Friday, February 16, 2018

Is TAG viable?

I was asked to comment on this article:

I just skimmed his article, so maybe my cursory impressions fail to do it justice. That said:

1. Seems to me that Békefi fails to adequately interact with critics of Stroud, or with Stroud's own reformulations, viz.

2. I find Békefi's treatment too scattershot, abstract, and generic. He tries to cover too much ground. 

Transcendental arguments are a family of arguments. I doubt it's meaningful to try to evaluate them in general. Rather, I think they must be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular X they claim to be a necessary condition for the possibility of Y. 

3. Since there's nothing in philosophy that goes unchallenged, I think it's unnecessary that a transcendent argument should have a major premise that no philosopher questions or denies. That's just not how philosophy works. And it makes the success of transcendent arguments hostage to opponents who are, by definition, the most unreasonable. Why should that be the standard of comparison?

I think it would be wiser to recast transcendental arguments as dilemmas. They demonstrate the ethical, epistemological, or metaphysical cost of denying certain things. They needn't be rationally coercive in the sense of compelling the opponent to say uncle. If an opponent responds to a dilemma by accepting one horn of the dilemma, and if that commits him to radical skepticism or nihilism, that's a successful dilemma because it's exposed how extreme, irrational and/or nihilistic the non-Christian opponent is. That in itself is a very useful exercise. It demonstrates the starkness of the alternatives. 

4. Although orthodox Christianity requires the existence of a physical universe, some theistic proofs can be adapted to a Matrix-type scenario. 

5. I think it's probably best to use transcendental arguments as part of a cumulative case strategy for proving the Christian faith, rather than a silver bullet. Reality is complex. 

6. The Christian faith is a combination of necessary truths and contingent truths. I don't think historical events can be proven a priori. 

7. What kinds of things should furnish a major premise for TAG? Candidates include:

i) Abstract objects like possible worlds, laws of logic, and mathematical truths. James Anderson and Greg Welty have been doing yeoman work in that field.

ii) The Trinity

It may not be possible to construct a philosophical argument that specifically demonstrates the Trinity. There are, however, general aspects of the Trinity that may be more amendable to philosophical demonstration:

a) The ontological priority of mind over matter and energy. 

b) Reality as ultimately complex rather than simple

c) Interpersonality

iii) Predestination

It's not coincidental that Van Til was a Calvinist. If everything happens according to the master plan of a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent agent, then everything happens for a reason. The alternative is to interject a destabilizing and decoherent principle of cosmic surdity. We have that in freewill theism and secular alternatives. Where events happen either by blind chance or blind necessity.

iv) Divine revelation

Quine has discussed how our scientific description of the world greatly outstrips the meager input from our five senses. Is it enough to have raw input? Or do we require an authoritative interpretation from a source outside ourselves? To take a comparison, it's like the difference between seeing a strange light in the night sky crash, and hearing (or watching) a TV newscast announce that an Air Force jet crashed. If all you had to go by was what you saw (heard, and felt), that would be open to multiple interpretations. Having an authoritative explanation outside the purview of the observer is necessary to arrive at the right interpretation. 


  1. Thanks for the thoughts, Steve!

  2. Van Til commonly used the one and the many in part of his argument for the Ontological Trinity. I see James Anderson, Vern Poythress and many others commonly using it but you didn't list it. What are your thoughts on this particular angle?

    1. In my experience, that's more of a programmatic claim than a well-developed argument.

  3. Steve,

    This argument "If everything happens according to the master plan of a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent agent, then everything happens for a reason. The alternative is to interject a destabilizing and decoherent principle of cosmic surdity. We have that in freewill theism and secular alternatives. Where events happen either by blind chance or blind necessity."

    To me, is very powerful. It undercuts so many worldviews. I have seen it a less rigorous and professional writers. But this is a Van Tils rational/irrational dialectic. Do you have any more philosophical and professional resources you could point me to in order to sharpen my understanding on this? Thanks


    1. Here's an example from Peter van Inwagen, who's a premier freewill theist:

      [quote] If the story is true, much of the evil in the world is due to chance…It could well happen that a woman was raped and murdered only because she yielded to a sudden impulse to pull over to the side of the road and consult a map. There may be, quite literally, no more to say than that in response to the question, "Why her?".
      According to the story I have told, there is generally no explanation of why this evil happened to that person…It means being the playthings of chance. It means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly, and it means something worse than that: it means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly for no reason at all. It means living in a world in which the wicked,through sheer luck, often prosper.
      But whether a particular horror is connected with human choices or not, it is evident, at least in many cases, that God could have prevented the horror without sacrificing any great good or allowing some even greater horror.
      No appeal to considerations in any way involving human free will or future benefits to human beings can possibly be relevant to the problem with which this case [Auschwitz] confronts.
      There are many horrors, vastly many, from which no discernible good results–and certainly no good, discernible or not, that an omnipotent being couldn't have achieved without the horror; in fact, without any suffering at all. Here is a true story. A man came upon a young woman in an isolated place. He overpowered her, chopped off her arms at the elbows with an axe, raped her, and left her to die. Somehow she managed to drag herself on the stumps of her arms to the side of the road, where she was discovered. She lived, but she experienced indescribably suffering, and although she is alive, she must live the rest of her life without arms and with the memory of what she had been forced to endure. No discernible good came of this, and it is wholly unreasonable to believe that any good could have come of it that an omnipotent being couldn't have achieved without employing the raped and mutilated woman's horrible suffering as a means to it.
      If the Mutilation had not occurred, if it had been, so to speak, left out of the world, the world would be no worse than it is. (It would seem, in fact, that the world would be significantly better if the Mutilation had been left out of it…
      If the expanded freewill defense is a true story, God has made a choice about where to draw the line, the line between the actual horrors of history, the horrors that are real, and the horrors that are mere averted possibilities, might-have-beens. And the Mutilation falls on the "actual horrors of history" side of the line. And this fact shows that the line is an arbitrary one; for if he had drawn it so as to exclude the Mutilation from reality (and had excluded no other horror from reality), he would have lost no good thereby and he would have allowed no greater even. He had no reason for drawing the line where he did.
      In the bright world of good sense, this is why God did not prevent the Mutilation–insofar as there is a "why". He had to draw an arbitrary line, and he drew it. And that's all there is to be said. P. van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), 89,95,97,105,108.

    2. That's a good quote on Evil. Van Til normally took this argument to the problem of predication. This idea of blind chance, contingent, random irrationality being unable to harmonize with prescription, law and universals.

      Thus knowledge of the world is impossible if blind chance or brute facts are allowed. So Calvinism gloriously removed all brute facts and all impersonal law bringing it all into harmony within the all encompassing rational plan of God.

      This is the argument I thought you were unpacking, maybe I am wrong. I was curious, if you had some more resources who unpack this argument in the more professional arenas.

  4. Here is an argument for the Trinity by Bosserman that I would like to get your thoughts on:

    Sufficient meditation on the above observations yields the conclusion that God cannot be any more or any less than three divine persons, without being reduced to a common class with those finite “impersonally-contained” deities mentioned earlier. Any other number of divine persons would create a disparity between the personal contexts and the personal relationships; between the “one” and the “many” of the Godhead. For example, if God were bi-personal— perhaps as Father and Son but excluding the Holy Spirit— one of two equally problematic conclusions would follow. Either,(a) the Father and the Son would be reliant on an impersonal context as that which could facilitate their mutual relationship and definition; or, (b) one of the two persons would have to function as an unrelated and thus undefined context, in whom the other resides as an individual monad (see fig. 26). In the former case, both divine persons are at the mercy of an impersonal universe, in the latter case, the two persons represent an indefinable context and an indefinable individual, respectively. One encounters the same sort of difficulties when the number of divine persons is haphazardly increased. For example, a quadrinity in whom the Father, Son, and Spirit are married to some forth person, “x,” must subordinate the individual persons to abstract and impersonal “groups,” and/ or render the persons divisible into finite impersonal parts (see fig. 27). If the relationship between the Spirit and person “x” were facilitated by the Father and the Son together, then the actual mediator of that relationship, and that thing which comprehends the Trinity, would be an abstract and impersonal “group” formed by the Father and Son, rather than a concrete person. Neither the Father nor the Son, but that “something” between them, would be the true facilitator of the relationship between the Spirit and person “x.”

    1. Continuing:

      But the very profundity of the Trinity lies in the fact that that which unifies all things is not an unknown something, but a personal Authority Who we might come to know and trust because He is also a concrete individual. It is equally unacceptable that the Father alone might function as the context of the Spirit-“ x” relationship, for then (a) the Son would be indifferent and uninvolved in some activity of the godhead, and so fail to fully express/ comprehend the entire divine being in himself; and (b) the Father would cease to be an absolute person since only the relationship between Spirit-“ x,” and not the relationship between Himself and His Son, would fall within the sphere of His own self-activity (see fig. 27). Both the Father and the Son would be mere parts of a generic divine nature that comprehends them both. Finally, it is also to no avail to suppose that the seven possible pairs of relationships between any two persons (F-S, F-X, F-H, S-X, S-H, and X-H) could be mediated by a single third person. Such a scenario would create a disparity between the divine persons, as some would have to function as the contexts of multiple pairs of relationships, and others of only one. Again, those persons whose natures were fully expressed as the context of only one personal relationship would not comprehend the entirety of the divine nature in themselves (as several relations would fall outside of themselves). And, that one person who did comprehend all of the others and their relationships would represent an abstract unity, who depends on an irrationalist principle of individuation, since he fails to behold or to differentiate himself with respect to other co-equal persons who in turn comprehend him. Hence, to add or subtract from the number of three divine persons is to compromise an ultimately personalist view of reality, by making God identical with, or subordinate to, an impersonal context. Such a God could not speak with authority, and the servants of such a deity would lack any ground for placing their trust in Him, because He would not “know” himself solely with reference to His own person.

      B.A. Bosserman The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox(pp. 180-181). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

    2. "if God were bi-personal— perhaps as Father and Son but excluding the Holy Spirit— one of two equally problematic conclusions would follow. Either,(a) the Father and the Son would be reliant on an impersonal context as that which could facilitate their mutual relationship and definition..."

      The inference is opaque. Why assume the Father and Son would need something else to facilitate their relationship?

    3. If the Father and Son have the means to share a personal relationship, existing in a state of co-eternal communion, binatarian adoration, then either each Person has it in and of Himself to relate to another being or they are united by a non-personal reality. If the former, then we face the same problem of Unitarianism: the Father relates to the Son on His own terms in the same way He relates to Him self, having no way to distinguish egocentric love and interpersonal love. Each person would be a particular island in the sea of Godhead, never to meet because the oneness that binds them is impersonal. If the latter, that means the two persons are defined by some category of interpersonal relations ad extra. God is no longer the self-contained God of the Bible then.

    4. In unitarianism, it's simply God's relation to creation. That's not incoherent, just wrong.

      Bosserman's argument (such as it is) seems to be a variation on the triadic analysis of love:

      Lover>Love>Beloved, where the Spirit is the bridge between the loving Father and the Son as the object of love, or something like that.

      But that's a rather mechanical metaphor, and the expression of love isn't personal in the hypostatic sense that a lover is personal.