Monday, May 04, 2015

Retooling TAG


i) I'm going to take another stab at TAG. It's not my objective in this post to expound Van Til or be faithful to Van Til. If what I say is consistent with his original vision, fine. But this shouldn't be a personality cult. 

Likewise, I don't care whether I ended up defending what is technically a transcendental argument, or merely something like a transcendental argument. All I care about is whether there's a good argument to be had–and not the pedigree of the argument.

ii) One preliminary issue is whether TAG is worth salvaging. This has been kicking around for decades. It was controversial at the time. It's still controversial. Not much progress has been made in turning Van Til's programatic claims into a full-blown apologetic. 

So we should be open to the possibility that this is a failed idea. It seemed to be promising, but the more it's scrutinized, the less is has going for it. Frankly, there's a certain amount of Reformed chauvinism that's responsible for clinging to this argument no matter what.

That said, I will, in fact, be defending TAG, or a variation thereon.

iii) One difficulty is the interpretation of TAG. In this respect, TAG is like the ontological argument. One of the things that makes the ontological argument difficult to evaluate is attempting to understand what Anselm's claim amounts to. Did he offer one or two different versions of his own argument? What do they mean? You can't even assess the argument unless and until you interpret the argument, although it's possible to give alternative interpretations, then handicap each one.

Of course, Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Gödel, Plantinga, and Lowe have all offered their own versions of the ontological argument, so it's possible to bypass Anselm. 

iv) A limitation of transcendental argumentation is that this is essentially concerned with epistemology rather than ontology. Here's one definition:

Transcendental arguments are partly non-empirical, often anti-skeptical arguments focusing on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience, knowledge, or cognitive ability, and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions. Such arguments take as a premise some obvious fact about our mental life—such as some aspect of our knowledge, our experience, our beliefs, or our cognitive abilities—and add a claim that some other state of affairs is a necessary condition of the first one. Transcendental arguments most commonly have been deployed against a position denying the knowability of some extra-mental proposition, such as the existence of other minds or a material world. Thus these arguments characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P. 
http://www.iep.utm.edu/trans-ar/

I don't think that definition is necessarily a problem for TAG. However, if the pretension of TAG is to present the only adequate argument for God's existence, then this limitation is a serious problem. Surely arguments for God's existence should include metaphysical evidence, and not merely what is needed to ground our mental life. Epistemological arguments shouldn't be the only arguments for God's existence. 

v) What is TAG trying to get at? In my view, TAG is not so much a direct or positive argument for God's existence as it is an explication of the consequences which follow from denying God's existence. Depending on the consequences, that, in turn, becomes an indirect argument for God's existence.

Technically, this may not be a transcendental argument, but I'm not a purist. 

What have you got to lose by denying God? What's at stake? What's the cost? Once you deny God, what else must you deny? What does that commit you to? After the dust settles, what's left?

The force of TAG depends on how damaging the repercussions are of denying God's existence. After making some minor adjustments, can we leave everything important still intact? Or is the denial of God's existence a universal acid that dissolves everything of consequence? 

vi) In that respect, TAG is not one argument, but a family of arguments. Arguments of a kind.

Put another way, TAG is not in itself an argument, but an argumentative strategy. It selects for or develops arguments that share that particular orientation. In that respect, we could regard TAG as a research program. 

By the same token, this means there may be some good theistic arguments that don't pertain to that strategy or family of arguments. 

vii) If successful, this approach has number of advantages:

a) There are preexisting arguments that dovetail with TAG. Take the "argument from reason" (Lewis/Reppert) or Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. Take the moral argument for God's existence. And so on and so forth. 

Even if these aren't specifically "transcendental," the approach I'm suggesting can point them in that direction. What's there to lose by denying God? 

b) Conversely, consistent secular philosophers make damaging concessions. 

c) It puts the unbeliever on the defensive. 

d) It supplies a unifying principle for a number of otherwise disparate theistic arguments. 

viii) But to succeed, it is necessary to develop detailed arguments. For instance, what's the status of abstract objects in a Godless universe?

An unbeliever may say abstract objects are explanatorily necessary, but offer a secular alternative for grounding them. Platonic realism. If so, a Christian philosopher or apologist must show the inadequacy of that alternative.

Or an unbeliever may say abstract objects are explanatorily unnecessary. He may propose secular alternatives which do the same work at a lower metaphysical cost. Fictionalism or structural realism. If so, a Christian philosopher or apologist must show the inadequacy of those alternatives. 

And, of course, a Christian must propose a positive model for how God grounds abstract objects. 

ix) A casualty of this approach is that TAG ceases to be a silver bullet. It's no longer a snappy comeback to stop the mouth of the unbeliever. For the real work has just begun. Formulating the arguments is painstaking work.

However, the silver bullet was always a blank. The simplicity was illusory. To seriously engage secularism, TAG has to become very sophisticated, to operate at the same level as the best of the secular competition. 

x) Finally, whether someone is an evidential or presuppositional apologist can often have less to do with the merits of the respective positions than the aptitude of the apologist. Some people have a knack for sifting historical evidence, but no great philosophical aptitude. Take Kenneth Kitchen or Richard Bauckham. They operate at a very concrete level. Historical particulars. 

Others have greater aptitude for abstract reasoning. Take Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga and Kitchen simply have different skill sets. They couldn't do what they other does even if they tried. 

So a certain degree of pluralism in apologetic methodology is to be commended. We need people who excel in different things.

11 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I'm reminded the Bahnsen vs. Sproul debate on apologetical method.

    Sproul asked:
    Are you saying, Greg that that, or what I'm hearing is that your understanding of Van Til is that what Van Til is coming up with here is a very sophisticated and somewhat subtle restatement of the ontological argument.

    Bahnsen answered:
    In my apologetics class I have what is called the reconstruction of the ontological argument along presuppositional lines. The difficulty is most of that has been developed by John Frame and myself and you don't find it anywhere in Van Til's literature. In a sense you could call it a reconstruction of the ontological argument. But you see in another sense it's a reconstruction of the cosmological argument. And ultimately I think some interpreters of Van Til are right when they say it's really a reconstruction of the teleological argument. [Audience laughs] What it's saying is basically...in Van Til's little pamphlet Why I Believe in God, which is really perhaps the best single statement of what he does in apologetics, that you can find...One it shows the character of the man. What a precious Christian gentleman he is. And secondly it shows you the nature of his reasoning from the impossibility of the contrary. Van Til says, you know, on your presuppositions you can't account for either order or disorder. That is, unity or disunity in this world. You can't show me why there is unity or disharmony in anything. Why everything is not the same. Or why everything is not ultimately diverse. He says on the other hand, on my system of thought I can give you the basis for unity and diversity. The one and the many. And therefore that's a transcendental argument. But you see in a subtle sense that sounds like the teleological argument. I can show you the rational, or the intellectual epistemological order of all things, if you start with my God. And the revelation of my God. It's certainly not teleological in the traditional natural theological sense. But it has a parallel, or an analogy. Something of a reflection of that. But you're right, there is elements of the ontological movement in that transcendental thing [or theme] as well. By the way, that as a philosopher is what fascinates me so much. It is a subtle but powerful argument.

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    1. I really appreciate Bahnsen.

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  3. I disagree that Van Til offers merely a strategy and not an argument with content. The content of Van Til's TAG is the issue of the one and the many and the necessity of God being a concrete universal in order for knowledge to be possible. This offers a refutation of Plato (the one) and Hume (the many) at the same time.

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    1. That's not an argument. That's a programmatic claim.

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    2. Van Til actually spends a lot of time arguing why the non-Christian view of the one and the many undermines the possibility of knowledge, and why the Christian view allows for knowledge. For example, when he talks about a night in which all cows are black, he is offering a clever way (actually too clever since few people understand his reference to Hegel) of explaining his conclusion about the possibility of knowledge on the presupposition of abstract diversity - it does not allow individual facts to be distinguished from one another. His writing contains premeses, deductions from the premeses, and conclusions. That makes an argument. This is my condensation of what Van Til argues:

      A.1. Either unity and diversity are related from all eternity (P), or they are not originally related (-P).
      A.2. If not eternally related (-P), then either (1) abstract unity is ultimate, (2) abstract diversity is ultimate, or (3) they are both ultimate in original abstraction from each other.
      B. Predication is the application of attributes to objects.
      C.1. Predication is logically consistent with unity and diversity being eternally related (i.e. all predication is eternally determined).
      C.2. Predication is logically inconsistent with unity being ultimate because all attributes would be attributes of all objects, even attributes that are inconsistent with each other.
      C.3. Predication is logically inconsistent with diversity being ultimate because without unity, no attributes could apply to any objects.
      C.4. Predication is logically inconsistent with the unity and diversity in original abstraction from each other because abstract unity excludes all diversity, and abstract diversity excludes all unity, and each of these is logically inconsistent with predication per C.2. and C.3.
      D. Unity and diversity being related from all eternity describes the God of the Bible (by the Calvinist interpretation), who has determined the relationship of all objects to all attributes from all eternity.
      E. From C and D, the existence of the God of the Bible is necessary for the possibility of predication.
      QED.

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    3. "Van Til actually spends a lot of time arguing why the non-Christian view of the one and the many undermines the possibility of knowledge, and why the Christian view allows for knowledge. For example, when he talks about a night in which all cows are black, he is offering a clever way (actually too clever since few people understand his reference to Hegel) of explaining his conclusion about the possibility of knowledge on the presupposition of abstract diversity - it does not allow individual facts to be distinguished from one another."

      That's not an *argument*–that's a catchy illustration. At best, that would be a nice way to illustrate an argument, but that's not a substitute for an argument.

      "Either unity and diversity are related from all eternity…"

      That doesn't actually resolve the one-over-many problem, because it fails to show *how* they are harmonious. It does nothing to demonstrate how the tension is relieved. At best, it just says these are two eternally coexistent polarities.

      "because abstract unity excludes all diversity, and abstract diversity excludes all unity…"

      But if God is timeless and spaceless, then God *is* abstract–in contrast to concrete (spatiaotemporal) instances.

      "Unity and diversity being related from all eternity describes the God of the Bible."

      That's equivocal, because it attempts to map a coarse-grained claim (unity and diversity) onto a fine-grained claim (divine triunity). But to be three-in-one is a more exacting claim than "unity-in-diversity."

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    4. "That's not an *argument*–that's a catchy illustration. At best, that would be a nice way to illustrate an argument, but that's not a substitute for an argument."

      I did not claim it to be an argument. I called it a conclusion to a specific non-Christian philosophy. The argument that Van Til gives is what I gave below. Also, if Van Til is merely referring his reader to Hegel's argument, that would still count as Van Til giving an argument.

      "That doesn't actually resolve the one-over-many problem, because it fails to show *how* they are harmonious. It does nothing to demonstrate how the tension is relieved. At best, it just says these are two eternally coexistent polarities."

      I don't think that you get what I am, or Van Til is, talking about with the issue of the one and the many. It's an issue of knowledge. Let's take a true statement like "A guy named Steve posted on Triablogue." This statement relates a particular, "Steve," to a universal, "guy." What is the origin of each of these elements of the statement? Is there a realm of abstract concepts that produced all that exists? Well, that would not account for the existence of particulars, like Steve. Alternatively, are concrete individual substances the source of all that exists? Well, that would not account for the universal, abstract concept, "guy." The Christian approach, as Van Til understands it, is to say that both the abstract universal, "guy" and the concrete particular, "Steve," have their origin in God, the Creator of all things. Furthermore they have been related from all eternity, which means that God knew from all eternity that there would be a guy named Steve, and that he would post on Triablogue. Indeed, it was God who ordained the relationship from all eternity - that there would be a guy named Steve who would post on Triablogue.

      "But if God is timeless and spaceless, then God *is* abstract–in contrast to concrete (spatiaotemporal) instances."

      Actually, I think you are getting that view of God from the form/matter scheme of Greek philosophy that was brought into Christian thinking by Aquinas and others, not the Bible. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the kind of God who interacts in history - is eternal and infinite, not timeless and spaceless. Van Til addresses this issue in An Introduction to Systematic Theology.

      "That's equivocal, because it attempts to map a coarse-grained claim (unity and diversity) onto a fine-grained claim (divine triunity). But to be three-in-one is a more exacting claim than "unity-in-diversity.""

      I said that it describes the God of the Bible. I did not say that it exhaustively describes the God of the Bible. VTAG does not settle how many persons are in the Godhead beyond the number being plural. You can't deduce the entire content of the Bible from VTAG. What VTAG gives to the argument for the truth of the Bible is a basis for it's infallibility. An absolute God is necessary for the possibility of knowledge, and an absolute God can only speak with absolute authority and truthfulness.

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    5. Mike W.

      "Also, if Van Til is merely referring his reader to Hegel's argument, that would still count as Van Til giving an argument."

      That's equivocal inasmuch as the question at issue is whether Van Til is mounting an argument, not Hegel.

      "I don't think that you get what I am, or Van Til is, talking about with the issue of the one and the many. It's an issue of knowledge."

      No, it's fundamentally a question of how the same thing can be both one and many. The possibility of knowledge is parasitic on the object of knowledge.

      "This statement relates a particular, 'Steve,' to a universal, 'guy."

      If universals and particulars exist, then that's an ontological fact. It raises epistemological issues about how we can know universals. But it's ultimately a metaphysical issue. That's what generates the epistemological conundrum.

      "Is there a realm of abstract concepts that produced all that exists? Well, that would not account for the existence of particulars, like Steve. Alternatively, are concrete individual substances the source of all that exists? Well, that would not account for the universal, abstract concept, 'guy.' The Christian approach, as Van Til understands it, is to say that both the abstract universal, 'guy' and the concrete particular, "Steve," have their origin in God, the Creator of all things."

      From the standpoint of Calvinism, it would be more accurate and useful to say that God has a specific concept of Steve rather than a general concept of Steve. And God's specific concept or exemplary idea is the basis for the concrete exemplification of that idea in space and time. God instantiates his complete idea of Steve.

      That bypasses the gap between particulars and universals. God's concept of Steve exactly matches the real Steve. That's the blueprint. All the particularizing features already inhere in God's timeless idea of Steve

      "Actually, I think you are getting that view of God from the form/matter scheme of Greek philosophy that was brought into Christian thinking by Aquinas and others, not the Bible."

      Feel free to quote where Aristotle says God is timeless and spaceless, based on his form/matter scheme.

      "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the kind of God who interacts in history - is eternal and infinite, not timeless and spaceless."

      You're operating with an essentially Mormon/open theist hermeneutic.

      You also raise schoolboy objections to classical theism which Paul Helm, for one, has refuted in detail.

      "What VTAG gives to the argument for the truth of the Bible is a basis for it's infallibility. An absolute God is necessary for the possibility of knowledge, and an absolute God can only speak with absolute authority and truthfulness."

      So you're claiming that an absolute God is incapable of speaking deceptively even if he wanted to? How did you derive that conclusion from your premise?

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    6. “That's equivocal inasmuch as the question at issue is whether Van Til is mounting an argument, not Hegel.”

      The claim is that Van Til only offers a strategy or attitude of the heart, so we have to come up with our own arguments. If Van Til says that Hegel proved a particular point about why atheism undermines the possibility of knowledge, then Van Til is doing more than merely offering a strategy. He is offering a particular argument.

      “That bypasses the gap between particulars and universals. God's concept of Steve exactly matches the real Steve. That's the blueprint. All the particularizing features already inhere in God's timeless idea of Steve.”

      Your response fails to mention that Steve is an instance of the universal concept of “guy” or what to do with that universal. First you assert that God is an abstract universal, then you seem to dismiss appeals to abstract universals. I am not sure how you are fitting this all together.

      “Feel free to quote where Aristotle says God is timeless and spaceless, based on his form/matter scheme.”

      Aristotle’s god is timeless (changeless) and spaceless (without magnitude): “Thus it is evident from the foregoing account that there is some substance which is eternal and immovable and separate from sensible things; and it has also been shown that this substance can have no magnitude, but is impartible and indivisible.” (Metaphysics 12.1)

      “You're operating with an essentially Mormon/open theist hermeneutic. You also raise schoolboy objections to classical theism which Paul Helm, for one, has refuted in detail.”

      On the basis of Van Til’s argument concerning the one and the many, I assert that God eternally predestines all facts and all concepts that relate to those facts. That would include applying the concept of “eternally damned” to particular individuals from eternity past. That’s double predestination, not Mormon/open theism. Many professional philosophers, not just schoolboys, disagree with Paul Helm.

      “So you're claiming that an absolute God is incapable of speaking deceptively even if he wanted to? How did you derive that conclusion from your premise?”

      The point is that God is the source of absolute truth as the source of the one and the many. But speaking deceptively does not preclude speaking truthfully. When Samuel told King Saul that he was on his way to sacrifice a heifer, he was speaking truthfully, but deceptively, because he was also going to anoint David as the next king. God came up with this deception. (1 Sam. 16)

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    7. Mike W.

      

"The claim is that Van Til only offers a strategy…"

      I said at the outset that I wasn't expounding Van Til. So that's not my claim.

      "or attitude of the heart…"

      Which I never said.

      "Your response fails to mention that Steve is an instance of the universal concept of 'guy'…"

      Since I'm not a Platonic realist, I don't grant your premise.

      "First you assert that God is an abstract universal…"

      I never said that.

      "Aristotle’s god is timeless (changeless) and spaceless (without magnitude)..."

      Your quote doesn't even indicate that he's referring to a rational substance, much less God.

      "On the basis of Van Til’s argument concerning the one and the many, I assert that God eternally predestines all facts and all concepts that relate to those facts."

      That has no bearing on your claim that God is everlasting and spatially infinite rather than timeless and spaceless.

      "Many professional philosophers, not just schoolboys, disagree with Paul Helm."

      Freewill theists disagree with Helm.

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