Is the Transcendental Argument a “Magic Bullet”?

Sometimes the term “magic bullet” or “silver bullet” comes up in discussions of Van Tilian apologetic methodology. The term is typically if not always used in a negative sense in reference to transcendental argument. Its use is not limited to any particular attitude toward Van Tilian apologetics. The first time I saw the term used was in John Frame. Paul Manata has used it in critiquing “right wing” Van Tilianism. K. Scott Oliphint has used it to correct misunderstandings of Van Til’s thought. Sometimes atheists use it. Many others do as well. So the use of the phrase in question is not immediately indicative of any particular party loyalty.

Apparently the aforementioned parties know what they mean when they say things like, “The transcendental argument is not a magic bullet.” I confess that I do not know what is meant by this statement. Nobody believes that Van Til killed Kennedy (I mean, maybe somebody in California does), and most Christians do not believe in werewolves (though some of my debate opponents have made me question how firm my position is concerning such matters). Sometimes clarifying remarks offered on behalf of the aforementioned statement are as confusing as the statement itself. For example, “What we mean is that ‘TAG’ is not a ‘knock-em-down-drag-em-out’ argument.” Thank you. Very helpful.

Perhaps what is meant is that the so-called transcendental argument of Cornelius Van Til (and part of the difficulty here may just be what that argument looks like) is not persuasive. If so, then the claim is false, as I find the argument persuasive. Of course the argument does not persuade everyone. I am not sure whether anyone has ever claimed that it does, and since there is no difference between an explicitly Van Tilian argument and any other type of argument concerning this point, nothing of any great significance is encapsulated in the phrase.

But persuasion may not be the emphasis of the “critique.” Perhaps what is meant is that the Van Tilian holds that there are a number of arguments available to the apologist, but a transcendental argument is the only one that will “do the trick.” But assuming this view of the Van Tilian is correct, what does it mean for an argument to “do the trick”? It cannot mean “persuade.” The critic may be taking the Van Tilian as saying that “the” transcendental argument is the only sound Christian theistic proof. A word about “the” transcendental argument is in order.

There is no such thing as “the” transcendental argument. In the history of philosophy there is a family of arguments that are now known as “transcendental.” Transcendental arguments pertain to the preconditions of intelligible experience (e.g. logic, personal identity, rationality). Aristotle is often cited as the earliest known proponent of a transcendental argument, though he certainly did not use that label. Immanuel Kant is the most familiar proponent of transcendental argument. A number of contemporary analytic philosophers have also offered transcendental arguments, and Robert Stern addresses the arguments at length in some of his works. Thus not only is there no one transcendental argument, but transcendental argument is not explicitly Christian.

One of the major differences between the transcendental arguments mentioned above and Van Til’s transcendental argument is that while the former are usually local arguments Van Til emphasizes Christian worldview as crucial to the apologetic endeavor. Thus Van Til takes a transcendental method and combines it with Reformed Christianity as a system resulting in an all-encompassing argument. Most do not believe he was successful. This all-encompassing argument is used in lieu of the bulk of natural theological arguments construed as pre-dogmatic proofs of the existence of God. Those arguments are considered failures not only in terms of philosophical cogency, but in terms of their theological acceptability. Most do not believe that natural theology (i.e. the traditional theistic arguments) is such a failure. The magic bullet comment might very well pertain to Van Til’s insistence upon transcendental argument as the only method “that holds water” as opposed to traditional inductive and deductive arguments for elements of Christian theism. But even here Van Til did not completely reject the project of natural theology as such. He also recognized the necessity of arguments and evidences. And Van Tilians who are familiar with this understanding of Van Til would probably not be applying the magic bullet comment to Van Til’s overall approach to apologetics. While one can imagine the many bullets of traditional theistic arguments not doing the job of the silver bullet of transcendental argument, there are much better ways of discussing the place of natural theology in a Reformed apologetic than using such vague language.

Recall the earlier distinction between local and worldview transcendental arguments. Not all of those who associate with Van Tilian methodology agree that a successful Christian use of transcendental argument must take place at the level of worldview. An attenuated Van Tilian, for example, might offer a series of more local transcendental arguments that solve particular skeptical problems by positing classical theism (it should be noted that the attenuated Van Tilian does not necessarily reject that apologetics must still take place at the level of worldview). Usually those who do so also endorse the use of probabilistic traditional theistic arguments and evidences. The case for Christian theism becomes more cumulative in nature. There are, as it were, any number of main and subsidiary arguments for the truth of Christian theism that must be taken into account when arguing for one’s position and theistic transcendental arguments are some of the most powerful. This understanding of a proper approach to apologetics lends itself well to making sense of the magic bullet comment insofar as the more nuanced attenuated Van Tilian case does not involve just one main argument that proves all of Christianity in one fell swoop, but relies upon a host of supporting arguments and evidences.

But the pragmatic difference between attenuated Van Tilianism and its bolder ancestor is not so plain as to warrant the critique expressed in the magic bullet comment. Particular theistic transcendental arguments are every bit as present in the traditional Van Tilian account as they are in the attenuated one. Logic might be the topic of discussion, or personal identity, or rationality, or any number of other epistemological concerns central to intelligible experience, but only one at a time. So also in the actual practice of an attenuated approach. The same might be said for argument and evidence which are not transcendental in nature per se. And what else might the magic bullet comment refer to if not some embarrassing mistake in the practice of an apologetic methodology? In fact it seems as though the attenuated Van Tilian apologetic practitioner is viewing the traditional Van Tilian transcendental argument as one narrow argument that features as only a small part of the attenuated methodology while it is probably fairer to view what Van Til wanted to say in a much broader sense. A well developed transcendental argument for Christian theism will only be for Christian theism insofar as the existence of God is the subject being discussed (which is to imply that “TAG” is a misnomer), only focuses upon one noetic concern, argument, or evidence at a time because of the finite nature of its users, and necessarily involves a host of subsidiary arguments in its defense.

When I hear someone scoff at the idea of a “magic bullet” in Van Tilian apologetics I am concerned because I do not feel guilty. I seek wise counsel. I search my soul.  I rend my garments. But at the end of the day I do not feel any weight in the objection, probably because I am not confident that I understand what is being said.


4 Comments

defectivebit

I’ve always thought that when people complain about “a magic bullet” argument that they are speaking of some particular recitation of TAG. In other words, one can simply recite this one particular argument and it will beat all others. This doesn’t seem like a consistent way of looking at the VanTilian apologetic for the reason you pointed out in the post. Van Til was about an apologetic method as *system*, as a unit, not a solitary argument in the sense of the traditional proofs.

Jared O.

We’ve used that type of language before, but to correct a certain misunderstanding. CVT’s apologetic, and certainly the Christian position, does not stand or fall or depend in any way on TAG. TAG may be a useful way to express what CVT was getting at, but it’s useful insofar as it says the same thing the Christian position says – no more no less (just like any other philosophical tool). So if TAG is what is immovable and the Christian position is the best version of TAG, it is then TAG that is defended rather than Christianity.

You guys aren’t guilty of this at all, but just wanted to clarify one context where the phrase may make sense. Hope that’s even slightly helpful.

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A Necessary Distinction – Choosing Hats

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