Tag Archives: transcendental argument

A Selection of Presuppositional Arguments

One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.

So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:

In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.

Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.
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The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide

Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.

On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.

Truths, Propositions, and the Argument for God from Logic

A correspondent asked me if I could address an objection he had encountered to the argument for God from logic. Here’s the objection as he quoted it, with my comments interspersed:

The authors equivocate when they make the leap to claim that the laws of logic are thoughts. The propositions themselves are certainly thoughts, but how can the truths that the propositions bear be thoughts?

"I want the truth!"I’m pleased that the objector concedes that “propositions … are certainly thoughts” because that’s a crucial step in the argument! However, the latter part of the question reflects a confusion. In our paper, we adopted the conventional definition of propositions as primary truth-bearers. But this doesn’t mean that propositions bear truths (as though truths were something other than propositions). Rather, it means that propositions are things that can bear the property of truth; they’re things that can be true. Given this definition, truths just are propositions; specifically, they are true propositions.

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Antitheism Presupposes Theism (And So Does Every Other ‘Ism’)

By this rejection of God, agnosticism has embraced complete relativism. Yet this relativism must furnish a basis for the rejection of the absolute. Accordingly, the standard of self-contradiction taken for granted by antitheistic thought presupposes the absolute for its operation. Antitheism presupposes theism. One must stand upon the solid ground of theism to be an effective antitheist.

(Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. xi)

“Antitheism presupposes theism” is one of Van Til’s best lines, because it captures in a nutshell the genius of presuppositional apologetics. It’s not merely that theism is true; it’s not merely that theism can be shown to be true; it’s that theism can be shown to be true by any attempt to prove it false. One can prove theism to be false only if, as a matter of fundamental metaphysical fact, theism is true — which is just to say that antitheism is self-defeating.

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The Lord of Non-Contradiction

Philosophia Christi has kindly permitted me to post on my website a preprint of “The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic”, which I co-authored with Greg Welty. I wrote the first version of the paper, but Greg did all the heavy lifting; the argument is indebted to the ideas he developed in his DPhil dissertation on theistic conceptual realism.


Here’s the abstract:

In this paper we offer a new argument for the existence of God. We contend that the laws of logic are metaphysically dependent on the existence of God, understood as a necessarily existent, personal, spiritual being; thus anyone who grants that there are laws of logic should also accept that there is a God. We argue that if our most natural intuitions about them are correct, and if they’re to play the role in our intellectual activities that we take them to play, then the laws of logic are best construed as necessarily existent thoughts — more specifically, as divine thoughts about divine thoughts. We conclude by highlighting some implications for both theistic arguments and antitheistic arguments.

While we don’t discuss Van Til or presuppositional apologetics in the paper, those so inclined will recognize this as a more robust exposition of a common presuppositionalist argument and they’ll also appreciate (I hope) the concluding remarks.

TAG and Epistemic Certainty

A commenter asks why I don’t endorse the claim that the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) gives us epistemic certainty (which I take to mean that the argument delivers a conclusion that has maximal epistemic warrant and could not be rationally doubted). After all, if TAG proves Christian theism “by the impossibility of the contrary”, as many of its advocates have claimed, wouldn’t it follow that TAG’s conclusion is epistemically certain?

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No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument

The editor of Philosophia Christi has kindly permitted me to post on my website a preprint of my article “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter”. The article is scheduled to appear in the Summer 2011 issue along with a short rejoinder from David. It was a profitable exchange, and it’s gratifying that Philosophia Christi considers TAG to be worthy of critical scholarly discussion. Van Tilians should also be thankful for sympathetic, well-informed critics like David. May his tribe increase!