Friday, August 1, 2008

The Transcendental Argument (Part 2)

The Transcendental Argument for the existence of God[1]

Simply put, the transcendental argument sets out to show the impossibility of the contrary to Christian theism. In other words, any worldview that is not Christian will yield absurd conclusions—it will have internal contradictions. The transcendental argument does this by discovering the preconditions of human experience or human intelligibility. This is done by taking some aspect of human experience and understanding what must be true in order for that experience to even be possible (or intelligible). Transcendental arguments tend to have the following form. For x (some aspect of human experience, say, the laws of logic) to be the case, y must also be the case (that is y must be presupposed), since y is the precondition of x. Since x is the case, y is the case. In syllogistic form it would be:

1) In order for x to be the case, y must be the case

2) x is the case

3) Therefore, y is the case

Or put into practice:

4) In order for logic to be possible, God[2] must to exist.

5) The logic is possible

6) Therefore, God exists.

In his recent chapter on the TAG, Sean Choi formulates the TAG as:

(TA1) q.

(TA2) It is necessary that: if not-p, then not-q.

(TA3) So, p. [3]

The TAG can be done with a number of human experiences such as: causation, the laws of logic, objective morality, predication, language, induction, and so on. Michael Butler puts it this way:

[The transcendental argument for the existence of God] starts with human experience—such things as science, love, rationality, and moral duties. It then asserts that the existence of the Christian God is the necessary precondition of such experience. Finally, it proves this indirectly by demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary.[4]

Or as Choi states, “TAG is not supposed to be transcendental in name only, but it is supposed to be a true transcendental argument for the existence of God.”[5] Then, he continues, “Now, TAG is…to argue that God exists as ‘a necessary precondition’ of some fundamental and uncontroversial phenomenon. There are three such fundamental phenomena that are often appealed to in discussions of TAG: logic, science and objective moral standards.”[6]

Further, the transcendental argument has also been put in a negative and a positive form:

Negative form

1N) If God does not exist, then the world[7] is unintelligible.

2N) God does not exist

3N) Therefore, the world is unintelligible

(3N) flows from (1N) and (2N) by modus ponens. This negative formulation of the transcendental argument shows that God must exist. How? If (3N) is correct then the syllogism would make no sense. However, this syllogism does make sense[8] because we can see that (3N) at the very least follows logically from (1N) and (2N). Even reading the syllogism shows that there is intelligibility in this world. Thus, since this syllogism does make sense, (1N) or (2N) must be wrong. This is where the positive formulation of the TAG comes in:

Positive form

1P) If the world is intelligible, then God exists.

2P) The world is intelligible[9].

3P) Therefore, God exists.[10]

Again, (3P) flows from (1P) and (2P) by modus ponens. Even skeptics of the TAG, such as Choi[11], agree that the world is intelligible (granting 2P). Thus, God, the Christian God, must exist. The heavy lifting is needed to bolster this idea that God is the precondition for intelligibility, to an extent this will be done below. However, it is not the direct point of this essay to show that the TAG is sound—has all true premises. Rather as stated earlier; the point of this essay is to show that the recent attacks on the TAG do not succeed in proving their case. For now, however, it should suffice that the TAG, in the various forms given, is a valid argument—the conclusions follow from the premises.

The transcendental argument is a powerful argument for the Christian God’s (the only God) existence. If sound, it can show that the only way to make sense of reality is to believe in the Christian God. In addition, it also shows that the non-Christian is deceiving himself when he says he does not believe in the God of Christianity, for he does think reality makes sense.[12] It has been said that the only way a non-Christian can slap God in the face is by sitting in His lap. The transcendental argument shows this analogy to be true with respect to slapping God intellectually. The only way to deny God is to use (affirm) him.

[1] The author is indebted to the writings of Michael Butler and Greg Bahnsen for most of this section.

[2] Every reference to “God,” unless other wise stated, is a reference to the God of Christianity, as summarized nicely in the Westminster Standards.

[3] Sean Choi. “The Transcendental Argument.” in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith (ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister: Wheaton: Crossway Books. 2007). 234. There is nothing objectionable in Choi’s formulation of the TAG, though it can be a bit hard to follow and as such, confusing. However, it does aid to this the TAG formulated in a few different ways, thus it is included here.

[4] Michael Butler, “The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God,” in The Standard Bearer, ed. Steven Schilssel (Covenant Media Press, 2002), 76.

[5] Choi. “The Transcendental Argument.” 233.

[6] Choi. “The Transcendental Argument.” 235.

[7] By “world” we mean everything that exists,--the universe.

[8] That is not to say that it is right.

[9] By “the world is intelligible” we mean, we are able to make sense out of the world.

[10] John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995) 318.

[11] For example on p. 235, Choi argues that a person can know that they exist (by way of Descartes’s Cogito). Thus, he believes, at least, one thing can be known, the self.

[12] See Greg Bahnsen, “A Conditional Resolution of Apparent Paradox of Self-Deception” (Ph.D. diss, University of Southern California, 1978).


  1. I imagine you will spell this out in further posts, but I don't see how the argument, formulated like that, can be seen as strong. Everything you are trying to prove appears to be assumed in the 1st premise.

    1. If I can write this sentence, then God exists.

    2. I wrote that sentence.

    3. God exists.

    What am I missing or not understanding?

  2. Brandon,

    I agree completely with you that the "heavy lifting" of the TAG is done under premise one. That is, I must prove that premise one is true in order for the TAG to "work." Since the point of my paper was/is not to prove that the TAG works, but rather to defend the TAG for critics, if you want me to do the proving, I will need to do it here.

  3. If you have time, I'd be interested in having you prove it here, otherwise I'll just read the forthcoming posts.

    I guess I'm just unclear as to what the critics are attacking exactly if they aren't attacking it's validity.

  4. Brandon,

    The best place to start is by listening to this debate.

  5. I have listened to that debate several times. As well as his debate with Smith and Tabash.

    My problem is not with understanding TAG, I just didn't understand what critics were complaining about if it wasn't the premise. Turns out that is what they are complaining about (see part 3).

  6. Well it certainly appears as though you are arguing that the TAG is sound. If all you are saying is that the TAG is a valid argument then there's not going to be much to say. Anyone can see that it is valid merely by looking at it's form. But in the last paragraph you seem to assert that the TAG is not only valid but also a sound argument that proves the existence of the Christian God. You even go so far as to refer to the argument as "a powerful argument for the christian's God." This does not seem to be a mere comment on the TAG's validity. There is nothing inherantly powerful about a mere valid argument.

    1. If I poop out a marble it will land on a purple skunk.

    2. I poop out a marble.

    3. Therefore it will land on a purple skunk.

    Is there anything powerful about THAT valid argument? So why is the valid TAG powerful? Let's be intellectually honest here. You are also arguing that the the TAG is sound. (Any argument would HAVE to be sound to qualify as powerful.)


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