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Dante’s PURGATORY, Canto 19: SIN





Bad reality

Sin seems repulsive at first

Attractive veneer


NOTE: A sin is repulsive at first but when habitually engaged in seems attractive. Think of addiction to tobacco, which a later age will regard as at least a bad habit. Anyone smoking a first cigarette is likely to have a very unpleasant experience, with coughing and, in some cases, vomiting. But continued smoking makes a person an addict to tobacco, and smoking becomes a pleasure — until it results in disease. But a better example is perhaps food. Food is necessary and eating too much of it can be pleasurable, but eating too much can lead to obesity and disease. What seemed good at first — overeating — can very quickly show that it is bad in reality. The same is true of other sins, which sometimes can have an attractive veneer but which always have an ugly reality.



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Paul Tillich (1886-1965): Religious Symbols

Paul Tillich is an important theologian who argued that if we are to talk about God, our language must be symbolic. He argues that symbols open up new levels of reality and of meaning.

Tillich argues that symbols are an indispensable part of our language. Also according to Tillich, “… there are levels of reality of great difference, and … these different levels demand different approaches and different languages.”

In his essay, he divides his discussion of symbols into five parts.

I. Distinction Between Signs and Symbols

Signs and symbols have similarities and differences. A similarity is that both signs and symbols point beyond themselves to something else. A difference is that only symbols participate in that which they symbolize.

Examples of signs include a red light on a traffic sign — the red light means “stop.” Most words (e.g., “desk”) are also signs. The word “desk,” of course, signifies the physical object we call a desk.

Examples of symbols include the flag. The American flag is more than pieces of colored cloth sewn together; the flag participates in that which it symbolizes (it symbolizes a country and the ideas that the country believes to be important) — otherwise, people would not get upset when someone burns the flag as a protest. In addition, a wedding ring is a symbol. It is a symbol of a special kind of relationship between two people.

However, you should be aware that mathematical “symbols” are not genuine symbols (in Tillich’s meaning); they are merely signs that point to mathematical functions.

II. The Functions of Symbols

The first function of symbols is the representative function — to represent something. However, according to Tillich, “… perhaps the main function of the symbol [is] the opening up of levels of reality which otherwise are hidden and cannot be grasped in any other way.”

All symbols, including artistic and religious symbols, open up new levels of meaning — “internal reality” or levels of self-understanding that correspond to new levels of external reality. Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” can lead you to an awareness of the choices — sometimes small choices — in your life that end up making a huge difference in your life. For example, perhaps you were about equally divided in deciding which of two different universities you should attend. But if you meet your future mate at the school you attend, the decision of which school to attend will have an enormous impact on your life.

Another difference between signs and symbols is that signs can be easily replaced; they are “consciously invented and removed.” For example, if we wanted to, we could change a red traffic light to a blue traffic light with little problem; all it would take would be a change in traffic laws. In addition, corporations sometimes change their corporate logos.

On the other hand, symbols cannot be easily replaced; however, they are born and they can die. An example that Tillich gives is the Virgin Mary, which is a symbol that has died for Protestants. Catholics sometimes pray to the Virgin Mary to intercede with Jesus Christ for them. Protestants, however, believe that every person is his or her own priest. Therefore, there is no need for an intermediary between the sinner and Jesus — the sinner can pray directly to Jesus.

One more point: According to Tillich, symbols arise out of the “group unconscious” or “collective unconscious.” That is why symbols cannot be easily changed.

III. The Nature of Religious Symbols

Like all symbols, religious symbols open up new levels of reality. In Tillich’s words, “Religious symbols do exactly the same thing as all symbols do — namely, they open up a level of reality, which otherwise is not opened at all, which is hidden.”

In the case of religious symbols, the reality that is opened up is ultimate reality (i.e., God). One point that Tillich makes is that many, many symbols have been used to attempt to explain the nature of God; some are more appropriate to one society than to another.

As an illustration, here are some symbols for God in the Old Testament:







fuller (laundress)






teacher and scribe





This multiplicity of symbols seems chaotic; can all these symbols possibly be meaningful? Tillich’s answer is this:

… in order to open up the seemingly closed door to this chaos of religious symbols, one simply has to ask, “What is the relationship to the ultimate which is symbolized in these symbols?” And then they cease to be meaningless; and they become, on the contrary, the most revealing creations of the human mind, the most genuine ones, the most powerful ones, those who control the human consciousness, and perhaps even more the unconsciousness, and have therefore this tremendous tenacity which is characteristic of all religious symbols in the history of religion.

Symbols are not identical with that which they symbolize; if they are so regarded, then they are idolatrous. As an example, Tillich points out that “holy persons can become a god.”

IV. The Levels of Religious Symbols

Symbolic language attempts to speak of two levels of God’s reality:

1) Thetranscendent level (the ultimate reality that transcends space and time). According to Tillich, the transcendent level is “the level which goes beyondthe empirical reality we encounter.”

On the transcendent level, we find:

First, the personhood of God. According to Tillich, we encounter God as a person. After all, we cannot encounter God as “ultimate being.”

Second, the qualities or attributes of God — that God is love, God is mercy, God is power, God is omniscient, God is omnipresent, God is almighty. According to Tillich, when we say these things about God, we are not speaking literally.

Third, the acts of God, including His sending His son to Earth to die for our sins and His creating the World. Once again, when we say these things about God, we are speaking symbolically.

2) The immanent level (the continued presence of God in the world). According to Tillich, the immanent level is “the level which we find withinthe encounter with reality.”

On the immanent level, we find these things:

First, “the incarnations of the divine.” Christians believe that God became Man in the person of Jesus Christ. Other religions have also believed in the divine becoming incarnate.

Second, “the sacramental” — that is, the Christian sacraments (e.g., the Lord’s Supper, baptism). According to Tillich, “The sacramental is nothing more than some reality becoming the bearer of the Holy in a special way and under special circumstances.”

V. The Truth of Symbols

Tillich also points out that symbols are immune to empirical criticism. Examples include the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception of Jesus. The Virgin Mary could very well become a part of divinity in Catholic theology, according to Tillich. (This in fact did not happen, but Tillich regarded this as a possibility at the time he was writing.) Why? Because of her powerful symbolism. Jesus’ virginal birth is legendary and not historical fact, yet because of the symbolism involved people continue to believe in the virginal birth of Jesus.

So how should we evaluate the truth of religious symbols? Perhaps the words that we should use to evaluate symbols are “adequate” and “inadequate,” rather than “true” and “false.”

Note: The quotations by Paul Tillich that appear in this essay are from his “The Nature of Religious Language” in The Christian Scholar, XXXVIII, 3 September 1955.


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Some of Aeneas’

Followers did not want to

Go to Italy


NOTE: Aeneas’ destiny was to lead the survivors of Troy to Italy, where they would become important ancestors of the Romans. Some followers lacked the zeal to go to Italy and stayed on Sicily.


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Religion, Verification, and Falsification

Antony Flew (1923-2010), R. M. Hare (1919-2002), and Basil Mitchell (1917-2011): The Falsification Debate

Philosophers take language seriously because it is so useful in thinking. Accordingly, philosophers have studied the nature of religious language to find out whether it is meaningful, and if it is meaningful, in what way. After all, although we may talk about the intelligence of God, we know that the word “intelligent,” as applied to God, is different from the same word applied to human beings because God’s intelligence — if He exists — is so much greater than the intelligence that human beings have.

Antony Flew

One philosopher who has concluded that statements such as “God exists” and “God is good” are meaningless is the British philosopher Antony Flew. In concluding this, Flew makes use of the concepts of verification and falsification.

Statements can be of two kinds: logical or empirical. Examples of logical statements include “All bachelors are male” and “All squares have five corners.” The first logical statement is true, of course, because by definition all bachelors are male. The second logical statement is false, of course, because by definition all squares have four corners, not five. We were able to check up on these statements to find out whether they are true or false; therefore, they are meaningful.

The second kind of statement is empirical; for example, “Grass is green,” or “It is raining outside.” We can check up on the truth of these statements simply by looking at grass or looking outside to see if it is raining. If in fact it is raining outside, the statement about rain has been verified; if in fact it is not raining outside, the statement about rain has been falsified. To be meaningful, an empirical statement has to be check-up-able in principle. For example, someday we will be able to check to see whether the statement “Subterranean life forms exist on Mars” is true or false.

Many philosophers have believed that unless a statement can be falsified, it is meaningless. For example, let’s suppose that I tell you that I have a very special lectern. Under it lives a shy elf that disappears whenever somebody tries to check up on him. No matter what you do to try to check up on the existence of the elf — for example, try to take the elf’s photograph — the elf disappears and so you have no proof of the elf’s existence. You can’t see the elf because he’s shy and disappears whenever someone tries to look at him. You can’t hear him because he’s a quiet elf. You can’t smell him because he’s a clean elf who takes a bath twice a day. You can’t taste or touch him because if you stick your tongue or hand out at him he disappears.

Surely, you would say that there is no shy elf living under my lectern because there is no way to falsify the elf’s existence. You would believe there is no shy elf because no matter how hard you try to prove the elf does not exist (that is, falsify its existence), I would continue to affirm that the elf disappeared because he is shy and does not want to be checked up on.

Antony Flew believes that statements such as “God exists” and “God is good” are similar to my statement about the shy elf. To illustrate his belief about the first statement, he tells a parable that was developed by the philosopher John Wisdom (1904-1993).

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 fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Mancould 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, insensible 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 Skeptic 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?”

Flew points out that when we say that “God exists,” we seem to be making a statement; however, he believes that we are not really stating anything. At one time, the sentence “God exists” may have been stating something, but when we qualify God’s existence (by saying He is invisible, etc.) so much that we cannot falsify His existence, the sentence dies “the death of a thousand qualifications.”

Flew also points out that the statement “God loves us” appears to be unfalsifiable. After all, in the 20st century occurred the Holocaust, two world wars, the firebombing of Dresden, the dropping of two atomic bombs, several political assassinations, an enormous number of rapes and murders, many deaths of very young children from cancer, etc., yet people continue to believe that God loves us.

According to Flew’s logic, if the statements “God exists” and “God loves us” are unfalsifiable, then they are just as much nonsense as the unfalsifiable sentence “I have a shy elf that disappears whenever someone tries to check up on him.”

Therefore, Flew asks: “Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say ‘God does not love us’ or even ‘God does not exist’? I therefore put … the simple central questions, ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?’”

R. M. Hare

R. M. Hare’s response to Anthony Flew is to relate a parable of his own: A parable in which he points out that we interpret the world in which we live through using a set of unverifiable, unfalsifiable assumptions which Hare calls bliks. Hare’s parable is this:

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons [English university professors] want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies ‘Yes, but that was only his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is the same.

Of course, this person is a lunatic; however, Hare says, all of us have bliks. Hare’s example of a blikthat many of us have is, “The car we are driving is safe.” Hare — and I — don’t know much about the steering mechanisms of cars. We simply assume that the car is going to steer properly when we drive it. (Of course, we do take the car to the garage for checkups occasionally.)

Another example of a blikthat many people have concerns flying. Many people are afraid of flying, no matter how many statistics you cite showing the safety of flight.

Now we need to ask this: Is belief in the existence of a loving God a blik? If so, then no amount of evidence either for the existence of God or against the existence of God will sway believers or unbelievers. (If belief in the existence of a loving God is a blik, then belief in the nonexistence of a loving God is also a blik.) The question is not scientific, and so the scientific concepts of verifiability and falsifiability do not apply to it.

Basil Mitchell

Basil Mitchell contributes to the debate by relating yet another parable. This is the Parable of the Stranger:

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance — indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at this meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.

They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, “He is on our side.”

Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, “He is on our side.” He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, “The Stranger knows best.” Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say “Well, what wouldhe have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?” But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, “Well, if that’swhat you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.”

In this parable, of course, the Stranger is analogous to God. Mitchell’s parable reminds me very much of C. S. Lewis’ “logic of personal relations.” The partisan achieves a personal relationship with the Stranger, and because of that personal relationship, believes in the Stranger even when appearances are against him. In the same way, if you have a friend who is accused of a crime, you may continue to believe in your friend even though appearances are against him.

Mitchell points out that we can treat statements such as “God loves us” in

three different ways: (1) As provisional hypotheses to be discarded if experience tells against them; (2) As significant articles of faith; (3) As vacuous formulae (expressing, perhaps, a desire for reassurance) to which experience makes no difference and which make no difference to life.

The Christian, once he has committed himself, is precluded by his faith from taking up the first attitude: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” He is in constant danger, as Flew has observed, of slipping into the third. But he need not; and, if he does, it is a failure in faith as well as in logic.


  • The quotations by Antony Flew, R. M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell that appear in this essay are from “Theology and Falsification,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1955).
  • By the way, Antony Flew later became a believer in God on the basis that the evidence available to us supported the existence of God.

John Hick (1922-2012): Verification and Falsification

The philosopher John Hick also has a reply to Antony Flew. Hick believes that in some cases a statement or proposition can eventually be verified although it can never be falsified. He gives an example from mathematics:

Consider, for example, the proposition that “there are three successive sevens in the decimal determination of [pi]”. So far as the value of [pi] has been worked out, it does not contain a series of three sevens, but it will always be true that such a series may occur at a point not yet reached in anyone’s calculations. Accordingly, the proposition may one day be verified, if it is true, but can never be falsified, if it is false.

According to Hick, there will someday be eschatological (refers to the doctrine of the “last days”) verification of the statements “God exists” and “God is good.” Thus, although we cannot falsify these statements now (or ever — because they are true statements, according to Hick), in the afterlife we will be able to verify them. To make his point, Hick tells a vivid parable of his own:

Two men are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to a Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere; but since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before, and therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet both with moments of refreshments and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of his journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City and interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements and the obstacles as trials of his purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the king of that city and designed to make of him a worthy citizen of the place when at last he arrives there. The other, however, believes none of this and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. But for him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompassing purpose ordaining their journey; only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad.

The point here, of course, is that in this life we cannot falsify the existence of God; however, in the afterlife we will be able to verify both God’s existence and God’s goodness.

Source: John Hick’s comments come from his article “Theology and Verification,” printed in Theology Today (1960).


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To purge sin of sloth

Saved sinners run day and night

With no distractions


NOTE: These sinners are not distracted when they learn that Dante is a living man; other sinners have been distracted. These sinners are also the only sinners to be actively purging their sin at night.



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David Bruce: Music Anecdotes


In 1956, Elvis Presley was a recording phenomenon, turning out hit after hit, and songwriters — including friends and colleagues Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, writers of “Hound Dog” — really, really wanted him to record their songs. Mr. Stoller was on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria when it sank, and he was one of the fortunate people who managed to survive. When Mr. Stoller arrived back home, safe and sound, meeting him was Mr. Leiber. However, rather than talking about Mr. Stoller’s recent escape from death, Mr. Leiber wanted to talk about a more pressing matter: “Elvis Presley’s recorded ‘Hound Dog’! Elvis Presley’s recorded ‘Hound Dog’!”

Kirsten Flagstad once recorded a number of arias in three hours of hard work, then she and Arthur O’Connell, the man in charge of the recording, went to lunch. He asked if she were tired, and she explained that she was not tired vocally, but that a certain muscle ached from standing. She then took his hand, put it on her inner thigh, and said, “The muscle is all stiffened up. Can’t you feel that muscle?” Mr. O’Connell could feel the muscle, and he almost died of embarrassment as all the people in the Waldorf dining room stared at them.

For a while, Marc Cherry, the openly gay creator of TV’s Desperate Housewives, named every episode after a song title by Stephen Sondheim. This got him Mr. Sondheim’s attention, and Mr. Sondheim sent him this note: “Next time you’re in town, give me a call and you can tell me how much you like my work.” (Mr. Sondheim can get away with messages like that because he is so successful and because he is over 75 years old.) In fact, Mr. Cherry did get to have dinner with and spend five hours talking to Mr. Sondheim.

During World War II, opera singer Helen Traubel offered her services to a Chicago servicemen’s canteen. Of course, not everyone likes opera music, and she overheard a sailor groan and tell a friend, “Oh, no! Not more of that long-hair stuff!” Therefore, she told the audience, “I shall begin with a song by a composer who has made the peasants of my home town famous among music lovers all over the world” — then she turned torch singer and belted out the “St. Louis Blues.”

Not everyone likes chamber music. Arthur Catterall used to lead the BBC Symphony. One day, he was in a taxi when the driver looked at his violin and asked if he ever played on the radio. When Mr. Catterall replied that he did, the cabbie asked, “Do you ever take part in those Sunday afternoons of chamber music?” Mr. Catterall replied in the affirmative, so the cabbie stopped his taxi, opened the door, and said, “Well, you can jolly well walk!”

Pierre Monteux once conducted pianist Artur Schnabel and the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. All went excellently, and at the end both Mr. Monteux and Mr. Schnabel were weeping. Mr. Schnabel took Mr. Monteux’s hands in his own and whispered to him, “We are two old fools who love music very much, Monteux.” Too overcome with emotion to say anything, Mr. Monteux nodded in agreement.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi, composer of La traviata, Aida, and Otello, was greatly loved by the Italian people. When he was old, he entered a buffet at a railroad station, and all present stood up with their hats off until he sat down. After he had finished his meal, all present stood up again and lined his path to the train with their cloaks, which Verdi stepped on as he bowed and acknowledged his countrymen’s compliment.

Pianist Artur Schnabel disliked the tempo that conductor Otto Klemperer was setting for a Beethoven concerto, so he signaled — behind the maestro’s back — the tempo he preferred to the other musicians. Mr. Klemperer noticed, and he pointed to the podium, then told Mr. Schnabel, “Klemperer is here!” Mr. Schnabel replied, “Klemperer is there, and I am here. But where is Beethoven?”

As a boy, Richard Goode practiced at the piano, playing of course the same pieces over and over. A neighbor, Rabbi Ginzburg, once asked Richard’s father why his son did this. Mr. Goode replied, “Rabbi, haven’t you been saying the same prayers over and over since you were a child?” Afterward, Rabbi Ginzburg often could be heard humming to himself Richard’s piano music.

Roy Henderson once sang with a small town choral society in Yorkshire. At the end of the concert, the conductor asked what he thought of the choir. Of course, Mr. Henderson replied that it was a very good choir, and the conductor said, “Aye, an’ I don’t mind tellin’ ee that we ’ad four basses ready to taak thy part if tha’d conked out.”

When Mabel Wagnalls interviewed opera singer Lilli Lehmann, she was shocked when Ms. Lehmann mentioned her date of birth, so she said, “The American ladies so seldom give their age that your frankness is a revelation.” Ms. Lehmann smiled, then replied, “Why not? One is thereby no younger.”

Musicians can get tired of playing the same music — even great music — over and over throughout an opera season. Critic Patrick J. Smith remembers seeing a musician at the end of a performance of Götterdämmerung lean over and kiss the last page of the score.

Sid Caesar’s father wanted him to become a musician and not be forced to work in a restaurant. One day, his father came home carrying a saxophone and told him, “Sidney, you’re going to learn the saxophone.” Sid asked, “Why?” His father answered, “Because someone left one in the restaurant.”

Claude Debussy listened to the very first playing of his String Quartet, then told the musicians, “You play the movement twice as fast as I thought it should go.” He paused and let the faces of the musicians fall, then added, “But it’s so much better your way.”

The music of a jukebox in a bar can get annoying after a while. That’s why CBS in 1953 produced a record titled “Three Minutes of Silence,” which gave exactly that when a customer selected it from the records in a jukebox.

Outdoor church sign: “Wanted: Large Mouth Bass for Church Choir.”


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A.J. Ayer (1910-1989) and Frederick Copleston (1907-1994): A Discussion on Religious Language

We will now address a difficult topic about language. Assuming that there is a God, we wish to talk about that God. The Judeo-Christian conception of God is that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. In addition, God created the spatio-temporal universe and is therefore outside space and time. (This sentence illustrates the difficulty of speaking about God: Already I have used a spatial term — “outside” cannot be applied to God if indeed God is not a part of the spatio-temporal universe.) In fact, Christian author C. S. Lewis suggests that God does not perceive time as we do. God sees time as a whole: past, present, and future. We finite humans, however, are “stuck in time” (to use Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s phrase), and so we can see only the present.

Because of the differences between us finite humans and the infinite God, two questions arise:

1) Does language function differently when we talk about God?

2) How are we to distinguish true statements about God from false statements about God?

Two philosophers engaged in a meaningful discussion about religious language in a 1949 broadcast on the BBC. The philosophers were A. J. Ayer, an atheist, and Frederick Copleston, a Jesuit priest. Ayer argued that religious language is not meaningful because it cannot be verified. Copleston, however, argued that religious language is meaningful although it is not literal.

  1. J. Ayer and the Analysis of Sentences
  2. J. Ayer was much influenced by the logical positivists, who analyzed sentences to determine what logical type they belonged to. We will analyze these sentences:
  3. The person reading this page is six feet tall.

This sentence is meaningful. It is a cognitive sentence, which means it bears information. In addition, it is the kind of cognitive sentence that is known as synthetic, which means that it can be verified through the use of our senses. To verify the sentence, you would measure yourself and see if in fact you are six feet tall. If you are six feet tall, you have verified the sentence. If you are not six feet tall, you have falsified the sentence; that is, you have shown that the sentence is false.

  1. Life forms exist on planets circling Alpha Centauri.

This sentence is also meaningful. It is also cognitive and synthetic. One thing to notice about this sentence, however, is that it is verifiable only in principle. (We can’t verify the sentence right now.) If we go to Alpha Centauri and search for life on its planets, we will be able to verify the sentence if it is true and falsify it if it is false. Ayer regards sentences that are check-up-able (that means, able to be checked up on to see whether they are true or false) as meaningful.

  1. All squares have four sides.

This is another meaningful sentence. It is cognitive because it bears information. However, it is not synthetic because we have to verify it by means other than the use of our senses. In this case, we verify the sentence through an analysis of the terms used in the sentence. Sentences of this type are called analytic sentences. Another example of an analytic sentence is “All bachelors are unmarried males.”

  1. Oh, it’s wonderful to be in love!
  2. Don’t slam the door!
  3. What time is it?

None of the above sentences is cognitive because none of them bears information; nonetheless, all of them are very useful in real life. The first sentence is exclamatory (it makes an exclamation), the second is imperative (it gives an order), and the third is interrogative (it asks a question).

  1. I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him.

Now we come to a very interesting sentence. Suppose I make the claim that I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him. If you try to see him, my shy little elf disappears. (As everyone knows, shy little elves have magical powers. After all, have you ever seen a shy little elf that didn’t have magical powers?) If you try to touch him, he moves out of your way. If you try to smell him, he quietly sprays the room with air freshener.

How many of you believe that I really have as a friend a shy little elf? Of course, none of you (except possibly a few people with bumper stickers that say, I brake for Hobbits). The reason you don’t believe the claim in this sentence is because the claim is un-check-up-able: There is no way to verify the claim if it is true, or to falsify it if it is false.

This, of course, leads to Ayer’s main point about the importance of the principle of verification, which he states in a loose form in this way: “… namely that to be significant a statement must be either on the one hand a formal statement — one that I should call analytic — or on the other hand empirically testable.”

  1. The Prime Minister of England is good.

Here we have another interesting sentence. This sentence certainly appears to be meaningful; however, verification of this sentence can be difficult because people’s opinions of the goodness of the Prime Minister vary enormously. (Of course, liberals and conservatives will have vastly different opinions about the current Prime Minister.) In Ayer’s opinion, this statement merely expresses approval of the Prime Minister of England. (Interested students can study Ayer’s ethical theory known as Emotivism.)

  1. God exists.
  2. God loves us.

Here we have two more interesting sentences. Once again, it is difficult to see how these sentences can be verified. Philosophers — and other people — disagree about whether these sentences are true or false. (Some philosophers — but not Ayer — argue that these sentences are analytic.) Ayer believed that these sentences are not empirically verifiable and so they are not synthetic. Since in Ayer’s opinion these sentences are neither analytic nor synthetic, he believed that they are not cognitive and therefore these sentences are as much nonsense as the sentence “I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him.” According to Ayer, the statements “God exists” and “God loves us” are not meaningful.

Copleston’s Criticisms of the Principle of Verification

However, Copleston made several objections against Ayer’s principle of verification:

1) Copleston pointed out that the principle of verification seems to have been specifically formulated in order to rule out the possibility of such a metaphysical entity as God. However, this means that the logical positivists who influenced Ayer made an assumption about reality when they formulated the principle of verification. In Copleston’s words:

If you say that any factual statement, in order to be meaningful, must be verifiable, and if you mean, by verifiable, verifiable by sense experience, then surely you are presupposing that all reality is given in sense experience.

2) Copleston also pointed out that some statements seem to be meaningful even though they are not in principle verifiable. For example, isn’t the following statement meaningful even though it is not in principle verifiable?

Atomic warfare will take place, and it will blot out the entire human race.

This statement can never be verified if it is true because no human being will be alive to verify it.

3) Can the principle of verification itself be verified? Copleston said: No, it can’t. In Copleston’s words, the principle of verification

must be, I should have thought, either a proposition or not a proposition. If it is a proposition it must be, on your premises, either a tautology [this is what a true analytic sentence is] or an empirical hypothesis. If it’s a tautology, then no conclusion follows as to metaphysics; if it’s an empirical hypothesis, then the principle itself would require verification. But the principle of verification cannot itself be verified. If, however, the principle is not a proposition, it should be, on your premises, meaningless.

Note: The quotations by A. J. Ayer and Frederick Copleston in this essay are from a transcription of a 1949 broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation.


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