The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God

Here is the argument, made famous by Greg Bahnsen, stated as succinctly as I can manage:

By rejecting God, one implicitly rejects the only nonarbitrary basis for positing the existence of morality, order, causation, induction, sets, logic, numbers, and a whole host of other abstracts necessary for making the world intelligible. Such an arbitrary worldview is thus so defective on its face that its only adherents will be those who maintain a dogmatic belief in atheism—i.e., those who, as a matter of underlying precommitments, irrationally prioritize the rejection of God over the rejection of universal arbitrariness. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Any attempt to suss out God from the background noise of the universe is doomed to failure. Our own views of morality are human, not divine: though we know what is right, our temporal, selfish natures implore us to do what is wrong. Order, causation, induction, sets, logic, numbers and the like are abstractions, useful enough in their own realm as terms, but the universe seems to grin at us and demand ever more explanation than we can furnish. We are trapped in time, our conceptions of the world constricted by general relativity. If our current math is any guide into special relativity, it is currently ugly enough to cast doubt on our current conclusions. At any rate, these abstractions are only tools, no truths in and of themselves.

    Any God worth worshipping is by definition beyond understanding. All the worthwhile things are beyond understanding: passion, art, music, the subtle joys of a job well done. In our hearts, trapped in our own imperfections, we long for union with all that is true and good.

    O sages standing in God’s holy fire
    As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
    Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
    And be the singing-masters of my soul.
    Consume my heart away; sick with desire
    And fastened to a dying animal
    It knows not what it is; and gather me
    Into the artifice of eternity.

    • these abstractions are only tools, no truths in and of themselves.

      Am I to understand this abstraction, along with the remainder of your comment, comprised entirely of non-empirical statements, are likewise nothing more than “tools, [having] no truths in and of themselves”?

      • Two plus two equals four. It’s true of stars and starfish. But there’s no pointing to the Number Two or the Letter T, though they’ve sponsored Sesame Street often enough.

        We use symbolic logic in any number of ways. You might make your point clearer by removing the negatives: we could start cancelling out terms.

        By accepting God, one explicitly accepts other arbitrary bases for positing the existence of morality, order, causation, induction, sets, logic, numbers, and a whole host of other abstracts necessary for making the world intelligible.

        Do you see all the questions you’ve begged here? Or have I missed something?

        • I’m a little confused, but I take it you’re essentially saying there’s more than one road to Rome—i.e., the Christian God, or the God of other monotheistic religions, or gods of polytheistic religions, etc. If that’s the case, I’d say again this is another stage of the analysis that happens once we’ve posited some way to get us out of the epistemological hole set out by Descartes and Hume. There might be more than one road to Rome. What’s your way? Maybe we can talk about why it’s better or worse than mine. Atheists, however, just assume we’re already in Rome and suggest there’s no meaningful discussion to be had about how we got there. For most purposes, it might not matter. But to make metaphysical claims such as whether there is no such thing as God is to suggest that such questions are important. So for atheists to say it doesn’t matter how we know there’s order in the universe because “It’s Just That Way” is a highly unusual sort of non-explanation from someone who otherwise purports to care about intellectual inquiry.

          • But to make metaphysical claims such as whether there is no such thing as God is to suggest that such questions are important.

            Beliefs are important because they lead to action. E.g. the question of whether humanity is divided into races, some of which are superior to others, is of great importance even to those who disbelieve that “race” exists as a biological category.

  2. My problem with all of these arguments for the existence of God is that the God they argue the existence for and the God the, oh let’s pick a religion out of a hat, Muslims believe in don’t map 1:1.

    For example, I think that Hawking’s god is personally interesting, but morally uninteresting. When I say that I don’t believe in God, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in a set of formuae that tells us how billiards works.

    This is why, in discussions of theism, I always ask for a definition of “God”.

    Hey, maybe we *DO* believe in the same stuff! The answer never comes “formulae”. If it comes at all, it usually comes of the form “don’t be obtuse, everybody knows what we’re talking about.”

    • But this isn’t really taking the negative position in the God debate, I think. Once one accepts the basic argument (that without some transcendental model of making intelligible our claims about the world, we are cast into universal arbitrariness), then we’re no longer debating theism versus atheism—we’re debating something more along the lines of comparative religion. I could debate a Muslim on Islam because he has set out the tenets of his religion. I could debate a Jew on Judaism or a Buddhist on Buddhism for the same reason. I can’t debate an atheist or an agnostic until they set out their transcendental claims.

      • Transcendental claims? Let’s say that I’m a materialist. There’s only one cendent. There’s nothing to trans *TO*.

        It seems like the game becomes “well, define God” “No, *YOU* define God!” “I’m not the one who argues for the existence of God… there are a handful of trivial definitions I could throw out there that I don’t find particularly interesting on a moral level that I’d agree might exist, though… laws of physics and geometrical relationships and whatnot… but nothing that gets me to ‘you should not eat shrimp'” “Are you going to provide a definition or not?”

        And I get all confused over who has a responsibility to do what at this point in the conversation.

        For example: I don’t see how the trancendental argument for the existence of God gets me to *ANY* claim made by *ANY* organized religion that’s older than, oh, a couple of generations… because they have some fairly focused ideas about what god is/is not and the God(s) they believe in and His nose does not look like the nose that just slipped into the tent.

        • Let’s say that I’m a materialist. There’s only one cendent. There’s nothing to trans *TO*.

          A consistent materialist, wouldn’t be making metaphysical, non-material statements like “There’s only one cendent,” “There’s nothing to trans *TO*,” or even “I’m a materialist.”

          • An inconsistent materialist. Perhaps one with a better vocabulary than mine. Perhaps one that said that dualists (or even multists) were making (charitably!) mistakes in the distinctions they were making.

            The god’s nose who slipped in the tent would need one heck of a rhinoplasty to look like any of the gods that come to mind among the untrained and/or townies when we start talking about “God”.

            Is this a bug or a feature?

          • Yeah, getting from “there must be some form of god” to describing what that must look like requires more work than I’m ready to do at this point. However, in answer to your previous question, I think there’s no point for a theist to do that work until the atheist concedes the preliminary point that there must be something else other than just extended reality. That’s really the narrow scope of the transcendental argument. The argument itself doesn’t take you all the way to which God. It doesn’t take you from atheism all the way to Christianity, for example. It just takes you from atheism to not-atheism. Other forms of argument are needed to go the rest of the way to any particular religion/worldview.

          • If I am willing to concede the existence of mathematical relationships, is that sufficient?

            Do I need to concede the existence of, say, “spirits”?

            Do I need to concede that God is one of these “spirits”?

            Do I need to concede that God has something analogous to, for lack of a better term, a personality?

            Do I need to concede that God is aware of us?

            Do I need to concede that God is interested in us?

            Do I need to concede that God’s personality has him benevolently inclined to us? (I mean, if you go to an organic farm where the cows are all grass fed, I’m sure that the cows would all talk about how awesome the farmer is and how he takes care of them. And the steaks just taste better.)

            Because, quite honestly, the transcendental argument seems very similar to other arguments for the existence of God insofar as the important part is the getting of the nose into the tent… and when I point out that Cthulhu fhtagn, they look at me like I have so obviously missed the point. The point seems to be that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.

            Cthulhu fhtagn, dude. Cthulhu fhtagn.

  3. On its face, the transcendental argument assumes that without conceding the existence of God, there can be no logic. The only way I can make sense of that is to say that God is logic and our culture and history have saddled us with a semantic fissure in what ought to be a unified concept. This notion does not horrify me but seems to me that it is hobbled and won’t even get to deism without help since logic, on its own, is obviously incapable of volitional action (e.g., creating the universe).

    Alternatively, the argument contends that if one rejects God, one simultaneously claims that logic is arbitrary; logic is obviously not arbitrary but rather is absolute, therefore rejection of God is itself a fallacy. That’s a formally correct syllogism but its premise again doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is no reason I can see that rejection of God requires making a claim that logic as we know it is arbitrary.

    Still, even in its very strongest permutation, the transcendental argument gets you to deism but it hardly takes you to Christianity. Maybe… maybe… it gets you to Buddhism.

    • Burt,

      I disagree with suggesting an identity relationship between God and logic. I think I would say God has logic as one of his qualities, but this is not the same as saying God is logic.

      I take your point in your second paragraph. But again, I would suggest the reason the premise “doesn’t make a lot of sense” is because of your precommitments. Arguments, even correct ones as you acknowledge, sadly often don’t carry us all the way to belief. I like how Robert Nozick put it:

      Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. Hows that for a powerful argument? Yet, as with other physical threats (“your money or your life”), he can choose defiance. A “perfect” philosophical argument would leave no choice.

      As to your third point, fair enough. The transcendental argument is indeed a narrow one, and it does not itself go all the way to the truth of Christianity or any particular religion. We need different sorts of arguments there. But by that point, we will have happily left atheism far behind.

  4. P1. If you believe not-A, then you’re a doo-doo head
    C. A

    This is why people don’t take conservatives seriously when they claim to be motivated by logic.

  5. Everything within the universe is in a state of perpetual motion passing from one moment to the next. Every thought is related to what happened before, what’s going on now or what will be in the future. As time passes, the current moment ceases to exist and a new instant comes into being. The future becomes the present and the present becomes the past. Such is the essence of change and the nature of time. This thought, however, begs the question, “If physical being is in a perpetual state of motion and change, what is the constant?” If nothing remains the same then by what cause do the processes of life perpetually repeat themselves exactly the same way with the celestial bodies moving repetitively through space-time in perfect order. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that there is a universal constant; a standard by which all things follow a particular order without deviation as if following a prime directive.

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