This is a guest post written By David Pallmann.
A number of years ago, Christian astrophysicist and young earth creationist Dr. Jason Lisle wrote a book entitled The Ultimate Proof of Creation (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009). The book is a creative introduction to presuppositional apologetics (hereafter PA) but from the perspective of the debate over origins. The aim of the book is to provide a defense of the the Christian faith that is irrefutable.
While this book review will be largely negative, let me take some time to give praise where it is due. I will just note two commendable features of the book. In the first place, the book is extremely clearly and lucidly written. This gives the book a distinct advantage over many other books on PA in that it provides an account of PA which will be accessible to a much wider audience. In the second place, throughout the book, Lisle asks penetrating and important questions. The foundation of knowledge is a crucial topic that all thoughtful people ought to examine. And though I think Lisle’s answers to these questions are ultimately bankrupt, his book will serve to make his readers ask them. If a book accomplishes this then it is worth reading.
In providing a review of the book, I shall attempt to maintain a spirit of charity towards Lisle as a brother in Christ. My criticisms will be pointed and strong but my harsh words are aimed towards Lisle’s ideas – not towards him. For the sake of brevity, I shall attempt to restrict myself to critiquing the main thesis of each chapter of the book; only pursuing tertiary issues if I feel that it is absolutely necessary.
In chapter 1, Lisle lays out numerous lines of scientific evidence for a creationist understanding of the world. He does this not to persuade people that creationism is true, but rather to contrast this method of argumentation with the one he plans to use in the book. I shall refrain from commenting on whether or not his scientific arguments are successful since that is not Lisle’s primary concern.
Near the end of the chapter, Lisle brings up the issue of worldviews. Unfortunately, Lisle appears to be operating on an unusual definition of the word. By “worldview” he appears to mean any belief that a person holds strongly (pg. 68). But this is a problematic definition because no two people hold the exact same set of beliefs. Indeed, the history of Christian theology is littered with examples of strong disagreements. Thus, it makes no sense to speak of “the Christian worldview” using Lisle’s definition.
He then proceeds to argue that everyone has a worldview and that they are unavoidable. One’s worldview, according to Lisle, determines how one interprets evidence. He compares a worldview to colored glasses which change how a person sees the world. For Lisle, there is no way to be neutral. His denial of the possibility of objectivity is extremely problematic and leads to problems later on as we shall see.
In the second chapter, Lisle sets the stage for his central argument. He begins by creating a false dichotomy between Christianity and evolution (as though these were the only two worldviews). He then examines whether or not there is any possibility of neutrality. Lisle argues that neutrality is impossible; escaping worldviews simply cannot be done. This is where Lisle’s definition of “worldview” becomes highly problematic. He says that neutrality is impossible because it is also a belief. Lisle is right that beliefs are inescapable. But this does not mean an entire superstructure of interconnected beliefs (a worldview) is inescapable. And it certainly does not mean that one cannot compare his own worldview to another in order to see if it is more rational. Of course one can never be free from desires and influences. But this is not what I mean by “neutral.” By “neutral,” I simply mean that one has the ability to change their mind and believe something different or that they can withhold judgment altogether. Ironically enough, by arguing against the possibility of neutral ground, Lisle implicitly assumes that those of us who do believe that some level of neutrality is possible can come to agree with him. Thus, Lisle appears to be acting inconsistently with his own view. If no level of neutrality were possible, none of us could come to agree with Lisle.
Lisle’s solution to the origins debate is to compare worldviews and see which one can satisfy two criterion. 1) Maintaining logical consistency and 2) accounting for the preconditions of intelligibility. The former criteria means that a worldview must not be internally contradictory and I do not find this criteria objectionable. Internal consistency is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for justification. The second criteria appears to refer to giving an explanation for things such as memory, morality, logic, and the uniformity of nature. It is not at all clear to me why a worldview needs an explanation for these things. We may simply not know the answer to why logical laws, for example, are always true. We may simply have to conclude that we do not know why everything conforms with logical laws. But whatever we do, surely it is inadvisable to concoct an explanation just for the sake of having one. Apparently withholding judgment just isn’t an option for Lisle.
Near the end of the chapter, Lisle addresses this suggestion that we could simply withhold judgment on some of these issues. He argues that this would be arbitrary since we require explanations for other beliefs (pg. 41). However, my suggestion is not that there is no explanation. My suggestion is that we do not need to know the explanation. We can withhold judgment until more evidence comes to light. It may well be that there is no need for a further explanation on some of these things. After all, explanations cannot go on forever. Justification must terminate at some point. But we shall explore this more when discussing chapter 3.
After building this framework, Lisle finally offers his ultimate proof: “If biblical creation were not true, we could not know anything” (pg. 40). Anyone who is familiar with how philosophical argument work should immediately see a problem. Lisle hasn’t given an argument at all (let alone a proof!). He has simply stated his opinion. Perhaps his opinion is correct. But there’s no way to know it from what he’s told us so far.
In chapter 3, we find Lisle’s explanation and defense of the “ultimate proof.” Because he regards this as the heart of the book, my thoughts on it will be lengthier. Following off of the groundwork he laid in the first two chapters, Lisle argues that only the Christian worldview can satisfy the “preconditions of intelligibility.” He uses three examples to illustrate his “ultimate proof.”
Unfortunately, Lisle is not altogether clear on what he means by satisfying or accounting for these preconditions. Indeed, he gives very little by way of argument for why we even need to be able to give such an account. Certainly such an account would be desirable if true. But Lisle never establishes that such an account is actually necessary.
Granting, for the sake of argument, that it is true that some account is required for these things, let us examine Lisle’s three examples and see if the Christian worldview alone can explain them. His first example is absolute morality. He claims that the “evolutionary worldview” cannot explain the reality of absolute morality. Lisle does not give any serious argumentation for the truth of this claim. He certainly does not engage with the arguments from leading atheist ethicists which purport to give naturalistic accounts of objective morality. I understand that this may go beyond the purview of his book. But the fact remains that Lisle has not actually given the reader any reason to accept his claim that atheists cannot have absolute morality.
But let us grant Lisle’s supposition that atheism is incompatible with absolute morality. Let us suppose that theism is required to account for morality. Does this imply that Christianity is true? Absolutely not. There are any number of alternative theistic worldviews. Lisle must eliminate all of these before claiming that only Christianity explains absolute morality.
Leaving this issue aside for the moment, can Lisle even justify his claim that only Christianity makes sense of absolute morality? It seems that he cannot. He spends several pages arguing that if morality is simply a matter of preference or majority opinion, then it is not absolute. But after this, he makes the puzzling claim that Christianity accounts for absolute morality because “since God created human beings, He determines what it is to be considered right and wrong” (pg. 51). But hang on, doesn’t Lisle’s account make morality simply a matter of God’s opinion? If morality is nothing more than “Because God said so” then we are still lacking an account of opinion-free absolute morality. This is a well-known problem called the Euthyphro dilemma. His own worldview cannot give an account of absolute morality. Thus, by his own criterion, his own worldview cannot satisfy one of the preconditions for intelligibility.
Lisle’s second example comes from the laws of logic. He argues that only the Christian worldview can make sense of why these laws are always true. Lisle begins by explaining why logic would be true within the Christian worldview. His answer is that God is logical and that our thinking is designed to mirror God’s. This statement is not objectionable as far as it goes, but it has little relevance to the original question. If the question is, Why are the laws of logic true?, then simply pointing out that they would be true if God exists does not give an answer to the question. If the answer to the question is because God exists, then we may ask Lisle why God exists? He would likely reply that God necessarily exists without a further explanation. Such an answer is entirely fair, but if it works for God, why shouldn’t it work for the laws of logic? In other words, if God exists necessarily without further explanation, why can’t the atheist simply say that logic exists necessarily without further explanation? Moreover, it is entirely open to the atheist to adopt a nominalist view of logic according to which logical laws merely describe reality as opposed to being actual transcendent truths.
Lisle proceeds to critique some naturalistic explanations for why logic might be true. For the most part, I do not disagree with his conclusions that these explanations are inadequate. However, he does try to address the account I have suggested above, namely that the atheist may simply say that logic describes reality without further explanation. He offers three arguments against this account.
First, he claims that logic describes chains of reasoning rather than aspects of the universe. This statement is baffling. In the first place, it is question begging against the account of logic that I have suggested. Lisle cannot merely claim logic is not descriptive for this is what we are disputing. He must demonstrate this claim. Second, he commits a blatant either/or fallacy. Why can logic not describe chains of reasoning and aspects of the universe? Just a few pages earlier, Lisle illustrated the law of non-contradiction by using the example of his car being unable to be both in the garage and not in the garage at the same time (pg. 51). But is this not an example of logic describing an aspect of the universe? Thus, Lisle’s response not only commits two fallacies, but it also contradicts his own example.
Second, he argues that if the laws of logic were descriptions of reality, then they might behave differently. However, because nature always acts in accordance with them, they cannot be merely descriptive. Once again, Lisle’s reasoning is profoundly fallacious. In the first place, Lisle doesn’t give an argument for why we should expect physical reality to act differently. And in any case, his point is rather insignificant. If we ever discover something that doesn’t act in accordance with the laws of logic, then we will simply drop the idea that they are absolute. Until then, we have a working hypothesis. In the second place, there are discoveries from new advances in quantum mechanics which many do use to argue against the idea that the laws of logic are absolute. I am not saying that such arguments are necessarily successful, but Lisle cannot simply assert that nature always acts in accordance with the laws of logic without addressing this obvious challenge. In the third place, Lisle once again contradicts himself. On the previous page, he argued that experience alone could not tell us if the laws of logic were always true because our experience is limited (pg. 52). For the record, I agree with Lisle on this point. We can only ever say for sure that logic is true in our experience. But this observation undercuts the argument that he is making against a descriptive account of logic. Lisle simply cannot have it both ways. If our experience is too limited to tell us that the laws of logic are always true, it is too limited for Lisle to appeal to it as an argument for why logic is always true.
Third, Lisle argues that this view of logic creates uncertainty regarding the truths of logical laws in the future. He points out that since nature can change, the laws of logic would have to as well. First, Lisle’s conclusion does not follow. Just because nature changes, this does not mean that logic would have to change. At best, Lisle has only show that this a possibility. We could point out that although some parts of nature do change, there are other parts that do not. Principally there is no reason we could not theorize that the laws of logic are one feature that will not change. More fundamentally, we may simply grant Lisle’s conclusion that possibly logic could change and nothing of significance follows. Possibilities are not probabilities. The mere fact that your house could burn down tomorrow does not mean that it will. So until the laws of logic change, Lisle’s argument is nothing more than an interesting hypothetical. But in no case does it do anything to prove that the descriptive account of the laws of logic as descriptions of reality fails.
In the next section, Lisle finally addresses the question of other religions. However, his treatment is unsatisfactory. He only deals with two alternatives to Christianity: Mormonism and Islam. He argues that it is impossible for multiple Gods (as in Mormonism) to account for one set of logical laws. Assuming logic must have its origin in God or a god (something I have already argued is false), Lisle’s argument might work against Mormonism. However, he goes on to claim that this refutes all forms of polytheism. This is not necessarily true since some forms of polytheism accept a supreme god among others.
After critiquing Mormonism, he considers Islam and argues that certain teachings in the Quaran make Allah an insufficient explanation for logical laws. This is all well and good, but has it escaped Lisle’s notice that Islam and Mormonism are not the only other theistic options? Has Lisle really examined each and every variation of theism in its most robust form? I, for one, doubt it. And if he has not, then Lisle cannot really claim that only Christianity accounts for the preconditions of intelligibility for this claim goes beyond Lisle’s own knowledge.
Lisle’s third and final example is the uniformity of nature. He argues that Christianity can make sense of the regularity in nature that is so essential for science because it is expected if God created the universe in an orderly way. Again, I draw the reader’s attention to the fact that any theistic worldview can give the same answer, so Lisle is not giving an argument specifically for Christianity. But does it even work against atheism? I think not.
Most of our knowledge is probabilistic rather than certain. So it is true that we cannot know for certain that the future will be like the past. But it’s not clear that this is a problem. Based on all of our experience, nature acts in a certain way. It is therefore most probable that it will continue to act in this way. Could we be wrong? Absolutely. But until we have a reason to think that we are, Lisle’s argument is nothing more than an interesting speculation.
It is also worth pointing out that appealing to God cannot guarantee that the future will be like the past. Why? Because the God who made the world is free to change how it operates at any time He likes. Lisle certainly cannot prove that God will not change the operation of nature in the future. Perhaps he would respond by saying that God promises not to do that in Scripture. But this assumes that God cannot lie. And Lisle’s only justification for believing God cannot lie comes from (you guessed it) the Bible. But now we see obvious circularity. To use God’s words to prove that God cannot lie assumes the very thing you are meant to prove. If God were lying, then the mere fact that He says that He won’t lie doesn’t count for anything. Like it or not, Lisle is stuck with the same uncertainty about the future as any of us unless he can give a positive reason to believe the Bible.
In chapter 4, Lisle begins explaining how his argument might be applied to evolutionists. The chapter opens with a discussion about the respective presuppositions that a creationist and an evolutionist both hold. Lisle correctly defines a presupposition as being “assumed at the outset, before any investigation of evidence” (pg. 68). However he then incorrectly jumps to the conclusion that presuppositions are necessary in order to reason. He gives the laws of logic as an example saying that they must be presupposed in order to reason. But this is simply not the case. Perhaps Lisle just assumes that logic is true, but there’s no reason that the rest of us must follow him in this. We can offer an inductive argument for the truth of the laws of logic according to which I recognize that they are true about every item of knowledge in my possession. This argument has the benefit of not begging the question against anyone who is skeptical regarding logic. It only asks them to provide an example of something to which the laws of logic do not apply. If no example is forthcoming, then we can say that logic is always true with the same level of confidence with which we can say water is always wet. Consequently, we need not simply assume that the laws of logic are true without justification. Rather, we know that they are true of every item of knowledge in our possession.
Lisle’s unjustified claim that we are unable to detach ourselves from presuppositions and, indeed, that such presuppositions are necessary for reasoning in the first place sets chapter 4 off to a bad start. By framing the debate in terms of presuppositions rather than evidence, Lisle’s entire case depends on a fundamentally flawed understanding of how one ought to argue. The rest of the chapter is essentially a guide for pointing out faulty presuppositions within the atheist worldview. This part of the book is helpful since bad presuppositions ought to be identified and eliminated. However, towards the end of the chapter, Lisle begins guiding the reader in how to show that the Christian worldview can account for our most fundamental presuppositions. In my comments on chapter 3, I believe I have shown that Lisle failed to establish this conclusion. Hence, I will not discuss it here.
Chapter 5 is dedicated towards further equipping readers to effectively utilize the argument. Initially there is not much new content in this chapter since it is simply a strategy for using Lisle’s argument. I shall not offer any comments on Lisle’s strategy since the strategy is needless if the argument is flawed to begin with.
However, in this chapter, Lisle does expand upon his criterion of preconditions for intelligibility. He gives three more examples in addition to those discussed in chapter 3. These are 1) sense perception, 2) memory, and 3) dignity and freedom. My response to 1) and 2) will be similar so I will address them together.
Lisle begins by giving common skeptical arguments. He points out that we really have no way of proving the reliability of our sense perception or memory. In all of this, of course, he is quite right. No one is really able to prove the reality of an external world or that false memories weren’t programmed into their head. So far, so good. Then Lisle makes the absurd claim that presupposing the truth of Scripture gives justification for believing in the external world. But this is nonsense. Has Lisle forgotten that the Bible itself is a part of the external world and that he too must presuppose the reliability of his senses in order to read or interpret it? But if the reliability of sense perception is required to even read the Bible, then the Bible cannot be used to justify the belief that sense perception is reliable. Lisle correctly points out that using sense perception and memory to justify themselves is circular. But he seems woefully unaware that he is also doing this with one additional step. Instead of inferring the reliability of sense perception from sense perception, Lisle infers the reliability of sense perception from the Bible – which he read through sense perception.
I have no new solution to external world skepticism to present here. Indeed, I consider it one of the hardest problems in all philosophy. But the crucial point is that Lisle doesn’t have a solution either. His proposal is just a circular as the ones he criticizes.
Finally, Lisle argues that only the Christian worldview can make sense of human freedom and dignity. I can agree with Lisle that freedom and dignity seem difficult to explain given atheism. But this does not mean that it is impossible for them to exist under atheism. It simply means that there is presently no atheistic explanation. Perhaps one will be found someday. But in any case, this is not a conclusive proof of the Christian worldview. And, once again, Lisle overlooks the fact that any other theistic worldview can make the same argument. So Christianity has not been proven.
Chapter 6 revisits the use of evidence in argument. Lisle argues that Christians should not be opposed to the use of evidence but that they must continually reemphasize that using it only makes sense if Christianity is true. This claim depends on the arguments given up until this point and I believe I have shown that they do not hold up.
In chapters 7 and 8, Lisle gives a quite helpful introduction to logical thinking and logical fallacies. These chapters are actually quite clear and helpful. I found them to be the best in the book. One can only hope that astute readers of Lisle’s book will notice that he himself commits many of these fallacies throughout the book (sometimes by his own admission). But since these chapters do not have direct bearing on Lisle’s main thesis, I shall not offer further comments.
Chapter 9 is dedicated to answering questions and objections to the argument. Lisle begins by arguing that an ultimate standard is absolutely necessary. I must admit that I have never much liked speaking in terms of “standards” since this sort of language smacks of authoritarian epistemology. However, I believe that Lisle’s basic point is correct. A primary source of knowledge is absolutely essential. Still, I believe he is wrong in taking this primary source to be Scripture. Lisle argues that the primary source of knowledge must be self-attesting since to infer it from something else would mean that there is a more foundational source of knowledge. He is close to the mark here. Whatever the most foundational source of knowledge is must have its own justification built into it. But it cannot be self-attesting in the sense that it is true just because it claims to be. This is obviously circular. Lisle is all too well aware of this fact and he turns to defend his self-attesting source of knowledge against the charge of circularity.
Lisle makes two surprising claims about circular reasoning. First, he claims that it is unavoidable and second he claims that it is not necessarily fallacious. But Lisle is wrong about the first claim, and the second turns out to be rather trivial.
Regarding the first claim, if it were true that circular reasoning was unavoidable then we may as well abandon the project of epistemology. Since circular reasoning can provide justification for literally anything, there would no longer be any reason to show that some beliefs are justified and others are not. Fortunately, the situation is not so bleak. Our primary sources of knowledge are reason and our senses. We are given beliefs through experience or the mind grasps them a priori. There is nothing circular about them because they do not depend on themselves being true for their justification. They are simply given to us, and known to be true. Granted we are not able to prove them to other people. But such is the nature of knowledge. The fact that we cannot prove them publicly does not diminish the fact that we know them or that we are justified in believing them. Crucially, they are not in any way circular. So Lisle’s first claim is simply not true. We are not in bondage to circular reasoning as he would have us believe.
Regarding the second claim, Lisle says that a circular argument can be valid. Technically this is true in the sense that a circular argument can be formally valid. The conclusion of an argument may still follow logically even if it is identical to one of the premises. This is why begging the question is considered an informal logical fallacy. The problem is that circular reasoning constitutes no positive gain in knowledge for it begins with the same set of data with which it concludes. Thus, Lisle’s point that it is not necessarily fallacious is rather trivial. Even if circular reasoning is not formally invalid, the point remains that it does not actually get you anywhere. Lisle still has to face the problem that his argument is not yielding any positive gain in knowledge. As such it is useless. We are still left without any reason for thinking that the conclusion is true.
The tenth and final chapter is dedicated to critiquing an evidentialist apologetic methodology. He claims that evidentialism “simply does not stand up to rational scrutiny” (pg. 157). This is a strong indictment, but his supporting argument is embarrassingly weak. He claims that people can always reinterpret evidence in light of their own worldview and therefore evidence alone is insufficient. But this assumes that every worldview is compatible with any and all evidence. Yet this is manifestly untrue. If, for example, one comes to believe that the evidence supports Jesus having resurrected from the dead, this is not compatible with a worldview which states that dead people do not come back to life. This cannot simply be reinterpreted in light of a naturalistic worldview. Lisle might reply by saying that someone with a naturalistic worldview will simply prefer an alternative explanation of the evidence. But other interpretations of the evidence for Christ’s resurrection cannot explain all of the evidence. Thus, skeptics of the resurrection are forced to imagine other factors and explanations into the equation which themselves lack evidence.
Moreover, Lisle ignores the fact that there are carefully chosen criteria for what constitutes a good interpretation of evidence. Perhaps skeptics can think of an alternative to Christ’s resurrection that accounts for all the data but that also requires us to accept other unsubstantiated claims (e.g. Jesus’ body was stolen, Paul felt guilty, etc.). In this case, the hypothesis is unnecessarily complicated and is therefore not as good as the resurrection hypothesis. Lisle is either unaware of these criteria, or else deliberately ignores them. But the bottom line is that Lisle’s presentation of evidentialism is shallow and as such his critique of it fails.
After attempting to demonstrate the inadequacy of evidentialism, Lisle proceeds to make a case that Scripture itself teaches PA. His first example is Jesus using Scripture to rebuke Satan when Satan tempted Him. However, this example does little to support Lisle’s case. Jesus was not trying to convince Satan of the truth of Scripture. Satan already knew it was true (James 2:19). As such, this example is of little help when determining how we should engage with those who do not believe in the truth of Scripture. In fact, Scripture contains no examples of anyone engaging with an atheist at all.
Much more could be said about the book. But I believe that what I have said here is sufficient to show that the central argument of Lisle’s book fails. It is simply not true that only the Christian worldview can account for the so-called preconditions of intelligibility. Consequently, I strongly urge Christians to move away from this method of argumentation. It may sound sophisticated and it may even seem irrefutable due to the fact that most atheists lack the philosophical training necessary to identify the flaws in it. I believe that these are the main reasons that the presuppositional method has attracted so many followers. But the argument is not sound. I realize that this may be disheartening to many Christians. I encourage anyone who feels this way to look into the evidence for the Christian faith. You may be happily surprised by how strong it is. Yes, it requires more work and study than the PA argument. But it is also a much firmer foundation that can stand up to skeptical scrutiny.
David Pallmann is a student at Trinity Theological Seminary and runs the YouTube apologetics ministry Faith Because of Reason. He is a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians and has debated against Calvinists and atheists numerous times. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “Answering Calvinism”.