In the previous article, we have been addressing Dr. Richard Howe’s response to my question, “How does he know that he’s not in the ‘Matrix’ and that his sensory experiences have nothing to do with the real world?”  This question is in light of the epistemology (theory of knowledge) upon which classical apologetics is based. 

As a presuppositionalist, my answer to this question is: by revelation from God.  God has revealed Himself in such a way that there is literally no excuse for denying that what we observe is indeed His creation (Romans 1:18-20).  God made our senses, and since God is truth, our senses will have some degree of reliability.  We have some built-in knowledge of God from conception, and the Scriptures objectively confirm this.  An important aspect of the Christian worldview is that we are able to have knowledge because we have revelation from God, in whom are deposited all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).

And how do we know that the Christian worldview is correct?  We know by the impossibility of the contrary.  Namely, unless the Christian worldview is true, we could not really know anything.  We could perhaps have some beliefs that happen to be true.  But we could never ultimately justify those beliefs.  Knowledge begins with God, and hence we can have knowledge only by revelation from God (Proverbs 1:7; Colossians 2:3; Psalm 36:9).

Dr. Howe asserts that knowledge begins with the senses and is completed in the mind.  One problem with this view is that it cannot ultimately justify anything.  Namely, if knowledge begins with the senses, then we could never know that knowledge begins with the senses.  Second, the Bible teaches in many ways that knowledge begins with the Lord (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 36:9; Colossians 2:3).  Let’s continue to explore Howe’s comments (in purple), with my response interspersed in black text.

Howe: By offering their Presuppositionalism as the “answer” to these problems, they show their tacit commitment to the assumptions of the very philosophy that created the problems in the first place.

Lisle: On the contrary.  We reject any anti-biblical philosophy (Colossians 2:8).  We see such unbiblical philosophical systems as the cause of any apparent “problem” in justifying the preconditions of intelligibility. 

For example, the materialist who professes that everything that exists is matter and energy, will not be able to justify laws of logic in his view.  Laws of logic are not made of matter or energy, and therefore could not exist in the materialist’s professed worldview.  Yet, materialists do use logic and insist that we should all be logical in our reasoning.  So, their worldview is inconsistent, both denying and tacitly affirming laws of logic as a precondition of intelligibility.

Howe: In Part Two of this article, I will, God willing, explore several of these philosophical problems.

Such a concession to the assumptions of modern and contemporary philosophy is never more evident than with Lisle’s challenge to me. He (perhaps unwittingly) has bought into the philosophical method of critical realism.

Lisle: Actually, I would describe my philosophical method as biblical.  That is, my position on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics is derived from Scripture.  There may be elements of truth in other systems (be it critical realism, Platonic dualism, etc.) but this is inevitably because they have borrowed biblical principles.  I suggest this is because all people know God in their heart-of-hearts and therefore rely upon biblical presuppositions (inconsistently) and without giving thanks to God.  They may suppress their knowledge of God, but it inevitably leaks out in other areas, such as their philosophy.  So, it is not that I have elements of non-biblical philosophies in my own, but rather non-biblical philosophies inherently borrow biblical truths, albeit inconsistently. 

Howe: Critical realism is the approach to epistemology that tries to maintain the conclusions of philosophical realism (we will see in a moment what philosophical realism is) with the methods of critical philosophy (the otherwise legitimate expectation philosophers have of reasons or arguments demonstrating philosophical conclusions).

The term ‘realism’ and its cognates have several different usages. A person who sees himself as one who avoids romantic delusions about his circumstances or about the world might call himself a realist. In philosophy, the term is used in two very important yet distinct ways, only one of which concerns me here. One way has to do with whether one grants the reality of “universals” and, if so, how one regards the nature of a universal, especially in relation to “particulars.”[14] The other use has to do with whether one maintains that there is a physical world that exists external to us as knowers and that this world can be known by us as humans. This kind of realist would deny that the world around us is somehow largely or entirely the ideas in our own minds (as opposed to physical objects external to our minds) and/or is the result of God’s imposing upon our minds the ideas out of which that world is constituted. These are variations upon the view called Idealism. Critical realism maintains that philosophy is obligated to “prove” or “justify” its claims that there is a world external to us as knowers. It insists that philosophical realists must somehow “prove” or “justify” philosophical realism; that is, that one must “prove” or “justify” the claim that one is not in the Matrix. Lisle’s challenge is quintessential critical realism.

Lisle: Actually, my challenge is an application of the biblical principle that we should have good reasons for our beliefs (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15).  If you don’t have a good reason for your belief (whatever that belief may be), then there is literally no reason to believe it.  You might as well believe the exact opposite.

To be clear, I have no doubt that we are not in the Matrix.  But my question to Howe is how could he possibly know that on his own system.  I don’t think he can answer that, and so he now seems to be arguing that he doesn’t actually need a good reason for that belief.  But to argue that we don’t need a good reason for a given belief is to give up rationality.

If a belief is unjustified, then it is not knowledge (since knowledge is true, justified, belief).  Howe’s system inevitably makes knowledge impossible because the ultimate belief upon which all others are allegedly based (sensory experience) cannot itself be rationally justified.  Hence, we again see the confirmation of Proverbs 1:7.  Knowledge begins with God.

Howe: Questions that have occupied philosophical realists through the millennia aim at exploring how it is that we know this external world. Is it partly or entirely through the senses? Are there some aspects of the external world that can be accessed only through the mind with the faculty of intuition? Are there certain innate ideas that assist us in knowing some of the external world? Are there other options?

Lisle: The beauty of the biblical worldview is that it answers all of these questions in a self-consistent, non-arbitrary way.  How do human beings have knowledge?  By revelation from God.  That revelation can take many forms, including sensory observations (since God made our senses), logical reflection (since God made our mind), and innate knowledge (such as our knowledge of the existence of God and His moral law – Romans 1:18-19, 2:14-15).

Howe: Notice what the philosophers are not asking or, at least, should not be asking if they are philosophical realists. They are not asking whether we know reality. Instead, they are asking how we know reality.

Lisle: Ah, but the question of whether or not we know reality is logically prior to how we know reality.  To say that some philosophers simply take for granted that we know reality is to demonstrate that they are not being consistently good philosophers, for they are working from an arbitrary, unproved assumption (on their professed philosophical system).  Obviously, the consistent Christian can give a very good reason for knowing that we know something about reality: revelation from God who knows everything.  And we know we have revelation from God from the impossibility of the contrary.

Howe: My own view goes by different names, almost all of which employ the term ‘realism’. It is a tradition arising from Aristotle (385-323 BC) and which finds its greatest expression in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). One will find a number of students of Aquinas scattered throughout the philosophical world. The number is perhaps small relative to those philosophers who reject Aquinas’s thinking. This is not to say, however, that all of those philosophers who reject Aquinas’s thinking would necessarily reject philosophical realism. The number is even smaller within Protestant Christianity and is very close to non-existence with evangelical Christianity. My seminary, Southern Evangelical Seminary, is the only evangelical seminary in the world of which I am aware that deliberately embraces Thomistic philosophy. The version of philosophical realism in this Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition has been called Moderate Realism,[15] Classical Realism, Scholastic Realism,[16] and Thomistic (or Thomist) Realism. Sometimes it goes by the simpler moniker of Thomism.

My direct answer to Lisle is to deny the coherency of his question.

Lisle: That’s an interesting admission because the question is perfectly coherent; it’s just that Howe cannot answer it on his professed philosophy.  We know from experience that our sensory perceptions can be wrong under certain conditions – optical illusions, 3D glasses etc.  Indeed, any given sensation (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell) can be induced in any person by direct electrical stimulation of the corresponding synapses of the brain.  If science were sufficiently advanced, we could create any combination of sensory experiences in a human brain, and they would have nothing whatsoever to do with the surrounding world. 

Something like the Matrix is possible in principle and therefore, it is a perfectly reasonable and coherent question to ask, “How do you know that all your sensory experiences are not like that?”  Simply denying that perfectly reasonable question is no answer.

The problem with making sensory experience your ultimate standard for truth, as Howe does, is twofold.  First, we know from sensory experience that sensory experience can be wrong!  Indeed, sometimes one sensory experience can contradict another, such as when you stick your finger through an optical illusion; your eyes indicate it’s there, your sense of touch indicates otherwise.  Which sensory experience do we believe when there is a conflict?  Clearly, we will need some greater standard to arbitrate, in which case sensory experience is not the ultimate standard for knowledge. 

Second, sensory experience cannot be demonstrated to be true by sensory experience.  It cannot be its own foundational standard.  Therefore, if it is true that all things are known by sensory experience, then we could not know anything since the statement itself is not known by sensory experience. 

It is therefore perfectly rational to ask the question, “How do you know that sensory experience is reliable at all?”  The fact that no one seriously doubts this is not an answer.  There was a time when no one doubted that the Earth was the unmovable center of the solar system.  But that is wrong.

So, Howe’s denial of this crucial and valid question is really a concession of defeat.  He cannot answer it on his own philosophical system.  And that has been one of my criticisms of his system from the beginning.

Howe: The Thomist—indeed, I would insist every “normal” person—already knows he’s not in the Matrix.

Lisle: That’s not the question.  The question is how does he know he’s not in the Matrix.  He cannot know this by sensory experience, for this is the very thing that is in question.  The question reveals the inherent absurdity of appealing to sensory experience as the ultimate or primary standard for truth claims.

Yes, every normal person already knows he’s not in the Matrix; this is because every person has revelation from God.  This is the foundation of knowledge – not sensory experience.  And that is the point.  We cannot know by sensory experience alone that our senses are reliable – hence Howe’s system collapses.  But we can and do know things by revelation from God – which is the presuppositional claim.

Howe: The only reason the movie plot works is because the movie viewer is in the theatre and not in the movie itself.

Lisle: How does he know he’s in the theater?  From sensory experience?  Howe has simply begged the question.  He is appealing to sensory experience as the sole basis for believing in the reliability of sensory experience.  So, Howe has not avoided the inescapable circularity of human reasoning.  He has simply traded a God-centered virtuous spiral that makes knowledge possible, for a man-centered vicious circle that makes it impossible to justify anything whatsoever.

Howe: The very fact that we are in a world not of our own making that exists external to us as knowers is undeniably self-evident.

Lisle: If it is undeniably self-evident, then it should be very easy for Howe to give rational justification.  But he cannot do so on his professed philosophy.

Imagine if I tried to defend the presuppositional method with this approach.  Suppose someone asks me, “How do you know that the presuppositional method is the right one?”  Suppose I respond, “It’s undeniably self-evident.”  Would Howe accept that answer from me?  If not, then neither can I accept that from him.  For beliefs to be considered knowledge, they require justification – a rational reason.  An arbitrary declaration that the belief is “undeniably self-evident” is not the same as providing an actual rational reason.

We do indeed know that we exist in a world created by God that exists external to us.  But this is known by revelation from God (Romans 1:18-20), and cannot be known solely from sensory experience, because apart from God we could not know that our senses are even slightly reliable.

Howe: To try to “prove” that self-evident reality, is to set up a process that inevitably makes the proof impossible.

Lisle:  No, it doesn’t.  I can prove (and have proved) the basic reliability of the senses from within the revelational epistemology of the presuppositional framework.  In the Christian worldview, our senses are designed by the God of truth, and therefore have some degree of reliability.  And the Christian worldview is proved by virtue of the fact that it alone makes knowledge possible.  In fact, that’s the point.  The Christian worldview rationally justifies all the preconditions of intelligibility (including the basic reliability of sensory experience) and is itself justified by the impossibility of the contrary – the inability of any alternative to justify knowledge in a self-consistent, non-arbitrary way.

Proverbs 1:7 is true; knowledge really does begin with God.  When you deny this, you end up in the absurd position of trying to defend an alleged ultimate standard (sensory experience) that cannot defend itself and is therefore arbitrary.

Howe: Historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson puts it deftly.

After passing twenty centuries of the very model of those self‑evident facts that only a madman would ever dream of doubting, the existence of the external world finally received its metaphysical demonstration from Descartes. Yet no sooner had he demon­strated the existence of the external world than his disciples realized that, not only was his proof worthless, but the very principles which made such a demonstration necessary at the same time rendered the attempted proof im­possible.[17]

Howe: Lisle’s challenge is actually begging the question in favor of Idealism against Realism.

Lisle: Not at all.  It’s a demonstration of the truth of Christianity, and a refutation of any philosophy that would dare challenge God as the ultimate basis for knowledge.  We have seen here that Howe cannot justify his belief in the basic reliability of sensory experiences on his own philosophical system.  That was the very thing my initial question was meant to demonstrate.  Howe’s article confirms the presuppositional claim that any worldview not based ultimately on God will be reduced to absurdity.   We must build our house upon the rock, not the sand.

Howe: As humans, we encounter the existing things of the external world by means of the senses.

Lisle: That is certainly one way we obtain knowledge about the external world, and a very important one.  But we can only know that our senses have anything whatsoever to do with the external world by revelation from God.  And God has revealed many things about reality that we have not and cannot as yet experience with our senses (such as the afterlife).

Howe: That world is reality (though, as Christians, we know that’s not all there is in reality).

Lisle: The parenthetical comment is inconsistent with the first part of that sentence.  If Howe means that the world of our sensory experiences is reality in the sense of defining it, then reality is indeed limited to sensory experiences by definition.  That would necessarily exclude things such as heaven and hell as being real.  No, reality is much larger than our sensory experiences.  In fact, our physical universe is only an infinitesimal part of a much larger spiritual reality which includes God and His infinite nature.  The world we experience and interpret through our sensory organs is part of reality.  But the only way we can actually know that is ultimately by revelation from God.

Howe: It is incoherent to demand that the knower somehow get back behind the sensible reality we know, and from there put together some “proof” or “argument” which arrives at the conclusion that there’s an external world out there that he knows.

Lisle: It seems here that Howe is attempting to provide a reason for why he doesn’t need to provide a reason for his belief in the basic reliability of sensory experiences.  But attempting to provide a reason for why you don’t need to provide a reason seems rather self-defeating.  Rationality demands that our beliefs should be grounded in good reasons, and those beliefs that are not grounded in reasons should be abandoned.  To be rational, Howe needs to give a self-consistent, non-arbitrary reason for believing in the basic reliability of sensory experiences, or relinquish using them.  Essentially, Howe’s argument here proves my point: that on his philosophical system he can never ultimately give a cogent reason for how he “knows” that his senses are basically reliable. 

Howe: To put it more facetiously, if the world of sensible objects right in front of me is not enough for me to know that it’s there, then how can any argument about the sensible world be more compelling?

Lisle: Notice the inconsistency here.  Previously, Howe has been attempting to argue that his claim (“all knowledge begins in the senses”) needs no justification.  But here he is attempting to justify it.  Essentially, he is arguing that we should accept the basic reliability of sensory experience on the basis that no argument for it could be more compelling than our actual sensory experiences.  Hence, we are told that we have a good reason (that’s justification) to accept that all knowledge begins in the senses.

If his argument is cogent, then, ironically, Howe has disproved his own position.  Why?  If he has provided us with a good reason to accept that all knowledge begins with sensory experiences, then he has demonstrated that not all knowledge begins with sensory experience since the argument is based on logic and not sensory experiences.  Namely, if there is a more foundational reason to accept the premise “all knowledge begins in the senses,” then the premise “all knowledge begins in the senses” is contingent upon that more foundational reason.  In that case, all knowledge does not begin in the senses, but is based on some greater standard.

In fact, sensory experience is not the primary basis for beliefs as Jesus demonstrated in Luke 16:27-31.  When the rich man in Hades begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”  In other words, Abraham appealed to Scripture.  But the rich man pleaded, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!”  Abraham’s chilling (and very presuppositional) response was, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”  Seeing someone raised from the dead would have to be one of the most powerful sensory experiences a person could have.  And yet, apart from a biblical worldview, people will not be convinced.  Even some people who directly saw the resurrected Lord Jesus did not believe in the resurrected Lord Jesus (Matthew 28:17).  The issue is one of competing worldviews, not sensory experiences. 

Indeed, taking sensory experience as the primary standard for knowledge, and God’s Word as secondary, was the very reason Eve fell into sin.  She decided to treat God’s Word as a mere hypothesis to be tested by her senses and intellect (Genesis 3:6).  The entire world could have been spared the devastating effects of sin if only Eve had been a presuppositionalist.  🙂  

A little child and an adult will likely have very different conclusions when they see a magician perform a trick.  The child might well think that the magician actually cut a woman in half and then put her back together.  The adult, seeing exactly the same thing as the child, reasons that the magician did no such thing, although he might wonder how the illusion was made possible.  The adult has the correct conclusion, but not because of a better sensory experience.  He has a more mature worldview which informs him of how to properly interpret the data from his senses.  A person’s worldview is more important in the determination of conclusions than any data obtained from sensory experiences.  Without a worldview, our sensory experiences would mean nothing.

Thus, the question becomes, “Which worldview can justify our confidence in the basic (though not infallible) reliability of sensory experiences?”  The Christian worldview can, and any alternative cannot. 

Howe: The argument is itself one step removed from the world. And, as I argued above, from what “reality” could that argument arise that already doesn’t employ the very faculties to know it, for whose reliability Lisle demands a proof?

Lisle: Most views of reality assume the basic reliability of sensory experience, but only the Christian worldview can justify that presupposition in a self-consistent, non-arbitrary way along with the other preconditions of intelligibility.  If what the Bible says about the universe, God, and man is true, then we have good reasons to believe that our senses are basically reliable.  Someone may ask, “But don’t we use our senses to discover in the pages of Scripture what the Christian worldview is?”  Yes, that is part of the means by which we receive revelation from God.  And when we do so, we discover that our presupposition of the basic reliability of sensory experience is justified.  Conversely, any alternative to Christianity cannot justify sensory experience, even after the fact, in a way that is consistent with all the other preconditions of intelligibility.

Howe: It should be clear why Lisle’s Presuppositionalism is completely inadequate.

Lisle: It isn’t.  On the contrary, we have seen here that the revelational epistemology of the presuppositional approach to apologetics justifies our confidence in the basic reliability of sensory experience.  Ironically, Howe’s view is inadequate since, as he demonstrated in his article, it cannot justify the foundational, initial assumption (“all knowledge begins in the senses”) upon which he claims all other beliefs are based. 

Essentially, Howe has attempted to argue that his foundational premise (“all knowledge begins in the senses”) needs no justification.  But if that is true, then it is unjustified (by definition).  And if unjustified, we have no reason to accept it (again, by definition).  And since that primary presupposition (“all knowledge begins in the senses”) is unjustified, and all other beliefs are allegedly contingent upon it, this leaves all beliefs unjustified and are therefore not knowledge.  On Howe’s system, no knowledge would be possible.  We again see the confirmation of Proverbs 1:7; knowledge begins with God – submitting to biblical presuppositions, and the alternative leads to absurdity.

Howe: If it is not clear, I shall, God willing, expand on my response as I explore in Part Two some of the other philosophical assumptions that Presuppositionalists make in laying out and defending their Presuppositionalism.

To complete my thoughts about circularity, Van Til et al. are certainly wrong in their contention that all reasoning is circular.

Lisle: Ironically, the only way Howe could ultimately demonstrate this claim to be true would be with a circular argument!  Consider the alternative.  Whatever premise he uses to justify his belief here must itself be justified in order for us to know that it is true.  And that belief must be justified, and so on, leading either to an infinite regress (in which case the argument cannot be completed and therefore is not justified) or will terminate in a premise without a reason, again leaving all consequent beliefs unjustified.  The only way therefore to ultimately justify anything is with an ultimate standard that proves itself.  This will necessarily entail some degree of circularity.

Howe: The mistake they make is assuming that reasoning starts with presuppositions (or assumptions, to use Bahnsen’s term).

Lisle: No, presuppositionalists argue that knowledge begins with God, and human reasoning therefore begins with revelation from God.  In God’s light we see light (Psalm 36:9).  Presuppositions are strongly held beliefs that are assumed before they are proved.  God hardwired us to believe certain things that we would need to survive, and we later discover the justification for those beliefs in Scripture.  Yes, we do use those presuppositions in discovering their own justification, but that it because there is no alternative.  For example, we must use laws of logic in order to prove that there are laws of logic.  There is nothing irrational about using what is rationally necessary to discover its own foundation.

Howe: But human reasoning does not start with assumptions or presuppositions.

Lisle: Reasoning is the process of drawing inferences.  From certain propositions, using logic, we can deduce or infer other propositions.  But where do we get our starting propositions?  Do our first starting propositions come from sensory experience, or do they come from revelation from God?  If they come from sensory experience, then where do we get the idea that sensory experience is informing us about the external world?      

Howe: These are all cognitive terms having to do with the activity of the intellect. But the intellect has to have some object to know. We don’t merely begin reasoning with reasoning itself. Instead, we begin reasoning with our encounter with the objective, sensible world. The things we encounter in the objective, sensible world are not propositions or assumptions or presuppositions. Rather, we encounter things—people, dogs, trees, etc.

Lisle: The problem here is that we do not actually experience people, dogs, trees, etc.  These things produce physical effects, some of which encounter our sensory organs which then transmit signals to the brain.  We experience the subjective images and sensations in our mind, and we presuppose that these sensations originated in some external reality.  But how do we know if that presupposition is correct?  This is essentially the question I have posed, and Howe has not been able to answer it so far.  He has simply assumed, without giving any reason, that what we experience in the mind is a reflection of an external reality.  I also presuppose this, but I can give a good reason for it on my revelational epistemology.  So far, Howe has been unable to answer this on his own system.

Howe: But the conclusion of an argument is a proposition.

Lisle: So is the beginning of any argument – by definition.  An argument is a sequence of propositions where the truth of one (the conclusion) is claimed to follow from the truth of the others (the premises).  It seems to me that Howe here is attempting to avoid having to rationally justify his ultimate standard by assuming that it is a propositional conclusion based on a non-propositional premise.  But that isn’t rational.  All arguments are entirely propositional by definition.  The starting premises and the conclusion are propositions.  It is not rational to draw a propositional conclusion from something that is not a proposition.  That’s not reasoning. 

Howe: A proposition is about reality. It is not, as a proposition, itself external reality. Thus, the starting point of reasoning is not the same as the conclusion of the reasoning.

Lisle: In logical reasoning, both the premises and the conclusion of any argument are propositions.  Howe seems to be trying to base a propositional conclusion on something that is not a proposition.  But that’s not an argument, and it’s not rational.

Howe: It is manifest that for philosophical realists like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas there is no circularity in their overall epistemology.

Lisle: As we showed previously by the Munchhausen trilemma, we can avoid circularity in reasoning about ultimate standards only by giving up rationality.  The other two branches are an infinite regress (which proves nothing) or leaving our ultimate standard unjustified (which also proves nothing).  Both of these branches leave all beliefs ultimately unjustified and therefore make knowledge impossible.  Any alleged ultimate standard must therefore justify itself if knowledge is possible.

Howe: Presuppositionalists think that reasoning is circular largely because, when they think of epistemology, they think of it in the same terms that many modern and contemporary philosophers define the task of knowing.

Lisle: On the contrary, we recognize that reasoning is ultimately circular because knowledge is based on the triune God whose reasoning is necessarily circular.  God already knows all true propositions, and therefore any reasoning within the mind of God is necessarily circular.  For example, “How does God know that He is God?”  The only possible answer is: “Because He is God, and as God He knows all things.”  There is inescapably circularity in this reasoning, and yet it is both valid and sound.  It violates no laws or principles of logic, and is perfectly rational.

We see such necessary circularity in the way in which God makes an oath.  Normally, “men swear by one greater than themselves” (Hebrews 6:16).  But Hebrews 6:13 states, “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself.”  So, God is swearing by God.  Is this circular?  Yes!  Did God provide a good reason why He reasons in such a circular fashion?  Again, yes!  It is because “He could swear by no one greater.”  There is no alternative.  What is God’s ultimate standard?  God.  Howe may not like that, but it is logically inescapable. 

As Van Til put it, “Our reasoning frankly depends upon the revelation of God, whose ‘reasoning’ is within the internal-eternal circularity of the three persons of the Trinity. It is only if we frankly depend for the validity of our reasoning upon this internal circular reasoning in the triune God that we can escape trying in vain to reason in circles in a vacuum of pure contingency.” (Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology).

Dr. Greg Bahnsen states, “The method of implication as outlined above is circular reasoning. …  Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way than by a transcendental or circular argument.”  (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 518). 

Bahnsen recognized that the Bible must be defended in a circular way – it must be presupposed in order to be proved. He states, “And that’s why in the apologetic that I’m going to be teaching you in this course, I’m going to assume what the Bible says about itself: that the ultimate reason for believing it, the ultimate authority that it has going for it is that it is the Word of God and claims that it’s the Word of God.   Those who reject that circularity are really saying, ‘I will not allow anything to be ultimate authority besides me.’” (Bahnsen, A Seminary-Level Course on Apologetics, DVD disk 6).

Bahnsen states, “The sinner wants to test that which presents itself as the revelation of God by a standard not itself taken from this revelation.  He complains of the circular reasoning that would be involved in accepting the word of Scripture about the nature of Scripture” (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic p. 218).

Bahnsen says, “The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity.” (p. 518)

We have already seen that circular reasoning can be both valid and sound; it doesn’t necessarily violate any laws of logic and therefore cannot be rejected on that basis.  We see here that a rejection of all forms of circularity is not only illogical, it is sinful.  Such a rejection is to claim that (1) God is wrong, and (2) there is some greater standard than God.  Neither of these positions is compatible with Scripture.

Howe: Modern (and, more so, contemporary) philosophers often couch knowing questions fundamentally along the contours of cognitive elements (propositions; assumptions; beliefs; logic) or consciousness elements (properties; qualia; thoughts, etc.). In contrast, the classical philosophy of Aristotle will define knowledge as beginning with the formal identity of the knower (via the intellect) and the known (without leaving out, when necessary and where appropriate, the cognitive and consciousness elements listed).

Lisle: Notice that this doesn’t actually solve the problem in Howe’s epistemology.  Simply redefining knowledge does not actually give us a rational reason to know that our senses are basically reliable.  After all, I could answer any question this way.  Someone asks, “how do you know that your beliefs about heaven are true?”  Suppose I respond, “Because, I’m defining knowledge as ‘that which I believe.’  So, I know it by definition.”  Would that be satisfactory?  Have I actually provided a reason by simply shifting terms? 

Howe: Here, ‘formally’ means “employing the metaphysical aspect of the Form of sensible objects.” The specter of circularity comes up precisely because the elements according to which some philosophers cash out knowledge are themselves elements of the knowing process, without regard to factoring in the metaphysics of what it is to be a knower and what it is to be a known. As long as epistemology tries to “justify” itself only in terms of itself, it can hardly avoid being circular in some way. This the Thomistic model does not do.

Lisle: The Thomistic model avoids circularity by abandoning rationality – by accepting some (foundational) propositions arbitrarily – without rational justification.  Consequently, this leaves all other beliefs (which are ultimately dependent on such foundational assumptions) unjustified.  In other words, it would make knowledge impossible.  Thus, Proverbs 1:7 is confirmed.  Knowledge begins with submission to God’s presuppositions, and any alternative inevitably reduces to foolishness. 

Howe: While Lisle does not raise the following objection, I think it is important to deal with it nonetheless. It will do no good for someone to insist that we need a “proof” of the reliability of our senses since there are particular examples where our senses fail to tell us accurately what’s going on in the world.[18] Optical illusions can be known to be illusions only because we know the truth about a matter to which the illusion stands in contrast.

Lisle: But how do we know about the truth of the matter?  On Howe’s system it is through sensory experience – the same senses that are fooled by an illusion.  But isn’t the reliability of sensory experience the very issue in question?  So, we see here that Howe has not avoided circularity in reasoning.  But his circle is arbitrary and vicious, proving nothing.

Howe: If I think I see a pool of water ahead in the desert only to discover that it was a mirage, what were the means by which I discovered that it wasn’t really a pool of water after all? If everything is an illusion (or, as some have put it, if everything is a dream (Lisle’s Matrix challenge)) then the word ‘illusion’ doesn’t mean anything.

Lisle: No, the word “illusion” still has meaning because it exists within the larger context of (and in contrast with) a real world, albeit one that we hypothetically cannot access.  We can consider for the sake of argument a real universe in which the lifeforms within it are merely brains in vats, whose “sensory experiences” are determined by electrical inputs from a computer simulation.  Such life forms would experience only illusion, having no access to the real world.  The fact that they cannot scientifically discover that all their experiences are illusory does not change the fact that they are.  In the Christian worldview, God is the standard for reality, not sensory experience.

Howe: If one claims that everything he experiences is a dream, he has just exchanged the term ‘real’ for the term ‘dream’.

Lisle: No, that is not correct. A person who claims that all his sensory experiences are a dream necessarily believes that there is a reality disconnected from his “experiences” which he has not actually experienced.  Such a person believes in two “worlds”: (1) the fictional world of his experiences which has no effect on the other, and (2) the real world in which he is asleep and to which he has no sensory access.  This differs from a person who believes he is awake and that his experiences do correlate to the one real world.

Howe seems to be conflating what we can know about reality with reality itself.  These are different issues.  This confusion may stem from his arbitrary and unproved presupposition that his senses give him direct access to reality.  If I understand what he is saying, Howe seems to be suggesting that if we cannot know reality, and if all our experiences are merely illusory, then we might as well just call our illusory experiences “reality.”  If that is indeed his argument, then it is the fallacy of lost contrast – where a term (in this case “reality”) is redefined to include all that it is not (in this case “illusion”).  The fact that a person may be dreaming and unaware of reality does not make his dream reality.

Howe: His dream is just what the rest of us call real.

Lisle: Howe seems to suggest this is just a semantic debate about what we call real.  But in fact, the person who claims that all our experiences are a dream does not believe the same thing as a person who believes that our experiences tell us something about reality.  It’s not just a debate over terminology.  A dream implies a larger reality in which the dreamer is actually asleep and to which he has no sensory access (at the moment).  Whereas, reality does not necessarily imply a larger world of which it is a part.   

Howe: A dream is a dream only because it is in contrast to the real.[19] Without that contrast, one is committing what is known as the fallacy of lost contrast.

Lisle: But such a contrast can exist without the person being aware of it.  The fact that a person may not be able to distinguish between “real” and “dream” does not prove that no distinction exists.  If I understand his point, Howe seems to be suggesting that if a person cannot distinguish between dream and reality, then no such distinction exists.  That would be the fallacy of lost contrast, because (hypothetically) such a distinction can exist and be known to God without being known to man.

Howe: Neither challenge—(1) challenging the reliability of the senses by offering a particular instance where the senses fail to tell us the truth about a situation or (2) globally challenging the reliability of the senses—offers any solace for the anti-realist or the Presuppositionalist.

Lisle: These challenges demonstrate the truth of Proverbs 1:7: knowledge really does begin with God.  Any alternative system cannot justify something as basic and foundational as our confidence in our own sensory experiences. 

Howe: While some of these types of challenges from the Presuppositionalist might have some force against modern and contemporary versions of empiricism, they are completely irrelevant to the classical empiricism of Aristotle and Aquinas. All the less are they demonstrations of the viability of Presuppositionalism.

Lisle: Far from being irrelevant, we see that the presuppositional challenge is equally forceful against Howe’s epistemology as any other epistemology not based on God’s revelation.  It seems evident that he cannot give a cogent answer to the simple question of how do we know that our senses are basically reliable.  He has tried to explain why he doesn’t think he needs to provide a reason – but that is irrational.  Rationality requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. 

Howe has not provided any justification from within his own epistemological framework, nor can he.  If “all knowledge begins with the senses” then we could never know that “all knowledge begins with the senses” because we have not experienced “all knowledge” via our senses. And if Howe proves the claim some other way (not by his senses) then he refutes himself, for he has just demonstrated that not all knowledge begins with the senses.

I really enjoyed reading Dr. Howe’s article because it powerfully demonstrates the failure of non-presuppositional epistemologies to make knowledge possible, thereby confirming that knowledge really is based on God (Colossians 2:3).  I think anyone reading his article fairly and thinking through the consequences would recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of the classical method’s epistemology.  And conversely, we should be encouraged that the Christian worldview is true, that knowledge really does begin in the mind of God, and any epistemology based ultimately on man (his mind, his senses, etc.) cannot withstand rational scrutiny.  The presuppositional method is based upon the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of Scripture. This is why it is able to justify knowledge. I very much appreciate Dr. Howe making the attempt to answer my question, and I look forward to part 2 of his article.  I pray that my comments have been helpful and are glorifying to God.