Seven years ago, I participated in a written debate followed by a panel discussion on the topics of apologetic method and the age of the earth. It was a strange combination of topics, and yet I argued that the common thread between both was biblical authority. Namely, if a person has a high view of Scripture, taking it as his ultimate standard and interpreting it exegetically, he should employ a presuppositional approach to apologetics and should be a biblical (“young-earth”) creationist.
One of the other participants was Dr. Richard Howe, who is a biblical creationist, but argues against presuppositional apologetics in favor of classical apologetics. Although we disagree on apologetic method, I enjoyed meeting Dr. Howe and conversing with him. However, I do believe that he misunderstands the presuppositional approach, something that was quite evident in our written debate which Dr. Howe has graciously posted here: http://richardghowe.com/index_htm_files/CAJPresuppositionalism.pdf
One of the primary differences between our two positions on apologetics is an epistemological one: we have very different views of how knowledge is obtained. I maintain that all knowledge ultimately stems from God and that human beings can only have knowledge by revelation from God. This is not to deny proximate means such as sensory experience – that’s one of the ways God has revealed information to us. But we can only have confidence in such proximate means if the universe is actually the way the Bible says it is. On the other hand, Howe holds to an epistemology of Thomistic realism, in which sensory experience is the beginning of knowledge which is completed in the mind.
One of the problems I see with Howe’s philosophy is that it is ultimately unjustified. That is, if all knowledge begins with sensory experience, then how do we know that sensory experience is basically reliable (true to reality)? This cannot be proved by sensory experience since this is the very issue in question. And if it is proved by some other standard, then sensory experience is not truly the foundational beginning of knowledge.
To expose this inconsistency, I asked the question, “How does he know [on his professed system] that he’s not in the ‘Matrix’ and that his sensory experiences have nothing to do with the real world?” The movie reference is to a hypothetical world in which the vast majority of humans are actually contained in pods with an electrical interface to their brains producing an artificial simulated environment which the people believe to be reality.
The presuppositionalist can answer this by pointing to the biblical worldview in which God has designed our senses to inform us of the external world, and God is a God of truth, not of deception. But on Howe’s system, he must arbitrarily presuppose that his senses are basically reliable, an assumption that can never be justified on his system.
To be clear, neither Howe nor I doubt the basic reliability of sensory experience. That’s not the issue. The issue is which apologetic epistemology can justify our belief that we are not in the Matrix. I contend that the classic method of apologetics (and the epistemology behind it) cannot.
Having had several years to think about the conundrum, Howe has provided a response to my question. He posted an article on his blog on June 18, 2020 entitled “How do I know that I know?” I appreciate the effort and I will respond here in the same iron-sharpening-iron spirit. Has Howe provided a satisfactory answer to the epistemological challenge? His article is in purple text, with my comments in black.
Howe: In 2013, I had the privilege of participating in both a written and panel dialog/debate with K. Scott Oliphint of Westminster Seminary and Jason Lisle founder of the Biblical Science Institute. Oliphint is a theologian and Lisle is an astrophysicist. Both are proponents of the apologetic method of Presuppositionalism in the tradition of Cornelius Van Til.
Recently a student of mine asked me how I would respond to one of Jason Lisle’s challenges to me. I contend that all knowledge begins in the senses and is completed in the intellect.
Lisle: This is at the root of our disagreement. Howe contends that all knowledge begins in the senses, whereas I contend that knowledge begins with God. Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Furthermore, Colossians 2:3 indicates that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” I don’t deny that we can learn things through sensory experience. But this is only because of the logically prior reason that God has designed our senses as one of the means by which He reveals knowledge to us. As the Scriptures put it, in God’s light we see light (Psalm 36:9).
I do consider my senses basically reliable (though not infallible) because the Bible is true. The Bible is a greater standard of truth than my sensory experience; hence, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). 2 Corinthians 4:28 states, “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Additionally, there are a number of apparent counterexamples to Howe’s claim that all knowledge begins in the senses. What about knowledge of modus ponens? Modus ponens is a rule of inference, generally considered obvious to all people. It is a short argument as follows:
1. If p then q.
3. Therefore q.
Here, p and q are any propositional claims. This rule of inference is obviously valid (if the premises are true, so is the conclusion), and yet it cannot be learned from sensory experience since we cannot observe propositions with our senses.
In fact, logicians have shown that modus ponens cannot be proved without assuming modus ponens. Namely, let’s suppose that there is some true proposition or combination of true propositions (let’s call this ‘p’) that would demonstrate that modus ponens is true (let’s call this ‘q’). So, if p then q. And let’s suppose that we discover that such propositions are indeed true (that is p.). Then that would prove q (that modus ponens is true). But that argument assumes modus ponens. Therefore, it would not convince anyone who isn’t already convinced of modus ponens. And yet we all somehow know that modus ponens is true. How? It cannot be demonstrated without already assuming it.
The presuppositionalist can answer this because some of the truths that God has revealed to us are innate, such as His existence and His moral law (Romans 1:18-20, 2:14-15). Similarly, induction cannot be learned from sensory experience. And yet babies are somehow born already knowing something about induction. This makes sense only in the revelational epistemology of the presuppositional method.
Howe: (Lest the reader misunderstand what I specifically mean by my use of the term ‘knowledge’ in this context, he is encouraged to read my blog article titled “Discussing Aquinas” here.)
Lisle: And to be clear, I will use the standard definition of knowledge as “true, justified belief.” We know something if (1) we believe it, (2) it is true, and (3) we have a good reason to believe it (justification).
Howe: Lisle asked “How does he know that he’s not in the ‘Matrix’ and that his sensory experiences have nothing to do with the real world?” In helping the student by answering Lisle’s question directly, I also wanted to take the occasion to set Lisle’s question in a broader philosophical context to see how his question conceals certain philosophical assumptions that need to be surfaced and examined.
Howe: Lisle’s question is ultimately impossible.
Lisle: I presume he means that it’s impossible to answer. (Obviously, the question itself is possible because I have asked it.) But if Howe means that it is impossible to answer (on his system) then he has begun his article by proving my position. I certainly agree that Howe’s philosophical system can never provide a rational answer to this question. That was my point!
But of course, on the presuppositional system, the question is easy to answer. We know we’re not in the Matrix because of revelation from God. God has revealed Himself inescapably to men, such that when we look at the world, we instantly recognize it as God’s creation (Romans 1:18-20), and hence, not a simulation. The Bible tells us that God made our sensory organs (Proverbs 20:12), and that He is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). And so, we have a good reason to trust that our sensory organs have some degree of reliability, though perhaps not perfectly because of the curse.
Howe: I claim that it is undeniable that one can know reality through the sensory faculties—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling.
Lisle: One problem with this claim is that it is demonstrably false: some people do deny that reality is knowable through sensory faculties. As one example, the Hindu religion teaches that all our sensory experiences in this world are illusory – they are all “Maya.” The Hindu believes that in reality, “all is one,” and therefore the distinctions we observe with our senses are not real. The Hindu religion has approximately 1.2 billion followers. So, there are at least 1.2 billion counterexamples to Howe’s claim. It is deniable.
Furthermore, Howe’s answer could be applied to any absurd claim; one could just as easily defend that claim that the moon is made of cheese by simply asserting, “It is undeniable.” But that is not an actual reason.
Moreover, Howe has sidestepped the question at issue. I am not asking if we can learn things through sensory experiences. I affirm that we can. My question is how anyone could possibly know this on Howe’s philosophy.
Howe: The reader should note the subtle shift here. Above, I said that all knowledge begins in the senses. Lisle’s challenge is in effect asking how any knowledge can arise from the senses. More to the point, Lisle is asking how I can know that my senses are reliable—how can I “know” that I “know.” Lisle’s challenge is less complicated to answer than my original contention is to defend. I will take the less complicated route here. It remains that the fact that any knowledge can arise from the senses is a necessary condition for the claim that all knowledge arises from the senses (and is completed in the intellect).
The most common responses or challenges to my claim are this one that Lisle poses (how do you know your senses are reliable?) and questions to the effect of how can one acquire knowledge about non-physical truths like logic, morality, metaphysics, and God by means of the senses. He makes the charge (in teeing up his challenge) that I have “tacitly presupposed (among other things) that our senses correspond to reality.” As we shall see, I have done no such thing.
Lisle: In order for knowledge to begin with sensory experience as Howe claims, there would have to be some correspondence between sensory experience and external reality. If our sensory experiences were completely disconnected from the world around us, how could we possibly have any knowledge of the world around us? There is no doubt that Howe has presupposed the basic reliability of our senses. I can only speculate that perhaps Howe objects to the word “tacitly” – as if to say that he openly concedes that he has presupposed the reliability of sensory experience. But there is no question that he has presupposed this. Perhaps he will clarify in a future article.
Howe: Lisle’s question implies that I could know that I know reality only if I know that my senses are reliable.
Lisle: To the extent that what Howe believes about reality is derived from sensory experience, his beliefs would only be justified if Howe’s confidence in the reliability of senses is itself justified. Beliefs that are based upon an unjustified assumption are themselves unjustified. That is an important principle of logic.
Howe: Let’s momentarily grant his point for the sake of argument. I’ll come back to answer it directly. For now, consider what questions one would need to ask about Lisle’s challenge. Since my senses are themselves part of reality, how could I know that my senses are reliable when I claim that it is in them that my knowledge of reality has its origin?
Lisle: That’s a very good and appropriate question. And it is one that is easily answered on the presuppositional system. I have already provided a succinct answer above. And others, such as Dr. Greg Bahnsen, have provided more detailed discussions of this very issue. Only a transcendental argument can demonstrate the truth of the foundational presuppositions needed to analyze secondary truth claims. But on Howe’s system, foundational presuppositions can never be justified as Howe himself is about to demonstrate. This leaves all contingent beliefs ultimately ungrounded, rendering knowledge impossible.
Howe: In other words, whatever means (be they other faculties besides the sensory faculties or something else) I use to deliver to me the conclusion that my senses are reliable, I would then have to ask how I know that this means was itself reliable. By whatever means #2 I might offer as to how I would answer that, how could I know means #2 is reliable when it tells me that the first means was reliable in telling me that my senses were reliable in telling me about reality? If I posit means #3 to tell me that means #2 is reliable when it tells me that the first means is reliable when it tells me that my senses are reliable in telling me what reality is, then ….
You get the picture. You have an infinite regress.
Lisle: An infinite regress is one of the branches of the Münchhausen trilemma. It does not justify anything because an infinite proof can never be completed. Another branch of the trilemma is to terminate the chain in a presupposition that is itself unproved. This effectively is the approach Howe takes, but it is equally irrational because anything following from an unproved presupposition is itself unproved. The third branch of the trilemma does not suffer from these problems, but Howe is unwilling to consider it due to his unproved assumptions regarding circularity in reasoning.
Howe: Lisle thinks that he doesn’t have an infinite regress because he thinks he knows that God has told him about reality (or, more strictly, that God has told him that his senses are reliable). But how does Lisle know that God told him that? He thinks it’s because he has the Bible.
Lisle: Actually, revelation from God is more than just the Bible. God has hardwired knowledge of Himself into all people, including His existence and His moral law (Romans 1:18-20, 2:14-15). This includes knowledge that our senses can reliably inform us about God’s creation, otherwise Romans 1:20 would make no sense. The Bible objectively confirms these other revelations with greater clarity, and gives far more specific information on the nature of God and what He has done. As to how I know that the Bible is indeed revelation from God, I have already answered that. We know by the impossibility of the contrary. Any hypothetical universe that does not match what the Bible teaches will inevitably make knowledge impossible.
Howe: He says, “Sensory experience is only reliable if our senses correspond to reality; and only the Christian worldview can rationally justify this.” Lisle goes on, “Presuppositional apologetics is the method of defending the Christian faith that relies on the Bible as the supreme authority in all matters.” But how can Lisle know that the book he’s referring to is a Bible and that the words he’s reading off the page are what he thinks they are? Isn’t Lisle using his eyes to read his Bible?
Lisle: Of course. The Christian worldview includes the fact that sensory experiences are basically reliable, and also that the Bible is true. These are both aspects of the biblical worldview and they are self-consistent.
It’s true that I presuppose that my senses are basically reliable before I discover the objective reason for that belief in the pages of Scripture. And the Scriptures are justified by the impossibility of the contrary; any alternative worldview makes knowledge impossible. So, my belief in the basic reliability of sensory experience is justified in my worldview. There is nothing unreasonable about that. Howe doesn’t seem to recognize that some beliefs are justified after the fact, and that the order of chronological discovery does not always reflect the order of logical primacy. I can use a secondary standard to discover/confirm its foundation which is my primary, infallible standard.
But if knowledge were ultimately based on sensory experience as Howe claims, then one could never know that knowledge is ultimately based on sensory experience. Howe claims that all knowledge begins with the senses, but no rational reasons can be given for that foundation, which leaves all contingent beliefs unjustified and therefore arbitrary. This of course confirms Proverbs 1:7. Knowledge really does begin with God, and the rejection of that principle inevitably leads to absurdity.
Howe: But how can Lisle know that his eyes are telling him the truth of what’s written there, or, for that matter, whether there’s anything written at all?
Lisle: By revelation from God. That includes both general and special revelation. The basic reliability of sensory experience is indicated in Scripture and is therefore part of the Christian worldview which we defend as a complete system of thought against any competitor.
Howe: He can’t use the conclusions he gets from what his eyes are telling him he’s reading in the Bible to give him the certainty that he’s reading a Bible that tells him that he’s reading a message from God that is telling him that his eyes are reliable. It’s a vacuous, vicious circular argument.
Lisle: Yes it would be. But it’s not my argument! And so Howe has committed the straw-man fallacy. He has misrepresented my position as a simple circle with only two parts. (1) The Bible justifies my belief that my senses are reliable. (2) I know what the Bible says due to my senses. Howe is claiming that (1) is my sole justification for (2) and then that (2) is my justification for (1).
That would indeed be a vicious circle. But of course, anyone who has studied presuppositional apologetics in any depth knows that this is not the presuppositional argument. We argue that the Christian worldview (which includes the biblical truth that our senses are designed by a faithful God and hence are basically reliable and that the Bible is God’s Word) is true by the impossibility of the contrary. We do not argue in the piecemeal fashion presupposed by Howe.
Howe: Surprisingly, Lisle gladly acknowledges that his position is circular, though he will deny that it either vacuous or vicious.
Lisle: The presuppositional apologetic is not circular in the way that Howe has (mis)represented it. The straw-man argument that Howe has presented is indeed a vicious and vacuous circle. But it is not my argument, nor is it that of Bahnsen or Van Til. We argue for the Christian worldview as a complete self-consistent and non-arbitrary system of thought (one which includes as a secondary teaching that our senses are basically reliable). We show that the denial of that system inevitably leads to absurdity.
However, as demonstrated in the Münchhausen trilemma, all knowledge (all true justified belief) when traced back to its ultimate foundation is inherently circular. This is because the other two branches of the trilemma (infinite regress, and the unjustified foundation) are not justified and are therefore not knowledge.
Howe: He seems to think he’s on to something when he says “It may surprise some people to learn that circular reasoning is actually logically valid.”
Lisle: This is actually far more profound than Howe seems to realize. He thinks it is trivial due to one of his unproved presuppositions, namely, he tacitly assumes that all forms of circular reasoning are fallacious. He will later argue that soundness is what matters, not validity. But, of course, even the straw-man argument Howe provided is sound! It is valid, and its premises are true. Yet Howe (rightly) rejects vicious circularity. Why?
In logic, almost all other fallacies are an error of inconsistency in which the conclusion is not actually demonstrated from the premises. That’s what makes them a fallacy. However, this is not the case with circular reasoning. And so we must ask ourselves two questions: (1) Why is circular reasoning often considered a fallacy? and (2) Is it always a fallacy?
This was my point in bringing up the validity of circular reasoning – to get Howe to cogitate upon these two questions. However, Howe missed the point, and now begins a discussion on vicious circularity.
Howe: But this is a trivial observation about validity. It would not surprise anyone with a basic understanding in formal logic.
Lisle: And how many people have a basic understanding of formal logic? In my experience, very few people do. It’s not taught in most schools. And even for those who have had such training, very few of them have consciously reflected upon why circular reasoning is often considered a fallacy. Howe clearly hasn’t.
Howe: By definition, an argument is valid just in case it is impossible for the argument to have all true premises and a false conclusion. This allows one to prove an argument is valid by showing how it would be impossible for a given argument to have a false conclusion where all the premises are true.
Lisle: But what if we have a circular argument with all true premises and a true conclusion? It would necessarily be both valid and sound. The conclusion would be true! So, would it be fallacious? This is what I was attempting to get Howe to reflect upon, but alas, he missed the point entirely.
Howe: Consider this in light of what it is to be circular. A circular argument is one where the conclusion of the argument is the same as one of the premises in the argument.
Lisle: Note that there is a difference between circular reasoning and a circular argument. Howe doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two, and that may explain some of his confusion.
Howe: Being the same would mean that the conclusion and the premise would have the same truth value. If the conclusion is true, then the premise that makes the same claim as the conclusion would also be true. If the conclusion is false, then the premise that makes the same claim as the conclusion would also be false. Note, therefore, how this makes it impossible for a circular argument to be invalid. If the conclusion was false (to apply the test for invalidity by having a false conclusion with all true premises), then the premise to which it is identical would have to be false. Thus, it would be impossible for the argument to be rendered invalid since a false conclusion would necessitate one false premise (since they affirm the same thing and, thus, have the same truth value). Since such an argument cannot be rendered invalid, it is proven to be valid.
As it turns out, to point out that a circular argument is valid is to say nothing particularly significant about the argument.
Lisle: Actually, it is very profound, but Howe has missed the point. Namely, most fallacies are fallacies precisely because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. There is an inconsistency within the argument. However, this is not necessarily true of circular argumentation. Hence, the point of bringing up the validity of circular reasoning was to prompt Howe to defend his unstated and unproven presupposition that “all forms of circular reasoning are fallacious.”
Howe: Neither is it saying anything important about circularity. After all, any argument that has at least one premise that is a contradiction could not fulfill the conditions of invalidity either. This means that any argument that has a contradictory premise is valid.
Lisle: Again, Howe has missed the point. Any argument with two contradictory premises is necessarily unsound because one of the premises will be false by the law of the excluded middle. Such an argument has an internal inconsistency and is therefore fallacious.
What Howe has failed to grapple with is this: two or more arguments that have some degree of circularity and in which all the premises are self-consistent and in fact true. Such arguments would be both valid and sound. Yet, they are circular.
Under what conditions would such arguments be considered illegitimate? This is the question that I want Howe to answer. I have answered this question in my books, articles, and presentations. Howe doesn’t seem to like my answer. So, I invite him to supply a different answer that still makes knowledge possible.
Howe: Suppose someone accused Lisle of having a premise in his argument for Presuppositionalism that was a contradiction. How silly would it sound for Lisle to respond “It may surprise some people to learn that any argument where one of the premises is a contradiction is actually logically valid!”
Lisle: Again, Howe shows that he has missed the point, and commits the fallacy of false analogy. The hypothetical argument he proposes would be fallacious because it violates the law of non-contradiction. But circular reasoning (by itself) does not violate any laws of logic. And so I ask again, if circular argumentation is both valid and sound, is it necessarily fallacious?
Howe: If Lisle is interested in putting forth a cogent deductive argument for his Presuppositionalism, what really matters is not merely whether the argument is valid, but whether the argument is sound—a valid argument with all true premises.
Lisle: Ah, but even the straw-man position that Howe attributes to me is an argument that is both valid and sound! Namely:
(1) The Bible teaches that my senses are basically reliable.
(2) I know what the Bible says due to my (basically reliable) senses.
Each proposition can be a conclusion of the other. Such an argument is both valid and sound – all the premises are true and the conclusion follows. Therefore, it should be acceptable to Howe by his own standard: “what really matters is not merely whether the argument is valid, but whether the argument is sound.” Circular arguments can be sound!
Yet, I would say that such an argument is still faulty, despite the fact that it is both valid and sound. And yet, I contend that not all circular reasoning is fallacious.
So, Howe has still not even touched-upon the relevant issues: (1) under what conditions should circular reasoning be considered inappropriate, and why? (2) What makes a circular argument illegitimate? (3) Are there legitimate forms of circular reasoning?
Howe: Having made his relatively unimportant comment about circularity and validity, Lisle then retorts that every epistemology is circular and proceeds to try to show why his circularity is not vacuous while the circularity of all other epistemologies is vacuous. He comments, “The notion that circular reasoning is always wrong reveals a bit of philosophical naivety. In fact, all ultimate standards must be defended in a somewhat circular way (by a transcendental argument).” In this he is echoing what his presuppositional mentors have directed. Van Til says, “To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.”
Greg Bahnsen carries on Van Til’s position. “So if, when it comes to the fundamental question of Christian faith, arguments are ultimately circular (since metaphysics and epistemology depend on one another), then the matter reduces to one of submission or rebellion to the authority of the revealed God. … Hence a Christian’s apologetical argument (working on a transcendental level) will finally be circular …”
Lisle: Notice that Bahnsen gives a rational reason why reasoning about foundational issues is necessarily circular. Namely, metaphysics and epistemology depend on one another. Any ultimate standard must defend itself otherwise (A) it would depend on something more basic and therefore wouldn’t be ultimate or (B) it would be undefended and therefore arbitrary and irrational. Howe may not like this, but it is logically inescapable.
Howe: Scott Oliphint is right in line with the presuppositional orthodoxy. “I admitted to him that I certainly was arguing in (some kind of) a circle. … Then I made clear to the other presenters that they were all asking that their own views, based on their own reasoning and sources, be accepted as true. In every case, I said, every other presenter appealed to his own final authority. ‘So, ‘ I asked, ‘on what basis should I accept your circle over mine?’”
Are the Presuppositionalists right in maintaining that all reasoning is circular? No, they are not.
Lisle: To be clear, our claim is that an ultimate standard must be defended in a somewhat circular way. By the Münchhausen trilemma, the only other two possibilities are (1) infinite regress, and (2) an unproved foundation. Both of these make knowledge impossible since beliefs can never ultimately be justified. Therefore, if knowledge is possible, then reasoning (at its most foundational level) is inherently circular.
It should also be obvious that all of God’s reasoning is circular (e.g. Hebrews 6:13, Exodus 3:14). As an omniscient Being, God already knows every conclusion to every argument. God never concludes anything “new,” anything that He didn’t already know with certainty. His reasoning is self-consistent, but necessarily circular. Would anyone dare challenge God by claiming that He is reasoning fallaciously?
Howe: Before I am done, I will explain why. For now, I should like to turn my focus back to the question at hand. In reading Presuppositionalists, I have discovered how often it is that they offer their Presuppositionalism as the only “solution” to philosophical problems that arise (for the most part) out of modern and contemporary philosophy (i.e., from the 17th century onward).
Lisle: A more accurate statement would be that the biblical worldview makes sense of those problems introduced by non-biblical worldviews, and does so in a way that is self-consistent and non-arbitrary. However, presuppositionalists recognize that non-biblical worldviews can have limited “pockets” of rationality by borrowing biblical presuppositions.
For example, a person could argue that laws of logic are justified by the impossibility of the contrary. Namely we need laws of logic to reason, and any attempt to disprove the existence of laws of logic would have to use them in the attempt, thereby confirming their existence.
Such an argument seems pretty reasonable, and does not explicitly rely upon biblical truth. However, it cannot go on to justify the properties of laws of logic (such as invariance and universality), nor any of the other preconditions of intelligibility, such as induction, morality, etc. Only the Christian worldview can justify *all* the preconditions of intelligibility in a non-arbitrary, self-consistent way. This makes sense because knowledge begins with God (Proverbs 1:7).