Verificationism


A few people have commented (with good reason) that my last post was guilty of quote-mining William Lane Craig. And truth to tell, I don’t think I gave enough of the context of the original quote to give people a fair idea of what Craig was trying to say, nor did I do enough to address the point he was making in the original article. I gave the full article a more thorough discussion over at my other blog, but I wanted to highlight a point or two from Craig’s argument because they’re fairly interesting on their own. Here’s the quote.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified!

That’s an interesting disproof, because it’s somewhat paradoxical. Suppose you come to the conclusion that verificationism is false. How can you know whether or not that conclusion is really correct? If it’s correct that verificationism is false, then one of the things you can no longer verify is your conclusion that verificationism is false.

Of course, we’re talking philosophy here, so it’s possible that philosophers have endowed the term “verificationism” with some narrow, esoteric meaning, and that it’s not referring to belief in verification per se. Craig’s stipulation about claims being “verifiable by the five senses” suggests that he at least is considering the possibility of some other form of verification. But what would that other form be?

Reason would seem a likely alternative. We ought to be able to verify (or falsify) certain statements by examining them for internal consistency or inconsistency, above and beyond direct observation. But if reason is something that lies outside of verificationism, that would mean that the verificationists, in requiring that verification be supplied by the five senses alone, would have to have rejected reason. Doesn’t sound very philosophical to me.

The other possibility would be if Craig meant to imply the possibility of verifying statements by means of some form of perception other than the five senses; for example, by divine inspiration. But the problem here is that this obscures the essential distinction between objective perception and subjective perception. The key to verificationism via the five senses is not that the senses themselves are special, but rather that the objects of their perception are external to the thoughts of the individual observer, and are consequently perceptible and measurable to other observers as well.

Perceptions that appear directly in the thoughts of the individual are unverifiable because no one else can access the objects of those “perceptions”—there’s no shared external experience that can be perceived and measured by different observers from different points of view to arrive at a common conclusion. But objective observations can be verified, because the same objective reality exists for all of us, independently of our observations.

This commonality of shared measurement is the essence of what “verification” means. By measuring our perceptions against the standard of objective reality, we can arrive at a shared understanding that is consistent with the nature of the truth as it exists outside of our individual perceptions of it. Thus, it is not that there’s anything sacred about the number five that precludes the possible existence of some sort of sixth sense. What limits us to the five senses is the nature of objective reality itself. Five senses give us a consistent and verifiable picture of objective reality; various proposed sixth senses do not.

I’m highly skeptical of Craig’s claim that verificationism has collapsed, except perhaps in the sense that philosophers might have talked themselves into a corner they can’t find their way out of. If we accept the principle that truth is consistent with itself, then this principle defines what it means to be the truth. If we care what the truth is, then we need to use this principle to verify the things we claim as being the truth. The gold standard of truth is objective reality: whatever cannot be found to be consistent with objective reality is, by definition, false. To deny that is to abandon any meaningful definition of what truth is.

 

Comments

  1. Tony Hoffman says

    I’m glad you brought this up; I’ve never really understood the (and I hear it frequently) claim that because verificationism (I also hear it called Postivisim a lot) is self-refuting it’s been abandoned by its cabal of atheist philosophers, who scuttled back under their rock once this was pointed out to them by the brave theist, etc.

    I’d love to hear someone try and explain the best form of this criticism (along with the Argument from Reason) — it just seems to get no traction in my head.

    Also, it’s my (albeit very casual) understanding that Verificationism isn’t so much dead as it’s now called Analytic Philosophy, which I think is what most modern philosophers identify themselves as.

  2. says

    Well, the whole “scientism” thing fell flat.

    So they have to invent yet another term to accuse someone of believing in something they don’t believe in. In order that you can declare yourself the winner of an argument about whether an invisible giant created the entire universe out of nothing by using magic words. And then there were two retarded people in a magic vegan garden, and then a talking snake, and then some IQ-raising sin-fruit, and then a talking donkey, and a whale that ate someone whole but spat him up alive after three days…and then Jesus came. With some plagues and floods and other shit in between.

    Because if you can’t argue evidence, logic, or reason, resort to denigrating your opponent.

  3. says

    Where did the idea originate that there are only five senses anyway?

    Temperature, balance, time passing, hunger, thirst and proprioception are just six off the top of my head.

    • F says

      They are the five oversimplified* senses directly detectable to our five obvious and consciously detectable senses. Yes, it’s pretty silly to be speaking of “the five senses” at this point in time.

      *”Touch”, e.g., is a weirdly aggregated and oversimplified concept.

  4. says

    Deacon Duncan:

    That’s an interesting disproof, because it’s somewhat paradoxical. Suppose you come to the conclusion that verificationism is false. How can you know whether or not that conclusion is really correct? If it’s correct that verificationism is false, then one of the things you can no longer verify is your conclusion that verificationism is false.

    It isn’t paradoxical at all. It is simple logic. If verificationism is true then you would be able to verify its truth through perception, observation, or experience. You cannot verify its truth through perception, observation, or experience. Therefore verificationism is false.

    But if reason is something that lies outside of verificationism, that would mean that the verificationists, in requiring that verification be supplied by the five senses alone, would have to have rejected reason. Doesn’t sound very philosophical to me.

    Then don’t be a (strict) verificationist. Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean you have to disagree with Craig on everything.

    But objective observations can be verified, because the same objective reality exists for all of us, independently of our observations.

    But you don’t directly perceive the observations of others. You compare your observations to their testimony regarding their observations. In short, you trust in testimony to provide you with knowledge and do not rely solely on observation. Furthermore, your belief that objective reality exists independent of our observations is another belief that is not solely held on the basis of perception, observation, or experience.

    I’m highly skeptical of Craig’s claim that verificationism has collapsed, except perhaps in the sense that philosophers might have talked themselves into a corner they can’t find their way out of.

    Here are some quotes from the “Relgious Language” article on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “But Verificationism was challenged by philosophers such as Alonzo Church and Richard Swinburne and largely abandoned in the twentieth century.”

    “Church’s objection was so devastating, that Ayer’s definition of verifiability from the second edition of his book was largely abandoned. Despite repeated attempts by various thinkers such as Kai Neilson to reformulate a principle of verification successfully, Verificationism has been continually rejected as an inadequate methodology. As Ruth Weintraub points out in a recent paper, almost no one defends Verificationism in the twenty-first century.”

  5. Tony Hoffman says

    “Where did the idea originate that there are only five senses anyway?”

    Pretty sure that the five senses are meant to refer to those senses that can be independently verified — you can verify your experiences through the five senses with another person, but you can’t verify your sense of hunger, for instance.

  6. David Evans says

    According to Wikipedia: Verificationism is the view that a statement or question is only legitimate if there is some way to determine whether the statement is true or false, or what the answer to the question is.

    So mathematical statements can be verified by reason, without reference to the senses.

    I see verificationism as a strategy – there’s no point thinking about a question unless there is some way of determining the answer. Strategies don’t need to be verified – they work or they don’t – so Craig’s disproof doesn’t work.

    • says

      Seriously, it’s just another way to set up a false dichotomy logical fallacy.

      If “verificationism” can be proved false, then Jesus MUST be real!

      The false dichotomy is at the heart of all of Craig’s arguments.

    • Ysanne says

      I’m very relieved to hear that the “five senses” bit is not in the actual position of verificationism: I was already wondering how such a view could have existed when people already knew about magnetism and managed to build radios.

  7. Caryn says

    Sort of. Let me see if I can clear this up a bit:

    We ought to be able to verify (or falsify) certain statements by examining them for internal consistency or inconsistency, above and beyond direct observation.

    Not quite. Yes, if they’re internally inconsistent, then they’re necessarily false. But if they’re internally consistent, this does not verify them. It simply confirms that they are logically possible. Logical possibility is a low bar to clear; many fictional books describe worlds that are internally consistent, but this does not make the conditions described in the books obtain. Despite Tolkien’s internally consistent stories, there are no dragons, magic rings of power, or elves.

    Of course, we’re talking philosophy here, so it’s possible that philosophers have endowed the term “verificationism” with some narrow, esoteric meaning, and that it’s not referring to belief in verification per se.

    Verificationism is a theory of semantic content. “The meaning of a proposition is its method of verification” is a rough slogan of what verificationists are getting at. Verificationism is the claim that you can only know what a proposition means if you can show that it’s identified with a procedure for empirically testing the claim. The meaning just is the method of verification.

    To clear up the idea that verificationism is some sort of way of verifying stuff via contact with the senses, but with a technical meaning – yes, and actually several proposed meanings. Philosophers of science would broadly agree that what’s called verificationism here involves some sort of procedure for checking the truth or falsity of propositions against experience. But deciding on a precise criterion of empirical testability is problematic.

    For example, the problem of induction suggests that, if verificationism is true, no meaningful propositions assert universal generalizations, like natural laws. (A universal generalization makes claims about everything and you can, at best, have empirically verified a finite number of instances. Thus, any inference from your finite empirical base to a universal generalization goes beyond the evidence.) As a result, we probably need to count propositions as empirically testable even if they cannot, strictly speaking, be verified. Perhaps they only need to be falsifiable, or such that certain experiences would increase or decrease the probability of their being true, etc.

    Another problem: Verificationism is a theory of semantic content in addition to supplying a criterion of testability. It says that the proposition means what its method of verification is, so that a proposition that lacks verification conditions is neither true nor false – it doesn’t have a meaning because it doesn’t have a verification condition. Which is the problem with the idea that the proposition means what its method of verification says. How would you empirically verify this proposition? How can you test the world to confirm that a proposition that lacks verification conditions is meaningless? Isn’t the central claim of verificationism now meaningless?

    whatever cannot be found to be consistent with objective reality is, by definition, false.

    Some things might fail to be consistent with reality because they fail to make any experiental claims whatsoever. In which case they’re not false – they’re meaningless. For a proposition to be false, it would have to be testable, so that it could be shown to be false.

  8. Jesse says

    When you wrote, “Of course, we’re talking philosophy here, so it’s possible that philosophers have endowed the term ‘verificationism’ with some narrow, esoteric meaning, and that it’s not referring to belief in verification per se”, you were correct.

    In philosophical circles, verificationism is understood as meaning that truth-claims are factually meaningful (i.e., they have cognitive content) if and only if they are analytical, contradictable, or verifiable. The consequence of this reasoning is that noncognitivism is the most appropriate position to take with regard to truth-claims which do not meet those criteria.

    With that in mind, I recommend editing your blog entry “Curtain Call” at Evangelical Realism to make it clear that you have the broader meaning in mind, not the narrow philosophical one. This recommendation does not come from pedanticism. Rather, it comes from having received a very bad impression reading it with the narrow philosophical meaning in mind. Let me explain what I mean by that.

    You wrote, “That sounds like two different principles: meaningful statements that cannot be verified, and legitimate questions that cannot be answered. But in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin, because those who reject verificationism put the two together: they ask questions for which there is no means of determining the answer, and then put forth unverifiable claims as the answer to the question. Since neither the question nor the answer need have any verifiable connection to the truth, you can draw whatever conclusions you like.”

    When read with the narrow philosophical meaning in mind, the paragraph seems to contain the false dichotomy that verificationism and faith-based epistemology are the only options, which would entail that an intellectually consistent person who rejects the former would accept the latter. The impression of that false dichotomy creates the impression of a strawman of many (perhaps most) philosophers.

    For example, Bertrand Russell believed that some truth-claims are unverifiable and factually meaningful, such as “it snowed on Manhattan Island on the first of January in the year 1 A.D.” His point was that noncognitivism about that claim is mistaken, and since verificationism leads to noncognitivism in that case, verificationism is mistaken also. As you probably know already, he rejected faith-based epistemology, so he believed that the most appropriate position was cognitivism plus agnosticism.

    With the narrow philosophical meaning in mind, it sounds like you were arguing that Bertrand Russell and philosophers like him “ask[ed] questions for which there is no means of determining the answer, and then put forth unverifiable claims as the answer to the question”. In other words, it sounded like you were calling them faith-heads. Needless to say, that gave me a very bad impression.

  9. TaiChi says

    I’m highly skeptical of Craig’s claim that verificationism has collapsed, except perhaps in the sense that philosophers might have talked themselves into a corner they can’t find their way out of.

    He’s bombastic, but near enough right. Insofar as any philosophical position can be said to have ‘collapsed’, verificationism has, in that the position has been largely abandoned due to the criticisms levelled at it. That’s not to say that verificationism is untenable, since some sophisticated version of the thesis might evade those criticisms, but just that the sophistication required to make it work makes it unattractive, particularly when there are other theories of meaning in the offing.

    I’m not sure by your post whether you understand verificationism as a semantic thesis, or an epistemological one. It’s generally understood as the former, and Craig is claiming that verificationism in this sense is a failure – some sentences are not susceptible of verification, and yet they have a truth-value, which they could not have were they not meaningful. But as an epistemological thesis – that only that which can be verified by the senses can count as knowledge – I’d say it’s probably held a sizable minority, if not a majority of philosophers.

  10. Deacon Duncan says

    Awesome comments, folks—thanks! So it seems there’s a lot more to verificationism than could be reasonably gleaned from Craig’s article. I had a suspicion that this might be the case, but I decided to address it at face value since it seemed like an interesting topic. You’ve all definitely whetted my appetite. Thanks again.

  11. mikespeir says

    Here’s a question for our learned commenters: How do we get from “Verificationism has collapsed” to “You must believe in the Christian God or be damned”? If the latter doesn’t follow from the former, what makes all this important to us in a real-world, day-to-day setting?

    • David Evans says

      “….what makes all this important to us in a real-world, day-to-day setting?”

      My real world includes conversations with theists, who often claim to know things I don’t think they can know. I feel it’s important that I am clear in my own mind about what can and cannot be known. Good philosophy can help me in this – though there’s an awful lot of bad philosophy about.

      • mikespeir says

        Oh, I find it interesting, too, David. But simply pointing out that “verificationism has collapsed” doesn’t do the first thing for the theist position as far as I can tell.

      • David Evans says

        It does one small thing – it opens the door for the argument that there are “ways of knowing” outside the scope of the sciences.

      • mikespeir says

        But not, as far as I can see, for arguments that the “knowledge” gained thereby leads to anything compulsory.

      • Reginald Selkirk says

        OK fine, so you have a logical possibility of extra-scientific “ways of knowing.” Does that mean that religion, or any particular religion, is a “way of knowing”?

  12. John says

    This opens up a hugely interesting topic. If verificationism is dead, then where is philosophy now? Post-modernism?

    On the other hand, is verificationism appears to be alive and well when it comes to science, but is the whole point basically “Science can’t validate everything, so us philosophers still have a job”?

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