Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rising to the challenge

For several days or weeks now, Victor Reppert has been needling Van Tilians with the following line of inquiry:

“I have decided to work through the dialogue in the Drange-Wilson debate to see what sense can be made of it. It was my contention that Wilson drops the ball, and I was hoping that some of you supporters of presuppositonalism can pick the ball up for him.”

“So did something go wrong here, and if so what? Did Wilson press the antithesis the way he ought to have? Did his strategy fail? Or should I have drawn a different conclusion about the ourcome of this debate. Maybe he won after all, and I just didn't realize it.”

“My point has to do with the issues. There are stronger arguments that Wilson should have used. What are they? How would you have debated differently?”

“I'm not just bashing presuppositionalism. I'm asking you how you would go about shoring it up.”

“When Anscombe showed Lewis he hadn't formulated his argument adequately (this is the one sense in which it is correct to say she "won") he revised the chapter and strengthened his arguments. On Wilson's behalf, how would you strengthen his case?”

I’m not sure if I’m the right man for the job since I’m not sure if I qualify as a Van Tilian or not. I’m not the sort of person who begins with a label, and then accommodates himself to the label; rather, I decide what I should believe, then find a label that best accommodates my position. For Calvinism, it’s a perfect fit. For Van Tilianism, I’m not as certain and I really don’t care.

I’ve been cast in the role of explaining Van Til for over a dozen years, so I’m used to the part. But anyone is welcome to take that off my hands.

1.I think most of us agree that Gordon Stein was outmatched in his debate with Bahnsen, while Wilson was outmatched in his debate with Drange.

For a debate between two more evenly matched opponents, I’d recommend the Martin-Frame debate.

2.Before answering Reppert’s question, we also need to define a transcendental argument. Here are a couple of working definitions:

“This is precisely what transcendental argumentation aims to achieve. Brought to prominence by Kant, transcendental arguments purport to uncover what must be the case (or alternatively, what we must take to be the case) in order for various kinds of intentional operation (e.g., individuating, predicating, perceiving, knowing) to be possible” (James Anderson).

“Kant came to advocate transcendental argument as a new means of grounding the certainty of mathematics, science, and philosophy. All of us, he argued, must concede that knowledge is possible. Else there is no point to any discussion or inquiry. Now, given that knowledge is possible, said Kant, we should ask what the conditions are that make knowledge possible. What must the world be like, and what must the workings of our minds be like, if human knowledge is to be possible?” (John Frame).

3.On this general definition, TAG would be an epistemic argument for God’s existence. There are a number of such arguments which could be deployed to construct a transcendental argument for God’s existence:

i) Plantinga’s proper function argument, from his trilogy on warrant, is a well-developed argument.

ii) Augustine’s alethic argument has been elaborated in the last chapter of William Young’s Foundations of Theory (Craig Press 1967).

iii) On a related note is the Augustine theory of divine ideas, which is picked up in Aquinas (De Veritate).

This line of reasoning has been amplified by a number of philosophers. Among available expositions:

a) R. Davis, The Metaphysics of Theism & Modality (Peer Lang 2000).

b) A. Pruss, Possible Worlds: What They Are Good for and What They Are.

There are two more heavy-duty treatments in the pipeline:

c) B. Leftow, Divine Ideas (Cornell, forthcoming).

d) G. Welty, Theistic Conceptual Realism: The Case for Identifying Abstract Objects with Divine Ideas (Oxford DPhil dissertation).

Another work which a Van Tilian might ransack and cannibalize for raw materials is:

e) W. Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated (Kluwer 2002).

4.Whether we classify a theistic proof as epistemic or metaphysical is a value-laden judgment which turns on our prior ontological commitments.

If, say, you’re a Christian realist, then the distinction is blurred because you view concrete things as property-instances of divine ideas.

5.Going back to Van Til himself, James Anderson has disassembled Van Til’s version of TAG into at least four supporting arguments.

So if you want to go that route, you’d put meat on the boney contours of TAG by fleshing out one or more of the supporting arguments.

6.So far I’ve confined myself to a narrow definition of transcendental reasoning, according to which a TA is an epistemic argument.

There are, however, philosophers who define TA more broadly:

“Transcendental arguments uncover necessary conditions of thought and experience” (Thomas Grundmann & Catrin Misselhorn).

“An argument that takes some phenomenon as undeniable and makes claims about what must be true a priori for this to be the case” (C. Stephen Evans).”

If you accept this wider definition, then the scope of TAG can expand to absorb and adapt many of the more traditional theistic proofs.


  1. And heck, while you're at it, you might pull out C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, or follow up on some of my suggestions here:

    I'm the last one to suggest that "transcendental" arguments are bad! But if you broaden your definitions enough, then van Tilians start looking a whole lot like Kuyperians, if that.

  2. Don't know if you've read or you're just referencing it, but R Davis was one of my profs at the institution I currently attend. Great guy :-)