Butler’s Defense of TAG and Critique of TANG (1996)
Michael Butler in a recent paper published on the Internet has attempted to defend The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) and refute The Transcendental Argument for the NonExistence of God (TANG). In this paper I evaluate his defense and refutation.
Since I have already debated John Frame on the Internet and he has attempted to defend TAG as part of his critique TANG, it will be helpful to use Frame’s defense as a baseline for evaluating Butler’s defense and critique. I will ask if Butler has added anything new to Frame’s argument for TAG and whether Butler has raised any new problems about TANG. Since my debate with Frame proceeded in terms of the three categories of Logic, Science and Ethics, and Butler follows the same format, this paper will take the same approach. In order to avoid repetition I will utilize the arguments I used against Frame against Butler if and when these are relevant, without going into them in any detail. I will first present Butler’s views on logic which are similar to Frame’s and then see what, if anything, Butler has added. I will then do the same for the science and ethics aspects of TAG. For details of my arguments readers are referred to the original debate with Frame.
As I understand Butler’s argument he takes essentially the same position as Frame: logic is both dependent on God and necessary. Following Frame he hopes that by taking this position he can meet the argument of TANG that if logic is dependent on God it must be contingent. However, Butler makes no attempt to answer my critique of the claim that logic is dependent on God: logic is not dependent on God since there is nothing inconsistent about denying the existence of God but there is in denying the principles of logic. Frame tried to meet my critique by maintaining that God’s existence is logically necessary and hence could not be denied. However, Frame gave no reason to suppose this was so except to say that the Bible says so. I argued that this is hardly adequate grounds, that Frame’s interpretation of the Bible is questionable, that most Christians reject this interpretation of God’s existence, that Frame’s position presupposes as a subconclusion a modal version of the deeply flawed Ontological Argument, and that elsewhere in my writings I have shown that, far from God’s being logically necessary, God is logically impossible. Unfortunately, Butler does not seem have digested one of the main points made in my debate with Frame and makes no effort to meet my challenge.
Does Butler add anything to Frame’s position? Yes, he does. He attacks TANG by wrongly assuming that I am committed to materialism. Maintaining that materialism cannot give an account of logic, he says that I as an atheist cannot. But although all materialists are atheists, not all atheists are materialists. Indeed, many atheists have a pluralist ontology. For example, some atheists believe that neither mental events nor numbers can be reduced to material entities. I am not a materialist. I do not know whether mental events are reducible to brain states–the question is still open for me–and I certainly do not think that the principles of logic are so reducible.
The upshot of Butler’s defense is that he has utterly failed to defend TAG and refute TANG with respect to logic.
Again Butler’s view seems to be very similar to Frame’s and has all of their problems. For the sake of argument Butler initially accepts my definition of miracles as God’s intervention in the natural course of events. But he seems to maintain that in the case of an alleged miraculous event there could be a way of determining whether there is a genuine divine intervention or a natural cause that we are ignorant of. However, he does not say by what scientific means we could possibly make such a decision. Indeed, the assumption that some event is caused by a divine intervention would block scientific inquiry since it would mean that there are someevents that cannot be explained by scientific laws. But there is no scientific reason to assume this and, moreover, it is bad methodological policy to assume it. Following this policy would prevent one from discovering a natural cause if any is to be found. Butler is correct that Christian scientists might reject this but this is hardly to the point. I am talking not about what individual scientists do but about the institutional practices of science and the rules that govern that practice. Butler ultimately rejects, as did Frame, the definition of miracle as a violation of natural law that I adopt and substitutes his own definition which seems similar, if not identical, to Frame’s: miracles are simply departures from God’s usual way of proceeding. My reply to this is the same as my reply to Frame. Does God’s unusual ways preclude scientific investigation and the finding of causes in terms of natural laws? Although neither Frame nor Butler explicitly answers this question, it is likely that both would say "Yes." If so, my criticism still applies. If the definition does rule out the discovery of a scientific cause, I maintained that this would prevent scientific inquiry and would have the same unfortunate practical implications for science as the view rejected. Supposing that there are events that science cannot explain is bad scientific policy since it would prevent the discovery of scientific causes if there are any to be found.
Does Butler add anything to Frame’s argument? Yes, he does. He uses Bahnsen’s argument that atheists are committed to skepticism about the uniformity of nature and that only on a Christian worldview is belief in the uniformity of nature justified. It so happens that I have written a paper entitled "Does Induction Presume the Existence Of The Christian God?" on this topic that is being considered for publication. Since the editor of the journal I submitted this paper to has explicitly requested that it should not appear on the Internet before publication there, I can only briefly sketch in my arguments here.
First, I argue that Bahnsen uncritically accepted the skeptical arguments of Hume and his followers and did not seem to be aware of the fact that there have been many criticisms of Hume’s skeptical position. The truth of Hume’s inductive skepticism is not a given in philosophy as Bahnsen seemed to suppose. Rather whether inductive skepticism is justified or not is part of an ongoing philosophical debate. Second, I show that in the sense of presuppose assumed by Bahnsen, induction does not seem to presuppose the Christian worldview. Third, in any case I argue that the Christian worldview is compatible with the failure of the uniformity of nature. An argument based on Bahnsen’s answer to the problem of evil can be used to generate inductive skepticism within the Christian scheme. Moreover, Biblical passages that have been cited by Bahnsen, for example Gen. 8. 20-22, are compatible with the failure of the uniformity of nature. The upshot of Butler’s defense is that he has failed to defend TAG and refute TANG with respect to science. Unfortunately, a demonstration of the full extent of his failure awaits publication of my paper.
As I understand Butler’s argument he takes essentially the same position as Frame: ethics is both dependent on God and necessary. Following Frame he hopes by taking this position to meet the argument in TANG that if ethics is dependent on God it is arbitrary. He rejects the idea that God could make cruelty good because God’s immutable character is good. This point is similar, if not identical, to Frame’s point that morality is part of God’s nature. However, Butler makes no attempt to answer my argument made against Frame that ethics is not dependent on God since there is nothing inconsistent about denying the existence of God and affirming objective ethical principles.
Frame tried to meet my argument by maintaining that God’s existence is logically necessary and hence cannot be denied. But he gave no argument for this contention and this thesis has all of the problems connected with his defense of the dependence logic on God. Regrettably, Butler does not seem aware of my counter-argument nor does he even try to meet it. Again he seems not to have digested one of the main points emerging from my debate with Frame.
Following Frame, Butler asserts the impossibility of having impersonal moral standards. And like Frame he gives no argument for this claim. Butler also claims without argument that atheistic ethics must be subjective and relativistic. In my reply to Frame I referred readers to my Introduction to Atheism where I give arguments for basing objective ethics on nontheistic foundations. Butler has made no attempt to refute these arguments and indeed seems unaware of them.
A major position of my argument against the objectivity of Christian ethics has to do with the difficulties of objectively deciding what moral principles God has revealed, given conflicting religious traditions, and the problems of rationally choosing between conflicting interpretations within a single religious tradition. These issues were discussed at length in my debate with Frame but Butler does not consider them. In consequence, his defense of TAG is seriously incomplete.
Has Butler added anything to Frame’s argument? Perhaps one thing. He argues that it is impossible to go from factual claims to ethical claims– in other words, that "is" does not imply "ought." He maintains that atheistic ethics wrongly supposes this is possible. One thing he does not mention is that this alleged error is known in philosophical circles as the naturalistic fallacy. The other thing he does not mention is that strong arguments can be given that this alleged fallacy begs the question. It is dubious therefore that it can be used to refute atheistic ethics in which inferences are made from "is" to "ought." (See William Frankena, "The Naturalistic Fallacy," Mind, 48, 1939 reprinted in Readings in Ethical Theory, (ed.) Sellars and Hospers, pp. 54-62.) In any case, this same point has been used against theistic ethics. One cannot move logically from the factual claim ‘God wants X" to the ethical claim that "X ought to be done." The upshot of Butler’s defense is that he has failed to defend TAG and refute TANG with respect to ethics.
 See Michael Butler, "The Great Debate Gets Personal" Penpoint (August 1996).
"Butler’s Defense of TAG and Critique of TANG" is copyright © 1996 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.