Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Transcendental Argument: A Follow Up

When I wrote the earlier article on the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG), I was hoping to provide a simple explanation of what it is and how it works. I wanted to do this because it is an interesting argument but many people are unfamiliar with it. Because I wanted to keep things simple and there just is not a lot of room in a blog length article, I was not able to provide an example of the argument in the article itself. Instead, I explained what the argument was and how it works and then gave two examples of assertions that one might use TAG to argue for. I then linked to an example of a skilled apologist using the transcendental argument in a debate. If the reader did not listen to the debate or read the transcript then how to construct or use a transcendental argument might not have been obvious. Since I posted the article, I have had some feedback through conversation and the comments left on the site. In light of that feedback, I thought it might be helpful to write a follow up to clarify a couple of things.

First, I provided an explanation of how the argument works but I could have developed that a bit more. Second, there seems to be some question about what exactly this argument proves and what the function of rational arguments in general are in these cases. I will try and briefly address both of these issues. 

As I said in the previous post, a transcendental argument makes the logical claim that (A) is necessary for (B) to be the case therefore if (B) is the case, (A) must also be the case. If there are necessary preconditions for something that exists then the preconditions must also exist. To deny that is impossible. TAG works by showing that if (B) is true then it is undeniable that (A) is also true. This is how it works but it might be easier to understand if we flesh it out a bit more.

To begin with, to use this kind of argument you must have a good understanding of not only the facts and evidence that the unbeliever is using but also the basic ideas (presuppositions) they use when evaluating and interpreting facts and evidence. TAG highlights certain inconsistencies between those presuppositions and some process or assumption that is used by the unbeliever. The argument is used to show that the unbeliever accepts (B) but rejects (A) even though (B) is not possible without (A). Let us walk through an example.

An atheistic worldview presupposes that there is no reality outside of the material world. This means no purpose or design is governing the universe. Everything is random and evolved, the result of chance and the nature of material objects. Therefore, in an atheist world the laws of logic cannot have an existence that somehow goes beyond the minds in which they operate since there is no foundation in a random material universe for laws that are universal, unchanging, and necessary.

Of course, atheists unavoidably use logic but how can they explain it? Various attempts have been made by atheists to explain the laws of logic. They could be descriptions of the way that the neurons in our brains fire or of the chemical processing that takes place there. The problem here is that your brain is not mine and yet the laws of logic are universal not individual. Perhaps they are simply conventions that people have agreed upon, but that leaves the door open to the possibility that some people may decide they would rather use different laws. Unfortunately, logic is not that democratic. Since the laws of logic are necessary to all human thought and communication no such consensus could be achieved. If the current laws of logic are abandoned nothing-intelligible remains. They are not only commonly held but are necessary and unavoidable.

Maybe they are simply a description of the way that our minds have evolved to help us survive and they are universal because they derive from a common ancestor. If true, then they might have evolved differently and thus they are conventions even though not agreed upon. This would mean that at some point in the evolutionary process what is false today might have been true. If this is the case, then at one time a cat may have been identical to a walrus while being completely different from a walrus in every way and circles might have had four sides. Even the mechanisms of natural selection seem inadequate to explain how and why that could possibly be the case.

None of the materialistic solutions provides an adequate foundation for laws that are necessary, universal, and unchanging. The atheist is thereby challenged to explain how the standards they propose to use in evaluating the evidence (logic and reason) even exist. The Christian then proceeds to the formal argument:

(     A)   Theism is a necessary precondition for the existence of universal, necessary, and unchanging              entities such as the laws of logic.
      B)   The laws of logic exist and they are universal, necessary, and unchanging.
      C)   Therefore, theism is true.

The argument holds that the unbeliever cannot deny the truth of (B) and since an atheistic worldview cannot provide a reasonable and sufficient explanation of (B) without involving itself in a logical contradiction then (A) is undeniably true. The conclusion is that if you deny that God exists then thought itself is impossible. I hope that this explanation is a little easier to understand and is helpful to those who had questions.

Some of the comments also had to do with the effectiveness and use of the argument. One person wrote, “This proof is no more effective than the older ones. It maybe show problems with other systems but does not prove that the Christian God exists.” I replied that I agree it fails as a “proof” and that I did not think you could prove the existence of God using rational arguments to which another commenter replied, “I wouldn't say you cannot prove the existence of God through rational arguments. What other arguments are there, non-rational?”

Let me begin with the second comment first. I was not contrasting rational arguments with some other type of argument. My point was that there is no way for us to prove by evidence or argument that God exists. People do not reject God because of a lack of evidence or rational support. A spiritual not intellectual problem causes men to suppress the knowledge of God.

The particular weaknesses of TAG are technical, require a long explanation, and are beyond the scope of this post. (If you want more information on this, feel free to email me) This does not mean, however, that the argument is not useful. It is effective as a reductio argument. It demonstrates the inadequacy of atheism as a logically coherent system. Even if it is not a “proof” it can still be effective and we need not feel too bad about that. There are many things we cannot “prove”. For example, we cannot prove with certainty the existence of other minds or that we are not living in a constant dream state.

At the end of the day, TAG is interesting and a powerful tool for exposing the unbeliever’s position as irrational but it cannot change a heart. It cannot give new life. A fallen mind will always find sufficient reasons to reject the Truth. Arguments do not change people’s minds… only the Holy Spirit can do that. TAG cannot open hearts, only shut mouths.

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