Transcendental Arguments, a Primer

Transcendental arguments (TAs) are deductive arguments in that if the premises are true and the form is valid, then the conclusion must be necessarily true. Furthermore, TAs pertain to preconditions for the possibility of the existence of some basic or common experience. That is, TAs put forth necessary precondition(s) without which a generally accepted experience is unintelligible. Finally, another distinguishing trait of TAs is that preconditions for such basic or common experiences are not learned by experience. The preconditions pertain to what can be known only apart from experience.

In analytic form a transcendental argument may look as follows, [where P is a common experience and Q is a necessary precondition for P, which can be appealed to on an a priori basis (and not according to a posteriori inference)].

Prove Q exists by way of: If P, then Q:

1. ~Q (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove: Assume Q does not exist.)
2. If ~Q –> ~P (If Q does not exist, then P does not exist since Q is a precondition for P)
3. ~~P (It is false that P does not exist – i.e. P does exist.)  (Contradiction)
4. ~~Q (It is false that Q does not exist.) (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4)
5. Q (Q exists.) (Law of negation)

In other words, for P to exist, Q must also exist since Q is a necessary precondition for P. Since P exists, then so must Q.

The analytic form of the argument is common and is most often used for non-transcendental arguments. Because TAs are concerned with preconditions for intelligible experience and how reality is, TAs have a unique quality about them both in what is purported as a shared experience among humans as well as the profundity of the transcendental itself. They’re not so trivial as to pertain to arguments such as, if the Eagles did not win Super Bowl LII on Sunday February 4, 2018, there would not have been 700,000 Eagle Fans celebrating an Eagles Super Bowl LII win on Thursday, February 8, 2018 on Broad Street in Philadelphia. There were 700,000 fans celebrating… victory… Therefore, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.

Although celebration of victory presupposes victory, the Eagles Superbowl experience is not universally shared. Moreover, the argument would rely upon appeals to inferences gained by experience, such as we know from observation that sports fans typically celebrate victories, not losses, and we can witness victory celebrations following victories. Therefore, the form of an argument alone does not make a transcendental argument. Aside from being deductive arguments dealing with preconditions for shared and typically uncontroversial experiences, TAs also incorporate a (transcendental) premise that can be known only a priori. (The Eagles argument fails to be a TA on two out of three counts.)

Similarly, a necessary precondition for death is life but life is not a transcendental relative to death. Death presupposes life is an a posteriori consideration. One’s knowledge that death presupposes life can be appealed to according to empirical observation.

A brief comment about traditional theistic proofs:

Aside from the fallacious formulations of the traditional arguments for God’s existence (as they have been traditionally formulated), they are not transcendental-oriented. They don’t aim to demonstrate that God is transcendentally necessary for the possibility of, for instance, causality or design. That God is a transcendent first cause does not imply that God is a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of causation. We also might want to address that the unbeliever’s implicit claim on the intelligibility of causation does not comport with her worldview presuppositions (e.g. all that exists is chance acting upon matter over time). Because the unbeliever will not acknowledge a common creator and sustainer of men and things, she works on borrowed capital when operating as if the rational thoughts of the human mind should have any correlation to the way in which the mind-independent world rationally behaves.

Regarding necessary conditions in general:

“If causality then God” merely means that causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Which is to say: if causality exists then it is logically necessary that God exists. However, such a premise does not delve into the question of how God and causality relate to each other. It does not tell us whether God exists because of causality or whether causality exists because of God (or neither). If, then propositions often refer only to states of affairs, not order whether logical or temporal. (It’s not unlike, if justification, then faith; and, if faith, then justification. Both are true. Yet neither premise informs us that justification presupposes faith and that faith is a necessary precondition for justification.)

TAG from causality:

Causality presupposes God says more than causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Causality presupposes God implies that God makes causality possible. Since causality exists, then so must God. (To argue either way, for or against God, even presupposes God!)

TAG under delivers?:

Christians and Atheists often say that TAG does not achieve its goal because not every worldview can be refuted by a single argument. Such a claim demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of transcendental arguments in general and TAG in particular. To deny the success of any particular TAG that is properly formulated is to reject logic and / or biblical truths. It’s also an indicator that one might be confusing proof with persuasion.

The transcendental premise:

So what about the controversial claim that God is a necessary precondition for causality? We can ultimately defend our knowledge of the premise by appealing to the absolute authority of Scripture. Of course, the unbeliever rejects that authority; nonetheless that the unbeliever is dysfunctional in this way does not mean that an appeal to Scripture is fallacious to justify one’s knowledge of the premise. It is critical at this juncture for the Christian to distinguish for the unbeliever (a) the source of her personal knowledge that God makes causality possible, which comes from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination through the self-authenticating Scriptures, from (b) the proof that God makes causality possible. How we know x is not the argument for x.

What’s a girl to do?

Of course, given the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth of Scripture, the presuppositional apologist defends the transcendental premise by performing internal critiques of opposing worldviews, showing that they cannot account for causality etc., while showing that Christianity can. It would be a mistake, however, to think that such an accommodation and avoidance of any serious charge of being fideistic implies that the conclusion of TAG (God exists) and the justification for the transcendental premise (God is a necessary precondition for causality) rests upon inductive inference. By refuting opposing philosophical ideologies the Christian apologist merely acknowledges that the unbeliever refuses to bend the knee to the self-attesting Word of God. Since unbelievers will not accept the truth claims of the Bible, the only thing the Christian can do before God and onlookers is refute hypothetical competitors, but that hardly implies that a formulation of any given TAG is an inductive argument, or that the transcendental premise within such an argument is inferred only after having successfully refuted enough opposing worldviews.

God or ~God:

Lastly, we don’t have to refute an “infinite number“ of “explanations” for the intelligibility of causality. Either God is necessary for the intelligibility of causality or God is not necessary for the intelligibility of causality. Those are the only two possibilities. It’s not a matter of God vs naturalism, idealism, atheism, Platonism or any number of X-isms. It’s not a matter of a, b, c….  It’s a matter of a or ~a. Autonomy or ~autonomy reduces to  ~God or God.

The believer cannot get out from under the fact that he has an infallible word on the subject. Nor should she be embarrassed by the revelation of God as if it may not be appealed to disclose how we know what we know. There is no meaning if autonomous presuppositions are true; we know that through Scripture, though we demonstrate it by arguing for the impossibility of any proffered worldview.

Let’s reason together:

We don’t dodge the would-be competitors to God as the unifying source of otherwise brute particulars, the solution to the One and the Many. Bring them on and let’s see if they can make sense of reality, knowledge and moral absolutes. Let’s compare worldviews to see who can make sense of men and things. As each variation of the one non-Christian worldview is refuted one by one, let’s not mistake those refutations as the basis for our knowledge of God’s existence. Rather, let’s recognize those refutations for what they truly are – a display of what we already know apart from those refutations, that only God (and not autonomous reasoning) can make sense of God’s world.

Evidence

Can it be proven that Christ is risen?

If Harry did not believe the Philadelphia Phillies won the 1980 world series, he would likely change his mind if it could be proven from Baseball Almanac. Similarly, if Harry did not believe Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents would more than likely put the matter to rest for Harry. Similar examples could be given for state capitals, the location of famous rivers and so on. The point should be apparent. What one will accept as proof will depend upon what one accepts as authoritative.

The reason people are willing to change their minds on such matters after being confronted with a reliable, even an authoritative source, is because not much is at stake. It does not dramatically affect one’s worldview whether Calvin Coolidge rather than, say, Herbert Hoover was the 30th U.S. President. Just like it does not disrupt one’s worldview if one mistakes the winner of the 1980 World Series with the winner of the 1981 world series. Adjusting relatively inconsequential beliefs is not a matter of grave concern. Nothing major is at stake, other than perhaps a little pride.

In both cases, we may say that what was first in question by Harry was later proved true by a source worthy of acceptance. We may also say Harry became persuaded. Moving forward, we would do well to maintain a clear distinction between the objective nature of proof and the subjective nature of persuasion. The question before us is whether proof is ever dependent upon the result of persuasion.

Now what if Harry did not readily accept the testimony of a book on U.S. Presidents right off the bat? In other words, what if Harry was not immediately persuaded by an appeal to an authoritative book but then after further reflection realized the book must be correct. Obviously Harry’s disbelief would have given way to belief. Harry would have become persuaded by the proof for Calvin Coolidge as America’s 30th President. It is also noteworthy that the proof Harry would eventually be persuaded by never changed. Therefore, the proof itself did not become more persuasive. Rather, a valid proof with a reasonable premise (that such books are typically reliable) eventually persuaded. The variable was Harry. He changed. The proof remained constant. It did not change.

Lest we confound the objectivity of truth and what constitutes sound argumentation, we must maintain that Calvin Coolidge was objectively proven to be the 30th President of the United States prior to Harry becoming subjectively persuaded by the proof. If not, then objective proof would be dependent upon subjective results, in which case arguments could become sound (or go from weak to strong in the case of inductive arguments) after they are subjectively accepted, which would collapse proof into persuasion. It could not be proven to a philosophical skeptic that there is a tree outside the window or the cat is on the roof.

Putting this all together, if persuasion is a matter of what one will accept as authoritative and a sound proof is a matter of validly presented truth, then the resurrection of Jesus Christ can be proven from the Bible regardless whether the unbeliever rejects the authority of God’s word. If proving secular historical facts from fallible and potentially errant books is not dependent upon consensus, then how much more the case with facts contained in God’s infallible and inerrant Word? The issue at stake is what one will accept as authoritative.

Now obviously I would not expect an unbeliever to submit to the objective authority of God speaking in his Word without the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work of subjective persuasion, but neither should I expect a Christian to deny that the Christian worldview can be proven true from the Bible. Comparatively speaking (and whether one accepts it or not), we have it on greater authority that Christ is risen than Calvin Coolidge was the 30th U.S President (or the Phillies won the Series in 1980). Uninspired history books can err. God’s Word cannot.

At the heart of apologetic methodology is ultimate authority. How the authority of Scripture should shape the Christian’s defense of the faith is a matter of bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, (even as the Christian gives an answer for the hope that is in him, with meekness and fear.) How consistently the believer sanctifies the Lord God in his heart will determine his general apologetic methodology.