Practical apologetics #2: How do I know what I know?

Updated: Mar 23

An investigation into proximate and ultimate starting points

This the second part of our practical apologetics series.

Anyone familiar with street level presuppositional apologetics will be familiar with a few common short quips used by apologists: "How do you know your reasoning is valid?", "How do you know you can trust your senses?" and "Could you be a brain in a vat?". Why are they asking these questions and what are the implications for our answers to them? Although on surface level these questions might seem to be worthless, they reveal in an expert manner the heart of the human problem that we all seem to face [1].

The questions come down to how we know what we know and certainty. It touches on the manner in which humans were made to operate. How can we be sure that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable in order to sufficiently provide us with knowledge of the outside world?

The point in the Christian asking these questions is to try and expose the unbeliever's (morally) foolish attempt to rely on their own autonomous abilities rather than on God in their thinking, thereby destroying the possibility of gaining any meaningful knowledge, and of predication. In this article we'll take a look at a few ways of answering the question and compare it with the Christian answer.

The evolutionist's accounting for sense perception

The evolutionist worldview hold that man is product natural selection acting on random genetic mutations (modern synthesis). In this view of the world, man is nothing more than the product of a material universe and some laws of mathematics acting on matter. On this view, man has been "created", or rather, "selected" for only one purpose:

... Darwinian natural selection, which is the process that has brought all living things to be the way they are, is best seen at the gene level, is best seen as a process of differential survival among genes, and therefore living organisms and their bodies are best seen as machines programmed by the genes to propagate those very same genes. In that sense we are gene machines. But it is not intended to be at all a demeaning or belittling statement.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

That's the view of man - a body that is best seen as a machine programmed by the genes to propagate those genes - according to naturalists. The purpose of life is reproduction. That's it. Alvin Plantinga (American analytic philosopher) better developed an argument against naturalism that bothered Darwin himself:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

Charles Darwin, To William Graham 3 July 1881

Plantinga's argument can be summarised as follows [2]: If evolutionary naturalism is true, then it cannot be rationally be held as true as there is no rational reason to believe that this mechanism can provide us with reliable cognitive faculties. Given that we were selected to reproduce, natural selection will select the organism that has a reproductive advantage - hence, your cognitive faculties will delude you if it gives you a reproductive advantage.

We were not selected for scientific inference and problem solving. Any person that concludes, using their cognitive faculties that evolutionary naturalism is true, has defeated themselves. This is called a self-stultifying view.

But the problem goes deeper of than this. The evolutionist used his cognitive faculties to formulate the theory of evolution. The conclusion the evolutionist reaches thus invalidates assumed reliability of his cognitive faculties he used in order derive the theory. But what if the evolutionist recognises this, and abandons the theory because of this reason. Is he then justified in holding to the reliability of his sense perception? Well, he still has no non-arbitrary reason to believe in the reliability of his senses. So where can he go from here? Let's review a few options.

The general answer

A common answer that has been encountered in discussion with unbelievers (and sometimes believers) is the attempt to ground the trust in the general reliability of our cognitive faculties in their evidence of past reliability. Our senses have worked quite well in the past, so we can trust them going forward. Is this a sufficient answer? Indeed not. It's an arbitrary statement of the desired result.

The answer, although it sounds nice, simply states that "my senses work because, as we can see, my senses have worked". This issue is that you cannot evaluate whether your senses work without using your senses. This would be an arbitrary (fallacious) circle.

Moreover, even if the argument somehow succeeded, there is no reason to believe that because our senses have worked in the past, they will continue working in the future. This is similar to the problem of induction which has also plagued philosophers since the life and work of British philosopher David Hume. Just because something worked in the past, does not mean something will work in the future unless unless there is reason to expect continued uniformity in nature. [3]

Is there a way out from this?

The agnostic enters the conversation

The agnostic is characterised by a humble acknowledgement of their lack of having enough information to know anything for certain. Hence the agnostic (at least in this case) would not try to say anything explicitly about the world around them with absolute certainty. The agnostic would therefore humbly admit that he does not know why he trusts his cognitive faculties as an attempt out to the problem. But this is a cop-out (an instance of avoiding a commitment or responsibility) that when pressed further, falls apart quite quickly.

If the agnostic is not certain about anything, the question can rightfully be asked if the agnostic is certain that they're not certain about anything. There can only be three answers to the question: "yes","no" or "I'm not certain if I'm not certain". If the answer is "yes", they've refuted themselves. If the answer is "no" or "I'm not certain", the cycle repeats and the agnostic is stuck in an infinite regress. The agnostic therefore never reaches a foundational or ultimate justification for any truth claims they might make. At this point, the agnostic has disqualified themselves from any form of meaningful debate. Any word they say falls into a meaningless void and, if they were consistent with this view, would recognise that their words have no meaning whatsoever. Anything they say or think is unprovable and at best arbitrary assumptions. There's no use in trying to consistently engage from this point on.

The agnostic might attempt one final pushback by attempting to levy the same critique against their opponents. If the agnostic cannot know anything, that applies to their opponent too, right? This might sound like a reasonable assertion for the agnostic, but it fails for two reasons:

  1. The agnostic is not supposed to know anything. Hence, the assertion that their opponent cannot know anything is, like all other claims the agnostic makes, arbitrary and unprovable.

  2. The assertion begs the question against the opponent's (let's say Christian) worldview. The Christian claims that we can and do have knowledge (which is even evidenced by the agnostic although they would self-stultifyingly deny it). The agnostic cannot on non-Christian ground levy an argument against the possibility of knowledge in the Christian worldview. [4]


It must be noted that different forms of realism has been adopted by many Christians, however it is the position of the writer that these positions (although they contain elements of truth) are ultimately destructive to the pursuit of knowledge if not placed squarely on Christian grounds.

The position of the classical realists can be summarised as follows:

All knowledge begins in the senses and is completed in the intellect.

A few years ago I participated in a public discussion on classical vs presuppositional apologetics. Unfortunately, I was not as well read back than as I am now (though I still have much to learn). When I asked the question of how my non-presuppositionalist friend come to know the external world, he said something that greatly echoes what Richard Howe recently wrote on his blog:

As humans, we encounter the existing sensible things of the external world by means of the senses. That world is reality (though, as Christians, we know that’s not all there is in reality). 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. 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? The argument is itself one step removed from the world.

Richard Howe, How do I know what I know?

Notice that this argument can be used by the evolutionist and the agnostic alike (which is unfortunate that the classical apologist would give this Christian ground to the unbeliever). By simply stating that the world of the sensible things (that is, the things we perceive by our senses) is the world of reality, does not answer the question of how we can know that we're not a brain in a vat. It simply begs the question.

  1. I know that the world of my sensible experience is the world of reality because ...

  2. ... the world of my sensible experience is the world of reality ...

  3. (repeat).

It simply arbitrarily presupposes that we're not a brain in a vat and that's it. This is an arbitrary assumption and hence destroys the possibility of knowledge. Jason Lisle answered this quite well in a two-part blog post that can be found here and here.

There is no reason that keeps us from simply assuming the opposite that the realist assumes and there would be nothing the realist can do to refute the critic. This is not to say that the realist is incorrect in his assumption on the reliability of sense perception, but just that the assumption is arbitrary and therefore cannot ultimately ground knowledge. The realist at best finds himself in a Mexican stand-off with the supposed anti-realist.

Completed in the intellect

The realists might fight back with one more blow. The classical realists don't merely believe that all knowledge come from sense experience, but that the sense experience is completed / perfected in the intellect.

In my view this doesn't improve the situation, as the position still states that nothing is in the mind that was not first the senses. This means the assumption that the perception of the senses correspond to the actual world out there still needs to be made.

The realist has no way to know that the world of the senses actually corresponds to the external world.

The general problem

Whatever your philosophy, the general problem remains - how do you know your senses and reasoning is valid? There doesn't seem to be a way around this. This has been captured by something called the Münchhausen trilemma. The trilemma goes as follows:

There are only three options when providing further proof in response to further questioning:

  • The circular argument, in which the proof of some proposition is supported only by that proposition (my cognitive faculties work because they work).

  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum. (my cognitive faculties work because of A, A is the case because B, B is the case because C ... and so on and so forth).

  • The dogmatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts which are merely asserted rather than defended (my cognitive faculties work because A. A is simply the case and that's it - as in the case of the realist).

We've seen variations of the above three options in our discussions above. So, where does this lead us? Is all knowledge at heart arbitrary? How is it possible for us to know something for certain (as we clearly do know some things for certain)?

Jason Lisle notes that if the Münchhausen trilemma is correct, then we can demonstrate that knowledge is impossible. But, of course, this is instantly self-refuting. Because, is the truthfulness of the trilemma itself not something that must be known in order to be rationally affirmed? How do we escape these issues?

The heart of the issue

All of the above discussed attempted solutions, nicely summarised by the Münchhausen trilemma, all have one thing in common: They assume the ultimacy of man. The issue is that no matter how complex a solution the philosophers can think of, there is no way to escape the trilemma if we continue thinking about man is the final or ultimate reference point of knowledge. We would be forever stuck in the egocentric predicament [5] with the inevitable result of a self-refuting solipsism.

The answer to the above problem lies in the truth of the Christian worldview. We can know things for certain because the Christian worldview is true. That is the full answer. All non-Christian answers with an autonomous epistemology are fallaciously circular, absurd and an infinite regress of question begging [6] because they assume that man is the ultimate starting point. The view of man is that of a blank slate that needs to start constructing a worldview that is ultimately the product of their egocentric experience.

The justification in the Christian worldview does not succumb to the trilemma because it is not arbitrary, it does not form a regressive argument nor is it a dogmatic assertion, and because it does not assume man as the ultimate starting point, but God. We'll expand on this below.

The Christian answer (and some objections anticipated)

Jason Lisle summarises the Christian position as follows:

The [Christian] can answer this [reliability of senses] 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.

Jason Lisle, How do I Know that I Know? – a Response (Part 1)

And in another article:

As a [Christian], 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.

Jason Lisle, How do I Know that I Know? – a Response (Part 2)

Whereas the classical realists would argue that all knowledge begins in the senses and is completed in the intellect, the presuppositionalist will argue that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7), that we should have a philosophy that is according to Christ and not according the elements of this world (Colossians 2:8), and that it is in God's light that we see light (Psalm 36:9).

This is consistent with the Christian's view that there can be no neutral ground between the Christian and the non-Christian worldview. There is either submission to Christ from the start of the reasoning process, or there isn't. You either treat the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge, or as the culmination of knowledge. John Frame writes the following:

God’s word is the ultimate criterion of certainty. What God says must be true, for, as the letter to the Hebrews says, it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18, compare Tit. 1:2, 1 John 2:27). His Word is Truth (John 17:17, compare Ps. 33:4, 119:160). So God’s word is the criterion by which we can measure all other sources of knowledge.

Now this sounds good on paper, but didn't we have to read the Bible in order to understand the Bible? Doesn't this also beg the question that our senses and reasoning are reliable when we read the Bible that told us that our senses and reasoning are reliable?

An arbitrary argument for the reliability of our senses would look something like this:

  1. I assume my senses are valid because ...

  2. ... the Bible says my senses are valid, which I can read and understand because

  3. (repeat). I assume my sense are valid because ... (and so on and so forth).

So what's going on here? What is Lisle and Frame getting it? How can the Christian escape the arbitrariness pointed out in the other philosophies? The answer lies in the fact that the above argument still assumes the ultimacy of man, and not of God. That's not the Christian argument, and that's not what Lisle and Frame's answers entail.

Don't I have to assume my reason / senses are reliable before reading the Bible?

The short answer to the sub-heading is a plain yes. We had to assume that our senses were reliable before reading the Bible to know what the Bible says about reality. But this is where we should make the important distinction between proximate starting points and ultimate commitments, and / or temporal and logical starting points for reasoning. Van Til describes the issue as follows:

... If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting-point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

In other words, our awareness of ourselves and of the objects out there (and the correspondence of our ideas to this external reality) presupposes the Christian God - and this is in terms of ultimate priority, not temporal priority - in order to be intelligible.

Hence, when the Christian claims that we must "start with God", it is in an ultimate sense not in a temporal sense (this is very common mistake found in the critics of presuppositional apologetics). God is always the most basic, ultimate and logical starting point. The redeemed person who has been made new in Christ has a accepted the worldview that honours God from the outset of their thinking, and places Him as their ultimate foundation (logical starting point) for all reasoning.

Proximately we cannot start with God, because we are not God. We are His created analogues. If we could proximately start with God, it would mean that we are God (or we would commit the heresy of ontologism). Proximately we start with our experience as humans (as God's created analogues). Ultimately (in the logical order of thinking) we presuppose the Christian worldview.

Van Til continues:

This is, in the last analysis, the question as to what are one’s ultimate presuppositions. When man became a sinner he made of himself instead of God the ultimate or final reference point. And it is precisely this presupposition, as it controls without exception all forms of non-Christian philosophy, that must be brought into question.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

We have briefly, at the start of this writing, demonstrated the issues encountered when man attempts to make himself the ultimate reference point instead of God (even if this person then attempts to use the Bible to justify their sense perception using the ultimacy of their sense perception). It leads to a self-refuting subjectivism and skepticism.

This is what happened in the garden of Eden. God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve and gave them an explicit command. They should have taken God's Word as their ultimate commitment, but instead they made their own thinking their ultimate commitment. Hence, when they encountered two conflicting claims to truth (that of Satan and that of God) there was no way form them to determine the lie other than eating the fruit (measuring the Word of God by the empirical data). The results were devastating. The fundamental mistake of non-Christian thought is a foundational commitment to human autonomy (independence from God).

We simply weren't made to operate in an autonomous fashion.

Proximate and ultimate starting points unpacked

When you get started with presuppositional apologetics, the distinction between ultimate and proximate starting points is incredibly important to understand. Hence, why I want to spend more time on the issue before moving on.

It is true that we use our senses to read the Bible. To paraphrase Daniel Akande (a fellow presuppositionalist Christian): Belief in the accuracy of our senses is chronologically prior to reading the Bible. However, what provides a foundation for that belief is the philosophical system laid out in the Bible. Our senses are merely one way in which we come to know about that metaphysical scheme [another would be the direct revelation of the knowledge of God common to all men]. It's a matter of logical hierarchy.

The Christian worldview provides the framework in which we can justifiably believe in the accuracy of our senses, hence it takes epistemological / logical priority over the belief that our senses are reliable.

The chronological order simply does not matter, it does not matter that we have to use our senses to first read the Bible. The question is which comes first when arranging beliefs in terms of logical hierarchy? The answer is the Christian worldview, because it provides the framework and foundation for other beliefs.

If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

Hence, the implication of the proximate starting point is the ultimate starting point. A person walking on a house floor is dependent on the beams holding up the floor. This is the case whether the person is aware of the beams or not.

If you don't want to believe in the reliability of sense perception, feel free to stop reading this article (as that presupposes the reliability of your senses). If you want to believe your senses are reliable, you need to accept the Christian worldview. Rationality, reliability of sense perception and other preconditions of intelligibility can only be justified in a non-arbitrary manner by the Christian worldview. All other worldviews and metaphysical schemes ultimately collapse on themselves.

On the Christian metaphysical scheme, due to the nature of reality and of man it makes sense for us to use our senses and reasoning, even to read the Bible in order come to a knowledge of the fuller view of the Christian worldview (e.g. the incarnation, crucifixion) because we are what the Bible says we are: creatures made in the image of God with the ability to know, whether we accept it or not.

...we may say that the question at issue is not that of what is the immediate starting point. All agree that the immediate starting point must be that of our everyday experience and the “facts” that are most close at hand. But the charge we are making against so many Idealists as well as Pragmatists is that they are taking for granted certain temporal “facts” not only as a temporary but as an ultimate starting point.

Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology

Hence, the better way to outline the steps in terms of proximate starting points is as follows:

  1. I assume my senses are basically reliable (proximate starting point) (this assumption is controlled by the nature of created reality, which includes myself).

  2. The Bible outlines a metaphysical scheme which allows me to justifiably hold to the belief that my senses are basically reliable.

  3. If I deny what the metaphysical scheme of the Bible, I lose the only metaphysical scheme that can provide a justification for my belief that my senses are basically reliable.

  4. Ultimately, if the Christian worldview is not true, I cannot justify the basic reliability of my senses. Since I accept the Christian worldview, I can justifiably hold to the reliability of my senses.

Hence, in terms of ultimate commitments (logical order of thinking).

  1. I am a creature created in the image of God as a finite analogue of Him.

  2. The universe is created and upheld by the triune God.

  3. Therefore, I am justified in making use of the preconditions of intelligibility (e.g. reliability of senses).

The beauty of the above demonstrations come to fruit in the transcendental argument for the existence of God [7]. Since the Christian worldview is the only worldview that can justify the preconditions of intelligibility [8], it follows that any argument against the Christian worldview must necessarily assume the Christian worldview in order to make the argument against it intelligible. Hence, any predication about the Christian worldview, (even the prediction that the Christian worldview is false) relies on the Christian worldview to be intelligible.

Still not convinced?

What we've written above, again, might look good on paper, but have we really answered the question? Shouldn't we first come to know the worldview of Scripture in some other way before we can presuppose it? How exactly does the distinction between proximate and ultimate starting points solve our dilemma?

John Frame provides a helpful quote from Apologetics to the Glory of God:

They [the critics] stress the pre in presupposition and thus take it that a presupposition is something someone believes before (temporally) one believes anything else. This is wrong. The pre should be understood mainly as an indicator of eminence (e.g., preeminence), not temporal priority.

John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God

Hence, as Daniel Akande disclosed above, it's not that we presuppose the Christian worldview in the sense that we know of it before temporarily know of something else. The belief formed about the Christian worldview revealed in Scripture simply takes preeminence (logically / ultimately first) in the order of thinking.

On this point we can mention another four points (special emphasis on the fourth point):

  • The knowledge of God is not something that is attained after accumulating a certain amount of lesser facts. The knowledge of God's existence is basic to each human being, because God makes Him known to all men so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:18ff). He reveals Himself in us (by virtue of being made in His image), and around us by virtue of His wondrous and awe inspiring creation.

  • Moreover, the law of God is written on the hearts of all men so that they have a moral compass (although corrupted) that they will be held accountable to one day come the day of judgement (Romans 2).

  • The truthfulness of the Christian worldview is independent of the person being aware of some of the truths, and even more so of the person affirming the truths.

  • The person making the objection continues to assume the ultimacy of man, and not God.

The Christian worldview states that man is not ultimate, and God is. The objector that continues to argue that we cannot start with God continues to beg the question against God being the ultimate starting point. The objector simply continues to insist that God cannot reveal Himself to His creatures so that they can know things for certain (or at least hasn't), and continues to insist that each man is an autonomous knower in an ultimately unknown reality. But why should we accept this? This is simply a prejudicial bias.

There is no reason to accept the claim of the objector (although there is many reasons to reject it - for example that it is self-refuting as discussed previously). On the Christian view of things, we are not autonomous knowers. We are created analogues of the Christian God. This is the Christian worldview. The objector has himself a particular worldview that assumes the ultimacy of man. Why should we accept his worldview over the Christian worldview?

On the Christian worldview, we have the promised curatorship of Christ (John 16:13) who will guide us into all truth - using the proximate means of our immediate experience. The promise made by Christ is independent of our knowledge of it, but is a precondition to any of our knowledge. This view is better expounded by Bosserman [see fn 10]. Bosserman expounds an externalist theory of justification that depends on Christ leading His people into all truth, even though the individual person might not have a full appreciation of the exact way in which Christ accomplishes this.

Moreover, the question can be turned on the objector who still doesn't believe we can in a meaningful sense ultimately start with God. What does he start with? Does he start with himself? Or does he start with logic? The objector cannot start with himself because he would not have logic. And if he claims to start with logic, well, who starts with logic? This is the problem with understanding the phrase “start with” in exclusively temporal / proximate terms. [10]

To claim that you start with logic, would mean that you take care to ensure that the ideas produced by your mind don't violate any of the laws of logic. To claim that you start with sense perception, would mean that you take care to ensure that the ideas in your mind about reality correspond to something sensed out there.

The Christian who claims to start with God, takes care to ensure that their worldview is brought into union with the worldview revealed in Scripture. In this sense, the Scriptural worldview is the ultimate starting point, which acts as a lense which puts the immediate starting point in its place.

Greg Bahnsen's view

Greg Bahnsen illustrated that there are two ways of picturing us as knowers that we must take into account when using transcendental arguments [see fn 7]:

1. [The first way of picturing us says that God created us and our minds, and God also created the world that we know with our minds.] This is the Christian view of things. God made the mind and the objects that the mind knows. Therefore, our conceptual scheme is automatically in touch/automatically corresponds with the objects of experience on this presupposition.
2. The second way of picturing us says that we can’t know anything about God at the outset. All we can know is that we have a human mind, we assume its sufficiency, and we are pretty sure that there are objects out there that the mind can know. Everything here is loose and disjointed; the objects of knowledge are not connected to one another by God’s sovereign work, nor are the objects automatically connected to the mind of man in his conceptual scheme. In fact, all minds are loose and disjointed as well. God is not brought into the picture here because we don’t want to do theology in the place of philosophy after all, right? We begin with man and then work out from man.

* Special thanks to Joshua Pillows for the transcription

The second picture provided by Bahnsen is the picture of the autonomous man. If we begin with man (in an ultimate sense), and work out from man, we inevitably destroy knowledge. We need to start with the Christian scheme (in an ultimate / logical sense), and only by honouring the Creator, our positions as creatures made in the image of the triune God, and the revelation He has given us in Scripture can we escape the skepticism entailed by the non-Christian positions.

Joshua Pillows, who has spent a great deal of time listening to Greg Bahnsen's lectures, describes Bahnsen's view of the proximate, ultimate distinction as follows:

We once again are confronted with the fact that epistemology and metaphysics are intertwined with one another. It is impossible for one to only harbor epistemological knowledge. Likewise it is impossible for one to only harbor metaphysical knowledge. Simply put, in beginning with his immediate/proximate starting point, man simultaneously has metaphysical knowledge (that is, knowledge of things outside of his immediate experience) as well as epistemological knowledge of his God, thus simultaneously beginning with his ultimate starting point.

Joshua Pillows, An Essay Concerning the Alleged Confusion of Ontology and Epistemology within Van Tillian Presuppositionalism

This is an idea Bahnsen got from Calvin:

John Calvin's view

Bahnsen exposists the view of Calvin as follows:

God Created man has His own image (Gen. 1:26f.). So just as man cannot escape himself, he cannot escape the face of God. Man is not able to isolate himself or be ignorant of God. Self-knowledge and self-awareness unavoidably entail God-knowledge and awareness of one’s Creator. In virtue of his creation as a human every man ‘images’ his God.

Greg Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended

From this we can see that embedded in the immediate experience is the knowledge of God as creator. The truth of the Christian metaphysical scheme, therefore, seems to be implanted in the mind of man from the outset.

Brant Bosserman's view

According to Bosserman, Scripture, nature and man are three distinct forms of natural revelation from God. When these three distinct revelations are allowed to qualify one another, they comprise a single Word of God. In this sense, the Word of God is self-confirming as a light that so illuminates every other aspect of creation that they respond with their own unique testimonies to God's nature and existence (Ps 36:9) [11].

When we combine Bosserman's view with what we've written above, it becomes clearer that when man is taken as the created analogue of God, who himself reveals the one true God by virtue of being created in God's image, we can see how the basic reliability of our cognitive faculties are externally justified even if we are not explicitly aware of the content (worldview) of the Bible in exhaustion. We were created to use them. We don't become created once we affirm we were created.

Bosserman also clearly outlines an externalist theory of justification for belief in the Christian worldview (as briefly mentioned previously). Christ guides His people into all truth. This happens external to us, and cannot be discovered by some internal principle. We should not ignore the work of God in his people to lead them into all truth in these discussions. If we do, we're indeed excluding the Christian answer to the problem from the outset.

Jason Lisle's view

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...
...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... some beliefs are justified after the fact, and 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.

Jason Lisle, How do I Know that I Know? – a Response (Part 1)

John Frame's view

... [on] Van Til’s view, the self is the “proximate,” but not the “ultimate” starting point. What this means, I think, is that it is the self which makes its decisions both in thought and practical life: every judgment we make, we make because we, ourselves, think it is right. But this fact does not entail that the self is its own ultimate criterion of truth. We are regularly faced with the decision as to whether we should trust our own unaided judgment, or rely on someone else. There is nothing odd or strange (let alone logically impossible) about such a question; it is entirely normal.

John Frame, Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic

[Ligonier believes], however, that we must, after all, “think about God before we can know him.” And if we are trying to think about God before we know him, then, obviously, at that stage of our inquiry, we cannot presuppose God. We cannot make God our supreme standard until we know that he exists. Therefore we must adopt some other standard, at least “provisionally.”
But this analysis (1) denies the clear teaching of Romans 1 that everyone knows God already (vv. 20, 21 ), (2) posits an exception to 1 Cor 10:31:that when you are just beginning your quest for knowledge, you do not need to think “to the glory of God”; you can justifiably think to the glory of something/someone else. Such notions fall by their own weight. They are intolerable to the Bible-believer.

John Frame, Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic

As we can see, Frame is in agreement as well that there is no issue starting with God because God reveals Himself to all people. Our immediate experience necessitates that we acknowledge our Creator who makes Himself known in and around us. Moreover, the Bible is clear that we ought to think to the glory of God. The unbeliever that rejects this must provide an argument for why it's impossible. If we at once recognise that the unbeliever that levies the argument has himself assumed a worldview that denies that God has revealed Himself, we see that he is begging the question. You either honour God from the outset or you don't.

Vern Poythress' view

God is the absolute standard for all truth. And he makes truth known to human beings through general and special revelation. Christ says that he is “the truth” (John 14:6). ... Let us consider a simple comparison. A perspective is like a window in my living room, looking out on a garden. The garden represents the truth. In using a perspective, I actually encounter, see, and appreciate truth. I look through the perspective at the truth. I really do see the truth—I see the garden. For postmodernist skepticism, on the other hand, a “perspective” is like a rectangular screen that has a picture of a garden on it.
The skeptic thinks there is no way to tell what he is really looking at. Is the picture a picture of the garden behind the screen, seen through a more or less transparent screen? Or is the garden seen through a distorting medium, which has altered its colors and shapes? Or is the picture projected onto the screen by a hidden light source? Or is the picture produced by the screen itself, like a flat-panel TV screen? Or is the picture projected by the mind of the viewer, as in a dream? The fundamental difference between the skeptic and me is that I believe in and know the God described in Scripture. I understand that God has produced the garden and me and the window and their relations to one another, in such a way that all aspects work together to give me the blessing of his presence and the presence of truth that originated from him. I can go to another window and see the same garden. Through a window, I can access truths about the garden and know things about the garden.

Vern Poythress, Knowing and the Trinity

Hence, the immediate starting point is the garden that is being observed, but more fundamental to that is the worldview in which this takes place, which is the ultimate starting point. The belief in the Christian God, although not temporally first, takes pre-eminence over the belief in the garden being observed.

Other examples of proximate and ultimate starting points

Lisle states the following in a previous quote: "Some beliefs are justified after the fact, and 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."

What are some examples that might better illuminate the proximate / ultimate distinction?

  • The Christian's declaration of faith in Jesus Christ: Proximately the declaration is made by the individual, but this can only ultimately happen because of regeneration (regeneration precedes faith). Faith is evidence of regeneration, as a true faith presupposes it.

  • Walking on a wooden floor: Proximately it is the floor keeping the person up, but ultimately it is the beams underneath, or the foundation of the house.

  • A diver on a diving board: Proximately the diver is standing on the tip of the board, but ultimately this is possible because the board is anchored in the ground below.


The Christian metaphysical scheme can be summarised as follows:

The triune God as revealed in nature and Scripture is the Creator of all that is. He contains all the classical attributes as described in the Bible.

He reveals Himself to His creatures by virtue of them being made in the image of God, and in Scripture. They have been created to know, and reflect God's thinking in a finite way. Hence, the objects of their sense perception naturally correspond to the objects "out there" as that is how God created them to function.

The point of the above illustration is bring the point home that this is the nature of reality. This worldview is the ultimate starting point in the reasoning of man. If this worldview is the case, it does not matter if we've used our senses proximately to read the Bible. Immediate experience is ultimately justified.

The temporal / ultimate distinction can be summarised for the Christian and non-Christian as follows:

Temporally the Christian starts with his sense perception (or laws of logic or any other immediate experience) which ultimately has its foundation in the Christian worldview (left picture). The person might not yet be aware of exactly how his sense perception is justified, but that has no effect on the reality of the Christian worldview (external justification). After the person has read the Bible (right picture), he gains a fuller understanding of the Christian metaphysic after which, ultimately, he has a justification for the reliability of senses.

The non-Christian on the other hand also temporarily starts with their sense perception but this will ultimately remain unjustified and prove frustrating to the non-Christian as they attempt to make themselves the ultimate starting point.

Circular reasoning

But isn't everything we've written above simply circular reasoning?

In a sense it is. But is not arbitrary.

For example, the non-believer can presuppose the validity of his or her senses (in an ultimate sense) but this would simply lead to the issues described by the earlier trilemma.

However, if we presuppose the Christian worldview, we are not left with any arbitrariness with regards to the justification of our cognitive faculties. So on the Christian worldview we get a justification for logical reasoning, reliability of senses, reliability of memory etc.

But is the presupposition of the Christian worldview itself not arbitrary (like the unbeliever simply presupposing the reliability of his senses)? There are at least two reasons why it's not:

  1. Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, are brought into submission to the Word of God. This happens not of our own nature, but is a grace shown to us by God who saved us. Hence this presupposition is not simply made out of thin air. Indeed it is only when God has saved the individual that his mind is renewed in order to think correctly about the world around them.

  2. If we do not presuppose the Christian worldview, we lose a foundation for intelligible experience, as discussed above. If we do not presuppose the Christian worldview, there is no justification for the laws of logic, reliability of senses and other preconditions of intelligibility. Hence, we can justify this presupposition by the impossibility of the contrary. To argue against the Christian worldview, you need to assume it in order to make the argument intelligible. This is the impossibility of the contrary.


  • The Christian worldview is the only worldview that can make sense of the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

  • Yes, even though we temporarily / proximately assume our senses work before reading the Bible, does not mean we assume that our senses are our ultimate commitment or that we cannot know what the Bible says. We can know what the Bible says using our proximate experience (senses) because the worldview of the Bible is ultimately true independent of our knowledge of it.

  • God reveals Himself to each of his created analogues, so that embedded in each person is at least part of the Christian metaphysic. We are created to know, hence we can know.

  • If the unbeliever rejects the above demanding that it cannot be the case, he is begging the question against the Christian God's ability to reveal Himself to his creatures in favour of the assumption of man as ultimate. This is self-refuting (as it again assumes the ultimacy of man) and arbitrary.


[1] That is the problem of an egocentric outlook on reality. If you don't start with God, you can't know anything at all. Humans weren't created to function in an autonomous manner. Even in the garden of Eden we were dependent on God's spoken revelation (pre-fall).

[2] Dr Bill Craig answered a reader's question on Plantinga's argument here which I think is further helpful reading if the reader wants to better understand Plantinga's argument. An important point to notice is that Plantinga's argument does not state that naturalism is false, but rather that it cannot be rationally affirmed to be true. This can be levied against the Christian utilising a transcendental argument for the Christian worldview. For instance, just because naturalism is irrational, does not mean it's false. We might be necessitated to think using a Christian conceptual scheme, but that doesn't mean Christianity is actually true. This objection is usually called the Stroudian objection to transcendental arguments (per Barry Stroud). Joshua Pillows wrote an article responding to this objection here.

[3] See Jason Lisle, The Ultimate Proof of Creation where these issues are laid out more completely.

[4] Imagine two children sitting in a classroom. One has a red pencil (child A), and another a blue pencil (child B). Child A pencil sees that their pencil can only write in red. When child B claims that their pencil can actually write in blue and not red, child A scoffs and claim that it's impossible because their pencil can only write in red. In the same way, if the unbeliever has stultified themselves and embraced irrationality, it does not mean that the Christian worldview is itself also irrational. To claim such is to commit the same fallacy as child A. The Christian worldview will need to be refuted on its own internal claims. That's where the beauty of the transcendental argument appears. It argues that unless the Christian worldview is true and God is honoured in our thinking, we cannot know anything or predicate facts. This means that any argument against the Christian worldview itself requires the truth of the Christian worldview to make it intelligible.

This is not some sleight of hand on the part of the Christian. This is the nature of God's created reality. We are dependent on Him for everything, and He in His grace sustains us even when we're sinning and rebelling against Him (for example by denying Him).

[5] Egocentric predicament, a term coined by Ralph Barton Perry in an article (Journal of Philosophy 1910), is the problem of not being able to view reality outside of our own perceptions. All worldly knowledge takes the form of mental representations that our mind examines in different ways.

[6] To be expanded upon in the following sections of the article. Shout-out to Ricky Roldan.

[7] A transcendental argument is an argument that seeks to find the implication of holding a certain belief. TAG (the transcendental argument for the existence of God) argues that to make any experience intelligible, God needs to be presupposed.

[8] This statement might be contested by a few people. Greg Bahnsen argued for it as follows: There can only be one ultimate standard that justifies the preconditions of intelligibility. If there is more than one, we need a "higher" standard by which we can judge the competing sub-ultimate standards. Hence, there can only be one truly ultimate standard. Hence, if Christian justifies the preconditions of intelligibility, it follows that it can be the only worldview that does so.


[11] The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox, pg. 97.


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