NOTES on 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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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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