Today's powerpoint at Manwood school - religious language

n  Religious Language
n  Stephen Law
n  Verification, Falsification, Wittgenstein
n  In this session we will:
n  Outline Ayers Verification Principle and his attack on the meaningfulness of religious language (plus criticisms)
n  Outline Flews use of falsification (plus criticisms).
n  Outline some Wittgensteinian moves to defend religion (plus criticisms).

n  Ayer
n  A. J. Ayer’s key principle is the verification principle (VP). It is a principle about meaning:
n  A statement is meaningful iff. it is verifiable
n  (for non-analytic statements: iff. there is some possible experience that would provide good grounds for either accepting statement as true or rejecting it as false).
n  How to verify a statement? 1: analytic statements.
n  Analytic statements are statements that are true in virtue of meaning. Examples:
n  All stallions are male
n  Every triangle has three sides
n  These sentences are guaranteed to be true. Why? Because of what the words they contain mean.
n  Being analytic, such statements can be verified a priori.
n  How to verify a statement? 2: synthetic statements.
n  Examples:
n  All stallions have ears.
n  There’s a pen on my desk.
n  Paris is the capital of France.
n  According to Ayer, meaningful synthetic statements must be VERIFIABLE by sense experience – by observation.
n  AYER: A statement that is neither analytic nor verifiable by sense experience is meaningless.
n  Religious claims
n  Ayer uses the V.P. to rule out a great deal of metaphysical talk as meaningless,  including e.g.“God exists”.
n  Not analytic.
n  Not empirically verifiable.
n  Therefore meaningless!
n  Criticisms
n  1. Whose experience is relevant here? That of an actual human being? But that seems too restrictive (would rule out some hypotheses about distant past).
n  That of some possible being? But if God is a possible being, he can verify all sorts of things, including that he exists (Keith Ward).
n  Criticisms
n  2. The VP is not itself analytic.  So can the VP be empirically verified?  If not, it is meaningless too (but maybe it can be empirically verified?)
n  3. Can’t we potentially verify that God exists (doesn’t exist)? E.g. arguments from design for the existence of God might posit God as the best explanation for what we observe, and thus verify his existence.
n  Criticisms
n  If it’s suggested this doesn’t count because the V.P. requires direct experience of God be possible, Ayer then runs into problems with talk of electrons and other theoretical particles. They aren’t directly observable either, yet we’re justified in supposing they exist!
n  And of course, Ayer never gives us a reason to accept the V.P.
n  Falsification: Flew
n  Falsificationism says that a statement is meaningful only if it can be falsified – only if some possible experience might give us good grounds for supposing it false (note that this principle is, in effect, one half of Ayer’s V.P.)
n  Antony Flew applies the principle against religious belief.  He borrows John Wisdom’s parable of the invisible gardener. In the parable the sceptic asks…
n  Flew
n  "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?
n  Similarly, “God created the world”, “God has a plan” etc. look like assertions but as the theist attempts to defend them in the face of counter-evidence they end up being stripped of any meaningful content at all.
n  Flew
n  Flew concludes by asking:
n  I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?"
n  If the answer is “Nothing could disprove the existence of God” then “God exists” has ceased to assert anything at all.
n  Responses to Flew
n  1. Not all theists would answer “nothing” to Flew’s final question. In which case Flew has not shown that their assertion that “God exists” is meaningless.
n  Though Flew might then say “In which case it’s falsified!”
n  Wittgensteinian approaches
n  Religious belief has come under increasing attack over the last few centuries. The claims of religion are considered by many to have been empirically falsified by the findings of science (especially Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin).
n  Can Wittgenstein’s views be used to defend religion against this onslaught?
n  Some philosophers and theologians think so. Let’s look at two examples.
n  1. Wittgensteinian non-cognitivism
n  ‘God exists’ and ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ look like ‘Electrons exist’ and ‘Ted rose from his bed’.
n  But the use of these expressions is very different.
n  1. Wittgensteinian non-cognitivism
n  ‘Electrons exist’ is used to make a claim. It makes sense to ask how we know, for evidence, to express doubt, etc.
n  1. Wittgensteinian non-cognitivism
n  But ‘God exists’ is used very differently. It is used not to make a claim, but perhaps to express an attitude.
n  Compare ‘Hoorah for Arsenal’. Expresses an attitude No claim made. Neither true nor false.
n  It would make no sense to ask for evidence, or express doubts.
n  1. Wittgensteinian non-cognitivism
n  But then perhaps ‘God exists’ is used not to make a claim  to express an attitude towards the universe.
n  In which case no claim made. Mistake to look for evidence, etc.
n  ‘Non-cognitive’ ‘cos nothing to know.
n  If no claimmade, then cannot be shown to be false!
n  Immune to refutation!
n  1. Wittgensteinian non-cognitivism
n  Criticism: surely this is not how most religious people use ‘God exists’.
n  They are making a claim!
n  130 million US are Bible literalists who believe in a Young Earth!
n  John Searle
n  If no claim made, makes religion pointless?
n  ‘You have to be a very recherche sort of religious intellectual to keep praying if you don’t think there is any real God outside the language who is listening to your prayers.
n  2. Wittgensteinian Fideism and language games
n  Some argue for what is sometimes called “Wittgensteinian fideism”.
n  They argue that religion is a form of life or language game that establishes its own internal standards of reason and rationality.
n  2. Wittgensteinian Fideism
n  Compare game of chess: a system of rules that determine what can and can’t be done, etc. Talk of “checkmate” makes no sense outside this system of rules/language game.
n  2. Wittgensteinian Fideism
n  Science and religion have their own internal rules and standards.
n  We can judge one by the standards of the other.
n  2. Wittgensteinian Fideism
n  Some Fideists argue that it is only from within a form of life or language game that its concepts can be grasped and understood
n   Those who try to criticise from the outside cannot even understand what’s being said.
n  Thus atheists are simply not in a position fully to understand religious belief, let alone criticise it.
n  Kai Neilson on ‘going native’
n  Kai Neilson is perhaps the best-known critic of Wittgensteinian fideism:
n  ‘A full understanding of a tribes culture no doubt requires full immersion in it.
n  But it is not necessary for an anthropologist to actually adopt the beliefs of that tribe in order to understand them. The need to start from the inside does not preclude the possibility of legitimately judging these beliefs as unfounded, incoherent, even contradictory.’
n  Neilson
n  Once there was an ongoing form of life in which witches and fairies were thought to exist. One could not legitimately defend these beliefs on the grounds that they are internal to that form of life!
n  That a language game was played, that a form of life existed, did not preclude our asking questions about the coherence of the concepts involved and about the reality of what they conceptualized.
n  For Neilson, then, Wittgensteinian Fideism is simply a device designed to make religious belief immune to secular criticism.
n  Summary
n  Ayer and Flew – attempt to show religious talk is meaningless.
n  Wittgenstein: ‘God exists’ etc. is not used to make claims but e.g. to express attitudes. Makes religious talk unverifiable/unfalsifiable but not meaningless.
n  Wittgensteinian Fideism also tries to make religious beliefs immune to scientific criticism.


wombat said…
re "Those who try to criticise from the outside cannot even understand what’s being said.
Thus atheists are simply not in a position fully to understand religious belief, let alone criticise it."

There appears (to me at least) to be types of criticism which do not require full understanding or experience.

(1) Where both sides can agree on a common understanding of a subset of things e.g. by pointing to things in the physical world.

(2) Sometimes knowledge of internals is not needed. I am thinking here of the classic problem where one is confronted by a liar and a truth teller with no indication of which is which. By analogy if we have a line of argument to which the theist responds "Well of course you cant say that because you do not truly understand x" where x is some stage in the argument, This is simply saying if put x in isolation to someone who "truly understood" we would get a different answer.

OK. We can ask the theist for a true believer, put him or her in a locked room and pass messages in (a la Searle) and get written responses out. Each stage in the argument can then be run through using the enclosed believer. We then have access to at least some of the results of theistic experience without the need to believe ourselves. Similarly one could put an atheist in another room and allow theists to use this facility to examine the results of non-belief.
This sort of thing seems to allow one to criticize many elements of either sides stance which are internally inconsistent.
Hooligan Hobo said…
"Those who try to criticise from the outside cannot even understand what’s being said.
Thus atheists are simply not in a position fully to understand religious belief, let alone criticise it."

The legions of former true believers who now make the same arguments as always atheists show this to be complete nonsense.
It is also a dangerous position to take. You place yourself in the positions of being unable to criticise any irrational belief that you don't personally hold, or have not held.

As an always atheist (i.e. I don't recall any time that I believed.)
I fully accept that people have the kinds of religious experiences that they say they do. I futher accept that these experiences are likely to be convincing to the person experiencing them (true of most experiences of that kind). However, I feel entirely justified in denying that such experience are good evidence of God/s.