Modest is Hottest: A Brief Response to Bálint Békefi’s “Van Til versus Stroud: Is the Transcendental Argument for Christian Theism Viable?”

Stroud’s Objection Restated

Bálint Békefi proposes the following transcendental argument (Békefi, B. Van Til versus Stroud: “Is the Transcendental Argument for Christian Theism Viable?” TheoLogica. Published Online First: September 26, 2017):

(S1) If the negation of p is self-defeating, then p is true.
(S2) The negation of p is self-defeating.
(S3) Therefore, p is true.
(Békefi 9)

Békefi follows Adrian Bardon (Bardon, Adrian. “Performative Transcendental Arguments.” Philosophia 33: 2005, 69-95) in distinguishing between two types of self-defeating propositions:

A proposition then 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. (Békefi 10)

Thus, Békefi restates his transcendental argument:

(1) If the negation of p is either self-stultifying or performatively self-falsifying, then p is true.
(2) The negation of p is either self-stultifying or performatively self-falsifying.
(3) Therefore, p is true.
(10)

Having provided the aforementioned distinction between self-stultifying and performatively self-falsifying propositions and having applied said distinction to the transcendental argument in question, Békefi states what he believes is Barry Stroud’s objection to transcendental arguments:

Stroud’s objection is that showing that we must believe something (probably because we can never be justified in believing its negation) does not establish its truth. We can plausibly take Stroud to be talking about self-stultification—and so the gist of his critique, the Stroudian thesis, can be formulated in the following way:
(ST): Self-stultification does not imply falsehood.
(10)

The question of a proper interpretation of Stroud’s objection aside, it can be demonstrated that Békefi’s ST is not nearly as strong as it can be since it is also the case that performative self-falsification does not entail falsehood. Thus ST needs to be restated:

(STʹ): Self-defeat does not imply falsehood.

For example, Bardon borrows from Davidson to state:

Our belief-forming practices are not reliable. (Bardon 73)

Bardon explains, “If not, then most of what we say is false, and so our utterances could not be part of a public language. But then none of our utterances, including any attempt to affirm this proposition, would be meaningful.” (73) Perhaps, but it does not follow that the proposition is false. The performative element contradicts the proposition, but implies nothing with respect to the truth or falsehood of the proposition. The proposition might still be true; it is not falsified by way of assertion. Propositions are true or false; performative inconsistencies are not. Performative inconsistencies do not establish anything with respect to the content of propositions.

Békefi reformulates TACT according to the modified self-defeat view:

(C1’) If the negation of CT is performatively self-falsifying, then CT is true.
(C2’) The negation of CT is performatively self-falsifying.
(Békefi 11)

Since self-defeat, whether in terms of performative self-falsification or self-stultification, does not imply falsehood, the first premise is false.

Modest Transcendental Arguments

Here is a proposal for a Modest Transcendental Argument:

(T1) If the negation of p is self-defeating, then p is transcendentally necessary.*
(T2) The negation of p is self-defeating.
(T3) Therefore, p is transcendentally necessary.

The argument is ‘modified’ because it no longer claims anything with respect to the truth or falsehood of the proposition in question.

The argument is ‘transcendental’ because it pertains to necessary preconditions of intelligible experience, not to metaphysics.

The argument is in a deductively valid form; modus ponens.

The argument has true premises, since self-defeat just means performative inconsistency or irrationality, and the negation of p entails self-defeat.

The argument is sound.

Van Tilian Transcendental Arguments

The transcendental method set forth by Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen is useful whether it is interpreted transcendentally or metaphysically. By ‘useful,’ I simply mean that the transcendental method is a cogent apologetic argument. Not only is the argument sound, as demonstrated above, but persuasive. Why? The argument demonstrates (assuming all the other pieces are in order, which Stroud’s objection does not address) that if someone wishes to set forth any rational argumentation whatsoever, he or she must psychologically presuppose the Christian worldview (or more narrowly construed, God) to make sense of anything. The unbeliever must remain silent (because of performative inconsistency) or function irrationally (because of self-stultification). This is more than enough for the apologist. This result is also perfectly consistent with traditional Van Tilian claims. Although this modest expression is not the strongest form of the Van Tilian project, the argument still powerfully demonstrates that in order for unbelievers to be able to argue against Christianity, they must first assume they are wrong – and not just wrong, but undoubtedly wrong – and that does not sound like a very happy state of affairs (no pun intended) for the skeptic. In the end, the Stroudian objection tends to highlight the tenacity of the transcendental method.

*In the comments David Byron rightly observes:

Rather, (T1’) If the negation of p is self-defeating, then a transcendental equivalent of p is transcendentally necessary.

Maintaining a strict distinction between “metaphysical “ and “transcendental” (if that were meaningful) ensures that this rebuttal is insurmountable.


9 Comments

David Byron

“(T1) If the negation of p is self-defeating, then p is transcendentally necessary.”

Rather, (T1’) If the negation of p is self-defeating, then a transcendental equivalent of p is transcendentally necessary.

Maintaining a strict distinction between “metaphysical “ and “transcendental” (if that were meaningful) ensures that this rebuttal is insurmountable.

Happy new year!

Bálint Békefi

Hi David,
What do you mean by “a transcendental equivalent of p”?

C. L. Bolt

He means to clarify the distinction I’m making between the transcendental and metaphysical.

pat

Chris Bolt is back you guys

Bálint Békefi

Hi Chris,

Thanks for engaging my paper, it truly is an honor. Let me make a few points in response.

First, and this is a minor point, I only “propose” that transcendental argument in the sense that I suggest a form which it may take, not that I endorse it.

Second, I’m astonished that you don’t think performative self-falsification coupled with affirmation implies falsity. Your example is unfortunate, because Davidson’s suggestion is controversial — if he fails, it is not that performative self-falsification doesn’t imply falsehood, but rather his proposition isn’t performatively self-falsifying. Let’s take three simpler examples from Bardon, p. 72.:

– “It is impossible to affirm anything.”
– “No thinking thing (or thought) exists.”
– “No proposition is meaningful if it is neither a tautology nor empirically verifiable.”

I think it is utterly clear that if someone can meaningfully assert these propositions, then they are false. What *does* performative self-falsification mean, if not this?

Third, your T1 and T3 include the phrase “transcendentally necessary.” I wonder what exactly you mean by it. Anderson gives the following definition (quoted in Békefi, p. 8.): “a state of affairs S is transcendentally necessary just in case S obtains in the actual world and every other possible world in which there is human thought or experience.” This is a truth- or metaphysics-directed definition, so I suspect if we were to employ it in your T1-T3 argument, it would turn out to be unsound. If that is so, however, it would be helpful if you could clarify what you mean by this transcendental necessity.

Fourth, I would like to note, especially to other readers (as you probably are aware of this), that Michael Riley engages this idea of settling with modest transcendental arguments as a Van Tillian in the sixth chapter of his dissertation (“Barry Stroud’s Argument Against World -Directed Transcendental Arguments and Its Implications for the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.” PhD diss., 2014, WTS, pp. 183-208.), titled “Van Til and Modest Transcendental Arguments.” He notes (partly in the following chapter) that beside not being adequately ambitious, this strategy is also inadequate because of a second challenge by Stroud: that if all we know about something is that it is “transcendentally necessary,” but not that it is true, that may even be a vice rather than a virtue, since we cannot rationally conceive of its falsity, and so are unable to investigate its truth. But I don’t raise this in my paper, so this is not a critique of your engagement therewith, but rather food for further thought.

C. L. Bolt

Thank you for the paper, and for calling my attention to it! I would like to focus on one example from Bardon, to keep things simple:

“It is impossible to affirm anything.”

You write, “I think it is utterly clear that if someone can meaningfully assert these propositions, then they are false.” I believe this to be false. You write, “What *does* performative self-falsification mean, if not this?” In this instance, the proposition is not assertible.

I do not employ Anderson’s metaphysics-directed ‘definition’ in my argument. Transcendental necessity applies to those beliefs which render our experience intelligible. Of course modest transcendental arguments are not ambitious transcendental arguments, so (as with the objection via Anderson), the objection you raise that these modest arguments are not “adequately ambitious” is unsuccessful. The other “objection” you allude to is, if I am not mistaken, from Stern, and tends to cut against Stroud, but I do not pick that up here.

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Mike Warren

How would you state p in a Van Tillian transcendental argument? Would it not involve a metaphysical claim, such as “God (defined with particular characteristics) exists”? Or are you going limit p to a belief in God that has no implications for reality (a world outside of human thought)? As I read Van Til, he presents the existence of God as the precondition for intelligible experience that includes knowledge of a world outside the theater of the human mind. Seems to me that a modest TA is too weak for Van Til or Romans 1.

C. L. Bolt

“God exists” is fine. Hence belief in God is the precondition for intelligible experience as you note.


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