Thursday, March 31, 2011

Remarks on Transcendental Arguments

Choosing Hats posted a link to a new web site discussing transcendental argument (TAs).  That posting, which can be found here, has prompted me to add my proverbial 2 cents to the discussion.

In reflecting on TAG (Transcendental Argument for God) and its use over the years, I have come to realize that many are unable to recognize a transcendental argument.  There are probably several reasons for this, but one reason may be that most people who have exposure to logic are reared on the classic syllogistic form. TAs are not properly syllogistic and thus cannot be written as such.  (Though syllogistic schema have been employed.)

Transcendental arguments have a self-reflective property.  Typically, they consist of statements for which the speaker is under pain of self contradiction when uttered.  Some perennial examples are the so-called liar's paradox: "I always lie."  That statement, if true, would necessarily be false, and so it must be false.  The person speaking such is a liar -- just not a constant one!  Another example, pronounced a few months ago by my favorite agnostic, is: "There are no answers to Big Questions." That statement is an answer to a "Big Question," and thus self-refuting.   Finally, Descartes' dictum, "I think, therefore I am" is, in my mind, more forceful when stated transcendentally as,"I don't exist" --  a blatant self-contradiction.

The above TAs I will call "first-order" transcendental arguments, since they consist of statements that are directly self-referencing and self-refuting.   This type of argument is sometimes called "retortion."   TAs were recognized as destructing the very foundations of Logical Positivism which scoffed at "metaphysical" inquiry (one should raise an eyebrow immediately) and tried to base its epistemology (without metaphysics!) on the premise that all truth is either empirical or logically derived (i.e., tautology).   All else was metaphysical nonsense. The problem, of course, is that the foundational premise of Logical Positivism is neither a tautology nor an empirical truth.  Thus, Logical Positivism is metaphysical nonsense of the very sort they decried.  

Let's consider TAG.  In a nutshell, TAG is the statement that "There is no God" is self-refuting.  This is not direct retortion since it is not directly self-refuting, but the unbeliever carries a host of beliefs that would only be true in the Christian worldview, and thus when he utters "there is no God," he should abandon any of his beliefs that are only true in Christianity.  Some examples of those beliefs would be morality, the invariant laws of logic, justice, human independence from physical determination, and so on.  The list is long.  The unbeliever's worldview is ontologically, epistemological and ethically self-contradictory.  Since the unbeliever holds to contradictory thought, his worldview is irrational.

The fact that the unbeliever adheres to belief in the concepts mentioned above is another aspect of transcendental arguments: the idea of the stolen concept.

The unbeliever rails against God using beliefs -- such as morality -- that would not exist in the atheist world.  The claim that Christianity holds to beliefs that are immoral is an old line of attack, and one which Bertrand Russell attempted in "Why I Am Not a Christian."   It is a fallacious and self-defeating argument which also has been continued by some of the "new atheists," such as Christopher Hitchens, who attempt to use the concept of "evil" to deny God.  These arguments fail because "evil" would not even exist in an atheistic world, for there would be no such thing (!). As Bahnsen pointed out against Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" (and which holds equally against Hitchens et al.):

     "On what basis, then, could Russell issue his moral evaluations and judgments? In terms of what view of reality and knowledge did he assume that there was anything like an objective criterion of morality by which to find Christ, Christians, and the church lacking? 

       Russell was embarrassingly arbitrary in this regard. He just took it for granted, as an unargued philosophical bias, that there was a moral standard to apply, and that he could presume to be the spokesman and judge who applies it." [Always Ready, p.156]

In fact, I recently corresponded with an agnostic who railed against God because he thought it seemed "unjust" that God would send a "good" atheist to hell.  His example was an atheist who did all sorts of "good" but only failed to believe in Christ.  That example is, of course, a specious argument since it conveniently ignores the issue of the evil acts of the hypothetical perfect atheist.  But regardless of that glaring oversight, the question that must be pressed is where does an agnostic's idea or standard of absolute "good," "evil" and "justice" come from?  There simply is no such thing in the atheistic world -- they are "stolen" concepts (or as Van Til said, "the borrowed capital of Christian theism") and thus that argument fails!

Then we have the case of Prof. William Provine, a material monist, who thinks he is "rationally" asserting that there is no human free will. Provine, as I previously pointed out, is consistent with his material monism when he reasons that human beings -- being no more than physical systems propelled by inviolable physical forces --  cannot be autonomous.  Yet, rationality presupposes freedom to be guided by violable laws of logic.   We have the picture of irrational physical forces compelling  "free" and "rational" actions -- actions that Provine has claimed are not possible!  Thus, Provine is self-refuting by way of a TA.  

I recently discovered that Epicurus stated the original transcendental refutation of Provine many years ago. Epicurus stated that one cannot rationally deny free will, since rationality (i.e., adherence to laws of logic) presupposes free will.  The argument as stated on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (
link) is:

"Transcendental arguments can be characterized as demonstrations that the skeptic’s articulation of her own position is self-defeating in some way. These arguments imply that the skeptic cannot even coherently articulate a given position. Epicurus is reported to have argued that, without free choice, one assents to propositions only because one is determined to do so. Without free choice, then, it would be impossible to rationally assent to any proposition—that is, to assent to it because one has good reasons to think it is true, rather than because one must. The proposition that one has no free choice is thus self-stultifying, in that, if true, it cannot be warranted. This reasoning implies the following argument:

    (1) I am able to rationally assent to the proposition that there is no free choice.
    (2) I could not rationally assent to any proposition if there were no free choice.
    (3) Hence, there is free choice."

"That which cannot be true, must be false," and that is exactly what atheism is!  It asserts an impossibility.  It is a world that fails ontologically, ethically, and epistemologically. It is a world without rationality, ethics, or human freedom, yet the atheist presupposes such must be.  And since atheism is impossible, then agnosticism, too, is untenable.  The agnostic should immediately abandon his skepticism regarding God, since the skeptical agnostic essentially asserts that God's existence is unknowable and, thereby, it is possible that there is no God.  We might wonder just what metaphysical law of "possibility" exists that would demand such! If the only possibilities are dictated by the physics of material monism, then one has a most baldly vicious circular argument.

We also have the skeptic.  The global skeptic claims "nothing is knowable," and as shown above, he has been summarily defeated by a first-order transcendental argument. "I don't know anything" is refuted by the unintelligibility of the utterance.  So, what we really have is the relentless unbeliever who doubts everything except the power of his autonomous reason from which he launches his skeptical attacks.  He ought to wonder why his own reason is immune (!), and if he will admit that it is not, he ought to wonder why he busies himself with his skeptical arguments against Christian theism, all the while acting as if "his" reason is the ultimate authority!  In the last case, we see another person who should shut his mouth.  The fact that he does not is a testimony to foolish pride of the agnostic's heart and his reliance on his supposed self-sufficient autonomy.

In summary, all unbelievers have a prideful, irrational adherence to the power of their own autonomy and their autonomous reason. But such autonomous rationality would not exist in a reality wherein all acts are no more than the compelled effects of ultimate irrational quantum mechanical chance events. According to the atheist, man himself is nothing more than a manifestation of that ultimate irrationality and, thereby, the metaphysical equivalent of "sock puppets."