Sample essay – Verificationism

An A-grade essay on Religious Language.


Logical Positivism originated in an increasing trend in the early half of the 20th C towards a more analytical way of looking at problems of language. This movement can also be seen to link back to early empiricists such as Locke, who argued that anything not linked to experience is null and void: this certainly mirrors the anti-metaphysical attitude of the Logical Positivists. Advances in mathematical theory, epitomised by works such as Russell’s Principia Mathematica, which introduced the idea of applying mathematical principles to philosophy. This idea of science and mathematics coming first and philosophy second was key to the most famous of the Logical Positivists, the Vienna Circle. They believed that Philosophy was not to be used for investigating the world but instead for clarifying and analysing method and argument. With regards to the debate about religious language, they were influenced strongly by Mach and most notably by Wittgenstein’s early work in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The idea that Wittgenstein advocated was that language is not meaningful unless it is used to convey a verbal “picture” of something which exists in the real world (although it should be noted that Wittgenstein later renounced these views, and claimed that the Vienna Circle’s representations of his ideas were misshapen). The theory of Verification was first presented in AJ Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic, the work which made the Vienna Circle and the Logical Postivists famous.

The verification principle, when applied, means that a sentence is only meaningful if it can either be empirically proven to be true or false, or if it is a self-evident analytic proposition. The point that Ayer was making was very much in keeping with the increasingly scientific trend which prevailed even before the Vienna Circle became active: he argued that if a proposition does not tell us something about the world, then it is meaningless. For example, if one said “I have a cup of tea in my hand. However, it is invisible and cannot be detected by any other sense” then this would be meaningless to the verificationist, as there is no way that it can be verified, and so does not change our idea of the world. Ayer did, however, make a link between potential and actual verification, in that if one expressed the idea that there were aliens on the moon it would not be meaningless due to the fact that this can be potentially verified. Therefore, as long as something can be potentially verified, then it is not a meaningless proposition. Ayer expanded his theory to distinguish between “weak” and “strong” Verificationism in response to criticism posed by those who argued that, using Verificationism, such scientific ideas as quark theory would not be able to be verified and so would be meaningless. Thus, he classified statements which can be verified definitively by observation as fulfilling the “strong” criteria and those which can be verified by some observations which then establish the probable truth of the statement as fulfilling the “weak”. Having made this distinction, Ayer goes on to refer back to the original emphasis of the theory on tautology, writing that “no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be anything more than a probably hypothesis”.


The most significant thing about this theory within the context of religious language is that it appears to make talking about God meaningless: one cannot say “God is love” because this is not a self-evident tautology or a verifiable statement. For the verificationist, there is simply no way of verifying the existence of God, as he is transcendent. Ayer does not argue that the claim that God exists is false, but instead says that it is simply meaningless, and “literally senseless”. However, many different approaches to religious language seem to negate Ayer’s theory. Indeed, the theory itself can be seen by its own criteria to be meaningless, as the principle of verification is not tautological, and neither is it verifiable in the way that it changes the way that the world is if it is true.


The first major criticism of Ayer comes from Hick, who argues that religious statements can be proved to be meaningful through eschatological verification. Hick believed that religious language can be verified, and provisionally accepts Ayer’s criteria. Hick’s argument can be divided into three sections: first, his definition of meaning, his parable of the Heavenly City, and his attempt to prove that there is retention of personal identity after death. Hick agrees with Ayer about the fact that in order to be meaningful, statements need to change our experiences. Hick also proposes that the significance of a proposition should be calculated by whether it can be verified: here, however, is where the two theories part company. Hick says that the way to verify a statement is to eliminate reasonable doubt about the claim in question. For example, if one stated that there were a colony of rabbits living in a warren, reasonable doubt could be removed by the observation of these rabbits and examination of any characteristic signs that would indicate their presence, such as nibbled lettuce leaves in one’s garden. While Hick argues this position, he does accept that religious propositions cannot be falsified due to the fact that if, after we die, we find that there is no God, we cannot be conscious of this lack of evidence of him. His belief that they can be verified, however, is due to the potential verifiability of religious language, and to explain this he uses the parable of the Heavenly City. This describes the journey of two men along a certain road, which is the only road that they are able to travel. One thinks that this road leads to the Heavenly City, the other that it leads nowhere, and both endure the same trials and moments of happiness. The man who believes in the city believes that these dangers are obstacles which he must overcome, and that the happy times are to encourage him to persevere. The other man does not believe this, and so merely carries on through difficult and good times. Hick finishes the parable by reminding the reader that eventually, when they turn the last corner, one will be proved right.


This parable is a demonstration of Hick’s belief in the possibility of eschatological verificationism. He argued that a great deal of religious statements rely on the claim that there is an afterlife, and so have meaning because they can be verified in heaven. This experience of heaven would, said Hick, remove any reasonable doubt about the existence of it. This argument faces the major problem of the lack of proof that we retain personal identity after death: any observation of a corpse will show that it decomposes fairly rapidly over time. If the body has perished, how can someone have possibly survived, and if someone appears in heaven is it the same person as died on earth? Hick proposed some thought experiments to attempt to demonstrate the validity of his proposition that there is retention of personal identity after death. Hick asks us to consider a scenario wherein someone disappears in America and their exact double appears in Australia at the same time. Hick hypothesises that we would consider these two people to be the same. The next thought experiment asks the reader to imagine that instead of disappearing the American person dies at the same moment that their double appears in Australia. Hick then argues that if we accept the first scenario then we should accept the second, and proposes the final experiment, which relocates the appearance of the double after the death of the first person from Australia to heaven. If the first two scenarios were accepted as showing that the two people are the same person, Hick wrote, then the third must also be accepted, and thereby accepting that it is possible to survive one’s own death and to retain one’s identity. Hick’s theory, then, proposes that, in contrast to Ayer, religious language can be verified by experience and is not then meaningless. For Hick, the prospect of the arrival in heaven of one’s soul, its experience of Christ the saviour, and the final understanding of the destiny given to it by God, provides us with “an experientially verifiable claim, in virtue of which the belief system as a whole is established as being factually true-or-false”. Hick accepts that not everyone would be able to verify this claim, as not everyone believes in God, but the possibility of at least one person being able to verify that God exists makes the claim that God exists meaningful.


However, Hick’s argument is by no means infallible. The conclusions drawn from the thought experiments proposed in the final part of his argument can be seen to be somewhat dubious. If the arguments are looked at slightly differently, it can be supposed that the double of the original American could be just that, a double. A further refutation of the conclusions drawn by Hick comes through a slight alteration of the scenarios, whereby the original appears with the double in Australia. If this happened, then we would certainly be inclined to think that they are two different people. The above alteration does not change anything about the double, so the double cannot be the same as the original. From this, one could argue that while God could, theoretically, create a double of someone in heaven upon the event of their death, but the double would not be the original person. A second obstacle for Hick’s theory is whether it is possible for someone to verify, through post-death experience, the religious claims which are being questioned by the verificationists and other opponents of the meaningfulness of religious language. In order to truly know that one is in heaven or seeing God, we must know that what we are seeing is heaven or God, but we may not be able to recognise something of which we have had no prior experience and which transcends our understanding. Therefore, following the fairly common philosophical idea that God is beyond our conception, it could not be possible to recognise and therefore verify the existence of God and heaven, which undermines Hick’s theory. While Hick appears to have presented a reasonable response to the problem that the Verificationists pose, the above criticisms rather undermine his argument for the possibility of eliminating reasonable doubt about religious claims.


While Wittgenstein was one of the main influences on the Logical Positivists when the movement began, later in his life he renounced his earlier views and instead argued for a non-cognitive approach which was based on the idea that language was much more rich and varied than the Verificationists recognised. Wittgenstein argued that Ayer’s theory is far too restrictive: indeed, it was once compared to the Orwellian invention Newspeak by Sutherland, who described it as “intellectually imperialistic”. Wittgenstein pointed out that verificationism, when applied, makes subjects such as poetry, and art meaningless, and yet people seem to be able to understand each other when talking about these important things. Wittgenstein proposed instead that a word or sentence does not have a definite meaning, but instead has its meaning in “its use in the language”. Elaborating from this point, Wittgenstein reasoned that words not only have many different meanings, but are also used differently in many social circumstances and contexts, and dubbed these different ways of using language “language games”. Instead of following the ideas of Ayer and Flew, Wittgenstein contends that statements are meaningful as long as other people in a specific context are able to understand them. Religious statements are, then, meaningful because they mean something to of those using them within the “religious language game”. While Wittgenstein himself did not expressly refer to the problem of religious language in his introduction of this new theory, it has been adapted to present a challenge to Ayer’s theory. Wittgenstein’s ideas tell us that in order to be able to fully appreciate what it is like to be inside the “religious language game”, it is necessary to immerse oneself in the rules which are a product of belief, and indeed the beliefs themselves. This, he claims, is the problem with the prescriptive theories of Flew and Ayer: they believe that language only makes sense if it is factually significant, and so when they see that religious language cannot meet this challenge, they discard it as meaningless. The application of a set of criteria to religious language which should, in Wittgenstein’s view, be used to judge statements about the world only, is also a problem for Verificationism – it is not academically or logically sound to pit the two different language types against each other. Perhaps the sum of this view is in a comparison of the way that one would say “a giraffe exists” and “God exists”. The two words appear to be the same, but the latter usage is about more than just existence: it is a reverential phrase, and one which conveys a great deal about the beliefs of the person saying it. Thereby, Wittgenstein presents a significant challenge to Ayer’s theory.


The application of Wittgenstein’s ideas to the problem of religious language does present some problems, however. The anti-realistic approach favoured by Wittgenstein means that as the statements expressed within that particular “language game” have no connection to the world, they no longer need to be true or false. This means that one could talk in great depth about the existence of anything as long as it is classified as a language game. This is problematic for believers because many statements within religion are about things in the world existing, such as God. This theory could be seen as being in contravention of the belief that God is real, and not just an article within a language game.


The theory of Verification was widely respected when it was first published, but the considerable challenges raised against it in the time since seem to have almost demolished it. While Ayer’s theory may have been appropriate to the mood of the time in which he was writing it, the very fact that the theory itself is a contradiction undermines it from the start. Hick’s challenge, in my view, is highly subjective to opinion when it comes to its effectiveness, although if it is considered sound, it presents a great problem for Verificationism. Wittgenstein’s theory, however, is particularly damaging. The main problem for Ayer was that he underestimated the complicated structures and uses of language: this caused his theory to be overly simplistic and prescriptive.

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