different ways. First, a discussion of logic will help to shed some light on a fundamental error of the argument. Second, I will explain why the conclusion is based upon an unwarranted assumption, and finally, we will briefly look at the presuppositionalism espoused by the TAG and its defenders.

I. Leapin’ Logic!

Logic may best be thought of as the standard by which we base our reasoning. While reason is about analysis and critical thinking, logic is like a set of norms or rules that undergirds reason. Logic is a very important component of reason, and thus, the two terms are often used interchangeably, although they do refer to different things.

This ‘standard’ we call logic has two functions; it is both prescriptive and descriptive. Logic is descriptive in that it describes how things are in the universe, giving us a model of reality. It is also prescriptive in that it can be used by human beings to instruct ourselves on how to be consistent and rational in our thinking. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this distinction and assign prescription to the universe, as if it has some agency telling it how to behave. We see this misunderstanding a lot regarding the laws of logic (another name for logical absolutes).

Occasionally someone will ask, “Who made the laws of logic?” Many Christian theists like to claim that a law requires a law-giver, but this all overlooks the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive laws. A good analogy might be music theory. One could easily argue for laws of music, because of the descriptive rules that tell us what makes something music, what makes a song a certain key, a certain tempo, and so on. However, there is no person or being forcing these rules to be what they are, nor is there anyone forcing us to observe them. By the consequence of what music is, and how instruments work, all musicians and instruments naturally conform to music theory.

In much the same way, the operation of reality is not informed by logic, but logic is informed by it, and then we human beings are informed by logic. The law of non-contradiction is not told how to behave by some being, but is simply a law to help ‘govern’ our thought processes. Now, at this point you could ask, “If we just created logic for ourselves, doesn’t that make it subjective?” Yes and no. Under any worldview – Christian or atheist – logic is a human invention, a standard of rules we have devised to aid our thinking. However, the operation of reality is not subjective, nor of human origin. If logic is not descriptive of objective reality, we correct and refine it accordingly.

Are logical absolutes tenable under the atheistic position? Quite obviously they are, despite the best intentions of Christian apologists to prove otherwise. Some may still object that, if these absolutes are part of a human invention, then there is no real way to know that they are, in fact, absolutes. This must be granted, but it is yet again a problem for the theist as well as the atheist. No worldview has thus far given us the means to prove that logical absolutes are absolute. Nonetheless, I might venture to say we have little reason to fear, since existence is necessarily consistent with itself. So long as we strive to keep logic descriptive of existential reality, there is no need to fear that our laws of logic have no force.

II. Conceptual Necessity

Aside from its misrepresentation of logic, another significant problem with the TAG is that it makes a monumental and unjustified leap from conceptual necessity to existence. Rationally, it may be necessary for us to believe some things, for any number of possible reasons, and yet this does not mean what we believe is true. Hartry Field, Stephen Yablo, and many other philosophers have noted that conceptual necessity does not imply that the thing conceived must exist. As Field explains,

…we can easily grant that it is conceptually necessary that if there is a God then it is a perfect being, or that if there are natural numbers then 7+5= 12. If you think that talk of “metaphysical necessity” makes sense, you can even regard it as part of the concept of God or of numbers that anything falling under those concepts is metaphysically necessary; if so, then it will be conceptually necessary that if there are numbers then they are “metaphysically necessary beings”, and analogously for God. But what doesn’t seem as if it can be conceptually necessary is that there is a God or that there are natural numbers. As Kant said in critique of Anselm’s first ontological argument, there just doesn’t seem to be any way to build into our concepts a guarantee that there is anything that falls under those concepts.2

Try as we may to establish the necessity of a concept like god, there is no way for us to get from the concept to actual existence. We imagine any number of fictitious objects or beings, but we cannot merely ascribe them necessary existence as part of their concept and assert that they exist. Even if the TAG could successfully demonstrate that one must believe in god’s existence to make sense of reality and the laws of logic, it does not follow that god is real. So, the TAG as it is elaborated should read differently:

1. If we do not believe in god, we cannot believe in logical absolutes.
2. We believe in logical absolutes.
3. Therefore, we should believe in god.

Of course, this is a much weaker argument than many of the TAG defenders wish to make, but there is no formulation of the TAG that actually addresses god’s existence.

Even so, I reject the notion that the TAG demonstrates the conceptual necessity of god. As argued in section I, the argument seems to rest on a flawed, or at least highly controversial, assumption about the nature of logic. Logical absolutes are derived from existence, and how it behaves, and there is no reason to suppose that existence behaves inconsistently. We need not account for this. If the theist would like to claim that he can account for existence and atheists cannot, then he is welcome to make an argument, but the TAG still fails.

III. Presuppositions

Presuppositional apologetics is a school of Christian apologetics that believes presuppositions are the only way humans can make sense of the universe. We form our a priori beliefs and then reason accordingly. Consequently, presuppositionalists reject the traditional arguments for god and contend that there is no neutral ground on which believers and unbelievers can meet and converse. The sole purpose of rational discourse is changing the presuppositions of the unbeliever. As Christian apologist Matt Slick states, “A pure presuppositionalist tackles the worldview of a person and seeks to change the very foundation of how a person perceives facts.”3

One can easily see that the TAG was developed by a presuppositionalist. The existence of god is taken for granted, and the argument focuses entirely on appealing to the unbeliever’s desire for a coherent and consistent worldview. In other words, ‘Our presuppositions are better than yours.’ Yet if one does not accept the presuppositionalist narrative, the TAG comes across like a man dangling a carrot in front of a horse. The goal is to get the horse to move, not to feed it, and in the long run it may not be much good to the horse, especially if keeping the animal fed is not the primary concern. The TAG may as well be a rubber carrot, too.

I will grant that we all have our biases, our worldviews, and perhaps our own presuppositions. However, to conclude that these are not only part of our nature, but are necessary for dialogue is an assumption itself – one that I am not as willing to grant. The problem can be seen in a statement made by David Wright at Answers in Genesis:

The battle is not over evidence but over philosophical starting points: presuppositions. As Christians, we should never put away our axiom—the Bible—when discussing truth with others. This would be like a soldier going into battle without any armor or weapons. Asking a Christian to abandon the Bible for the sake of discussion is like asking an atheist to prove there is no God by using only the Bible. You would be asking the atheist to give up his axiom.4

An axiom is a self-evident truth, meaning that it is true by virtue of its own merits, without appeals to reason, evidence, or even faith. It simply is true because it’s true. Though one can argue over the possibility of axioms, it is fairly obvious the bible is not a real axiom, since its precise significance and various statements are issues which are not self-evident to all Christians, and this is part of the reason for the thousands of different denominations that exist today. More importantly, though, I have never seen a productive and respectful conversation take place wherein the believer does nothing but cite scripture. I never ask a Christian to abandon her Bible, but I will ask that she appreciate my position of disbelief about its inspiration. If she does not, then all we will do is talk past one another. Her response will likely be no different if I go to her with Nietzsche’s The Antichrist in hand. Imagine a Muslim taking the Qur’an to a Christian, while the two of them each treat their scriptures as self-evident truths. What enlightening discussion would be had!

Presuppositionalism seems to be a game of shifting the burden of proof. The theist mislabels the rejection of presuppositions as the presence of negatively-oriented presuppositions so that they might pretend they are justified in preaching the existence of god, or the inspiration of scripture, without reason or evidence to support their claims. The atheist does not presuppose the non-existence of god, but rather does not share your presupposition that god exists. As I have argued before, for a presupposition to be meaningful, it has to have originally had content. Prior to the invention of space aliens, no one would have said skeptics presuppose the non-existence of space aliens. Just the same, no one would have said we presupposed the non-existence of Allah before Islam arose, or of Yahweh before Judaism arose. Atheists simply lack the presuppositions of theism.

Would it be right for us to presuppose the existence of god based on something like the TAG? I would firmly say no. Presuppositional arguments, as stated before, show no concern for truth. The TAG gives us no method to determine if our presupposition will be based on fact rather than fantasy. It misconstrues logic according to the theist’s own presuppositions, yet presents the matter as an incontrovertible reality that atheists are unable to escape. For these reasons, presuppositionalism and the TAG – as eloquent and verbose a sermon as it may be – are never more than preaching to the choir.

 

Sources:
1. Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (1998), p. 501.
2. Hartry Field, “The Conceptual Contingency of Mathematical Objects,” Mind, Vol. 102, No. 406 (April 1993), p. 286.
3. Matt Slick, Presuppositional Apologetics, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
4. David Wright, What is “Presuppositional” Apologetics? Answers in Genesis (2007). Retrieved July 7, 2012.