Should we send PZ a bag of these? »« The Slick Transcendental Argument

TAG, you’re not it

As I’ve been away from the blog for way too long, I thought it’d be a prime opportunity to get back in the swing of things with my tuppence on the last AE TV show, and the whole dustup with CARM’s Matt Slick over his use of TAG, the Transcendental Argument for God. I’m going to comment, not on the show — which, sue me, I still haven’t seen, but which sounds to me like it was a terrific episode, due to the response it’s gotten from viewers both pro and con; I judge the show’s merits by how passionately it engages our audience, and not how well the hosts did or didn’t do, as you always find yourself Monday-morning-quarterbacking the damn thing once it’s done — but the argument as Slick presents it on CARM’s site. He is known to boast that no atheist has ever been able to respond to it, which I find hard to believe, since its flaws are readily apparent.

I won’t make this as epic a post as my recent two-parter replying to questions from apologists like Habermas. And it isn’t going to be the ultimate in comprehensive refutations of TAG either; there’s a lot more that other writers have said than I even begin to touch on here. I’ll just cut to the chase: the argument essentially tries to establish that the universe operates logically, and that it could not do so if the Christian God had not set it up that way.

When discussing what he terms logical absolutes, Slick is largely correct. The three laws are accurate as far as I can determine, and he’s right when he says that truth cannot be self-contradictory and so on. If there were no minds in the universe to think about these things, a rock on a barren planet would still conform to the law of identity. It would be what it is, and not be what it isn’t. Slick’s sound on his premises more or less, but keep in mind that what he’s talking about here are logical absolutes — that is to say, unadorned, bald, ontological facts about reality — and not the formalized methods of logic as an intellectual discipline. This distinction is important, as Slick will begin sneakily conflating the two as he gets closer to his conclusion.

Where Slick starts wobbling is in 4C.

4. Logical Absolutes are transcendent

    A. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on space.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we traveled a million light years in a direction, logical absolutes are still true.
    B. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on time.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we traveled a billion in the future or past, logical absolutes are still true.
    C. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking.
    1. People’s minds are different. What one person considers to be absolute may not be what another considers to be absolute. People often contradict each other. Therefore, Logical Absolutes cannot be the product of human, contradictory minds.
    2. If Logical Absolutes were the product of human minds, then they would cease to exist if people ceased to exist which would mean they would be dependent on human minds. But this cannot be so per the previous point.

You may have notice how carefully a card has been palmed under C. Slick states that absolutes are not dependent on people. What he should have said here, as it would have been more strictly accurate, is not “people” but “minds.” For one thing, minds are what he’s talking about, after all, not spleens or toenails. And in points C1 and C2, he does clarify that he’s referring to minds. But why set things up by referring to human minds specifically? Because he wants to leave the backdoor open for a transcendent, supernatural mind, conveniently belonging to his God, as an explanation for logical absolutes.

Having palmed his card in 4C, Slick switches it in point 6. Watch carefully:

6. Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature

    Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature.
    1. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

Did you catch that? Moments ago, Slick was telling us that logical absolutes cannot be the product of minds. Then here, he switches from talking about logical absolutes to logic-the-discipline, which very much is a “process of the mind”. Then in his very next sentences, he switches right back to absolutes again, declaring them “conceptual” (that is, the products of mind) right after telling us, more or less correctly, that flawed human minds cannot have anything to do with them. There’s the conflation of logical absolutes with logic-the-discipline.

Slick doesn’t want logical absolutes to be the product of flawed material human minds, but he wants them to be the product of someone’s mind, namely God’s. So he has to introduce a bit of legerdemain at the right moment in his proof to get himself to his God. Which brings us to point 7, in which Slick, having laid down a number of observations of logical absolutes in nature, proceeds to pull God out of his hat in the mother of all non sequiturs.

7. Thoughts reflect the mind

  1. A person’s thoughts reflect what he or she is.
  2. Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.
  3. Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind.
  4. We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Sorry, Matt, but absolutely nothing in the preceding six points has supported the conclusion you reach in your seventh. You could just as meaningfully have written, “We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo.”

Let’s get down to a few details. First off, logical absolutes. Here is where Don Baker and Slick really tussled on the show, and I think shows how Slick’s conflation of concepts in logic have really muddied the waters here. Let’s just take one of the three absolutes: the law of identity.

What the law of identity describes is a condition of reality that exists, independent of mind or anything else. That anywhere in the universe, whether there is life and a mind to observe it or not, an existing thing will be what it is, and it won’t be what it isn’t.

But in determining that such absolutes are not contingent upon minds, and furthermore, that a mind is a flawed thing that can make incorrect judgments about things, Slick is at a loss to explain them. He does not wish to consider that a fact of nature may simply be a fact of nature. So he has to jump to the conclusion that a transcendent mind must have conceived of what the flawed human mind cannot. Then, Slick just decides to call that mind God, even though there is nothing in the entire preceding argument whatsoever to lead one to conclude, logically, that such a transcendent mind must necessarily be that of the Biblical God. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After everything Slick has constructed in a largely impressive-sounding proof, he simply gives us an upmarket, designer-label variant of “God of the Gaps”.

There are other little nagging flaws you could nitpick to death, such as the faux-conclusion “Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.” The natural response here is to ask Slick how he, with his imperfect and flawed human mind, can consider himself in any position to recognize an absolutely perfect thought when he encounters it. And remember, when this whole argument started, logical absolutes were not the product, nor could they be, of a mind at all. Until point 6, when logic-the-discipline and logical absolutes did a brief switcheroo that allowed Slick to shoehorn in his pe
rfect, transcendent mind. Then, the “absolutes” became “conceptual,” and thus contingent upon an “absolutely perfect mind.”

But there’s another problem.

For the “perfect, transcendent mind” Slick proposes to exist, it must conform as well to logical absolutes like the law of identity. If God exists, he must be God. Even if he were a God who could magically change his form into a fish or talking donkey or what have you, he would still, in those situations, be God. He wouldn’t be God and Not-God. He couldn’t be all-powerful and possess no powers whatsoever at the same time.

So for God to exist, he must exist in a logical framework. Thus logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon God. God must be contingent upon logical absolutes. QED.

Slick purports to address a number of objections, though he doesn’t really refute the objections he lists so much as ask questions about them. I’ll only deal with the first two.

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

If you work from a primacy-of-existence metaphysics as I do, then you realize that a logical order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. Existence exists, which is not a statement that requires a proof, I shouldn’t think. And to exist is to exist as something, as George H. Smith pointed out in Atheism: The Case Against God. I suppose a person could propose the existence of something that took no form whatsoever (in fact, they’ve done so: it’s God). But then you’re stuck trying to offer proofs. And yet, what’s the difference between something that takes no form of any kind, and something that does not exist?

Also, notice again how slick Slick is with his language here. Once more, the logical absolutes that are not in any way a product of mind have become “conceptual” absolutes when Slick needs them to. Well, while the law of identity as it is put into words by logicians may be “conceptual,” the thing the law describes is an actual, not conceptual, absolute. And actual absolutes are inherent in nature. Unless my imperfect mind is totally misrepresenting nature to me, and I’m just a brain in a vat! Blub, blub.

Logical Absolutes simply exist.

  1. This is begging the question and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

But Matt, your whole argument here has been in aid of getting you to God, a being whom you assume simply to exist, and for whose existence, if you were asked, you would say did not require an explanation.

Since I consider existence to be a causal primary, I don’t think an explanation is needed for the existence of existence. But even though I’ll willingly admit I could be wrong, I think my position is at least more sound than yours, in that existence really does exist, obviously enough so that it shouldn’t require proof, as your God does. And as I’ve explained, your God would have to adhere to logical absolutes like the law of identity himself in order to exist. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than TAG in future if you want to demonstrate God’s existence, let alone that the universe is contingent upon him.

Comments

  1. says

    Martin — bravo, you have hit the nail on the head as usual. My summary of objections to Slick’s TAG would be:1. It’s little more than “god of the gaps” in a cheap tuxedo, to borrow a phrase.2. Logical principles simply describe the nature of reality. They are first principles and do not require an explanation.3. It is contradictory to claim that logical principles require an explanation for their existence, while god does not.I certainly think that between the Atheist Experience bloggers and commentators, we have collectively buried this argument. Will Slick at least acknowledge that we have made some worthwhile points, or even read what’s been written here? I’m not holding my breath. The problem with apologists is that they tend to stake their reputations to their favorite arguments, and have no face-saving exit strategy; thus they tend to simply repeat their arguments ad infinitum and declare them to be irrefutable, regardless of what atheists have to say.

  2. says

    Martin, I’ve been puzzling over this episode of the AE for a few days now, trying to figure out just how Slick broke his own rules, or cheated. It all became clear when you explained the difference between logical absolutes and logic the discipline. If slick calls back I hope that the hosts discuss this distinction with him and, if we’re lucky, break his mind. thanks.

  3. says

    There’s been a guy on pharyngula who has been using a variant of this argument for weeks, it’s quite a frustrating endeavour.To me the argument poses the same problem as highlighted by the Euthyphro dilemma. If God created logic, then God should be able to change logic, so that 2+2=5. If God can not, then logic has to be transcendental to God and positing God as a solution adds nothing to the discussion.

  4. says

    Slick goes awry from the very first statement. Logic is a process for manipulating statements, and need not — as countless mathematicians have demonstrated — be about the world. We have discovered empirically that transforming our statements about the world according to certain rules yields accurate predictions and concise explanations. This empirical discovery, however, confers no special status on logic as transcendent. If we were to empirically discover that logic did not yield accurate predictions and concise explanations, it would be logic that must give way, not the world.

  5. says

    One thing I (and others) attempted to explain at great length to one of the new brand of transcendental logic apologists is that there are well-known, well-documented facts about the world that do not “follow” the laws of logic (as an aside, reality doesn’t follow laws at all; it is what it is and our laws describe what it does, which is something else the apologists refused to grasp).For example, I can do the two-slits experiment in my living room to demonstrate that the law of non-contradiction does not apply to all of existence; light is both a wave and a particle. At the very same time, it is both a wave and not a wave, as well as both a particle and not a particle.In “Middle World,” we where exist, a rock cannot be both wholly a rock and wholly a dog at the same time (It cannot be both A and ~A), and the law of non-contradiction describes this observable fact. But at the quantum level, these intuitive formulations of commonsense observations break down. Light is both A and ~A at the exact same time.To maintain some sort of transcendent truth about laws and axioms of logic in the face of clear physical proof to the contrary seems to me just plain ignorant.

  6. says

    In summary, logic absolutes are not dependent on a mind (step 4), so must therefore be the product of a mind (step 7). Good job finding the contradiction.That reminds me of the several-step proof that everyone has seen in high school to prove that 1=2. Everyone knows it’s bogus, but it takes a little attentive work to figure out where the manipulation went wrong. Then someone figures out that the variable b was equal to zero, and in step 5 you divided both sides of the equality by b, therefore invalidating any further results.The difference here is that Matt S. seems really to believe it. Or does he? Did he separate the statement in step 4 from the contradiction in step 7, so that it would be harder to notice?

  7. says

    The absolute law of non-contradiction described by Slick has a TIME dependence associated with it. That is, something cannot be both true and false at the same time. Well, how can this be tested in a situation where a universe doesn’t exist? There is no time and space, so how can you sequence two or more events together at the same time. Since no time exists, the TAG contradicts itself with the law of non-contradiction, which is supposed to be absolute and transcendent. But, since it cannot be applied outside of a universe, it is not transcendent as Slick has stated. This single contradiction shows that the TAG is invalid and cannot be proven.Logic is derived from humans’ attempts to make sense of the world around them. Therefore an existing universe is automatically implied. Logic is also validated by humans by using observations in the universe. If logic is transcendental (outside of space-time), then we have a logical fallacy; by its very nature, it would be impossible for it to be conceived and exist because there would not be any universe for its application. Therefore it becomes unnecessary, redundant and moot.Does this make sense or not folks?

  8. says

    One of the points where this particular TAG makes me boggle is this: “Thoughts reflect the minds.”They most certainly don’t. I can think of unicorns, but that doesn’t mean I believe in unicorns. I can think about driving off a cliff but never actually do it. At best, our thoughts might be expressions of hidden feelings, but otherwise they’re ephemeral tidbits of electrical discharge in the brain.Moreover, if a perfect mind exists but it conceived of an imperfect universe, then it is not a perfect mind, by this rule. I suppose CARM would fall back on Liebniz’s old “Best of All Possible Worlds” scenario, which is what any TAG basically just rephrases.One more problem is worth noting, if only for the laughs I get out of it. We can conceive of the identity principle easily. I can understand “1=1″. One thing my mind can’t possibly conceive is “3=4″. However, I would have to suppose an omnipotent god can conceive of “3=4″ as well as “2=5″ or “sheep=radish”. If the thoughts reflect the mind, and god can have infinitely more imperfect thoughts than perfect ones (after all, there is only one ‘perfection’, right?), does that mean god is ultimately more imperfect than perfect?Of course, we get back to Euthyphro and rocks so big that god cannot lift them.The idea of omnipotence is inherently illogical – why do people try to use logic to prove it must exist?

  9. says

    Martin or Matt D,I have some questions. How do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic, on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?

  10. says

    Dan, Dan, parroting Sye TenB’s tired old presuppositional BS is just lame.Please prove the impossibility of the contrary and maybe you might have something more than circular reasoning and logical fallacies.

  11. says

    freddies_dead ,Of course what you fail to realize, is that in order for something to be logically fallacious, there must be absolute laws of logic, by which the fallacy can be determined. Problem is, your worldview cannot account for such laws, so you expose your inconsistency by claiming that a fallacy exists.

  12. says

    Yawn – they exist in your worldview, if you insist on ignoring them for your own argument (and hence making it fallacious by your own standards) then it doesn’t matter whether I can account for them or not.Do you have proof of “the impossibility of the contrary” or were you waiting for Sye to come up with an answer?

  13. says

    freddies_dead,Do you have proof of “the impossibility of the contrary” or were you waiting for Sye to come up with an answer?Nope the Bible took care of that for us a long time ago. But Dr. Greg Bahnsen sure worded it nicely:Because of your rejection of God’s revealed truth, you have “become vain in your reasonings” (Rom. 1:21). By means of your foolish perspective they end up “opposing yourself” (2 Tim. 2:25). You follow a conception of knowledge which does not deserve the name (1 Tim. 6:20). Your philosophy and presuppositions rob you of knowledge (Col. 2:3, 8), leaving you in ignorance (Eph. 4:17-18; Acts 17:23). I aim here to cast down your reasonings (2 Cor. 10:5) and to challenge you in the spirit of Paul: “Where is the wise? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).Freddie is Dead alright, you are spiritually bankrupt. Psst, I am also, that is why we need Him.

  14. says

    So that’s it, you have no proof so you go back to the Bible. The Bible is the word of God because the Bible says it’s the word of God. Those verses hold no authority if your God does not exist and yet you can’t prove his existence if you don’t first accept the authority of the Bible.I may be spiritually bankrupt but at least I’m not wasting my time trying to get a loan from a bank that doesn’t exist.

  15. says

    freddies_dead,So that’s it, you have no proof so you go back to the Bible. If God exists then the Bible holds ultimate authority then. True?Mere assertions like the Bible has no authority and God doesn’t exist is just pointless. Back up claims with evidence. You cannot justify folding of ones arms never accepting any evidence. You cannot reject all evidence presented without refuting it so lets put things to the test. Of course there is evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, for God and Christ. Just because you don’t accept it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.Do you have any evidence to back that claim up? Do you admit that it is possible that an omniscient, omnipotent being could reveal some things to us, such that we can be certain of them?There are counters for every single perceived contradiction out there. Also logic says the Bible is supernatural and there is overwhelming evidence for Jesus Christ.And you still haven’t answered the million dollar questions of how do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic, on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?There is your proof, puddin. Any excuses, counters, or refutations? Are you going to present mere assertions and denial? I will patiently await for a response.

  16. says

    Dan +†+ said…If God exists then the Bible holds ultimate authority then. True?If he exists then it would be irrational to ignore the bible contents. Unfortunately it’s the existing bit that youhave yet to prove.Mere assertions like the Bible has no authority and God doesn’t exist is just pointless. Back up claims with evidence. You cannot justify folding of ones arms never accepting any evidence. You cannot reject all evidence presented without refuting it so lets put things to the test. Of course there is evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, for God and Christ. Just because you don’t accept it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.Oh, the irony – Mere assertions like the Bible has authority and God does exist are just pointless. Back up claims with evidence. You cannot justify folding of ones arms never accepting any evidence. You cannot reject all evidence presented without refuting it so lets put things to the test. Of course there is evidence, beyond reasonable doubt for an old universe and evolution. Just because you don’t accept it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.Do you have any evidence to back that claim up? Do you admit that it is possible that an omniscient, omnipotent being could reveal some things to us, such that we can be certain of them?Yes, by granting us omniscience – anything else would just mean we’d believe we are certain, we wouldn’t be able to a) verify that the being making the revelation is who they say they are or b) verify that the revelation is actually true – if you have another means it could be done, by all means describe it.There are counters for every single perceived contradiction out there.Handwaving and rhetoric, Christian Apologists doing all kind of mental gymnastics to try and ‘harmonise’ away the problems. A perfect being would never have allowed contradictions in the first place. They’re just evidence of the Bible’s more mundane human origins IMO.Also logic says the Bible is supernaturalNot one of Derickson’s condensations of Chafer’s ‘thoughts’ is evidence, they’re just assertions with nothing to back them up.and there is overwhelming evidence for Jesus Christ.That’s your evidence? A ~140 y/o hypothetical go at proving the Bible by the legal standards of 1874? 1874? are you sure? Greenleaf died in 1853. He basically accepts the providence of the Gospels, although it must be pointed out that this in no way validates the contents. He then assumes the veracity of the authors and finally suggests they are eyewitness testimony despite it being hearsay and as such inadmissible in a court of law.And you still haven’t answered the million dollar questions of how do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic, on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?Asked and answeredThere is your proof, puddin. Any excuses, counters, or refutations? Are you going to present mere assertions and denial? I will patiently await for a response.

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