Transcendental argument for God’s existence: your response

I’m curious to hear thoughts from this forum about (a version of) the transcendental argument for the existence of God. This style of argument is used especially by presuppositional (or Van Tillian or reformed) apologists, and some others as well, and I find it compelling. But I wonder which aspects of it you all might find weak, unconvincing, etc., and how it could be bolstered.

In a sentence, the transcendental argument states that the existence of logic, rationality, and morality imply the existence of God. Let me add some meat to that claim.

In my words, the summarized* argument goes like this: our definition of God will be a personal, supreme, ultimate being (this is a nod to the Russell-Copleston debate of 1948). We will assume the laws of logic, rationality, and morality: or LRM for short. That is, principles of correct logical deduction and rationality exist and lead us to truth, and there exist standards of morality to which all people are accountable – there are things that people ought to do or ought not to do (for example, a person ought to accept the outcome of a logical argument; if A is established, then by the law of noncontradiction, a person ought to accept A and reject “not A.” As this is something that a person should do, it entails a moral obligation.)

Given LRM, consider further their characteristics. Each of LRM appeal to objective standards of what is correct or incorrect, what is right or wrong; that is, each give a measuring stick by which we can determine if someone’s reasoning or moral actions are “good.” LRM are universal (applying to all people), invariant (unchanging across time and space), abstract (immaterial), and ultimate (there are not higher standards by which to judge them – there are no tools we could use to determine if logic is correct other than logic itself, and similarly for rationality and morality). Therefore, they must exist in a “place” outside of any individual human, and even outside of any human culture; they are not subject to the developments of a person’s mind, nor to collective ideas or societal progression, thus are in particular not creations or fabrications of humanity.

Morality has a special characteristic: it entails personhood . This idea is tricky to define, but it refers to the difference between someone and something . (Possessing a will, having desires, and conscious capacities to think, feel, and communicate are all involved in personhood, though they might not completely define the concept; but this will have to suffice for now.) Moral acts can only be done to a being with personhood; I cannot commit moral wrongs against inanimate or lifeless “nonpersons.” For example, if I smash my friend’s car simply because I am angry at him, I have committed a moral wrong against my friend (and perhaps other persons), but not against the car itself. Thus, if the standard of morality exists, then it requires personhood to exist.

Since our universe has all 3 of them, LRM are not standards in “parallel existence,” but rather coexistence. Then what happens when 2 or more of these standards are at play at once? If one takes precedence over another, then the latter would not be an ultimate standard. But since each of LRM are ultimate, none can be higher or lower than the others; the standards must be at the same level of authority, supremacy. Thus, their existence must inhabit the same “place.” As this place is both ultimate in its authority and personal (possessing personhood), this person satisfies our definition of God. Therefore, God exists.

*Of course there are many full-length books written on this topic, and any such argument, even a very good one, can’t exhaustively cover all of the follow-up questions that one might have. So I’m more interested in the “core strength” or correctness of what is presented than I am its completeness (just a few short paragraphs). I realize that much of what is presented here could be improved by elaboration. But any constructive feedback that you have would be welcomed nonetheless.

So, what are your thoughts?

Whilst its an interesting approach and a strong argument since you have the bible predicting characteristics of the univers that are arguably unknown at the time of writing it is not the only framework that makes such a prediction. In particular the argument of morality being only linked to God is flawed.

The framework for morality can be entirely explained with evolution. Taking from your comment, you are not going to smash your friends car because its morally wrong, you are not going to smash your friends car because it will make him angry, if he is angry he is less likely to want to cooperate with you, share ressources and might even want to harm you to prevent you from doing that again and so overall you smashing his car will come at a loss for you, it’s not in your interest. The same can be true for stealing your cooperation is more valuable to you than his car. If you start extending it to societies, if you get identified as a smasher/thief/murderer, the people of that societies will not interact with you and may even harm you to prevent further harm. so you are in a situation where it in your interest to be a good person and that is how the framework of morality is built and eventually that framework gets codified into laws.

One of the consequences, is that such morality only works with equals or superiors a.k.a. those that can harm you but not to inferiors who can’t. So since an inanimate object with no owner can’t harm you then it is not immoral to break that inanimate object. If that inanimate object has an owner which is an equal it will become immoral. This leads to situation where a person of higher status will not be punished for harming a person of lower status and this is what we observe. In a lot of societies a slave owner would not be punished for harming his own slaves and a noblemen for harming a peasant and in many cases a parent harming a child.

Now Christian morality does seem to extend to inferiors. After all we are expected to help the crippled when they are more often a burden than a gain. In fact the Greeks thought that It was a moral obligation to abandon the crippled. But I don’t think it counters what previously was presented. First it is hard to evaluate who is an inferior, noblemen had an obligation to care for the people because if they didn’t the people could rebel and they had the numbers. Second once a framework exists it can be fudged be creative and smart people to achieve other goals, that is no longer natural selection but artificial selection. Third it not because we have something that looks like a contradiction that it is, when you have a theory that works well you can’t it away because their a few cases you can’t explain or that seem contradicts a theory, Christian morality might be more advantageous to humanity even if intuitively this not what you would expect.

So the best the transcendental argument can do is assuming God exists you would expect an ordered, logical, rational universe and that is already pretty good. But other starting conditions could lead to the same conclusion so a rational, logical, ordered universe would not necesarily predict God.

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The argument seems rather circular to me. You start with the assumption/premise of morality and then define morality as entailing personhood. The result is that the existence of God is included in your premises.

What else is there to say except that other people see things quite differently, where natural law gives rise to life and life learn rules of behavior that promote communal well being. They see a fundamental danger in assuming morality to begin with, because that gets in the way of learning morality properly from what promotes the well being of the community. And they can easily cite examples of bad moral practices which have been promoted on the basis of presumed authoritative sources of morality to the detriment to the community.

To be sure, I believe God created life and saw the affirmation of the value of cooperation as part of the goodness which He saw in His creation. I don’t think this result was guaranteed because the God I believe in chose love and freedom over power and control in the creation of life. And indeed, despite the overall goodness of life there are many nasty corners to it as well.

The argument of the OP, like all arguments for the existence of God, shift faith from God to the premises of the argument – premises which are only too likely to be incorrect. And I do not like the implications of the entire effort which is to force a belief in God upon everyone as the only rational alternative. I don’t think getting people to believe in God is God’s highest priority for a good reason. This is frankly an agenda of the religious in a bid for power. I don’t see anything good coming from it.

In opposition to this, I advocate a different purpose for Christian apologetics which is simple to defend the rationality of Christianity against those who attack it and not argue that it is the only rational alternative which can only be a motivation and prop for intolerance. In other words, to argue that Christianity is rationally coherent and could be true, but not that it is required by rationality and must be true.

Logic, rationality, morality are what we bring to the party. After 13.8 billion years in this mediocre universe. That managed without our stories. As they all do.

Hi @gavin_kemp, and thanks for your reply. Your observation is one of those “follow-up questions” that I didn’t address for space considerations. So, since you brought it up…

The two frameworks, an evolutionary perspective and my original argument (which I’ll refer to as TAG for short, as is done in some of its literature), are not in competition with each other. They explain different aspects of morality. You have explained, using evolutionary principles, a possible answer to the question, “where did the moral codes that we observe come from?” You describe a psychological mechanism by which we learn morals, the genesis of our individual motivation (i.e. self-preservation) to live by society’s accepted moral codes, etc. And I think you are correct in pointing out that these phenomena can lead to some of the immoral acts that the world often witnesses, such as powerful people causing more harm to inferiors.

But these observations are not what TAG is about. TAG does not answer the question “where does morality come from?” or “how do we learn our morals?”, positing one possible explanation and then declaring there could be no alternatives, but rather “what does morality’s existence imply about the universe?” It does not ask “what could cause morality?” but rather “what does morality cause (in logical implication)?” It does not try to explain how individuals or societies come to decide what their morals ought to be (laws are a proxy, though are distinct from morals in this discussion). What TAG does do is assume a moral standard (and logic and rationality) and then show a logical consequence of that universal, ultimate moral standard existing at all. The logical consequence is God’s existence.* So, from a logical/philosophical standpoint, your post changes the question that TAG is attempting to answer. It’s really about something else.

Perhaps on a related note, unless I have misunderstood you, parts of your post describe the logic of TAG in reverse: you mention “other starting conditions” and “assuming God” and “predicting” either God or morality, but these aren’t TAG. TAG assumes logic, rationality, and morality and shows (the philosophical “show,” not an empirical prediction) that such assumptions imply the existence of a God with the stated characteristics, rather than vice versa. Swapping that order is no longer a transcendental argument. I’m not trying to be pedantic. It’s just that the logical flow of TAG is so crucial.

I suppose my summary is that an evolutionary (or any other) explanation of how morals have come to be does not affect TAG one way or another as the former answers a different question.

*By the way, I have not actually claimed that TAG (in the form of my original post) by itself supports only the Biblical-Christianity conception of God. I am indeed a Biblically-based Christian, but I do not think that my original post eliminates all other possibilities. TAG, if accepted, does eliminate some of them, however, including atheism and many Eastern religions in which the deity is not a personal being.

Playing TAG is rationally unnecessary.

Thanks, @mitchellmckain, I think you make some really good points. I agree with you about the dangers of “shift[ing] faith from God to the premises of the argument.” It is wrong to trust our intellect (in the form of arguments) over God Himself. Doing so would make ourselves the final authority rather than God, which a Christian will recognize as clearly wrongheaded. Colossians 2:8 comes to mind: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ.” God is a person, not the sterile conclusion of an argument! Biblical faith is related to, though not identical to, rational thought, as faith requires intellectual assent but not vice versa. By stating my original argument (which I am abbreviating TAG) in a vacuum due to space considerations, I don’t intend to suggest that it can or should exist on an island, nor do I think that the argument demands faith in itself above faith in God. Thank you for drawing out this point. I admit that I have faltered here in the past, and I am striving with God’s help not to continue to do so.

Where it seems that you and I differ is in the role that apologetics plays (or ought to play). You advocate for “apologetics as defense,” and I certainly agree that that is an essential function. But I would argue that “apologetics as offense” is important, too. (Van Til would add “apologetics as proof” as a third role, though I consider proof as a subset of defense in this context.) There is Biblical precedent for this concept. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” And Ezekiel 33:1-9 speaks about warning others of coming (spiritual) danger. This is how I see apologetics as offense: warning the unbelieving of the dangerous spiritual path they are on by exposing the corruption of unbelief. Particularly for the scholarly among us who will respond to intellectual arguments, apologetics as offense can point out intellectual corruption in unbelief, and is thus a loving act of evangelism. Moreover, for an intellectually inclined audience, a good rational basis for faith is needed for their faith to be viable. Imagine encouraging someone to believe in Christianity while simultaneously telling them that it makes no sense! Of course, apologetics as offense must be done with gentleness and respect, but that is an issue of the manner in which it is communicated, not whether it is communicated at all.

So, why do I gravitate toward TAG, and the presuppositional apologetics program from which it came, for my “offense?” I’ll sketch a few reasons, but this could lead to a much longer discussion. TAG shows that rational tools like science and math are not religiously neutral. It seems to me that most people, both believing and unbelieving, default to the implicit assumption that rationality exists independently of God, and if we reason correctly with sufficient information, we could conclude all the correct things about reality, including theology, in an unbiased way using the tools of math and science (whether God exists or not, what He must be like, etc.). This assumption is wrong, and TAG reveals that. How could rationality exist independently of God? If it were independent of Him, it would be below, above, or equal to but separate from Him, each of which would lead to a contradiction of our ideas of God or of rational endeavor (if below Him, then rationality isn’t universal; if above Him, then God is not supreme; if equal to but separate from Him, then we are in a “parallel existence” situation akin to the one described in my first post). It’s my belief that TAG demonstrates a proper relationship between them, perhaps uniquely so within apologetic arguments.

Moreover, TAG embodies another principle that should accompany belief in God: our utter dependence on His provision. If God is as described, then what could we have apart from who He is, what He has created, and what He has given to us? As 1 Corinthians 4:7 says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” TAG demonstrates, in hindsight, that even our most foundational intellectual (and human) tools, the LRM premises, are not our inventions after all. Trying to use rationality but deny that it is from God is to rely on His nature to deny that He exists! As Van Til put it, it would be like a child sitting on his father’s lap to slap the father in the face; the child requires dependence on the father to insult him. TAG doesn’t force belief on anyone, nor is it a search for power, but it does make the listener aware of the consequences of unbelief, which is a Biblical goal of apologetics and evangelism. Sure, a sinful person could misuse TAG or any other philosophical argument for immoral gain, but those potential abuses are present everywhere and are not part of the argument itself.

TAG is not the only apologetic or evangelistic approach that can be effective, but for these reasons I am finding it to be an important tool in the evangelistic toolbox, particularly to a rationally inclined audience. TAG forces listeners to reckon with the implications of what they use every day and most likely take for granted (the LRM premises). I see this as a great strength of the argument (not to mention that it has strengthened the Christian faith of many who already had faith, and it can be presented in plain language, not requiring advanced degrees in a dozen subjects to be understood).

I didn’t initially give all of these disclaimers, philosophical thoughts, larger framework and purposes, etc. since my focus was the argument itself, though I can see how their absence can lead to unintended inferences. Hopefully, the few paragraphs of TAG would not be the entirety of a person’s evangelistic interaction, but rather a tool in a larger evangelistic endeavor.

Now, to your thoughts on the argument itself. First, I would say that it is self-consistent rather than circular. It utilizes the 4 elements that all arguments include, implicitly if not explicitly: definitions, premises, steps of reasoning, and a conclusion. I tried to make these explicit for clarity. TAG (or my summary of it) happens to be brief enough that one can still see the beginning from the end, but its logical structure is no different from a longer argument where the connection between beginning and end isn’t so apparent. Universal morality is assumed and its personal nature is argued for as part of the steps of reasoning, but the conclusion makes a different statement, namely that a God meeting the definition exists (housing all of the LRM premises). That conclusion is not a premise – it’s more than just changing the terminology from “morality” to “God” – so the argument is not circular. There is, however, a form of circularity present in TAG: the conclusion is “implicit” in the definitions and premises. All logical arguments are circular in that way, though, so I do not see it as a weakness of the argument – just a weakness (inevitable limitation) of human intellect.

To your second paragraph, I would have similar comments as in my reply to gavin_kemp on 1/6/22. Your description of how morality is learned and/or evaluated is not what the moral standard in TAG is about. What matters for TAG is whether or not a person accepts the premise of the existence of a universal moral standard (I think that virtually everybody does, even most who deny it, but defending that premise of TAG isn’t my point here). Further, the supposedly alternative process you describe assumes “natural law” and “communal wellbeing,” which are themselves assumptions about universal standards of rationality and morality just like TAG (natural law would be one such element of rationality, and communal wellbeing a possible moral standard), so I don’t see this viewpoint as escaping the original argument anyway. This, too, is a reason that I see TAG as powerful: it is difficult, if not impossible, to give a description of any earthly phenomena without the use of the LRM premises, so attempts to circumvent it usually fall into it.

I hope this serves to clarify and expound on my position. Again, thanks for your reply.

I’m not 100% certain what you mean, but I think my comments here would be along the same lines as what I posted in my reply to mitchellmckain in the last few minutes. TAG isn’t the only argument that I find useful, but it seems to me to fill a unique niche within apologetics. I think it is too valuable to be ignored.

Assuming logic and rationality is necessary for any kind of argument or discussion. The same is not true when it comes to morality, and I see no reason to treat it as a premise. The existence of contradictory understandings of what constitutes moral action means that, unlike rationality, there is no universally agreed standard by which the morality of an action can be judged.

This accords not at all with my notion of morality. I would consider it immoral to pollute a beautiful lake even if I knew that no person would ever be harmed in any way by the destruction. To me, this looks like a premise introduced to get you to the conclusion you want.

More generally, I find pretty much all apologetics to be destructive of my faith.

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It’s one of the weakest apologetics I’ve seen. And they’re all weak. I love Jesus’ morality, which comes closest to allowing for a theist explanation. I see His female biased morality as in tune with ideal, evolved, natural morality, especially the first two and the fifth foundations.

The one glaring problem I see is that you assume morality is objective. For the argument to work you would need to demonstrate that morality is objective instead of just assuming it. In my reading, I am very strongly convinced that morality is subjective because it is based on the subjective human experience. For example, there is no logical reason why I should care more about my siblings than I do about a stranger on the street, but yet I do care more about my siblings and familial ties are part and parcel of our morality. We can also see that what was once considered moral is no longer considered moral, such as slavery or societal roles based on gender. We also see many differences between the moral codes of different cultures and religions. Even more enlightening, we see no reason to apply human morality to other species, nor would we necessarily apply the same morality to alien species if we ever met them.

What morality implies about the universe is that there is a sapient species that has emotions and the capability to empathize with others of the same species. I don’t see how a deity enters into that equation since morality is self contained within the human species.

I also don’t see how the existence of rationality or logic indicates the existence of God. If God didn’t exist would we have triangles with angles that add up to more than 180 degrees? I don’t see why we would. Would 2+2=5 if God didn’t exist? I don’t see why a deity would be necessary for particles to interact consistently within a given spacetime.

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  • A straightforward “Yes” or “No” question: In mainstream science, are there more than one spacetime?
  • If “Yes”, I ask a followup question: What or who is your source for that claim? If “No”, I have no further questions.

As I’ve argued before, Humean tho’ I be, morality is becoming ever clearer due to science, whence evolved, genetic Moral Foundations Theory. And that doesn’t contradict Hume at all. Caring, altruism correlated with kinship does not invalidate caring or make it arbitrary. It is higher order behaviour. More evolved. More complex.

That skirts too close to the Naturalistic fallacy for me. We could find that some destructive or maladaptive behaviors are also evolved features, but does that make them moral?

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Our universe is considered a single, continuous spacetime.

I don’t know where our universe came from. I fail to see how that leads to God.

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Ahh, so your answer to my first question is “No”, and I have no further questions. Thanks.

Both questions are unanswerable. It is not known how many universes there are, nor where universes come from. I wasn’t sure where you were going with it, so I made sure to define our universe as a single spacetime.

Excellent. Yep. Close. And there certainly is a destructive and maladaptive down to every up, an opportunity cost, even to care I imagine. The group moral foundations all too easily lend themselves to the dark side. Our strengths are our weaknesses. We couldn’t commit genocide without them. And we just might be able to save the planet through social justice with them.

I just wanted to make sure that mainstream science hadn’t decided that there are more than one spacetime floating in space somewhere completely disconnected from each other. But that wouldn’t make sense, IMO, … to anyone who rejects the notion of a “space” that doesn’t have spacetime in it.

Many scientific discoveries are counterintuitive, so what makes sense to us is not infallible.

With that being said, the current science theorizes that our universe emerged from a singularity. I’m not sure how space and time would relate to one another in such a regime.

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