[Author’s note: This is a draft of a rejoinder I’m working on and I’d love some feedback on the essay. I particularly would like some feedback on the logical analysis and want to hear what you think of the my analysis of the arguments. Have I gotten the logic correct? What’s missing or incorrect?]
"In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless." – William James
I’ve spent years studying proofs for the existence of God and know all the standard arguments down cold. Arguments proffered in the discipline called “apologetics” range in quality from the outright laughable to the most sophisticated philosophy being written. Over the years, my palate has developed (and hopefully has been refined) so that my choices tend to be oriented towards the more rigorously argued literature in philosophy of religion. The popular material has a role for sure but I typically don’t spend a lot of time with much of it these days. I find that many (certainly not all) apologists writing for a popular audience do not give their arguments with the intent to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. Unfortunately this generally means that the material is weakly argued and consists of loosely strung together evidence designed to form a patina of rationality for believers who probably don’t think apologetics is necessary in the first place.
Recently however a relative of mine posted a link to an article on his Facebook wall that I thought was worth some time. It piqued my interest for a couple of reasons. The author’s stated goal is to establish a proof that will demonstrate with certainty that the claims of the Bible are true. The quest for rational certainty for their faith by fundamentalists is not itself unique. This author, however, believes he has found an ironclad logical argument that fits the bill. That caught my eye.
Further, he attempts to establish this argument by acknowledging that all the standard apologetic arguments ultimately fail to do the job. He is very clear that none of the typical approaches by pastors, apologists, historians, scientists, and theologians to establish the certain truth of the Bible ultimately work—at least they don’t work to convince the skeptic. (That he is interested in convincing the skeptic is in itself noteworthy.) While their arguments are consistent with the Bible being true, they don’t prove it’s truth with certainty which means that even if the arguments are sound, it remains possible that the Bible is false. This isn’t good enough, he claims, and seeks to do better.
He goes one step farther than that. He claims that believing that the Bible is true as an act of faith is a wholly insufficient basis for believing the Bible is certainly true. This is striking because many believers hold that religious belief must be an act of faith if it is to be grounded at all. If a believer cannot offer a proof that the Bible is certainly true, then the believer doesn’t really know that it is. These are not claims you will see very many fundamentalists agreeing to. He also takes a huge gamble. For if his final solution doesn’t work, he has no eggs left in his basket and seems he’s left his reader with nowhere to go.
How Do We Know that the Bible is True?
The article in question, “How Do We Know That the Bible is True?” was written by Dr. Jason Lisle for the fundamentalist apologetics organization “Answers in Genesis”. According to Dr. Lisle’s bio on AiG, “he did graduate work at the University of Colorado where he earned a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Astrophysics.” A quick perusal of his articles for AiG show that he’s interested in using logic to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. He has a “logical fallacies” series on the site and wrote an essay called, “Atheism: An Irrational Worldview” in which he expounds ways in which atheists violate the laws of logic in which he makes such conclusive (if not amusing) claims as “rational reasoning would be impossible with the biblical God.” (one wonders if there are there other kinds of reasoning). This is an apologist who appears to uphold logic as a standard of sound thinking and believes he can establish the truth of Christianity based on it. I dug in because I was anxious to see how Dr. Lisle was going to deliver on his tall order.
Step 1: The Standard Proofs Fail
In the first section of the essay, “Some Typical Answers,” Lisle surveys six different responses to the question, “How do we know if the claims of the Bible are true?”1 all of which he says fail in establishing the knowledge he’s after. Here’s a summary of his claims.
- A subjective standard – this reply alludes to the personal changed life that many believers claim to experience after believing in Jesus. While this is important, says Lisle, “At best, a changed life shows consistency with the Scriptures” but “This does not mean that his position is true.”
- By faith – anyone who makes this claim in response to his question, “is not very logical” and misapplies the Scripture. Faith, for Lisle, is just belief so when someone says they have faith that the Bible is true, they just believe it is and “this answer is totally irrelevant to the question being asked. It is a non-answer.”
- Begging the question – references to the Bible’s claim that the Bible is true is a circular argument and not allowed as an answer to the question at hand. “We need some additional information if we are to escape a vicious circle.”
- Textual consistency and uniqueness – Lisle seems less critical of those who claim that the Bible stands alone among books in its internal consistency and unique accuracy among ancient literature. Still, these truths “do not necessarily prove that the source is true.” It is what we’d expect if the Bible were true but doesn’t prove that it is in fact true.
- External evidence – this line of reasoning involves the use of archeological evidence as a confirmation of Scripture’s truth. Unfortunately, while “archaeology can show consistency with Scripture” it isn’t sufficient to do the job of providing an answer the to question. For archaeology “is not in a position to prove the Bible in any decisive way because archaeology itself is not decisive.”
- Predictive prophecy and divine insight – the success of the Bible’s predictions about the future and scientific claims are used by many apologists as evidence of it’s veracity. But the judgments concerning prophecy and “scientific truths” are human evaluations that are subject to error. So “we are once again in the embarrassing position of attempting to judge what claims to be infallible revelation from God by the questionable standards of men.”
So none of the typical proofs for the Bible’s truth work. He doesn’t deal with any of the standard philosophical arguments but as a person trained in the sciences, I suppose he can be excused the oversight. These 6 claims constitutes a single argument which I will summarize in the following modus tollens. I’ll call this the “standards” argument.
1. If humans can know that the claims of the Bible are true, then any or all of the following must be sufficient to establish that the claims of the Bible are true: subjectivity, faith, self-affirming statements, textual consistency, external evidence, or predictive prophecy
2. It is not the case that subjectivity, faith, self-affirming statements, textual consistency, external evidence, or predictive prophecy are sufficient to establish that the claims of the Bible are true.
3. Therefore it is not the case that humans can know that the claims of the Bible are true.
Step 2: The Standard of Standards
So the standard arguments fail to establish knowledge that the claims of the Bible are true. But all is not lost according to Lisle. He believes he has developed an ironclad logical argument (we’ll call this the “SoS” argument) to save the day for believers. But what’s left? Hasn’t he dismantled every possible proof? The answer, he believes, is found in the laws of logic themselves! By examining the nature of the laws of logic, we discover a proof that yields certain knowledge that the claims of the Bible are true.
His main line of reasoning is as follows. All rational humans know, he claims, that the laws of logic are inviolable. There never has been and never could be any exception to any law of logic.2 We know this, he claims, but how do we know this? The only way we can know this is if the claims of the Bible are true. Outside of Holy Scripture, the inviolability of the laws of logic don’t make any sense. For only if there is an inviolable law giver, can there be any inviolable laws. Since, then, we know with certainty that the laws of logic are inviolable, we also know with certainty that the claims of the Bible are true.
The argument from sufficient condition
There are two ways to read SoS. The first way is to take his argument as a proof that is meant to convince the skeptic that she can know the Bible is true. On this reading, the skeptic comes to the question without belief that the Bible is true and the proof is designed to change her mind. In order to convince the skeptic, Lisle says that we should start with something the skeptic knows, namely that the laws of logic are inviolable. But how can the skeptic makes sense of this? By considering, says Lisle, the Biblical worldview as the explanatory grounds for logical laws.
On this first reading, I think Lisle is asking the unbelieving skeptic to assume the truth of the Bible as a sufficient condition in order to make sense of the inviolability of the laws of logic. He says, “If we consider the biblical worldview, we find that we can make sense of the laws of logic.” He tells us that without the Bible as the explanatory ground for the laws of logic, we would be irrational in believing in their inviolability. Since the skeptic does not yet believe the Bible is true, in order to make sense of logic, she must assume the Biblical worldview is true. Once she’s made this assumption, she will see that the Bible makes sense of the laws of logic and must conclude that the claims of the Bible are true.
Put in the form of a conditional, we could state this premise as: If we accept the claims of the bible as true, then we find that the inviolability of the laws of logic makes sense. Here, the truth of the biblical claims are a sufficient condition for making sense of the laws of logic. The argument would look like this:
4. If we accept that the claims of the Bible are true, then we find that the inviolability of the laws of logic makes sense
5. We accept that the claims of the Bible are true
6. Therefore, we find that the inviolability of the laws of logic makes sense
The obvious problem with this argument is that it was supposed to convince the skeptic that the claims Bible are true but seems to require that the skeptic already believe this in order to accept it. For if the skeptic does not believe that the claims of the Bible are true, then she has no reason to believe that they inform the sensibility of the inviolability of the laws of logic. So the skeptic would not grant premise 5. In order for this argument to convince the skeptic, it would have to look something like this:
4. If we accept that the claims of the Bible are true, then we find that the inviolability of the laws of logic make sense
4'. If we find that the inviolability of the laws of logic make sense then the claims of the Bible are true.
4’’. Therefore if we accept that the claims of the Bible are true, then the claims of the Bible are true.
5. We accept that the claims of the Bible are true
5’. Therefore the claims of the Bible are true
This appears to be clearly question-begging because the argument requires that the skeptic already accept that the claims of the Bible are true in premise 5 in order to then accept the conclusion that the claims of the Bible are true.
The reductio ad absurdum argument
Perhaps this is too quick. Perhaps what Dr. Lisle wants to do is show the skeptic that without the Bible, believing in the inviolability of logic is absurd. He certainly hints at this in his essay. If so, then the following argument may be more of what Lisle is after.
a. We can make sense of the laws of logic without the Bible (assumption)
b. We know that the laws of logic are true everywhere (omnipresent) and at all times (omnitemporal)
c. If something is true everywhere and at all times, it must have been created by something that also is omnipresent and omnitemporal
d. Only the Bible describes a being that is omnipresent and omnitemporal
e. Only the Bible can makes sense of the truth of the laws of logic
f. But this leads to an absurdity (a & e can’t both be true)
g. Therefore, we cannot make sense of the laws of logic without the Bible
Since a reductio essentially is a modus tollens, we can simplify the above argument this way
7. If we can make sense of the laws of logic without the Bible, then there is nothing true about the laws of logic that requires the Biblical God
8. It is not the case that there is nothing true about the laws of logic that requires the Biblical God
9. Therefore it is not the case that we can make sense of the laws of logic without the Bible
If this accurately captures the essence of Dr. Lisle’s argument then what is it that he’s asking the skeptic to accept? The argument pivots on premise 8. Lisle is asking the skeptic to accept the proposition (put positively) that the laws of logic make sense only if the Biblical God exists (the location of the ‘only’ in that proposition is important). In accepting premise 8, the skeptic does not yet believe the claims of the Bible are true. She still has to reason from the premises 7 and 8 to the conclusion in 9. But by accepting premise 8, she already has to have accepted the conclusion logically prior to accepting that premise and that appears to be question begging. If the God of the Bible is to have any explanatory power, then the Bible that describes that God must make true claims and the person who accepts premise 8 must already believe that. Consider an analogous argument.
Let FSM stand for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and GFSM stand for the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
7’. If we can make sense of the laws of logic without the GFSM, then there is nothing true about the laws of logic that requires FSM
8’. It is not the case that there is nothing true about the laws of logic that requires FSM
9’. Therefore it is not the case that we can make sense of the laws of logic without the GFSM
The properties of the laws of logic that Dr. Lisle articulates are entirely consistent with the doctrines of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. A being like the FSM either has or could be described to have enough explanatory power to ground one’s believe in the sensibility of the inviolability of the laws of logic. So does the above argument prove that the laws of logic make sense only on the GFSM? If not, which premise is problematic? I expect Lisle would say that premise 7’ is the troublesome one. What reason do we have to believe that GFSM or FSM itself is worthy of making sense of the laws of logic? And that’s the point. Returning to Lisle’s argument, there would have to be independent grounds that establish the validity of the Biblical God or the Bible itself as a candidate for an argument like this. But, unfortunately, Lisle rejected all of the primary contenders in the first part of his essay.
The argument from necessary condition
There is one additional, more charitable reading of SoS. On this reading, we take it that Dr. Lisle assumes that everyone already knows the Bible is true. He seems to support this idea in the section entitled “We Already Know the God of the Bible.” On this reading, his proof is not intended to convince someone who does not believe that the claims of the Bible are true but only to demonstrate how it is that we all know it. So his proof functions as a sort of confirmation of something we (and of course this includes the skeptic) already know. It is similar to the claim that we don’t need a proof to know that we’re subject to the law of gravity. We all know we are and any scientific proof of gravity’s existence just functions as a confirmation of what we already know. So how do the laws of logic demonstrate that all humans in fact do have certain knowledge that the Bible is true?
We can capture this argument in the following modus ponens:
10. If we know the laws of logic are inviolable, then we know that the claims of the Bible are true
11. We know that the laws of logic are inviolable
12. Therefore, we know that the claims of the Bible are true.
Notice here that the consequent of premise 10 stands as the necessary condition for knowing that the laws of logic are inviolable. If the consequent is false, the antecedent must be false. But the antecedent is true, so the consequent must follow if the conditional as a whole is true (which it must be if Lisle’s argument is to work). Consider an analogous argument:
10’ If a ball dropped from a second story window falls to the ground then gravity is real
11’ A ball dropped from a second story window falls to the ground
12’ Therefore, gravity is real
Does the argument work? In order to answer this question, we have to ask whether our knowledge that the claims of the Bible are true is a necessary condition for our knowledge that the laws of logic are inviolable. Premise 10 is equivalent to: we know the laws of logic are inviolable only if we know that the claims of the Bible are true. But this conditional seems clearly false. There are other conditions on which we could know that the laws of logic are true and many people in fact believe those conditions hold rather than Lisle’s. One condition would be that we know that the claims of the Koran are true. The laws of logic being inviolable are entirely consistent with the Koran being true (or more specifically that a law giver like the one described in the Koran exists). The laws are also consistent with a well-articulated version of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or even a well-structured but non-theistic universe. While inviolable logical laws may imply an intelligence when interpreted in such a way as to inculcate their description with anthropomorphic meaning (as Lisle does with the term “law” and “lawgiver”), they don’t necessarily do so. At least if they do, that can’t be established by the fact that we know they are inviolable.3
So in order for our knowledge that the claims of the Bible are true to function as a necessary condition for the antecedent in premise 10, we need another argument. We would first have to know that only the Bible can function as the explanatory ground for the inviolability of the laws of logic and that nothing else can do the trick. But this seems like a very difficult argument to make and Lisle seems to have dismissed all the potential candidates in the first part of his paper.
Somewhat ironically, there seems to be an argument along the same rough logical lines as Lisle’s that the apologists at AiG exist to discredit. Consider the following:
h. If we know humans share morphology with other biological species, then we know that the claims of evolutionary theory are true
i. We know that humans share morphology with other biological species
j. Therefore, we know that the claims of evolutionary theory are true
This argument has the same logical structure as Lisle’s: it starts with something we all would agree to and attempts to reason to something we ostensibly believe but would not agree to. Yet I expect that the apologists at AiG would demur. They probably would claim that a necessary condition of morphological verisimilitude is not that evolutionary theory is correct. For there are other competing candidates that have as much explanatory power and to assume that there is only one candidate is question begging. Again, this is precisely what is wrong with Lisle’s argument.
The only way, then, to salvage Dr. Lisle’s argument is to assume the following: we know that only the truth of the claims of the Bible can function as the explanatory ground for our knowledge of the inviolability of the laws of logic. But notice now that this assumption cannot be demonstrated by our knowledge that the laws of logic are true for the reason cited above. It has to be an assumption that is established on other grounds. And this is exactly what Dr. Lisle recommends.
He says that in order for his argument to work, we must “accept the Bible as true” otherwise we are without a foundation for accepting that the laws of logic are true. A charitable reading would be that he is claiming that we must accept that “that the claims of the Bible and only the claims of the Bible are true” with regards to explanatory power for explaining the inviolability of the laws of logic. But as I stated above, once we’ve accepted this, the argument begs the question. For the argument was meant to prove that we accept the claims of the Bible as true. If we first have to already agree that we accept that proposition in order to establish that we accept it, we appear in the middle of a petitio.
Lisle has an additional argument about the scientific standards that runs along the same general logical structure as the one above. That argument is less interesting to me (and seems to me to be even less successful as the one above) and since it has the same general structure, the analysis above should apply to this argument as well.
A basket without eggs?
So where does this leave things? Dr. Lisle appears to believe that this second argument is what is needed to establish with logical certainty that we know that the Bible is true. He believes we need this argument because none of arguments of the traditional apologetic work. I’ve tried to show that there are significant problems with Dr. Lisle’s SoS argument. Since Lisle has convincingly argued that none of the standard proofs work and if my rejoinder to his proof stands, then there are not a lot of options for Dr. Lisle. In a sense, he has provided a proof that it is not possible to know with certainty that the Bible is true. I don’t think that’s what he was after.
Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News Service
1. Throughout the essay, I will switch between the epistemological version of this claim (we know that the Bible is true) and the ontological claim (the Bible is true). This is not a trivial distinction and it could be that Lisle’s entire argument hangs on making this distinction. I don’t believe Lisle is clear on what he’s after as he seems to use the two propositions interchangeably. I do think that he probably is more interested in the epistemological claim but believes it rests on the ontological claim. Still, I acknowledge that the distinctions aren’t all that clear but will generally take it that Lisle is focusing on the former.
2. These claims are highly disputed and much of what Dr. Lisle seems to take for granted are not easily grantable. But we can grant them for the sake of argument.
3. Plato’s forms or Kant’s noumena can be an explanatory ground for the laws of logic and while both can be understood in terms of a deity, it’s not necessary that they are. As Roger Trigg explains, “Indeed, although there may be structural similarities between Kant’s treatment of rationality and Plato’s doctrine of Forms, the latter is intended to be firmly grounded in the way things are. Kant is dealing with the conditions necessary for the possibility of human reasoning. There is a great deal of difference between questions about existence and issues about how far we can know and describe things. Language has to be grounded in something beyond itself, and we cannot know without knowing something. Existence is in one sense its own explanation. That something exists can be accepted as a brute fact. Even if the meaning and purpose behind existence is attributed to God, arguments for the existence of God can start by taking the existence of some things at face value. We do not need to know whether God exists before we accept die fact of the existence of the world around us.” (Roger Trigg, Rationality and Science: Can Science Explain Everything? (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) pp. 114-115)