Transcendental argument

MattSlick

The transcendental argument holds that logical absolutes prove God’s existence.[1]

A logical absolute is an axiom of classical logic. One example of a logical absolute is the law of identity, which dictates that something is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t. For instance, an apple is an apple, not a banana. A cactus is a cactus, not a suppository. A puppy is a puppy, not an hors d’oeuvre, ex­cept in Korea.[2] As you can see, the law of identity isn’t compli­cated. It’s just common sense. Even an Ala­bamian can understand it.

Another example of a log­ical absolute is the law of non-contradiction, which says that a statement can’t be both true and false. We shouldn’t say contradictory things such as, “My evil young­er brother, born two years before me, is an only child, but he’s still a sweet sister.” Aside from being a contradictory statement, it might give your sibling a horrible complex.[3]

Finally, our last logical absolute is the law of the excluded mid­dle. Exclude the middle and all you have left are the two extremes. The law of the excluded middle could have been called the bi-polar rule or, better yet, the true-false rule. It governs propositions that must be either true or false.[4] For instance, the following statement is either true or false: “The average IQ of Alabamians is below 80.” For the record, I think that statement is probably false. Probably.

According to the transcendental argument, logical absolutes prove the existence of God. A defense of the transcendental argument writ­ten by Matt Slick is reproduced below with minor editing to cor­rect misspell­ings and to make it more concise.[5]

 

Logical absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking. People’s minds are different. What one person considers absolute may not be what another considers ab­solute. People often contradict each other. There­fore, logical abso­lutes cannot be the product of human, contra­dictory minds.

Logical absolutes are not the product of the physical universe since that would mean they were contingent on atoms, motion, heat, etc. If their nature were dependent upon physical existence, they would cease to exist when the physical universe ceases to exist. But if the universe did not exist, logical absolutes would still hold true. For example, if the universe did not exist it is still true that anything that did exist would have an identity, and that whatever could exist could not be itself and not itself at the same time. Therefore, they are not dependent on the material world.

Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, logical abso­lutes are conceptual by nature. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

A person’s thoughts reflect what he or she is. Absolutely per­fect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind. Since the logical abso­lutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are in­dependent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, abso­lute, perfect, and independent mind. We call this transcend­ent, ab­solute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

 

Slick insists that logical absolutes are “not the product of human minds.” I agree, but with a caveat. Logical absolutes are re­flected in our minds. Note the word reflected. Mirrors don’t create the objects they reflect. Our minds don’t create logical absolutes.

Reflec­tions of the logical absolutes appear in our minds in the form of presump­tions. Logical absolutes are not our presump­tions, per se, but are instead the logical principles themselves, as manifest­ed by nature. This distinc­tion resembles that between, say, gravity and the men­tal state of believing in gravity.

Although logical absolutes aren’t products of human think­ing, if we didn’t think, we wouldn’t be aware of them. We perceive logical absolutes as “out there” only because these prin­ciples are indeli­bly mirrored in the structure of the human brain.

Slick says, “What one person considers absolute may not be what another considers absolute.” If that were so, why call them abso­lutes? While a pipe-smoking philosopher tucked comfortably in his padded arm­chair might briefly specu­late that the principle of non-contradiction isn’t universally binding, most people endorse the principle implicitly. Our brains were wired by natural selec­tion to exploit logical absolutes. Our species’ survival suggests that these principles are manifest in nature roughly as we conceptu­alize them.

I realize that talking about logical absolutes can be confusing. What is a logical absolute? What is its essence?

I’m not sure. But I can offer an analogy to illustrate how I think about them. Consider an ellipse. An ellipse is manifest in the orbit of Earth around the sun. While the movement of Earth through its elliptical orbit is a physical occurrence, an ellipse is not itself a physical thing.

Similarly, we can entertain the idea of an ellipse. We can think about an ellipse. But that concept in our minds is not itself an ellipse. An ellipse is not merely a concept.

A logical absolute resembles an ellipse in that a logical absolute is manifest in the physical realm, yet it’s not itself a physical thing. A logical absolute is likewise something we conceive, but which isn’t merely a concept.

It’s easy enough to say what an ellipse is not—it’s not a physical object and it’s not a mental concept. It’s harder to say precisely what an ellipse is. If you think the essence of an ellipse is illusive, you’re not alone. Philosophers have spirited debates about the nature of ellipses, numbers, logical absolutes, and other abstractions.

Few people express more confidence about logical absolutes than does Matt Slick. He clucks that they come from God. He doesn’t merely cluck this opinion; he sets out to prove it. He argues that, by process of elimination, since logical absolutes aren’t part of the tan­gible world and aren’t just inventions of our minds, they must ema­nate from the mind of God. Let’s step through his argument.

According to Slick, logical absolutes aren’t products of the natural realm. If logical absolutes “were dependent upon physical existence, they would cease to exist when the physical uni­verse ceases to exist. But if the universe did not exist, logical abso­lutes would still hold true. For example, if the universe did not exist it is still true that any­thing that did exist would have an identity, and that what­ever could exist could not be itself and not itself at the same time.”

Obviously, we can’t test these assertions. We can’t make the uni­verse blink momentarily out of existence to see if the law of identity persists.

But there’s a bigger problem. Slick’s hypothetical scenario in which the universe ceases to exist is itself unintelligible without appealing to the law of identity. Our embrace of logical absolutes is a prerequisite to any thought experiment concerning the existence of the universe. It’s therefore not only impossible to test Slick’s asser­tion practically; we also can’t test his conjecture imaginatively. His thought experi­ment conse­quently tells us nothing about the universe or the nature of logical absolutes. All it tells us is that our imagina­tions are tight­ly con­strained by our mental programming.

Our imaginations are constrained such that we can’t discard the logical absolutes. But the constraints are even tighter than that. They’re so tight that we can’t even conceptualize Slick’s hypothetical scenario in which the cosmos blinks out of existence.

Sure, we can speak of the cosmos not exist­ing. Our grammar is sufficient to build sentences that refer to the absence of the cosmos. There’s nothing logically impossible about the cosmos not existing.

But we can’t truly conceive it. When we try, we end up thinking of the cosmos from some different camera angle or with the sub­atomic particles of the cosmos shuffled about or replaced by some medium. As Imman­uel Kant observed, “We can never imagine or make a representa­tion to ourselves of the non-existence of space…”[6] Nor can we think of empty space. Stephen Hawking flatly states that “there is no such thing as empty space.”[7]

We—including Slick—can make no intelligible comment about anything outside or absent the cosmos. Slick’s argu­ment that logical absolutes would persist even if the universe ceased to exist therefore fails. He has taken an aspect of human brain function­ing, the ineluctable belief in logical absolutes, and projected it onto the cosmos. That’s a very human thing to do.

For the sake of this discussion, suppose Slick is correct. Suppose the universe is subject to logical absolutes. That is, sup­pose the universe is potentially temporary, meaning that it may not occupy all time (which implies that spacetime extends beyond our universe rather than being part of the endogenous fabric of the universe). Suppose also that logical abso­lutes are infinite in duration and scope. These suppositions aren’t supported by current scien­tific consen­sus, but suppose these implications of Slick’s argument are none­theless cor­rect. How would these speculations acquire religious signifi­cance? In other words, how do we argue from logical abso­lutes to the ex­istence of God?

Slick tackles this question by saying, “Logical abso­lutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. There­fore, logical absolutes are conceptual by nature.”

Slick runs off track here. After all, we were careful in our earlier discussion not to confuse logical absolutes with our concept of logical absolutes.

Slick has insisted[8] that if we deny logical absolutes are con­ceptual, then we must clearly state what logical absolutes are. That’s a non sequitur. If I see an object reflected in a mirror, I can declare that the object does not reside within the mirror itself with­out identifying the nature of the object. When Slick proclaims that logical absolutes are conceptual, we can withhold assent without pinning down precisely what logical absolutes are.

That said, I remain captivated by the question. What are logical abso­lutes? Rather than saying merely that they aren’t physical objects or mental concepts, can we say what they are?

I must admit that, like Ludwig Wittgenstein and other profound philosophers and mathematicians who have explored this question, I do not know precisely how to classify log­ical absolutes or other so-called universals. I’m tempted to conscript the word principia or per­haps affinitas to label these enti­ties. Logical absolutes are like mathe­mat­ics and geo­metry in that they describe relationships between things and between ideas. These rela­tionships hold within the mate­rial world and, through material means (genetics and learning), get imparted to our neuronal structures. Classifying logical absolutes as relationships may not satisfy Slick—or me, for that matter—but that’s as good as I can do.

If, for the sake of argument, we accept Slick’s reclassifica­tion of logical absolutes as conceptual, the burden of proof falls back on him to show why they aren’t human con­cepts. If logical absolutes don’t emerge from human minds, but instead mysteriously enter human minds, what’s their source and how do they get transferred to our minds?

Slick never, as far as I have seen, addresses the transfer. He merely tells us that the source must be a non­human mind. They can’t emerge from multiple nonhuman minds, he says, because multiple minds wouldn’t be synchronized tightly enough to make logical absolutes as consistent as they are.

Slick has once again made a baffling intellectual leap. Since our only way of knowing logical absolutes are consis­tent is through the awareness afforded by our fallible mortal minds, and since Slick has already said human minds vary, how can he profess to know that logical absolutes are more consistent than they appear to all our diverse minds?

Logical absolutes aren’t like scientific laws, which can be built upon measurements and observations by many imperfect observers to arrive at a consensus. Logical absolutes are never decided by con­sen­sus, according to Slick. Sourcing logical absolutes to multi­ple minds might better account for the variation he describes as afflicting human minds. But Slick insists that logical absolutes emanate from a single mind.

We’ve conceded so much to Slick already that we may as well let him have his way on this point too. So, fine, we’ll put logical absolutes in the mind of one and only one god.

But hold on. If logical absolutes are contingent on God’s mind, then shouldn’t we call them logical contingencies?

And that brings up another issue. If the divine mind can change at any instant, how can we mortals know from one instant to the next whether we’re thinking logically—that is, in synchrony with God’s current thinking? Moreover, how can we compare our ideas to God’s to deter­mine whether they agree unless we have logical standards to test for agree­ment?

Slick has argued elsewhere[9] that God cannot change his mind because he is all-perfect and unchanging. Slick does not explain how he (Slick), with his imperfect mortal mind, deciphered this biograph­ical information about God.

To insist that God’s mind doesn’t change is equiva­lent to saying that God can’t learn or decide. Nor can he alter his divine plan. I understand that predetermina­tion is not objec­tion­able to a Calvinist like Slick, but it does make it futile to pray for God to do anything. God won’t change his mind in response to any prayers; Slick dis­allows it. I’m not sure how Slick would handle pas­sages like Exodus 32:14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disas­ter he had threatened to bring on his people.”

There’s another issue Slick must address. Either God can or cannot revoke the law of identity. If he can, then the law of identity is contingent and is not a logical abso­lute. If God cannot revoke the law of identity, then the law of ident­ity is sover­eign and God is one of its subjects. In that case the logical absolutes lack any divine imprimatur. Nor is the existence of logical absolutes evidence that God exists.

If Slick replies that the law of identity emerges from God’s nature, then I must ask how God can have a nature at all without there being a law of identity. Slick seems unable to establish God’s priority or supremacy over the law of identity. That invalidates his claim that God is necessary to account for the law of identity.

Put another way, if I say, “X has an identity,” I am essentially saying “X has identifying attributes.” Possession of these identifying attributes is not itself another attribute. It’s simply what it means to have an identity. Slick mistakenly regards the law of identity as an attribute of God’s nature, when it’s really a prerequisite to having a nature at all.

Slick eventually terminates his mental meanderings with his con­clusion that the rule-like part of reality is generated by a Divine Mind, a perspec­tive reminiscent of that ad­vo­cated by Bishop George Berkeley in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). Unlike Berkeley, who proposed that the entire universe was an idea in the mind of God, Slick allows that the universe exists out­side the mind of God. Only the logi­cal absolutes, the rules by which the universe operates, reside within the mind of God. So Slick, after traversing a tortuous route of illogical hopscotch, eventually manu­factures a cold, impersonal, and thoroughly inflexible rulebook that he can arbitrarily label as God.

The transcendental argument raises myriad questions not dis­cussed here. Perhaps the ultimate stumper of them all is this: if the law of identity resides as an idea within the mind of God or other­wise emanates from God, rather than God himself being subject to it, then by what rule of logic can we say God either exists or doesn’t?

 

 

[1] It’s common knowledge that our senses sometimes fail to accurately reflect the external world. But suppose you were even more skeptical of your senses. Suppose you lost all confidence in your senses. You’d no longer know that an external world even exists. But there’s a problem in this radically skeptical conclusion. Your presumption that you have an independent self and access to sense-data (regardless how unreliable) presupposes that you exist. To say that you exist is to implicitly delineate a boundary between you and not-you. Not everything is you. You aren’t spacetime, for instance, yet you require spacetime (or at least time) to exist. This is a problem inherent in radical skepticism concerning the external world. As a radical skeptic, you’re therefore said to have transcended your own explicitly stated premise that nothing external exists. Such a radically skeptical argument is often called a “transcendental” argument. More generally, a transcendental argument is one that holds that if there are preconditions for some state or entity X, and if X exists, then the preconditions must hold. That is the sense in which Matt Slick labels his argument as transcendental.

[2] Perhaps 30 percent of South Koreans report that they have eaten dog meat, though the younger generation eats less. The eating of dog meat is believed to remain widely popular in North Korea.

[3] A small minority of philosophers reject the law of non-contradiction, allowing for the logical possibility of contradictions. This is called dialetheism. I frankly do not understand dialetheism, but I understand it.

[4] The law of the excluded middle applies so long as you’re making statements (1) in conformance with the other two logical absolutes and (2) that include only unambiguously defined terms in non-self-referential statements, as you’d do in formal logic. The law of the excluded middle, rather than saying that every proposition is true or false, says that every proposition is true or not true. Philosophers who identify as “intuitionists” believe that the law of the excluded middle may not apply in all situations. For example, some statements may be neither true nor not true, but instead indeterminant, as exemplified by the so-called liar paradox: “This sentence is false.” L. E. J. Brouwer, the founder of mathematical intuitionism, argued that the law of the excluded middle, assumed when dealing with finite values, cannot be assumed to hold when dealing with infinite values.

[5] Matt Slick, “The Transcendental Argument”, The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry Website (www.carm.org). See also: www.carm.org/transcendental-argument

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), p. 23.

[7] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Milodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam Books, NY, 1st Edition), p. 113.

[8] In a debate with Matt Dillahunty. Note: Throughout this debate, Slick repeated sneered in his typically condescending tone that God either exists or doesn’t. Slick then segued from that trite observation to the preposterous claim that if atheists can’t provide a natural explanation for logical absolutes, then the explanation must be supernatural. That’s the familiar “god of the gaps” argument.

[9] “Answering the Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God”, Matt Slick (Christian Apologetics And Research Ministry) www.carm.org/answering-transcendental-argument-non-existence-god

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