I stated in my last post that Phillips’ (and TGC's) support of a coherence theory of truth is evident in his rejection of public or universal truth. I said that the “for believers only” approach to the truth of the gospel means that the gospel is a kind of private or exclusive truth, received only by those who have already accepted or been initiated into Christian beliefs, which is to say, the appropriate biblical beliefs concerning (as Phillips says) “God, mankind, sin, salvation, and more.” My claim is that this is a Christian form of relativism. What may not be evident to those unfamiliar with modern philosophy is how Phillips’ denial of a common ground for truth between believers and unbelievers pertains to the problems raised by that philosophy.
If there is a mind-body dualism, as the modern philosophers in the succession of Descartes through Kant believed, then reality, for all we know, may exist but cannot be known as it actually is. Kant puts it this way: we can know how things appear to us but we can’t know the way things really are. (He called the former, “phenomena,” and the latter, “noumena.”) This is just another way of claiming that the mind puts its own unique spin or construction on what is out there in reality; hence, we cannot know, reliably or verifiably, objective truth itself. Subsequently, the focus for knowing becomes: what are the subjective conditions by which we know things? In other words, how we look at things—not the things themselves—is everything for knowledge. Which is to say, truth is relative to the way one looks at things. If we accept that, we are in famous company, as all the philosophers in the modern, subjectivist tradition from Descartes to Kant would have agreed with that statement.
But more importantly for the present discussion, in his own treatment of truth, Phillips himself (or TGC he represents) apparently agrees with that much of what the modern philosophers believed about knowledge. To be sure, he certainly does not accept what they recommend in other ways, such as, an autonomous use of reason, God-rejecting independence, jettisoning of biblical authority, or any thing of that sort. What Phillips does accept from this epistemology, however, is the view that knowledge is non-verifiable by external reality itself and is, therefore, a matter of one’s perspective. It is just that, as Phillips presents things, the Christian view, as biblical and given to people by the Spirit through regeneration, provides the appropriate subjective conditions for knowing objective truth. Importantly, this means that what we as Christians know as phenomenal (the way things appear) is indeed noumenal (the way things actually are) because God (who knows everything) has made the noumenal known to us by the Spirit and through Scripture. That is, God comes to the rescue for the epistemological problem the modern philosophers have created. By the Spirit’s renewing power we understand Scripture and believe in Christ and so are given divine, subjective conditions for knowing. When we present the gospel to unbelievers, therefore, we must present unbelievers with these conditions (the tenets of Christian belief) so they may also know that Jesus is Lord. And without these conditions, any presentation of the gospel to unbelievers is neither Christ-honoring nor meaningful in any sense.
Hence, Phillips (whether wittingly or not) agrees with this basic problem modern philosophers propose, namely, that we cannot know objective truth. He also agrees with them, as another way of expressing the latter, that there is no universal truth verifiably accessible to everyone. Or, again, the same belief is reflected in Phillips’ view that there is no common ground for objective truth (including the truth that Jesus is Lord) between a believer and an unbeliever. So again, and as far as I can see, Phillips (or TGC) is putting a Christian spin on—using Scripture and the gospel to remedy—a modern, theoretical problem for knowing.
But are the modern philosophers right about this problem itself? I will not get into an extended, technical discussion here on this question. Philosophers, especially in the twentieth century, have debated it extensively. My intent, instead, is to analyze how prior conditions for knowing (or the things we presuppose) actually work in our experience. For instance, when conversing with those who have conflated Christianity/Reformed theology with philosophy in the manner I have been highlighting, what one hears is generally not so much the bold claim, “there is no universal truth,” but, rather, something that actually means the same thing, namely, “there are no brute facts.” Or, as Nietzsche says: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But is this not just another way of claiming that subjective interpretation makes reality what it is to us for understanding? That there is no way to get outside our minds to verify such interpretations? And is not the self-defeating nature of this kind of thinking evident? That is, when one says, “there are no brute facts,” is that a brute fact? Or, with Nietzsche’s version of this view, when he says, “there are no facts, only interpretations,” is that an interpretation? The point is that just as the theory that says we cannot know reality contradicts itself when it proposes how reality is for knowing, statements like this contradict themselves because, for the most part, they are not meant to be understood as merely subjective or ungrounded in reality. If the latter were true, they would lose their implied dogmatic force.
However, there are (in an important sense) brute or neutral facts—things that are non-negotiably the same as knowledge for everyone. What I mean is that language does not function merely as interpretive or constructive (in a modern or idealistic sense) but also as indicative or classificatory (in a realistic sense). That is, we use language to name or point to things themselves (especially, as they are in themselves) apart from any special or particular way of looking at them. Perhaps an illlustration may help. I once stood before a philosophy class and asked, “How much of this lectern is negotiable for reality?” One of our esteemed philosophy majors responded, “All of it.” Of course, what he meant by that is that we do not have immediate, direct access to what the “thing itself” called a lectern actually is and that what we do have direct access to is the way we think about it. And, no doubt, there are other possible uses or interpretations of a lectern, such as, something to break a window in an emergency. After admitting this, I asked my class: “Is the material this lectern is made of negotiable for reality?” The student who had said, “All of it,” remained silent, as others said, “No.” “Is the weight of this lectern,” I continued, “under these present conditions negotiable for reality?” Again, students responded in the negative. Then I asked, “Is the length and width of this lectern negotiable for reality?” And, again, they said, “No.” Then I asked a different kind of question: “If we were able to line up a group of people in single file—people of different rationalities, presuppositions, and perspectives on religion and life, etc.—and they were to walk one by one vigorously and straight into this lectern, would they feel substantially the same thing?” Several said, “Yes.”
What I am getting at is that whatever our presuppositions, we do encounter things—know them in a certain sense—that at times do not fit our presuppositions. And we know them the same no matter what our presuppositions. Put differently, the way we know things is not so determined by what we presuppose that we cannot know things which conflict with or stand outside what we presuppose.
The presuppositional aspect of knowledge, therefore, is just another way of speaking of how much importance we believe the mind has for knowing reality. If we believe that reality itself is not knowable and that the mind completely determines or interprets the version of reality we have—especially if that version cannot be verified against reality itself—then we are what might be called “hard presuppositionalists.” In the days of the modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant, this kind of epistemology was simply called (as I’ve been calling it) “idealism.” But later this theory was so popular with philosophers that, perhaps for the sake of respectability, it was renamed as “representative” (or “indirect”) realism. “Idealism,” on the other hand, tended as a classification to be limited to the kind of metaphysical position one observes in philosophers like Berkeley who held that only the mind and its ideas—not matter and the non-mental world—are actually real. However, the word, “idealism,” though generally out of favor with philosophers in our time, is quite helpful in understanding more clearly and precisely just what is at stake and where the locus for knowing has shifted with this particular theory of knowing. What it indicates is that the mind is primary for knowing—not external reality itself. In other words, knowledge is more subjective than objective—more about how the mind uniquely interprets things than the way they actually are. And when, through such subjectivity, any objectivity or foundational support is claimed for knowledge (and the moderns certainly made such claims, even defined themselves by that quest) this must not be confused with what one would ordinarily mean by such terms when employing them in a correspondence, naive, or common sense manner.
“Hard presuppositionalism,” then, as I define it, begins, at least to this extent, with what the modern philosophers themselves held concerning knowledge. With the help of Reformed theology, then, to recast these modern problems for knowing as the effects of finitude or sin, which, in turn, are ultimately remedied by the gospel of Christ does not actually change the fact that the problems themselves are artificial, speculative, and at best questionable. If neither Scripture nor experience shows that being finite or sinful means we have the kind of problems for knowing that modern philosophers say we have, then wouldn’t we expect the result to be that our attempt to deal with philosophy—not by ignoring or rejecting it as Christ and the apostles did—but by unassumingly and quietly adopting certain of its tenets in this manner (that is, integrating its basic methodological assumptions with the Christian faith) would result in some imbalance (such as, an over emphasis on our inability as humans to know), some harmful prescription (such as, a non-reasoned, non-proclaimed gospel which leaves unbelievers without the divinely appointed reasons or the earnestness of preaching appropriate to that gospel), and some conflict with Scripture (such as, the many examples in Acts of people with the wrong presuppositions being, nonetheless, reasoned with and preached to by the apostles)?
To deny “hard presuppositionalism” is not to deny that presuppositions have an important role for how we know things. The issue here is how much importance is placed on the mind for knowing. Does the mind entirely or necessarily determine reality as we know it? Or does a reliably knowable external reality itself (what the mind can only passively recognize) have a role to play? “Hard presuppositionalism” holds that the mind determines reality completely (not non-mental, external reality itself), and in its Christian or Reformed version, as I’ve been saying, holds that those who are regenerate in Christ have through Scripture the mind of Christ as God’s own interpretation of reality.
However, as appealing or spiritual as this may seem, Scripture does not teach it. Instead, both Scripture and what we know from experience demonstrate that God has equipped us by virtue of being made in his image so that we can know things in general. That is, our own minds give us the ability to know everyday things like whether or not it is raining outside or who the president of the United States is or the current rate of silver. As Francis Schaeffer says, “God made the knower and the known and he put them together.” Or as the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga proposes: God has designed or equipped us such that our common sense knowledge of things generally holds true. This means that the mind is sufficiently related (in “substance” as the modern philosophers say) to the body and external world such that what it holds to be true may indeed be—and often is—so. Now, on the other hand, this does not mean, of course, that we know things perfectly or omnisciently or that we are never ignorant or just plain wrong. In so many ways as individuals and collectively our ignorance and errancy with respect to knowledge is always evident, even at times, appalling. My intention is not to support an inappropriate or sinful pride in our knowledge-claims; rather, it is to defend an important, even minimal, yet non-negotiable level of knowing characteristic of our humanity as made in God’s image—one that both Scripture and common experience assume we (can) have.
What “hard presuppositionalism” entails is the view, to resume my line of thought, that knowledge is from the ground up entirely interpretive and not verifiable through a direct and reliable relationship to reality itself (things as they actually are). Now there is an ambiguity here with the word, “interpretation.” It might be helpful to explore this for a moment.
When we see an interpreter helping world leaders understand one another, the aim is to faithfully convey, as much as possible, a one-to-one correspondence in meaning between the languages. Hence, we assume that an interpreter in this knowing situation does know the language of the person they are interpreting as well as the language of the person to whom they are delivering the interpretation. Furthermore, they must understand what is being said in particular with the use of the languages represented by these two persons. The challenge, then, for the interpreter is to know in reality what is actually meant by both persons and find words each can understand to convey that reality successfully. Now I am not interested here in a philosophical discussion about whether or not translation or interpretation in situations like this is possible but intend to do nothing more than think through what we ordinarily experience when translators are used in these situations. And my point is that a good interpreter is not going to intentionally or creatively embellish, add, or subtract from what one person is attempting to say to another. Especially, there will be no philosophical pessimism or cynicism about whether or not it is possible to have a verifiable knowledge necessary to be a good interpreter (such as the view that all interpretations are misinterpretations). Instead, there will be on the interpreter’s part a good faith effort to be faithful and true to the meaning of each participant. This is what I am calling the “classificatory,” identifying, or indicative nature of language or knowledge. And to distinguish this meaning of “interpretation” from another meaning I am about to address, I will call it Interpretation 1.
On the other hand (and more commonly), there is an important sense in which what we mean by “interpretation” is understood as something creative, performative, or possibly even constitutive of reality in its own way. In this sense, we assume an “interpretation” is by design something more or less different from what it interprets. Therefore, it does not have the one to one correspondence to what is interpreted which we observe as the aim and sufficiently successful work of linguistic interpreters. We do this, for instance, when we interpret sculpture, a painting, or, to some extent, a poem. In this sense of interpretation, we may feel free to substract or supplement or cloak the meaning of something—precisely because of its absence as an objectively, reliably knowable, and verifying standard for what we claim to be true. I identify this kind of interpretation as Interpretation 2.
As already indicated, the modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant believed to one degree or other—because of its subjective nature—that “interpretation” in this second sense is what human knowledge is all about, particularly in relation to reality. They believed it to be true because it is the logical implication of their assumption that we are subjectively shut up behind our “ideas” or “representations” or other internal conditions of the mind and cannot escape or get around those things to directly check what is out there truly and objectively in the real world. Hence, on this account, knowledge has to differ from what is actually there; it reflects the way things are as humans interpret them based on how the mind works. This is, of course (and again), what Nietzsche means with his statement: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” He means there are no facts that can be related as having a reliable, verifiable, one to one correspondence with external reality.
This is why when “hard presuppositionalists” chime in here and confidently claim, “there are no brute facts,” it is evident that they have adopted and are perpetuating modern epistemology or, more precisely, what I am identifying as modern epistemology’s idealism. The word, “brute,” refers to what is irrational. For instance, we refer to animals as “brute.” In contrast, we speak of a human as “the rational animal.” When someone is thoughtless, unreasonable, and hurtful in their behavior towards others, we may say that person is a “brute.” So a “brute fact” is a fact that comes to us without reason; it is irrational or mindless in that sense.
Importantly, what this means is different depending on whether it is spoken from a realistic or idealistic standpoint. In a sense, it is self-evidently (even trivially) true that there are no “brute facts,” because the moment we think of or express a fact, obviously, reason is at work. We cannot even classify or identify something as a fact without reason or the mind. But that trivially, self-evident observation is not what is generally meant by the statement, “there are no brute facts.”
As observed already, an idealistic epistemology maintains that reason as an activity of the mind does everything for knowledge, and, as I’ve been saying, does so in a way that cannot be checked against external reality itself. So when someone of that theoretical bent says “there are no brute facts,” they are expressing in different words that they agree with the majority report of modern epistemology that human knowing (or truth) is interpretively, constitutively, or creatively subjective by its very nature. Or: human knowledge is entirely of the nature of Interpretation 2. The claim, “there are no brute facts,” therefore, is just another way of claiming that reality or the thing in itself is not verifiably knowable and Interpretation 2 is all there is.
However, one cannot provide the right remedy for a problem, if one is wrong about the problem itself. If we seek to integrate Christianity/Reformed theology with philosophy at this point of claiming that Interpretation 2 is all there is for knowing, then it seems we have used a right answer in a wrong way. The latter will only hide problems that will resurface in other ways for the Christian faith (such as a non-reasoned, non-proclaimed gospel, mere Bible-distribution, etc.). In other words,
(1) if we as Christians (and contrary, as I believe, to Scripture) agree with philosophy that Interpretation 1 does not exist and that Interpretation 2 is all there is for knowing;
(2) and if we then apply the Christ of Scripture (relying on an internal, subjective regeneration for knowing which in combination with Scripture is seen as the only way to reliably attain objective truth) as an Interpretation 2 kind of remedy (that is, as supplying conditions otherwise non-existent in humans for the universal and reliable knowing of reality);
(3) then we will have reduced the nature or concept of truth—and, by implication, the truth of the gospel itself—from something universally accessible for everyone as public knowledge to something only particularly and subjectively accessible for some under the same methodological relativism or perspectivism one finds in modern and postmodern philosophy;
(4) finally, by so doing, we will have produced a syncretism of Christianity/Reformed theology with skeptical philosophy and undermined thereby not only the truth God has appointed to set people free but also the very status of the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
It is important also to recognize the self-defeating nature of the claim that there is no Interpretation 1. When someone denies as much, we may ask, “Do you mean for me to understand this in an Interpretation 1 sense?” If so, then it does exist, and perhaps we could explore other ways it might exist. If not, then there is no communication between us on the matter, and we might perhaps spend our time more profitably doing something else. Or, if one says, “there are no brute facts,” we may ask: “Is that a brute fact?” Clearly, this is the force behind the claim. That is, those who make the claim expect others to accept it as the neutral and universal way things actually are for knowing facts. Worded differently, “there are no brute facts” may be put this way: “It is a fact that is the same for all that there are no facts that are the same for all.” Or: “The nature of reality is such that the nature of reality cannot be known.” But if the nature of reality cannot be known, then how do we know it cannot be known? If it cannot be known, then, for all we know, it could be the kind of thing that can be known. If one replies, on the other hand, “No, the claim itself (there are no brute facts) is not a brute fact,” then we might reply, “Why should we believe the claim then? In that case, one person’s interpretation of the status of facts for knowing is just as good as another’s. And for all we know there may be brute facts.”
As for the other word, “fact” (in “brute fact”) this is just another way of speaking of absolute, neutral, same-for-all, objective truth. From the standpoint of epistemological idealism, on the other hand, we would say: “There are no non-interpreted, non-rationalized, or non-mental truths of an objective nature.” Accordingly, on this account, knowledge of reality as mediated subjectively through internal conditions of the mind comprehensively accounts for all we have or experience as knowing. We have, according to this theory, no direct, epistemic relationship with objective reality. Or as the British philosopher Bishop Berkeley so famously pus it: “To be is to be perceived.” In other words (and similar to the claim of “no brute facts”), there are no “naked” facts. “Clothed” facts would be facts coming to us by (and only by) Interpretation 2. Conversely, “naked” facts would be facts coming to us by Interpretation 1. For epistemological idealists, knowing is of such a nature that Interpretation 1 simply does not exist. On that account, to assume Interpretation 1 exists is the sort of belief only uneducated or naive people entertain.
However, regardless of how philosophical types may think of us, is this indeed what we experience about knowing? Are we so presuppositionally hard-wired that facts have no accessible objectivity for knowing, especially as a possible, external corrective which conflicts with what we presuppose? I don’t believe so. There are, indeed, “brute,” “naked,” (even “mute”) facts in the sense of a knowable reality which is the same for all. That is, what these denials come down to (again) is simply a denial that Interpretation 1 exists for knowing. In sum, what this means is that when it comes to knowing facts, (1) reasoning about them (in contrast to their “bruteness”), (2) clothing them with meaning (in contrast to their “nakedness”), or (3) speaking of what is there (in contrast to their being “mute”) are not activities so radically or comprehensively of an Interpretation 2 kind of understanding that Interpretation 1 is not also always possible, present, or available for ascertaining an objective truth which is true for everyone.
For instance, I recall many years ago that my wife phoned me at work and said we were going to have beef stew for dinner. When I got home, to my delight, there was indeed a pot on the stove and the smell of cooked beef in the air. She had told me, since she had to be elsewhere, not to wait for her but eat when I got home. So I took the lid off, served my plate, said grace and dug in. Now the presupposition that we were having beef stew stayed with me all the way up to the point of my happily devouring my meal. As I was eating I realized at some point that my wife had actually made a roast with potatoes, carrots, and peas—instead of beef stew. To state the obvious, what I presupposed definitely had an effect on what I was experiencing. Surprisingly (perhaps my mind was elsewhere), I entertained that interpretation with the lid off the pot, while observing its contents, serving my plate, and beginning to eat. But the extent to which my presupposition was carrying me ended with a direct experience of the reality in which I was partaking. What I presupposed, therefore, did not exhaust the possibilities for knowing. That is, I was able to know something (the thing itself I was eating) which my presuppositions had not accounted for or expected. By my experience, I learned that my presupposition was a mistaken Interpretation 2 understanding, and I discovered my mistake by an Interpretation 1 direct acquaintance with reality.
Another way to approach this might be to ask: Is all our knowing a knowing as this or that (what Heidegger calls the “as-structure” of knowing) or is there a sense in which we may know something directly for what it is in itself (what we might call an “is-structure” for knowing)? To claim that we are hard-wired in our presuppositionalism (or that we cannot remove our presuppositional glasses as certain Reformed thinkers have said) is, as I’ve been saying, precisely what the modern philosophers assumed to be the case. However, if this were so, it seems reasonable to believe we would see this play out in our ordinary experience of knowing. But does it?
For example, let us suppose we find ourselves at a party. On a table, we see various foods and drinks. On one platter are cantaloupe cubes. There are also paper plates and cups but no forks or spoons. Not wishing to be impolite, we survey the table to see if there might be utensils appropriate for eating cantaloupe cubes. We notice that there is a small cup that contains toothpicks. Now the presuppositional understanding or “as-structure” of a toothpick could be characterized as “a thing with which to pick one’s teeth after a meal.” But I propose that in this case the interpretation of this thing (what it is for other things) does not exhaust what can be known about it as it is in itself. The presuppositional, “as-structure” of the thing certainly “rationalizes” or “clothes” or “speaks for” it as knowledge. And we commonly would, if asked, characterize knowledge of a toothpick in terms similar to the just mentioned definition. However, its “is-structure”—what it is in itself (what in philosophy is called “the thing itself”) and not for something else (its presuppositional, “as-structure”)—is that it is a thing that is hard, small, slender, and pointed. These are some of its properties, apart from any applicatory, interpretive, or presuppositional uses it may have as an object. Now we could also identify a cantaloupe cube in its presuppositional “as-structure,” as something to eat or nourish the human body. But it could also be considered in itself: a substance soft, squishy, yet firm enough when speared to hold together. At this point, it seems we have examined the properties of two different objects — completely apart from their usual, “as-structure.” The benefit we derive from this exercise in classifying or indicating these properties of things in themselves is that we are able to form a new presuppositional “as-structure”: the toothpick has become a “cantaloupe-pick.” What we observe in this exercise is that important aspect or realm of human knowing that deals in direct (or non-interpretive) identification of what is there, completely apart from human uses, purposes, or agendas.
This is, again, Interpretation 1 knowing. It is the knowing that belongs to direct or common sense realism. It has to do with identifying, classifying, or indicating things that are there. To acknowledge as much, to be sure, is not to diminish at all from that realm of knowledge distinctly devoted to and identified by various practical applications. It is, again, only to remind us that what forms in the first place or even later gets altered as a presupposition—even as, in some sense, a condition for the shape of other things we know—are moments of epistemicly non-presuppositional, non-mediated, and direct dealing with reality or things in themselves. All knowing is not, therefore, entirely encompassed or comprehended as presuppositional in nature and thus blocked from an objective verification in reality.
This is also what makes Schaeffer’s epistemological counsel viable, when he says, “Wise men choose their presuppositions.” To choose one’s presuppositions in this sense means that one can peer over (or remove) one’s presuppositional glasses and get a direct look at what is actually there. Contrary, therefore, to what some have said in a manner bespeaking great philosophical profundity, our presuppositions are not like glasses “cemented to our faces.”
 Can We Know the Truth?, p. 8.
 For those who are interested in a more technical treatment, John Searle’s Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception is a good place to start. Also important as a defense of epistemological realism is Dallas Willard’s article (can be found online), How Concepts Relate the Mind to its Objects: The 'God's Eye View' Vindicated. Briefly, I will say that had Descartes known what scientists know today about the brain (matter) in relation to the mind, he undoubtedly would not have supported the kind of mind-body dualism which is fundamental to and inseparable from epistemological idealism. I do not suggest he would have embraced a materialist or monistic account of the mind and body relationship (as some philosophers have done); rather, that he would not have proposed such a radical difference in substance with respect to knowing.
Another way to put this is: “There are no neutral facts.”
 To be fair, Nietzsche recognizes that this statement itself is an interpretation and that he is contradicting himself. As one of the fathers of postmodernism, he does not believe that we do anything else but fabricate fictions, especially those which seem to serve our own advantage in life. Hence, if enhancing life is better served by such contradictions, so much the better!
 In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant rightly identifies both his epistemology and that of his modern predecessors (I’m thinking of Descartes and Berkeley here) as versions of idealism.
 I am careful here because I do not support a mind-body monism as a simplistic solution to the dualism I have been addressing. I only intend to suggest, consistent with Scripture and common experience, that there is a physical aspect to knowing that connects us reliably and directly with the external world and implies that we are not shut up behind our “ideas,” “representations,” or “sense data” (as different philosophers label these internal conditions) such that we cannot verify them against external reality itself.
 Though I am identifying Interpretation 2 with epistemological idealism here, I do not intend to imply (as my definition of it makes clear) that there is no place for this kind of interpretation in epistemological realism. This just isn’t the context for exploring such things further. But, to give other examples, in a sense we are engaged with Interpretation 2, when we stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, explore something an author didn’t say (but could or should have), construe purposes or uses for things (such as turning a piece of wood into a baseball bat), or move any field of knowledge in a different (or even opposite) direction from anything it has ever considered before. In sum, Interpretation 2 is an important aspect of the quest for knowledge. It only becomes potentially detrimental under an idealistic epistemology which assumes that knowledge of that sort is all that exists or is possible.