The Argument from Predication
I have to admit that I lose confidence that such an argument has any merit when its defenders make statements such as the following:
A transcendental argument, theistically constructed, begins all argument upon the premise that predication requires for its possibility the necessary truth of God’s existence. In this manner the concept of God’s existence is brought into a necessary relation with predication from the outset of argument itself, thereby precluding any future possibility of using argument to falsify God’s existence. (Revelation and Reason, p. 262)
Much of Collett’s energy is focused on answering John Frame on the scandalous controversy revolving around so-called “direct” vs. “indirect” arguments. Van Til famously referred to his “method of reasoning by presupposition” as “indirect rather than direct” (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 100). John Frame has published his own skeptical commentary on the matter, such as the following:
Are indirect arguments really distinct from direct arguments? In the final analysis, it doesn’t make much difference whether you say “Causality, therefore God” or “Without God, no causality, therefore God.” Any indirect argument fo this sort can be turned into a direct argument by some creative rephrasing. The indirect form, of course, has some rhetorical advantages, at least. But if the indirect form is sound, the direct form will be too – and vice versa. Indeed, if I say “Without God, no causality,” the argument is incomplete, unless I add the positive formulation “But there is causality, therefore God exists,” a formulation identical with the direct argument. Thus, the indirect argument becomes nothing more than a prolegomenon to the direct. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 76)
Contrary to Frame who holds that “there is less distance between Van Til’s apologetic and the traditional apologetics than most partisans on either side (including Van Til himself) have been willing to grant” (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 85), Collett argues that there is a deeper distinction between “direct” arguments and “indirect” arguments than Frame seems to recognize. Citing the work of philosophers Peter Strawson and Bas van Fraassen on transcendental arguments, Collett makes much ado about the supposed distinction between two different types of “semantic relation,” namely that of implication on the one hand, and presupposition on the other. Collett complains:
The failure of traditional argument forms to capture what is meant by the concept of presupposition points up the need for a more precise way of construing the semantic relation between statements related by it. The most promising option to emerge is arguably that of Peter Strawson. According to Strawson, a statement A may be said to presuppose a statement B if B is a necessary precondition of the truth-or-falsity of A. Strawson’s interpretation of the concept of presupposition has been restated in succinct fashion by Bas van Fraassen as follows: A presupposes B if and only if A is neither true nor false unless B is true… This may also be stated as follows:
(1) A presupposes B if and only if:
(a) if A is true, then B is true.
(b) if ~A is true, then B is true.
(Revelation and Reason, p. 269)
C presupposes G (premise 1)
~C (premise 2)
Therefore G (conclusion)
Premise 1: Causality presupposes God’s existence.
Premise 2: Not causality (i.e., causality is denied)
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
the truth value of the conclusion is not a function of the truth value of the antecedent minor premise (i.e., premise 2), since the conclusion remains true whether C or ~C obtains (Ibid.).
To qualify as a transcendental conclusion, the truth of the conclusion in a direct argument would have to be in some sense independent of the truth value of its antecedent premise… In the nature of the case, the truth of a “transcendental conclusion” does not depend upon the truth value of its antecedent premise, regardless of whether this premise affirms causality or any other principle, since a transcendental conclusion constitutes the very ground for the proof of that premise. (Ibid., p. 271)
Premise 1: Peanut butter sandwiches presuppose God’s existence.
Premise 2: There are no peanut butter sandwiches.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists
Premise 1: Causality presupposes the existence of Blarko.
Premise 2: There is no causality.
Conclusion: Therefore, Blarko exists.
While I expect presuppositionalists to interject a “Wait a minute!” at this point, I see no prima facie difference in principle between TAG and TAB. Indeed, it seems that such a contraption would be necessary to “prove” the existence of something which is in fact merely imaginary.
The operative presumption underlying the presuppositionalist viewpoint behind all this, is the claim seen above, that predication as such “requires for its possibility the necessary truth of God’s existence” (Ibid., p. 262). Indeed, Collett admits that “a transcendental argument, theistically construed, begins all argument upon [this] premise” (Ibid.). By Collett’s own admission, TAG starts out assuming this to be the case. But how is this premise itself established? Establishing the supposed truth of this premise appears to be beyond the scope of Collett’s essay. Indeed, when Collett comes close to considering this question, he writes:
One may, nevertheless, object that the argument begs the question, inasmuch as it assumes that a certain semantic relation between God and causality obtains from the outset. However, other commonly accepted forms of argument, for instance arguments based upon material implication, also begin with a semantic relation that is assumed. (Ibid., p. 276)
The relation of presupposition, like the relation of implication, is a semantic relation. Thus there is no reason why, prima facie, an argument that begins with the premise “C presupposes G” [i.e., “Causality presupposes God’s existence”] should be assigned a lesser status than an argument with the premise “C implies G” [i.e., “Causality implies the existence of God”]. (Ibid.)
Collett isn’t finished yet. He goes on to say:
Indeed, one may go further and raise the question whether finite creatures can begin any argument without making assumptions of some sort or other. (Ibid.)
As if to anticipate responses of this sort, Collett states:
The real question is not whether initial assumptions can be avoided, but whether subsequent argument can demonstrate their necessary character. (Ibid.)
But Collett is right on at least one point: presuppositionalists do seem quite eager to begin their arguments with the assumption that the supposed truth of their god’s existence is a necessary starting point. Perhaps it is because they really have no proof of their god’s existence, that they feel a need to begin with the assumption that it is real in the first place.
As we saw above, Collett himself tells us what motivates such a move, namely the concern of “precluding any future possibility of using argument to falsify God’s existence.” And I can see why: those who have invested themselves emotionally and confessionally in the view that the reality we perceive around us was created and is controlled by a figment of one’s imagination, have a vested interest in “precluding any future possibility of using argument to falsify” such beliefs.
But there is another motivation behind this as well. It is the motivation of the apologist to position himself such that he can charge any opponent with begging the question for apparently denying both the starting point and the conclusion, however fallaciously they are conjoined, in any objection he might raise against his ruse-laden artifice.
In regard to “the matter of predication itself,” Van Til writes:
The question is as to what can and what cannot be intelligibly said about anything. Now when we take this question out of its limitation to physical objects, where it seems to have such an evident application, we find that there is no more fundamental difference between theism and anti-theism than on the matter of the basis of predication. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, chap. 4)
Unfortunately for defenders of the faith, objectivity is anathema to the Christian ideology, and it is because of this fact that Van Til is so eager to move the discussion away from predication in relation to physical objects. But in moving the discussion to "the matter of the basis for predication," Van Til fares no better. Observe:
Theism holds that all predication presupposes the existence of God as a self-conscious being, while anti-theism holds that predication is possible without any reference to God. This at once gives to the terms ‘is’ and ‘is not’ quite different connotations. For the anti-theist, these terms play against the background of bare possibility. Hence ‘is’ and ‘is not’ may very well be reversed. The anti-theist has, in effect, denied the very law of contradiction, inasmuch as the law of contradiction, to operate at all, must have its foundation in the nature of God. (Ibid.)
An Anti-Apologetic Argument from Predication
In spite of the willful mischaracterizations of non-Christian positions and failure to produce solid support for their assertions, presuppositionalists insist, as if they were robots indiscriminately following commands, that their god’s existence is a necessary precondition for predication. As Collett affirms:
Argument cannot proceed without predication, and predication necessarily presuppose the existence of God. (Revelation and Reason, p. 262)
Thus I present the following argument, my very own “argument from predication”:
Premise 1: If predication is a conceptual operation, then predication does not presuppose the Christian god.
Premise 2: Predication is a conceptual operation.
Conclusion: Therefore, predication does not presuppose the Christian god.
Defense of Premise 1:
Premise 1 of my argument states:
If predication is a conceptual operation, then predication does not presuppose the Christian god.
i. An omniscient being would not have its knowledge in the form of concepts. I have already presented an argument for this conclusion in my paper Would an Omniscient Mind have Knowledge in Conceptual Form? (2007). While the details for this position are competently laid out in my paper, the primary reason for this view is to be found in the task which concepts fulfill, namely to economize cognition in accommodating the limited awareness of a non-omniscient mind. In essence, concepts are a cognitive tool of a mind which does not see all, does not perceive all, does not know all. This brings us to my second point:
ii. Human beings are non-omniscient, and they are capable of forming concepts and retaining their knowledge in the form of concepts. To deny this, either one would need to make use of concepts, and thus performatively contradict his own denial, or he would merely be grunting, in which case he could offer only meaningless vocalizing.
Defense of Premise 2:
Premise 2 of my argument states:
Predication is a conceptual operation
To defend this, let us first understand what is meant by “predication.” Here I will quote Bahnsen, who writes:
"Predication" is the mental or verbal act of attributing or denying a property or characteristic (a “predicate”) to a subject – as when someone affirms, “The sky is blue” or “George Washington fought at Valley Forge,” or “Driving seventy-five miles per hour is no longer permitted by law.” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 22n.67)
Bahnsen informs his view of what is involved in the act of predication as follows:
Predication requires one intelligibly to differentiate and select individual things (particulars), to make sense out of general or abstract concepts (universals, classes, definable sets), and to distinguish them (so as not to make them identical) while in some sense identifying or relating them to each other. (Ibid.)
But notice the cognitive features which Bahnsen identifies in the process of predication: differentiation, selection, concepts, distinguishing, identification. These are all aspects of the conceptual level of cognition.
Notice the first statement in chapter one of Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:
Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration. (p. 5)
The second key term in Bahnsen’s description of predication is the word “select.” Rand eloquently explains how selection is a key aspect of the abstraction process in developing her theory of the concept ‘concept’:
A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition… The units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.; they may be perceptual concretes or other, earlier-formed concepts. The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10)
Which brings us to the next key word in Bahnsen’s list of factors involved in predication: concepts. Bahnsen himself acknowledges that concepts (he calls them “abstract concepts,” which is in fact a redundancy) are involved in predication. Indeed, the examples he himself gave – “The sky is blue” or “George Washington fought at Valley Forge,” or “Driving seventy-five miles per hour is no longer permitted by law” – all make use of concepts.
Predication, then, in a nutshell, is the cognitive act of making explicit the information one has gathered and retained in his conceptualization of the objects he is relating in the act of predicating. And this process of making explicit that information which has been gathered and retained in one’s conceptualizations, itself requires concepts to inform and make it manifest in any propositional form, whether verbal or literary. To predicate the color blue to the sky is to make explicit by means of concepts that information which one has identified and retained from the world he has perceived by means of concepts. Predication, then, is undeniably a conceptual operation. And as such, it presupposes a mind which is capable of (a) perceiving the world, (b) forming concepts based on what it perceives, and (c) applying the concepts in relation to each other in a manner that is consistent with what it has perceived and the process by which it formed those concepts. Therefore, since predication presupposes a mind which organizes its knowledge in conceptual form, predication presupposes a non-omniscient mind rather than an omniscient mind, and therefore does not presuppose the Christian god (since the Christian god is said to be omniscient).
I could go even further than the argument which I have presented above, and argue that predication cannot presuppose the Christian god. This argument would incorporate the following facts:
Fact 1: Predication presupposes the primacy of existence.
Fact 2: Christian theism presupposes the primacy of consciousness. (See for instance here.)
Inference: Therefore, predication cannot presuppose Christian theism.
So what’s behind all this?
Bahnsen indicates the apologetic value of predication as a debating point in the following manner:
In the ordinary affairs of life, people readily engage in predication without difficulty – until they are called upon to give an analysis or philosophical account of just what it is that they are doing, what it assumes about reality, and how anyone could know. (Op. cit.)
by Dawson Bethrick