Saturday, September 6, 2014
Thinking About the Transcendental Argument
We must point out to them that univocal reasoning 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. [Cornelius Van Til]
Sounds a little intimidating to most Christians and for good reason. Most Christians do not read Van Til. Most Christians do not read philosophy. Most Christians do not read theology. Most Christians hardly read the Bible. In fact, many, many Christians hardly read at all. That is the very sad state of affairs that we are faced with in modern American culture. It must change!
What does Van Til mean by the little phrase “impossibility of the contrary?” Some would contend that Van Til’s argument fails precisely in this very place. They would argue that establishing the impossibility of the contrary is not really the same as showing that the non-Christian worldview is ipso facto untruthful simply on the basis that it is contrary to the Christian worldview. But this response demonstrates a lack of understanding of Van Til on this point. Let me explain what I mean.
Copi tells us that “Two propositions are said to be contraries if they cannot both be true – that is, if the truth of one entails the falsity of the other – but both can be false…Contraries cannot both be true, but unlike contradictories, they can both be false.” [Copi, Introduction to Logic, 177] The problem with applying the traditional square of opposition to Van Til’s transcendental argument is that the rule itself only applies to contingent propositions. Another problem with the claim that Van Til’s “impossibility of the contrary” fails is that the assertion seems to ignore the difference between Boolean and Aristotelian logic and the question of existential import. Can universal propositions have existential import? Whether A and E propositions (universal propositions) have existential import is an issue on which the Aristotelian and Boolean interpretations of propositions differ. [Loci, 190]
The real question here is who decides if universal propositions can have existential import? We must be prepared to answer that question. Christian theism must assert that universal propositions not only can, but some do have existential import. The Christian God is the God that actually exists. That is a universal proposition with existential import. Logic itself cannot settle the dispute and it certainly cannot be the final arbiter of truth in assessing the reliability of Van Til’s transcendental approach.
The accusation that the transcendental argument violates the traditional square of opposition is to subject the argument to the idea of contingency, something Van Til would forcefully, and rightly oppose. What then is Van Til attempting to do in his transcendental method? What does he actually mean, in simple terms, when he says that Christian theism is proved true because of the impossibility of the contrary?
First of all, it has everything to do with relating the facts of reality, as they are known, correctly and with the notion of human autonomy. The transcendental method seeks to demonstrate that unless God is our epistemological starting point in all predication that nothing can be made intelligible in human experience. The transcendental approach simply asks a very basic question: what must be the case in order for the intelligibility of human experience to be the case? It is uncontroversial that human experience is intelligible. But what has to also be the case if that intelligibility is the case?
There are only two options open to us from which to begin to answer this question. One position begins with human autonomy. Man is the ultimate reference point for rationality, for all knowledge from one perspective. The other perspective is that man is derivative of God, a creature, and as a creature his knowledge must also be derivative. In this view, God is the final reference point for knowledge. All facts must be viewed in terms of their relationship to God and His creation of them as facts.
Van Til writes, “The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions.” Not only are contradictory claims to Christian theism unable to approach and challenge Christian truth seriously, they cannot even stand themselves up on their own two feet. The non-Christian worldview, in all its stripes, involves internal conflict, that is, self-contradiction. Hence, this alone is enough to place rational human beings in the position of abandoning it. But abandon the non-Christian worldview on purely a rational basis, fallen men do not do. Rather, fallen men hold firmly, in their spiritually dead and ethically depraved fingers, to an irrational outlook. And such behavior can only be explained by the supernatural revelation that is Scripture.
Van Til continues, “We do not really argue ad hominem unless we show that someone’s position involves self-contradiction, and there is no self-contradiction unless one’s reasoning is shown to be directly contradictory of or to lead to conclusions which are contradictory of one’s own assumptions.” How can man be free to gain knowledge in a deterministic system? Additionally, if everything is pure contingency, how could knowledge ever be gained when there can be no relationship between particulars and the general? Christians must be prepared to answer questions, but we must also be prepared to ask them as well.
I will conclude with another point that cannot be over-emphasized in Christian Apologetics. Van Til writes, “The miracle of regeneration has to occur somewhere, and all that we are arguing for is that we must ask where it is that the Holy Spirit will most likely perform this miracle. And then there can be no doubt but that the likelihood is in favor of that place where the non-theist has to some extent seen the emptiness and vanity of his own position.”