Critical Thought & Religious Liberty


The faulty nature of the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG)

Posted by Tod Billings—President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and Astronomy lab instructor at the University of Arkansas (UALR)—March 19, 1999.

by Tod Billings

  was first introduced to the TAG argument on this board. The old-timers will remember this as being the time when Sean Choi visited the site and instigated debate on the matter.

As I've mentioned before on this board, I find the TAG argument overly ignored by most atheist. Most ignore it for a good reason, it is a completely intellectually bankrupt argument, on par with the ontological argument. Even most theists reject the argument, but it has however become popular in recent Christian circles.

Basically, TAG argues this: The atheist can't provide an adequate transcendental basis for logic, the laws of nature, etc.. In other words, the atheist can't provide a higher justification for believing that logic is valid or that the laws of nature will continue tomorrow. They reject the validity of inductive reasoning without God, and therefore the claim within a completely naturalistic worldview that we expect the laws of nature and logic to hold true because they always have in the past.

They on the other hand have God as an explanation. They claim that God is this missing basis. Since atheists cannot offer such justification, the theistic worldview is superior. In fact, they argue, the atheist is borrowing from the Christian worldview to even use logic and to expect that it is a valid concept, and have no basis for believing in the reliability of logic or the consistency of the laws of nature within their atheistic worldview.

To show the fallacious nature of this argument, lets take it out of the Christian context and apply it to ancient Greek's context. Instead of the explanation for reliability of logic, we will discuss the explanation of the reliability of the seasons. Instead of God, we will use Demeter and Persephone.

You see, according to the Greeks, the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, had a daughter named Persephone. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter could not be consoled; she neglected the plants and they all died. So Zeus finally commanded Hades to release Persephone. For some reason, the fact that she had eaten some pomegranate seeds resulted in her having to spend half of each year back in the underworld. So that is what causes the seasons. Every fall, Persephone has to return to the underworld, and her mother, Demeter, becomes depressed and the crops don't grow until the Spring, when Persephone returns.

Now, lets assume we have two ancient Greeks, Todius and Seanero. Todius expresses his skepticism of the existence of Demeter and Persephone, as well as the validity of the story used to justify the changing seasons.

Todius doesn't know what causes the seasons (at this point in history, nobody knows the truth of the matter, as nobody yet knew of the earth's tilting axis or orbit around the sun), but he finds the Demeter explanation ad hoc and extraordinary, too much so for him to accept it without any supporting evidence. He'd rather simply accept the mystery than buy this ridiculous story.

Seanero protests, and claims that since Todius can't provide a justification for why the seasons exist and change, that Todius' worldview is inferior, and that he has no justifiable reason for assuming the consistency and validity of the seasonal changes, and is borrowing from Seanero's worldview every year when he plants his crops according to the seasons. He argues that Todius has no basis for the reliability of the seasons, and therefore has no reasons for assuming the consistency of the seasonal change and acting accordingly. He goes so far as to conclude that the seasons could not exist without this myth being valid.

Do any of us see validity to this argument? Of course not, and no Christian would see this argument as valid. We all know that it doesn't follow that just because you have assigned a basis for something doesn't mean that basis is true. These people assigned this myth as an explanation for the seasons, but we now have evidence it was false, that it was the tilt of the earth's axis and its orbit around the sun that cause the earth's seasonal changes.

So did the fact that Todius had no explanation for the consistency of the seasons make the Demeter myth true? Did the fact that Todius had no explanation for the consistency of the seasons make his reliance on their consistency an irrational or illogical move?

Of course not, the answer is "no" on both counts. The fact that Todius couldn't explain the changing of the seasons and why they are reliable doesn't at all lead to the conclusion that his skeptical attitude was mislead, or that the belief in Demeter and Persephone, as well as their role in the existence of the seasons, is true.

The fact that Seanero has an explanation does not lead to the conclusion that his explanation is true. It is untestable either way, unverifiable and unfalsifiable. It is completely devoid of any explanatory power.

The same applies to TAG. Nobody can come up with a basis for logic, the laws of nature, etc., that is justifiable. There simply is no way to know.

The Christian hasn't shown such a basis, s/he has simply guessed. The fact that the Christian has offered a possibility and the atheist has not offered such a guess doesn't offer evidence that the Christian is correct, only that s/he is less content to admit that it is unknowable at this time, or possibly at any time.

We know with the advantage of superior scientific knowledge and the luxury of hindsight that any hypothetical Todius of the past in the above scenario would have been justified in rejecting the Demeter account of the seasons while still embracing the regularity and reliability of the seasonal changes without an explanation for them, and we also know for the same reasons that the Demeter account was false, despite the fact that it offered an explanation for the seasonal changes.

We further know that even though Seanero asserted that the seasons couldn't exist were this Demeter myth not true, he didn't lift a finger to demonstrate as much (save only challenging Todius to account for it in a better way, which as we see, would have been a false argument), and in fact his account was not true, but later it was discovered that the tilt of the earth and its orbit around the sun were the true basis for the regularity of the seasons.

Now, we don't know the same for logic. Science hasn't shown us exactly why activities in our universe are constrained by logic or why it is consistent, and/or why the natural forces exist and are constant, but my argument isn't that we do, only that the above scenario shows that it doesn't follow that because you don't have an explanation for the reliability of a phenomenon doesn't mean that you can't assume its reliability, and that you don't have reason for assuming as much.

It further illustrates that just because you have an explanation for a phenomenon and another does not, that does not mean your position is superior, or your explanation is true.

TAG assumes both: that if you don't have an explanation for the reliability of a phenomenon, you can't assume that it is indeed reliable. It further assumes that simply having an explanation, whether proven or not, makes ones position superior to one that does not have an explanation.

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