TAG and the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept

An Overview of TAG and Internal Reasons Why It Must Fail


Because traditional arguments for the existence of god have proven inadequate to compel non-believers to belief, or to prove the existence of one god at the exclusion of its competitors, many modern-day apologists have resorted to alternative arguments which are purported to finally do the trick. From a believer’s perspective, the possession of an apologetic argument which proves not only that a god exists, but that only his god exists, would be highly prized by anyone who desires that others believe likewise.

The development of what has come to be called the “transcendental argument for the existence of God,” or “TAG” for short, has enabled apologists to think themselves in possession of just such a device. This argument is purported by its defenders as a proof not just of any god, but specifically of the triune God of Reformed Christianity. As Christian apologist Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen clarified at the beginning of his opening statement in his famous debate with Dr. Gordon Stein, “I want to specify that I’m arguing particularly in favor of Christian theism, and for it as a unit or system of thought, and not for anything like theism in general.” [1] Thus, if successful, TAG is a formidable argument which non-Christians should not ignore.

In this paper, I shall investigate what I consider to be the main thrust of TAG – namely that it accuses those who deny the existence of the Christian God of the New Testament of committing a breach of the rational hierarchy of knowledge – and identify two fundamental reasons why its enterprise cannot succeed. Those two reasons are, briefly, that, one, the idea of a god, which TAG is supposed to defend, commits the very error which it accuses non-believers of committing, and, two, the whole of Christianity itself as a worldview is inconsistent with the principle that provides the apparent force of TAG, namely the principle that rational knowledge has a hierarchical structure. Thus, if my criticisms are successful, then TAG cannot be successful, and non-Christians are justified in ignoring TAG.

An Overview of TAG and the Concept of Knowledge Hierarchy

Like any argument, TAG has a purported aim. It is best to leave it to the advocates of TAG to identify this aim. Bahnsen gives us a strong indication of what this aim is when concludes his opening statement in his debate with Stein with the following:

The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him, it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist worldview is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic or morality. The atheist worldview cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense, the atheist worldview cannot account for our debate tonight. [2]

On the face of it, as Bahnsen conceives of it, the “transcendental proof for God’s existence” lays down some very heavy charges against non-Christian thought, particularly atheists. It is maintained by presuppositionalists that these charges are secured by TAG. In order to examine this argument, we need a better understanding of how TAG is supposed to establish the position which Bahnsen presents above.

Atheist philosopher Dr. Michael Martin summarizes TAG in his paper Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God? (1997). Martin tells us that TAG maintains that certain things that atheists assume are true can only be true if there is a God. Primarily these atheistic assumptions are the beliefs that logical reasoning is possible, that scientific inference is justified, and that objective moral standards exist. So if an atheist uses logic to refute a theistic argument, uses scientific evidence to undermine some biblical position, or argues that God’s omnipotence and moral perfection are incompatible with evil in the world and consequently that God does not exist, TAG maintains that he or she is implicitly assuming God’s existence. Logic and science would be impossible without God, TAG’s advocates say, and the argument from evil assumes an objective standard of evil which is also impossible without God. Given this general description of what TAG is supposed to argue, Martin rightly complains that it is unclear exactly how TAG is supposed to achieve this end. He writes, There is, however, a problem that stands in the way of any clear direct evaluation of its validity. In order to evaluate TAG systematically it is necessary to have a clear statement of it. I have been unable to find one. To be sure, the conclusion of TAG is clear enough. However, although Bahnsen in his lectures reiterated TAG’s conclusion, he said very little about how this was reached. [3] Regardless of the absence of any clear statement of TAG, it is evident from the overview which Martin does provide that TAG wants to accuse those who attempt to use reason in their rejection of the Christian god-belief program of committing the fallacy of the “stolen concept.” This often undetected error of cognition “consists in using a higher-level concept while denying or ignoring its hierarchical roots, i.e., one or more of the earlier concepts on which it logically depends. This is the intellectual equivalent of standing on the fortieth floor of a skyscraper while dynamiting the first thirty-nine.” [4] In essence, this is the error of making use of an idea while denying or ignoring the basis on which it depends, and as such constitutes a breach of the logical hierarchy of ideas. A clear example of a stolen concept would be if someone were to say “There is no such thing as consciousness, and I can prove it!” A person making such a statement ignores the fact that the very concept ‘proof’ and the very act of making a claim (regardless of truth value) presupposes consciousness; he would not be able to make such a statement if the statement he wants to defend were true. Consider what TAG wants to argue: that the validity of logic, science and morality, claim defenders of TAG, necessarily presupposes the existence of the Christian deity, and so denying that this deity exists is cognitively erroneous. As apologist Douglas Jones explains,

If the Christian view of reality is not true, then knowledge is impossible. Only the Christian view of reality provides the conditions necessary for logic, induction, scientific progress, ethics, history, and the arts. As [Cornelius] Van Til says, “Science, philosophy, and theology find their intelligible contact only on the presupposition of the self-revelation of God in Christ.” … Though non-Christians will strenuously object to such claims, their objections against Christianity will all the while presuppose the truth of Christianity. [5]

If true, this would mean that non-Christian thought as such necessarily breaches the cognitive hierarchy of objective knowledge at a fundamental level, at the level of one’s “presuppositions,” as advocates of TAG put it. By ‘presupposition’, apologists generally mean “(1) a belief that precedes other beliefs; (2) a belief that governs other beliefs; (3) ultimate presupposition: the belief that governs all other beliefs, or the most fundamental commitment of the heart.” [6] Thus, a presupposition is an idea or commitment which underlies most or all other ideas and commitments.

In this way, presuppositionalism, the methodology behind TAG, acknowledges the fact that knowledge has a hierarchical structure to it, that there is a proper logical ordering of the conceptual elements which make up the sum of one’s knowledge, ranging from fundamental premises (“presuppositions”) to higher-strata inferences, conclusions and evaluations. What is meant when it is said that knowledge has a hierarchical structure? Dr. Leonard Peikoff, an Objectivist philosopher, offers the following points in this regard:

‘Hierarchy’, in general, as the Oxford English Dictionary reports, means “a body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another.” A hierarchy of knowledge means a body of concepts and conclusions ranked in order of logical dependence, one upon another, according to each item’s distance from the base of the structure. [7]

That knowledge is hierarchical is a vital point of recognition in the development of a rational system of philosophy. The fact that rational knowledge has a hierarchical structure is implicit in any syllogism or attempt to validate an idea. A syllogism attempts to show the logical (i.e., hierarchical) dependence of a conclusion on the premises proposed to support it. An attempt to validate an idea by reducing it to the perceptually self-evident facts on which it is based is the attempt to make this implicit hierarchical structure explicit. Questions such as “Why should I believe that?” or “What is your starting point?” acknowledge at least implicit awareness of the fact that there is a hierarchical nature to knowledge. Indeed, it is because knowledge has a hierarchical structure that logic is possible in the first place. Peikoff gives the following analogy to illustrate this fact in concrete terms:

Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. [8]

Thus, using TAG’s terminology, knowledge begins with, or is founded on, various “ultimate presuppositions,” or starting point, and the rest of knowledge as a whole is built on that basis as from the ground up. A rational philosophy is one which enables all knowledge to be integrated without contradiction. Thus, a consistent body of knowledge must be one in which all concepts, conclusions, implications and relations are consistent with that fundamental basis and integrated accordingly. Therefore, to enable a thinker to develop a consistent body of knowledge, his philosophy and the knowledge it enables him to discover and validate must be consistent with the fact that knowledge has a hierarchical structure.

Two Criticisms of TAG

The above points give us a vital clue on the nature of TAG as an argumentative defense of Christian theism. This clue is that TAG attempts to make use of the fact that knowledge has a hierarchical nature in its effort to defend the Christian worldview. Two general criticisms of TAG can be identified with regard to breaches of cognitive hierarchy, namely that the idea of a god necessarily commits the fallacy of the stolen concept, and that Christian theism itself as a body of ideas is in nowise consistent with the principle that knowledge has a hierarchical structure.

From what I have been able to determine, presuppositionalists do not identify the fact that knowledge has a hierarchical structure in explicit terms, i.e., they do not employ this fact as a general principle of thought which applies to the sum of one’s knowledge, even though they clearly want to make use of this fact in the construction of TAG. However, that TAG attempts to make use of this fact is clear, and it is here where TAG opens itself up to a two-fold crippling vulnerability. I shall now turn my attention to defending these two challenges.

First Criticism: Christianity’s Commitment to Stolen Concepts

Because it wants to defend the idea of a god, TAG itself cannot escape the fallacy of the stolen concept – the very error which it accuses non-Christian worldviews of necessarily committing. The notion of a god is vital to presuppositionalism and rests necessarily and explicitly on the primacy of consciousness view of reality, which commits the fallacy of the stolen concept by reversing the priority of the relationship of consciousness to existence.

I have argued the point that the notion of a god is an expression of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics elsewhere. Others have too. [10] However, I will offer some brief points here why the idea of a god disrupts the logical consequence of fundamental concepts.

Axiomatic Concepts and Axioms

We learned above that knowledge has a hierarchical structure, and at the base of that structure there are certain fundamental concepts which anchor that structure. In terms of a rational philosophy, these fundamental concepts are called axiomatic concepts. “An axiomatic concept,” explains Ayn Rand,

is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest. [11]

By virtue of their status as axiomatic concepts, we have an indication of their relationship to the rest of knowledge (namely that the rest of knowledge depends on them), and the means by which their truth is known (sensory perception). As such, axiomatic concepts form the ground or initiating terminus of rational thought, and thus cannot be defined in terms of prior concepts; indeed, there are no concepts prior to the axiomatic concepts, otherwise they would not be axiomatic.

Which concepts are axiomatic? According to Rand,

The first and primary axiomatic concepts are “existence,” “identity” (which is a corollary of “existence”) and “consciousness.” One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or “prove”) existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries. [12]

Axiomatic concepts are the base of man’s knowledge and enable us to form the first propositions, the axioms. “An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.” [13] So an axiom presents in the form of a proposition the fact identified by the corresponding axiomatic concept.

So, in the case of the axiomatic concept “existence,” we have the axiom “existence exists.” In the case of the axiomatic concept “identity,” which is a corollary of “existence,” we can say “to exist is to be something specific, i.e., to have identity.” This in turn implies the third axiom built on the axiomatic concept “consciousness,” which is “consciousness is consciousness of something.” Objectivism holds that the truths of these fundamental recognitions are inescapable as well as undeniable.

Objectivism holds that each of these axioms is implicit in any act of knowledge, from the simplest sensation, to the theory of relativity. There is always something that we know, that is, something must exist to be known. There must be something to be known about it, that is, it must have some identity. And of course our knowing it reflects the fact that we are conscious. [14]

The truth of these axioms is perceptually self-evident: “We directly perceive the facts which the axioms identify.” [15] Thus the truths which the axioms identify are both fundamental and self-evident. They are not derived from prior inference or proof; we need the axioms before we can infer or prove anything.

Thus, because of their unique nature, the explicit recognition of axioms and their fundamentality to knowledge enables thinkers to protect themselves from the errors of other thinkers. “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” [16] If for instance someone says that the axiom ‘existence exists’ should not be accepted as a certainty because it cannot be proved, he ignores the fact that he must exist and have consciousness of existence in order to contest this fact.

Metaphysical Primacy

Lying at the base of all knowledge is a relationship between existence and consciousness implied by the identification of the axioms. That there is a relationship between the objects of awareness (existence) and the means by which we are aware (consciousness), is undeniable. One would have to be conscious – and therefore be conscious of something – in order to dispute this. This recognition necessarily implies that the relationship between existence and consciousness is not a relationship of equals. There is a priority involved here, a hierarchical order implicit in any act of consciousness. This relationship sets in motion the very hierarchy of knowledge which TAG hopes to make use of in its aim to show that logic, science and morality somehow presuppose the existence of the Christian god.

But what is this relationship? Which of the two phenomena – consciousness, or its objects – hold metaphysical primacy? According to Objectivism, the issue of metaphysical primacy is “the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy.” [17] Since the fact that there is a relationship between existence and consciousness is inescapable, so is the nature of this relationship. This is why Objectivism holds that this issue is so important to philosophy: what is assumed to hold metaphysical primacy in the relationship between consciousness and its objects, will have system-wide implications for any knowledge built on it. The issue of metaphysical primacy dictates a thinker’s basic view of reality and thus dramatically influences his thinking.

Since there are two fundamental phenomena under consideration here, there can be, essentially speaking, only two basic views which a philosophy can assume on the question of which phenomenon holds metaphysical primacy over the other. Thus, Rand identified the two competing views of reality which are implicit in all positions which a philosophical idea or system assumes: the primacy of existence versus the primacy of consciousness.

The primacy of existence view recognizes in the form of principle that existence exists (the axiom) and that existence exists independent of consciousness. In other words, reality (the realm of existence) does not conform to the contents of consciousness; things are what they are independent of anyone’s wishes, desires, resentments, emotions, fantasies, etc. Since existence exists, that which exists is that which exists (identity) regardless of who likes it or disapproves. On the primacy of existence principle, the function of consciousness is not to determine reality or the identity of its objects, but to discover and identify it. When for instance a person wants to find out how much food he has in his refrigerator prior to setting off to the grocery store, he does not look inward into the contents of his consciousness in order to replace the facts of reality with his desires or imagination; instead, he looks in his refrigerator to discover and identify what is actually in there. In this way, he is acting on the primacy of existence principle (though he may not be aware of it in such terms), because he recognizes that what exists is the way it is regardless of his druthers.

Opposite to the primacy of existence principle is the primacy of consciousness view. This view holds that existence is in some way subordinate to consciousness, that things are the way they are not by virtue of the fact that they exist (as the primacy of existence teaches), but because of the desires of a consciousness. This is the view that reality conforms to consciousness, that, instead of acting to discover and identify the facts of reality by means of reason, the function of consciousness is to create and/or determine reality. On this view, one can persuade himself to believe that, if he has enough faith, reality will obey his commands and entire mountains will cast themselves into the sea. Explosives engineers need not apply.

The trouble with the primacy of consciousness view is two-fold: One, it contradicts the primacy of existence principle, whose truth is self-evident and inescapable. While the primacy of existence recognizes that existence exists independent of consciousness and that the task of consciousness is to discover and identify the facts of reality, the primacy of consciousness view contradicts this by reversing the relationship between consciousness and its objects, claiming essentially that the task of consciousness is to create existence and/or the identity of objects which exist. Since the primacy of existence is clearly true, the primacy of consciousness must be false.

Second, the primacy of consciousness commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. It essentially attempts to assert consciousness prior to existence, a concept on which consciousness depends. Since to be conscious is to be conscious of something, i.e., of existence, the notion of consciousness prior to existence asserts a concept while denying its precondition, which is existence. This is the fallacy of the stolen concept at the most fundamental level of cognition. Thus, the primacy of consciousness disrupts the rational hierarchy of objective knowledge at its very roots. Consequently, any philosophy which is built on the primacy of consciousness view of reality is one which cannot be consistent with the fact that rational knowledge has hierarchical structure.

Christianity and Its Assumption of the Primacy of Consciousness

The theistic view of the world is entailed in the branch of theology which is called cosmology. It essentially states that, for existence to exist, some form of consciousness must have created it. But of course, it would be obvious that this is false for the consciousness posited as responsible for creating existence would itself have to first exist in order to partake in any act of creating. Since this error would be readily detectable if it were stated in these terms, religion prefers to conceal this reversal in allegorical and metaphorical terms which direct the believer’s attention to concrete-bound images in order to disguise the philosophical error fundamental to the view as a whole. Nevertheless, the error is there and inescapable so far as one accepts the cosmology on religion’s terms.

I can think of no more explicit example of this than the Judeo-Christian god of the Bible which intentionally creates the universe “ex nihilo” (literally from nothing) and personally directs the course of history. From the first verse of the book of Genesis, to the last verse the book of Revelation, the Christian Bible unmistakably affirms the primacy of consciousness view of reality.

The claim that the universe was “created” is an attempt to explain the axiom that existence exists by asserting something prior, namely a form of consciousness which creates by an act of will. To have any hope of rationality, this idea would have to mean that this “something prior” exists (or existed at one time), otherwise it is an attempt to explain existence by appealing to the non-existent. However, this is absurd: we cannot assert anything prior to existence, for it would also have to exist, and thus there can be no explanation for existence whatsoever. In other words, just by asserting a god in order to explain the fact of existence as such, one assumes the very concept which “god” is asserted to explain. Thus, if we insist on expressing our fundamentals in terms of essentials, we can identify the fact that existence exists as our starting point. To ask “How did existence come to exist?” or “Where did existence come from?” is to ask for an explanation of existence, and this can only invite stolen concepts. [18]

Webster’s defines ‘universe’ as “the whole body of things and phenomena observed and postulated.” In other words, the “universe is the total of that which exists – not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything.” [19] If something exists or is said to exist, it exists as part of the universe, i.e., as part of “the whole body of things and phenomena observed and postulated.” This can only mean that asserting the idea of something existing apart from the universe is incoherent: it is literally to say that something exists outside existence. This is the self-contradiction committed by the frequently encountered religious claim that “God created the universe.” Such an idea can only lead to stolen concepts.

The Christian may try to get around this by introducing at this point a false dichotomy: “created existence” (e.g., the universe) versus “uncreated existence” (namely “God”). But in such cases even he acknowledges the need to start with something that is not created. In other words, he wants to have his cake, and eat it, too, by starting with a conscious being which exists with no beginning. That there is no evidence for such a being and that, on a proper view of reality (the primacy of existence), such an idea is completely unnecessary (it explains nothing) and serves only to destroy reason (by advancing the primacy of consciousness view of reality), he still wants to believe it’s true (or, he wants others to think he believes it).

If we brush away all the non-essential notions used to decorate and camouflage the essence of this idea, we see that the Christian idea of creation clearly attempts to make the universe dependent on a form of consciousness. God “created” the universe by commanding or wishing it into existence. This was supposedly a volitional act of consciousness and reality conformed to it immediately and directly: “nihilo” obeyed, and gave forth the universe upon the command of this invisible and supreme being. Thus already in the Christian doctrine of creation, the metaphysical primacy of existence is denied and the primacy of consciousness is established at the foot of the religious worldview.

Because this view of reality constitutes an intellectual assault on the axiomatic concept ‘existence’, it has obvious implications for the law of identity as well. According to the Christian view of reality, the identity of objects is dependent upon the will or desires of an omnipotent creator. As Christian apologist Justin S. Holcomb puts it, “God makes particulars in creation the way they are and determines that they will function as they do.” [20] In other words, identity is dependent on consciousness, since a will is a form of consciousness and it is a will which is said to dictate the nature of things. Thus, the law of identity, the principle which identifies the fact that an object is itself, is explicitly subordinated to consciousness functions (desires, no doubt). Something is what it is because a “personal being” wants it to be that way.

All of these notions tell us that the Christian view of reality is essentially that reality is a creation of consciousness, that reality conforms to conscious intentions. This is a view of reality which is called metaphysical subjectivism, and it springs directly from the primacy of consciousness view of reality.

Theistic apologists are often quite up front about this. For instance, Bahnsen holds that the “very essence of created reality is its revelational character.” [21] Clearly, the Christian view of reality is that reality is a creation of consciousness. Thus, reality cannot be absolute, nor can reality be said to be the final reference point to our ideas and claims. Instead, what is final is the “authority” of the consciousness which is said to have created the reality in the first place; since its desires have the final say, the ultimate standard for the Christian is whims. Statements to the effect that “God is a rational God” [22] not only beg the question, but also reduce to the fallacy of pure self-reference. The standard of reason and logic is the law of identity. But if identity is based on consciousness as Holcomb clearly wants, then on what basis could one say that this consciousness itself has any identity? [23] But if reality is a creation and its creator is a consciousness, is this consciousness itself real? If it is claimed that it is real, then why would we need to point to this consciousness in order to explain reality in the first place? The notion of a “God-created reality” [24] is thus a stolen concept arising from the belief that a god exists in the first place.

What then can we expect to be the ramifications of such a view of reality on knowledge? Consider the claim that there is a “supreme being” which is supposed to be “infallible” and “omniscient.” Such a being allegedly possesses all actual and possible knowledge as a part of its nature and is incapable of error. Such a being would have no need for reason; i.e., if it were consciousness, the purpose of its consciousness could not be to discover and identify the facts of reality (which is the task of reason), since it would already possess this knowledge. Thus, the epistemological ramifications of the primacy of consciousness view of reality should be immediately recognizable: it is the claim to knowledge without means. Thus, assuming the primacy of consciousness view, questions such as “how does God know?” miss the point: an omniscient and infallible being needs no means of knowing; it knows automatically, it “just knows.” Similar desires are expressed by believers: how do you know that a god exists? Jesus tells us “just believe” (Mark 5:36, NIV). In such a way, the primacy of consciousness can only destroy reason and knowledge, not enable it.

Apologists who defend TAG often claim that the Christian view settles the so-called “problem of induction” by asserting an omniscient god which “guarantees” the laws of nature somehow. But this same god is notorious for the mischief of his miracles. If the identity of objects is dependent on the conscious whims of such a being and thus subject to sudden, miraculous changes as we find exampled in the Bible, then induction is at best a guessing game for the believer: he could not know when a staff might turn into a snake, a burning bush might start to speak or a jug of water might suddenly turn into wine. Rather than solving this age-old matter, belief in a miracle-causing god can only render induction completely impotent. [25]

Certainly a better approach to fundamentals is in order, one which does not reverse the most basic priority which is self-evident in nature and implicit in every act of consciousness. An objective approach to philosophy is, by definition, one which explicitly identifies the distinctive relationship between consciousness and existence and enables a comprehensive system which is consistent with the implications of that relationship on the rest of one’s knowledge. To assert a view which reduces to the position that reality conforms to consciousness in some way, is to thwart this objective approach to knowledge, to mock it and to introduce a parody of knowledge in its place.

First Criticism Conclusion:

Given all these points, it is undeniable that TAG is an attempt to defend a view whose chief idea (the notion of a god) commits the very error which it charges against contrary views. It essentially claims that non-Christians commit the fallacy of the stolen concept while supposedly serving as a defense for a view which cannot escape this same error. It is bad enough to defend a view which is built on stolen concepts. However, it is even worse to accuse others of committing that very fallacy in the attempt to defend that view. This is intellectual hypocrisy. Thus, TAG should be abandoned by those who are interested in achieving rationality in their views.

Second Criticism: A Fatal Performative Inconsistency

The Christian worldview defies the principle that knowledge has hierarchical structure in all its major and minor doctrines. The elemental positions (so-called “doctrines”) of the Christian religion simply do not relate to or depend on each other in any logical fashion. There is no necessary inferential consequence from one to another. Instead, the various positions of the Christian religion are assembled like a hodgepodge of accidental narratives and mistaken for philosophical principle. For instance, two staples of Christianity are that there is a god which a) created the earth (the “doctrine of creation”), and b) had a son (the “incarnation of Jesus Christ”). But it does not follow from the position that God created the earth that God also had a son; b) in no way logically follows from or has logical dependence on a). Accepting one position in nowise infers or necessitates the other.

Additional non sequiturs can be identified from the elements of the New Testament, which are supposed to be taken more or less literally and accepted as the basis of rational thought according to TAG (since “every time the unbeliever attempts to reason, he is borrowing from the Christian worldview” [26]).
For instance, it does not follow from the position that god exists that

  • god had a son (it could have had 50 sons, a daughter instead of a son, or no children at all);
  • that this son was born of a virgin (it could have been that the son was born by a normal pregnancy, or not born at all, but just magically appeared “ex nihilo,” like the earth is said to have);
  • that this son gave moral instruction (he could have offered instruction in critical thinking skills, foreign language, agriculture, mineralogy, or no instruction at all);
  • that this son accrued a following of 12 disciples (it could have been two disciples, or 122 disciples, or none at all);
  • that his son was betrayed (it could have been the case that there was no betrayal);
  • that this son was brought to a trial on suspicion of sedition and convicted of a crime against the state (it could have been the case that there were more than one trial, that there was an acquittal, or no trial at all);
  • that the son was put to death by means of crucifixion (it could have been that the sentence was to do community service, or pay a fine, or that the means of capital punishment was by some means other than crucifixion, such as beheading or stoning);
  • that this son, now dead, was resurrected three days later (it could have been that the resurrection took place after 40 days instead of three, that there was no resurrection and that he was reincarnated instead, or that the stars in the sky rearranged themselves to clearly and unmistakably read “Jesus saves” in any human language, etc.).

All of these elements are the elements of a story which are supposed to be unique to Christianity. But in Christianity, they are accepted as “fundamental truths” upon which, presumably, all other knowledge rests. In other words, these story elements are treated as if they were philosophical profundities whose “truths” are somehow “presupposed” by any process of reasoning. Not only is there no logical necessity connecting these elements together into an integrated sum, there is no logical necessity connecting these elements to the foundations of reason and knowledge such that we should think that “the Christian faith, as described in Scripture, provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility” of rational thought, or that “without the theological and philosophical views of the Bible, [reasoning about reality] is at best arbitrary and at worse undermined.” [27] As Michael Martin asks, “Why suppose that Noah existed? And supposing he did exist, why think that he made a covenant with God…?” [28] How does accepting one position imply other positions which the Christian religion wants to link to it by means of multiple narratives (the books comprising the Bible)?

It does not even follow from the position that God exists that this God is also a “trinity,” or “three persons” in one “Godhead.” Presuppositionalists who recognize this disjunction have ceaselessly wrestled with it because it continually comes back to haunt their argumentative ambitions. Some have even developed a discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of TAG when confronted by an invented belief system nearly identical to Christianity, which they dub “Fristianity.” According to this hypothetical counterexample, instead of the Godhead having three persons, the “Fristian” has a Godhead of four persons; instead of a “trinity,” “Fristianity” boasts a “quadrinity.” [29] Since TAG wants to argue that “only the Christian worldview provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience” [30], apologists defending this position have found that they have no way of showing that “the preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience” depend on a Godhead of three persons rather than on one which has four. This problem, internal to Christianity and of central concern to the aims proposed by TAG, is just a hint of the enormity of logical problems which face Christian theism and any defenses which apologists try to craft.

The point here is that the tenets of the Christian belief system are not logically interdependent; accepting one position does not logically lead to or necessitate another. Rather, the relationship between its tenets are scriptural in nature, i.e., they are to be accepted because the entire contents of the Christian bible are to be accepted wholesale, as one enormous, compartmentalized package-deal whose individual elements and positions have no logical relationship to each other. This is not philosophy; it is story-telling mistaken for philosophy. Apologist John Frame admits as much when he writes, “we cannot assume that all biblical doctnnes [sic] can be shown to be fully [i.e., logically] consistent in terms of our present understanding,” and, consequently, that “theology ought not to assume that it can demonstrate the formal logical consistency of all its doctrines.” [31] This simply means that a Christian view of knowledge cannot consistently integrate the principle that knowledge has hierarchical structure, even though it is this principle on which TAG attempts to discredit non-Christian worldviews.
So far as presuppositional apologetics makes use of the fact that rational knowledge has a hierarchical structure, it does so only on a pick-and-choose basis: logic, science and morality, it is claimed, all presuppose the Christian worldview, thus implying that knowledge is hierarchical in nature. But the tenets of the Christian worldview itself, which is supposed to constitute the foundation of that hierarchical implication to logic, science and morality, as TAG wants to argue, have no logical hierarchical relationship with one another. The question which presuppositionalists must address, then, is: why should we expect that knowledge has a hierarchical dependence on the Christian worldview, when the interior elements of that worldview are not held to this same standard? TAG assumes a standard which the worldview it is supposed to defend does not itself honor.

I consider this to be a major defect of TAG, because it is a major defect in the worldview which TAG is supposed to defend, namely Christian theism. TAG must borrow from rational philosophy a principle which is foreign to the Christianity’s own doctrinal anatomy in order to argue for the exclusivity of the Christian worldview as one which “provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience.” (Butler) Thus, the general operational procedure of TAG is not consistent with the worldview which it sets out to defend; in fact, it is performatively inconsistent. And while it may be the case that some of the more astute proponents of presuppositional apologetics may sense this inconsistency on some implicit level, I have seen no evidence that any have identified this problem explicitly, let alone attempt to correct it. Indeed, to correct it would be to abandon Christianity altogether, since it is undeniable that knowledge has hierarchical structure.

Second Criticism Conclusion:

That the tenets of the Christian worldview have no necessary logical consequence amongst themselves has grave implications for TAG as a defensive argument and for Christianity as a whole. Essentially it tells us that the various positions of Christianity must be accepted without reason, for not only do the ideas of Christianity bear no self-evident or logically demonstrable relationship to reality, they have no internal logical consequence connecting them together into a whole, and, frankly, they are flatly incredible. TAG then expects one to swallow all of Christianity’s claims in one lump sum for essentially no reason whatsoever, save perhaps that its believers claim that it is all true. That the various tenets of the Christian worldview must be accepted as a package-deal is confirmed by those instances in which believers claim that the whole Bible is true when in fact they have investigated none or very few of its claims. In many cases, believers claim to know that the entire Bible is true when they’ve not even read it all. Consequently, they do not know what it is that they are saying is true. This can hardly be considered intellectually honest. Knowledge for Christian theism, then, is not a hierarchically ordered, integrated sum, but a “village of squat bungalows” in some imaginary landscape. Sadly, TAG ignores the disintegrated nature of Christian theism when it argues that knowledge logically presupposes the truth of its various, unconnected doctrines.

Grand Conclusion

Given all these points, we can see that, as a mechanism intended to defend Christian theism, TAG cannot fail to implode on itself. Since metaphysical basis of the worldview which TAG is supposed to defend, which is the primacy of consciousness, commits the very error which TAG accuses non-Christian thought of committing (the fallacy of the stolen concept), and since the worldview as a whole (that is, the doctrines which make up Christianity) is not consistent with the fundamental principle of which the strategy of TAG attempts to make use (the principle that rational knowledge is hierarchical in nature), defenders of TAG are guilty of intellectual hypocrisy. And to be sure, there are many other faults which can be identified in TAG, but the faults which I identify here are inherent in the very project of defending Christianity. The only conclusion available to us, then, is that recovery of TAG is futile.
[1] The Great Debate.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Martin, Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God? (1997).

[4] Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (New York: Meridian, 1993), p. 136. For a discussion of the nature of this error, see my essay Common Fallacies Atheists May Encounter When Dealing with Religionists See also Nathaniel Branden’s essay The Stolen Concept.

[5] The Futility of Non-Christian Thought.

[6] John Frame, A Van Til Glossary (pdf file), IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 35, August 28 to September 3, 2000.

[7] Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (New York: Meridian, 1993), p. 131.

[8] Ibid., p. 130.

[9] See for instance, among others, The Issue of Metaphysical Primacy, The Argument from Existence, How the Theist Checkmates Himself, andCorrecting Common Errors.

[10] See for instance Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (New York: Meridian, 1993), pp. 19-21. On page 43 of his book On Ayn Rand, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), Allan Gotthelf notes that “Both the concept of a ‘God’ and the arguments traditionally offered for the existence of such a Being involve fundamental violations of the three axioms,” concepts which must be presumed in order to deny or ignore them, which is the fallacy of the stolen concept. Since the very notion of “God” violates the axioms which one must presuppose, it should be clear that arguments for God which stand outside apologetic tradition, such as TAG, will similarly fail.

[11] Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Second Edition, (New York: Meridian, 1990), p. 55.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ayn Rand, “Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 155, emphasis added.

[14] David Kelley, The Primacy of Existence, Lecture 1, Side A, The Foundations of Knowledge, Institute for Objectivist Studies, 1999.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ayn Rand, “Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 155.

[17] Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, (New York: Signet, 1982), p. 24.

[18] In my essay Correcting Common Errors I show that the proper response to Heidegger’s supposedly puzzling question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is to point out the fact that such questions are fallacious because they invite the fallacy of the stolen concept.

[19] Leonard Peikoff, “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series (1976), Lecture 2; quoted in Harry Binswanger, ed., The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism A to Z, (New York: Meridian, 1986), s.v. “universe.”

[20] Knowledge Falsely So-called: The Theological Case Against Scientific Realism.

[21] Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1998), p. 189, emphasis added.

[22] John Frame, A Brief Response to Michael Martin’s Transcendental Argument for the Non-Existence of God.

[23] See my discussion of this aspect of monotheism in my essay God and Pure Self-Reference.

[24] Introduction to Apologetics.

[25] See my Dialogue on Induction for further discussion of this matter.

[26] James M. Harrison, The Presuppositional Apologetic.

[27] Justin S. Holcomb, Knowledge Falsely So-Called: The Theoretical Case Against Scientific Realism; emphasis added.

[28] Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God? (1997).

[29] For a brief introduction to this “special kind of counterexample to TAG,” see David Byron’s 22 July 1999 post to the Van Til List titled Re: Traditional Proofs, Traditional Arguments.

[30] Michael Butler, TAG vs. TANG.

[31] John M. Frame, Van Til: The Theologian, p. 31 (italics in original).


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