NOTES on 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.

Notes:

  • 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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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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