Refutations: The Transcendental Argument (Objections)

In another post, I offer a refutation of Matt Slick’s version of the Transcendental Argument. At the end of his argument, he gives his responses to some common objections. It is the purpose of this post to remark on these objections and responses.

Slick’s words (and the words of others that he quotes on his website) appear in italics. All non-italicized words are my own.

—– Objection A. Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence.

Response I. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

We form logical laws ourselves, in response to our observations of the world around us. They are descriptions of the world, and are therefore human constructs.

Response II. How does on[e] chemical state of the physical brain that leads to another physical state of the physical brain produce Logical Absolutes that are not dependent upon the physical brain for their validity?

The brain cannot be said to produce logical absolutes, because we do not know for sure that logical absolutes actually exist. However, objective logical laws, i.e. those that do not depend on the opinions of the brains that hold them do, in fact, originate from outside the brain. Our brains are hooked up to sensory devices, so we are not closed off from the rest of the universe. Objective logic is therefore a response to what we observe in the natural world. It is a description of that world.

Response III. If they are a part of natural existence (the universe) then they would cease to exist if the universe ceased.

Yes. So what?

a. This has not been proven to be true.

Again, so what? Slick is the one attempting to prove that logical absolutes exist and that they are independent of the universe. The fact that he has failed to do so means that his entire argument fails, regardless of what I am able or unable to prove.

b. It implies that logic is a property of physical matter, but this is addressed in point 5 above.

I have already offered a refutation of Slick’s claims in point 5 (here).

—– Objection B. Logical Absolutes simply exist.

Response I. This is begging the question by saying they exist beause they exist and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

I agree. The fact remains, though, that Slick does not prove the existence of logical absolutes, so talking about their origin is, at least for the moment, pointless.

—– Objection C. Logical Absolutes are axioms

Response I. An axiom is a truth that is self evident. To say that Logical Absolutes are axioms is to beg the question by saying they are simply self evident truths because theya re self evident truths and fails to account for their existence.

I agree. See note above regarding Slick’s failure to prove the existence of logical absolutes.

—– Objection D. Logical Absolutes are conventions.

Response I. A convention, in this context, is an agreed upon principle. But since people differ on what is and is not true, then logical absolutes cannot be the product of human minds, and therefore are not human conventions; that is, of human agreements.

It is not relevant that people generally disagree on what is or is not true. What is relevant is whether they agree or disagree about whether logical absolutes are true or not true. If everyone agreed that, say, the Law of Identity was true, then Slick’s argument here would fail. It’s not clear to me that there actually exist any rational people who would dispute the Law of Identity, so it seems that Slick has some polling work to do.

However, it is also important to note (as I already have done and will undoubtedly be required to do again), that Slick has not shown that logical absolutes exist. Until he does so, there is little point in spending time discussing their origins.

Response II. This would mean that logical absolutes were invented as a result of an agreement by a sufficient number of people. But this would mean that logical absolutes are a product of human minds, which cannot be the case since human minds differ and are often contradictory. Furthermore, the nature of logical absolutes is that they transcend space and time (not dependent on space and time for their validity) and are absolute (they don’t change) by nature. Therefore, they could not be the product of human minds which are finite and not absolute.

As argued in my refutation, we don’t actually know that logical absolutes exist, and if they did, they could be characterized as descriptions of the behavior of universe, and therefore the product of minds, the only objects we know capable of formulating descriptions.

Indeed, if logical laws are descriptions of the universe, then they are objective, and we would expect to find good agreement on these laws among rational minds. And that is indeed what we find.

Response III. This would mean that if people later disagreed on what was a Logical Absolute, then the absolutes would change based on “vote” and they would not then be absolute.

As already discussed, Slick has not demonstrated that absolutes exist. Furthermore, it is quite possible for people to think that they have discovered a logical absolute, only to realize after further observation that they were wrong, and that an alternative absolute is more likely. This doesn’t mean that the absolutes themselves are actually changing, it just means that human understanding of these absolutes is changing. In the same way, we wouldn’t argue that the earth is literally changing shape from flat to oblate spheroid simply because people’s understanding of the shape of the earth changes from flat to oblate spheroid.

—– Objection E. Logical Absolutes are eternal.

i. What is meant by stating they are eternal?

I’m guessing that the thrust of this objection is that absolutes have always existed, implying that their origin need not be explained (because they had no origin).

ii. If a person says that logical absolutes have always existed, then how is it they could exist without a mind (if the person denies the existence of an absolute and transcendent mind)? After all, logic is a process of the mind.

I agree that logic cannot be eternal. For a start, we don’t know whether logical absolutes actually exist. But the rest of logical thought is indeed the product of human minds, which themselves are not eternal.

—– Objection F. Logical Absolutes are uncaused.

Response I. Since the nature of logic is conceptual, and logical absolutes form the framework of this conceptual [sic] upon which logical processes are based, it would seem logical to conclude that the only way logical absolutes could be uncaused is if there was an uncaused and absolute mind authoring them.

My objections to this response have already been covered.

—– Objection G. Logical Absolutes are self-authenticating.

Response I. This means that logical absolutes validate themselves. While this is true, it does not explain their existence.

Agreed.

Response II. It is begging the question. It just says they are because they are.

Agreed.

—– Objection H. Logical Absolutes are like rules of chess, which are not absolute and transcendent.

Response I. The rules of chess are human inventions since Chess is a game invented by people. In fact, the rules of chess have changed over the years, but logical absolutes have not. So, comparing the rules of chess to logical absolutes is invalid.

The analogy of chess is, indeed, a bad one. While logic is neither absolute nor transcendent, it is not invented, any more than Newton’s Second Law is invented. Rather, it’s a description of the universe. And we cannot simply invent descriptions of the universe.

—– Objection I. There are different kinds of logic.

Response I. Saying there are different kinds of logic does not explain the existence of logical absolutes.

Agreed.

Response II. In different systems of logic, there must be undergirding, foundational principles upon which those systems are based. How are those foundational principles accounted for? The same issue applies to them as it does to Logical Absolutes in classical logic.

Agreed. And, as I’ve argued, the fundamental underpinnings of logical systems are based on observations of the world around us.

—– Objection J. “Logical absolutes need no transcendental existence: saying ‘they would be true even if matter didn’t exist’ is irrelevant, because we’re concerned with their existence, not their logical validity. Saying ‘the idea of a car would still exist even if matter didn’t exist’ doesn’t imply that your car is transcendental (reductio ad absurdum).”

The problem with transcendence in Slick’s argument is that he never defends it as a concept. A transcendent object is, Slick appears to believe, an object that can exist independently of the universe. But is this even possible? Doesn’t the very definition of “exist” have the presence of the universe built into it? In what sense can something exist without the universe? Slick never says. Thus, even if one takes the view that logical absolutes are not the product of human minds, then it may make sense to consider their logical validity in the absence of the universe, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to consider their existence in the absence of the universe, i.e. their transcendence.

Response I. Why do logical absolutes need no transcendental existence? Simply saying they don’t need a transcendental existence doesn’t make it so nor does it account for their existence.

This doesn’t address the objection. The objection isn’t making a definite claim that logical absolutes are not transcendent. It is simply suggesting that Slick’s method of proving transcendence may be faulty, since it assumes that it makes sense to talk about something existing even if the universe itself does not exist.

Response II. Also, why is it irrelevant to say they would be true even if matter didn’t exist? On the contrary, it is precisely relevant to the discussion since we’re dealing with the nature of logical absolutes which are conceptual realities, not physical ones.

I agree: it is relevant to Slick’s argument to talk about both the logical validity of certain statements, as well as their existence.

Response III. The illustration that a car would still exist if matter did not exist is illogical. By definition, a car is made of matter and if matter did not exist, a car could not logically exist. By contrast, logical absolutes are not made of matter. The objection is invalid.

Ah, but this leaves us hanging. What, if not matter, are logical absolutes made up of? If they’re not made up of anything, does it even make sense to say they exist? My own response would be that logic, like all concepts, is the result of matter and how it is arranged: they exist as an emergent property of brain structure and function. Insofar as we understand the concept of emergence, we understand the existence of logic and other concepts. Slick does not provide any such framework in his argument.

—– Objection K. “Logical abstractions do not have existence independent of our minds. They are constructs in our minds (i.e. brains), and we use them to carry out computations via neural networks, silicon networks, etc., suggested by the fact that logic – like language – is learned, not inbuilt (ball’s in your court to demonstrate an independent existence, or problem with this).” (…continued in next objection…)

This is very similar to an objection I make in my refutation.

Response I. How do you know that logical abstractions do not have existence independent of our minds? Saying so doesn’t make it so.

As the objector says, the “ball’s in your court to demonstrate independent existence”.  Slick is the one trying to prove that logical absolutes exist independent of minds (with the exception of his uber-mind, an exception he never justifies). He can’t prove this simply by asking us to disprove it.

[Response I continued] This is precisely one of the points about the nature of logical absolutes; namely, that they are a process of the mind, but are not dependent upon human bodies because human minds contradict each other and are also self-contradictory. This would preclude our minds from being the authors of what is logically absolute.

As I point out in my refutation, this problem can very easily be solved by recognizing that laws of logic are ultimately descriptions of the universe. Thus, while they are, indeed, products of the human mind (every description is), this does not mean that they are subjective, i.e. that it is impossible to evaluate the truth of different people’s claims about logic.

Slick also makes an unsupported claim here, namely that people do, as a rule, contradict each other over the perceived laws of logic. But if this were true, it would be an enormous problem for Slick’s argument. This is because his argument actually relies on us agreeing with him about the identity of logical absolutes! Slick does not show us why the Law Of Excluded Middle, say, should be considered absolute. He simply states the law, tells us it’s absolute, and expects us all to nod our heads in agreement. If he thinks these laws are self-evident, i.e. that any rational person can be expected to accept them, then he cannot also claim that human minds routinely contradict each other over issues of logic.

[Response I continued.] Furthermore, if they are constructions of our minds, then all I have to do is claim victory in any argument because that is how I construct my logical abstractions. But, of course, you wouldn’t accept this as being valid. Therefore, this demonstrates that your assertion is incorrect.

Again, Slick is assuming here that every product of the human mind must, by definition, be subjective. But this is false: it is possible for human minds to produce something – for instance, a description of the universe and its behavior – that is objective, namely that is right or wrong based on the available evidence, rather on whoever happens to claim it as right or wrong.

Response II. How can an atheist logically claim that one chemical state in the brain which leads to another state necessitates proper logical inference? It seems quite unlikely and without proof of some sort, saying that Logical Absolutes are abstractions of (human) minds doesn’t account for them.

I’m not sure why anyone would insist that moving from one brain state to another makes proper logical inference necessary. It certainly makes it possible, but it doesn’t make it necessary. Does Slick perhaps mean that moving from one brain state to another requires proper logical inference? Either way, I don’t see why anyone would make such a claim.

—– Objection L. “Logical absolutes are absolute, not because of some special quality, but because we judge them using logic. Therefore, their absoluteness doesn’t arise from any special ontological quality (category error on your part).”

Response I. You are begging the question. You use logic to demonstrate that logical absolutes are absolute. You are not giving a rational reason for their existence. Instead, you assume their existence and argue accordingly.

I agree that this is begging the question.

Response 2. Furthermore, when you presuppose the validity of logical absolutes to demonstrate they are absolute, you contradict your statement in your previous objection about them being constructs of human minds. They cannot be constructs of human minds, because human minds contradict each other and themselves where Logical Absolutes do not.

I have already addressed this aspect of Slick’s argument.

Response 3. Where is the category mistake? The nature of logical absolutes is that they are conceptual. This is something I have brought out before so that their categories do not get mixed. The nature of logical absolutes is exactly relevant to the question.

Agreed.

—– Objection M. “Logical absolutes can be accurately described as conventions in communication. The fact that they are widely employed does not imply anything transcendental, anymore than the wide employment of the word “lolly” as something small and yummy implies that the word “lolly” is transcendental (non sequitor).”

Response I. Saying that they are “widely employed does not imply anything transcendental” is inaccurate. Something that is transcendental, as in logical absolutes, would naturally be widely employed because they are valid and transcendent; otherwise, they wouldn’t be universally used. You have recognized that they are widely used, but they are because they are transcendent. They do not become transcendent because they are widely used.

So Slick says, but where is his argument to show that this is the case? The mere fact of widespread use doesn’t require transcendence. The objector says that logical absolutes just happen to be widely used conventions, and Slick essentially replies “No, they’re not”. That’s not an argument. The objection therefore remains unanswered, and it is a good one. It essentially repeats my previous suggestion that logic is a description of the universe, and is therefore a conceptual convention. And it is widely used for the same reason that Newton’s Second Law is widely used: because it works. It helps us accurately model and predict the world around us.

Notably, Slick fails to address the example of the word “lolly”. This is, indeed, a widely used description and it is used, once again, because it works (for instance, it does not carry other meanings that might lead to semantic ambiguity). But there is surely nothing transcendent about the word “lolly”.

Response II. This still does not account for the existence of logical absolutes.

Logical absolutes do not have to be accounted for until we know they exist. Thus far, we do not know that they exist.

—– Objection N. “Logical processes are clearly carried out by material constructs, usually neural or electrical. They do this without any known “input” or “guidance” from anything transcendental, which makes you wonder why anything transcendental is needed in the equation at all (reality check).”

Repsonse I. You haven’t defined “material construct” or what you mean by neural or electrical (constructs). If you mean a computer or something of that kind, this doesn’t help you because humans designed them using logic. If you mean that they are the process of the human brain, you still haven’t solved the problem of their existence; since the implication would be that if our minds do not exist, logical absolutes would not exist either. But this would mean that logical absolutes were not absolute, but dependent upon human minds. Again, the problem would be that human minds are different and contradict each other. Therefore, logical absolutes, which are not contradictory, cannot be the product of minds that are contradictory.

I’m not sure why Slick considers the existence of the human brain to be a problem, unless he’s speaking to us from pre-Victorian England when creationism was still de rigueur. Darwinian evolution explains the origins of the brain quite well. Furthermore, the burgeoning field of neuroscience is getting us closer and closer to a good understanding of mind and consciousness every day.

I have addressed the content of the remainder of the response.

Response II. As stated above how does one establish that one chemical state in the brain which leads to another state necessitates proper logical inference? Asserting it doesn’t make it so and concluding that chemical reactions lead to logical inferences has not yet been established to be true, or even that it could be at all.

Again, I’m afraid I don’t really understand this response. It’s perfectly feasible to imagine human minds evolving in such a way that they are able to detect, parse, and understand the sensory input that is fed to them, and therefore infer certain rules of logic that appear to be obeyed in the observable universe.

Response III. You don’t have to know the input or understand the guidance from anything transcendental for the transcendentals to be true.

Granted, but you eventually have to show, in one way or another, that your claim of transcendence is true.

—– Objection O. “Logic is one of those characteristics that any healthy human ‘has.’ It’s not free to vary from one person to the next for the same kind of reason that ‘number of eyes’ is a value that doesn’t vary between healthy humans.”

Response I. Saying that logic is something that everyone “has” does not explain its existence. Essentially, this is begging the question, stating that something exists because it exists.

This may be true. However, we might be able to fill in the missing explanation. From what we know of the brain, it is evolved to think in certain ways and to engage in certain activities and behaviors. It would therefore not be surprising to find that concepts of basic logical and rational thought are hardwired into the brain as adaptive features. And these hardwired patterns of thought would have been “discovered” by evolution in the same way that all other phenotypes were discovered, i.e. through trial and error.

Response II. The analogy of “eyes” is a category mistake. Eyes are organs. Different organisms have different kinds of eyes and different numbers of eyes. Logic is consistent and independent of biological structures.

I submit that logic is not independent of biological structures, as suggested in my refutation. It therefore might not be much of a stretch to use the analogy of the eye. The eye is adaptive because it allows the organism to make sense of the patterns of light in its environment. In the same way, logical thought is adaptive because it allows the organism to make sense of events and relationships in its environment.

—– Objection P. Logic is the result of the semantics of the language which we have chosen: a statement is a theorem of logic if and only if it is valid in all conceivable worlds. If the language is trivalent (true/indetermined/false), tertium non datur is invalid. Uniformity of the universe can be rationally expected in a non-theistic universe. If there is no one around with the transcendental power to change it, why should the behavior of the universe tomorrow differ from its behavior today?

Response I. “Semantics of the language.” Semantics deals with the study of the meaning of words, their development, changes in meaning, and the interpretation of words, etc. But semantics by nature deals with the changing meaning of words and the often subjective nature of language and its structures. To say the absolutes of logic are a result of the use of the subjective meanings of words is problematic. How do you derive logical absolutes from the non-absolute semantic structures of non-absolute languages?

I agree that this part of the objection is not very good. I’m not sure there is anything inherently special about language that causes it to give rise to logic on its own. Rather, both logic and language are essentially evolutionary responses to the environment. We speak the way we do because it confers an adaptive advantage to us. In other words, the structures of language and logic are imposed by the characteristics of the outside world (much like a puddle is shaped by the depression it rests in), and are therefore descriptions of it.

[Response 1 continued.] Furthermore, simply asserting that logic is a result of the semantics of the language does not explain the transcendent nature of logic. Remember, the TAG argument asserts that Logical Absolutes are independent of human existence — reasons given at the beginning of the paper. Since language, in this context, is a result of human existence, the argument would suggest that logic came into existence when language came into existence. But this would invalidate the nature of logical absolutes and their transcendent characteristics. Therefore, this objection is invalid.

As I’ve argued before, language and logic are descriptions of the world around us. The fact that the world around us can be described quite well by logical laws that are taken, provisionally, to be absolute, does not mean that the logical laws are, in fact, absolute, nor does it mean that they are transcendent. Indeed, since these laws are descriptions of the universe, they cease to have any meaning without the universe, and are therefore not transcendent.

Response 2. If logic is the result of language, then logic came into existence with language. This cannot be for the reasons stated above.

I have already argued against this response.

Response 3. If logic is the result of language, and since language rules change, then can we conclude that the laws of logic would also change? If so, then the laws of logic are not laws, they are not absolute.

The laws of logic are not likely to change, for the simple reason that they are descriptions of the world around us. If the fundamental nature of the space-time continuum suddenly started to change tomorrow (allowing, for instance, two objects to occupy the same space simultaneously), then it’s quite likely that our logic would have to change. And indeed, that would imply that logic was not absolute, which is what I’ve argued for all along anyway. Thus far, however, we have not detected any such changes so we can, for practical purposes, regard our current system of logic as fixed.

Language, on the other hand, describes things like human interactions and technologies, and these things certainly do change. The experience of living has changed remarkably over the years, and our language has adapted appropriately.

Response 4. Saying that “a statement is a theorem of logic” does not account for logic, but presupposes existence of logic. This is begging the question.

Agreed.

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