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Presuppositionalism and Transcendental Arguments

This is part 2 of a 3-part series, though this article can be read on its own. To read the previous entry, click here. From the "A Catholic on the Areopagus" blog.

A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it isCornelius Van Til

Presuppositionalists attempt, then, to argue transcendentally. That is, they argue that all meaning and thought—indeed, every fact—logically presupposes the God of the ScripturesSteven B. Cowan

Our argument should be transcendental. That is, it should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion to an argument, but as the one who makes argument possibleJohn Frame

It is impossible for the same man to suppose at the same time that the same thing is and is not; for the man who made this error would entertain two contrary opinions at the same time. Hence all men who are demonstrating anything refer back to this as an ultimate belief; for it is by nature the starting-point of all the other axioms as wellAristotle

The existence of outer things is required for the possibility of a determinate consciousness of the selfImmanuel Kant

If God is God, then God is. Now the antecedent is so true that it cannot be thought not to be. Therefore, it is true without doubt that God existsSt. Bonaventure


Continuing with the topic of presuppositionalism, a significant feature of presuppositional apologetics, especially in the Van Tillian tradition, is transcendental argumentation (sometimes referred to as "TAG" by presuppositionalists when used to argue for the existence of God). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes transcendental arguments as follows:

As standardly conceived, transcendental arguments are taken to be distinctive in involving a certain sort of claim, namely that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y—where then, given that Y is the case, it logically follows that X must be the case too. Moreover, because these arguments are generally used to respond to skeptics who take our knowledge claims to be problematic, the Y in question is then normally taken to be some fact about us or our mental life which the skeptic can be expected to accept without question (e.g., that we have experiences, or make certain judgements, or perform certain actions, or have certain capacities, and so on), where X is then something the skeptic doubts or denies (e.g., the existence of the external world, or of the necessary causal relation between events, or of other minds, or the force of moral reasons). In this way, it is hoped, skepticism can be overturned using transcendental arguments that embody such transcendental claims ("Transcendental Arguments").

The claim in a transcendental argument that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y may be referred to as the transcendental premise (TP). The necessary condition in the TP is referred to by presuppositionalists as a presupposition (cf. Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, pg. 259, 265). So, the X in question is the presupposition, and the Y in question is an agreed-upon fact that one's interlocutor accepts. With this terminology in place, the basic structure of a transcendental argument is as follows:

  1. If Y [agreed-upon fact], then X [presupposition]. (TP)

  2. Y [agreed-upon fact].

  3. Therefore, X [presupposition].

The philosopher John R. Gilhooly explains the strategy of a transcendental argument and what it needs to do to succeed as follows:

[Transcendental] arguments "proceed backwards" from some phenomenon to the causal or logical apparatus necessary to make that phenomenon possible or explicable ... [W]hat is crucial for the success of [a transcendental argument] is an independent argument for the veracity of the TP... The transcendental argument pulls the opponent from the initial agreement into some other entailment on pain of contradiction or nonsense (ibid.).

At this point, the reader may wonder what all the fuss is about with respect to transcendental arguments. After all, the above argument structure is a simple modus ponens deductive argument (it can be alternatively formulated as a modus tollens argument). Why give a fancy title to it? Is calling it a "transcendental" argument just a marketing gimmick? While some proponents of transcendental arguments—such as Cornelius Van Til (cf. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, pg. 10-11)—have claimed that transcendental arguments are structurally distinct from deductive (and inductive and abductive) arguments, the more plausible understanding is that transcendental arguments do not differ from other types of arguments in terms of their logical structure but rather differ in terms of their aims. As the philosopher Barry Stroud writes, "[W]hat makes [an argument] transcendental is not its logical form or its subject‐matter, but its aim or goal. We might speak rather of a transcendental strategy or project, or a transcendental enterprise" ("The Goal of Transcendental Arguments"). Stroud characterizes transcendental arguments as arguments that seek to show that a metaphysical conclusion must be true since it serves as the necessary precondition of thought and experience. He writes,

Any metaphysical conclusions proved to have that special status [i.e., the status of being the necessary precondition of thought and experience] would have to be true if there were any thought or experience. Since we obviously do think and experience things, we can say they must be true, those conditions must hold. They could not fail to hold if we think at all, so they could not fail to hold if we think they do. They could not be false if they are thought to be true, and they could not be found to be false in experience. This puts those ‘principles’ in a very special position in our thought.
This is not to say that a statement expressing a necessary condition of the possibility of thought or experience could not even be thought to be false. Of course it could, if we did not know that it enjoyed that special standing. It is also possible for us to ask, or wonder, whether a certain thing is true, even though its truth is (unknown to us) a necessary condition of thought, and hence of our asking, or thinking, anything... The promise of transcendental philosophy is that such doubts or questions can be resolved by discovering by reflection that the thing in question is a necessary condition of thought or experience. That would settle the metaphysical question (ibid.).

One thing I want to note with respect to transcendental arguments as Stroud understands them is that I think that this characterizes transcendental argumentation at its most ambitious. I think that a less ambitious transcendental argument can be given in which the desired conclusion is argued to be the necessary precondition of something less broad than thought and experience. For instance, in the context of Catholic apologetics directed towards Protestantism, a transcendental argument can be given that the Church is the necessary precondition of the infallible knowledge of the canon of Sacred Scripture. The key, I think, in a transcendental argument is that the antecedent of the TP should be something that is foundational to one's interlocutor's worldview.

With this being said, I must recognize the fact that some philosophers think that this characterization construes transcendental argumentation too broadly. William Lane Craig, for instance, would maintain that the claim that the argument for the Church being the necessary precondition of the infallible knowledge of the canon of Sacred Scripture is a transcendental argument "confuses transcendental reasoning with what medievals called demonstratio quia, proof that proceeds from consequence to ground" (Five Views on Apologetics, pg. 233; cf. Summa Theologica I.2.2). Genuine transcendental reasoning, according to Craig, is "an argument for a reality based on that reality's being the very conditions even of the denial of that reality. Thus, Kant argued for the existence of the categories of the understanding on the basis of their being the preconditions of all intelligible experience, including the denial that there are categories" (ibid.).

So, for Craig, only what I have referred to as "transcendental argumentation at its most ambitious" would characterize true transcendental argumentation, whereas what I have referred to as "a less ambitious transcendental argument" would characterize not transcendental argumentation but rather demonstratio quia. I am perfectly happy to concede this distinction, though for the purposes of this post, I will continue to refer to arguments in the latter category as "less ambitious" or "modest" transcendental arguments. I am opting to do this because many presuppositionalists tend to place such modest arguments in the transcendental category, or they at least conceive of these arguments as playing a key role in an overall transcendental project. The Reformed theologian John Frame, for instance, writes:

[O]ur argument should be transcendental. That is, it should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion to an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible. We should present him as the source of all meaningful communication, since he is the author of all order, truth, beauty, goodness, logical validity, and empirical fact. We can reach this transcendental conclusion by many kinds of specific arguments, including many of the traditional ones (ibid., pg. 220).

Responding directly to Craig, Frame writes:

William Craig says that I have confused transcendental argument (an argument showing that the biblical God is the one who makes argument possible) with "demonstratio quia, proof that proceeds from consequence to ground" (p. 233), and that... my sketch of an apologetic is not transcendental at all. There is some debate among presuppositionalists on this subject. Greg Bahnsen maintained Craig's view, namely, that transcendental argument is sharply distinguished from all other argument and should never be confused with traditional theistic proofs and evidences. My position, on the contrary, claims that transcendental arguments may and usually must incorporate arguments of other sorts...
Thus, I don't see the deep chasm between transcendental arguments and other sorts of arguments that Craig insists upon. I think apologetics needs to have a transcendental direction or goal: we should be concerned to show that God is the condition of all meaning, and our epistemology should be consistent with that conclusion. But that conclusion cannot be reached in a single, simple syllogism. A transcendental argument normally, perhaps always, requires many subarguments, and some of these may be traditional theistic proofs or Christian evidences (ibid., pg. 359-360).

With respect to the crucial task of defending the TP of a transcendental argument, there are two approaches: direct and indirect. The direct approach seeks to directly prove what the skeptic doubts by taking into consideration only what the skeptic concedes and arguing that what the skeptic doubts follows directly from what the skeptic concedes. By contrast, the indirect approach seeks to indirectly prove what the skeptic doubts by proving the impossibility of the contrary. The indirect approach is carried out by way of a reductio ad absurdum. The basic idea with this form of argument is that you assume the opposite of what you want to prove and then show how a contradiction follows from this assumption. For instance, consider the following reductio argument for the conclusion that there is no smallest positive real number.

  1. Assume for reductio that there exists a smallest positive real number r.

  2. Compute a new real number r' by dividing r by 2.

  3. Then, r' < r. Contradiction.

  4. Therefore, there does not exist a smallest positive real number r.

Having given a brief introduction to transcendental arguments in the abstract, in what follows, I will give a brief overview of transcendental argumentation in the history of philosophy, focusing in particular on Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Cornelius Van Til. After that, I will consider the possible use of transcendental arguments in Catholic apologetics, taking into account especially the transcendental argument of Jeremiah Bannister.

Historical Examples of Transcendental Arguments

Historically, transcendental arguments are associated with philosophical figures such as Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) and (especially) Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In Christian apologetics, transcendental argumentation is especially associated with the Reformed theologian and philosopher Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987). As explained in the introduction of this post, there are two approaches to defending transcendental arguments: direct and indirect. Kant took the direct approach to transcendental argumentation, while Aristotle took the indirect approach. Let's take a look at each of these approaches in turn. I begin with Kant since his name more than any other is associated with transcendental arguments. After looking at Kant and Aristotle, I will consider Van Til's transcendental argument and its significance for Christian apologetics.


Kant deployed multiple transcendental arguments in his philosophy. For the purposes of this post, I will restrict myself to a consideration of his argument against epistemic idealism. Simply put, epistemic idealism is the skeptical thesis that we cannot know whether there is a mind-independent reality of physical objects external to us. For all we know, the objects of our conscious experience are mere appearances created by the mind. Kant sought to refute epistemic idealism by way of arguing that the reality of a mind-independent world is a necessary precondition of being able to have conscious experience. Now, the epistemic idealist concedes that we have conscious experience. Thus, if Kant's argument is successful, the epistemic idealist is ultimately led to the rejection of his own position and an acceptance of the certitude of the existence of external objects. In this way, the epistemic idealist has his own commitment to conscious experience turned against him. Kant gives his argument as follows:

I am conscious of my own existence as determined in time. All determination of time presupposes something permanent in perception. This permanent cannot, however, be something in me, since it is only through this permanent that my existence in time can itself be determined. Thus perception of this permanent is possible only through a thing outside me and not through the mere representation of a thing outside me; and consequently the determination of my existence in time is possible only through the existence of actual things which I perceive outside me. Now consciousness [of my existence] in time is necessarily bound up with consciousness of the [condition of the] possibility of this time-determination; and it is therefore necessarily bound up with the existence of things outside me, as the condition of the time-determination. In other words, the consciousness of my existence is at the same time an immediate consciousness of the existence of other things outside me.
It will be observed that in the foregoing proof the game played by idealism has been turned against itself, and with greater justice. Idealism assumed that the only immediate experience is inner experience, and from it we can only infer outer things—and this, moreover, only in an untrustworthy manner, as in all cases where we are inferring from given effects to determinate causes. In this particular case, the cause of the representations, which we ascribe, perhaps falsely, to outer things, may lie in ourselves. But in the above proof it has been shown that outer experience is really immediate, and that only by means of it is inner experience—not indeed the consciousness of my own existence, but the determination of it in time—possible (Critique of Pure Reason, B275-B277, pg. 245-246).

Following the philosopher George Dicker, Kant's transcendental argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. I am conscious of my own existence in time; i.e., I am aware, and can be aware, that I have experiences that occur in a specific temporal order.

  2. I can be aware of having experiences that occur in a specific temporal order only if I perceive something permanent by reference to which I can determine their temporal order.

  3. No conscious state of my own can serve as this persisting frame of reference.

  4. Time itself cannot serve as this persisting frame of reference.

  5. If (2) and (3) and (4), then I can be aware of having experiences that occur in a specific temporal order only if I perceive persisting objects in space outside me by reference to which I can determine the temporal order of my experiences.

  6. Therefore, I perceive persisting objects in space outside me by reference to which I can determine the temporal order of my experiences ("Kant's Refutation of Idealism," referenced in Without Excuse, pg. 264).

John R. Gilhooly simplifies this argument as follows:

  1. If I perceive temporal succession, then I perceive external objects. (TP)

  2. I perceive temporal succession.

  3. Hence, I perceive external objects (Without Excuse, pg. 264-265).

With respect to this simplified argument, the first premise is the transcendental premise (TP). The more elaborate preceding argument formulated by Dicker can be seen as an argument for the truth of the TP. Kant starts with what the idealist concedes, namely, that the idealist perceives temporal succession. Kant then reasons from this fact directly to the conclusion that there are external objects that are perceived, thereby proving the TP. From there, by modus ponens, the idealist is led to the conclusion that idealism is false. External objects must exist since their existence is the necessary precondition of perceiving temporal succession. Hence, we can know that external objects exist, contrary to the skepticism of the idealist. All of this, of course, is assuming that Kant's argument is sound. It is not my purpose in this post to evaluate the soundness of this argument. Rather, I merely present it as a prominent example of a transcendental argument that uses the direct approach to defending its TP.


Aristotle deployed a transcendental argument for the law of non-contradiction, relying on a technique called retorsion. The philosopher Edward Feser defines retorsion arguments as "arguments that attempt to refute a claim by showing that anyone making it is led thereby into a performative self-contradiction... in the sense that the very act of defending the position entails the falsity of the position" (Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, pg. 80, 82). Elaborating further, Feser writes,

A retorsion argument is essentially a reductio [ad absurdum] insofar as it refutes a claim by showing that the claim leads to a contradiction. What is distinctive of retorsion arguments is the specific way they derive the contradiction, namely by calling attention to an inconsistency in the position of anyone who makes the claim (ibid., pg. 83).

John R. Gilhooly offers a further explanation of what makes retorsion distinctive:

The difference between this type of argument and a standard reductio is that this argument relies on only one claim rather than a conflict between premises in the argument at some stage of entailment... Aristotle's [method] proceeds by showing that, whether the opponent knows it or not, the opponent relies on the principle in question whenever he denies it. So, there is a logical commitment to a principle even if that is so unclear to the opponent that he can assert the denial of that principle (Without Excuse, pg. 260).

Aristotle gives his retorsion argument in defense of the law of non-contradiction as follows:

There are some, however, as we have said, who both state themselves that the same thing can be and not be, and say that it is possible to hold this view. Many even of the physicists adopt this theory. But we have just assumed that it is impossible at once to be and not to be, and by this means we have proved that this is the most certain of all principles. Some, indeed, demand to have the law proved, but this is because they lack education; for it shows lack of education not to know of what we should require proof, and of what we should not. For it is quite impossible that everything should have a proof; the process would go on to infinity, so that even so there would be no proof. If on the other hand there are some things of which no proof need be sought, they cannot say what principle they think to be more self-evident. Even in the case of this law, however, we can demonstrate the impossibility by refutation, if only our opponent makes some statement. If he makes none, it is absurd to seek for an argument against one who has no arguments of his own about anything, in so far as he has none; for such a person, in so far as he is such, is really no better than a vegetable. And I say that proof by refutation differs from simple proof in that he who attempts to prove might seem to beg the fundamental question, whereas if the discussion is provoked thus by someone else, refutation and not proof will result. The starting-point for all such discussions is not the claim that he should state that something is or is not so (because this might be supposed to be a begging of the question), but that he should say something significant both to himself and to another (this is essential if any argument is to follow; for otherwise such a person cannot reason either with himself or with another); and if this is granted, demonstration will be possible, for there will be something already defined. But the person responsible is not he who demonstrates but he who acquiesces; for though he disowns reason he acquiesces to reason. Moreover, he who makes such an admission as this has admitted the truth of something apart from demonstration [so that not everything will be "so and not so"] (Metaphysics IV.1005b-1006a).

One thing to note right away is that Aristotle, unlike Kant, does not view his argument as a direct proof of his conclusion. As he says, any attempt to directly prove the law of non-contradiction would itself have to presuppose the truth of the law and would thus be guilty of begging the question and consequently would fail as a proof. Instead, Aristotle shows that his opponent cannot deny the law of non-contradiction, for in the very act of denying it, he tacitly presupposes and makes use of it. In other words, Aristotle shows that anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction is led thereby into a performative self-contradiction. The situation Aristotle's opponent is in is similar to that of a man who utters the sentence, "I cannot speak a sentence of English." He refutes his own claim in the very act of making it. The philosopher Daniel Coren summarizes Aristotle's argument in the following logical form:

  1. A skeptic may either say something or nothing.

  2. If a skeptic says nothing, she cannot reason with anyone. Nor can anyone reason with her.

  3. To say "something" is to say something that is significant to oneself and to another.

  4. If something is said, then at least one thing is determinate.

  5. If at least one thing is determinate then not everything is "so and not so."

  6. Either the skeptic cannot be reasoned with and no one can reason with her, or she concedes that not everything is "so and not so" ("Why Does Aristotle Defend the Principle of Non-Contradiction Against Its Contrary?", referenced in Without Excuse, pg. 262-263).

This argument can be seen as a proof of the following TP: If a skeptic says something, then she concedes that not everything is "so and not so," i.e., she concedes the law of non-contradiction. All that needs to be done at this point is to wait for the skeptic to say something and the retorsion argument is complete. If the skeptic refuses to say anything, then she is, as Aristotle savagely put it, "no better than a vegetable."

Van Til

Van Til's approach to presuppositional apologetics heavily relies on transcendental argumentation. In fact, transcendental argumentation might be said to be its key feature. Van Til attempted to defend the very ambitious claim that the triune God is the necessary precondition of intelligibility and rational thought, which serves as the TP in his transcendental argument for the truth of the Christian worldview. The uniqueness of Van Til's approach to transcendental argumentation is precisely this ambition. As John R. Gilhooly explains,

What is striking about Van Til's use of the [transcendental] technique is that he applies it not to broad skepticism (say, about axioms, external objects, or causation) but to unbelief in the (existence of the) Christian God revealed in the Bible. It would be one thing to apply it to the conception of God (i.e., the omni-God of the philosophers) solely, but Van Til's ambition is greater than that. He wants to show that the entirety of the Christian religion is (virtually) presupposed in certain basic activities of every human person... [T]he uniqueness of Van Til's approach is not structural. Instead, what is unique about his approach is the boldness of his TP (Without Excuse, pg. 265).

The TP of Van Til's transcendental argument is stated in multiple places in his writings (these quotations are provided by Gilhooly in Without Excuse, pg. 267):

The only "proof" of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of "proving" anything at all ("My Credo"). Christians can bear witness of this God only if they humbly but boldly make the claim that only the presupposition of the existence of this God and of the universe in all its aspects as the revelation of this God is there any footing and verge for the interpretive efforts of man (Defense of the Faith, pg. 198). I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him, without already having taken Him for granted. And similarly I contend that you cannot argue against belief in Him unless you also first take Him for granted. Arguing about God's existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time. Or to use another illustration, God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot him out of existence (Why I Believe in God, no. 9).

Given this, we might formulate Van Til's transcendental argument as follows:

  1. If there is intelligibility and rational thought, then the triune God must exist. (TP)

  2. There is intelligibility and rational thought.

  3. Therefore, the triune God must exist.

How did Van Til seek to prove his TP, directly or indirectly? Because Van Til held that there was absolutely no neutral ground or rational footing for anyone who would deny the existence of God, he held that the TP can be proved only indirectly by "demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary" (i.e., reductio ad absurdum). As Van Til writes:

The method of reasoning by presupposition [i.e., transcendental reasoning] may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and nonbelievers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to "facts" or "laws" whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference point required to make the "facts" and "laws" intelligible. The question is as to what the "facts" and "laws" really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian-theistic methodology presupposes they are? The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of "facts." It must, in the last analysis, be settled indirectly (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 122).

Van Til sought to show that any worldview other than Christianity is incoherent and thus impossible. For an atheist, for instance, to appeal to rational argument is for him to tacitly concede the truth of Christianity in his very act of making such an appeal. In this way, Van Til's transcendental strategy has a greater resemblance to Aristotle's approach than to Kant's. For Aristotle, the skeptic either concedes the law of non-contradiction or no rational dialogue with such a person is possible. Similarly for Van Til, the skeptic either concedes the existence of God or no rational dialogue with such a person is possible. One consequence of this for Van Til is that the traditional arguments of natural theology cannot be proven sound unless the existence of God is already presupposed. Hence, they cannot serve a useful apologetic purpose. The transcendental argument is the apologetic argument. Van Til's student John Frame, however, disagrees with Van Til on this point. For instance, Frame writes,

[M]y concept of transcendental argument differs somewhat from that of Van Til and other presuppositionalists... I think Van Til exaggerates the differences between his presuppositionalism and the approaches of the older apologetic tradition. In my view, presuppositionalism should not be seen as the antithesis of "classical" or "traditional" or "evidential" apologetics, but as a Christian epistemology that seeks to supplement, clarify, and sharpen the traditional approaches with biblical teachings that are at least sometimes overlooked, or even contradicted, in the tradition... I do not agree with some of my presuppositionalist colleagues that the reductio is the only argument compatible with biblical teaching, but I believe it is very useful. It focuses on the inquirer's specific form of unbelief, and it focuses the dialogue on the transcendental conclusion (Five Views on Apologetics, footnote on pg. 220-221 and main text on pg. 223).

For Frame, the transcendental argument is the ultimate goal of presuppositional apologetics but reaching that goal will involve various arguments of the more traditional kind.

As a brief aside, my own construal of presuppositional apologetics differs from Frame's in that I want to separate the underlying methodology itself of presuppositionalism from potentially controversial epistemological assumptions, e.g., the divine illuminationism of St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, which, for instance, the Catholic presuppositionalist Jeremiah Bannister holds to. This is not because I think that such epistemological views are indefensible but rather because I want to show that the underlying methodology of presuppositionalism can be profitably and consistently used by apologists with differing epistemological viewpoints (e.g., Bonaventurians and Thomists). By contrast, Frame seems to want to construe presuppositionalism as first and foremost an epistemology and only secondarily as an apologetic strategy.

Getting back to Van Til, one major problem with his approach that Frame, as we've seen, tries to temper is that by relying exclusively on the transcendental argument, he makes his apologetic far too ambitious by trying to do too much at once. I am by no means prepared to say that Van Til's TP cannot be proven, but it seems to me that as of yet, it has not been, at least not in a way that would be useful to apologetics. As such, it seems like the Van Tillian transcendental argument has up to this point been merely a promissory note waiting to be fulfilled. As critics have noted, Van Til can be somewhat hand-wavy and opaque in his argumentation, and he does not offer any kind of formal deduction of his TP the way that Aristotle does. As Gilhooly notes, however, Van Til himself would have probably been mostly unbothered with this assessment:

Since Van Til takes (his reading of) Christian theism to be presupposed by all intellectual activity, accusation of question-begging or failure to engage in premised arguments would be (on his view) beside the point (Without Excuse, pg. 276).

Unfortunately for Van Til, however, such accusation is not beside the point for the rest of us. As such, it seems like Van Til's project, as it currently stands, is incomplete. Now, in a sense, I suppose that if Christianity is true, then Van Til's TP is true. So, if Christianity has been proven, then Van Til's TP has been at least implicitly proven as well. But if an apologist has to prove the truth of Christianity in order to prove the TP, then the transcendental argument itself would be superfluous with respect to the task of apologetics. It might be of theoretical interest, but it wouldn't do any apologetic work.

Another issue with Van Til's approach is that it is not clear that his TP has the implications he thinks it does. A common criticism of Van Til is that at times he seems to confuse ontology and epistemology. Van Til wants to argue that, for instance, an atheist qua atheist cannot know anything since God is the necessary precondition of being able to know anything at all. However, even if it is true that if God does not exist, then no one can know anything, it would not follow from this that, in order for someone to know something, that person has to know that God exists. To clarify: It would follow that God has to exist in order for someone to know something (ontological condition), but it would not follow that in order for someone to know something, that person must know that God exists (epistemological condition). Van Til's TP, as presently formulated, implies the ontological condition but not the epistemological condition. As an analogy, in order for me to see a physical object, there must be photons that reflect off the object and make contact with my eye (ontological condition). However, I do not have to know about photons in order to see the object (epistemological condition). It isn't as if I am blind until I acknowledge the existence of photons.

Transcendental Arguments and Catholic Apologetics

With these concerns and criticisms in mind, might a promising transcendental argument similar to Van Til's in terms of its scope and ambition be given in service to presuppositional apologetics? Perhaps. The aforementioned John R. Gilhooly, though a critic of Van Til, concludes his critique by stating, "A transcendental project such as Van Til's seems to be a viable option for a Christian apologetics, but he tries to do too much in one fell swoop" (Without Excuse, pg. 277). Even William Lane Craig—of "howler" infamy—states in his critique of presuppositionalism: "[A]t the heart of presuppositionalism lies an argument, often not clearly understood or articulated, which is very powerful. This is an epistemological transcendental argument" (Five Views on Apologetics, pg. 233). Craig characterizes one approach to such an argument that he attributes to Alvin Plantinga as establishing the conclusion that "the existence of God is a precondition of knowledge itself" (ibid., pg. 234). Craig continues,

The nontheist who thinks that he is warranted in his nonbelief thus unwittingly presupposes the existence of God in his very denial of God, for warrant involves proper functioning [of cognitive faculties], and proper functioning entails theism. Moreover, when the theist attempts to argue for the existence of God, he presupposes God's existence in that he assumes that his premises are warranted. This is not a vicious sort of circularity, but rather the inherent nature of a transcendental argument (ibid.).

Even here, though, it isn't clear if Craig is minding the aforementioned distinction between the existence of God being an ontological condition only versus the existence of God being also an epistemological condition of the possibility of knowledge.

But whatever Craig's intentions are, it can be argued that the existence of God is indeed not just an ontological condition but also an epistemological condition of knowledge in the sense that unless someone apprehends the existence of God (at least implicitly), he cannot know anything. (Whether such an argument can succeed, however, is another story). One possible route to proving this is to argue that God functions as a first principle of reason in a similar way in which the law of non-contradiction does. St. Bonaventure argued along these lines (cf. Bonaventure's Commentary on the Sentences: Philosophy of God, pg. xli-xlv). If someone does not know the law of non-contradiction at least implicitly, then he cannot know anything else. For to affirm any proposition as true (which is a necessary condition of knowledge), something determinate must be asserted. But if something is determinate, it cannot "be so and not so." But if someone does not believe in (and hence does not know) the law of non-contradiction, he cannot believe that something cannot be "so and not so." Hence, if he is to have any knowledge at all, he must believe (at least implicitly) in the law of non-contradiction. (See Aristotle's argument above). And, given that the law of non-contradiction is true and self-evident, by believing in the law of non-contradiction, he would satisfy the conditions of knowledge and would thereby know the law of non-contradiction. Thus, we may ultimately conclude that knowing the law of non-contradiction is a necessary precondition of knowledge in general. Unless the law of non-contradiction is known first (at least implicitly), nothing else can be known. And this is clearly an epistemological and not merely an ontological condition of knowledge. If God is a first principle of reason in the same way as the law of non-contradiction, then (at least implicit) knowledge of God (and not merely the existence of God) would be a necessary precondition of knowledge in general. Unless God is known first (at least implicitly), nothing else can be known.

It seems like establishing this conclusion is what Van Til wanted his transcendental argument to accomplish. It is also, I think, what Jeremiah Bannister wants his transcendental argument to accomplish, at least when he is at his most ambitious. As I currently understand Jeremiah's transcendental project, this conclusion would serve as his transcendental premise (TP): If knowledge is possible, then God must exist and must be (at least implicitly) known by the intellect as the first principle of reason and understanding. This conclusion would also fit perfectly into Jeremiah's Bonaventurian epistemology:

Bonaventure insists that “what first falls in the intellect is . . . the divine being” (illuminationism), from which it follows that “it is impossible for him to be thought not to be” (the ontological argument)...
Bonaventure’s position, at least as it is sketched in Itinerarium 5.3, expressly denies that God is the mind’s first explicit object, while affirming that we are always in some sense already acquainted with God in all our acts of knowing, just as some acquaintance with light is presupposed to, even if not explicitly thematized in, every act of vision: Remarkable is the blindness of the intellect, which does not consider that which it knows first and without which it can know nothing. But as the eye, intent on various differences of colors, does not see the light by which it sees other things, or if it sees, does not notice it, so too the eye of our mind, intent on particular and universal beings, nonetheless does not notice being itself, beyond every genus, although it occurs first to the mind ("Bonaventure's Critique of Thomas Aquinas").

If, in fact, Jeremiah's TP can be philosophically demonstrated, it would effectively serve as a proof of illuminationism. And if Jeremiah claims to already know that illuminationism is true, for instance, on theological grounds, then it makes complete sense for him to have it inform his presuppositionalist method and his transcendental argument. For "revelation and faith direct their defense inasmuch as they indicate both the end to be obtained... and the rationally knowable efficacious means for obtaining it" (On Divine Revelation, Vol. I, pg. 133). As such, if a Catholic of, say, a more Thomistic bent, wants to say that it is inappropriate for Jeremiah to have his presuppositionalism informed by illuminationism, then he owes Jeremiah a refutation of illuminationism. I for one wouldn't dare say such a thing to the Kaiser! Instead, I merely defend the claim that Catholic presuppositionalism as a general method of apologetics does not have to adopt illuminationism.

Given this TP, we might formulate Jeremiah's transcendental argument as follows:

  1. If knowledge is possible, then God must exist and must be (at least implicitly) known by the intellect as the first principle of reason and understanding. (TP)

  2. Knowledge is possible.

  3. Therefore, God must exist and must be (at least implicitly) known by the intellect as the first principle of reason and understanding.

Like all transcendental arguments, the key to defending this one is to give a sound demonstration of the TP. In the spirit of John Frame—contra Van Til—this demonstration, it seems to me, must involve a number of different arguments. For Jeremiah, proving his TP (and along with it the overall transcendental argument) is the end game of presuppositionalism. It's the ultimate goal. Getting there, however, will take a lot of work (at least with respect to laying out the full case in all its rigor), assuming that getting there is even achievable in the first place. It will require, as Frame puts it, "many subarguments, and some of these may be traditional theistic proofs or Christian evidences."

Fortunately, there has been excellent work done towards the goal of demonstrating a TP at least roughly along these lines. For example, as Craig noted above, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga has developed a case that theism provides the only adequate basis for the possibility of knowledge (see his Warrant trilogy). Additionally, Plantinga has developed what he refers to as the "evolutionary argument against naturalism" in which he argues that naturalism, insofar as it is committed to evolutionary theory, is rationally self-undermining since evolution is aimed at survival rather than truth with respect to the beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties. By contrast, theism, insofar as it is committed to the existence of a God who has designed our cognitive faculties to be truth-directed and generally reliable, provides a sufficient foundation for affirming rational thought and the general reliability of our cognitive faculties (see Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism). Additionally, the philosopher Victor Reppert has done excellent work on the "argument from reason" in which he argues that materialist worldviews cannot possibly provide a foundation for rationality (see C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defence of the Argument from Reason). Catholic presuppositionalism could greatly profit from this work.

With all this being said, some presuppositionalists are not satisfied with settling for a kind of "generic theism" as the conclusion of their transcendental arguments. Van Til would certainly be in this camp, as would Jeremiah. And the arguments of Plantinga and Reppert seem to settle for such a generic theism. However, in a larger transcendental project like Jeremiah's, these arguments could be supplemented with arguments from Trinitarian ontology. These kinds of arguments seek to show that the ontological Trinity solves at the most fundamental level of reality the ancient philosophical problem of the one and the many (cf. "Philosophy: The Problem of the One and the Many") in a way that a strict unitarian theism cannot. For given the ontological Trinity and divine simplicity, the one and the many are perfectly reconciled in the Trinitarian God, Who is the ultimate foundation of reality. Van Til, for instance, writes:

As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition (Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 23; referenced in Without Excuse, footnote on pg. 318; underlining in original).

One objection, however, that is often raised against this argument is that it seems that any plurality of persons in God would be just as sufficient in explaining the one and the many as precisely three persons would. Hence, it seems that, at most, the argument proves that God is multi-personal but not that He is specifically tri-personal. The theologian Travis James Campbell, for instance, raises this objection against Van Til's argument (cf. Without Excuse, pg. 320). In response, Jeremiah could reply to this objection by pointing out that there is only one major worldview in existence that makes the claim that the monotheistic God is multi-personal, and that worldview is Christianity. Furthermore, Christianity teaches the doctrine of the Trinity for reasons that have nothing to do with the desire to have a philosophically satisfactory solution to the problem of the one and the many. It's not as if the Council fathers at Nicaea were sitting around wondering how they might solve the problem of the one and the many when they formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, their sole concern was in answering the question of what God had revealed about Himself in the deposit of faith handed on by Christ and His Apostles. Hence, the solution to the problem of the one and the many offered by Trinitarian ontology is not ad hoc in the way that a solution positing some other arbitrary number of persons in the Godhead would be. Trinitarian ontology is an already existing, independently motivated theory on offer. If this argument is ultimately successful, therefore, then we would be able to get from generic theism to Trinitarian theism, and this would entail a specifically Christian theism. Thus, we would be able to say that the triune God, the Christian God, is the necessary precondition of knowledge, rational thought, etc. This conclusion should be qualified, however, because I think it is implausible (even on a Bonaventurian epistemology) that someone would have to have an explicit knowledge of the Trinity in order to know anything else. I think Jeremiah would agree with this.

But how might a transcendental project like Jeremiah's get from not merely Christianity in general but to Catholicism in particular? This is where the Catholic presuppositionalist approaches of St. Irenaeus (cf. Against Heresies) and St. Francis de Sales (cf. The Catholic Controversy), which focus on establishing the necessity of an authoritative Church, can be brought in. After arriving at some sort of Christian theism, we can take account of the fact that Christian theism is a self-proclaimed revealed religion. As such, if we accept Christian theism, we must accept the putative source of divine revelation that it is based on, especially those parts of divine revelation that reveal the Trinity (since it is by way of the Trinity that we have moved from generic theism to Christian theism). Here, there are, it seems to me, two options: We can either go to Church councils (e.g., Nicaea) and from there infer the authority of the Catholic Church, or we can start with Sacred Scripture and from there infer the authority of the Catholic Church. It might seem more natural to start with Sacred Scripture since Scripture precedes, for instance, the Council of Nicaea, and, indeed, Nicaea itself draws from Scripture in its formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

If starting from the councils can be justified, that would rule out Protestantism (since sola Scriptura would then be false) but would still leave Eastern Orthodoxy. We could then seek to eliminate Eastern Orthodoxy by way of arguing that having a single point of supreme authority in the Church (i.e., the papacy) is necessary for preserving an authentic, definitive understanding of revelation, especially when disputes about what revelation teaches arise. The problem with the authority structure of Eastern Orthodoxy is that stalemates can arise from doctrinal disagreements because the various patriarchs (who share supreme authority) can disagree with each other, and if no patriarch is above the rest, then if the patriarchs are locked in a doctrinal disagreement, there is no mechanism for ending the stalemate. By contrast, if there is a single patriarch that has supreme authority (i.e., the Pope), then he can intervene to resolve such stalemates. Such an argument has recently been defended, for instance, by the philosopher Josh Sijuwade. If starting from Scripture can be justified, we could then eliminate Protestantism by arguing that an infallible Church is the necessary precondition of knowing with certainty the contents of Scripture. This would basically leave Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. From there, we could make the same argument against Eastern Orthodoxy that was just suggested. Using either starting point, the final result is that we would establish the truth of Catholicism.

Obviously, this is all very sketchy. My intent in this post is not to prove these lines of argument but rather to merely sketch out what these lines of argument might look like in a comprehensive transcendental case for Catholicism within the context of a presuppositional apologetic.

Concluding Thoughts

Transcendental arguments have a venerable place in the history of philosophy. This post has surveyed just a few of the most significant ones from Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Cornelius Van Til. Additionally, a sketch of a transcendental Catholic apologetic based on the work of Jeremiah Bannister and others was presented. The ambition of transcendental arguments can make them difficult to successfully defend, but where such defense is successful, transcendental arguments can be very powerful. I am convinced that transcendental arguments can play a significant role in Catholic apologetics, but the especially ambitious ones will require a great deal of work in order to be successful. Such work is the task of the Catholic presuppositionalist. Fortunately, I have already completed such work HERE (sorry not sorry).


Click here for the final entry in this 3-part series.


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