An Epistemological Argument

October 5, 2009 — 8 Comments

In Philsophy of Religion class, we are talking through the arguments for the existence of God. So far, we have seen how Paley’s rendering of the teleological argument is quite frankly, a bad argument as far as arguments go. Now this isn’t to deny that we believe the universe is designed by God, but that Paley’s way of arguing toward that end, in hopes of convincing a skeptic, does not really cut it.

One could make a similar critique of Aquinas and the cosmological argument as he only proves a god, not God. This of course is granting him the ability to prove anything based on his epistemology (which in the end actually destroys the possibility of knowledge) but that’s another issue entirely. As Dr. Blount noted, William Lane Craig is enamored with the Kalam version of the cosmological argument, but it seems to struggle as well. I personally would see all version of the cosmological argument open to the same charge: they point the god of deism, and not the Triune God of the Bible.

Of the traditional arguments, the one that comes the closest to proving the Triune God is the ontological argument, which actually fares the best in philosophical circles and a version of which is Dr. Blount’s favorite. I found the initial formulation of that argument by Anselm, as per Van Til’s reading of it, to be close but not quite satisfactory, but it seems in some ways to be the most promising of the traditional proofs.

We have talked before about transcendental arguments, so what will follow below is hopefully a short summary of that idea in terms of an epistemological argument for the existence of God.

In making an epistemological argument for the existence of God, we arguing transcendentally, which means we are asking what are the necessary transcendentals for an argument to even get off the ground. This means we need to examine the preconditions of intelligibility, which are the prerequisites for any rationale discourse. So here, in short, are just two:

Rules of Logic

In order to even argue in the first place, both sides are presupposing the possibility of winning, that is, being “right.” This is only possible if there is some objective standard by which to measure “rightness” or “wrongness.” Usually this rests on whether or not one person is following the rules of logic. The rules of logic though rest upon the law of non-contradiction (“A” cannot equal “not A”), and this in turn rests upon some presupposed notion of absolute truth. Absolute truth in turn would have to originate with some sort of absolute personality/rationality, which is exactly what we asserted about the ontological trinity elsewhere.

The Uniformity of Nature

Further, the possibility of argumentation rests on the uniformity of nature. A person’s ability to argue rests on the foundational assumption that there exists a universe where reality and the laws of nature are not constantly changing. This in turns rests on the assumption of the existence of a universe rather than a multi-verse. By “multi-verse,” I am not referring to the popular belief that there are multiple universes. Rather, I am using the term to refer to a cosmos that is not unified in any sort of way (via laws of physics or what have you). A universe is united by something (or Someone) and has laws that remain constant over time. A multi-verse is just a random collection of material objects that wouldn’t have laws that remain constant.

The act or arguing for, or even against something, presupposes that logic remains constant, rests on the principle of non-contradiction and that both in some sense cohere within a universe that is not run by randomness and chance.

Now, on anything other than a worldview based on the Triune God as the foundation of rationality and the absolute personality that makes the universe a universe rather than a multiverse, there is no justified epistemological ground for argumentation. In other words, a person can deny God’s existence and still carry on an argument, but could not give an account within their own worldview of how their ability to argue is even possible, or why one would even want to pursue such a thing in their universe (or should we say multi-verse). In many ways, an atheist’s attempts to argue with a Christian is self-defeating since it ultimately rests on presuppositions that are only at home within a Christian worldview.

The atheist can use logic, but can’t give an epistemological account of logic.

Or as Van Til said, “Everyone can count, but not everyone can account for counting.”

This type of argumentation can really start though with any fact (as the quote from Van Til illustrates). As a short example, this works well with the argument against God on the basis of evil, usually on the basis of the amount of evil in the world. The real question is whether or not within a strictly atheist worldview one could categorize anything as evil and if so, on what basis would one be able to make such a qualification. Interestingly enough, this can work on the claim that God doesn’t exist, as all that needs to be asked is what must be true of knowledge and rationality for one to even make such a claim.

I realize this wasn’t all that short, but hopefully its drawn you in, and you can read this follow up post.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

8 responses to An Epistemological Argument

  1. You seem to understand the basics of a Van Tilian approach to theistic proof and your post is written very clearly. A few things for you to think about:

    You object that Paley, Aquinas, Craig, and all versions of the cosmological argument only prove the existence of a deistic god, and not the Triune God of the Bible. I take it that you also think this concerning the ontological argument, since you only say that it comes close to proving the Triune God and cite Van Til to the effect that it is unsatisfactory.

    However, your epistemological argument as stated falls prey to the same objection. For example, you cite logic, objective standard, the principle of non-contradiction, and absolute truth. You likewise cite the principle of the uniformity of nature, laws of nature, and laws of physics. Finally, you cite rationality and evil.

    But you do no explain how it is that the Triune God in particular is the conclusion of a proof from these epistemological principles. There appear to be a number of deistic or theistic conceptions which would provide for these elements of knowledge.

    You may reply that I have misunderstood the argument. You are starting with the Triune God. But then you have lost your objection to the former traditional proofs, because you might just as well begin with the Triune God in proposing those proofs.

    Finally, you mention, “The atheist can use logic, but can’t give an epistemological account of logic.” But of course, atheists have provided numerous accounts of logic which you likely have not examined. How then would you go about supporting your assertion in terms of argumentation? As it stands, it is merely an assertion that the atheist can’t give an epistemological account of logic, but how do you know?

    • Fair enough on the argument I presented not specifically proving the Triune God vs just a god of deistic conception. I will probably come back to this in a future post and attempt to rework it.

      As for atheistic accounts of logic, it is a bit presumptuous of you to assume I haven’t examined any. However, it is a bit ambiguous the way I put it. As the writing of this blog post (several years ago), I hadn’t examined any. As now, I have, specifically Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, but also people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. If I could rephrase it, I would say now, atheists can give accounts of logic, but they cannot give accounts for logic that are consistent with their underlying assumptions. To the extent that an atheist offers a coherent account of the existence of logic, he is being inconsistent with his overall philosophical position (which entails either a materialistic or naturalist account of reality).

      Does that clarify things?

  2. Thanks for your response. Great, I will look forward to the reworked argument!

    Concerning atheistic accounts of logic, my statement was that, “atheists have provided numerous accounts of logic which you likely have not examined.” You took this statement to mean that you have not examined *any* atheistic accounts of logic, but that is not what I meant. Rather, even given that you have examined *some* atheistic accounts of logic, there are *other* atheistic accounts of logic which you likely have not examined. One would have to be exceedingly well-read to have examined *every* atheistic account of logic. I doubt whether anyone has ever accomplished such a feat!

    Now, you have rephrased your assertion as atheists, “cannot give accounts for logic that are consistent with their underlying assumptions.” But this restatement does not fare any better with respect to my aforementioned objection concerning the many atheistic accounts of logic you likely have not examined. You also write, “To the extent that an atheist offers a coherent account of the existence of logic, he is being inconsistent with his overall philosophical position (which entails either a materialistic or naturalist account of reality).” But again, this is merely an assertion. How would you go about demonstrating it in terms of argumentation?

    A quick aside – atheism does not entail a materialistic account of reality. There are atheists who believe that there is an immaterial aspect to reality. Now, you may reply that they are inconsistent to do so, but that would be another claim you would need to support, rather than merely assert.


    • I see where you are coming from, and confess I’m using just a bit too much shorthand in my assertions. Thanks for clarifying your intent on the claim about atheistic accounts of logic, I would agree with the point you are making. I guess my statement about atheistic accounts of logic is a thesis statement which some future blog post might flesh out. I may have already done so, and should just link to it in this post, but I’ll have to go back and verify.

      The short answer would be that if an atheist is a materialist (or a naturalist) then he cannot affirm the existence of something that is immaterial (or supra-nature). The laws of logic (as well as mathematics) are immaterial, therefore the cannot exist within a materialistic framework. Yet the atheist employs logic in order to argue his case, which very much appears to be a case of using borrowed capital, or as Van Til might be fond of saying, “sitting in his heavenly Father’s lap in order to get a better shot at slapping His face.”

      I guess regarding the relationship between atheism and materialism, we could say the latter entails the former, but the former doesn’t not necessarily entail the latter. To me though, an atheist who grants an immaterial aspect to reality might need to soften his atheism into agnosticism since he certainly doesn’t want to maintain that he knows the extent of this immaterial realm thoroughly enough to know that a God doesn’t exist. Atheism seems much safer/defensible if materialism is maintained.

  3. Granted logic and mathematics are immaterial, the materialist is in a sticky situation. But it does not follow, as you suggest, that he is borrowing capital from the Triune God or, as Van Til said, “sitting in his heavenly Father’s lap in order to get a better shot at slapping His face.” Perhaps he is borrowing capital from a non-Trinitarian theistic concept or even an atheistic position that posits an immaterial aspect to reality.

    Does the atheist who posits an immaterial aspect to reality need to profess agnosticism instead? Not necessarily. First, he may, contrary to your assertion, claim to know the extent of immaterial entities. After all, if the Trinitarian can claim such knowledge, then why not the atheist? Second, the atheist may have independent arguments that preclude the existence of God.

    (Consider this example. The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. One of the basic logical properties of equality is transitivity. The transitive property states that for any A, B, and C, if A=B and B=C, then A=C. Ascribing values to these variables, A = Jesus, B = God, and C = the Father. Plugging these values into a statement of the transitive property as a conditional statement in modus ponens we get:

    If Jesus is God and God is the Father, then Jesus is the Father.
    Jesus is God and God is the Father.
    Therefore, Jesus is the Father.

    However, the conclusion of the argument is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, for Jesus *is not* the Father. Perhaps we should not read the “is” as an “is of identity” (=), but as an “is” of predication. In that case we are not stating identity or equivalence between Jesus and God, or God and the Father, but rather we are positing that just as Nate is a human and Van Til is a human, but Nate and Van Til are two different humans, so also Jesus is God and the Father is God, but Jesus and the Father are two different Gods. Obviously, positing an “is” of predication leads to tri-theism rather than expressing Trinitarianism.

    The atheist may present something like the argument above as justification for not believing in God even though he affirms an immaterial aspect to reality.)

    Third, even if the atheist softens his atheism and claims agnosticism instead, this does us no good as far as our epistemological argument for the existence of the Triune God goes. We have failed to prove that God exists, and the agnostic is content.

    Finally, you mention that, “Atheism seems much safer/defensible if materialism is maintained.” Not at all, since materialism runs into the difficulties you have already pointed out, and for two of the three reasons given above.

    Hope this helps!

    • Looks like you’ve got all the loopholes pretty well figured out!

      I realize part of the problem is that my example from the original post is presenting a hypothetical atheist with hypothetical beliefs. In which case, my argument lacks the specificity required to be a rebuttal. To cover the hypothetical ground, I would need to chase down and ferret out all the options and escape routes, and I just didn’t intend to do that in a single post.

      Thanks for the push back and though and your well thought out responses, it has helped to sharpen my thinking, and hopefully you’ll do the same for me in the future!

      In short response to what you’ve said here, in the first point, I would grant that the atheist is not necessarily borrowing capital from the Triune God. As to the second point, the Trinitarian claims his knowledge on the basis of revelation, which is something the atheist cannot have, and while he may have independent arguments, there is no deductive argument that can prove a universal negative, which is what he would need in order to have an argument precluding the existence of God. He could have other arguments that cast doubt on the existence of God, but not that logically preclude it.

      In terms of the Trinitarian example, have you read Anderson’s Paradox in Theology?

      For the third point, agreed.

      And for the final point, I was merely pointing out that the atheist can marshal a better defense, not necessarily a good defense, if he maintains his materialism. I don’t find it logically credible or persuasive, but I find an atheist arguing for atheism AND the existence of immaterial objects even less credible and persuasive.

      Make sense?

  4. Atheism is in its purist form is not logical or reasonable. Folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have a presupposition to a naturalistic world view. They (and other atheists) do not subscribe to anything that cannot be tested by science. They along with other “Brights” conclude that they espouse reason. To borrow from Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. Its preposterous to even imagine that the material world (the universe, subatomic particles, people, plants, animals, stars and everything else you can name) evolved via (literally) nothing. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. Nothing cannot cause anything. Therefore, there is (cosmological argument) an immaterial, space-less, timeless infinite Cause. I’m not real smart I freely admit, but I appreciate being able to contribute my thoughts. Love your blog!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. An Application of the Epistemological Argument | Think Theologically - November 22, 2011

    […] A couple of days ago, we explored the idea of an epistemological argument for the existence of God. In Philosophy of Religion class today, we were examining the contents of the argument for God from the fine tuning of the universe for the existence of life. The basic idea (and this is probably an oversimplification) is that given the set of evidence for the universe being fine-tuned for existence of life, theism is the more probable hypothesis than atheism. Or in other words, given this set of data, theism is the more probable explanation and interpretation of the data. […]

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