Theist apologists and theologians have presented many arguments for the existence of God throughout history including the Ontological Argument, Cosmological Argument, Fine-Tuning Argument, the Argument from Morality, and many others — all of which having been refuted with various counter arguments. I’ve written about a few of these arguments in the past (1, 2, 3), but one that I haven’t yet touched on is that of the Transcendental Argument for God (or simply TAG). Not long ago I heard the Christian apologist Matt Slick conversing/debating with the well renowned atheist Matt Dillahunty on this topic and then I decided to look deeper into the argument as Slick presents it on his website. I have found a number of problems with his argument, so I decided to iterate them in this post.
Slick’s basic argument goes as follows:
- The Laws of Logic exist.
- Law of Identity: Something (A) is what it is and is not what it is not (i.e. A is A and A is not not-A).
- Law of Non-contradiction: A cannot be both A and not-A, or in other words, something cannot be both true and false at the same time.
- Law of the Excluded Middle: Something must either be A or not-A without a middle ground, or in other words, something must be either true or false without a middle ground.
- The Laws of Logic are conceptual by nature — are not dependent on space, time, physical properties, or human nature.
- They are not the product of the physical universe (space, time, matter) because if the physical universe were to disappear, The Laws of Logic would still be true.
- The Laws of Logic are not the product of human minds because human minds are different — not absolute.
- But, since the Laws of Logic are always true everywhere and not dependent on human minds, it must be an absolute transcendent mind that is authoring them. This mind is called God.
- Furthermore, if there are only two options to account for something, i.e., God and no God, and one of them is negated, then by default the other position is validated.
- Therefore, part of the argument is that the atheist position cannot account for the existence of The Laws of Logic from its worldview.
- Therefore God exists.
Concepts are Dependent on and the Product of Physical Brains
Let’s begin with number 2, 3, and 4 from above:
The Laws of Logic are conceptual by nature — are not dependent on space, time, physical properties, or human nature. They are not the product of the physical universe (space, time, matter) because if the physical universe were to disappear, The Laws of Logic would still be true. The Laws of Logic are not the product of human minds because human minds are different — not absolute.
Now I’d like to first mention that Matt Dillahunty actually rejected the first part of Slick’s premise here, as Dillahunty explained that while logic (the concept, our application of it, etc.) may in fact be conceptual in nature, the logical absolutes themselves (i.e. the laws of logic) which logic is based on are in fact neither conceptual nor physical. My understanding of what Dillahunty was getting at here is that he was basically saying that just as the concept of an apple points to or refers to something real (i.e. a real apple) which is not equivalent to the concept of an apple, so also does the concept of the logical absolutes refer to something that is not the same as the concept itself. However, what it points to, Dillahunty asserted, is something that isn’t physical either. Therefore, the logical absolutes themselves are neither physical nor conceptual (as a result, Dillahunty later labeled “the essence” of the LOL as transcendent). When Dillahunty was pressed by Slick to answer the question, “then what caused the LOL to exist?”, Dillahunty responded by saying that nothing caused them (or we have no reason to believe so) because they are transcendent and are thus not a product of anything physical nor conceptual.
If this is truly the case, then Dillahunty’s point here does undermine the validity of the logical structure of Slick’s argument, because Slick would then be beginning his argument by referencing the content and the truth of the logical absolutes themselves, and then later on switching to the concept of the LOL (i.e. their being conceptual in their nature, etc.). For the purposes of this post, I’m going to simply accept Slick’s dichotomy that the logical absolutes (i.e. the laws of logic) are in fact either physical or conceptual by nature and then I will attempt to refute the argument anyway. This way, if “conceptual or physical” is actually a true dichotomy (i.e. if there are no other options), despite the fact that Slick hasn’t proven this to be the case, his argument will be undermined anyway. If Dillahunty is correct and “conceptual or physical” isn’t a true dichotomy, then even if my refutation here fails, Slick’s argument will still be logically invalid based on the points Dillahunty raised.
I will say however that I don’t think I agree with the point that Dillahunty made that the LOL are neither physical nor conceptual, and for a few reasons (not least of all because I am a physicalist). My reasons for this will become more clear throughout the rest of this post, but in a nutshell, I hold that concepts are ultimately based on and thus are a subset of the physical, and the LOL would be no exception to this. Beyond the issue of concepts, I believe that the LOL are physical in their nature for a number of other reasons as well which I’ll get to in a moment.
So why does Slick think that the LOL can’t be dependent on space? Slick mentions in the expanded form of his argument that:
They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we travel a million light years in a direction, The Laws of Logic are still true.
Sure, the LOL don’t depend on a specific location in space, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t dependent on space in general. I would actually argue that concepts are abstractions that are dependent on the brains that create them based on those brains having recognized properties of space, time, and matter/energy. That is to say that any concept such as the number 3 or the concept of redness is in fact dependent on a brain having recognized, for example, a quantity of discrete objects (which when generalized leads to the concept of numbers) or having recognized the color red in various objects (which when generalized leads to the concept of red or redness). Since a quantity of discrete objects or a color must be located in some kind of space — even if three points on a one dimensional line (in the case of the number 3), or a two-dimensional red-colored plane (in the case of redness), then we can see that these concepts are ultimately dependent on space and matter/energy (of some kind). Even if we say that concepts such as the color red or the number 3 do not literally exist in actual space nor are made of actual matter, they do have to exist in a mental space as mental objects, just as our conception of an apple floating in empty space doesn’t actually lie in space nor is made of matter, it nevertheless exists as a mental/perceptual representation of real space and real matter/energy that has been experienced by interaction with the physical universe.
Slick also mentions in the expanded form of his argument that the LOL can’t be dependent on time because:
They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we travel a billion years in the future or past, The Laws of Logic are still true.
Once again, sure, the LOL do not depend on a specific time, but rather they are dependent on time in general, because minds depend on time in order to have any experience of said concepts at all. So not only are concepts only able to be formed by a brain that has created abstractions from physically interacting with space, matter, and energy within time (so far as we know), but the mind/concept-generating brain itself is also made of actual matter/energy, lying in real space, and operating/functioning within time. So concepts are in fact not only dependent on space, time, and matter/energy (so far as we know), but are in fact also the product of space, time, and matter/energy, since it is only certain configurations of such that in fact produce a brain and the mind that results from said brain. Thus, if the LOL are conceptual, then they are ultimately the product of and dependent on the physical.
Can Truth Exist Without Brains and a Universe? Can Identities Exist Without a Universe? I Don’t Think So…
Since Slick himself even claims that The Laws of Logic (LOL) are conceptual by nature, then that would mean that they are in fact also dependent on and the product of the physical universe, and more specifically are dependent on and the product of the human mind (or natural minds in general which are produced by a physical brain). Slick goes on to say that the LOL can’t be dependent on the physical universe (which contains the brains needed to think or produce those concepts) because “…if the physical universe were to disappear, The Laws of Logic would still be true.” It seems to me that without a physical universe, there wouldn’t be any “somethings” with any identities at all and so the Law of Identity which is the root of the other LOL wouldn’t apply to anything because there wouldn’t be anything and thus no existing identities. Therefore, to say that the LOL are true sans a physical universe would be meaningless because identities themselves wouldn’t exist without a physical universe. One might argue that abstract identities would still exist (like numbers or properties), but abstractions are products of a mind and thus need a brain to exist (so far as we know). If one argued that supernatural identities would still exist without a physical universe, this would be nothing more than an ad hoc metaphysical assertion about the existence of the supernatural which carries a large burden of proof that can’t be (or at least hasn’t been) met. Beyond that, if at least one of the supernatural identities was claimed to be God, this would also be begging the question. This leads me to believe that the LOL are in fact a property of the physical universe (and appear to be a necessary one at that).
And if truth is itself just another concept, it too is dependent on minds and by extension the physical brains that produce those minds (as mentioned earlier). In fact, the LOL seem to be required for any rational thought at all (hence why they are often referred to as the Laws of Thought), including the determination of any truth value at all. So our ability to establish the truth value of the LOL (or the truth of anything for that matter) is also contingent on our presupposing the LOL in the first place. So if there were no minds to presuppose the very LOL that are needed to establish its truth value, then could one say that they would be true anyway? Wouldn’t this be analogous to saying that 1 + 1 = 2 would still be true even if numbers and addition (constructs of the mind) didn’t exist? I’m just not sure that truth can exist in the absence of any minds and any physical universe. I think that just as physical laws are descriptions of how the universe changes over time, these Laws of Thought are descriptions that underlie what our rational thought is based on, and thus how we arrive at the concept of truth at all. If rational thought ceases to exist in the absence of a physical universe (since there are no longer any brains/minds), then the descriptions that underlie that rational thought (as well as their truth value) also cease to exist.
Can Two Different Things Have Something Fundamental in Common?
Slick then erroneously claims that the LOL can’t be the product of human minds because human minds are different and thus aren’t absolute, apparently not realizing that even though human minds are different from one another in many ways, they also have a lot fundamentally in common, such as how they process information and how they form concepts about the reality they interact with generally. Even though our minds differ from one another in a number of ways, we nevertheless only have evidence to support the claim that human brains produce concepts and process information in the same general way at the most fundamental neurological level. For example, the evidence suggests that the concept of the color red is based on the neurological processing of a certain range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that have been absorbed by the eye’s retinal cells at some point in the past. However, in Slick’s defense, I’ll admit that it could be the case that what I experience as the color red may be what you would call the color blue, and this would in fact suggest that concepts that we think we mutually understand are actually understood or experienced differently in a way that we can’t currently verify (since I can’t get in your mind and compare it to my own experience, and vice versa).
Nevertheless, just because our minds may experience color differently from one another or just because we may differ slightly in terms of what range of shades/tints of color we’d like to label as red, this does not mean that our brains/minds (or natural minds in general) are not responsible for producing the concept of red, nor does it mean that we don’t all produce that concept in the same general way. The number 3 is perhaps a better example of a concept that is actually shared by humans in an absolute sense, because it is a concept that isn’t dependent on specific qualia (like the color red is). The concept of the number 3 has a universal meaning in the human mind since it is derived from the generalization of a quantity of three discrete objects (which is independent of how any three specific objects are experienced in terms of their respective qualia).
Human Brains Have an Absolute Fundamental Neurology Which Encompasses the LOL
So I see no reason to believe that human minds differ at all in their conception of the LOL, especially if this is the foundation for rational thought (and thus any coherent concept formed by our brains). In fact, I also believe that the evidence within the neurosciences suggests that the way the brain recognizes different patterns and thus forms different/unique concepts and such is dependent on the fact that the brain uses a hardware configuration schema that encompasses the logical absolutes. In a previous post, my contention was that:
Additionally, if the brain’s wiring has evolved in order to see dimensions of difference in the world (unique sensory/perceptual patterns that is, such as quantity, colors, sounds, tastes, smells, etc.), then it would make sense that the brain can give any particular pattern an identity by having a unique schema of hardware or unique use of said hardware to perceive such a pattern and distinguish it from other patterns. After the brain does this, the patterns are then arguably organized by the logical absolutes. For example, if the hardware scheme or process used to detect a particular pattern “A” exists and all other patterns we perceive have or are given their own unique hardware-based identity (i.e. “not-A” a.k.a. B, C, D, etc.), then the brain would effectively be wired such that pattern “A” = pattern “A” (law of identity), any other pattern which we can call “not-A” does not equal pattern “A” (law of non-contradiction), and any pattern must either be “A” or some other pattern even if brand new, which we can also call “not-A” (law of the excluded middle). So by the brain giving a pattern a physical identity (i.e. a specific type of hardware configuration in our brain that when activated, represents a detection of one specific pattern), our brains effectively produce the logical absolutes by nature of the brain’s innate wiring strategy which it uses to distinguish one pattern from another. So although it may be true that there can’t be any patterns stored in the brain until after learning begins (through sensory experience), the fact that the DNA-mediated brain wiring strategy inherently involves eventually giving a particular learned pattern a unique neurological hardware identity to distinguish it from other stored patterns, suggests that the logical absolutes themselves are an innate and implicit property of how the brain stores recognized patterns.
So I believe that our brain produces and distinguishes these different “object” identities by having a neurological scheme that represents each perceived identity (each object) with a unique set of neurons that function in a unique way and thus which have their own unique identity. Therefore, it would seem that the absolute nature of the LOL can easily be explained by how the brain naturally encompasses them through its fundamental hardware schema. In other words, my contention is that our brain uses this wiring schema because it is the only way that it can be wired to make any discriminations at all and validly distinguish one identity from another in perception and thought, and this ability to discriminate various aspects of reality would be evolutionarily naturally-selected for based on the brain accurately modeling properties of the universe (in this case different identities/objects/causal-interactions existing) as it interacts with that environment via our sensory organs. Which would imply that the existence of discrete identities is a property of the physical universe, and the LOL would simply be a description of what identities are. This would explain why we see the LOL as absolute and fundamental and presuppose them. Our brains simply encompass them in the most fundamental aspect of our neurology as it is a fundamental physical property of the universe that our brains model.
I believe that this is one of the reasons that Dillahunty and others believe that the LOL are transcendent (neither physical nor conceptual), because natural brains/minds are neurologically incapable of imagining a world existing without them. The problem then only occurs because Dillahunty is abstracting a hypothetical non-physical world or mode of existence, yet doesn’t realize that he is unable to remove every physical property from any abstracted world or imagined mode of existence. In this case, the physical property that he is unable to remove from his hypothetical non-physical world is his own neurological foundation, the very foundation that underlies all concepts (including that of existential identities) and which underlies all rational thought. I may be incorrect about Dillahunty’s position here, but this is what I’ve inferred anyway based on what I’ve heard him say while conversing with Slick about this topic.
Human (Natural) Minds Can’t Account for the LOL, But Disembodied Minds Can?
Slick even goes on to say in point 5 that:
But, since the Laws of Logic are always true everywhere and not dependent on human minds, it must be an absolute transcendent mind that is authoring them. This mind is called God.
We can see here that he concedes that the LOL is in fact the product of a mind, only he rejects the possibility that it could be a human mind (and by implication any kind of natural mind). Rather, he insists that it must be a transcendent mind of some kind, which he calls God. The problem with this conclusion is that we have no evidence or argument that demonstrates that minds can exist without physical brains existing in physical space within time. To assume so is simply to beg the question. Thus, he is throwing in an ontological/metaphysical assumption of substance dualism as well as that of disembodied minds, not only claiming that there must exist some kind of supernatural substance, but that this mysterious “non-physical” substance also has the ability to constitute a mind, and somehow do so without any dependence on time (even though mental function and thinking is itself a temporal process). He assumes all of this of course without providing any explanation of how this mind could work even in principle without being made of any kind of stuff, without being located in any kind of space, and without existing in any kind of time. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere concerning the ad hoc concept of disembodied minds:
…the only concept of a mind that makes any sense at all is that which involves the properties of causality, time, change, space, and material, because minds result from particular physical processes involving a very complex configuration of physical materials. That is, minds appear to be necessarily complex in terms of their physical structure (i.e. brains), and so trying to conceive of a mind that doesn’t have any physical parts at all, let alone a complex arrangement of said parts, is simply absurd (let alone a mind that can function without time, change, space, etc.). At best, we are left with an ad hoc, unintelligible combination of properties without any underlying machinery or mechanism.
In summary, I believe Slick has made several errors in his reasoning, with the most egregious being his unfounded assumption that natural minds aren’t capable of producing an absolute concept such as the LOL simply because natural minds have differences between one another (not realizing that all minds have fundamental commonalities), and also his argument’s reliance on the assumption that an ad hoc disembodied mind not only exists (whatever that could possibly mean) but that this mind can somehow account for the LOL in a way that natural minds can not, which is nothing more than an argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy. He also insists that the Laws of Logic would be true without any physical universe, not realizing that the truth value of the Laws of Logic can only be determined by presupposing the Laws of Logic in the first place, which is circular, thus showing that the truth value of the Laws of Logic can’t be used to prove that they are metaphysically transcendent in any way (even if they actually happen to be metaphysically transcendent). Lastly, without a physical universe of any kind, I don’t see how identities themselves can exist, and identities seem to be required in order for the LOL to be meaningful at all.