A defense of Van Til’s transcendental argument against the Stroudian challenge

Updated: Mar 5

For the background on Van Til and his TAG (transcendental argument for the existence of God), see this article on Van Til.

The Contemporary Transcendental Climate

The analytic trend in 20th-century philosophy dissuaded most from the study of transcendental considerations. The favoritism of analytical philosophy to study the minute details of a particular subject(s) is juxtaposed to transcendental arguments, which have wide-ranging implications. Nevertheless, transcendental reasoning is quite a common occurrence, and it need not be used solely in the context of Kant’s procedure. A. C. Grayling, a British philosopher well-read on the transcendental climate of today, gives a succinct summary of transcendental uses in contemporary secular literature:

Wittgenstein ... in the Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty argues transcendentally about the impossibility of private language and the possibility of knowledge, respectively. J. L. Austin ... argues transcendentally in formulating a theory of truth by distinguishing between demonstrative and descriptive conventions in language, his point being that some such distinction is required for a certain other concept—that of truth as correspondence—to have application. A different example is supplied by Gilbert Ryle in his use of “polar concept” arguments. The sceptical suggestion that we might undetectably be in error on any given occasion is refuted, Ryle claims, by the fact that just as we cannot have counterfeit coins unless there are genuine ones, so we cannot have a concept of error unless we have the concept of being right, and therefore we must sometimes know we are right

A. C. Grayling, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Epistemology It becomes evident rather quickly how the nature of secular transcendental arguments (hereafter TAs) differs from Van Til’s TAG. We see in these considerations no allusion to God, no allusion to broad worldview considerations, and the presupposition of the self-sufficiency of man’s mind, all of which, according to Van Til, reduce one’s position to skepticism and absurdity.

Another pivotal difference between contemporary secular TAs versus Van Til’s TAG regards the issue of a corresponding metaphysic to the argument. It is one thing to utilize a TA on a conceptual level wherein the conclusion is merely that we must believe the premises of the argument. However, it is another thing to utilize a TA on a metaphysical basis wherein the conclusion is that the external, objective world really operates the way the transcendentalist argues it does. Most, if not all, contemporary secular transcendentalists do not utilize such a metaphysical TA; Van Til does.

A. C. Grayling writes of this issue:

One of the crucial questions about transcendental arguments concerns what they might hope to establish. The options, simply put, are that either they establish the existence of something (an external world, other minds), or they establish that certain concepts are necessary to our conceptual scheme. Clearly these are quite different results, and the latter involves the further problem of whether our conceptual scheme is the only possible one, for if not the terminus of a transcendental argument is strictly relative.

A. C. Grayling, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy

Grayling refers to the ambitious, ontological TA of “establishing the existence of something” as an “option A” (hereafter Opt.-A) TA while the conceptual TA of “establish[ing] that certain concepts are necessary to our conceptual scheme” as an “option B” (hereafter Opt.-B) TA, the latter obviously being less forceful and meaningful than the former. Grayling continues:

The chief difficulty faced by option A is that even if one could show that it is a necessary condition of our having coherent experience that we possess and apply a concept of an independently existing world, it still needs to be shown that something “out there” answers to that concept; in other words, that it is a necessary condition of our having the concept of an external world that an external world exists. It is one thing to argue that we must have and employ concepts of space, time, causality and particulars conditioned by them, and another to show that there exist things corresponding to these concepts and existentially prior to their use.

A. C. Grayling, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy

We turn now to a particular philosopher whose TAs came under criticism from Barry Stroud, whose challenge this paper is addressed towards.

P. F. Strawson (1919-2006), an English philosopher, likewise put forth TAs of his own to refute skepticism in two areas: the existence of other minds and the perception-independent existence of material particulars [1]. While one may ascribe success to Strawson here—or the previous group of philosophers utilizing transcendental reasoning—the question to be asked is to what extent were his TAs successful? In his 1968 article “Transcendental Arguments,” Barry Stroud mistakenly attacks Strawson for concluding that his argument has ontological force [2].

That is, he believes Strawson concludes with an objective, metaphysical, “matter of fact” conclusion rather than a subjective, “we must conceptualize that” conclusion. Strawson was certainly not putting forth any ontological, Opt.-A TAs in his work; his TAs were strictly conceptual, Opt.-B arguments. Yet Stroud somehow misconstrues Strawson’s TAs to think that they are Opt.-A. Stroud was severely misguided in this analysis, but from it came to his very relevant challenge of arguing (as we have seen with Grayling) that conceptual necessity does not equate to ontological truthfulness. Another way of putting it is in arguing that we must believe something it does not follow from the premises that what we must believe is actually the case external to us. Such a criticism has dealt a lethal blow to the contemporary transcendental climate of today.

We must therefore ask whether or not this transcendental criticism has any relevance to Van Til’s TAG. Is Stroud’s challenge applicable to the presuppositionalist in that he can only ever prove the necessity of conceptualizing the truths of the Christian worldview? Or does Van Til’s argument overcome Stroud’s objection in showing that, objectively speaking, God and the truths of the Christian worldview are “out there” despite Van Til formulating his argument decades before Stroud coming into the picture? We turn now to a Van Tillian who argues that TAG does indeed succumb to Stroud’s challenge and thus needs to either be revised or rejected altogether.

Békefi's challenge

Bàlint Békefi is a solid brother in Christ as well as a very good-looking man. In his 2017 paper “Van Til versus Stroud: Is the Transcendental Argument for Christian Theism Viable?”[3] Bàlint argues thoroughly through both sides of scholarship to ultimately prove that Van Til’s TAG (his acronym, TACT) succumbs to the challenge of Stroud. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this conclusion, it is abundantly evident upon reading his paper that he is very well-read on the contemporary authors of TAs and the current issue at hand. There is no question in this regard. However, despite his vast knowledge of TAs, Bàlint has, in my analysis, either overlooked, taken for granted, or rejected foundational truths of the presuppositional method in order to postulate his criticism against the presuppositional argument.

Laying Out Stroud’s Challenge

Békefi does a great job in making clear what the Stroudian challenge entails. Crucial to it is the distinction in a proposition being self-stultifying and self-falsifying. He writes:

A proposition ... is performatively self-falsifying if its affirmation implies its falsehood; it is self-stultifying if its truth implies that one can never be rationally justified in affirming it.

Bàlint Békefi, Van Til versus Stroud: Is the Transcendental Argument for Christian Theism Viable

Herein lies the crux of the issue: “Stroud’s objection is that showing that we must believe something ... does not establish its truth” (emphasis original) [5]. In other words, it is not enough for the Van Tillian to show that the Christian worldview rationally justifies the preconditions necessary for intelligible experience since it does not logically follow, according to Stroud, that what we must believe is itself objectively true. However, Stroud’s critique also works in the inverse:

... the Stroudian thesis, can be formulated in the following way: (ST): Self-stultification[6] does not imply falsehood.

Bàlint Békefi, Van Til versus Stroud: Is the Transcendental Argument for Christian Theism Viable

That is to say, not only does showing a proposition’s rationality not necessitate its truthfulness but showing a proposition’s irrationality does not necessitate its falsehood either. The reason for this dilemma lies in the problem of egocentrism. At most, we can only know of the existence of our “self,” but any metaphysical knowledge beyond that is impossible. So, try as the presuppositionalist may to objectively prove the validity of the Christian worldview, at most, he can only prove the rationality behind it, not whether or not it is objectively true.

After giving a lengthy exposition, Békefi offers two ways by which the Van Tillian can formulate his TAG, and they run as follows:

(C1) If the negation of [Christian theism] (CT) is either self-stultifying or performatively self-falsifying, then CT is true.
(C2) The negation of CT is either self-stultifying or performatively self-falsifying.
(C3) Therefore, CT is true.

Bàlint Békefi, Van Til versus Stroud

Békefi implies that the preceding argument is enough to prove CT’s ontological necessity (if the presuppositionalist can prove that self-stultification necessarily implies falsehood). However, should this not be the case and Stroud is victorious, he offers stronger premises to this argument, and they run as follows:

(C1’) If the negation of (CT) is performatively self-falsifying, then CT is true.
(C2’) The negation of CT is performatively self-falsifying.
(C3) Therefore, CT is true.

Bàlint Békefi, Van Til versus Stroud

The crux of Stroud’s argument now comes into play. Békefi offers two routes by which the Van Tillian can circumvent the Stroudian challenge: The first he calls “Strengthening the second premise: The Biblical justification strategy,” wherein we can strengthen the premise that the negation of CT is self-falsifying, the second, “Weakening the first premise: The objection- undermining strategy,” wherein we merely show that the opponent’s position reduces itself to absurdity.

A. Strengthening the second premise: The Biblical justification strategy

Békefi begins by citing Michael R. Butler, who would’ve been considered Bahnsen’s protégé [7]. In his Master’s thesis on TAG, Butler writes:

... the Christian worldview is not a mere conceptual scheme. It claims to do more than simply provide us with the necessary preconditions of experience. The Christian worldview posits a sovereign, creator God who is both personal and absolute in His nature. This God is, moreover, a speaking God who reveals truths to us about Himself and the world. In His revelation to us He declares that He has made a world and that this world exists independently from Himself and us. On the basis of His revelation, therefore, which is itself a necessary precondition of experience, we can know truths about the world and God.

Michael R. Butler, The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence

From this analysis Békefi questions Butler in two regards, saying first that:

... while this could sound initially appealing, it is difficult to see how Butler’s response aims to answer Stroud. The fact that the Christian worldview ‘posits’ a God ... in no clear way contradict[s] the idea that it is ‘a mere conceptual scheme’ in its relevant aspects (i.e. being a set of propositions), which is being argued against

Békefi, Van Til versus Stroud

Immediately after, Békefi says:

Moreover, this response seems to be circul