transcendental argument

Did Cornelius Van Til Coin the Term “Transcendental Argument”?

A transcendental argument, simply defined, is an argument purporting to demonstrate that some X (such as a particular concept, belief, or state of affairs) is a necessary precondition of some undeniable feature of human cognition (e.g., that we have orderly experiences or make judgments). At least, that is the conventional understanding of the term today. But who was the first to use the term in that sense?

Surprisingly, it might have been Cornelius Van Til.

I’m currently working on a monograph on Van Til’s transcendental argument for God (more precisely, for Christian theism). Preparatory research has required me to review everything Van Til says, explicitly or implicitly, about transcendental argumentation across his corpus, and to take a deep dive into the contemporary literature on transcendental arguments. In the process, I discovered something quite interesting.

Van Til and Analytic Philosophy

An essay written for a forthcoming collection of essays “in the Van Til tradition.”

The main thesis: While Van Til was rightly critical of the early forms of analytic philosophy (Moore, Russell, etc.), there is no inherent conflict between Van Tilian philosophy and contemporary analytic philosophy; in fact, there are significant points of affinity or complementarity. Thus, “analytic Van Tilianism” is not a contradiction in terms, but rather a project worth pursuing.

A Conversation with Parker Settecase

In which we discuss the meaning and provenance of Parker’s tattoo, virtual-reality mannequins, two-dimensional people, the word ‘retorsive’, Stroudian objections to transcendental arguments, the ontological status of Bilbo Baggins, and sundry other topics of deep importance.

Audio here. Video (for full tattoo experience) here:

Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?

Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.

  1. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432.

Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)

Previous posts:

Summary of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:

This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)

This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)

Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.

Origin of Transcendental Arguments

The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.

Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).

A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (

The problem of induction may be viewed as a particular instance of a more general epistemological problem. Is there any rational order to the facts of the world, and, if so, how can we have epistemic access to that rational order? How can the multifarious facts of experience be rationally connected, so as to give us genuine knowledge of the world and its operations?

David HumeHume’s answer, in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible. Given his starting point, his answer is correct. Kant considered this a philosophical scandal, even though he agreed with Hume that all factual knowledge of the world must come through sense experience. Kant’s innovative response to Hume’s skepticism was his “Copernican revolution” in epistemology: although we cannot know the world as it is in itself, we can know the world as it appears to us, because our minds impose rational order on the data of experience. Kant called his theory “transcendental idealism,” but we might just as well call it anthropocentric antirealism, for, on Kant’s view, the world of experience—the world we take ourselves to inhabit—isn’t a mind-independent reality, but rather a construction of the active human mind.

Kant’s system, while ingenious in its own way, fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems raised by Hume. Not only is it internally inconsistent (Kant couldn’t avoid making some positive claims about the unknowable noumenal world), but, like all forms of antirealism, it is haunted by the specter of epistemological relativism. If the world is a construction of the human mind, which human mind is doing the constructing? How can I be sure that the rational order I impose upon my experience is the same for everyone? Kant was the champion of intellectual autonomy—human reason must serve as the supreme judge—yet the existence of seven billion minds on earth implies seven billion independent and competing authorities.

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.