The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence

Douglas Wilson


I am very grateful for this opportunity to debate the existence of the living God. Of course I am grateful to those who arranged all of this, and to Dr. Drange who has graciously agreed to debate with me. But fundamentally all thanks must always go to the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.

First, a brief definition of terms. I will be presenting here what is called a transcendental argument for God's existence. This general type of argumentation may need to be introduced with a brief explanation, particularly for those who are accustomed to the more traditional proofs of God's existence -- the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so forth. The traditional proofs for God's existence can be seen as particular and bounded (with the possible exception of the ontological argument), while a transcendental argument should be understood as a kind of macro-argument, one which encompasses all things, including the necessary preconditions of presenting any argument.

The traditional form of arguing for God's existence allows for the participants in the debate to stand on the sidelines, like two opposing coaches, in order to look at how their respective teams are doing out on the field. A distinction is maintained at all times between the participants on the field and the spectators along the sidelines. But a transcendental argument, on the other hand, is all-inclusive. A common mistake among those not familiar with this form of argumentation is to assume that it is the same kind of argument as one of the more traditional arguments. This in turn leads to misunderstandings and loud complaints when the transcendental players proceed to tackle the coach, water boy, trainer, and ESPN cameramen. But there is a reason why this must be the case, as I hope to make apparent below.

So, to the argument itself. My contention is that in agreeing to the debate, Dr. Drange has in principle conceded the debate. He denies the existence of God, certainly, but as is apparent in what we are doing right this moment, he does not deny the existence of true debate. Because we agree that such a thing as true debate exists, it follows that we must on some level necessarily agree on the preconditions of debate. But what are those preconditions? And how is it that we agree at that level?

In agreeing to debate, he is assuming the authority of reason, and of course sees a correspondence between our rationality and the external world. He assumes that I am arguing a particular position, and that he is countering with another distinct position. These assumptions are all quite correct; that is in fact what we are doing. He assumes that the position affirming God's existence and the position denying it are mutually exclusive. This is also correct; they are mutually exclusive. A does not and cannot equal that which is not A.

But all these assumptions are at bottom inconsistent with his declared atheism. Atheism requires, at the ultimate level, mindlessness or absence of intelligence. No one is manning the cosmic helm. If there were an ultimate mind, or ultimate intelligence, that ultimate mind would have to be called God. This is something the atheist is happy to grant, and because he denies the existence of God, he thereby cheerfully denies any ultimate intelligence or mind. Here we may have general agreement all round.

But at the same time, the atheist wants to maintain that we, small subsets of the universe, can exhibit non-ultimate -- but nevertheless genuine -- intelligence or mind. Our reasoning is assumed to have validity; our thinking about the world is supposed to be capable of genuine insight. And because we can exhibit these characteristics at the local level (despite the absence of such at the ultimate level), it is thought that we may then proceed with our debate.

But there is an insurmountable difficulty. Just as the Christian is frequently called to give reasons why he belives in the existence of his God, so the atheist should be called upon to provide an accounting for the existence of his rationality. He must give this account because of the foundational claims made about reality in his scheme of things. If the universe is what the atheist claims, then how can we account for the emergence of a non-material and authoritative rationality? And even if we could account for the bare existence of reason, upon what basis do we trust it? That is, we might think we can account for how we came to have thoughts in our heads, but how do account for the concept of true thoughts, thoughts which correspond in an orderly manner with the world outside?

If the universe is nothing more than time and chance acting on matter, then this universal process must include our brains. If this includes our brains, then we have no reason for believing our thoughts to be anything other than brain gas -- intracranial epiphenomena. The brain secretes thoughts the same way the liver secretes bile. But if this is the case, then we have no reason for supposing that our thoughts are even true, and hence no reason for believing that we even have any brains. And this means we have no basis for assuming that we are assuming, no reason to think we are thinking. The position is internally contradictory, and thereby self-refuting.

The atheist consequently has an enormous epistemological problem. We have different sets of atoms banging around. Why do we say that the atoms inside the blue suit are making a fine case, and the assemblage of atoms in the brown suit are making a collective ass of themselves? The difficulty is that the atheist is called to give a reason for believing that lesser minds and true intelligence can arise, by chance, out of inchoate matter. Put another way, the atheist believes that the preconditions for debate are the end result of many different movements of matter. Randomness gives birth to order, and out of Chaos came forth the ancient gods. At a certain point in the evolutionary process, mirabile dictu, the matter starts to think. But what is this process we call thinking, and how is it any different from the motion of the molecules the moment before when it was not yet thinking?

Despite all these problems, the atheist still wants to argue for his position. He wants to say there is a correspondence between what he is saying and what is actually going on out there in the universe. He wants to claim that atheism is more than random neuron firings in the brains of atheists; he wants to say that atheism is in fact the case. He wants to say that a debate between an atheist and a Christian is really possible. He says that the arguments he presents correspond to the way the world actually is. But on what basis does he assume such a correspondence? How can he show that a certain tiny subset of matter in motion has suddenly decided to give an incisive and cogent account of itself? If someone spilled milk on the kitchen floor, and we wanted to know what had happened, we wouldn't, as a general rule, ask the milk. It does not know about such things; it is the accident. So when we come to contemplate our own existence, and we debate fiercely among ourselves, why do we assume that these debates are more than milk bubbles popping?

Let's change the metaphor slightly, and picture our debate in this way. If I were a bottle of Pepsi which someone had violently agitated, and Dr. Drange were a bottle of Coke, equally shaken up, and we were placed on a table side by side, it would not occur to any accidental spectator to ask which bottle of soda was winning the debate. The spectators would not even describe the proceedings as a debate, however entertaining it might happen to be. The bottles would not be debating; they would be fizzing. All we have on the table are certain chemical reactions, neither true nor false. They just are. Anyone who tried to assert a correspondence between their fizzings and the external world (say, a correspondence between amount of pop overflow and stock market fluctuations) would probably be dismissed as a crank.

The atheist has to explain, on his assumption, what the essential difference is between the thoughts in his brain and any other chemical reaction. Why are some chemical reactions just there, neither true nor false, like baking soda and vinegar, while other chemical reactions can be categorized as true or false? On what basis can we say that atheist fizzings correspond to the external world while Christian fizzings do not? Why do we not consistently categorize them all as simply fizzings? The answer should be obvious; this would include the fizzing which made us want to categorize them in this way. We cannot say, "No fizzings can be thought to be true, including the fizzings which constitute this sentence." If we say it, we contradict ourselves. If we refuse to say it, in a misguided attempt at consistency, we contradict ourselves another way. Why be consistent? Our attempt at consistency assumes the need for consistency and rationality, which of course is inconsistent -- making it, in a weird kind of way, consistent again.

The atheist must assume that there is a difference in the truth value of various thoughts and ideas in order to debate with a Christian; he must say that we are far more than different, well-shaken bottles of pop. But in order to say this, he must assume the falsity of the worldview he claims to uphold. In short, he must assume that God exists in order to deny Him. And this is the transcendental claim in a nutshell: the existence of God must be assumed in order to debate it. Moreover, it must be assumed by all parties in the debate. Thus, once the debate has begun, it is over.

In other words, the atheist cannot begin by assuming, by faith, that there is a possibility of true knowledge even though he denies any possible preconditions for such knowledge. Given the atheistic account of the world, the atheist must be asked to provide an epistemology which accounts for true knowledge, and which is consistent with how he has described the world. He cannot begin with an ordered and rational life of the mind, and then reason backwards to put in place contradictory preconditions as the basis of all things. He cannot have a world in which order and rationality are authoritative because that is the world God made.

Where the atheist cannot account for this debate we are having, the Christian can. The transcendent God is the Creator of all things, and He has formed the world to reflect His glory. Not surprisingly, we may then see the imprint of what He done in everything that has been made. Most importantly, we can see that we are created in His image, and so we then have a basis for assuming that our thoughts can in principle be coherent. And this is why the Christian does not contradict himself when he agrees to debate.

Given his assumptions, the atheist cannot account for himself. And this is why I began by saying that Dr. Drange has conceded the debate by agreeing to it. Every time an atheist attempts a proof he is pointing to the only possible ground of proving, which is the eternal Logos, and most certainly not matter in motion. If matter in motion is the basis for thought then we have no reason to trust any of our thoughts, including the quaint idea that matter moves. So every time an atheist enters a debate with a Christian (whether or not the Christian debates capably), the very fact of the debate nullifies every claim the atheist makes. In order to be consistent, the atheist would have to stop making truth claims, but even this attempt at consistency assumes the need for consistency, which, as we saw earlier, is inconsisent. There is no escape from the world God made.

Previous | Table of Contents

"The Drange-Wilson Debate" is copyright © 1999 by Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.