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Is the Transcendental Argument Fair?

The Transcendental Argument - A Common Misunderstanding

In our ever more secular world, arguments for the existence of God are always vital. Christians are called to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. In a culture that has tried to forget God, that reason begins with simple truth: “God exists!”

Our heritage is rich with proofs of God’s existence. Romans 1 says that God’s invisible attributes can be clearly seen in His Creation. Christian theologians and philosophers alike have found no shortage of them:

  • Objective moral standards point to God’s righteousness;
  • The creation of the universe points to God’s power and eternal nature;
  • The design of the universe points to God’s wisdom;
  • The resurrection of Christ points to His divinity and involvement in the world.

One argument stands out as especially controversial, perhaps second only to the infamous ontological argument: The Transcendental Argument for God, or “TAG” as it’s colloquially known. If valid, TAG is one of the most powerful arguments against atheism. But some Christian philosophers have dismissed it as irrational and “viciously circular.”

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Let’s summarize TAG in its most basic logical form:

p1. If God does not exist, then the laws of logic do not exist.
p2. The laws of logic do exist.
c. Therefore, God exists.

For a more thorough analysis of TAG, check out the breakdown at CARM.

Now, at first, this sounds like it’s basically a parallel to the Moral Argument. Take a look:

p1. If God does not exist, then objective moral standards do not exist.
p2. Objective moral standards do exist.
c. Therefore, God exists.

But many apologists who champion the Moral Argument dismiss TAG as “viciously circular.” Why?

It’s because of an interesting consequence of the Transcendental Argument.

“God Exists; Therefore, God Exists.”

TAG proposes that the laws of logic hinge upon the existence of God. Let’s think about what that would mean. If TAG is true, then whenever someone appeals to the laws of logic, they are also unwittingly assuming the existence of God.

And we appeal to the laws of logic every time we argue for the existence (or non-existence) of God.

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This means you could say that, in a sense, we are assuming that God exists in order to use the laws of logic to prove that God exists. Naturally, that sounds a lot like a circular argument.

That perceived circularity puts off a lot of people who are fine with similar arguments like the Moral Argument, above. Take, for example, William Lane Craig, a prominent classical apologist:

Where presuppositionalism muddies the waters is in its apologetic methodology. As commonly understood, presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism. Frame himself says that we are “forced to say, ‘God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),’” even though such reasoning is “clearly circular”. (“A Classical Apologist’s Response,” Five Views of Apologetics)

The key phrase in Craig’s summary is “As commonly understood.” As it turns out, this “circularity” is merely a popular misconception of the Transcendental Argument.

If TAG was actually circular, it would look like this:

The Transcendental Argument - A Common Misunderstanding

p1. God exists.
p2. If God exists, then the laws of logic exist.
c1. Therefore, the laws of logic exist.

p3. If God does not exist, then the laws of logic do not exist.
p4. (from c1, above) The laws of logic do exist.
c2. Therefore, God exists.

It’s easy to see how this is circular. You go from the premise “God exists” to the conclusion “God exists.” But if you look back up the page, you’ll see that TAG actually doesn’t use the first half of the circle. That’s because we already know that the laws of logic exist. They’re a “properly basic belief.” We don’t need to prove the laws of logic exist in order to use them.

The Transcendental Argument from the Laws of Logic

Now, a complete worldview will have a rationale for properly basic beliefs like the laws of logic. That’s what the “first half of the circle” gives you: an explanation for why the laws of logic exist. Since we know that the laws of logic exist, we now know that God exists. And now that we know that God exists, we can explain why the laws of logic exist.

The Transcendental Argument from the Existence of God

But because the laws of logic are a properly basic belief, the circle is broken. The Transcendental Argument is merely semi-circular: It remains logically valid.

The Transcendental Argument Complements the Moral Argument

Atheism has always been weak on morality. It’s really hard to find a secular basis for ethical commands like “Don’t murder.” That’s one of the reasons the moral argument is so effective: We know that right and wrong exist, and it’s hard to reconcile that with atheism.

But atheism has also always prided itself on its rationality. Reason was the goddess of the secular French Revolution. Contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins pit “rationality” against the “irrationality” of religion.

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TAG hits atheism right where it seems to be the strongest.

The reality is, atheism is even worse at giving a rationale for logic than for morality. Most atheists don’t even think about where the laws of logic come from – they want to believe logic just “is.”

Of course, that’s not a rationale. That’s a Rudyard Kipling “just so” story. But being confronted with the truth that atheism can’t account for the laws of logic is a jarring experience. It’s like looking down and realizing there’s nothing below you but empty air.

It’s the kind of moment where God convicts a soul.

TAG sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s been misunderstood in the past. But it’s a valuable tool for every Christian. You never know when it’ll be exactly the argument someone needs to hear.

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David Hume’s Problem of Induction in Debate and on TV

Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay

Will the future be like the past?

All of life seems to be connected. Cause and effect. If I touch a hot stove today and get burned I can safely assume that I’ll get burned if I do it again. And that goes for different kinds of stoves, open fires, barbecues, fireworks, etc. This kind of thinking—from specific instances to generalizations—is inductive.

[Tweet “Our lives are full of inductive thinking from the pedantic to the prodigious.”]

So what’s the problem? Inductive thinking seems to be pretty useful so why all the hubbub?

Blame Davi Hume. It all started when he wondered how we could be justified in assuming that the connections we perceive between events, cause and effect, actually exist. We certainly feel like we see the connection between events. That’s not Hume’s point. He acknowledges that we all do that. He’s asking a much more basic question.

How do we justify our expectation that the future will be like the past?

This is the problem of induction.

The Problem of Induction on TV

An exchange between Jonah and Amy on NBC’s show Superstore is an example of how we use the inductive principle in everyday life. It’s a short clip.

David Hume the Trouble Maker

David Hume (Scottish philosopher and historian) clearly stated the problem on induction in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

To recapitulate, therefore, the reasonings of this section: Every idea is copied from some preceding impression or sentiment; and where we cannot find any impression, we may be certain that there is no idea. In all single instances of the operation of bodies or minds, there is nothing that produces any impression, nor consequently can suggest any idea, of power or necessary connexion. But when many uniform instances appear, and the same object is always followed by the same event; we then begin to entertain the notion of cause and connexion. We then feel a new sentiment or impression, to wit, a customary connexion in the thought or imagination between one object and its usual attendant; and this sentiment is the original of that idea which we seek for. For as this idea arises from a number of similar instances, and not from any single instance; it must arise from that circumstance, in which the number of instances differ from every individual instance. But this customary connexion or transition of the imagination is the only circumstance, in which they differ. In every other particular they are alike. The first instance which we saw of motion, communicated by the shock of two billiard-balls (to return to this obvious illustration) is exactly similar to any instance that may, at present, occur to us; except only, that we could not, at first, infer one event from the other; which we are enabled to do at present, after so long a course of uniform experience.[1]

Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay
Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay

Dr. Peter Atkins Tries to Answer Hume

An audience member asked Dr. Peter Atkins what his solution is to the problem of induction. Atkins’ response make it clear he had no idea what he was talking about. There’s a transcript below the video player.

Questioner: Dr. Atkins, a philosopher from Scotland, David Hume, pointed out that we as human beings don’t really have a rational basis for believing in the uniformity of nature—that the future will be like the past. Dr. Atkins, as a Christian, I can believe that the future will be like the past, or that nature is uniform, because I believe that God created the universe and this universe reflects the uniformity which God has imposed upon through his governing.

I’d like to ask, in the atheistic worldview the presupposition that there is no God and that all we have is mater in motion what is your basis for believing that the future will be like the past?

Dr. Atkins: Well I don’t believe that the future will be like the past because I believe in continuing evolution. I believe that the universe is expanding and therefore the universe will in the future will not be like the universe in the past. I also believe but at a deeper level—if I could respond there—on the cogency and the continuity of the physical law. Physical laws are commentaries on the behavior of mater and of radiation and whatever else you want to include. And so I see, because matter and radiation don’t change their character, physical laws do not change their character. I see the universe evolving into the future, changing as it goes, but the physical laws that underlying the universe will not change.

Dr. Bahnsen Cross-Examines Dr. Stein on the Problem of Induction

You can read a full transcript of the debate here.

Dr. Bahnsen: Okay, Dr. Stein you made reference to David Hume and his rejection of miracles, have you also read David Hume and his discussion of induction or more popularly the uniformity of nature?

Dr. Stein: A long time ago. I can’t recall the… exactly what he says. I have read David Hume.

Dr. Bahnsen: Okay, were you convinced a long time ago that you had an answer to Hume’s skepticism about induction?

Dr. Stein: I can’t answer that question honestly. I don’t remember what…this was at least fifteen years ago that I read this.

Dr. Bahnsen: Scientific laws were, the validity of scientific laws were undermined by Hume when he contended that we have no rational basis for expecting the future to be like the past. Or, if you will, to be…for there to be types of events so that one event happening can be understood as a type of event so where it’s seen happening somewhere else the same consequence can be expected from similar causation. Hume said we had no rational basis for that…

David Agopian: Excuse me Dr. Bahnsen can we have a question please for Dr. Stein.

Dr. Bahnsen: Yea I’m trying to setup the question.

David Agopian: Okay. Okay.

Dr. Bahnsen: Hume suggested that there was no rational basis for expecting the future to be like the past in which case science is based simply on convention or if you will habits of thought. Do you agree with Hume?

Dr. Stein: Not on this issue I don’t.

Dr. Bahnsen: Do you now have an answer for Hume?

Dr. Stein: I think he was wrong about that one thing. But he was also right about a lot of other things. Nobody’s perfect.

Dr. Bahnsen: What is the basis for the uniformity of nature?

Dr. Stein: I went through this but I’d be glad to reiterate it.

Dr. Bahnsen: Okay.

Dr. Stein: The uniformity of nature comes from the fact that matter has certain properties which it regularly exhibits. It’s part of the nature of matter. Electrons, oppositely charged things attract, the same charges repel. There are certain valances that can fill up the shell of an atom and that’s as far as it can combine.

Dr. Bahnsen: Do all electrons repel each other?

Dr. Stein: If they’re within a certain distance of each other, yes.

Dr. Bahnsen: Have you tested all electrons?

Dr. Stein: All electrons that have ever been tested repel each other. I have not tested all.

Dr. Bahnsen: Have you read all the tests on electrons?

Dr. Stein: Me personally or can I go on the witness of experts?

Dr. Bahnsen: Have you read all of the witnesses about electrons?

Dr. Stein: All it takes is one witness to say “no” and it would be on the front pages of every physics journal and there are none so therefore I would say yes in effect by default.

Dr. Bahnsen: Well, physicists have their presuppositions by which they exclude contrary evidence, too. But in other words you haven’t experienced all electrons but you would generalize that all electrons under certain conditions repeal each other?

Dr. Stein: Just statistically, on the basis of past observation.

Dr. Bahnsen: And we don’t know that it’s going to be that way ten minutes after this debate then?

Dr. Stein: No, but we see no evidence that it’s switched around either?

Paul Manata with Dan Barker on the Problem of Induction

Dan’s Opening Statement

In Dan Barker’s opening statement we responded to some of the comments Paul Manata made in his opening statement (although such a response should have been reserved for Dan’s rebuttal). Here’s what Dan said:

Logic and morality, the inductive, the problem, the so called problem of induction, these are false problems. These are phony problems.

You don’t have to define or give a source for these things any more than you have to give a source for digestion. Digestion is one of the ways that a stomach functions. First you have to have a stomach and the stomach functions. And one of the functions of the stomach is to digest food.

Digestion is not a thing out there that has to be justified for its existence. Digestion is just one of the things that a stomach does. Logic and reason and induction are not things that have to be justified or sources given for them. They are one, or some of the ways that an organ called the brain functions properly.

Even the simplest animals, at a simple level, at a primitive level are using logic and reason. As data comes into their brains they process that data and they make decisions based upon, you know, they’re not even conscious of it. We more conscious animals will sometimes formalize the logic and pretend like it’s a big subject, and it is, you know to formalize the steps of how you would go from A to B to C, and to specify that A is not not-A, you know, the excluded middle, all those things which is fun to do.

But logic and induction and reasoning itself don’t have to be justified. They don’t even have to be presupposed. They are not things that you presuppose. You don’t presuppose digestion. Digestion is the way the stomach works. So Paul is asking a non-question when he demands that we atheists somehow have to justify our presuppositions. In my book, I did not say that logic is a presupposition that atheists make. What I did say was that when we’re gonna solve an argument using logic we have to first examine the underlying assumptions.

Paul Cross-Examines Dan

Paul cross-examined Dan about the problem of induction. Here’s how that exchange went:

Manata: Are you familiar with the problem of induction?

Barker: Yes I am.

Manata: What is your secular answer for how you resolve the problem of induction?

Barker: By saying that the conclusions that we derive from induction are tentative, weak conclusions. They are much weaker than deductive conclusions. The concussions that we draw from induction are useful but not necessarily true. You can have an inductive conclusions that is false and in fact science has repeatedly come up with inductive conclusions that have turned out to be false. So I do not pretend that a conclusion based on induction is a solid fact.

Manata: Right but how do you justify the problem of induction. You said you’re familiar with the problem of induction. How do you justify… what’s your secular answer… was it, that it works?

Barker: Well, I just told you. It works enough. It doesn’t work perfectly. It is useful. It works, you know. That’s how we know that snakes don’t talk. We’ve never seen a snake that doesn’t [sic] talk. But if we do find a snake that talks. If we do find one in reality, then that tentative law by induction would have to go. We would have to adjust our thinking. Induction is not a very, I mean it’s useful but it’s not a very important logical principle.

Paul’s Rebuttal of Dan

When it was time for Paul’s rebuttal he addressed Dan’s solution for the problem of induction by pointing out three errors:

Lastly, induction. There are also many problems with Mr. Barker’s attempted resolution of the problem of induction. First, it’s a pragmatic justification and not an epistemic one. He said it just works. Secondly, the question is what justifies you proceeding upon the expectation that the future will resemble the past? To say it’s worked in the past and since it’s worked in the past I can assume, with probability, that it’ll work in the future, is to beg the question. Lastly, even Mr. Barker himself thanks that his secular answer doesn’t cut it. In Losing Faith in Faith on page 61 Mr. Barker relays a story by Mr. Bertrand Russell. Basically the story says that in the town of Changsha, China during a lunar eclipse blind men would beat gongs to frighten the heavenly dog who was attempting to swallow the moon. This practice has worked for thousands of years. The point is that just because something works does not mean it’s rational. Dan Barker’s basic justification for the problem of induction is basically beating a gong.

Solutions to the Problem of Induction

Think you can do better than Peter Atkins, Gordon Stein, or Dan Barker? You may want to think again.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy ends their section on the problem of induction this way:

None of the many suggestions is widely accepted as correct.[2]

This isn’t very encouraging. Do you know who’s tried to come up with a solution to the problem of induction? The list reads like an A & C Black list of philosophers: Karl Popper, Immanuel Kant, Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Nelson Goodman.

You can read a detailed discussion of the various proposed solutions here[3] and here[4].

Suffice to say, Christians cite the unchanging nature of God as the reason why we can reliably expect the future to be like the past. To those who say this is a copout please feel free to present your own solution. If you don’t have a solution to offer please remain in your seat until the house lights come up.

Non-Christians have proposed many solutions none of which has the weight of the philosophical world behind it.


  1. Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” DavidHume.org. Accessed December 09, 2015. http://www.davidhume.org/texts/ehu.html.  ↩
  2. Audi, Robert “Problem of Induction.” In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 745–46. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.  ↩
  3. Anderson, James N. “Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction.” Analogical Thoughts. Accessed December 09, 2015. http://www.proginosko.com/docs/induction.html.  ↩
  4. Vickers, John. “The Problem of Induction.” Stanford University. November 15, 2006. Accessed December 09, 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/.  ↩
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A Primer on Knowledge? Rationalism vs Empiricism

The Consituents of Knowledge

Humans are knowing creatures. Our mental capabilities are vital to our existence and full of amazing possibilities. Our ability to expand our knowledge spurs science, culture, and religion forward. But how do we know what we know? Maybe we should back up a little. What is knowledge? How do we grow what we know? Can we justify what we know to others? Knowledge—what seems to be a basic feature of everyday life—is a complex subject.

What Is Epistemology?

All these inquiries fall under the philosophical branch of study called epistemology. The word epistemology is an English word derived from two Greek words:

  • Episteme (knowledge or understanding)
  • Logos (the study of)

In short, epistemology is the study of knowledge.[1] Philosophers know it as the “study of the theory of knowledge.” We’ll look at a brief historical overview of the philosophical category of epistemology. Our special focus will be the differences between rationalism and empiricism.

What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is “justified true belief.” It’s been the accepted definition for centuries and it’s the one I’ll be using.[2] Defining one’s terms is easy to neglect, but it’s integral to the philosophical process. More ink has been spilled over definitions than you’d imagine. So let’s take care of this important matter. Knowledge is “justified true belief.” This definition has three parts:

  • Belief – You must believe something in order for to have knowledge. You cannot know something is you don’t believe it.
  • Truth – The thing you believe must correspond to reality. You cannot know something that is false.
  • Justification – You need a reason for your belief. This is why guessing the number of M&Ms in a carnival game (it’s 527 by the way) by chance is called “luck.” You cannot “luck” into knowledge.

The Consituents of Knowledge

You need all three to have knowledge. If you only have two out of three you get one of the following:

  • Belief + Truth = Something you believe, that’s also true, but for which you lack any justification. Some might call this blind faith.
  • Belief + Justification = Something you believe but are wrong about.
  • Truth + Justification = Something you should believe but don’t.

3 Kinds of Knowledge

Philosophers have categorized knowledge into three different and unique groups:[3]

Acquaintance Knowledge (Who)

The knowledge of a person through being in some sort of relationship to them. Sometime called intimate knowledge.

Competence Knowledge (How)

The knowledge of a skill or ability. For example, knowing how to play an instrument or a sport. It’s a knowledge gained through repetition and the development of muscle memory.

Propositional Knowledge (What)

The knowledge of facts or propositions gained through study or observation.

Putting It All Together

What’s it like to have one kind of knowledge but not another about a topic? Imagine I knew every fact (proposition) about you mother: height, favorite movie, age, etc. My knowledge would still be qualitatively different from yours. You know her (acquaintance knowledge). I just know about her. The same goes for competence knowledge. You can tell me all the facts about how to play the trumpet, but I won’t be able to play it well without practice and repetition.

The Acquisition and Justification of Propositional Knowledge

The only kind of knowledge debated by philosophers is propositional knowledge. The two major schools of thought that have been duking it out for centuries are:

  • Rationalism (Represented by Plato)
  • Empiricism (Represented by Aristotle)

The other minor schools of thought are just variations of these two. I consider myself a rationalist and utterly detest empiricism. Nonetheless I’ll try to give you an accurate account of both.

Plato and the Rationalist School

Plato believed that humans participated in two spheres of existence:

  • The world of the forms (pure being)
  • The world of particular things (becoming)

The world of the forms is an unchanging immaterial world of pure being. The world of particular things is the material, constantly changing world we’re all familiar with. Plato got these ideas from two philosophers before him, Heraclitus and Parmenides.[4]
For Heraclitus, ultimate reality is in a state of flux; it’s always changing or becoming. He said that you can never step in the same river twice. If you remove your foot from the river and then put it back, all the molecules have moved and it is, in a sense, a different river.[5]

Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that all of reality is pure being. He realized that there are such things as universal, unchanging principles. For example, one plus one equals two.

Plato saw the elements of truth in both perspectives. Instead of picking one over the other, he synthesized them into his doctrine of the two worlds. Plato agreed with Parmenides that there are unchanging principles. Plato calls these unchanging principles the “forms.” Plato relegated the forms to another world because he agreed with Heraclitus that the world we experience is always changing. Thus Plato divides the universe into two categories:

  • Forms (essences)
  • Particulars (individual examples of forms)

Plato taught that every particular thing represents an essence. For example, if you draw a square your drawing would be a particular square and not the essential or perfect square. Your particular square is representing the idea (form) of the perfect square.

Plato applied this dualism to mankind saying that the human being is composed of body and soul. The body is participating in the world of becoming by getting older and changing in appearance. The soul is participating in the world of the forms through immortality and reason. Plato did this because he noticed that humans are capable of interacting with the forms through reason. He attributed this ability to the reality of innate ideas.[6]

Innate Ideas

Innate ideas are a form of knowledge that the mind contains prior to experience and birth. For Plato, innate knowledge is knowledge of the forms. Plato explained the existence of innate ideas with that of the preexistence of the soul. The only way that one could have knowledge of the forms at birth is if the person’s soul existed in the world of the forms prior to birth.[7] For Plato knowledge in this life is not a process of acquisition but of remembrance.

The World of Particulars Is Structured on the World of the Forms

Plato contends that the world of particular things is structured off off the world of the forms. This means that the mind is capable of understanding things about the external world (the world outside one’s own mind) because it’s conscious of the structure that the world it’s founded upon. This is essentially what it means to be rationalist; it is to believe that the world and the mind share the same structure. This is what makes knowledge possible. For the rationalist, reason is both a reliable and primary guide for grounding knowledge.

Aristotle and the Empiricist School

Aristotle was Plato’s student. He knew all about Plato’s doctrine of the two worlds, but rejected it. Although he believed in universals (forms), he denied the preexistence of the soul as being necessary to explain how we know about them. Aristotle said we become conscious of universals the other way around. Rather than starting with innate ideas we start with particulars and work our way up. This is because Aristotle believed that universals or the forms are not innate knowledge.[8]
Aristotle said we’re all born as blank slates. We acquire knowledge through our experience of particulars. We then universalize these experiences and apply them to new experiences.[9]
Consider the idea of similarity. Things that are similar share certain characteristics. Remember the game “Which of these does not belong?” You won by picking item doesn’t share the characteristic the others do. Care to play? Which of the following does not belong:

  • Bat
  • Penguin
  • Crow
  • Sparrow

If you answered “Bat” congratulations! Bats are mammals the rest are birds. Bird-ness is what all the members of the list above share (their similarity) except for the bat. We learn what bird-ness is by experiencing particular birds. This is what it means to be an empiricist; we gain knowledge through experience. For an empiricist, experience is the grounding principle of knowledge.

And the Winner Is…

In conclusion, as tempting as empiricism may appear, it has significant problems. How can the idea of similarity even get off the ground if we didn’t have some notion of it to begin with? This goes for the idea of equality, dissimilarity, and sameness as well. If it’s true that we’re born with no innate knowledge how could we come to any conclusions at all? We couldn’t. Empiricism destroys knowledge. We’d be a bundle of perceived particulars we couldn’t do anything with. We’d be like the beasts driven by instinct. Or we might be like a tree having life but no discernible consciousness. If empiricism destroys our foundation for knowledge then it is demonstrably inferior to rationalism.

Rationalism Works

Furthermore, rationalism works. We can apply universal principles to the external world (the world outside our own minds) successfully. Engineers do this every day. They draw their reason on paper. When followed, reason produces stable buildings. This implies that reality has a structure complementary to the human mind. But how could this be? Was Plato right? Is there a world of forms that serves as the foundation for the world of particular things?

Rationalism, Plato’s Forms, and God’s Aseity

Since we just finished beating up empiricism you may be tempted to say “yes.”. Not so fast. There’s one more qualification we need to make. In the Christian worldview God is the only entity which has the characteristic of aseity. Aseity is complete independence.[10] The forms are not completely independent, but rather find their origin in the mind of God which St. Augustine pointed out.[11]

Because we’re created in God’s image we have these principles implanted in our consciousness. This makes the whole knowing enterprise possible. It also explains why rationalism works. The external world is intelligible because a supremely intelligent God created it.

Christian rationalism is superior to empiricism because:

  • It has the most explanatory power.
  • It does not share the weaknesses of empiricism.
  • It’s faithful to the Bible.
  • It works in the real world.

So there you have it, an overview of the differences between rationalism and empiricism.

Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis


  1. Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 2000. 52. Print. ↩
  2. Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 2000. 53. Print. ↩
  3. Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 2000. 52. Print. ↩
  4. Nash, Ronald H. “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: Early Greek Philosophers.” Apple (audio blog), November 9, 2010. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/early-greek-philosophers/id403537295?i=88863458&mt=2. ↩
  5. Nash, Ronald H. “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: Early Greek Philosophers.” Apple (audio blog), November 9, 2010. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/early-greek-philosophers/id403537295?i=88863458&mt=2. ↩
  6. Nash, Ronald H. “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: The Essence of Plato’s Philosophy.” Apple (audio blog) https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/essence-platos-philosophy/id403537295?i=88863473&mt=2 ↩
  7. Botton, Alain De, Benjamin Jowett, and M. J. Knight. The Essential Plato. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999. 616-17. ↩
  8. Nash, Ronald H. “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: Aristotle and Dualism.” Apple (audio blog) https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/aristotle-and-dualism/id403537295?i=88863462&mt=2 ↩
  9. Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 2000. 91. Print. ↩
  10. Robert Audi ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 240. ↩
  11. Nash, Ronald H. “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought: Augustine” Apple (audio blog) https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/augustine-01/id403537295?i=88863441&mt=2 ↩
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The Ad Hominem Fallacy (3 Flavors) and Ridicule in the Bible

The Ad Hominem Logical Fallacy

The ad hominem fallacy is common and commonly misunderstood.

Logical fallacies fall into two camps: formal and informal. Formal fallacies are so severe that they render an argument useless. Informal fallacies merely weaken an argument. [Suggested Reading: The Straw Man Fallacy and the Nature of God] The ad hominem fallacy is an informal logical fallacy. If you’d like to commit the ad hominem fallacy, simply follow these steps:

  1. Ignore the argument.
  2. Attack the arguer instead.
  3. Make the arguer look bad.
  4. Claim victory over the argument.
  5. Do a victory dance.

That last step is optional. The essential element is that you attack the argument rather than the arguer but then claim victory of the argument anyway. You hope the audience will mentally transfer their dislike of the arguer to the argument.

If you attack your opponent before they present an argument in hopes of discrediting them right away, you’ve committed the fallacy of “poisoning the well” (a topic for a future blog post perhaps).

The ad hominem fallacy misses the point. The arguer may be an angle or a demon (metaphorically). Yet the truth value of their premises and connection of premises to conclusion are still the point.

The Ad Hominem Logical Fallacy

The ad hominem fallacy comes in three basic flavors:

Ad Hominem: Abusive

The abusive form of the ad hominem fallacy is probably the most common.

Arguer: Dr. Milton Friedman was in favor of legalizing powerful drugs. But Dr. Friedman was a noted libertarian bordering on anarchist and had a deep dislike for government. Therefore, his opinions about legalizing drugs should be ignored.

Do you see what happened? The arguer failed to address any arguments. Instead, they said something they perceived as negative about Dr. Friedman; he was a libertarian and had a deep dislike for government. Why doesn’t this work? Let’s consider a humorous example. What if  Dr. Friedman argued that the earth revolves around the sun (which indeed it does)? Should we ignore that as well because of the nasty things said of him? The truth value of whether or not the earth revolves around the sun is independent of Dr. Friedman’s political views.

Ad Hominem: Circumstantial

The circumstantial form of the ad hominem fallacy is also very common. The difference between this form and the abusive form is that the this form seeks to cast doubt on the argument because of some circumstance related to the arguer.

Arguer: Sam the grocer says that we shouldn’t allow the big box retail store to move into town because they don’t pay their workers well. But Sam owns a small business that would be directly impacted by the big box store. Sam’s argument is obviously bogus.

This one sounds a little better than the abusive version because it isn’t so blatantly misdirected. In addition, if the circumstances the arguer points out are true, the ad hominem circumstantial may be persuasive. However, even if the arguer is right about Sam’s circumstances, Sam may be right; the big box retail store may not pay their employees well (whatever “well” means). Because the ad hominem circumstantial doesn’t deal with the truth of the actual argument, it’s fallacious.

Ad Hominem: Tu Quoque

The tu quoque version of the ad hominem fallacy occurs when someone accuses the arguer of doing the very thing they’re arguing against. Here’s an example centered around the issue of healthy eating.

Arguer: Tim says that because the Bible says our bodies are the temple of God, we should eat the right kinds of foods and get plenty of exercise. But Tim eats junk food all the time! Clearly, Tim doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and it doesn’t make much difference whether I eat healthy or not.

The tu quoque version of the ad hominem can often be observed between parents and children. The child rejects the advice from the parent about not smoking because, after all, the parent smokes like a train. Monkey see, monkey do.

Is the parent wrong because they don’t “practice what they preach”? Is smoking good for your health? The impact on one’s health from smoking is independent of whether or not the person giving the advice smokes. Similarly, an overweight person may give great dieting advice, but not apply that advice themselves.

What the Ad Hominem Fallacy Is Not

Calling someone a name or insulting them is not sufficient to say that someone has committed the ad hominem fallacy. It must be coupled with the assertion or at least implication that because of these negative things you’ve said, the argument itself is disproven.

Dr. William Lane Craig dealt with this confusion when he was accused by a questioner of having committed the ad hominem fallacy.

Video Transcript

Questioner: […] that we wouldn’t hear ad hominems or attacks from your position or your side. I did want to bring this to your attention and get your response. After the panel that you appeared on with the late Christopher Hitchens, you referred to him in an interview with Christian radio as quote (and this is on YouTube), “Wesley, oily, and lacking in intellectual substance.” You then referred to, in your debate with Richard Carrier while he was there, to him as a “hack.” You also referred to fans of Richard Dawkins in an interview (and this is also on YouTube), “Dawkins is so popular because he, because people are so unsophisticated, inept, sophomoric, they cannot think logically, uninformed, silly, ignorant, and the result (and this is your words) of an educational system that has been dumbed down.” Mr. Craig, quite frankly, is this hypocrisy or is this just a glimpse of the real William Lane Craig?

William Lane Craig: Well I think it’s a glimpse of the real William Lane Craig.

QuestionerApparently they appreciate ad hominem too.

William Lane Craig: No. No. Well, I don’t know that. Maybe it’s important to describe what an ad hominem is. That means literally “against the man.” And what an ad hominem argument would be is that the reason you reject his conclusion is because you attack his person. Maybe like attacking me for these aspersion–now wait now, let, let me finish–it would be like saying that my conclusions are wrong because I’ve said all of these nasty things. See that would be an ad hominem argument. But in none of these cases that you’ve quoted where you’ve compiled words—not strung together at once but you’ve put them together—in none of these cases, I think, will you find that I ever reject a person’s argument or conclusions on that basis. Rather these were probably said in response to questions like tonight where I said some pretty negative things about folks rejecting God for emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons. And I would certainly reiterate what I said about the lack of sophistication and the dumbed down educational system. But in no case is this committing an ad hominem fallacy where I say that their conclusions are wrong because of those things. I’m just… I’ve been asked to characterize certain things as I was tonight, and I’ve given my honest characterization that I would stand by. I mean I think it is, it is true all of those things that I said. But it’s not an ad hominem fallacy. At most it would be impolite maybe. You could indict me for being impolite.

Questioner: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Someone may say, “You’re ugly.” That’s not an ad hominem. If they say, “You’re ugly, therefore your argument is false,” they’ve then committed the ad hominem fallacy (specifically of the abusive variety).

Ridicule and Mockery in the Bible

Believe it or not, the Bible does include ridicule, insults, and mockery. But I couldn’t find any examples of an ad hominem being endorsed in the Bible. Some may claim that Christians should go one step further and not even use strong language, insults, cutting rhetorical questions, etc. when interacting with others. Here are four scriptural examples of what some may think is too harsh:

Psalm 14:1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.

I Kings 18:27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

I Corinthians 1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Galatians 5:12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

These biblical references can serve as examples of how Christians may interact. Surely, our speech must always be kind, gentle, and aimed at producing love. However, it’s fallacious (specifically the fallacy of equivocation) to make “kind, gentle, and loving” identical to “not cutting.” We must also recognize that before we can love our fellow man, we must first and foremost love God. Certainly, those religious leaders Jesus and his disciples opposed would not have considered them to be loving or gentle. Condemnation of sin is often confused with condemnation of the sinner.

Christians must never knowingly engage in ad hominem arguments. It insults the image of God in your opponent, disrespects your own God given dignity, and is a poor representation to anyone listening of the intellectual rigor Christianity has to offer.

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The Straw Man Fallacy and the Nature of God

The Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy occurs when someone attacks an incorrect or inaccurate representation of a position. Usually this misrepresentation is weaker than the actual argument in some way. When the attacker defeats this straw man version of the position, they then claim victory as if they had defeated the original argument.

The Straw Man Fallacy

Here’s a textbook (literally) definition of the straw man fallacy:

The straw man fallacy is committed when an arguer distorts an opponent’s argument for the purpose of more easily attacking it, demolishes the distorted argument, and then concludes that the opponent’s real argument has been demolished. By so doing, the arguer is said to have set up a straw man and knocked it down, only to conclude that the real man (opposing argument) has been knocked down as well.[1]

Not All Fallacies Are Created Equale

Fallacies are all around us, but not all fallacies are created equal. When critiquing a position, argument, or line of reasoning, there are two broad categories fallacies may fall into: formal and informal.

Formal fallacies occur when there is a defect in the structure of an argument or the truth value of one or more of its propositions.

An informal fallacy can be found be examining the content of an argument. Everyday communication is usually not done via logical syllogisms (where formal logical fallacies would be easier to spot). Informal fallacies are not as easy to detect because there are so many, and the way they present themselves are often subtle (i.e. assumed in an argument rather than explicitly stated).

Here’s a dictionary definition of informal fallacies:

An error of reasoning or tactic of argument that can be used to persuade someone with whom you are reasoning that your argument is correct when really it is not.[2]

Examples of the Straw Man Fallacy

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Sadly, politics is one of the most fruitful sources for examples of logical fallacies. Consider the issue of gun control (whatever that means). Let’s look at two examples of the straw man fallacy when it come to this volatile issue:

Straw Man Example #1

Those republicans! They’re always opposing stricter gun control legislation. They care more about hoarding their guns than they do about the lives of innocent children. We care about our children. Obviously those republicans are just spouting a bunch of nonsense.

Straw Man Example #2

Those democrats! They’re always proposing stricter gun control legislation. They want to force all Americans to turn in all their guns to the government. This is clearly an example of government run amok. Those democrats couldn’t make a sound argument to save their lives.

In both cases the actual claims (stricter gun control legislation or less strict gun control legislation) is ignored. Instead caricatures of the real arguments are argued against. Once these weakened arguments have been defeated, victory is proclaimed over the actual positions.

The Nature of God and the Straw Man Fallacy

Because the straw man fallacy involves a misrepresentation of an argument (intentional or unintentional), it is not true. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. Consider the scriptural references below and what they say about the character and nature of God in relation to lying and falsity:

James 1:17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change.[3]

I Kings 8:56 “The Lord is worthy of praise because he has made Israel his people secure just as he promised! Not one of all the faithful promises he made through his servant Moses is left unfulfilled![4]

Psalm 119:160 Your instructions are totally reliable;

all your just regulations endure.[5]

Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it happen?[6]

I Samuel 15:29 The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.”[7]

Hebrews 6:18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie.

God is not simply one who tells the truth he is the transcendent ground of all reality. Truth is grounded in his very being and nature. The Bible also instructs Christians to be followers of God, exemplifying his character in all they do.

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Therefore, Christians should carefully consider their arguments, ensuring that they do not engage in the use of any straw men, not because it makes for a better argument (although it does), but because arguing in accordance with the will of God is one way Christians glorify their heavenly father.

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  1. Hurley, Patrick J. “Informal Fallacies.” A Concise Introduction to Logic. 9th ed. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. 120. Print.  ↩
  2. Audi, Robert. “Informal Fallacy.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 431. Print.  ↩
  3. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Jas 1:17.  ↩
  4. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), 1 Ki 8:56.  ↩
  5. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ps 119:160.  ↩
  6. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Nu 23:19.  ↩
  7. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), 1 Sa 15:29.  ↩