Sunday, August 28, 2022

TAG and the Appeal to Magic

Proponents of the “transcendental argument for the existence of God,” or TAG, are well-known for repeating charges that non-Christians cannot “account for” some phenomenon or other of fundamental philosophical importance (e.g., truth, certainty, the laws of logic, induction, moral norms, etc.) simply because their worldview rejects Christian theism. On occasion some effort is made in the attempt to support the negative aspects of such charges, often with little more than pat slogans, such as that one cannot “ground” unchanging laws of logic in an ever-changing universe of constant flux, that rationality cannot arise out of the irrationality of chance-based evolution, and the like. Non-Christian worldviews are philosophically deficient because of reasons, so the Christian worldview prevails, almost as if by default.

What seems common to such critiques of non-Christian worldviews is the apologists’ self-appointed right to speak on behalf of the non-Christian worldviews in question, or at most to take statements from particular non-Christians as though they represented all non-Christians’ views. Of course, this saves apologists a lot of work, but it still nevertheless makes them look quite naïve and at times borderline illiterate on the topics on which they present themselves as experts. It may be that some eighty to ninety percent of apologetics consists in posturing, a determination never to allow a specific non-Christian’s position to entail positions the apologists have never truly considered before, when in fact their efforts to dispatch those positions reveal otherwise.

Adding to their credibility deficit is the apologists’ apparent contentment with “God did it!” as an explanation for what are otherwise important philosophical questions. On the one hand, apologists can demonstrate familiarity with famous philosophers’ names, pay lip service to fundamental philosophical concepts like epistemology, truth, certainty, validity, syllogisms, etc., and find all manner of fallacies in opposing viewpoints. On the other hand, these same individuals reserve for themselves the privilege of pointing to supernatural causes as the answer to problems which have been plaguing thinkers for millennia. Such a formula can be practiced by a six-year-old who, just by positing a deity, can supposedly stump tenured philosophy professors.

I don’t think this assessment is at all hyperbolic. Rather, it is in line with exactly what I have observed among apologists attempting to defend their god-belief. The pattern is so consistent that I can only suppose that the fervent religious devotion which energizes such defense strategies has the effect of clouding the apologist’s own self-awareness such that he does not recognize that he is exempting his own position from the standards to which he holds his opponents’ positions and the scrutiny which he unleashes on them.

Take the following for example. After a cursory run-through of the historical context out of which transcendental argumentation arose (specifically Immanuel Kant’s struggles to answer David Hume’s skeptical arguments), one paper encapsulates the Christian worldview’s “solution” to the problem which other worldviews allegedly cannot solve as follows:
While philosophical naturalists cannot account for the rationality and accuracy of logical categories in the minds of human beings, Christian theists can. If God created both the world (raw data of reality: what Kant called percepts) and the categories of the human mind (what Kant called concepts), and if He created them to reflect the thinking of His own mind and to correspond to each other such that true knowledge of the external world is possible, then human beings can have true and accurate knowledge of the external world. This would solve the problem that Kant tried to solve, but could not solve. Biblical theism teaches that God made the human mind able to comprehend the external world. Kant’s “wall,” therefore, comes tumbling down. This answers the causal question of the existence of mental categories. That is, our minds can understand the external world because God made them both.
So after providing a brief synopsis of Hume’s mind-negating quandaries and Kant’s subsequent gropings and references to “abstract structures” and “the indispensability of reason and morality,” with carefully curated footnotes and citations to (purportedly) scholarly texts, we’re given this: a supernatural being, which we cannot perceive and can only imagine, “created” all this “necessary” stuff which together make truth, reason, knowledge and understanding both possible and real.

If this is not essentially an appeal to magic, what is?

Suppose a crime scene investigator is applying his forensic skills to a murder case where the body was found in a room locked from the inside, and coming up short of any promising leads or explanation for who committed the murder or how, resorts to the conclusion that
the murderer turned himself into an ant, crawled into the locked room, turned back into a human being, conjured a knife out of thin air, slit the victims throat, then extinguished the knife back into nothingness, turned back into an ant and crawled out of the room, sprouted wings and flew three states away where he rematerialized back into his former human form, and went about his business as if nothing untoward had happened.
Here the mystery of whodunnit is very real – someone had to have murdered the victim, but the explanation is outlandishly implausible. No one in their right mind would take such an “hypothesis” seriously, and anyone seriously proposing it would rightly be laughed out of a job (one would hope, at least; what's ironic is that on the Christian worldview's own presuppositions, such a hypothesis could not be dismissed out of hand - the believer would have to take it as a serious possibility if he were consistent with those presuppositions). 

But how is this essentially different from the apologists’ practice of asserting “God did it” as the answer to questions about the philosophical basis of human knowledge and reasoning? Human knowledge and reasoning are in fact real – just as for the forensic investigator the murder and the murder scene are real. But what passes muster with apologists and the investigator in the scenario described above indicates an abysmally low threshold when it comes to critical faculties.

Another example comes from Michael Butler’s The Pulling Down of Strongholds: The Power of Presuppositional Apologetics where, after finding the atheist viewpoint (as Butler describes it) teeming with fallacies, points to the supernaturalism of the Christian faith as an “answer” which we are apparently expected to take seriously:
Where the atheist offers a viciously circular defense of induction, the Christian does not. The Christian worldview teaches that God is providentially in control of all events. God has revealed to us that we can count on regularities in the natural world. “He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.” (Ps. 104:19) He providentially causes the harvest to come in due season. Nature is uniform because God makes it so. And since nature is uniform, the Christian can account for induction. And with induction, he can account for science as well. So while the atheist touts science as being on his side, the reality is that only the Christian worldview provides the precondition for science.
Thus, what “the atheist offers” can be dismissed because it supposedly commits some fallacy or another, but the assertion that “Nature is uniform because God makes it so” – apparently by means of wishing - should be accepted as incontestable fact.

There’s also the example provided by James Anderson who, in his Secular responses to the Problem of Induction, finds fault after fault in his selective survey of non-Christian answers to the famous Humean puzzle, but then finishes with the following self-contented indulgence:
Of course, a Person for whom universal a priori knowledge of the very constitution of the universe is attainable (and perhaps even essential) would be an invaluable ally in such an epistemological predicament — especially so if that Person were inclined toward revelation of Himself and His universe.
It’s as though we are to believe that legitimate philosophical questions can be answered by positing unicorns, forest faeries and magic dust. Even worse, the “solutions” which presuppositionalists offer never move us any further in understanding the original problem to begin with; on the contrary, the original problem was just an opportunity – a gap in our understanding which apologists have seized on in order to exploit our lack of understanding to push a mystical agenda. In this way presuppositionalism answers darkness with more darkness while pretending it is a form of light.

Cornelius Van Til himself declared that “God must always remain mysterious to man” (The Defense of the Faith, p. 14), which probably explains why apologists will spill much ink in an effort to convince people that the philosophical issues they exploit are real and serious problems, but very little on how exactly their god supposedly did what it did to solve those problems. When the apologist asserts that “God created both the world… and the categories of the human mind,” an obvious question would be: How did it do this? But no answer is provided. When Michael Butler asserts that “God is providentially in control of all events,” we might ask: how does it have such control and by what means does it wield this alleged control? Again, no elaboration on this is provided. When we are urged to consider the view that there exists “a Person for whom universal a priori knowledge of the very constitution of the universe is attainable,” one would naturally wonder: How would this person attain this alleged “universal a priori knowledge”? Since apologists cannot even explain how human beings acquire their knowledge, instead pointing to an invisible magic being to “answer” such questions, I think it’s safe to say that we should not expect any answers to such relevant and pressing questions. Apologists would do better just confessing that they believe a lot of nonsense and forego all the credibility-killing bamboozling.

Time and time again, presuppositionalism reduces to the following formula:
Your position is full of all these technical fallacies and thus cannot be accepted as true, but my answer – “God did it!” – can be the only correct and true answer.
which I’m afraid I do not find very convincing.

In his radio discussion with apologist Greg Bahnsen (see transcript), atheist thinker George H. Smith made the following salient point after Bahnsen asserted that “it’s a tremendous philosophical mistake to assimilate the law of causality to the laws of logic”:
Well, let’s assume that I’m wrong. I could refer you to books: H. W. B Joseph’s book on logic. Maybe you’d consider it outdated. Brand Blanshard held a very similar view. It’s been held by—Richard Taylor holds a similar view. Okay, but let’s assume that they’re all wrong and it’s a minority view on the nature of causation. Granted. But at least I’m trying to reach an explanation within the sphere of reason. In other words, it seems to me that my explanation, even if you don’t accept it, makes a lot more sense than saying God does it. I mean, to me that explains nothing. If you’d like to quote another line from my book, quote the line where I said: the concept of God explains nothing. When you’ve been talking to me about how can we explain this, how can we make sense of this. Okay, I’m attempting to give an explanation and maybe an incorrect one, but it is within the realm of human understanding. I would challenge you to tell me how God explains anything. Let’s assume there is a problem, if my explanation—let’s make sense out of it: “A Blark did it.” That’s all I say. And I would say to you Greg, “You know, Greg, you really couldn’t reason if it weren’t for the existence of a Blark! You’d be a little bit puzzled and you’d understand the problem here and to me if we’re going to talk about explanation, right or wrong it has to be in the real of human understanding and human reason. If you simply plug in the word “Blark” or in your case the word “God,” whenever you encounter a problem, it doesn’t solve the problem. That is my fundamental point.
So Bahnsen thought he could poke all these holes in Smith’s position with philosophically-infused jargon, but all the while apparently Smith, who is after a comprehensible solution which is grounded in observable facts (as opposed to inventions of the imagination), as well as the rest of us, are supposed to be satisfied with some rendition or another of “God did it,” which, when boiled down to its essence, is all that Bahnsen is really providing.

Unfortunately, even saying “God did it” is insufficient when it comes to satisfying the apologists’ burden, which is to prove that said god exists in the first place. To say “X did Y” is to say that “X performed some action resulting in Y,” but this assumes that X is real in the first place, which is what the apologists are called to prove. Thus any “transcendental argument” which reduces to a conclusion affirming “God did it” (or some variant thereof) would be begging the question: before you can ascribe an action or set of actions to a god, you’d need to validate the claim that the god in question exists in the first place. Apologists do not succeed at this step, and bypassing it does not compensate for this failure.

(Similarly, a forensic investigator proposing the hypothesis described above, would first need to prove that a person who can turn himself into an ant and then back into a person actually exists in the first place before offering that as an explanation for the murder in question.)

Presuppositionalism, however, does something even more insidious: it essentially attempts to foist on the unsuspecting the conclusion that a god must exist because of the way that apologists have framed the issues about which they feign interest – e.g., truth, knowledge, logic, induction, morality, etc. Clear examples of this can be found here, here, here and here. If the preconditions of knowledge, the nature of logical laws, and the mechanics of induction are described in such a way from the outset that only positing the activity of a magical being can suffice as their explanation, there might be something wrong with the way the issues are being framed.

I’m so glad these aren’t my problems! 

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...

We have an account: The axioms, the primacy of existence, and the law of causality. Objectivist metaphysics is the only rational account for the roots of knowledge. I know from my own experience that when these are brought up the apologist wants to change the subject real quick. Your exchanges with Sye Ten Brugencate are a classic example.

Your article is too long. He's so busy, that he doesn't have the time. You duck debate (when you're trying your hardest to get him to engage you in debate). You won't go on camera. You want to charge for a debate. You named him dishonest. excuses, excuses.

They only get away with it because Objectivism is still relatively unknown. Sometimes I feel like I'd give the rest of my life to live 5 years in a world where Objectivism is the norm and religionists are the fringe minority.

Robert Kidd

Robert Kidd said...

Lol! I posted the above comment before I clicked on your links. There's a reason why it's one of your most viewed posts. It was epic! Dare I say it was biblical? I account for many of those views because seeing that smug so and so put in his place never gets old.

Robert Kidd

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

You wrote: "Unfortunately, even saying 'God did it' is insufficient when it comes to satisfying the apologists’ burden, which is to prove that said god exists in the first place."

Bingo! I wish my Christian sibling would realize that. For the past few years he's refrained from engaging in discussions with me about religious matters (and I with him), but a typical question from him used to be: "But where did everything come from if not from God?"

Anyway, thanks for another enjoyable piece!


Robert Kidd said...

Hi Ydemoc,

I get so tired of that question, too. My answer is always that it came from existence.

Robert Kidd said...


I was wondering if you've written about "Christian Objectivism". I've been reading about it and it seems like in every paper I've read, the authors don't have a very good understanding of Objectivism. I don't see that they are at all compatible and in fact, are diametrically opposed. If you have the time I'd be interested in hearing some thoughts.

My own thoughts are that any adoption of a rational philosophy is a good thing and if these people take philosophy seriously they will be led inevitably away from Christianity.

One article claimed that Objectivism's axioms are not compatible with empirical experience and that Objectivism is enhanced by the "Christian Axioms" which he never stated what they are. I find that to be utterly rediculous.

One author claimed that Christianity and Objectivism are the only two philosophies that hold that reason is man's only means of knowledge. I don't know how he could say this unless he doesn't have even a rudimentary grasp of Objectivisms fundamentals.

Anyway, I know you are very busy and probably won't have the time to respond but I just wanted to put it out there.

Thanks for all you do.

Robert Kidd