Theodore M. Drange
My task here is to critique Pastor Wilson's opening statement and in particular his formulation of the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG). He has made that difficult by not providing any clear statement of the argument. Nowhere does he identify any premises. Nowhere does he conclude "Therefore, God exists" (or anything equivalent). The reader would be justified in wondering: just what is TAG? I shall try to reconstruct it as best I can. First, it seems there is the Argument from Rational Thought (ART), a kind of inner core which may be formulated as follows:
(1) It is a fact that rational thought exists.
(2) There are just two possible explanatory frameworks for that fact: atheism and Christian theism.
(3) Atheism entails (or presupposes) materialism: the view that everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy.
(4) It is impossible to explain the existence of rational thought solely by appeal to matter and energy.
(5) It follows that atheism cannot adequately explain the existence of rational thought.
(6) In contrast, Christian theism can adequately explain it.
(7) Hence, there is a fact which can only be explained within a framework which declares the existence of the Christian God.
(8) Therefore, the Christian God must exist.
TAG, which is a kind of outer argument that makes use of ART, may then be formulated as follows:
(a) As shown by ART, the fact that rational thought exists entails the conclusion that the Christian God must exist.
(b) Thus, anyone who presupposes the existence of rational thought must also be presupposing the existence of the Christian God.
(c) An atheist who consents to a debate must presuppose the existence of rational thought.
(d) Hence, such an atheist must presuppose the existence of the Christian God, which is self-defeating.
(e) Therefore, to debate an atheist is to win by default.
I think that TAG is a fine argument with the sole exception of its premise (a). Since my only quarrel is with that premise, I shall direct my rebuttal exclusively to the inner argument, namely, ART. I have six main objections to it, as follows.
1. THE OTHER-GODS OBJECTION
Premise (2) of ART is false because there are other deities than the Christian God. For example, there is the God of Judaism and the God of Islam (neither of which had a divine son sent to save the world and neither of which inspired the New Testament). Pastor Wilson needs to explain for us how it is that the existence of rational thought can be accounted for by appeal to the Christian God but not by appeal to any of the other deities.
2. THE AGNOSTICISM OBJECTION
Another reason why ART's premise (2) is false is that one could try to explain the existence of rational thought without making any appeal whatever to atheism or theism. One could, instead, take an agnostic stance and disregard the issue of God's existence. If asked whether God exists, one could simply say, "I remain neutral on that question." Pastor Wilson needs to address such a neutral perspective and explain how ART (and thereby TAG) might be formulated with respect to it. One of the changes needed would be the elimination or modification of premise (2). However, that presents a problem, since, as the argument is presently constructed, there is no way to derive its step (7) without its premise (2).
3. THE NONMATERIALIST-ATHEISM OBJECTION
ART's premise (3) is false because, although all materialists are atheists, not all atheists are materialists. An atheist can quite consistently believe in basic constituents of reality not reducible to matter or energy. For example, an atheist can believe in the existence of universals (Plato's "forms"). He can also believe in such abstract entities as numbers or propositions. I know atheists who believe in nonphysical mental states and/or objective moral values. They would readily grant that such things are not reducible to matter or energy. So, they are not materialists, but as long as they deny the existence of God, they are atheists. With its premise (3) false, ART is an unsound argument.
I myself am an atheist but not a materialist. I would say there exist things that are not reducible to matter and energy. Consider, for example, propositions, which are abstract entities of a certain sort. They are neither sentences nor thoughts inside anyone's brain. By my theory of truth, it is propositions, not any sort of brain events or brain states, that have a truth value. Putting it crudely, a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds with an actual state of affairs (i.e., it says of something, X, that it has some property, and, in reality, X does indeed have that property). There is no inconsistency in an atheist holding such a theory of truth. At any rate, since atheists need not be materialists, ART is deader than a doornail. Without its premise (3), there is no way to get step (5), and without step (5), there is no way to get its steps (7) or (8).
4. THE SCIENCE OBJECTION
Turning to premise (4), I would say that although it may be true, Pastor Wilson has failed to establish it. Even though materialism is false, it may still be possible to explain the existence of rational thought solely by appeal to matter and energy. That would indeed be a daunting project! I shall not attempt it here (within our 15K restriction :). However, it should be pointed out that many scientists do make contributions to such a project. It is the subject of ongoing research within many sciences, including brain physiology, biology, and chemistry. From my understanding of the research, although it is as yet incomplete, it has not come up against any insuperable difficulty.
Scientists show how the chemical origin of life is compatible with certain natural laws. By appeal to mutations and natural selection, they explain the mechanisms by which life developed from simple to complex. They have theories about how "reason" operates and how it might have survival value. Pastor Wilson asks, "Why trust reason?" Organisms trust it because it works! In all this, there is very little appeal to chance, so his formulations of materialist explanations in such terms (e.g., "time and chance acting on matter," "random neuron firings," "minds and intelligence arising by chance out of inchoate matter," etc.) seem quite misguided and off the track. Real materialists do not ever say the things he attributes to them, but rather, mainly explain by appeal to observed laws (i.e., regularities) that pertain to the workings of matter and energy. Consequently, Wilson's soda-fizzing and other analogies should be rejected. Science has come a long way towards explaining rational thought in materialist terms, and to dismiss all that work by way of bad analogies is not a piece of reasoning to be taken seriously.
What Pastor Wilson needs to do to make his case for premise (4) respectable is, first, to directly quote the writings of scientists (or materialist authors such as Richard Dawkins) who are doing work relevant to the project of explaining rational thought in materialist terms, and then, second, to raise objections to those writings. Otherwise, with his inaccurate formulations of materialism, he is merely attacking a strawman of his own invention.
5. THE BURDEN-OF-PROOF OBJECTION
Pastor Wilson is setting out to prove God's existence, so if there should be any doubtful step in his reasoning, the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate it. It is not incumbent upon the critic of the argument to prove the falsity of any given step. To base the argument on a failure to refute it would be to commit the fallacy of Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam. This is another objection that relates to premise (4) of ART. Maybe that premise is true and maybe it is false. In any case, Wilson has not as yet adequately supported it. I hope he realizes that even if no one has ever shown premise (4) to be false, that in itself is no argument in favor of it, and the given premise may still remain quite doubtful.
Part of my reason for suspecting that Pastor Wilson may be confused regarding this point of logic is that he wrote:
"Just as the Christian is frequently called to give reasons why he believes in the existence of his God, so the atheist should be called upon to provide an accounting for the existence of his rationality."
Quite apart from the confusion here between atheism and materialism, the alleged comparison that is made just does not stand up. First of all, the existence of the Christian God is a matter of controversy, but the existence of rational thought is an observed fact. And second, giving reasons in support of a controversial belief is quite different from explaining (i.e., "providing an accounting for") a certain observed fact. The failure to explain a fact does not carry the same weight as the failure to supply a reason for one's belief. I think science has come far in providing a materialistic explanation of rational thought, but even if no such explanation were forthcoming, it would not follow from that that such explanations will never be given or that materialism is false. In other words, even if we request from the materialist "an accounting for the existence of his rationality," we cannot infer from his failure to provide it that materialism is an incorrect view. Although Pastor Wilson devoted a large part of his essay to an attempt to support ART's premise (4), much of what he wrote smacks of Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam. Certainly much more is needed before we can say that any decent case has been made for the given premise.
6. THE INADEQUACY OBJECTION
My final objection is directed at premise (6) of ART. It, too, has not been adequately demonstrated. How does Christian theism explain the existence of rational thought? Pastor Wilson wrote:
"The transcendent God is the Creator of all things, and He has formed the world to reflect His glory. ... we are created in His image, and so we then have a basis for assuming that our thoughts can in principle be coherent."
This is exceedingly unclear, especially since a transcendent being is supposed to be one that is outside space and time. It gives rise to several questions, which I hope Pastor Wilson can address:
Q1: Does God transcend logic as well as space and time?
Q2: What does it mean to be created in the image of "the transcendent God"?
Q3: How can a being who is outside time do any thinking or creating at all? Thinking and creating, as we understand them, both involve time.
Q4: Did God create time itself? If so, how is that possible? Did he exist before time?
Q5: How exactly does God create things? We need to understand this in order to explain anything by appeal to God's creative activity. If it is claimed that God's nature or methods are beyond human comprehension, then how can it be an adequate explanation [as claimed in premise (6) of ART], to appeal to God's creative activity to try to account for rational thought? Such a hypothesis needs to be clearly understood to have any value as an explanation.
Q6: Did God first create the universe and then wait ten billion years before creating life on earth and then another three billion years before creating humans? If so, how come? If (as Wilson claimed) God created things for his own glory, then why did he wait so long between the creation of the universe and the creation of beings capable of glorifying him? Also, why is it that there are not more planets in the universe containing beings who glorify God, seeing that that was his purpose? Our planet is like a speck of dust in the Pacific Ocean. Why did God make the universe so big if all he was interested in was us?
Without clear answers to such questions, any given theistic explanation of rational thought would be woefully incomplete and hence inadequate. And with such explanations inadequate, premise (6) of ART would be false. I am not claiming here that the given premise actually is false, only that there is some doubt about it and Wilson has so far supplied no reason to think that it is true. Clearly the burden of proof is on him to do so. In summary, then, although Pastor Wilson's approach to the topic is interesting and different from the usual approach, he has failed to provide good support for his belief in the existence of the Christian God. His main argument, which I take to be ART (as formulated above), has many defects. Its premise (2) is refuted by both the Other-Gods Objection and the Agnosticism Objection. Its premise (3) is demolished by the Nonmaterialist-atheism Objection. And its premises (4) and (6) are seriously challenged by the Science Objection, Burden-of-proof Objection, and Inadequacy Objection. With such weaknesses, it is clear that the argument, in its present form, need not be taken seriously. I hope that in his next rebuttal Pastor Wilson will come through with something both clearer and more substantial.
"The Drange-Wilson Debate" is copyright © 1999 by Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.