Not all definitions of marriage are equal »« Verificationism

The apologist’s dilemma

Thanks to some articulate and well-informed comments on yesterday’s post, I now understand that there’s a lot more to it than just needing to verify your conclusions before you accept them as true. Verificationism (or at least, the strict forms of verificationism that William Lane Craig was referring to) can go so far as to say that unverifiable statements can’t even have meaning. In other words, if I can’t verify whether or not it was raining on June 12, 4BC, the proposition “It was raining on June 12, 4BC” doesn’t even mean anything. I can’t even ask whether it is true or false because there’s no way to know what those words even mean.

Ok, strict verificationism overstates its case. So far so good. The question then becomes, “So what, then?” Even granting that verificationism, or at least certain forms of strict verificationism, might have gone too far, what does that have to do with Christianity? Craig’s opening argument was that the alleged collapse of verificationism led directly to a resurgence of Christian philosophy. But why would that be the case? What is it about Christianity that benefits from such a change, and what does this mean for apologetics and natural theology?

Here’s the relevant quote from the beginning of Craig’s article.

The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

Even under the strictest forms of verificationism, the only discussions that are inhibited are those which concern topics that cannot be verified. For topics that are subject to verification, the question is not whether or not they’re meaningful, but whether or not they’re true. According to Craig, however, Christianity was off the table, on the grounds that it could not be meaningful. In other words, Craig is telling us that Christianity is fundamentally unverifiable, because if it weren’t, the rise and possible fall of verificationism would have had no more effect on Christian philosophy than it did on theoretical physics.

That is really bad news for Craig, because the twin fields of apologetics and natural theology are nothing if not attempts to convince people that Christianity is both verifiable and verified. Right out of the gate, he’s consigned his whole career to a self-contradiction: the verification of the unverifiable.

On the other hand, though, there’s no way to avoid this kind of dilemma. The problem with apologetics (and its conjoined twin, natural theology) is that the nature of Christian claims is such that they cannot be both true and unverifiable. The existence of an all-mighty, all-good, and all-loving Supreme Being, Who loves us enough to literally and personally die for us so that we can enjoy the blessings of Heaven with Him forever, is a proposition whose consequences would be so significant, so pervasive, and so tangible, as to be undeniable.

Of course, no such consequences are actually manifest in the real world. People superstitiously attribute things to God, but the effects they attribute to Him fail to rise above the background noise of ordinary happenstance. Certainly they’re nowhere near the kind of earthshaking consequences that would result from Christianity being true. Thus, apologists and natural theologians are left with no recourse but to proclaim the unverifiability of their conclusions. This is no mere accusation on the part of skeptical critics; verificationism impedes Christian philosophy because the apologists and theologians themselves have to insist on unverifiability in order to prevent their claims from being demonstrated as manifestly false.

And yet the subject matter of their twin fields stands or falls on their ability to verify what they themselves must hold as unverifiable. Their whole career revolves around thinking up rationalizations for why reality falls so far from the consequences that would reasonably result if their claims were true. Some of the most brilliant minds our culture has produced, wasting their time and energy trying to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. That’s a huge loss, not just for themselves, but for the rest of us as well.