Transcendental argument

MattSlickThe transcendental argument holds that logical absolutes prove God’s existence.

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 an orange. A puppy is a puppy and is not a milkshake (except in Korea[1]). As you can see, the law of identity isn’t very 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 brother a horrible complex.

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.[2] 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.[3]

 

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 do not 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 are not 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.” Well, maybe, but if so, we’re now talk­ing about really unusual people—certainly no one who is reading this post. Any human with a normally functional brain acknowledges logical abso­lutes.

If there were not essentially universal agreement on these prin­ciples, we would not have the consen­sus about them re­quired to label them as absolutes. We all agree that they are absolutes only be­cause our minds are simi­larly programmed by natural selec­tion to accept them as absolutes. Our species’ survival suggests that logical abso­lutes are manifest in nature more or less as we conceptualize them.

I realize that talking about logical absolutes can be confusing. Let me propose an analogy to help clarify how I see logical absolutes. Consider an ellipse. An ellipse is manifest in the orbit of Earth around the sun. That does not mean that an ellipse is a physical thing. The actual movement of Earth through its elliptical orbit is a physical occurrence, but an ellipse is not a physical thing.

By the same token, 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. And an ellipse is not itself merely a concept.

A logical absolute resembles an ellipse in that a logical absolute is manifest in the physical realm, yet it is not itself a physical thing. A logical absolute is likewise something we conceive, but which is not merely a concept. Philosophers and theologians often debate where the physical realm came from or where the mental realm came from. It sounds, at least initially, as though we might have a third realm to ponder, doesn’t it? Where do logical absolutes come from?

Slick clucks, “God.” He doesn’t merely cluck this opinion; he sets out to prove it. He says that it’s a mistake to attrib­ute logical abso­lutes to either the physical realm or to human minds. He con­cludes that, by process of elimination—since logical absolutes are not in the tangible world and are not in our minds—that they must emanate from the mind of God. Let’s step through his argument.

According to Slick, logical absolutes cannot arise from 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 cannot 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. The suggestion that the universe might cease 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 is therefore not only impossible to test Slick’s assertion practically; we also can’t test the conjecture imaginatively. His thought experi­ment conse­quently tells us nothing about the universe or the nature of logical absolutes. What it tells us is that our imaginations are tight­ly con­strained by our mental programming.

Let me propose in passing that we cannot even conceive of the ab­sence of the cosmos, by which I mean our universe and any other uni­verses that may exist. Sure, we can speak of the cosmos not exist­ing. Our grammar is sufficient to build sentences that refer to the absence of the cosmos. But we cannot actually 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.

As Imman­uel Kant observed, “We can never imagine or make a representa­tion to ourselves of the non-existence of space…”[4] Nor can we think of empty space. Stephen Hawking flatly states that “there is no such thing as empty space.”[5]

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 is a very human thing to do.

For the sake of this discussion, suppose Slick is correct. Suppose the universe is subject to transcendent logical absolutes. That is, sup­pose the universe is potentially temporary, meaning that it may not occupy all time (which implies that spacetime is transcen­dent rather than being part of the endogenous fabric of the universe). Suppose also that logical abso­lutes are infinite in duration and scope. These suppositions are not 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 transcendent logical abso­lutes to the ex­istence of God?

Slick tackles this question as follows. He states that “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[6] that if we deny that logical absolutes are con­ceptual, then we are logically required to clearly state what logical absolutes are. I disagree. 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. But, lest you think I am copping out on the question, let’s tackle it head on. What are logical abso­lutes?

This is much like asking, “What is quantity?” Is quantity mere­ly a concept with no corre­spondence to the real world? Certainly not. Chemical formulas and physical formulas in­volve quantities. Quanti­ties clearly connect with the material world. It seems that quantity is not so much im­posed on the material world as it is an ex­pression of some intrinsic aspect of the material world. Does that make quantity a material thing? No, not really.

I have to admit that, like Ludwig Wittgenstein and others who have explored this question, I do not know precisely how to classify quantity or log­ical absolutes, though I can say that they do not be­come material in nature merely because they are ex­pressed in nature, nor do they be­come conceptual in nature merely because I incorpo­rate them into my thoughts or because I think in terms of them.

I am tempted to conscript the word principia or perhaps affinitas to label these entities, since 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.

If we were, for the sake of argument, to accept Slick’s reclassifica­tion of logical absolutes as conceptual, the burden of proof would fall back on him to show why they are not human con­cepts. But, what the hell; for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Slick is correct in thinking that logical absolutes are ideas and that they do not emerge from human minds.

If logical absolutes don’t emerge from human minds, but instead mysteriously enter human minds, then our task is to settle on the source of the logical absolutes and also figure out how the logical absolutes get transferred from the source(s) to our human minds. Slick never, as far as I have seen, addresses the transfer.

The source of logical absolutes, says Slick, must be a single non­human mind. He doesn’t think they can emerge from multiple minds because he can’t imagine multiple minds being so well synchronized as 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 are not 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. While sourcing logical absolutes to multi­ple minds might better account for the variation he describes as afflicting human minds, Slick insists that logical absolutes emanate from a single mind.

We have conceded so much to Slick already that we may as well just 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 are thinking logically—that is, in sync with God’s current thinking? Moreover, how can we compare our ideas to God’s to deter­mine if they agree unless we have logical standards to test for agree­ment?

Slick has argued elsewhere[7] 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 does not change is equiva­lent to saying that God cannot 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 is another logical point at issue here that Slick has not addressed. 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.

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. I see no means by which Slick can establish God’s priority or supremacy over the law of identity. That invalidates the 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. Slick mistakenly regards the law of identity is an attribute of God’s nature.

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 that God either exists or does not exist?

 

 

[1] It’s a damn joke. Get over it, pussy.

[2] The law of the excluded middle applies as long as you’re making statements (1) in conformance with the other two logical absolutes and (2) that include only unambiguously defined terms, as you’d do in formal logic.

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

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

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

[6] In a debate with Matt Dillahunty

Throughout this debate, Slick repeated sneered in his typically condescending tone that God either exists or he doesn’t. Slick then segued from that trite observation to the 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.

[7] www.carm.org/answering-transcendental-argument-non-existence-god

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