Monday 23 February 2009

Black and white circularity - the transcendental proof

During a recent search for information about the transcendental argument for the existence of God I came upon this website, "Proof That God Exists". Click on that link and you will be taken to an intimidating page of four large grey buttons that allow you to choose between four options:
  • Absolute Truth Exists
  • Absolute Truth Does Not Exist
  • I Don't Know If Absolute Truth Exists
  • I Don't Care If Absolute Truth Exists
Follow through this series of choices and you will inevitably arrive at the point where you will be invited to admit that you believe that God exists:
"To reach this page you had to acknowledge that immaterial, universal, unchanging laws of logic, mathematics, science, and absolute morality exist. Universal, immaterial, unchanging laws are necessary for rational thinking to be possible. Universal, immaterial, unchanging laws cannot be accounted for if the universe was random or only material in nature."
Which leads to:
"The Proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn't prove anything."
And then, via a choice between "I believe that God exists" and "I do not believe that God exists" you reach a page of FAQs, amongst which is this:
"By what authority do Christians claim the Bible as their ultimate authority?"
I pick this one out as it illustrates the particular circularity of the argument:
"Any claim to ultimate authority must be self-authorizing. If we use any other authority by which to authorize the Bible, THAT authority then becomes our ultimate authority. For instance, if we say that we will accept the Bible as our ultimate authority only if %100 of literary scholars say it is true, then those scholars become our ultimate authority, not the Bible. Christians therefore claim the Bible as our ultimate authority by its own authority as the word of God. I'm sure many people will say: "But that's using circular logic!" (using what is to be proven in the proof). What you must realize though, is that any claim to ultimate authority uses circularity, but not all can be valid."
Following this paragraph is a discussion of circular argumentation. It goes something like this: the believer's argument is criticised as being circular, but the unbeliever's argument is also circular, therefore the believer's argument is true. Unfortunately for this so-called proof, such reasoning also "proves" that the unbeliever's argument is true, because it is also circular, or "self-authorizing".

This section goes on at length about ultimate authority, completely missing the point that there is an assumption here that there must be an ultimate authority. The whole point of a worldview derived from atheism (meaning "lack of belief in a god or gods") is that there is no ultimate authority.

The problem with all of this is that the terms were not defined at the outset. Immaterial, universal, unchanging laws of logic, mathematics and science, absolute truth and absolute morality are the basis of the choices that are printed on the big grey buttons, but at no time are you able to question the definitions of these terms. The website's authors clearly have some simplistic notions as to what these terms mean, and these notions do not admit of any subtlety, preferring to railroad the hapless agnostic into an admission he or she may not really agree with.

Ultimately (a favourite word of this website), I take issue with their use of the word "immaterial", which they imply means that something is outside of the natural world, or to put it another way, supernatural. This simply isn't the case. Laws of logic, science, mathematics, even morality, may be immaterial in the sense of being abstract, but that doesn't make them supernatural.

(This so-called proof claims not only to prove the existence of God by use of a series of strict binary dichotomies, but also claims that the God it thus proves can only be the Christian God. All other gods, by this token, are false. This I didn't get - maybe I need a few more of those big grey buttons - or a course in philosophy.)

(Yay! my 100th Evil Burnee post! Shouldn't I celebrate or something?)

UPDATE 2009-02-27:

Today I listened to the latest Atheist Experience podcast, in which Matt Dillahunty engaged at length with another Matt (Matt Slick) about the Transcendental Argument for God. There is also a video version: