A few months ago, I published an article on “The Top Five Problems with Contemporary Christian Apologetics.” Number 5 was “Lack of Imagination”: in short, among contemporary apologists there is an inordinate focus on a small number of arguments (e.g. the Kalaam; the argument from cosmic fine-tuning) at the expense of countless underutilized arguments to say nothing of still other arguments yet to be imagined.
That’s one reason I appreciate the work of Joseph Hinman. Mr. Hinman has an MTS from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and has studied at the doctoral level at the University of Texas at Dallas. And he quite deliberately seeks to explore underexplored and wholly new avenues of argument. Consider, for example, our recent conversation on his argument for God from mystical experience.
In this article, we take up a second argument for God that Mr. Hinman has been developing, one that proceeds from what he calls transcendental signifiers.
RR: Joe, thanks for joining us for another discussion in the philosophy of religion. This time out we’re going to discuss your argument for God from transcendental signifiers. I suspect a good place to begin is with your concept of a transcendental signifier. When I first read that term I thought of C. Stephen Evans’ argument in his book Natural Signs and Knowledge of God. Evans argues that arguments for God’s existence are based on so-called “natural signs” which are non-coercive pointers to the reality of God. As such, these signs provide the intuitive appeal for various arguments for God’s existence. Is that what you mean when you refer to transcendental signifiers? Or is your concept different?
JH: You would think so, since he’s just down the road in Waco, I’m up here in Dallas. There is some commonality, in the sense that both views deal with natural theology. It may be a case of great minds thinking alike because I see many aspects that our views hold in common but my idea has nothing to do with him. I started working on my argument back in 2002 when I had just discovered internet apologetics and began arguing on message boards and blogs, and I created the Christian CADRE apologetic group. I was adapting things I had been thinking about at UTD when I was studying Derrida, This argument is rooted in my study of Derrida; I don’t think Evans deals with Derrida. At first it was just a fun way to flabbergast atheists on message boards, A couple of years ago I decided it was time to dig it out of mothballs and turn it into a real argument.
I like Evans idea of signs pointers, that is similar to my notion of what I call “deep structures of being.” Speaking only of my own argument, because I’m not sure his idea and mine are really the same, I have not read his book. My argument is based in Derridean ideas but it seeks to reverse Derrida. I ask what if Derrida is wrong and there is a transcendental signified? Then that on itself is a good reason to believe in God. Derrida’s whole program was a reaction against belief in God; the desire to tear down hierarchies because he rejected the ultimate hierarchical principle. If as he supposed reason and rationality stem from an overarching principle that forms the basis of all meaning and thus sets up the ultimate hierarchy the will of God, the reality of that hierarchy ought to mean we accept or assume the reality of God. So the ultimate reason I can give for doing so is that without it we have only the dissolution of meaning. The TS is the only way to have a rational, coherent, and meaningful view of the universe, of life, of nature.
Before going on I need to remind the reader that all of my God arguments are about rationally warranting belief not proving the existence of God.
RR: Okay, can you say more about the specifically Derridean ideas you’re engaging with and then how you seek to reverse them to, as you put it, “flabbergast atheists”?
JH: Derrida’s overall project* is to explicate the end of metaphysics, but not to merely explicate he also wanted to help hasten it. His major issue was the myth of presence,which begins with the Platonic theory of knowledge and sees this theme echoed throughout Western thought up into modern times. Scientific hegemony of thought is a hint of this, latest version of the myth of presence. The myth says that meaning is present in the signifiers. There is meaning in an overarching final sense and it is immediateness present to us. That was the case with belief in God or the Platonic realm, now only hinted at with science which makes all truth available through its own ruination; or with formal logic.
Western thought has always assumed a logos, a first principle that gives meaning to all ambiguity and grounds all knowledge and norms (reason, logic, mathematics, truth, God, whatever). This concept has been embodied in many different ideas; collectively Jacques Derrida calls them “transcendental signifiers” (TS). These differing notions all point to a single idea, the one thing that is necessary and universal that orders and gives meaning to all signs and signification. That is the thing signified by the words used to mark it, the transcendental signified (TS). The term G-O-D is the Transcendental signifier and the actual reality the word points to is the transcendental signified.
Humanity has been unable to find any matching candidate for this post in modern thought primarily because we gave up the idea of a logos. Gave up on a universal ordering principle. Modern science has a sort of truncated logos in the idea that empirical observations will eliminate all false hypotheses until just the truth, scientific truth. That will never happen because it cannot; science can’t render first principles in areas like ethics and morality and it can’t delve into the spiritual, the phenomenological, the existential or anything not immediately verifiable empirically. Postmodern thought has given up on the whole project. They reject the concept of truth itself and seek not to understand anything beyond their self referential language game. Yet in rejecting the concept of truth, and tearing down hierarchies, they create their transcendental signifier differance, (with an a)i. Only the concept of God fits the parameters for the TS. God offers the best explanation for hierarchical ordering, thus offers the most likely correlate for TS. Or to put it another way, mind is the missing dimension that enables the TS to unite human experience of being with understanding. That in itself should warrant belief in God.
My argument says Derrida didn’t believe in the reality of a TS and he assumed such terms just refer to empty promises. Thus the consequence of such hierarchies as are mandated by the veracious notions of a TS are oppressive and totaling, so says the upshot of Derridean thinking. Thus he seeks to tear down hierarchies.I say more power to him Those hierarchies in so far as they are oppressive should be torn down. The problem is true to his own deconstruction, Derrida contradicts himself by also stating that we can’t avoid metaphysical hierarchies and that some hierarchy is inevitable.
At that point I make my argument. Rather than tear down all hierarchy (only to have it replaced by others) let’s seek the true TS that mandates the right hierarchy (God’s Love). I argue that the missing element is mind. of course specifically the mind of God. Thus most of the arguments are oriented issues like mind and cosmos. It’s not a design argument or the CA but does reference both ideas. I have a deductive version and an abductive version.
Both Derridians and modernists (scientism) want to take mind out of the equation, That’s a mistake because the forms are ideas, the TS is a reflection of mind, the mind of God. The necessity of understanding Mind as the ground of the TS is the basis of the argument.
RR: I commend your efforts in seeking to develop an apologetic argument that can reach an oft-overlooked constituency. Christian apologists typically focus on developing arguments to appeal to modernist-engineering types, so this is a breath of fresh air.
To get the basic idea clear, are you saying that there is a fundamental problem in the postmodern world with human persons gaining knowledge and relationship with the world around them in terms of relating signifiers (our ideas, beliefs, cognitive states, mental representations) to the things signified (e.g. those things our ideas, beliefs, cognitive states, mental representations are about)? And thus, in order to overcome this gap we need a transcendental signifier, i.e. a means to secure the relationship between mind and external reality? And God is the only means to do this? Is that the gist of what you’re saying?
JH: Not exactly. Most people want a rational, coherent view that enables them to understand the world better. That’s the beef of most skeptics of belief in God, that God as an idea does not so enable us. Yet most rational thinkers, either knowingly or unknowingly, assume that there is an overarching organizing principle at the top of the metaphysical hierarchy (here I use that term in the Heideggerian sense) that guides meaning, truth, and understanding.
Modernity has two reactions: it either seeks overtly to replace God with an impersonal TS such as reason, logic, math, or science, or it denies the need of a TS but in seeking to fill the void imposes one anyway in the forms just mentioned. That fails because it doesn’t account for so many things such as moral philosophy, existential meaning, or aesthetics, to make up for that lack: most of the hard materialists deny that those things matter, or they try to supply them through a scientific view. Most Christian thinkers have no trouble dealing with either permutation.
The postmodern reaction typified by Derrida is to say ok let’s just destroy hierarchies and bash reason, we will just wreck rational views and be irrational. Most atheists don’t want that either. The problem that precipitates this state of affairs can be traced back to the removal of mind from the slot at the top of the hierarchy, (the position of the TS). If understanding the TS in terms of universal mind puts us back in the ballpark where God is the TS then we have a good reason to believe in God. We need God as the overarching explanation that motivates all meaning and value.
A rational, meaningful and coherent view of the universe (including the life world) must of necessity presuppose an organizing principle that bestows meaning and grounds understanding. The transcendental signified serves this purpose as the top of the metaphysical hierarchy. Modern Thought rejects TS outright or takes out all aspects of mind, which organize and situate meaning through the hierarchy. Therefore, Modern Thought fails to provide a rantional, coherent, and meaningful view of the universe. The Concept of God unites TS with universal mind therefore offers best explanation for a view that is Rational, Coherent, and Meaningful. Thus we have a rational reason to assume God as the foundation of thought, the TS.
RR: Hmm, it seems to me that there is an interesting confluence between what you’re arguing and Bernard Lonergan’s seminal work in Insight. It seems to me that hard reductionism definitely faces debilitating problems in providing a satisfying account of reality. Consciousness exists, as do knowing subjects, objective moral and aesthetic values and moral obligations, as well as meaning and purpose, and if a philosophy has no room for those aspects of reality then, in my view, so much the worse for that philosophy.
However, many atheists would agree. They too would reject a hard reductionism about the world and they would be willing to recognize a metaphysically rich worldview that includes various realities irreducible to the material. However, they wouldn’t appeal to a personal transcendent to explain it. In closing, what would you say to that person? Why, specifically, should the transcendental signifier be viewed as personal, i.e. as God?
JH: There are really two basic aspects to the major argument (1) the TS, the top of the metaphysical hierarchy, (2) that the TS is mind, and that this is the missing piece of the puzzle that Western thought has lost. What I consider to be my innovation, such as it is, is that by making TS mind, and universal mind in particular, I solve sets of problems that otherwise create a rift in my sets of concerns and render the two aspects contradictory. To understand this and for the sake of a consistent argument we have to explore this concept of universal mind. It is not that modern thought rejects the TS per se, there’s GUT which aims at establishing a TS but that they denude it of mind which is what makes it workable and gives it meaning. Modern secular thought seems to assume that science has disproved the possibility of transcendent mind by showing that mind can only be produced by brain chemistry. Such is not the case. Science has proven no such thing. It the most it could prove is that this is true for biological life only but it has not even proved that.
There are certain junctures at which an appeal to a personal TS would explain things that are yet unexplained. For example if we accept Big Bang cosmology we have time beginning out of a background of non time, the problem being that in a state of timelessness there should be no change. So it should be impossible that time began. There has to be some point where something happens that turns off one set of rules and turns on another. The idea that this is just a natural impersonal maneuver really begs the question. It would have to be a conscious decision. Or rather, a conscious decision would better explain it.
The problem with moral philosophy is moral philosophers all have minds, (I’m sure of it) the judgement that moral precepts need not be grounded in personal judgement is odd since it is personal judgement that arbitrates moral behavior.
It seems there must be a mental dimension to consciousness that is not entirely accounted for by reducing the phenomena to their constituent parts unless the mental is one of those parts. That would mean acknowledging that there is some aspect of reality that is not entirely physical. Now, I am not going to assert the existence of a spiritual realm or an immortal soul based upon that. For one thing I see the soul as symbolic of the general direction of a life in relation to God, not as Casper-like ghost in the machine. I see spirit as the property that lives on after death but I also see spirit as consciousness, not a ghost-like quality. Consciousness is largely a black box. Admitting there is a black box that science can’t open is apparently anathema to many scientifically inclined. Nevertheless, there seems t be such a dimension in consciousness.
Thomas Nagel argues,** that the conscious or mental dimension must mirror a basic property of nature. He does not argue that this is God or a reasoning mind. I will argue that understanding that basic property as a reflection of a universal mind is the best answer. Nagel doesn’t have a full blown theory as to the origin or nature of that mental dimension. That is an area where Carroll has a point, Nagel sloughs that off “I’m not an expert, scientists need to work on that” (my paraphrase). While we can’t provide that level of scientific understanding of God, we do have a developed tradition that’s a couple of thousand years old, and has been subjected to rigorous modern thought. Maybe this is a province of the religious domain. That doesn’t invalidate it. It makes a lot more sense to say there is a mind thinking the universe into existence than to say there is a mind-like quality (even though we don’t know what mind=like is) but it doesn’t have will, volition, or personal awareness. How do we separate will, volition, and personal awareness from mind? If Searle is right about intentionality and if the humunculus problem is true then it’s hard to see how mind could be devoid of these attributes. Thus it makes more sense to think of an actual mind in back of the origin of things, and t think of God is the best explanation.
Based upon what has been said so far there must be a transcendental signified, an actual referent corresponding to the many transcendental signifiers. That referent, the top of the metaphysical hierarchy exhibits aspects of mind involving the organizing of great complexity. As Searl says trying to account for intentionality with a purely physical model doesn’t work, there is no problem with mind as the model. There is no reason to think it would be mind-like qualities lacking the major aspects of consciousness; will, volition, personal awareness. The structure of our conscious experience itself lacks the homunculus problem. That means there is no infinite regression of causes in seeking to find ever more basic physical processes to account for consciousness. As with the intentionality argument meaning is inherent in mental perception of things. This means that the mind-likeness of reality must have conscious recognition. If we assume that mind as a basic property is not itself mental then we would have to assume a physical process in the origin of consciousness and removing mind from the issue which leads again to the homunculus problem.With arguments by both Chalmers and Nagel about consciousnesses as a basic property of nature there is a lot to counter the often heard reductionist nonsense. But can we understand consciousness as a basic property of nature, which depends upon a transcendental ???? (first principle) yet we are supposed to ground that in the impersonal?
*John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1997 2. Difference is not God but it functions as a TS in Derrida land.
**Mind and Cosmos, 7.