Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Transcendental Argument from Conceptual Inadequacy

This is going to be an exposition and defense of an argument that was presented briefly here. It is strongly advised that the reader, if they haven’t already, reads that post for it is important in understanding the argument that will be tackled here. I will be deploying a transcendental argument in order to show that the possibility of human knowledge presupposes (1) a Creator of the universe, and (2) the availability of revelation from that Creator to man. The argument turns upon the notion of “conceptual inadequacy” so let us start there.

Conceptual Inadequacy 

What exactly is “conceptual inadequacy” and what does it entail? Let us define a conceptual framework as the set of concepts C possessed by a subject S. A conceptual framework is important to a subject because it is that in virtue of which a subject interprets and makes sense of his experience. If one comes across an object—say, a PlayStation 5 game console—one’s conceptual framework, consisting of the concepts of game, console, video, audio, electronics, among other things, renders the experience of the console intelligible. In such a case, we can say that the subject’s conceptual framework is conceptually adequate. This means that said subject possesses the concepts necessary to make sense of the object being experienced.

Suppose, however, that the PS5 console was dropped in the middle of an ancient civilization. This civilization has no concept of video, electricity, video games, etc. Would such a civilization be able to make sense of the object? Definitely not. We can say that this civilization’s conceptual framework, and that of the acoustic  pre-alphabetic society used in Bahnsen’s analogy, are conceptually inadequate. This is because their conceptual frameworks are missing certain relevant concepts that would help them properly interpret the object of their respective experiences.

Conceptual inadequacy, then, is the inability of a subject’s conceptual framework to properly interpret, and render intelligible, an object of experience. Conceptual inadequacy occurs as a result of certain relevant concepts being absent from a subject’s conceptual framework. 

Before we proceed, it is important that we note certain things about conceptual frameworks and conceptual inadequacy.

First, conceptual frameworks are heavily influenced by experience. One’s experience determines largely what concepts one would have in one’s conceptual framework. A person who grew up in the Western world would possess  concepts relating to video games but a person who grew up in ancient China wouldn’t.

Second, it is not always possible for one to judge one’s own conceptual framework as inadequate. One may interpret an object based on one’s (inadequate) conceptual framework without knowing that the interpretation is distorted or misguided. 

Third, when a subject encounters a sufficiently foreign object, said subject’s conceptual framework is always inadequate with respect to that object. A foreign object is a previously unexperienced object. Being previously unexperienced may be a necessary condition for an object to be foreign however it is not a sufficient condition. I may never have previously experienced a certain apple but this does not mean that when I do experience it, my conceptual framework would be inadequate. To be sufficiently foreign, an object must not only be foreign to one’s domain of experience, it must also be foreign to one’s conceptual framework. This means that the subject must have no experience of the object or anything like it.

The Significance of the Creator-Relation

How, then, can conceptual inadequacy be combatted? I maintain that in order for a conceptually inadequate framework to become conceptually adequate, it must be supplemented with the relevant concepts through information—acquired directly or indirectly—from the creator of the object of experience. The only way for the acoustic pre-alphabetic society to acquire the relevant concepts necessary for knowing the typewriter is if they receive information from someone with a conceptually adequate framework. On their own—that is, autonomously—they are utterly clueless as to what the object is and how to properly interpret and understand it. However, the information they receive must, in order to convey the right concepts and interpretive principles, be based upon information from the creator of the object. Why is this the case?

We can run a simple argument: A subject’s conceptually inadequate framework can only be made adequate through information from a conceptually adequate framework. However, the one supplying the information must have also, at some point, received information from another conceptually adequate framework. This chain cannot go on indefinitely. Therefore, it must terminate at some subject who does not need external information in order for their conceptual framework to be adequate with respect to the object. But only the creator of the object does not require external information for his conceptual framework to be adequate. Therefore, a conceptually inadequate framework can only be made adequate through direct information from the creator of the object or through information based upon information from the creator of the object.

The Epistemic Necessity of a Revelational Epistemology

The preceding considerations have significant implications for human knowledge. Just like in the example of the acoustic pre-alphabetic society, we can treat the universe as an unexperienced object. How do we know that our conceptual framework is adequate for interpreting and understanding the universe? We have to remember that one is not always in a position to judge the conceptual adequacy of his framework. It would seem that the universe is to us what the typewriter is to the pre-alphabetic society—a completely mysterious object. This seems to be the case unless we possess information from the Creator of the universe. Without such information (revelation!), we would be utterly clueless as to what interpretive principles are adequate and no matter how we try, our efforts to interpret and understand even a small part of the universe would be arbitrary, distorted, and misguided. The conclusion, then, is that in order to know anything about the universe, the universe must be a created object. If the universe were an uncreated object, it would be, in principle, an unknowable object. Also, if knowledge of any part of the universe is possible, we must possess revelation from the creator of the universe. We can summarize our argument as follows:

  1. Conceptual Inadequacy renders knowledge of an object impossible.
  2. When a subject S experiences a sufficiently foreign object, S’s conceptual framework is necessarily inadequate.
  3. Conceptual Inadequacy can only be dispelled through information (acquired directly or indirectly) from the creator of the object.
  4. The universe is a sufficiently foreign object.
  5. Therefore, either (a) our conceptual framework is inadequate with respect to the universe, or (b) we possess information from the Creator of the universe.
  6. If (a), then knowledge of the universe is impossible.
  7. If (b), then knowledge of the universe is possible.
  8. Therefore, knowledge of the universe depends upon the existence and revelation of the Creator of the universe.
(1) and (2) are proven through Bahnsen’s thought experiment provided in the linked post. (3) is proven by the little regress argument I gave. (4) is proven by analogy (our predicament with the universe as an object is sufficiently similar to that of the acoustic pre-alphabetic society with the typewriter in the thought experiment). (5) follows from (1)-(4). (6) follows from (1). (7) follows from (3). And finally (8)  follows from (1)-(7).

In conclusion:

“The proof that God exists is that without Him, it is impossible to prove anything.”

—Greg L. Bahnsen

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