Sunday, May 28, 2006

Religious Language: Verification and Falsification

Religious Language

  • If you cannot remember that via negative (or Apophatic Way), then you will lose. Don’t even answer this question if you cannot remember something so simple. The marker will probably wee on your paper in contempt if you don’t bother.
    • This is a way of describing something transcendental and ineffable (mainly God) in light of it’s negative traits, like saying “God is not evil” or whatever.
    • This was originally written about by Moses Maimonides a LONG time ago.
    • It was also picked up on by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite
      • He likes the via negative over the via positiva (which was apparent for millennia before.
      • The key point in his work is that God is above and beyond every faculty of human conception.
      • There are three separate stages of thought about god:
        • The first is the via negative!
        • The second is the state of affirmation. In saying what we do not know of God and establishing him on non-personal terms, we can say what we know of God and this can be said affirmatively, albeit inadequately, as we are still human.
        • The third state is to convey God is beyond human understanding simply by saying that he is “beyond”.
        • So, a worked example: we can say, via negative, that God is not bad, so God must be good, but as human language is inadequate: God is beyond goodness.
        • Dionysius takes his qualifiers for God from the bible.
    • Hick points out that in taking affirmations from the bible, Dionysius robs God of his ineffableness, as what he is is already mapped out.

Verification Principle

  • Developed by logical positivists of the Vienna Circle. They felt that only statements with the ability to be empirically verified have any meaning. This is an interesting definition, as it does not say “are true”, but simply “can be proven”.
  • One popular way of quoting this idea is that “a statement has meaning if we know under what circumstances it is true or false.”
  • “The meaning of a proposition is the method of verification”
  • They only liked two real kinds of statement (which most can be divided into):
    • Analytical (a priori) are those which have an inherent logical correctness (thing pertaining to common sense! My father fathered me, for example!)
    • Synthetic (a posteriori) where things are externally verifiably by experience or experiment.
    • In effect, this principle states:
      • “we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false”
    • As a result of all this talk, it was decided by these fellows that religious talk is meaningless, as it can never be scientifically verified!
    • Some people hold it does have meaning as it serves a different function from bog-standard human talk and in the context of the transcendental realms of the divine it has meaning.

  • One of the big problems with religious language is that it attempts to convey concepts well beyond the scope of the words used as well as the understanding of human nature. So, AJ Ayer says:

A.J. Ayer

  • He was a dawg gone logical positivist, so he subscribed to the ideas of empiricism.
  • He tells us that scientific ideas may not be verifiable “in practice”, but because scientists understand how to verify what they say, they are verifiable “in principle”.
  • If we know how to prove a statement true or false then we know it has meaning, and without this it is meaningless. Religious statements cannot be “empirically analysed”, and are thus are meaningless, having no grounds for being proved or disproved.
  • He states later, however, that there are some scientific and historical “facts” that we cannot verify with much certainty, and thus introduced the strong and weak verification principle.
    • The Strong Verification principle when there is no doubt as to whether a statement is true or false, as it is directly observable.
    • The Weak Verification principle is one which allows us to accept that past and future statements have some amount of ascribed truth, as, in the past, people could have observed things as being directly true if they were there. For example, I was not alive when man landed on the moon, but it is (debatably) verified as there were people who went to the moon and landed on it who would attest to the fact that it happened.
      • John Hick argues that God could be proven using the weak verification principle, as there is a small chance that, in the future, his existence could be witnessed, as on your death bed. He calls this Eschatological Verifcation.
  • To quote:

A proposition is.. verifiable in the strong sense of the term if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established… But it is verifiable in the weak sense if it is possible for experience to render it probable.”

A.J. Ayer

  • He accepts a priori mathematical proofs and linguistic ones as verifiable as it would be daft to think otherwise. He says this is because it would not only be illogical on the grounds of logic to reject them, but also because accepting them “adds nothing to our knowledge”. He gives an example of this by saying that a being with complete logical sense would not have to have anything about the definitions or routes of his statements explained, as he happens upon them logically.


  • The Verification principle does not ascribe to its own prerequisites, as it is neither a logical necessity, nor is it externally verifiable. TAKE THAT, LOSERS.
  • The weak verification principle also allows for some religious statements to be proven as true due to various other philosophical arguments, or the fact that the Bible can be taken as a form of historical proof.

The Falsification Principle

  • This is something piloted by a fella named Antony Flew.
  • He applied the Falsification Principle to religious statements and found them to be meaningless!
  • He argues this as it appears to be that religious statements allow nothing to count against them, and, without this crucial ability, they have no meaning.
  • For example, believers hold that “God is good”, regardless of what evidence is provided to the contrary. Believers usually always provide evidence to the contrary, those that qualify God’s goodness, and thus these constant qualifications render the statement useless.
  • He uses the “parable of the gardener” to illustrate this:
    • Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fenced. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensitive to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘but what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’”
  • The man so relentless in his zeal allows nothing to disprove what he believes and thus, it has no meaning.

  • However, statements still have meaning regardless of whether we can falsify them. Richard Swinburne ponders on whether toys come out of a toy box when no one is around and comes to realise that we still understand the meaning of the statement, even if it cannot be falsified or verified.
  • Basil Mitchell points out that Flew appears to forget that believers have a “prior commitment to trust in God based on faith.” This is what allows little to come between them and God.
  • R.M. Hare believes that yes, falsification can be used to give meaning to cognitive statements, but not non-cognitive ones, like religious statements. Religious language can thusly never be made factual, but still possesses meaning. He uses the example of a worried student:
    • This student believes mafia Dons are coming to kill him and will believe nothing to the contrary, even if it is logically and empirically proven! He takes all measures to make sure his life is not prematurely ended by these fictitious Dons.
    • Hare argues that, despite the fact that these claims are not factual, they still have meaning to the student.

He calls this a “blik”, and it boils down to the idea that “a statement has meaning in totality if it has meaning to one person”.


In other news: publishing blogs with Microsoft Word 2007 is a pain in the arse.


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Anonymous said...

"The Verification principle does not ascribe to its own prerequisites, as it is neither a logical necessity, nor is it externally verifiable. TAKE THAT, LOSERS"

The verification principle's prerequisites include tautologies. The verification principle is a definition. Definitions are tautologies. Therefore the verification principle does ascribe to its own prerequisites.
Sorry to burst your bubble...

Anonymous said...

"The verification principle is a definition. Definitions are tautologies."

If Ayer changed his definition of the VP what would be left of the definition of a tautology and therefore the verification of its own principle?

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