Preconditions of Intelligibility
The preconditions of intelligibility are conditions that must be accepted as true before we can know anything about nature. Most people take these things for granted.
For example: the reliability of our memory. You probably already assume that your memory is pretty reliable, but this isn’t very easy to prove. How do you really know that your memory is reliable? You could say, “I just had a memory test recently, and I got a very good grade on it.” But I could just as easily reply, “How do you know you took a memory test? Just because you remember this doesn’t prove it happened unless we already knew your memory was reliable before you claimed to have taken a test.” We all assume that our memory is reliable. Well, this is actually unavoidable. Before we can start to study nature, we all have to assume that our memory is basically trust-worthy.
Another example: the reliability of our senses. Before we study anything, we presuppose that our senses are reliable. We assume our eyes, ears, nerves, nose, tongue, etc. all reliably report the details about what is going on around us. Without this assumption, science would be impossible. We couldn’t be able to trust what we saw or felt, therefore we couldn’t draw a reliable conclusion. Imagine if everything around us were just an illusion. Science couldn’t be possible.
One more crucial example: the laws of logic are true. We all presume that the laws of logic govern correct, rational reasoning. On the consistency page, I claimed that multiple contradictions cannot be true. I bet none of you really stopped to question why contradictions cannot be true; it’s something we all presume. But how could we prove that there really are laws of logic? Before we could even begin to investigate whether they’re true or not, we must assume ahead of time that they are true and that they do exist. They must be assumed before we can start reasoning about anything–even the laws of logic themselves.
Quick summary: most of us presume that our senses and memory are basically reliable, and there are laws of logic.
Though we take all these things for granted, few wonder why these things are so. To a biblical creationist, these preconditions of intelligibility make perfect sense. God created our brains to be reliable (though the brain is now marred by sin), therefore we can basically trust our senses and memories. And the laws of logic reflect God’s perfect way of thinking; we’ll get more into this later.
A rational worldview must provide these preconditions, because without them we could not know anything. If our senses and memory weren’t reliable, we could not trust our judgments. If the laws of logic did not exist, we could not come to a reliable conclusion.
Atheists, creationists, polytheists, etc. all assume that there are preconditions of intelligibility because without them, we could not know anything at all. But how does atheism and polytheism (which are inconsistent) account for these preconditions? Atheists must borrow principles from biblical creationism; we’ll get more into that later.
God indicates, in His Word, that wisdom begins with a respectful submission to Him and that rejection of His Word leads to irrationality (or “foolishness”). This is the key to the ultimate proof of biblical creation.
If biblical creation were not true, we could not know anything.
That is the ultimate proof. I can already hear you skeptics, but please continue reading. There are still things to be discussed before this proof can truly be understood.
If you are one of those skeptics, one of your objections may have been, “But there are people who haven’t even read the Bible, who don’t believe in creation, who haven’t even heard of Jesus, yet they know things!” Let me stop you there; this response is fallacious. It is not relevant to the claim that I made. I did not claim that people have to read the Bible, or believe in creation, or hear of Jesus in order to know things. The argument made here is that the Bible’s account of origins (and its other accounts) must be true. Or, preferably, because the Bible is true, we can know things.
Only the God described in the Bible can provide the foundation for the things we take for granted. Without God’s Word, we would not have a good reason to believe in the preconditions of intelligibility: the basic reliability of memory and senses, laws of logic, uniformity of nature and morality.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is responsible for introducing the term “transcendental” to philosophical discussion. Seeking to repel the skepticism of David Hume, but unable to accept the methods of his rationalist teacher Christian Wolff, Kant came to advocate transcendental argument as a new means of grounding the certainty of mathematics, science, and philosophy.
All of us, he argued, must concede that knowledge is possible. Else there is no point to any discussion or inquiry. Now, given that knowledge is possible, said Kant, we should ask what the conditions are that make knowledge possible. What must the world be like, and what must the workings of our minds be like, if human knowledge is to be possible?
Kant argued that among the conditions of knowledge are the transcendental aesthetic, in which the mind orders sense experience into a spatio-temporal sequence, and the transcendental analytic, in which the mind imposes categories such as substance and cause upon experience. So we know by transcendental argument that the world (more precisely, the world of appearances, the phenomena, not the world ‘in itself’) is a collection of substances located in space and time, with causal relationships to one another. We do not get this knowledge from sense-experience alone (Hume) or from rational deduction alone (Leibniz, Wolff), but from an argument assuming the reality of knowledge and showing the necessary presuppositions of that assumption.
Transcendental argument became a staple of the writings of the idealist school that followed Kant, and from there it made its way into Christian apologetics. James Orr (1844-1913) employed it. But the twentieth-century apologist who placed the most weight on the transcendental argument (which he sometimes called “reasoning by presupposition”) was Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), q.v.
Like Kant, Van Til was unhappy with empiricism and rationalism, and with traditional ways of combining reason and sense experience such as that of Aquinas. Kant found these approaches to knowledge logically invalid. But for Van Til they were also wrong in a distinctively theological way. Traditional methodologies applied to apologetics, said Van Til, assume that human sense-experience and/or human reason can function adequately without God, that is, “autonomously” or “neutrally.” So, at the very outset of an apologetic argument, they concede the whole game. They adopt a presupposition contrary to the conclusion they wish to argue. They seek to gain knowledge of God by adopting a non-theistic epistemology.
The only alternative, Van Til argued, is to adopt a theistic epistemology when arguing for the existence of God. But that approach seems to be viciously circular: presupposing God in our epistemology and then using that epistemology to prove his existence.
Van Til answered the charge of circularity in these ways: (1) every system of thought is circular when arguing its most fundamental presuppositions (e.g. a rationalist can defend the authority of reason only by using reason). (2) The Christian circle is the only one that renders reality intelligible on its own terms.
In defense of (2), Van Til developed his own transcendental argument. He maintained that Christian theism is the presupposition of all meaning, all rational significance, all intelligible discourse. Even when someone argues against Christian theism, Van Til said, he presupposes it, for he presupposes that rational argument is possible and that truth can be conveyed through language. The non-Christian, then, in Van Til’s famous illustration, is like a child sitting on her father’s lap, slapping his face. She could not slap him unless he supported her. Similarly, the non-Christian cannot carry out his rebellion against God unless God makes that rebellion possible. Contradicting God assumes an intelligible universe and therefore a theistic one.
But how can we defend the logical move from “intelligible universe” to “theistic universe?” Van Til rarely articulated his reason for that move; he seemed to think it was self-evident. But in effect, he reverted at this point to apologetics of a more traditional type. Apologists have often noted that we could not know the world at all unless it had been designed for knowledge. If the world were nothing but matter, motion, time, and chance, we would have no reason to think that the ideas in our heads told us anything about the real world. Only if a person had designed the world to be known, and the human mind to know it, could knowledge be possible. So Van Til at this point reverted to a traditional teleological argument. He never admitted doing this, and he could not have admitted it, because he thought the traditional teleological (like the other traditional arguments) were autonomous and neutral.
If Van Til’s transcendental approach is to succeed, however, it must abandon the assumption that traditional arguments are necessarily autonomous and welcome the assistance of such arguments to complete the transcendental argument. The traditional arguments are in fact necessary to establish the existence of God as a transcendental conclusion. And there is no reason to assume, as Van Til does, that anyone who uses an argument from design or causality is presupposing a nontheistic epistemology. On the contrary, people who use these traditional arguments show precisely that without God the data of our experience suggesting order and causality are unintelligible.
What, then, does transcendental argument add to the apologist’s arsenal, beyond the traditional arguments? First, it presents a goal for apologetics. The goal of the apologist is not only to show that God exists, but also who he is: that he is the source of all meaning and intelligibility in the universe.
Further, it suggests apologetic strategies somewhat neglected in the tradition. Traditional apologists have often argued that causality (for example) implies God. A transcendental argument makes a stronger claim: that causality presupposes God. The difference between “implies” and “presupposes,” according to Peter Strawson and Bas Van Fraasen, is that in the latter case God’s existence is implied either by the assertion or the denialof causality. That is, not only does the existence of causality imply the existence of God, but even to deny (intelligibly, if it were possible) the existence of causality would be to invoke a framework of meaning that presupposes God’s existence. Don Collett argues that the Strawson-Van Fraasen kind of presupposition is identical with Van Til’s. So if creation presupposes God, even the denial of creation presupposes him, and the atheist is like the little girl slapping her father while sitting on his lap.
The Bible does make this kind of radical claim, that creation not only implies, but presupposes God. For God is the creator of all, and therefore the source of all meaning, order, and intelligibility. It is in Christ that all things hold together (Col. 1:17). So without him everything falls apart; nothing makes sense. Thus Scripture teaches that unbelief is foolish (Psm. 14:1, 1 Cor. 1:20). There are many arguments to be made on the way to that conclusion. Not every individual apologetic argument needs to go that far. But the apologist’s work is not done until he reaches that conclusion, until he persuades the objector that God is everything the Bible says he is. That is to say that a complete argument for Christian theism, however many sub-arguments it contains, will be transcendental in character.