Friday, December 30, 2005

The transcendental argument for the existence of God

A few years ago, I saw a flier on a bulletin board at school advertizing a class on apologetics. I emailed the guy because I was curious about it. He sent me to his web page. After looking at it, it became obvious that he was a reformed Christian who was heavily influenced by presuppositional apologetics. He especially seemed to be a big fan of Cornelius van Til. I posted a message on his bulletin board because I was curious about the transcendental argument. After his response, I gave him a few reasons I was skeptical of it. Then he wrote me an email asking a little about my background and inquiring further into my thoughts. I don't have what I wrote on the bulletin board, but I thought I'd post what I wrote in the email. Maybe it will stir up some discussion.


I appreciate the response. I'm a busy person myself, so I understand the delay. I guess I'll first tell you a little about my own presuppositions. :-) I am a Christian. I'm reformed, but I only made the switch about two year ago, and I haven't worked out all the kinks yet. I do believe the Bible is inspired by God and that it's the sole infallible rule of faith for Christians. I'm really not that educated in theology, apologetics, and philosophy. I'm almost exclusively self-educated in those areas although I've taken a few philosophy classes in college. Most of my education comes from reading books, articles, and debates, and I've spent a little time debating on message boards myself. I'm not that familiar with Conelius van Til except from secondary literature, and I've read a few of his articles on the internet. I know more about his fans than the man himself.

I'm not at all opposed to the presupositional method in general. In fact, I've found it very useful in dealing with self-referentially absurd claims (such as "There are no absolutes") and arguments that are incoherent (such as the argument against God from the problem of evil). But I also see merit in the evidentialist approach, and if you want, I'll tell you why I think that approach is consistent with the Bible. I'm not at all opposed to transcendental arguments in general. The moral argument, being a version of the TAG, is sound in my opinion.

The reason I find the moral argument pursuasive and not the logic argument is because moral laws are not the same kind of laws as the laws of logic. Moral laws are prescriptive, and the laws of logic are descriptive. Supposing there were no necessary, transcendent, sovereign, and personal being who imposed obligation, there could be no universal objective prescriptive laws of any kind. We'd be left with nihilism or relativism, both being forms of prescriptive non-realism. But I see no reason why certain descriptive truths would not exist if there were no such God. If there were no God, and I had a blue cup, then the proposition, "My cup is blue," would still be a true description of the world. At a minimum, if there were no God, then the proposition, "There is no God," would be a true proposition, as I've said before. Truth is just correspondence with reality, and I see no reason to think God's existence is necessary for such a correspondence to be possible.

I suppose one could make the case that the laws of logic are prescriptive in the sense that we have a rational ought imposed on us by them. We ought to be logical because it's rationally correct to do so. There is certainly a difference between a rational ought and a moral ought, but they are both prescriptive in a sense. But I don't see that the laws of logic are themselves prescriptive because the rational ought itself is not one of the laws of logic. The imperative, "You ought to believe in logic," cannot itself be a law of logic. The laws of logic describe the way the world is, and the rational ought tells us that we ought to believe the description because it's true. The laws of logic do not impose this ought on us as far as I can see.

I guess one of the problems I see with the TAG is that the ontological status of universals and other abstract entities is never discussed. It's as if there's no controversy surrounding the issue. A good example of this is the difference between good and evil. Good can be said to have positive ontological status. It really exists as "part of the furniture of the universe" as some like to say. But evil, being a departure from good, doesn't really have positive ontological status. Evil is the absense of good, not the presence of something else. So when we say "good exists," we mean something different by "exist" than when we say "evil exists." Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason uses the analogy of a doughnut and a doughnut hole. A doughnut hole doesn't really exist in any ontological sense. It's just where the doughnut is not. Likewise, a shadow is where the light is not. Light and doughnuts clearly have ontology, but shadows and doughnut holes don't, and many people dispute whether universals such as the laws of logic really have ontological status. To deny the positive ontological status of the laws of logic is not to say that they don't exist in some sense or that they aren't true. The laws of logic are propositions that correspond to reality, so it may be argued that reality would remain exactly what it is even if the propositions which described reality were not apprehended by any minds, including God's. There would be no four-sided triangles in reality even if there were no personal being or beings to apprehend it. So the laws of logic describe reality, but they don't determine reality because they are not prescriptive.

Greg Bahnsen hammered Gorden Stein on the fact that Stein kept using and asserting logic while being unable to give a basis for logic other than God. What was never made clear to me was why logic required a basis to begin with. For anything to exist, whether contingent or necessary, something much exist necessarily. It seems inuitively obvious to me that logic exists necessarily, and if it doesn't, then that's what I need help seeing. Why is logic contingent and not necessary? Bahnsen argued that it was because the laws of logic are rules of thought and therefore require a mind to have a basis, and I think I've explained why I have a problem with that. What I would like to have asked Bahnsen is "How do you give a non-question begging basis for the principle of sufficient reason?" which is the principle he seemed to be working with. If he says, "God is the basis for the principle of sufficient reason," do you see how that would get him into trouble? One could make the following argument:

1. If there is no God, then the principle of sufficient reason is not true.
2. There is no God.
3. Therefore, the principle of sufficient reason is not true.

So Stein could've begun with the presupposition that God does not exist in order to argue that logic requires no basis since if God doesn't exist, the principle of sufficient reason is not true. I see no way for Bahnsen to dispute that argument without using circular reasoning.

To be honest with you, I don't see that the presuppositionalist approach is necessarily different from an evidentialist approach because the presuppositionalist is using universals as evidence for the existence of God. Things like morals, propositions, numbers, logic, etc, are all being used as evidence that God exists.

1. If there is no God, then there are no universals.
2. There are universals.
3. Therefore, there is a God.

Well, I meant to stop typing a long time ago, but it's becoming evident to me that I'm not going to find a stopping place. I'm just going to have to DECIDE to stop. Sorry about the length. I suppose I've been rambling. I am interested in the TAG, especially the necessity of God for the existence of logic. It seems to me that if there is something to it that I'm not seeing, this argument would have to be an air-tight irrefutable argument for the claim that God not only exists, but that God exists necessarily, and that's it incoherent nonsense to deny it. So if there's something I'm not seeing, I would very much like to be able to see it.

I'm not familiar with Herman Dooyeweerd. Thanks again for the email. I know I've said a lot, and hope you'll respond, but I'll understand if you take a while in getting back to me.



At 12/31/2005 5:40 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

No comments yet.

maybe you should write about calvinism again :P

At 12/31/2005 7:57 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

LOL Maybe so!

At 1/03/2006 4:44 AM , Blogger Jeff Travis Henderson said...

Okay this issue touches on something I've been thinking about recently:

Is God a contigent or necessary being? If he is contingent then why does he exist rather than not? If he is necessary, then it should be impossible for me to imagine a logically coherent world in which he does not exist - but it's not (as far as I'm aware).

If you could help me out with that, it would be swell.

At 1/03/2006 8:28 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

That's a good question from Mr. Henderson. I'm very sympathetic to the argument that God is a necessary being.

Most people don't like Anselm's Ontological Argument, but I keep going back to it and finding it strangely compelling.

At 1/03/2006 10:58 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, if you define "contingent" as "depending on something else for its existence," and "necessary" as "impossible to be otherwise," then it seems to me there's a third category, because "contingent" and "necessary" aren't opposites by those definitions. The oposite of the above definition of "contingent" is "Not depending on something else for its existence," and it seems to me the third possible category would be things that are not logically necessary, but that exist as brute facts.

If the TAG argument is sound or if any version of the ontological argument is sound, then God is logically necessary, meaning it's impossible for him not to exist. You should check out Alvin Plantinga's ontological argument in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil. Maybe I'll write a blog about that. It's a neat argument.


At 1/03/2006 6:17 PM , Blogger Jeff Travis Henderson said...

Thanks I'll have to read that; I usually am a Plantinga fan.

You're right, Sam, in pointing out that the word 'contingent' is used in different ways. I guess by 'contingent' I mean "it's non-existence is not logically impossible"

I agree that my probelms would be over if there was a convincing form of the ontological argument, but I've always been somewhat unsure about those arguments. Most of them are circular (Is God defined as necessary because he exists in all possible worlds, or does he exist in all possible worlds because he is defined as necessary?)

Also, if God is a necessary being then wouldn't his qualities be necessary as well? But what is necessary about tri-unity?

At the same time I realize, I'd be no better off being an atheist... I'd have a harder time explaining why the universe exists (it certainly is not necessary).

At 1/04/2006 9:09 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

JH, You raise an interesting question about God's attributes. You named triunity, but it could hold for any of His qualities.

It would seem to be a correlary to the ontological argument that God could not be different. This would lead us to conclude that even His trinitarian nature must be a necessary attribute. That might be taking things too far, but I think it could be defended this way:

1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
2. Every quality possessed by God that is degreed in any manner must be possessed to the fullest capacity.
3. Tri-unity is greater than singularity.
4. Therefore, tri-unity is a necessary attribute of God.

#3 is the problem statement here. But many theologians claim that some of God's eternal attributes would be meaningless without a context of relationship.

At 1/04/2006 11:30 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, I'm not sure I follow the argument. Maybe it could be reworded a little. You say that every degreed quality of God must be had to the fullest capacity. Granted that triunity is better than singularity, couldn't we say that four is better than three? Or that five is better than four? If so, would it follow that God is four or five persons? Why is three better than two or four?


At 1/05/2006 9:13 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

I can't answer why 3 is better than 4, but that's what would be demanded by this line of reasoning.

Obviously we are talking about maximizing God's greatness, not His immensity (for lack of a better word).

I'm aware that the way that I put that is cumbersome at best, and certainly open to critique.

Do you see a way to use the 'greatest conceivable being' presupposition to defend the necessity of God's attributes?

At 1/09/2006 4:23 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I can see how it could be used to defend attributes like his knowledge, power, and goodness, but I don't see how it could be used to defend his triunity. You'd have to come up with some way to demonstrate that triunity is greater, in some sense, than being two, four, or some other number.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home