Transcendental arguments and the logic of presupposition.

0. Introduction 

In this post I will look at the transcendental methodology employed in philosophy and how far it can be said to be similarly employed in the presuppositional apologetics of Van Til. There is some controversy over the correct logical form of the so-called ‘transcendental argument for God’ (TAG), and I contrast looking at it cashed out using implication, with presupposition, and with ontological dependence. Each has its own difficulties as a rendering of what Van Til says, so in the end I am not sure which way it is supposed to be taken. On the way I discuss how Putnam thought he had refuted the sceptical hypothesis that I could be a brain in a vat, various features of validity in the non-classical logic of presupposition, and end with a discussion about metaphysical dependence.

1 Transcendental arguments.  

Transcendental arguments are somewhat controversial in philosophy. They go back at least to Kant, who used them in his Critique of Pure Reason. There, he was responding to the scepticism of philosophers like Descartes and Hume. It could be that one’s sense data are radically divorced from the external world and it would be impossible to tell, etc. Kant’s strategy is essentially to show that this seemingly neutral starting point between the sceptic and the philosopher, such as the basic fact of one’s own sense-data etc, itself has certain preconditions. These preconditions are things without which the starting point would itself be impossible. Kant wants to drill down into these foundations and show that these often include the very things the sceptic wants to call into question. Thus, when a sceptic calls these certain things into question, she has in fact relied on those things being the case for the question to be meaningful at all. This type of argument is a ‘transcendental argument’.

There is a charming example of such an argument, given in characteristically aphoristic manner by Wittgenstein in On Certainty:

“383. The argument “I may be dreaming” is senseless for this reason: if I am dreaming, this remark is being dreamed as well – and indeed it is also being dreamed that these words have any meaning.” Wittgenstein, On Certainty.

The idea here seems to be that the sceptic is calling into question the existence of the external world, with the suggestion that one may be dreaming. But, says Wittgenstein, in dreams it can seem like a collection of words has meaning, when in actual fact they don’t; one can dream that a word is meaningful, when in fact it isn’t. So the very meaningfulness of each string of words we encounter also becomes one of the things we cannot be certain about, if we entertain the idea that we are dreaming. Thus, the meaningfulness of the sceptical challenge itself is something we must also call into question! This means that in order for one to suspend doubt over the meaningfulness of the sceptical hypothesis (to take it seriously), one must in effect presuppose that they are not dreaming, an act which itself rules out the sceptical hypothesis from consideration.

1.1 Transcendental arguments in analytic philosophy

Apart from their use by Wittgenstein, in the later half of the 20th century this type of argument enjoyed a period of being in vogue in analytic philosophy, primarily due to the work of Peter Strawson, Hillary Putnam and Donald Davidson.

Consider Putnam’s transcendental argument, which is found in chapter 1 of his 1981 book, Reason, Truth and History (read it here). In a sense, he is developing Wittgenstein’s argument from above. Putnam’s argument purports to refute the sceptical hypothesis that we might be brains in vats, merely  being stimulated to have sensations by some evil scientist. Often, this problem is seen primarily in epistemic terms, in the sense that the challenge is how one could know they weren’t brains in vats. Putnam’s approach, in contrast, is not to look primarily into the notion of knowledge per se, but instead to focus on linguistic issues surrounding what would have to be the case for the sentence ‘I am a brain in a vat’ to be true. His claim is that, once these considerations are taken into account, it becomes evident that the sentence ‘I may be a brain in a vat’ is self-refuting:

“A ‘self-refuting supposition’ is one whose truth implies its own falsiry. For example, consider the thesis that all general statements are false. This is a general statement. So if it is true, then it must be false. Hence, it is false. Sometimes a thesis is called ‘self-refuting’ if it is the supposition that the thesis is entertained or enunciated that implies its falsity. For example, ‘I do not exist’ is self-refuting if thought by me (for any ‘me’). So one can be certain that one’s self exists, if one thinks about it (as Descartes argued).

What I shall show is that the supposition that we are brains in a vat has just this property. If we can consider whether it is true or false, then it is not true (I shall show). Hence it is not true.” (Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 1981 p. 7-8)

The argument is (as stated in the last two sentences):

  1. If ‘I am a brain in a vat’ could be either true or false, then it is false.
  2. ‘I am a brain in a vat’ could be either true or false.
  3. Therefore, ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is false.

Premise 2 is no more than the sceptic would concede. The burden is to justify the first premise. This premise is supported by semantic considerations, specifically of the reference for the term ‘a vat’ in the proposition ‘I am a brain in a vat’. Putnam’s argument is that there are three general ways that the phrase ‘a vat’, which is a referring term, could get its reference to the object it refers to. Either a referring term:

  1.  has an intrinsic property of referring to the referent (nomenclaturism),
  2. or it refers to the referent via an internal concept on the part of the speaker/hearer (internalism),
  3. or it refers to its referent due to some external relation the speaker/hearer has to the referent (externalism).

Putnam first goes after the notion that words have intrinsic references. On this view, to produce some words, either by speaking or writing them, is to refer to the things that they name. The refutation of this idea is simple. Take an ant crawling in the sand who happens to write out the name ‘Winston Churchill’. The ant has produced those shapes, but it is obvious that the ant has not referred to Winston Churchill. Thus, signs do not intrinsically refer to things.

The underlying thought here is that if signs are ever used to genuinely refer to things, they need to be supplemented by something. Usually, this something additional which is added to the otherwise non-referential sign is a mental act of intention. The words are internally linked to a concept, and it is because of this internal mental association that they are about something (i.e. genuinely refer to things). This is internalism. However, Putnam also rejects this this thesis, on the grounds that that internal mental images also do not intrinsically refer to things. His counter-example is that of two physically identical depictions of a tree, one on Earth and one on a treeless planet. The one on Earth is formed by the usual photographic process. The one on the treeless planet has been formed by pure chance (say, paint dripping onto the bit of paper at random). The photo of the tree is being looked at by a normal person on Earth, while the picture of the tree is found on the treeless planet by a human who has never seen or heard of a tree. Each person has identical mental sensations upon seeing the photo (because the two pictures are qualitatively identical), but only one of the people thereby refers to a tree.

The reason for the difference in this case, says Putnam, is that there is a causal chain which we could in principle trace back from brain of the thinker of the image on Earth, through the light waves hitting his eyes, back into the photo, which was itself caused to have the arrangement of colours it does because of the light that came from the actual tree. In the treeless planet case, there is no causal link backwards from the event of the light entering the person’s eyes to any actual trees. If reference was fixed in the head, then as the internal situation is the same in both cases, they should both refer to the same object. Yet they don’t. The view that Putnam is advocating here is ‘semantic externalism’. Part of what it means to successfully refer to something is for there to be conditions external to the agent reading, writing, hearing or seeing, etc, the referring term. As he says, when it comes to reference it ain’t all in the head.

When we come to the case of the ‘brain in a vat’ proposition, if we apply semantic externalism to it, then we see that the only way that ‘I am a brain in a vat’ could be true is if ‘a vat’ refers to an actual vat. The reference to (in particular) an actual vat can be secured only if there is a causal chain coming from that vat to the brain. While, in a sense, every sensation that the brains-in-vats have is causally related to the vat they are in (and the electronic current being fed through it), their word “vat” is not semantically linked to it in any particular way (at least, no more than every word they use, and it is not the case that every word a brain uses refers to the vat it is sitting in). Rather, when the brains think propositions like ‘that is a tree’, they refer to the objects they take themselves to be in causal relation to in the virtual world they live in; but they fail to refer to anything in the actual world at all:

“How can the fact that, in the case of the brains in a vat, the language is connected by the program with sensory inputs which do not intrinsically or extrinsically represent trees (or anything external) possibly bring it about that the whole system of representations, the language-in-use, does refer to or represent trees or anything external?”

The answer is that it cannot. The whole system of sense-data, motor signals to the efferent endings, and verbally or conceptually mediated thought connected by ‘language entry rules’ to the sense-data (or whatever) as inputs and by ‘language exit rules’ to the motor signals as outputs, has no more connection to trees than the ant’s curve has to Winston Churchill. (ibid, p.13)

While there is certainly more that can be said about Putnam’s argument, this much is clear. Premise 1 of the argument has been given quite a detailed line of supporting argument, which pits the attractive looking causal theory of reference (semantic externalism) against the other alternatives. Could there be a different theory not considered by Putnam? Sure. Could one of the theories considered by Putnam be rescued against his objections. Sure. The point is just that there is a substantive argument here, and it is clear what Putnam thinks is at stake when he says that the sceptic’s proposal is self-defeating.

2. TAG

It is into this tradition that we find Van Til’s transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG). Van Til never provided a formal version of his argument, but alluded to it frequently, and we find this reinforced throughout the work of Greg Bahnsen. I have always taken it that the form of the argument is as follows:

  1. If God did not exist, human experience would be unintelligible.
  2. Human experience is intelligible.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

However, I think there is reason to doubt that this could really be the form of the argument, given various considerations I will go through below.

Van Til thought that he was providing more than just another argument for God; not just another argument that sits alongside the ontological argument, or cosmological argument, etc. He thought that he was providing a new and more sophisticated way of defending Christianity. His problem with the traditional arguments is that they seemed to concede something to their opponent which gives the game away already from the outset. This was that it was possible to reason at all independently from God. The idea here is that the approach with the traditional arguments is to see if the existence of God follows from premises which are themselves neutral on the question of whether God exists. These arguments thus start from assumption that there are such premises, ones which are neutral. However, it is precisely this that Van Til found objectionable. In contrast, Van Til wanted to say that there are no such premises; no such neutral ground.

This leads to the curious claim by Van Til that his transcendental argument is neither deductive nor inductive:

“Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. A deductive argument as such leads only from one spot in the universe to another spot in the universe. So also an inductive argument as such can never lead beyond the universe. In either case there is no more than an infinite regression. In both cases it is possible for the smart little girl to ask, “If God made the universe, who made God?” and no answer is forthcoming. This answer is, for instance, a favorite reply of the atheist debater, Clarence Darrow. But if it be said to such opponents of Christianity that, unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all, there is no argument in return. There lie the issues. It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. It does not seek to find whether the house has a foundation, but it presupposes that it has one.” (Van TIl, Survey of Christian Epistemology, Section 11.)

Van Til’s claim here is strange. The version of TAG above is a deductively valid argument. Let p = ‘God exists’ and q = ‘human experience is intelligible’. Then the form of the argument is:

  1. If not-p, then not-q
  2. q
  3. Therefore, p

If this is correct, then the argument is simply a version of modus tollens, which is a textbook example of a deductively valid argument. It is puzzling why Van Til would think that TAG isn’t deductive.

One option, of course, is that I have given it the wrong logical form. However, I have given it the same form as Kantian transcendental arguments (the same sort of form as that of Wittgenstein and Putnam, etc). The Stanford article on transcendental arguments backs up that my phrasing is correct:

“As standardly conceived, transcendental arguments are taken to be distinctive in involving a certain sort of claim, namely that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y—where then, given that Y is the case, it logically follows that X must be the case too.”

So, either the Stanford article and I are wrong about what the form of a transcendental argument is, or Van Til was using the term differently, or he was just wrong about whether it was deductive.

What is the correct logical form of Van Til’s TAG?

2.2. The inadequacy of classical implication

There is another issue with what Van Til said, and it is one that adds weight to the thought that his argument does not have the simple form of a modus tollens. Let’s look again at some particular phrases in the quote from him above:

“…unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all.”


“…no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence.”

Van Til is saying more than just that if there were no God then the claims about the existence of logic or the possibility of argument would be false; he is saying that without a God these claims ‘would have no meaning at all‘, and that nothing could be said at all ‘whether in negation or affirmation‘. The logic used in the version of TAG we have been discussing here (the Kantian form) doesn’t capture this feature well at all. Rephrased as a logically equivalent modus ponens, it says:

  1. If logic, then God.
  2. Logic.
  3. Therefore, God.

If the consequent of the first premise (‘God’) is false, then the conditional is only true if the antecedent is also false. This means that, if it is true that God is a necessary condition of logic, and if it is false that God exists, then the claim that logic exists is false. But this is exactly where Van Til’s claims from above seem to go further. He doesn’t say that these claims are false, but, as it were, neither true nor false (‘no meaning at all’, ‘whether in negation or in affirmation’). With the classical logic we are using here, this position is not captured. Thus, we have reason to think that this cannot be what Van Til meant when he used the transcendental argument for the existence of God.

3. The logic of  presupposition.

In 1905, Russell published a paper called ‘On Denoting‘. In that paper, he advocated a semantics for descriptions, i.e. phrases like ‘the third planet from the sun’, ‘your favourite ice cream flavour’, and ‘the present king of France’. In particular, he was interested in the latter type of example, as these cases (where there is apparent reference to things that do not exist) had posed problems for previous theories, such as Frege’s. His solution was essentially to say that ‘the present King of France is bald’ has a logical form which is more complex than it appears on the surface; it is in fact a conjunction of two claims:

  1. There is exactly one thing which is the king of France, and
  2. That thing is bald.

Because the first conjunct is false (because there is no king of France), the whole conjunction is false as well. It remains false for the same reason if we change the second conjunct to ‘that thing is not bald’. Thus, ‘the present King of France is bald’ and ‘the present King of France is not bald’ are both false.

In 1953, Peter Strawson proposed an alternative theory to Russell’s. According to Strawson, the sentence ‘the present King of France is bald’ should be considered to be neither true nor false. The reason for this is that it presupposes that there is a king of France. Unlike Russell, who claimed that the sentence implicitly implied there is a king of France, Strawson said it has this as a presupposition.

Presupposition, in Strawson’s sense, differs from implication precisely on the issue of the consequent being possibly neither true nor false. This idea is cashed out by Van Fraassen here. In that we find the standard Strawsonian definition of presupposition:

Presupposition)      (A presupposes B) iff (if A is either true or false, then B is true)

This says that when A presupposes B, A has a truth-value only if B is true; if B is false, then A is neither true nor false.

3.1 TAG with Presupposition instead of Implication

This definition of presupposition does considerably better at capturing the spirit of Van Til’s claims from above. He wanted to ‘up the ante’ by saying that its not just that if what the atheist says is false then God exists, but that if what the atheist says is meaningful at all, then God exists. This is captured by saying:

  1. Whatever an atheist says presupposes that God exists.
  2. Therefore, for whatever an atheist says, if it is either true or false, then God exists.

We are not talking about the specific truth value of what the atheist says, but into the conditions which make it such that it has either truth value.

This also seems to do justice to the following remarks of Van Til:

“Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is.”

Thus, we have some reason for thinking that the logical form of Van Til’s argument involves presupposition in this sense. This is the view of the presuppositionalist Don Collett (see this).

3.2 Presuppositional validity

The logic of presupposition, a hot topic in philosophy of language today, has some interesting features. One thing that is particularly relevant here is how far this notion of presupposition differs from classical implication.

The first thing to notice about it is that it is a non-classical logic. This is because there can be formulas which lack a truth value altogether. It is standard to think of the semantics for this sort of logic as the strong Kleene tables.

The fact that some propositions can lack a truth-value makes the notion of validity for presupposition different to that of implication. For instance, while modus ponens is valid for presupposition, modus tollens is not. This means that the following is valid:

  1. A presupposes B
  2. A
  3. Therefore, B.

But the following is not:

  1. A presupposes B
  2. not-B
  3. Therefore, not-A

This is because if A presupposes B, and B is not true, then A is neither true nor false. And in the strong Kleene semantics, if A is neither true nor false, then so is not-A.

It also follows from this that in the logic of presupposition the following form, which is invalid in classical logic, is valid:

  1. A presupposes B
  2. Not-A
  3. Therefore, B

Call this argument form ‘modus presuppans‘. If A presupposes B, then even if not-A is true, B is true. Even the falsity of A entails B, if A presupposes B.

One reason for thinking that this is a more faithful way of rendering Van Til’s idea is how well it fits with other claims he made. In one of his more memorable illustrations, Van Til said that the unbeliever is like a child who can only slap her father in the face because he his supporting her on his knee. The point is supposed to be that even the claim that Christianity is false presupposes that God exists. This result seems to be obtained if we grant that Christianity presupposes that God exists. It is in fact just the argument form from above:

  1. Christianity presupposes God.
  2. Christianity is false.
  3. Therefore, God.

This argument form is valid given Strawson’s logic of presupposition. It seems then that we have a form of TAG that fits well with Van Til’s aims.

4. Problems

The notion of validity for presupposition outlined here might be considered to capture some of the intuitions and ideas of Van Til. However, it also faces some serious problems.

  1. Firstly, it might be completely arbitrary, or even actually inconsistent.
  2. Secondly, there is a disanalogy between the most natural renderings of the first premise of TAG and textbook cases of Strawsonian presupposition, and this suggests that it is a different relation altogether.

4.1 Arbitrariness, or Inconsistency?

It seems quite clear that the central existential claim in Christianity could be cashed out in the following biconditional:

‘Christianity is true if and only if God exists’.

Assume we mean by ‘God’ the Christian God, i.e. the triune God referred to in the Bible, etc. Then this looks fairly watertight. Could Christianity be true if this God does not exist? Could (the Christian) God exist and Christianity not be true? It seems quite clear (to me) that the answer to both questions is ‘no’.

The main claim of the presuppositionalist argument, when cashed out using presupposition rather than implication is that Christianity presupposes that God exists, because every fact is supposed to presuppose that God exists. But this causes a problem with the existential biconditional above. They can’t both be true, or we get a contradiction.

The following argument (the ‘from truth to existence’ argument) is valid:

  1. Christianity is true if and only if God exists
  2. Christianity is true.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

We can also reason the other way (the ‘from falsity to non-existence’ argument):

  1. Christianity is true if and only if God exists
  2. Christianity is false.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

But if we also add in that Christianity presupposes that God exists, then ‘from falsity to non-existence’ becomes invalid:

  1. The truth of Christianity presupposes the existence of God.
  2. Christianity is false.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This is just a version of modus presuppans, and is valid on the Strawson/Kleene semantics. It means that if Christianity presupposes the existence of God, then the falsity of Christianity is compatible with the Christian God existing. And we can also reason the other way as well:

  1. The falsity of Christianity presupposes the non-existence of God.
  2. Christianity is true.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Thus we have an inconsistent set of propositions. If the existential biconditional is true, then the truth of Christianity is incompatible with the non-existence of God. If it is true that the truth of Christianity presupposes that God exists, then it is compatible with the non-existence of God. They are either compatible or incompatible, which means either the existential biconditional has to go or the claim that Christianity presupposes that God exists has to go. I find the biconditional much more obviously fundamental to Christianity, and I find it hard to make sense out of the result that Christianity is true and God does not exist. For me, that is pretty strong evidence that the biconditional is to be kept at the expense of the presuppositional claim.

I want to point to another problem before suggesting why this problem is happening.

4.2 The Disanalogy

We can begin to see a disanalogy between the usual first premise of TAG and standard examples of Strawsonian presupposition. Here are some examples of Strawsonian presupposition:

  1. ‘The King of France is bald’ presupposes that ‘there exists a King of France’.
  2. ‘I have stopped beating my wife’ presupposes that ‘I have a wife’.
  3. ‘Julius is a bachelor’ presupposes that ‘Julius is an unmarried male’.
  4. ‘He set me free’ presupposes that ‘somebody set me free’, etc.

In most of these cases, the relationship between the antecedent and consequent of the presupposition is very obvious:

  • 3 seems to be merely a case of definition (which is linguistic),
  • 4 is just existential generalisation (which is linguistic),
  • and arguably so is 1 (so it is also linguistic),
  • 2 is an example of a leading question (which is linguistic).

On the other hand, it is not so obvious that the existence of logical laws (etc) presupposes that God exists. Part of the reason for this difference is because 1-4 above are all obviously linguistic phenomena; the relationship being brought out in the examples is between elements of language. In contrast, when Van Til states his first premise as “unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all” and (as I discuss below) this seems more naturally considered to be a metaphysical claim; i.e. not it is not a relation between elements of language, but a relation between things that actually exist.

Here is a way of thinking about it which makes it easier to see why Van Til’s statement seems to be metaphysical and not linguistic. Once we rearrange Van Til’s statement into modus ponens form, we see what the antecedent is, and we can state one of its presuppositions:

1a. The atheist’s own questions and doubts have meaning.

And a presupposition of 1a is claimed to be this:

1b. God exists.

Now compare someone saying 1a with someone saying 2a, along with one of its presuppositions:

2a. I have stopped beating my wife.

2b. I have a wife.

If the Strawsonian account of presupposition, which applies to 2a, is supposed to apply to 1a, then we should expect the way these sentences are related to their respective presuppositions would be quite similar, i.e. the way 1a is related to 1b and the way 2a is related to 2b should be quite similar. But it seems clear to me that the reason that 2b is presupposed by 2a is primarily a linguistic reason. It is a product of the meaning of the words, as used in normal contexts. Most people have the linguistic intuition that 2b is a presupposition of 2a, and this means that we are happy to grant it as true if used as a premise in an argument. There are tricky cases of presupposition, for sure, but 2a-2b isn’t one of those cases. We could even disagree with Strawson, and perhaps agree with Russell, on the details of the semantic relation between 2a and 2b, but it is not seriously disputed that they have some linguistic/semantic relation or other that preserves the rational inference from 2a to 2b.

The relation between 1a and 1b doesn’t seem to be linguistic like that. It doesn’t seem to be part of the meaning of the words “The atheist’s own questions and doubts have meaning” that “God exists”. At the very least, it isn’t a commonplace statement of linguistic meaning, like 2a and 2b. This is why people (other than presuppositionalists) are not happy to concede it as a premise in an argument. It isn’t obvious at all, unlike with 2a and 2b. This utter lack of semantic intuition here is evidence that the claim that ‘“The atheist’s own questions and doubts have meaning” semantically presupposes “God exists”‘ is just false.

4.3 Metaphysical dependence

I would go further and claim that this is intentional. Why is it that 1a implies 1b, on the Van Tilian picture? The answer is essentially that all truths are metaphysically grounded in God, on this view. Van Til often says things which make it clear he has this sort of metaphysical idea in view:

“Man’s ethical alienation plays upon the background of his metaphysical dependence.” (Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, chapter 14, emphasis mine).

It is the fact that man (and everything there is at all) is metaphysically dependent on God that is motivating Van Til. His point is that whatever an atheist might appeal to, anything that exists in any sense, it will end up being something which is metaphysically dependent for its existence on God. This metaphysical dependence is what seems to be driving the idea of presupposition here, and it is not a linguistic phenomenon. The claim isn’t that 1a presupposes 1b in the linguistic Strawsonian sense, but in a stronger metaphysical, we might say ‘Van Tilian’, sense. If this is right, we should really drop the talk of presupposition, and talk explicitly of metaphysical grounding, or metaphysical dependence.

But if we go down this road, we seem to have ended at a destination that is quite far from a transcendental argument, for now the argument is something like this:

  1. For everything there is, if it exists, then God exists (metaphysical dependence claim)
  2. If an atheist questions whether God exists, then the atheist exists (assumption)
  3. If an atheist questions whether God exists, then God exists (1, 2, modus ponens)
  4. An atheist is questioning whether God exists (assumption)
  5. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is valid, and premises 2 & 4 are very likely to be granted by an atheist, and 3 follows from 1 & 2, so all that is required to be supported is 1, which is itself the Van Tilian metaphysical dependence claim. All the Van Tilian needs to do is justify the first premise (their main claim) and they will be able to prove that God exists merely from the presence of an atheist questioning whether God exists. This seems to capture rather well the Van Tilian idea of the child slapping their father in the face.

So it seems that premise 1 is what needs to be justified. But there already is an argument which attempts to get us to this destination, which is the argument from contingency. In fact, the metaphysical dependence argument above is just a special instance of the argument from contingency; we could call it the argument from dependency. If this is correct, then there is no special transcendental method in TAG, and it is just another classical argument for God, alongside the other well-known deductive arguments.

5. Conclusion. 

In conclusion then, the precise form of TAG remains illusive. It seems very hard to square everything that Van Til said into one logical system that doesn’t also give up something seemingly important to how he described it.

The problem with TAG

0. Introduction

In this article, I will discuss the ‘transcendental argument for the existence of God’ (henceforth ‘TAG’). This forms the backbone of the ‘presuppositional’ approach to Christian apologetics, first formulated by Cornelius Van Til (1895 – 1987). At its simplest, it is a radical defense of the Christian position, which boldly tries to dismiss any counter-argument with the claim that the notion of argument itself presupposes the Christian position. If this were true, then the opponent of Christianity would have to assume the truth of the position they oppose when presenting any argument at all. Instead of the Christian being on the back-foot and trying to respond to the attacks of their opponent (say with archeological evidence or biblical contradictions, etc), TAG is an attempt to switch the weight of the attack back at the non-Christian (who has to justify their ability to present an argument of this nature in the first place). While this is an ingenious way of arguing, it is ultimately flawed, as I will show in this paper.

Usually, opponents of the presuppositional apologetic will make one of two mistakes; either they will take the bait of the argument and try to justify how they can ‘account for truth on their worldview’, etc, or they will try to show that the Christian position is unable to account for this itself. Neither of this tactics is advisable, on my view. This is not because I do not think that a non-theistic account of things like argumentation, truth, logic, morality, etc, can be had; on the contrary, I think that coherent non-theistic philosophical positions for all of the above can be formulated. Nor is it that I think that the Christian position is free from internal consistencies; on the contrary, I find the typically given Christian explanations of these things to be lacking in several key aspects (Euthyphro, problem of evil, lack of sufficient justification for biblical claims, etc). However, analysis of the situation reveals that even if one concedes both of these points to the presuppositionalist they have still not made their case. For even if I am unable to account for argumentation (or logic, morality, etc), and even if the Christian position (or ‘worldview’) is able to account for this, we still have not been given a demonstration that the Christian position is a necessary condition for the given feature. What this requires is a general refutation of not just my position, but of every alternative position, leaving Christianity as the only possible account. Absent this argument, TAG has not been justified. Essentially, when the presuppositionalist claims that the Christian worldview is the necessary precondition (or ‘presupposition’) for the intelligibility of human experience generally, the response should be: prove it. They have not provided any such proof so far, and for reasons I discuss below, it seems unlikely any such proof can be forthcoming.

  1. Transcendental Arguments

Transcendental arguments try to establish their conclusion, Y, by showing that it is required for the truth of some other proposition X; one cannot have the X without they without the Y, and we do have the X, so we must also have the Y. Consider the following argument:

  1. One cannot ride a bicycle without having two legs
  2. John is riding a bicycle
  3. Therefore, John must have two legs.

So if this argument is correct, we can say that having two legs is a ‘necessary precondition’ for riding a bicycle.

However, let us suppose that there is a way of riding a bicycle with one leg; perhaps a little-known technique is available whereby the one-legged person can operate a bicycle just as well as a two-legged person. If this were true, then the argument from above becomes unsound, as premise 1) would be false. It would also mean that having two legs is no longer a ‘necessary precondition’ for riding a bicycle; it would be a sufficient precondition, in the sense that having two legs will suffice for being able to ride a bicycle, but it is not necessary if there is a way for a one-legged person to be able to ride a bicycle. The correct argument, adding in the consideration of the one-legged technique, would be as follows:

  1. If one can ride a bicycle, then either they have two legs or they know the one-legged technique.
  2. John is riding a bicycle.
  3. Therefore, John either has two legs or knows the one-legged technique.

This shows that the claim of Y being a ‘necessary precondition’ for X requires that the only way X can be true is if Y is true also. If there is another way that X can be true, say by Z being true instead, then Y is not a necessary precondition for X. So part of showing that Y is a necessary precondition for X means showing that there is no Z which is a different precondition for X.

My point with TAG is that it has not been shown that there is no Z which could account for logic, morality, etc. This holds even if the Christian apologist can account for it, and even if their interlocutor cannot. What must be shown is not just that the interlocutor cannot, but no possible interlocutor can.

  1. TAG Itself

I shall use the words of Prof. Michael Butler as a foil to argue against. Butler is a professor of philosophy at Christ College, Lynchburg, Virginia, and himself a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, which Van Til helped to found and taught at for over 40 years. I use his words not because I think Butler is an example of a bad presuppositionalist; on the contrary, he appears to be a very insightful representative of the position. Indeed, the clarity with which he discusses the issue allows a clear formulation of what is wrong with it, and for that I am indebted to him.

According to Butler, TAG runs as follows:

‘It starts with human experience; such things as science, love, rationality and moral duties.  It then asserts that the existence of the Christian God is the necessary precondition of such experiences.  Finally, it proves this indirectly by demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary’.(

The ‘indirect demonstration’ referred to in the mention of the proof proceeds by showing that the alternative explanations of these experiences are all inconsistent on their own terms:

‘We must point out to them [i.e. atheists] that univocal reasoning [i.e. reasoning independently of God] itself leads to self-contradiction, not only from a theistic point of view, but from a non-theistic point of view as well. It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we must meet our enemy on their own ground. It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we reason from the impossibility of the contrary. The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions’. – Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 204-5

This is the method of ‘internal critique’, where one assumes the interlocutor’s position to show that it leads to internal inconsistencies, as opposed to keeping one’s own assumptions fixed when analyzing the interlocutor’s position.

So two things need to be established:

  1. The Christian worldview can provide a non-self-contradictory account of human experience.
  2. The non-Christian worldview cannot provide a non-self-contradictory account of human experiences.

Talk of ‘the Christian worldview’ and ‘the non-Christian worldview’ is to be taken with a pinch of salt (although this will prove controversial later). Obviously, there are lots of different denominations of Christianity, including reformed Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc. Equally, there are many distinct non-Christian positions, including every denomination of every other religious worldview, plus every variation of atheist worldview, etc. If we take this plurality of worldviews into account, then the claim is that at least one Christian worldview can account for the intelligibility of human experience, and that none of the non-Christian worldviews can. This claim has not been demonstrate by presuppositionalists, and I will argue that we have reason to doubt that they can demonstrate this claim.

Although this will be dealt with in much more detail as we go along, here is my argument in a nutshell:

  1. TAG is successful only if every non-Christian worldview necessarily entails a contradiction (or is ‘internally incoherent’).
  2. There is a potentially infinite number of non-Christian worldviews.
  3. Either:
  4. a) There is one way to establish that all the non-Christian worldviews are internally incoherent, or b) One proof is not enough but there is a finite number of ways to establish that they are all incoherent, or c) There is an infinite number of ways required to establish that they are all incoherent.
  5. No proponent of TAG has established a); and it seems easy to prove that b) cannot be established (given a plausible formalization of ‘worldview’ as a set of beliefs); and if c) then it is not possible for a finite being to prove TAG.
  6. Therefore, TAG has not been established, and is likely to be unprovable.

Although this argument may seem complex, my basic point can be easily apprehended. While Greg Bahnsen often presents animated demonstrations that a particular worldview is inconsistent (as with Islam and the way the Koran says that the Bible is a previous message of God etc) there is no attempt to actually prove that every non-Christian worldview is inconsistent. Yet, without this proof, the whole of TAG falls apart.

What we have instead is a rough and ready way of fending off other typically encountered worldviews, the sorts of positions encountered while engaged in disputations with non-Christians. It is like a manual for new apologists to go off into the wider world armed with. But of course, the standards for what might prove useful enough for an apologist to do his job are different than the standards for a philosophical argument such as TAG being successfully proved.

So, how do we establish that every other worldview is internally inconsistent? Fundamentally, that is the problem that must be resolved for TAG and the presuppositional position generally to be viable.

  1. First Try – The Michael Jordan example

Michael Butler first responds to the problem by giving an analogy he attributes to Greg Bahnsen:

‘Suppose a basketball player, say Michael Jordan, beats every worthy opponent in one-on-one basketball games.  He can justifiably claim to be the best individual basketball player in the world.  Suppose further that another jealous (and peevish) basketball player who was previously trounced by Jordan resents that he (Jordan) has titled himself “the best player in the world.”  His comeback is, “just because you have beat every current player does not mean that there is not another one coming who is better than you.”  Jordan’s response can be anticipated; “bring on my next opponent.”  The theoretical possibility that there may be another player better than Jordan is not a concern to him.  In the world of basketball, it is the one who is actually the best player, and not who is possibly be the best player, that is of importance.  In the practice of apologetics, things are similar.  What matters are actual worldviews not possible worldviews’.

Now this ‘comeback’ is demonstrably wide of the mark. In an important sense it is possible worldviews and not just the actual worldviews that matters here, even for the practice of apologetics. There is a logical gap between Jordan’s unbroken record of success and the truth of his being the ‘best’ basketball player. It is not logically impossible for him to win every game he plays and yet not be the best player. Likewise, in the case of worldviews, there is a logical gap between the apologist’s unbroken record of being successful in debate, and the truth of the Christian worldview she defends. It is not logically impossible for someone to win every debate they ever engage in, and yet argue for a false thesis.

The reason the standards are so strict is due to the strength of the claim being made by TAG, point 2) from above. The claim is that the Christian God is a necessary condition on human experience, this means that if there were even one possible non-Christian worldview that could also account for human experience just as well as the Christian one, then the Christian view would lose its status as a necessary condition on the intelligibility of human experience. It might still be able to lay claim to being a ‘sufficient condition’, but it could no longer be claimed to be a necessary condition, which was needed for the proof to go through. This would stop the argument working backwards from the intelligibility of experience to the existence of the Christian God. If, for example, there were an atheist position, Z, which could account for human experience just as well as the Christian one, then one could only work from the intelligibility of experience to the disjunction of the two positions; either the Christian worldview is true or Z is true. This would be no proof of the truth of the Christian worldview then.

If we were to take seriously Butler’s claim that what matters are actual worldviews, then we would have to weaken the argument accordingly. So if we rephrased his articulation of the argument, but made it explicit that we were only talking about actually held worldviews, it would look like the following:

It starts with human experience; such things as science, love, rationality and moral duties.  It then asserts that the existence of the Christian God is the necessary precondition of such experiences.  Finally, it proves this indirectly by demonstrating the impossibility of any of the actually held contraries.

This basically just says: there cannot be a consistent non-Christian worldview because I have not seen one before. It is an elementary inductive fallacy. Even if all of the actually held worldviews were internally contradictory, this would not mean that there wasn’t a possible worldview which wasn’t. So the argument thus stated is invalid.

Stating that we are doing apologetics, where the standards are lower, is not a response. The purpose of apologetics is to provide a ‘reasoned defense of the faith’. An invalid argument is not a reasoned defense of the faith.[1]

To bring out the absurdity of thinking that the Michael Jordan type response is viable consider that if it was actually held worldviews that mattered, rather than merely possible worldviews, then one could prove that God existed by killing everyone who wasn’t a Christian, thus leaving Christianity as the only actually held worldview. This, of course, would not prove it to be correct.

Even though Butler says that Bahnsen’s analogy “hits the mark”, he also sees that it is inadequate, and states the problem clearly:

‘If there are an infinite number of worldviews and TAG only refutes a small slice of them, if one may speak this way, then it has not established that Christianity is the necessary precondition of human intelligibility.  That is, even granting that TAG demonstrates the absurdity of all actual worldviews, it does not follow that all possible worldviews are likewise absurd.’

Butler acknowledges that Bahnsen’s response is unsuccessful, on the basis that “winning the debate and proving that Christianity is the necessary precondition of human experience are two different things”. In this, Butler is quite right.

4. Second Try – Only Two Worldviews

Butler goes on to provide a second response by Bahnsen, and this time one he seems to endorse. Here is the quote in full:

‘But Bahnsen makes the further point is that this criticism misses the thrust of TAG altogether.  TAG argues for the impossibility of the contrary (the non-Christian worldview) and not the impossibility of an infinite number of possible worldviews.  TAG does not establish the necessity of Christianity by inductively refuting each and every possible non-Christian worldview (as finite proponents of TAG, this is an impossible task), but rather contends that the contrary of Christianity (any view that denies the Christian view of God) is shown to be impossible.  And if the negation of Christianity is false, Christianity is proved true.  In other words, the structure of the argument is a disjunctive syllogism.  Either A or ~A, ~~A, therefore, A.

At this point the clever opponent will simply deny the first premise.  He will contend that it should not be construed as a disjunction of a contradiction, but a simple disjunction.  The argument should thus be restated along the following lines: A or B, ~B, therefore, A. And once this move is made he will then contend that while the argument is valid, the first premise involves a false dilemma.  That is, he will grant that given A or B and the negation of B, A does indeed follow, but nevertheless maintain that the argument is unsound because the first premise (A or B) is not true.  The reason being that there are more possibilities than just A and B.  Given a true first premise, A or B or C or D … n, the negation of B merely entails that A along with the disjunction of other propositions besides B (C, D,…n) follows.

In order for this to be successful, it is incumbent upon the opponent of TAG to defend two claims.  First, he must defend the contention that the original first premise is not the disjunction of a contradiction and, second, he must show that there are other possible disjuncts besides B (what we can call the view that is opposed to the Christian worldview).’

The argument seems to be as follows: There is a confusion about what TAG actually claims. In this telling, the argument only says that the negation of the Christian worldview is inconsistent, which means that the options needed to be refuted have gone from seeming to be infinite to actually only being one case. This means the process of performing the demonstration that no non-Christian worldview is consistent should be easy in principle to do, as only one thing needs to be shown to be inconsistent, namely the negation of the Christian worldview.

If the reply comes from the opponent of TAG that it is not a question of refuting only one case but of refuting an infinite number of them, then Butler claims that it is “incumbent upon the opponent of TAG to show that this is the case”, i.e. that “there are other possible disjunctions of other propositions besides B”.

However, this is a shifting of the burden of proof; the proponent of TAG is setting out their premises for the argument, and they have to justify them. It is not incumbent on the opponent of the argument to justify their negation first.

Even though the burden is being fallaciously shifted, it is a burden that is easily met. All that has to be established (in order to show that it is B or C or D… rather than just ~A) is that there is more than one distinct non-Christian worldview. So here are two: the atheist worldview and the Islamic worldview. Each of these are treated separately by Bahnsen, indicating that he thinks of them as separate entities, deserving of distinct refutation. If there was only one alternative worldview there would be no need for separate refutations in these cases. The quote by Kant that Butler puts at the very start of his article explains this very point:

‘If, therefore, we observe the dogmatist coming forward with ten proofs, we can be quite sure that he really has none. For had he one that yielded . . . apodeictic proof, what need would he have of the others?’   –Immanuel Kant

The fact that Bahnsen offers a distinct refutation to the atheist as to the Muslim indicates that he considers them to have separate worldviews, otherwise he would only come with one refutation.

And there is no reason to think that there are only two worldviews, because there are combinations of philosophical positions that can form separate worldviews. An atheist can be a materialist or an idealist, a nominalist or a Platonist, a monist or a dualist, a determinist or an libertarian, an intuitionist or a formalist, etc, etc. So surely, it is quite evident that there is a huge number of potential worldviews, and quite possibly an infinite number. So even though I deny that I had to prove that there is more than one non-Christian worldview (due to the illegitimate shifting of the burden of proof), it is a burden that is trivially easy to meet, so Butler is back facing the issue of having to rule out all of the distinct alternative worldviews.

However, there is an even more pressing issue. And this relates to the other point on which Butler claims that the opponent of TAG has to justify, namely: the original first premise is not the disjunction of a contradiction. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if we take it to be the disjunction of a contradiction. Bahnsen’s claim was that all that needs to be shown is that the negation of the Christian worldview was inconsistent. But what does the ‘negation of a worldview’ actually mean? The usual set-theoretical operation that negation corresponds to is compliment; i.e. the result of removing something from a domain of discourse. So imagine a set, W, which contains all the possible worldviews (including the Christian worldview, WCh) as its elements;

W = {WCh, W1, W2, … Wn}.

If negation is compliment, then the negation of the Christian worldview (‘~A’) would be everything in W that wasn’t the Christian worldview;

‘~A’ = {WWCh} = {W1, W2, … Wn}.

Therefore, ‘the negation of the Christian worldview’ is just ‘all the worldviews that are not the Christian worldview’; they mean the same thing. To put it in Butler’s terms: ~A = {B, C, D…n}. Therefore it doesn’t matter if we have to refute the negation of the Christian worldview, because this means the same as refuting all the non-Christian worldviews. This would mean that Bahnsen has just restated the objection and not countered it at all. This is a simple logical issue. It indicates a lack of logical sophistication in Bahnsen’s argument, and presuppositionalism in general, that this hasn’t been grasped before.

In fact, it seems easy to prove that there cannot be one method which disproves every non-Christian worldview, because there cannot be one contradiction that they all share. One natural way of understanding worldviews is that a worldview is just a list of propositions that an agent believes to be true. So if I believe that God exists, then the proposition ‘God exists’ is in my worldview set. The set of all possible worldviews is then the set of all sets of propositions. If there are no further restrictions on this then it is logically provable (and trivially so) that the intersection of all the worldviews is empty; i.e. there is no common element, say p, to every set, and thus no contradiction, say p & ~p that they all share.

One could put the point even more simply, as follows. The claim is that every non-Christian worldview is internally incoherent. If by ‘worldview’ we understand a set of propositions believed to be true by an agent, and by ‘internally incoherent’ we mean that the set is inconsistent (i.e. contains a proposition and its negation), then consider the non-Christian worldview that contains only one belief, i.e. {p}. This set is plainly not inconsistent. The retort will likely be that this ultra-simple worldview cannot ‘account for the intelligibility of human experience’. If so, what are the minimal conditions under which a set of beliefs could achieve this? It is not on the opponent of TAG to provide this analysis; all she has to do is point out that without this analysis the proof cannot be claimed to be established. The proponent of TAG needs to provide this analysis as part of the proof itself.

  1. Last Try – Blame Autonomy

There is one final attempt at bridging this gap, which directly focuses on this issue, by which I mean it directly focuses on something that all non-Christian worldviews have in common, and in virtue of which they are necessarily inconsistent.

What, then, is the nature of the non-Christian worldview? Simply put, all non-Christian systems presuppose that experience can be accounted for on autonomous lines. The non-Christian worldviews share the common feature that experience can be made sense of independently of God and his revelatory word. Butler –

Here then, seems to lie the root of the issue for the Van Tillian presuppositionalist. They argue that they can conflate every non-Christian worldview on the basis that they are all ‘autonomous reasoning’ worldviews, as opposed to the Christian one in which independent reasoning is subordinated to the word of God[2]. So the idea is that there is something wrong with the assumption that one can reason ‘autonomously’, which inevitably leads to self-contradiction. Butler continues:

‘From this we can see that Van Til is correct, “We have constantly sought to bring out that all forms of antitheistic thinking can be reduced to one.” Bahnsen elaborates on this important insight:

‘Despite “family squabbles” and secondary deviations among unregenerate men in their thinking, they are united at the basic level in setting aside the Christian conception of God. The indirect manner of proving the Christian position is thus to exhibit the intelligibility of reasoning, science, morality, etc., within the context of biblical presuppositions…and then to make an internal criticism of the presuppositions of autonomous thought (in whatever form it is presently being discussed) in order to show that it destroys the possibility of proving, understanding, or communicating anything.’’

It seems like progress has been made towards addressing how one could prove every alternative worldview is internally inconsistent, namely by positing ‘autonomous reasoning’ as the common element in every non-Christian worldview. However, really nothing has been put forward to get round the basic logical objection. The quote from Bahnsen that Butler cites as ‘elaborating’ on Van Til’s important insight assumes that Van Til’s insight is true, otherwise we are back to the Michael Jordan problem from before, in that refuting the position currently being presented is insufficient to establish that every worldview is inconsistent. This problem remains unless there is some way of establishing that the criticism being leveled also applies to every non-Christian worldview. We have been told that this can be done, and they way of doing it has something to do with autonomous reasoning. But what is it about autonomous reasoning that leads inevitably to internal inconsistency? Nothing in Bahnsen’s quote brings this to the fore. This is what needs to be demonstrated, otherwise an equivalent counterclaim can be made: that there is something inherently inconsistent about non-autonomous reasoning. If we do not have to say what it is about a certain type of reasoning that inevitably leads to inconsistency, then each side can level its own unsupported assertion. There must be more than a simple assertion that autonomous reasoning leads to an internal contradiction, otherwise this is no better than just saying that God somehow guarantees it. So it looked like progress was being made, but without some further argument we are left with unsupported assertion.

At this point, Butler seems to declare that the game has been won already, as the very next paragraph demonstrates:

‘Thus the Christian apologist may boldly assert that without an absolute personal being as the foundation of all things, there is no possibility of ethics. Without the ontological Trinity as the fount of all being, there is no possibility of unifying the particulars of human experience. Without the combined doctrines of the Trinity and man being God’s image bearer there is no possibility of predication and thus language. Without the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence there is not ground for inductive logic and science. Without a good and all-powerful God that creates both man and the natural realm there is no reason to believe that our senses are reliable. From these considerations it is clear why TAG is often described as an argument that proves the impossibility of the contrary.’

Each time the words ‘there is no possibility of…’ or ‘there is no ground for…’ occur, this claim has not been supported. At most, there is the Michael Jordan example, where no actually held worldview has managed to account for these issues, but as we saw this is insufficient to prove that there is no other worldview that could.

Thus, as the argument stands, TAG is unproven.

  1. Conclusion

I have offered here an analysis of TAG that appears to show the following: TAG has not been established, and TAG probably cannot be established. Moreover, I offer what I think is the best way to counter the presuppositional apologetic; do not get tempted to respond by showing that your ‘worldview’ is internally consistent, or to show that the Christian worldview is not internally consistent. Merely ask for the proof that no worldview than the Christian one is internally consistent. If the proponent of TAG proceeds to try to undermine your particular worldview, then concede (for the sake of the argument) that your worldview is inconsistent, but still press for the general proof that no other worldview can be consistent. The initial idea with presuppositionalism was to move the burden of the argument from the Christian to the opponent of Christianity; however, for TAG to be established actually has a large burden of responsibility. All I am advocating is that we acknowledge this fact.

The best representatives of the presuppositional apologetic are trying to illicit a ‘Copernican’ shift in the way that the worldview is argued for. The worst representatives are not trying to do this. What they are up to is trying to confuse the non-Christian by demanding philosophical justification for abstract concepts like truth, logic, morality, etc, instead of addressing the actual arguments against Christianity. Any confusion on the part of the interlocutor is then pounced on as evidence that the argument has been won by the Christian. There is a conceit behind such tactics, in that the argument is not being offered honestly. Behind all this is the view that autonomous thought, which is basically thinking for yourself, is the problem; and it is going to be hard to win an argument with someone who thinks that independent thinking is morally wrong. Believing that independent thought is a sin seems to me to be a hallmark of brainwashing, and at the very least a rejection of the enlightenment values that are typical of philosophical argumentation generally. It seems to me that they don’t want to actually win an argument by being right, but instead they want to win an argument by exploiting a sense of philosophical vertigo and then using this vulnerability as an angle to hard-sell religious dogma as the answer.

[1] The essence of the ‘inductive’ fallacy is that an inductive argument is being offered as a deductive argument. However, one could simply construe the unbroken record of success of Michael Jordan as inductive support for the conclusion that he is the best basketball player. If the proponent of TAG wanted to take this move however it would be of no help. It would remove the charge that the argument was invalid, but only by construing it as an inductive argument. If this course was taken then one could never establish that the conclusion was a necessary precondition for human experience; no inductive argument could reach such a strong conclusion.

[2]There are two objections here: 1) autonomy with respect to reasoning is not unique to the Christian worldview (what prevents other monotheisms from claiming that they also subordinate their reasoning to their god?), and 2) there are Christian worldviews where the intellect is not subordinated to the word of God (there are autonomous Christian worldviews; in fact, almost all conceptions of Christianity apart from the Van Tilian presuppositionalist account do not explicitly subordinate the intellect to the word of God). So the equivalence of Christian worldview with non-autonomous reasoning fails in both directions.