Transcendental Worldview/System Analysis: A Materialist Test Case

Presuppositional Pillars

An Example from Linguistics By: Jay Several recent discussions I've had demonstrate the importance of thinking in terms of a worldview, which amounts to ultimately adopting transcendental argumentation. This is relevant, not only for apologetics and arguing for God's existence, but for analysis in general, especially as it applies to analyzing systems of thought, be it some given community's modus operandi or a religious system, etc. This is precisely the revolution transcendental argumentation brought, but which has largely gone unnoticed. There are many reasons for this. In the numerous debates I've had with thinkers, one can often detect this process, even when the opponent cannot. Once one is aware of worldview thinking and transcendental argumentation, it is truly a paradigm shift in the approach to rational discourse, be it some issue of metaphysics or morals. What we can trace out from this is that persons operate on the basis of their presuppositions. More often than not, individuals are inconsistent with their operating principles, and hold to conflicting positions. When dealing with more intelligent individuals, this tendency is certainly decreased, yet more often than not it is still a prevalent tendency.  For example, we may look at a person who claims to be a hardcore, reductionist materialist. Irrespective of the goal of argumentation involved in engaging or analyzing this person, one can trace out the kind of conclusions they ought to come to, given their pre-commitments. Thus, for an illustrative example, a reductionist materialist will often make the universal claim that "all that exists is matter."  This is problematic on numerous levels, not merely that it attempts to show what it cannot do in its own system. But thinking of this view as a totality system is what is key.  In other words, we trace out all the multitude implications of what would follow from adopting the foundational precondition that this person believes to be "rational." First of all, we consider the claim itself - that all that exists is purely material. On the first level of analysis, we can consider whether this question is possible to demonstrate, since generally those who advocate such a notion will also claim they adhere to the "scientific method."  The scientific method, however, gives no possibility of ever demonstrating such a universal claim. One would have to demonstrate perceptual knowledge of every possible location in the universe, and further show that each locale is purely material. This is of course, impossible, but even if it were, it would not follow from some mind doing this that some locale not presently under examination does not contain something immaterial. It is impossible to demonstrate a universal negative. But rarely would any materialist go to such extremes, though I have seen some otherwise highly intelligent people jump to absurd and irrational conclusions in such worldview analyses. What usually occurs at this point is that the person concedes that his view is a hypothesis, and it is the most rational. It becomes an agnostic view.  A view, however, which admits that it's most foundational premise is itself doubtful begins to give rise to bigger and bigger problems.

To be able to predicate “truths” about the external world requires a lot of structure and metaphysical commitments. For one, to say “that object is purely material,” presumes the ability to make sounds out of the vocal cords that stand for conceptual entities that also stand for the object. Notice the complexity we have already given rise to, which the average “materialist” has not even considered.  Let’s illustrate it this way:

1. To say “That thing” requires that the use of vocal cords in that instance in time in some way matches up to, or connects to the object in the immediate environment. It must pick out a certain thing among other objects, and stand for, or “mean” that thing. So we have this level, so to speak.

2. There must be some sense in which the “thing” in question, say a glass, corresponds to that vocal sound. Often, the response by skeptics is that the sounds are merely tokens and any sound can be used.  While it may be true that the sounds could be altered and varied, it is also the case that in this context where our hypothetical materialist is trying to communicate with me is using English symbols and language.  So there is then a lexical limitation on the usage of symbols that can be utilized for this even to have “meaning.”  Thus, certain rules and restrictions apply to the usage of the terms in question, and it is not the case that any sound in this context can be used in place of “glass.”  There must be a common understanding of English between us, and linguistic systems are not arbitrary concoctions that spontaneously occur and change from second to second. Granted, languages evolve and change, but it is quite obvious that there is a conceptual scheme back of the symbols used in spoken word or in print that is being represented. But what this means is that the materialist’s usage of “that thing” presupposes a meaning to the English language, and not just any english alphabetical symbols, but the usage of those symbols in precisely that order. It is “THAT GLASS”  and not “GLTHT ASSA,” which, in this context would be meaningless.  What this shows is that already, to say something as simple as “that glass” presumes meaning and coherence within a given lexical system, namely in this case, English.

3. As mentioned above, not only is a larger reality of the language known as “English” presupposed, but the notions of meaning and invariance of meaning over time are also presupposed. The symbols “t h a t g l a s s,” whether spoken or written, must retain that meaning over time, and thus their meaning must be applicable in this instance within spacetime. But this poses a problem for the materialist. While the vocal cord usage of “glass” might be done with material tools like the human esophagus, the meaning is certainly not material. First, it would be impossible to demonstrate that meaning was material. Second, if that were the case, meaning would be in constant and utter flux, as matter is in constant flux. No meaning would actually inhere and as soon as the statements were uttered, they would pass out of existence as no longer corresponding to the present  meaning. Which group of molecules or atoms connects up to the word “That”? If the materialist responds that “that” is only a connector or token indicator in a sentence, he has begged the question – what molecules correspond precisely to “token”? Is it only a certain set of billion?  This is such an absurd question, that we have now begun to see how the process of transcendental argumentation looks at systems as a whole, at least provisionally, and thus seeks to flesh out whether the many axioms and starting points of a given view comport with one another.

4. Another level of consideration would be the notion of meaning, insofar as we “possess” the concepts mentally. For the materialist to identify a certain glass in our experience, it is required not just that meaning inhere over time, that it match up to certain objects in our field of vision, and that a given set of symbols sensibly connect up to that thing, but also that what he is picking out can be understood by me as well. The same conception of a certain glass must in some sense match up to the conception in my mind. If it doesn’t, then there is no way I can ever understand his words. Certainly the gray matter in my brain is not the same cells in his. If not, then how is this event purely material? Cleary it is not. Thus, even the most mundane instance of attempt at linguistic communication is immediately wrought with numerous preconditional necessities and structured metaphysical and epistemic frameworks that run completely contrary to his most foundational assumptions which govern the rest of his interpretive scheme or worldview.  Had the materialist considered what sort of world would actually be necessary for uttering meaningful speech within spacetime that matches up to external objects and also communicates meaning to another “person,” he would not adopt such an absurd, impossible worldview.

We see then, by this linguistic example laying out transcendental preconditions how such an analysis would go considering the approach to a reductive materialist. Many more things could be said and instances could be given, but this is a good starting point. What this shows for the analyst is that the web of beliefs the person has must match up. Indeed, for the materialist to try to “argue” shows that he believes in such things as logical consistency and coherence. Thus his assumptions about materialism must cohere with his views about the world and objects, language, communication, meaning, symbology and so on. As it turns out, the deeper we dig, they do not. It also turns out that what he thinks is likely his most foundational metaphysical and epistemic assumption isn’t the most foundational. Indeed, any attempt by this person to explain his view itself assumes all kinds of categories and realities that his view must simultaneously reject. 

It is this approach to analysis that is so revolutionary and functions like a polemic bulwark. It is also useful, as I said, in analyzing any system. One could use this approach to studying, say, a nation or a religious group. Once the group in question’s views are known, the usage and modus operandi of that group are observed and interacted with, one can quickly gain predictable results analysis. For example, I have debated so many atheists and Thomists, that I can often respond with their on objections faster and in a more articulate fashion that they can.  I am not touting myself, but familiarization with transcendental analysis done long enough, revolutionizing one’s views of paradigms themselves, proves very beneficial, just from a pragmatic standpoint, though, of course it is not mere pragmatics that are the goal.

4 Comments on Transcendental Worldview/System Analysis: A Materialist Test Case

  1. What would be a good bibliography for such a thesis?

  2. Matthew – no problem.

    “Transendental Argument” by Barry Stroud

    “Van Tils Apologetic” by Greg Bahnsen

  3. My familiarity with this methodology come from Van Til’s student – Francis Schaeffer who wrote three works that dealt with the same subject. Generally he was the one I am most familiar with that employs this methodology. For him it is the “be an end all” method or argumentation and measurement of opposing views. Several years ago I became Orthodox and I haven’t quite found whether or not this method is transferable (?), i.e, whether it is exemplified in the Fathers or not. Do you think this is an apologetic concern if one is trying to be Patristic in their apologetic methodology? or would any “consistent” argumentation ( situation/conversation-dependent of course) be viable?

    Several years ago I wrote a paper comparing the epistemology and verification of Francis Schaeffer with St. John Chrysostom trying to find their comparisons and contrasts in hopes of shedding light on this subject. The result was the impetus to a continued interest in searching out the methodology and epistemology of the Fathers.

    Thank-you for the links.


  4. I’ve always like this topic… and I’ve had this discussion quite a few times. I’m by no means a materialist. And while I can find more sympathy with certain elements of reductionism, it’s ultimately not viable. But no one’s playing devil’s advocate yet, soooo….. I know you like someone to debate, so I’ll pretend to be the materialist.

    I think the materialist, rather than claiming an agnostic view, would give the recognizable response and simply cite burden of proof. That is, they would say they’re not agnostic about the metaphysical anymore than they’re agnostic about unicorns. They would claim that they believe exists what they can experience existing. So we can experience rocks, water, carrots, etc… They don’t authoritatively deny the existence of unicorns, nor claim ignorance… but rather suspend belief until given a reason to affirm one. So regarding unicorns, they would say, “show me strong evidence of unicorns (or a soul, or a spirit)… until then, I lack grounds for belief,” … it’s harder to be convincing using this route because to the materialist, dissecting worldviews is fine. But believing only what one experiences seems to be our natural state, and the most powerful method on a pragmatic level.

    3. Linguistics gets tricky… and I haven’t really come to a solid position on the issues that arise as a result. But I think the materialist might say (should say) that things such as meaning don’t exist in the same way as tables and chairs exist — things we experience. They exist as concepts in the mind… as descriptions of objects rather than objects themselves. And even “concept” and “mind” would fall into this category. So when we talk about “fun”… we’re not referring to something with molecules or energy. We’re describing our observations of human behavior and cognitive states which do have material makeups. So when you talk about the meaning of “glass”… it can be said to exist insofar as its present in the consciousness — which the materialist would have to say is a complex string of neurons, etc.

    The one area I would say I agree with the materialist is that the English language does a very poor job of making such distinctions… it makes it very difficult on all of us to have a coherent debate about linguistics when our tools are so shoddy.

    4. Here is where the reductionist has major problems… and reductionists and materialists part ways. You really can’t be both when this discussion comes up. The materialist will say, “meaning is intrinsically tied to language. and language is an organic sociological phenomenon… which means all meanings are established by long-standing agreements within a society (connecting all symbols with their respective objects), ensuring their continuity and unity over time. I suppose that’s a decent answer… but reductionists really can’t answer this as far as I’ve seen. And because reductionism is the most natural position for materialists… this is one of the more effective arguments to throw at them. Can’t be much of a devil’s advocate on this one. Seems solid to me…

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