Can atheists make logical or moral arguments without the Christian God?

I normally would not bother with such questions, but I hope that the beauty of logic (and mathematics) could be appreciated more. Also, hopefully we can collectively learn to be more familiar with popular logical fallacies. One can start by learning about the more classical arguments for the existence of God. These include the Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument.

It was Bertrand Russell who noted of such arguments like the Ontological Argument that it “does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

Russell’s observation could very well be true for many of the newer, less classical apologetics from very obscure theological traditions (that seem incidentally quite isolated from the larger evangelical community). One argument is called the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG). It is known not for its popularity but for its ability to become very long and convoluted.

Unsurprisingly, there are many distinct formulations of this argument that one can find at places like CARM. One of the more popular ones, formulated by Matt Slick, has inspired many refutations which you can both read and watch. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on a less formal version covered on this blog. It’s a rehash of the ideas of a relatively little known theologian named Cornelius Van Til.

The argument is given below with cute diagrams.

The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God

The atheist offers many criticisms of Christianity. There must be a basis for such criticisms.

Truth claims like “Christianity is not true” employ logic, science, and ethics.

Logic, science, and ethics need to be accounted for. At the base of logic, science, and ethics are transcendental truths about reality. These truths, like the idea that the universe is consistent across time (see Hume’s Problem of Induction), that the law of noncontradiction holds, etc. are transcendental because they are not contingent on experience or consciousness.

How do we account for what is true? EITHER we are autonomous beings capable of understanding truth OR God decides what is true. This is the position of “non-neutrality”. Christians and atheists cannot agree on anything because the very idea of truth they hold is different.

As it turns out, the diagram above is wrong. It is impossible for a secular worldview to account for the transcendent absolutes that are the foundations of logic, science, and ethics. Autonomous man is trapped in his own experience and cannot by itself rationally justify the transcendental absolutes that allow for logic, science, and ethics.

The only alternative left is a Christian God who accounts for the transcendent absolutes that give rise to logic, science, and ethics.

For the Christian, everything is what it is because God says – and is – so… God is thus the prior and authoritative interpreter of all facts, and the truth of a proposition is equivalent to how well it conforms to God’s interpretation of the facts.

Therefore, the atheist who uses logic, science, and ethics to argue against Christianity presupposes that Christianity is true. This cannot be.

This argument, if valid, is a very damning one. By the author’s own admittance, this would throw out not only all secular criticism of Christianity, but also the arguments of Christians who argue for the existence of God from a neutral point of view (one that says we agree with atheists on some things.)

It has a further implication.

The argument I provided doesn’t a priori prove the truth of Christianity, it just says it’s not rational to assert anything else to be true.  You could think that nothing is true, including the statement “nothing is true.”  You would be left with radical nihilism, which rejects that the meaninglessness of truth claims is a reason for rejecting them, and can’t assert anything to be true, even itself.

It builds a strong choice between Christianity and absolute atheistic nihilism. It means either Christianity is true, or everything we know is meaningless. It would mean that atheists cannot make objective truth claims, and therefore cannot make a logical or moral argument without the Christian God.

Imagine that the only restaurant in town is one that serves only nihilism and Christianity, and you can’t order both.

Where does the fallacy lie?

There are many troublesome and outright fallacious parts of this argument. Many of these objections are interconnected, but we will start with an obvious one.

The most noticeable thing is that the Christian God is not well-defined as a solution. That is, there is no good reason to think that God solves the problems presented by TAG to atheists.

The Christian God, under almost all interpretations, cannot do evil. It is therefore also bound by the ethical absolutes and is therefore neither independent of ethical absolutes nor a possible interpreter of such “facts” because he cannot decide otherwise. Also the principle that God cannot cease to be God (or cease to be perfect, moral, loving, etc.) because of his nature (consistent with the law of noncontradiction) is also a transcendental absolute that limits God’s independence. This Christian God, bound by transcendental absolutes, when used in an argument like TAG, is clearly an example of referring the problem upward. In short, one must still explain why the absolutes transcend God. It is clear that the proposition of God in TAG is merely a semantic slight-of-hand to try to avoid explaining what is still not explained. If the rest of TAG is valid (which it is not), the Christian has the same problem as the atheist because there is no real account of the absolutes that God is also subject to.

Non-neutrality is nonsensical.

The false dilemma given in TAG is either that truth is God’s truth as he interprets it, or truth is what humans seek to interpret it as. Both of these positions on “truth” are nonsensical because, by citing a proper “authority” on truth, they make truth contingent on conscious minds (either God’s mind or human minds). The only working idea of truth is that it is independent of all minds (not just of human minds). The objectivist formalization of this principle is called the Primacy of Existence. Truth is neither decided nor created by humans; rather, truth is what is according to reality, and reality is that which is primary over consciousness.

The dichotomy of Autonomous Man vs. Christian God is therefore not only a false dichotomy, but also nonsensical.

The argument uses a fallacy of equivocation on the words “interpretation” and “truth”. When TAG says that what is true is what God interprets it to be, the direct meaning is that God decides what is true. This is utterly and blatantly confused with the concept of human interpretation of truth, which is not a process of deciding truth, but is rather an exercise of trying to understand what is true in the objective world; it is a mental exercise. Therefore, denying atheists the right to understand the objective world while allowing Christians the ability to understand God’s interpretation is a dishonest form of special pleading.

The assumption of truth-making “authority” is an incorrect premise.

TAG uses the connotation of the word “authority” and presupposes that there is something that grants authority to make truth claims (Man or God). This premise is not only unproven but is also clearly incorrect. Because the purpose of TAG is to show that only by assuming the Christian God can we make valid truth claims, we can merely show how valid truth claims can be made without the need to even mention authority.

As noted above, I believe that the assumption that Existence is Primary is necessary to make any truth claims. In fact, Christianity is nonsensical if the Primacy of Existence is not assumed. Otherwise, God’s existence would be contingent on God (or something else) deciding that he himself exists, which contradicts the fact that God must be eternal.

On the contrary, if we assume that the existence of all things is what it independently is; that is, all interpretations of X do not affect the actual existence of X. In this context, valid truth claims are simply made based on how well they conform to existence; they do not require ill-defined concepts like “authority” and “autonomy”.

TAG fundamentally misunderstands logical systems.

TAG at its core asks that logical systems must be fully accounted for, that is, they must be consistent and complete. Its solution of the Christian God, as I have shown, is not a solution but an incoherent deux ex machina. But a more fundamental problem is that it is searching for a solution to a problem that probably has no solution (see Kurt Godel).

Neutrality is correct.

There are two main reasons why neutrality is correct (and why non-neutrality is wrong). The first is that TAG fundamentally does not allow for probabilistic arguments. The need for a completely satisfactory answer to the Problem of Induction, for example, is a search for logical certainty about the validity of the inductive method (and therefore logical certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow given enough experience, for example). This is not only inconsistent with the spirit of scientific inquiry, but it also mistakenly excludes positions of neutrality.

Secondly, the Christian cannot be consistent without agreeing with many of the assumptions that atheists commonly hold. As in all logical systems, it is impossible to derive logical truth without some unprovable assumption. Atheists choose to believe assumptions like the Primacy of Existence and the reality that we are not Brains in Vats. Christians also believe this too, but also in addition to other theological claims that I have shown are neither necessary nor coherent.

TAG assumes neutrality. 

TAG is made to convince the atheist that there are only two justifiable choices (nihilism and Christianity) based on commonly agreed knowledge. If it did not assume neutrality, then all attempts to refute TAG would automatically be wrong because the atheist cannot assert it to be wrong. TAG would then be a logical fallacy called begging the question.

Further comments and fallacies

Christianity does not solve the problems given by inductive skepticism; instead it exacerbates the problem. Hume’s critique of induction is that given that we see that the sun rises in the morning everyday, there is no reason to think that the sun actually rising tomorrow will happen rather than its negation, that is, the sun not rising tomorrow. Christianity, incidentally, says that it is indeed possible for the conclusions of induction to be invalid. That is, at any time, and at any moment, God may choose to suspend the laws of nature. This has happened not only at events like Joshua’s halting of the sun and , but also at events fundamental to the truth of Christianity, like the Resurrection of Jesus. Christianity itself is not consistent with the uniformity of the Universe.

Introducing a new form of pseudoscientific model that says the universe is uniform as long as God says otherwise is not only another form of special pleading, but it renders science as we know and use it today completely irrelevant (hence pseudoscientific). A scientific and inductive method that is accepting of supernatural phenomenon renders science absurd and opens the floodgates to unfalsifiable explanations like intelligent design and faith-healing. Christianity cannot account for science as we know it.

Let us ignore all the above problems and grant that TAG is 100% valid.

TAG does not hint at the existence of God and is therefore poorly named. TAG merely questions the logical absolutes that we hold and asks for an account of them. The proper conclusion of TAG (assuming it is 100% valid, which it is not) is that either that the Universe is completely nihilistic or that there is some mind accounting for logic, science, and ethics. This mind does not have to be a “god” in the perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful sense. This entity merely needs to be capable enough to interpret facts and create a rational, objective universe where logic, science, and ethics are valid.

Let us go even further and assume that TAG is 100% valid and does actually hint at the existence of God.

Then this God is not necessarily Christian. To show uniqueness would require not only serious theological interpretation of all current ideas of God, but also all existing and future conceptions of God. Specifically, TAG does not show how this supposed “God” sent a son down to Earth. It does not demonstrate the validity of the Adam and Eve “metaphor” or the revelation that Jesus is returning one day. It does not show much of what is essential in the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed to be true. TAG demonstrates almost nothing that is important in Christianity.

Therefore, even if we make the absurd assumption that TAG is valid, its final conclusion of reducing the only possibilities to nihilism and Christianity is a false dilemma, and a very bad one.

Final comments

It was Bertrand Russell, of course, who wrote that many of the Ontological arguments reduce to “bad grammar” and “bad syntax”. I think this is a good paradigm for many of these “arguments for God’s existence”.

I personally find it hard to believe that the Christian God spread his message so well as to send his own Son to die in an illiterate and superstitious part of Palestine, only to not give any reasonable argument for his existence to be passed on. Rather, we have questionable 20th century “experts” on theology to tell us exactly how to think on their fallacious grounds.

I agree with many Christians who say that God “transcends all reason”. He is illogical, incoherent, and so blatantly nonsensicalthat human comprehension is impossible (and perhaps human knowledge of his existence is unattainable). It is clear that belief in God requires faith, and, as Kierkegaard might note, a mega-gigantic leap of faith. After all, it is faith that gives “evidence for things not seen, and the substance of things hoped for.” In short, it makes people think there is evidence when there is not, and it gives things for people to believe just to fulfill their wishes.

I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t, the good news is that I’m never posting one of these apologetic refutations ever again.

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Posted on December 23, 2011, in Math, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Beautifully perspicacious. That this sort of argument still exists within philosophy, is mind boggling.

  2. Just a thought: God as seen by those of the LDS faith is one who is bound to live by the laws of the Universe and that there is truth outside of what He is. So…that one skips over your logical fallacy portion.

  1. Pingback: The World of Nonsensical Propositions « Inspirational Freethought

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