Philosophy 101: Transcendental Arguments

March 8, 2009 — 4 Comments

As promised, in this essay we’ll need to deal with what we more or less did the last time around. That is, we need to address our more or less assuming the Christian worldview. This necessarily makes this and probably the next essay a bit more apologetical. In a broad sense, this whole blog series is an apologetic work, simultaneously challenging someone who does not adhere to the Christian worldview, as well as one who does but in a thoroughly inconsistent fashion. To see how this works differently than what you typically see in an apologetic argument, let’s re-visit the assumption we said in the last essay was the central belief in the Christian worldview, as well as its implication.

Our assumption:

  • The Bible is the authoritative true Word of God given by Him to regulate our reasoning

Has the necessary correlate that:

  • Autonomous reasoning apart from the authority of the Bible reduces to absurdity

In a sense what we are doing is “proving” indirectly the veracity or inherent truth of the Christian worldview over and against every other system of thought. To do this, it will do no good to attempt to pursue an argument in a neutral fashion and “just to see where the facts take us.” The unbiased view from no-where is not achievable, or from a Christian perspective even broadly desirable, as we do not, and frankly should not ever, reason neutrally. By always committing to the Lordship of Christ in our thoughts and actions, we give up any pretense of neutrality. It is helpful on this point to realize that no non-believer ever approaches an argument of this sort neutrally but naturally brings with them their set of assumptions about reality, that by matter of fact, or diametrically opposed to those of the Christian.

Having said that, hopefully we can move forward a bit from here. The type of argumentation we are employing here is referred to as “transcendental.” This is over and against rational and empiricial proofs, mainly for the reason that one cannot effectively use either of those to “prove” the truth of a worldview. You cannot erect a logical chain to which the end result is the Christian worldview. Neither can you through discrete particular facts empirically validate the truth of the Christian worldview. You can however employ a transcendental form of argumentation which reasons from the impossibility of the contrary.

By impossibility of the contrary, we mean to show that it is only the Christian worldview that provides the preconditions for intelligibility, or in other words, it is only on the basis of the Christian worldview that it is possible to give a rational account of reality. More will be said on this later as we actually unpack Christian epistemology, but for now we are concerned with actually elucidating the type of argument we are going to employ.

In order to reason transcendentally, we are presenting the Christian worldview in total, which would make sense given that we already virtually assumed it to be true. We will now unpack just what it is that we are assuming when we assume that the Bible is the authoritative Word of the Triune God (which as already stated was the central belief in constructing a Christian philosophy of life, which leads directly into Christian theology).

A distinguishing feature of this approach is that it can go in either direction to prove our claim. That is to say we can start by assuming either:

  • The Triune God exists and has given His Word to us to regulate our thinking
  • God does not exist and the Bible has no bearing on our reasoning process

I tried to word those differently on purpose to more or less reflect how adherents might express them. Similarly we could start with either of the following:

  • God is ultimate, man is derivative
  • Man is the measure of all things

Or:

  • God is the ultimate interpreter of reality, man is re-interpreter
  • The mind of man constructs and orders reality according to its own principles

All of which are merely expanding on the following:

  • The Christian worldview is true
  • The Christian worldview is false

The point we are making is that we can start with either and prove the truth of our initial assumption (which is the first statement in the above set). The way that this works is that in going with option A as it were, we present the Christian worldview for all that it is and see that only it provides the conditions necessary to make sense of reality. The transcendental argument can begin with any belief whatsoever and then proceed by critical analysis to ask what conditions (or what other beliefs) would need to be true in order for that original belief to make sense, be meaningful, or be intelligible (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 502).

This is a rather different form of argumentation then since it can draw its conclusion from the affirmation of some position, or the denial of it. This is what exhibits the necessity of the thing in question, hence the term “transcendental.” Its affirmation is also necessary in even its denial. Van Til would refer to this by saying the even atheism has theism as its basic assumption (which sounds absurd, but won’t when we’ve come a little farther). Or more graphically, the atheist must climb into his Heavenly Father’s lap in order to get a better shot at slapping Him in the face.

That being the case, we for the present purposes are proceeding with option A and presenting the Christian worldview, although in one way or another, we’ll also proceed the other way and start with the assumption that the Christian worldview is false and find this eventually dissolves into absurdity in one way or another, and thus brings us to back to positing the Christian worldview as the only coherent and reasonable view of reality. The history of philosohpy should be enough to prove this, but we will probably have to point it out more specifically in the coming posts. Until then…

Nate

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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!

4 responses to Philosophy 101: Transcendental Arguments

  1. I am a proponent of Van Til and agree with his approach.

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