This is a response to RationalWiki’s article on the Transcendental Argument for God. The text of RationalWiki’s article is in blue.
The transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) is an argument within the realm of presuppositional apologetics. It argues that logic, morals, and science ultimately presuppose a theistic worldview, as God must be the “source” of logic and morality. In other words, because Goddidit is claimed to be the answer to every question in epistemology, God necessarily exists.
In other (non-derogatory) words, biblical revelation, after examining all other philosophical options, is the only worldview that can answer certain foundational questions related to epistemology. Therefore, the existence of the biblical God is philosophically necessary to escape the problem of absurdity.
This argument was first proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1763, in his work The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God. It has been widely discredited ever since the scientific enlightenment, so naturally it remains hugely popular with Christian theologians and philosophers.
As we will see below, the defense of biblical revelation being necessary to escape the problem of absurdity has not been discredited and is an entirely valid argument.
The basic idea of TAG is that certain things that atheists assume are true can only be true if there is a God. These include the assumption that logical reasoning is possible, that scientific inference is justified, and that (absolute) moral standards exist. As such, when an atheist refutes the theistic argument using logic, undermines the position of the Bible on certain topic(s) using scientific evidences or argues that the existence of evil is incompatible with the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect God, the TAG maintains that the atheist is assuming God’s existence in constructing these arguments.
A better way to phrase this would be, “when an atheist <strong>attempts</strong> to refute…” We do have answers to every objection raised against the Bible. Presuppositional apologetics simply argues that the objections raised by atheists depend upon foundational concepts that atheists have no justification for.
It claims that because logic and science (knowledge) cannot exist without God, and that in order to define “evil” it requires an objective standard that is also impossible without God.
In its modern form, TAG is predominantly used by Christians more specifically than the format listed above. Christian apologists attempt to “prove” that logic, science and objective morality presupposes the Judeo-Christian worldview (while somehow excludes Islam, which is developed upon the same set(s) of worldview).
Even more specifically, we argue that logic, science, and objective morality presuppose the biblical worldview.
Islam is excluded because it contains self-contradictions, which reduces it to absurdity. So, the arguments against atheism and Islam are extremely similar: both worldviews fail to produce a foundation for the possibility of intelligibility.
Problems with TAG
Problems shared with other apologetic arguments
One of the most common problem Christian apologetics has is that the generalized formulation (i.e. the argument minus the holy book) does not specifically argue for any particular god(s). Usually this uniqueness issue is addressed through the use of the Bible, reducing the argument into “my book is holier than yours”, or the circular arguments similar to other arguments for the existence of the Christian God.
Another (non-derogatory) way to say, “my book is holier than yours,” is, “Biblical revelation is the only logically consistent and sufficient foundation for the possibility of knowledge. All other philosophical systems fail at some point.”
Regarding circular arguments, all first-principles of any philosophical system, or worldview, must ultimately be circular, or else they would not be first-principles. For example, saying that knowledge is determined by reason is circular because one must use reason to determine that knowledge is determined by reason, and saying that knowledge is determined by sense experience is circular because one then must use sense experience to determine that knowledge is determined by sense experience.
To argue that you do not have a worldview or a first-principle is disingenuous because you actually do. You have a standard by which you are evaluating statements, and whatever that standard is (reason, science, sense experience, etc.), that is your first-principle, or the foundation of your worldview, and it is necessarily circular in the sense that you cannot appeal to anything higher than that first-principle.
Problems specific to TAG
The problem of morality
TAG argues that (objective) morality cannot exist without God. This raises the question: Since the apologist argues that there are differences between right and wrong, Are the differences solely based on God?
Let’s be more specific here, since the question above is kind of vague and confusing. The differences between right and wrong are based upon what God has revealed about right and wrong, namely, that God is the definition of what is right, and that disobedience to his commands is wrong.
- If it is not, then said morality already exists without God.
- If it is, then the following problem arises:
- From God’s perspective there is no difference between right and wrong (if there is, that part of morality exists without God), and it is no longer a meaningful statement to say that God is good or morally perfect.
It is certainly a meaningful statement to say that God is good or morally perfect because God’s goodness is in contrast to created beings that are not good or morally perfect because they disobey God’s moral commands.
From God’s perspective, there <strong>is</strong> a difference between right and wrong. Just because God cannot do anything wrong does not mean he does not distinguish between right and wrong. He considers it wrong for people to disobey his commands.
Without any further explanation, the argument above is confusing and insufficient.
- God has problems communicating the differences between right and wrong to anyone in an authentic manner.
Why? We need more explanation here. God has communicated the difference between right and wrong by revealing the difference through the Bible (or, through revelation that would ultimately become the Bible).
What is the problem here, and why is it not “authentic”?
Another question is: Does morality even exist?
Yes. What I have written above should be sufficient to answer this question.
The problem of knowledge
TAG argues that without God knowledge is impossible, which the explanation is the following:
- “How do you know <statement> is true?” can be applied to the explanation of something ad infinitum, so an infinite regress is created.
- God is used as the terminator of the infinite regress: the ability of God to terminate the infinite regress comes from His omnipotence.
- Therefore, God exists.
The problem with such argument is as follows:
- There are statements that are self-evident enough that infinite regress does not come up. Those are called Axioms. Knowledge that can be built from deductive reasoning are built based on them.
- An example may be the concept of cogito ergo sum by René Descartes.
The concept of cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) by René Descartes simply does not escape the problem.
The statement, “I think, therefore…” or “there is thinking going on, therefore…” assumes the apriori existence of rationality and logic, which have yet to be explained or justified. Furthermore, the very act of thinking assumes that there is existence, so the statement begs the question.
- The proposition that God is sufficiently self-evident to be an axiom suffers from the uniqueness problem: If you need scripture to show that the self-evident God is your version of God, then it is not self-evident.
We’re saying that biblical revelation is “self-evident,” or, the only worldview where infinite regress does not come up.
- If the point has been shifted to suggest that it’s the Bible that is self-evident…
- Since the apologist already argued that God has to be presupposed, either it is bibliolatry (because the Bible is equated to God) or it is circular reasoning because each of them implies the other and both of them have to be presupposed.
No, the presuppositional apologist argued that biblical revelation has to be presupposed, which is a revelation of the mind of God. This is not bibliolatry because the Bible is equated to God in that the Bible is a revelation of the mind of God, and God’s mind is not distinct from God.
- If the termination comes from the omniscience of God, the problem is that God has problems communicating the knowledge to anyone in an authentic manner. If the revealed knowledge will go through validations afterwards, then:
- There is no reason to believe god is required to be involved.
- Isn’t this challenging/questioning/judging what God is telling you, and thus being the wrong thing to do most of the time?
I don’t think the argument above is relevant to what I have written already. The termination comes from biblical revelation, and not anything more generic than that.
=== Transcendental Argument for the Non-existence of God (TANG) ===
Michael Martin, the late atheist professor of philosophy, has argued that the exact same argument can be used to argue for the non-existence of God. The argument goes as follows:
==== Logic ====
Logic presupposes that its principles are necessarily true. With TAG’s argument, God created everything, including logic; or at least everything, including logic, is dependent on God.
We do not say that God “created” logic, or that logic is “dependent” on God. Rather, we say that God essentially is logic, or, that logic is patterned after the mind of God.
However, if logic is created by or contingent on God, it is not necessary–it is contingent on God. And if principles of logic are contingent on God, they are not logically necessary, and God can change them on God’s fiat. Thus God can change the laws of identity to make them invalid at some point, making statements not the same as themselves.
God cannot change the laws of logic.
Since logic is contingent on God as one of His creations, to argue that God cannot change the laws of logic blows away God’s omnipotence.
No, it does not, because the definition of God’s omnipotence does not include the ability to do the logically impossible. That God is omnipotent means that he can do anything that is in accordance with his nature.
As a result, the claim that logic is dependent on God is false.
That wasn’t our claim, and this argument completely fails.
==== Science ====
Science presupposes Uniformitarianism. That is, that natural law has always operated as it operates at present and there has been no violations of such laws.
This definition of science is arbitrary, and it is actually not a good definition of science. Here are two possible definitions of science from Merriam-Webster:
- knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
- such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena
Neither of these definitions include the concepts that “natural law has always operated as it operates” or “there has been no violations of such laws.” This argument simply hijacks the definition of science for a biased purpose.
Christians can easily hold to Merriam-Webster’s definitions of science, while allowing for the possibility that God may, at times, perform actions that are contrary to normal physical laws.
However, Christianity also presupposes a version of God that gives miracles, which is by definition a direct violation of these laws.Therefore science presupposes the non-existence of any miracle-granting gods (God(s) that don’t ever give miracles fall(s) into the category of Non-Overlapping Magisteria and are thus more compatible).
No, that arbitrary definition of science presupposes the non-existence of any miracle-granting gods. The dictionary’s definition of science does not presuppose the non-existence of any miracle-granting gods.
If the argument is shifted that Uniformitarianism is false, then the entire scientific method (the prediction/experiment design/reproduce part) and subsequently science are to be discarded and it is no longer meaningful to say science presupposes god.
Not at all. To say that at times, God performs actions that are contrary to natural laws does not at all undermine the possibility of the scientific method and science. We are not saying that there are no physical laws, or that physical laws are arbitrary, which would undermine science.
In any case, this alternative is rather strongly undermined by the huge array of information science has allowed us to amass via uniformitarian assumptions.
Uniformitarian assumptions were not necessary for the things we have learned through science. The assertion that science requires uniformitarian assumptions is simply false.
If morality presupposes God, then the morality in question would be categorized as a variation of the divine command theory, in that moral obligations are dependent on the will of God. However, that runs in to the following problems:
- Which god(s): to argue that the scripture(s) of one particular religion is correct reduces the case to being, “My book is better than your book”. To make the situation worse, all the scriptures give a somewhat different (albeit, broadly similar) list of moral obligations to follow, and the interpretation of the passages from the same scriptures can be different, as well. Since there is no rational way to reconcile the differences, without resorting to the argument of which book is correct, morality in this sense is not exactly objective.
We need to examine each book to see which one is self-consistent and correct. The phrase, “without resorting to the argument of which book is correct,” is confusing because that is the exact argument we need to use to solve this supposed problem.
- Since God allegedly created such morality, can God change it?
We would not say that God <strong>created</strong> morality. Rather, we would say that God is, or is himself the standard, of morality. Because of this, objective morality is unchangeable, since God himself is unchangeable. Everything that God commands is, by definition, in accordance with who he is. He cannot command anything that is contradictory to his nature.
Also, the things that God has commanded in the Bible will not change.
If God can change it on his fiat, then morality is not objective.
See what was written above. Morality is objective because God’s nature never changes, and God’s commands in the Bible will not change.
- Such morality would never be objective anyway, because it wouldn’t apply to God. For a morality to be objective, it would have to be uniformly applicable to all possible actors, at all possible times, in all possible contexts, which means it shouldn’t even be possible, if objective morality exists, to imagine a species for which (for example) killing would be less wrong.
Morality applies to God in that God himself is the standard of morality. In other words, whatever God is, and whatever God commands, is by definition right. God has given humans commands to obey, but these commands do not apply to God. It is not wrong for God to kill because he is the creator and has authority over all life, whereas this is not the case for humans. God cannot steal because everything belongs to him, whereas this is not the case for humans.
If God cannot change what he had created, then God cannot be omnipotent.
Again, that God is omnipotent means that he can do anything that is in accordance with his nature. God cannot change the standard of morality because the standard of morality is his very nature.
As a result, the morality that presupposes God cannot be objective, and objective morality does not presuppose God.
We have demonstrated that this conclusion is invalid.
How to refute a few basic TAG traps
A TAG apologist might make the following statement:
“If Yahweh exists, He is therefore the arbiter of ultimate moral authority, by which we compare and contrast our own standard of ethics. Therefore, those who assert that God does not exist, cannot account for morality without being viciously circular; since to account for morality as an emergent property of our evolutionary heritage is to claim that our senses, reasoning and memory are valid according to their own standards of proof. How, then, can the atheist say that his or her subjective experiences are objectively valid if there is no absolute standard of morality against which to judge them? Therefore, even those who deny the existence of God, by virtue of the fact that they are nevertheless morally sound, demonstrate His basic existence.”
The problem with this statement is multifaceted. Firstly, even if you could prove the basic existence of a specific god, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that he/she/it is therefore the arbiter of absolute moral authority.
We are not saying that objective morality is dependent upon proving the existence of God. We are saying that the existence of God (more specifically, the biblical God) is necessary for objective morality to exist.
Indeed, if the specific god which was proven to exist was indeed the god of the bible, Yahweh, any claim that He is therefore the arbiter of absolute morality would, by definition, mean that the biblical account of His various commandments to rape, murder and destroy those who do not believe in Him, is either a false account of His actual commandments or a perfectly accurate account of a deity which holds to a different standard of morality than any right-thinking human being.
- You use the term, “any right-thinking human being.” How do you define what is “right,” and by what moral standard do you get this definition from? Is this moral standard objective? If so, where does this objective moral standard come from? If not, then why should anyone care about this subjective moral standard?
- In the biblical worldview, there is no logical problem with God punishing sinners. You may consider it wrong for God to punish sinners in particular ways, the within the biblical worldview, which is the worldview Christians are arguing from, sinners deserve eternal torment for their sin. If you argue that it is wrong for God to punish sinners in particular ways, then you must provide the moral standard that you are judging God with, which we would argue you cannot do.
Secondly, it is not true to say that an atheistic worldview cannot account for an absolute standard of morality.
This assertion is never justified in what follows. The argument being made is that an atheistic worldview <strong>does not require</strong> an absolute standard of morality.
Indeed, the only reason such a black and white absolutist position on morality is invoked to begin with, is because it serves the purpose of theological thinking, not because it is a logically valid prerequisite.
Well, without this “black and white absolutist position on morality,” there is no ultimate reason for why rape or child sacrifice is wrong. As an atheist, would you argue that rape and child sacrifice are <strong>always</strong> wrong?
If so, then this requires an absolute standard of morality, or else there cannot be a legitimate argument against a civilization that decided rape and child sacrifice are good.
If not, then you would at least be logically consistent with his worldview. However, you would certainly not live as if there was no absolute right and wrong, so you would essentially be borrowing the biblical standard of morality in the way you live your life. For example, if someone stole from you, you would almost certainly not say, “Well, that person thinks stealing is okay, so who am I to say he shouldn’t steal from me?” You would consider it wrong for that person to have stolen from you.
In reality, human ethics and morality are more nuanced. What is moral at one end of the scale and immoral at the other, does not mean that shades of grey cannot and do not exist in-between. Popular science author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has called this the moral landscape; peaks and troughs of behavior which are balanced between the needs and beliefs of the individual and the needs and beliefs of his or her fellow human beings; “Do not do to someone else, what you would not have them do to you” – Confucius, 500 BCE. In other words, morality isn’t necessarily an objective and absolute code that is part of the universe’s components, it could very well be a subjective concept / thought system based on humans’ experience, reason, empathy etc. which continuously change, and vary for different civilizations.
If morality is subjective, then would you say the Holocaust was objectively wrong? If so, why? Germany was a civilization that decided the Holocaust was right. Who are you to say the German civilization was wrong?
If not, then, again, you would at least be logically consistent with his worldview. However, you would certainly not live as if there was no absolute right and wrong, so you would essentially be borrowing the biblical standard of morality in the way you live your life. For example, if someone stole from you, you would almost certainly not say, “Well, that person thinks stealing is okay, so who am I to say he shouldn’t steal from me?” You would consider it wrong for that person to have stolen from you.
Christian apologists, nevertheless, propagate and capitalize upon the notion that human morality is either absolutely sound or absolutely corrupt, precisely because it circumvents their own qualifying statement “if God exists” in the basic proposition of the TAG — to make the tonality of their overall proposal seem evenly balanced.
This is not accurate. What we are saying is that there is either an objective, universal standard for morality or there is not. If there is not, then there is no ultimate reason or justification to say that anything is “wrong.”
The basic proposition of TAG does not utilize the statement, “if God exists.” The basic proposition, in relation to ethics, is that the God of the Bible must exist in order for anything to be objectively right or wrong.
But the use of the word “if” is extremely disingenuous. It makes the statement appear to be either true or false; that there are two equally likely possibilities as to the nature, character and basic existence of an absolute arbiter of morality on the table. But in proposing that X and Y can only stem from Z, it rules out the possibility that X and Y could also be an emergent property of A. Further, it characterizes A as being incapable of accounting for X and Y, because in actuality X and Y are only required in order to find in favor of the proposal that a god exists, not in order that its existence be disproved.
This is pretty convoluted. Let’s try to break this down.
- “A” seems to refer to arguments for the existence of subjective standards of right and wrong that may not be objective, but are relevant and useful for humanity and civilizations.
- If so, then our response is that our argument is that any subjective standard of morality that is based upon “humans’ experiences, reason, empathy, etc.” reduces to absurdity because it does not have any real response to the possibility that another group or civilization may have “experiences, reason, empathy, etc.” that results in the exact opposite subjective standard of morality. In other words, you do not have a good reason for saying the Holocaust was wrong. You may convince yourself that you do, but ultimately, you do not.
Playing the faith card
Consider by analogy, the following conversation:
Person A: “Can you imagine, in your mind’s eye, someone flying around this room without any obvious source of power?”
Person B: “Yes. I have a vivid imagination and have seen many superhero movies.”
Person A: “I can fly around this room, simply by flapping my arms and legs.”
Person B: “This I’ve got to see! Prove it!”
Person A: “First you must accept that, if I could fly, the laws of gravity would be therefore invalidated.”
Person B: “I can see how you might think that, but how do I know you’re not wearing a hidden wire?”
Person A: “You have to trust me; you have to accept that I am not cheating.”
Person B: “OK, for arguments sake, I’ll trust you. Now, leap into the air, as promised.”
Person A: “As I have already explained, if I could fly, the laws of gravity would be invalidated. You, yourself, have already admitted that you can easily visualize what I would look like, were I to fly around the room unaided. Therefore, I can fly.”
Person B: “Seek medical advice.”
Person A: “You lack faith, even though (sic) the proof is now right in front of you. You’re just close-minded, and I feel sorry for you.”
There are many similar semantic word traps and circular reasoning built into TAG apologetics, of which the debating skeptic / positive agnostic / atheist, unfamiliar with the TAG modus operandi can easily fall foul.
Since this is not a real conversation, there is no need to respond to it. I’ll respond to arguments that are more clearly relevant to the discussion.
But, however the basic arguments of TAG apologetics are phrased, and however insistent the interlocutor is that it is actually the skeptic who needs to “open their mind”, it is an inescapable fact that the TAG fails to pass the first basic test as to whether or not it constitutes a logically valid proposal, since it assumes the basic existence of that which its own claims are predicated upon, but which cannot be objectively demonstrated.
Again, you fail to understand the nature of first-principles. You use the phrase, “objectively demonstrated.” This begs the question, “Objectively demonstrated by what? In other words, what is <strong>your</strong> objective standard for determining whether something is true or not?” You yourself are assuming the basic existence of an “objective standard,” and your own claims that TAG is invalid are predicated upon the existence of whatever “objective standard” you are referring to.