Fr. Brian Davies in his little classic, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, discusses the Vienna Circle and their clumsy attack on metaphysics. This has had disastrous influence on religion in the public square. The first part follows here:
Is there a God? Are there reasons for thinking that God exists? Can God’s existence be proved? These questions have greatly interested philosophers of religion, and they are often asked by people who would not regard themselves as professional philosophers. But are they really worth raising at all?
It has been said that they are not. Why? Because the assertion that God exists is either meaningless or else so problematic that there is little point in asking whether it is actually true, or how one can know or reasonably believe it to be so. This suggestion has been particularly prevalent in the twentieth century and it has done much to influence the present state of philosophy of religion. One of its best-known forms holds that there just could not be a God, that `God exists’ is meaningless, since the existence of God is unverifiable or unfalsifiable or both. Let us therefore begin to look at the philosophy of religion by turning to this view.
Verification And Belief In God
One can begin to understand it by noting the work of a famous group of philosophers who, in the nineteen-twenties, began to gather in Vienna around a writer called Moritz Schlick (1882-1936). The group became known as the Vienna Circle and it included, among others, Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Friedrich Waismann (1896-1959), and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). These men were influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from whom they claimed to derive a theory of meaning known as the Verification Principle. From this they drew drastic and far-reaching conclusions.
The history of philosophy yields much reference to metaphysics, something traditionally understood to include the key claims of religious believers. But the Vienna Circle maintained that all metaphysical assertions are nonsensical. Since traditional metaphysical assertions include religious assertions, the conclusion drawn was that religious assertions are meaningless. Even with its original exponents the verification principle was stated in different forms and credited with different statuses. Normally, however, it is said to hold that the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Roughly speaking, the ideas involved in this view are as follows.
Meaningful statements fall into two groups. First, there are mathematical statements, tautologies (e.g. ‘All cats are cats’), and logically necessary statements (e.g. `If all men are mortal and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal’). Second, there are statements which can be confirmed through the use of human senses, and especially through the methods used in sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology. To ask whether a statement is meaningful is thus to ask if its truth can be confirmed by means of sense experience.
In this way, then, the Vienna Circle tried to locate sense and meaning along with experience. And in doing so it stood in a definite philosophical tradition. Effectively it was agreeing with the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). `If’, says Hume, `we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’
The verification principle became the most distinctive doctrine of Logical Positivism, which is what the school of thinking represented and influenced by the Vienna Circle came to be called. As I have said, however, the principle was not always stated in the same way. Some early formulations take it as a principle about propositions; later ones refer to ‘statements’ and `sentences’. A distinction was also made between what has been called the `weak’ and `strong’ versions of the verification principle.
The weak version became the most popular. It held that a statement is meaningful if sense experience can go at least some way to confirming it. But in the early days of logical positivism it was the strong version of the verification principle that was in vogue. Waismann stated it thus: `Anyone uttering a sentence must know under what conditions he calls it true and under what conditions he calls it false. If he is unable to state these conditions, he does not know what he has said. A statement which cannot be conclusively verified cannot be verified at all. It is simply devoid of any meaning.’
On Waismann’s account, if S is a cognitively meaningful statement there must be a finite and consistent set of observation statements 01 … On, where S entails and is entailed by putting together 01 … 0n. Carnap has a similar principle. He argues that `it is certain that a sequence of words has a meaning only if its relations of deducibility to the protocol sentences are fixed.’ `Protocol sentences’ are supposed to be simple sentences tences about what is given in experience. They were also called ‘observation sentences’ or `basic propositions’.
The history of the verification principle is too complicated for us to follow in detail here, but we can note that all its proponents held that the principle’s implications were devastating for belief in God. Take, for example, Carnap. `In its metaphysical use’, he observes, `the word “God” refers to something beyond experience. The word is deliberately divested of its reference to a physical being or to a spiritual being that is immanent in the physical. And as it is not given a new meaning, it becomes meaningless.
Another illustration of logical positivist methods of dealing with the existence of God (a particularly famous one as it happens) can be found in A. J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logics `The term “god” ‘, says Ayer, `is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot even be probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.’ Note that Ayer is not just denying the existence of God in this passage: he is dismissing the question of God’s existence altogether.
At this point some thinking related to that just noted ought briefly to be mentioned. Here one can introduce the name of Antony Flew, with whom the emphasis changes from verification to falsification. According to the verification principle, religious statements, including `There is a God’, are meaningless simply because it is not possible to verify them. Flew does not support the principle in this form, but in `Theology and Falsification’ he does ask whether certain religious statements might not be suspect because no sense experience counts against them.
Flew begins by relating what he calls a `parable’. A and B come upon a clearing in the jungle. A maintains that there is an invisible gardener who looks after it; B denies this suggestion. Various tests (such as keeping watch, using bloodhounds and electric fences) are applied to check whether there is a gardener. All the tests fail to show the gardener’s presence, but A continues to maintain his existence. He says, `But there is a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ The skeptic rejects this move and suggests that there is no difference between the believer’s gardener and no gardener at all.
At this point Flew applies his parable to religious statements. Religious believers make claims; they say, for instance, that there is a God who loves mankind. But apparently they are unwilling to allow anything to count against these claims. The claims seem unfalsifiable. Are they, then, genuine? Flew does not dogmatically declare that they cannot be, but evidently he has his doubts. `Sophisticated religious people’, he says, `tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur, which would count against their theological assertions and explanations.
But in so far as they do this their supposed explanations are actually bogus, and their seeming assertions are really vacuous. Flew does not talk in this passage about falsification by sense experience, but it seems reasonable to suppose that this is what he has in mind. The tests which he mentions for checking the gardener’s presence could all be called `sensory’. And from Flew’s example of the gardener it should be fairly clear that in raising the issue of falsification he has the question of God’s existence pretty much in mind. He seems to be suggesting that those who believe in God are unwilling to allow any sense experience to count against their belief, and he seems to be wondering whether this does not invalidate it.
Verification, Falsification, And God
The question we obviously have to ask now is this: is the statement that there is a God meaningless because it is unverifiable or unfalsifiable?
It is clear, to begin with, that we often do regard verification and falsification as ways of distinguishing sense from nonsense. If I say that my dog is a brilliant philosopher you will rightly doubt whether I am talking any sense at all until I am able to show you something about the dog’s behavior that might help to give meaning to my assertion. And you would be justly and similarly skeptical if (a) I say on Tuesday that it will rain on Wednesday, (b) by Thursday it has not rained, and (c) on Thursday I insist that I was right on Tuesday.
It is one thing to say all this, however, and quite another to agree that the writers so far introduced in this chapter say anything to establish that there could not be a God. And when we critically examine what they do: say it soon becomes clear that we cannot plausibly use it in defense of such a conclusion.
Take first the view that a statement is only meaningful and factual if it is conclusively verifiable or falsifiable by means of sense experience. This view falls into difficulties when we remember that it seems possible to make intelligible and factual universal statements like `All men spend part of their lives asleep’ or `All cats are mortal’. The first statement here is, as far as we know, true. Yet there is no way in which one could conclusively show that it is true by means of sense experience. This is because it is always possible that one will one day come across a man who needs no sleep at all. As for the second statement, that too seems true. But it cannot be conclusively falsified. For however old the cats of one’s experience may be, they may die one day. Therefore, it is wrong to appeal to conclusive verifiability and falsifiability as criteria of meaningfulness for factual statements.
It might, however, be argued that the weak version of the verification principle is still useful and that this can serve to establish the impossibility of God’s existence once and for all. But this view is open to the initial objection that the weak principle does not even satisfy its own criterion of meaningfulness. If one accepts it, one would have to say that a statement is only factual and meaningful if some sense experience or observation statement makes it probable or counts in its favor. But what sense experience or observation statement can count in favor of the claim that a statement is only factual and meaningful if some sense experience or observation statement makes it probable or counts in its favor?
It has been urged that the verification principle is acceptable because it only takes up the ordinary understanding of words like `factual’ and `meaningful’. Schlick, for example, said that it is `nothing but a simple statement of the way in which meaning is actually assigned to propositions in everyday life and in science. There never has been any other way, and it would be a grave error to suppose that we have discovered a new conception of meaning which is contrary to common opinion and which we want to introduce into philosophy.’
But this remark seems to overlook the fact that many people apparently regard as meaningful and factual a whole lot of statements which do not seem confirmable only by means of sense experience. Take, for example, religious people and the way they regard as both factual and meaningful statements about God and life after death. And to this point one can add another. Consider the following statement given as an example by Richard Swinburne: `Some of the toys which to all appearances stay in the toy cupboard while people are asleep and no one is watching, actually get up and dance in the middle of the night and then go back to the cupboard leaving no traces of their activity.” Now if someone were to say this, talking, let us suppose, about a particular cupboard, we might be utterly incredulous.
Swinburne’s example is a frivolous one. But it would be stretching things to say that the statement he asks us to consider is meaningless, that it could be neither true nor false. It might be replied that no one could understand a statement unless he knew how it could be shown to be true or false. It might be added that knowing how to show a statement true or false means knowing what available sense experience would make it either probable or improbable. But people also seem able to understand statements without being able to say what available sense experience would make it likely or unlikely that they are true.
To take another example of Swinburne: A man can understand the statement `once upon a time, before there were men or any other rational creatures, the earth was covered by sea’, without his having any idea of what geological evidence would count for or against this proposition, or any idea of how to establish what geological evidence would count for or against the proposition.’
The truth of this observation is just what someone could well refer to if it were said that Antony Flew’s comments about falsifiability made it obvious that statements about God are clearly meaningless. Someone who says that there is a God might not be able to specify what exactly would count against the truth of his assertion. But it does not follow from this that the assertion is meaningless.
Must we then conclude that the verification principle is thoroughly misguided? I have already offered reasons for rejecting it, but it is worth noting in conclusion that even a vigorous proponent of it can be forced to go back on his approval. To illustrate the point we can turn again to A. J. Ayer.
In the first edition of Language, Truth and Logic Ayer attempted to state a version of the weak form of the verification principle. He took the expression `experiential proposition’ to mean any proposition which reports a possible or actual observation. Then he suggested that `it is the mark of a genuine factual proposition not that it should be equivalent to an experiential proposition, or any finite number of experiential propositions, but simply that some experiential propositions can be deduced from it in conjunction with certain other premises without being deducible from these other premises alone.’
But, as Ayer himself came to see, this statement of the verification principle is not adequate at all. For it would allow that any purported statement at all is meaningful. Take any purported statement, S, and take any `experiential proposition’, E. On Ayer’s criterion quoted above we can show that S is meaningful since E follows from S and `If S then E’, while E does not follow from `If S then E’ alone.
In recognizing the force of this difficulty Ayer reformulated the verification principle. In the second edition of Language, Truth and Logic he wrote:
I propose to say that a statement is indirectly verifiable if it satisfies the following conditions: first, that in conjunction with certain other premises it entails one or more directly verifiable statements which are not deducible from these other premises alone; and secondly, that these other premises do not include any statement that is not either analytic, or directly verifiable, or capable of being independently established as indirectly verifiable. And I can now reformulate the principle of verification as requiring of a literally meaningful statement, which is not analytic, that it should be either directly or indirectly verifiable, in the foregoing sense.
But is this reformulation successful? Unfortunately not.
According to Ayer, a statement is directly verifiable `if it is either itself an observation statement or is such that in conjunction with one or more observation statements it entails at least one observation statement which is not deducible from these other premises alone’. Consider, now, three observation statements, 01, 02, and 03, none of which entails any of the others by itself. Take also a purported statement of any kind, for example ‘There is a God’, and call it S. Consider, now, the following:
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S).
This statement is directly verifiable according to Ayer as quoted above. For, together with 01, it gives 03, while 03 is not entailed by 01 alone. Thus:
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) 01
If now one puts
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) together with S one gets:
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) S
So S is indirectly verifiable according to Ayer’s new criterion. And any statement whatever, including one like `There is a God’, can be shown to be meaningful in terms of Ayer’s restatement of the verification principle.
Ayer now admits this point himself. In The Central Questions of Philosophy he considers the above argument (which originates with Alonzo Church) and he accepts it. He also indicates that if Not-03 is substituted for O1 in
Either (Not 01 and 02) or (03 and not-S)
then the above argument would count against a criterion of meaning stated in terms of falsification. It would show that any statement whatever is falsifiable and that, for example, a statement like `There is a God’ is falsifiable and therefore meaningful.
So the verification principle in the forms in which we have considered it does not show that there could not be a God. Nor does it seem that God’s existence has to be ruled out because it cannot be falsified. But might there not be other reasons for holding that there could not be a God? I will consider this question with reference to a problem often discussed by philosophers of religion. It centers on the possibility of talking significantly about God in the light of the way people normally speak about him. More precisely, it springs from the fact that talk about God seems to pull in two different directions. Let’s conclude this little discussion in our next post.