Verification and Falsification

Here is the Sevenoaks Philosophy page’s summary of verification and falsification. I would like you to comment on the three parables of Flew, Hare and Mitchell – say what you think they are trying to do and whether they succeed.

Verification and Falsification

One way of establishing whether or not a statement is meaningful was proposed byA J Ayer. This criterion for meaning was called the Verification Principle and insisted that for a statement to be meaningful, it must be verifiable by sense experiences – or, in the weaker form of the principle, it should be possible to know what sense experience could make the statement probable. This form of realism implies a very strict view of language: words have meaning only in so far as they correspond to things in the world which can be known. Such a view is deeply influenced by scientific notions of truth, and evolved from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle.

Such a theory of meaning has potentially dire consequences for religious statements. How is it possible to verify claims like ‘God is infinite’ or ‘The soul is constantly reborn’ or ‘There is life after death’? Do such statements really pick out things and properties in the world? Or are they as meaningless as claims in astrology or the paranormal?

The Verification Principle was intended as a tool to allow us to distinguish between the meaningful statements of science and the meaningless claims of pseudo-science and mysticism, and in that sense it has at times been valuable: as Ayer argued, sometimes people assume that because a word exists, there must be a corresponding real thing to which it refers. But the principle was quickly discredited as an adequate criterion of meaning, and much recent philosophy has examined less narrow ways in which language is used. But it is difficult to abandon completely the notion that for a statement to be meaningful, it must in some sense be shown to correspond to reality.

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Various implications of this notion were put to the test in a famous exchange that played out in the philosophical journal University in the 1950s. The debate opened with a paper by Antony Flew which centred around an old parable of an invisible gardener.

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… 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, insensitive 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 Sceptic 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’s point is a subtle one. The believer’s initial claim that a gardener must exist is tested in several ways, and each piece of evidence is dismissed by a qualification – the gardener is invisible, then intangible, then free of scent, and so on. By the end, there seems no way of testing the existence of the gardener at all. The claim seems empty of content and therefore meaningless. Taking his cue from Karl Popper, Flew argues that for a statement to be meaningful it must at least be open to falsification– there must be some way of showing it to be false. A statement that fits any imaginable state of affairs doesn’t appear to say anything at all, and is therefore meaningless. Religious statements tend to suffer from ‘death by a thousand qualifications’: the claims they embody are so immune to falsification that they are, in fact, empty.

Consider a statement like ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. By invoking mystery as the defining characteristic of God’s plan, a believer can make the statement fit anysituation. Earthquakes, plagues, diseases, holocausts – all are compatible with ‘mysterious’ intentions and none can be considered evidence against the claim. Of course, a statement like ‘God always prevents suffering’ is easily falsified, which is the thrust of the problem of evil: but at least it says something specific, asserting one state of affairs and denying another. Flew’s argument is that such assertive and meaningful statements are absent in religious discourse. The only statements that remain are meaningless.

Three key responses to Flew’s paper refined the discussion in different ways. The first response came from R M Hare who offered another parable:

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons 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 still the same.

At first sight Hare’s paranoid lunatic seems to confirm Flew’s argument, and Hare agreed that religious statements are meaningless by Flew’s standards of evidence. But what counts as evidence? For the lunatic, there is plenty of evidence to confirm his paranoia: from his perspective, every ‘diabolical’ don’s mild manner is just a pretence. It is this notion of perspective that is key: Hare calls this a ‘blik’, a frame of reference that determines what counts as evidence. A ‘blik’ is a way of seeing the world, a filter that affects our standards of evidence. The paranoid man’s blik leads him to see evidence of hostility in everything; the religious blik similarly allows the believer to see evidence where a sceptic may not.

Hare’s point is that religious statements are not assertions at all, and therefore are immune to verification and falsification. Instead they are expressions of a particular blik with particular standards of explanation and conduct. Religious people see the world a certain way, and from within that perspective all sorts of things count as evidence for God: a beautiful sunset, a flock of geese, the ‘miracle’ of birth, and so on.

Hare is certainly right about the way we choose to evaluate the world from within a framework. But it is difficult to resist the conclusion that some frameworks, some bliks, are better than others at representing the nature of things. Paranoia is not a flattering analogue to religious belief – and surely the scientific blik (if such a thing is admitted) trumps them both. Moreover, by claiming that religious statements are not assertions of fact, Hare seems to be weakening the important claims that believers make. As Flew replied:

If Hare’s religion really is a blik, involving no cosmological assertions about the nature and activities of a supposed personal creator, then surely he is not a Christian at all?

A second response came from Basil Mitchell who offered his own parable.

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a Stranger who deeply impresses him… The partisan is utterly convinced at that 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 handling 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 his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he 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.

Mitchell’s partisan is certainly more flattering to believers than a paranoid lunatic, and the parable illustrates that belief in the absence of conclusive evidence is not unreasonable. While Flew insists upon empirical tests to render a statement meaningful, Mitchell shows that belief is as much a matter of trust and commitment. Religious claims do not have to be intellectually convincing: a believer can trust in their relationship with God, as the partisan comes to trust the stranger. Moreover the partisan’s trust is falsifiable in principle (and thus meets Flew’s challenge) but the question remains: what would it take to change the partisan’s mind? How much evidence is required to show that the stranger has betrayed him? Mitchell admits that there is no simple answer to this question – but at least it is not unreasonable to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt.

Some time after the University debate, John Hick suggested another way in which verifiability can apply to religious statements in his parable of the travellers.

Two men are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the 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, therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment 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… The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble… Yet, when they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong…

In other words, religious claims may, in the end, be verifiable if true (although not falsifiable if false). Hick’s point is that the two men experience the journey differently: the believer accepts the good and the bad calmly and pursues the path in hope of salvation. Belief makes a difference. It is important to note that Hick is not claiming that religious statements are true (or false), only that they aremeaningful and that belief in those statements is reasonable. This approach has become known as eschatological verification.

Perhaps Flew’s criteria for meaningfulness are indeed too strict. After all, religious claims do seem to be asserting something, and Hick may be right to suggest that they are verifiable in principle. But the other extreme is also unacceptable. A statement must be bound by some criteria for it to be useful and meaningful: if a claim is not open to any process of verification or falsification, then it seems likely to be meaningless after all.