February 20, 2009
During the last 20 minutes of last week’s episode of The Atheist Experience — a consistently outstanding show, if you haven’t seen it — a fellow named Matt Slick from CARM (a Christian apologetics website) called in to the show armed with his presuppositional Transcendental Argument for God (“TAG”).
Let’s take a look at the underlying arguments.
Personally, I think Russell and Don did about as well as can be expected for people who were unfamiliar with this very technical argument, particularly coming from Mr. Slick, who has a rehearsed script from which he refuses to deviate. They did significantly better, for example, than “professional debater” Dan Barker from the FFRF did in his atrocious debate with Paul Manata.
Listen to that debate, and you’ll get a sense for the basic structure of the presuppositionalist argument. It goes something like this:
(1) We should compare the ‘atheist worldview’ to the ‘Christian worldview’ to see which is a better starting point.
(2) The ‘atheist worldview’ posits hardcore materialism such that no intangible things exist.
(3) But intangible things do exist; therefore, the atheist worldview is internally inconsistent. Usually, this part of the argument takes the form of either: (a) an assertion that logic exists (as set forth in the TAG); or (b) requests that the atheist explain some largely unresolved problem in philosophy, such as the problem of induction.
(4) When the atheist cannot solve the problem of induction or explain the epistemology of logic in 30 seconds, the presuppositionalist declares an irresolvable conflict within the ‘atheist worldview.’
(5) The presuppositionalist then asserts that the Christian worldview is not internally inconsistent, because (a) it posits that intangible things exist, and (b) it can “explain” anything with the assertion that God did it.
(6) Therefore, Jesus.
That’s it. As you can see, presuppositional apologetics is really more of a debating tactic than an actual argument; I can’t imagine a skeptic actually being convinced by this sort of wordplay. But you can hear in the Barker-Manata debate how it can be effective in catching an atheist off guard.
Upon inspection, virtually every component of the presuppositionalist argument is just dead wrong.
Start with premise (1). First, atheism is not a worldview. Second, the argument creates a false dichotomy whereby the presuppositionalist declares his worldview internally consistent, attacks what he believes to be the atheist’s worldview, and then argues his wins by default.
The simplest way to defuse presuppositionalism, then, would be to say: “I am not an atheist. I believe in the almighty god Zorbleen.” Then, when asked to account for X or explain Y, simply assert that “Oh, Zorbleen does that.” Zorbleen created the universe, made the laws of logic, ensures that nature is consistent, provides for inductive reasoning, whatever. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist will be left with two assertive worldviews, both of which declare themselves to be internally consistent, and no means of comparing the two. On the other hand, you have to pretend to be an idiot to execute this kind of strategy, and you know the old aphorism about that.
Premise (2) is also false, and it’s probably one of the most basic misconceptions Christian apologists have about atheists. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, to pick one example, provides for an entirely secular theory of a priori knowledge. Put more simply: when the theist insists that logic (or morality, or whatever) is universal and independent of human experience, one can simply reply: “Sure, it’s inherent in the human brain and a priori to experience. That doesn’t make it magic.” Kantian epistemology also cleanly answers the question of logic’s supposed ‘transcendental’ qualities; it’s one of the categories of the understanding. So what?
Claim (3) is the meat of the discussion and has been discussed at length elsewhere. I think the slipperiest aspect of the claim that a particular intangible thing “exists” is to pin down precisely what the apologist means by the word “exist.” As I set forth on the worldviews page, I think it’s intuitive that “five” exists — but that does not mean that it exists in the same way that five puppies exist or as a kind of Platonic ideal. Any apologist claiming that “logic” exists to a greater extent than “five” exists has the burden of justifying that claim.
Matt Slick does not even attempt to do so. His schtick, when challenged on the objectivity of logic, is to spout of a deliberately illogical stream of nonsense, declare victory, and then invite the atheist to dispute his conclusion — which, Slick argues, means that the atheist must concede the transcendence of logic after all.
Nonsense. Slick’s appeal to performative contradiction doesn’t even prove that logic is absolute; all it shows is that the parties to the debate agree, broadly speaking, that logic governs their discussion. This isn’t even proof of intersubjectivity; after all, it’s not uncommon for two people to share a subjective appreciation for art, or a particular sports team, or what have you. The fact that the Christian and the atheist agree to debate using logic proves nothing more than the agreement itself.
Logic is self-evidently neither “universal” or “transcendent” — and Matt Slick knows this from the way he veers away from the discussion of quantum mechanics in his debates. We have known for more than two centuries that electrons can literally be in two places at once; that they are particles and not-particles at the same time. On that fact alone — let alone modern quantum mechanics — electrons do not obey the laws of logic, and logic is neither “universal” nor “transcendant.” Logic is, as Russell and Don correctly described, a convention to describe how human brains process information. That’s it.
Premise (4) also smuggles in the assumption that ‘I don’t know’ equals ‘It’s not possible.’ But philosophy doesn’t work that way. For example: John Locke argued for an entirely materialist/reductionist epistemology; ideas were, on Locke’s view, the faint residual impressions of leftover empirical observations. Locke recognized that his epistemology lacked a mechanism for induction, but he considered that an unresolved problem, not an unresolvable one.
Now personally, I think Lockean empiricism is all wet as a theory of epistemology. But it’s not self-evidently crazy, and it seems absurd to hold a debater to a higher standard than John Locke.
Finally, it is worth holding the presuppositionalist’s feet to the fire with respect to assertion (5). Christianity emphatically is not consistent with either a universal, transcendant logic or with the uniformity of nature required to validate induction. Here’s why:
a) The trinitarian concept of God violates the law of identity. God the Father is God (A=B). But Jesus is also God (C=B), and the Holy Spirit, too, is also God (D=B). Via the transitive property, then, it is obvious that A=B=C=D, and God the Father is Jesus, both of whom in turn are also the Holy Spirit. Christians, however, almost uniformly have considered this simple application of logic to have been heretical for the past 1800 years. When the apologist asserts that Jesus is not identical to God the Father, he is asserting that A is not A, and hence violating one of the basic laws of logic.
b) Similarly, the Christian worldview is one in which miracles are possible. By definition, then, nature is not uniform, and there is no basis for inductive reasoning.
On all counts, then, I find the presuppositional argument unavailing.