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.

Comments

  1. KG says

    Since verificationism was never anything like a consensus position among epistemologists, Craig’s full of shit. But you knew that ;-)

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Without verifiability, what does religion have to replace it with? I.e. how can I differentiate between religious claims and ‘making shit up’? Because I doubt that making shit up is philosophically respectable; and if is, so much the worse for philosophy.

    • says

      “how can I differentiate between religious claims and ‘making shit up’?”

      Don’t.

      Opponents of apologetics — not assuming you are one — often make things much too difficult for themselves.

  3. Leo says

    On my blog, I’ve been going over the book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist” by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler. In Chapter 2, they have a section that talks about something very similar. They quote David Hume as saying, “‘Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?’ No. Commit it then to the flames.” At my blog, I added the following:

    In the next paragraph, the authors say, “Do you see the implications of Hume’s two conditions? If he’s correct, then any book talking about God is meaningless” (p58). But wait! Isn’t one of the points of this book to show how much evidence there is for Christianity? If they have the evidence, then Hume’s ideas of empiricism should not concern them.

    I suspect they don’t have the evidence they claim. ;)

  4. Kevin says

    I’ll reiterate that Craig is merely creating the verificationism strawman in order to set up his false dichotomy logical fallacy.

    Verificationism is dead; ergo Jesus.

    Without even establishing that verficationism existed in the first place, was a good or a bad thing, whether it is really and truly dead or merely dead according to Craig, and on and on.

    And especially without then assigning the entire proposition of the existence of a god to nothing more than “I wish it to be so, therefore it is.” It’s the Ontological Argument for Dummies.

  5. John says

    I’ve been following your blog here and at Evangelical Realism for a while now (it’s really helped with my deconversion out of fundamentalism) and I wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed your going through On Guard, and the last set of posts has been extremely interesting.

    I think you’re on the right track here. Verificationism may be “dead” in terms of a being an accepted philosophical view, but as Craig notes in the article, our society very much does hold to Verificationism when it comes to Science, Engineering, and Technology – because in those fields, verificationism is necessary, if not absolutely foundational, to each of them. Indeed, for a theory to be considered scientific, it must at least be falsifiable.

    The vast majority of people trust science, because it works. We’ve got computers, cars, planes, modern medicine, and everything else.

    Verificationism is good in part, because it gives reasons to believe the truth value of something. Even if we don’t know everything about a thing or phenomenon via science, at least we can definitively say “what it is not”. This does provide valuable knowledge, and I don’t think even someone like Craig will reject it.

    I think the way to answer apologists like Craig is to point out that their “proofs” or “arguments” for god’s existence, are all rooted in philosophy or metaphysics – they can’t be proven or falsified. While this means we skeptics can’t prove them wrong, they likewise aren’t providing actual reasons to believe in anything.

    They’re simply rationalizing per-existing beliefs so that their beliefs no longer conflict with what we have already falsified.

    I really think that last part is what Craig is getting at when he describes the goal of natural theology and apologetics. Thinking people need a way to rationalize beliefs that can’t be verified, and he provides an interpretation of science that allows for it.

    This means our job as skeptics is to point out where Craig and Co. actually misuse science, which I think is fairly easy to do.

  6. says

    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.

    Then I am sure that you will be happy to know that the statement as it stands has already been verified.

  7. says

    “Some of the most brilliant minds our culture has produced, wasting their time and energy trying to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality.”

    Ain’t that the truth. But are they the only ones wasting their energy?

    I don’t participate in debates with apologists much, and I don’t wish to be a party-pooper for anyone who may actually enjoy that sort of thing, but aren’t you sort of propping up the apologists by going to so much trouble to refute their ridiculous arguments? By debating them, aren’t you conceding that their arguments rise to the level where they are worth debating?

    Keep this in mind: it’s much simpler to create ridiculous, unsound arguments (or pseudo-arguments) than it it is to formally refute them. Refute every single silly thing the apologists say, and when you’re done they’ll have more silly arguments waiting for you, assuming that they’re still apologists.

    I didn’t figure that out all by myself. As with many other insights, I had help from Nietzsche. See Morgenroethe, aphorism 95. Although part of that aphorism was much too optimistic on Nietzsche’s part: he spoke of atheists in the past, in his past, refuting proofs of God only to have theologians waiting with new proofs, and said that “back then” (“damals”) atheists didn’t yet understand how to be done with the whole business. And yet here we are, more than 130 years later…

    Unless of course Nietzsche and I are wrong about this and there is some sort of point to these debates which escapes me. I know that a lot of important things escape me.

    • mikespeir says

      Sometimes it does seem like shoveling dirt into a bottomless pit. But I think people need to see us making the effort. I, like others here, am evidence enough that the work does pay off for many. Lots of people suspect their faith is full of holes, founded on hot air, but don’t quite have the wherewithal to collect and assimilate the data and arguments.

      And then there’s the whole peer pressure thing. I’m convinced that most “believers” don’t really believe as much as even they think they do. They mistake the warm fuzzies they receive in fellowship with others for belief. It’s easier for the coals of their faith to stay warm when they huddle with like-minded persons. But that effect can be nullified to some degree when they see that there are other people who don’t buy the story and can give solid reasons for rejecting it.

      • says

        I’m making an effort to overcome religion as well, but I’m doing it by talking about religion, and not talking to religious zealots. The latter just strikes me as a hamster wheel. Or, as the saying goes, you just get all dirty and the pig has all the fun. Or, staying on the theme of pigs, cast not your pearls before swine.

        For me personally there are other avenues which strike me as a more effective, efficient use of my time. Of course, what works best for me may not work best for you.

        And, in a way, it is an answer to the apologists when one says that their arguments are absurd, they’re barely arguments, and it’s not worth one’s time to go into them in any greater length than that.

        We’re both on the same side here, both pulling in the same direction. In any organized effort involving many people, division of labor can lead to greater efficiency.

        Another factor here may be the fact that I am autistic. If the percentage of activist atheists who are autistic is comparable to that in the general population, that would mean that less than 1% of us are autistic. And within the atheist movement as in life in general, the fact the we autistics have brains which function differently than the majority may often mean that we are suited to different tasks.

        You wrote:

        “I’m convinced that most “believers” don’t really believe as much as even they think they do. They mistake the warm fuzzies they receive in fellowship with others for belief.”

        In some cases they probably consciously don’t believe, but don’t want to rock the boat, or risk losing some comforts and/or perks that come with church attendance. In his novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Robert Musil made a remark about this sort of thing. The novel is set in pre-World War I Vienna, near the very end of the Habsburg monarchy, a time and place where high social positions were very much bound up with the Catholic church. I didn’t make a note of what page this remark is on and I’ve been trying to find it again forever and it’s been driving me nuts. Anyway. Musil compared religion to a moving ski-lift, and a person’s social rank to how high the lift was, and renouncing religion to stepping out of the lift — harder to do the higher up you were.

        I hope I got that mostly right. I sure wish I could find that passage again. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, including the Nachlass, is over 2000 pages long, in very small print. I could always just read the whole thing again, it’s a terrific novel…

        In any case, that passage reminded me of some upper-crusty Americans who go to church but probably don’t believe, and of politicians who act like they’re religious and don’t dare end a speech other than with the words “[...]and God bless the United states of America!” and who knows what they really believe.

      • mikespeir says

        That Musil quote hits home. I was never in a position of paid ministry, but I was an adult Sunday School teacher at a Methodist church. Circumstances prevailed on me such that I had to leave and move across country. It was only after I left that it dawned on me that I just wasn’t buying the tale any more. If I had stayed, I’d probably still be trying to kid myself today. No, I wasn’t high on that ski lift, but I was high enough that I likely wouldn’t have dared to step off. In the event, I had to return to ground and there I found it easy–inevitable–to leave.

    • Andrew Woods says

      Refute every single silly thing the apologists say, and when you’re done they’ll have more silly arguments waiting for you

      Yes, but the process allows people who are still on the fence to notice that pattern.

      • says

        I hear you. As I said, I’m not 100% certain about my position here. But still, it seems to me that by engaging with nonsense you’re legitimizing it. Propping it up. And just putting wind in the apologists’ sails. And consider: also to the onlookers, a nice concise “What a crock, you silly person!” and out, may be more effective than point-by-point refutation by the thousands of words. Don’t you think that the latter may run the risk of making you seem very similar to the apologist in the eyes of that person on the fence?

  8. Randomfactor says

    Off topic, but I’m tickled to see the ad accompanying this piece is apparently some sort of browser app for doing Bible study–illustrated with the Buddy Christ from “Dogma.”

  9. tonylloyd says

    Far be it for me to say that you’re being unfair to Craig. But you’re being unfair to Craig. The chilling effect of Logical Positivism was real and extended way beyond discussions about God.

    Anything that could not be verified could be (and was) claimed to be “meaningless”. What can’t be verified? Ab-so-lu-tely anything. Eg:

    1. Ethics. “Torturing babies to death for fun is wrong” is meaningless. The only observation statement that results from that is hearing someone say that torturing babies to death for fun is wrong. There’s no real wrong about it, just people’s attitude to it. And so the emotive theory of ethics, also called the “Yay/boo theory of ethics” all any ethical statement means is “Yay! Being nice!” and “Boo to torturing babies for fun!”. This is a real theory promoted by Logical Positivists (see Ayer “Language Truth and Logic”) with the added twist that rival theories weren’t wrong, they were not even meaningful.

    2. Atoms I kid you not: the idea of the existence of non-directly perceivable entities was held, at best, to be a useful fiction in science, at worst as something you shouldn’t even speak about. There were times when they worried about whether “the far side of the moon” was a meaningful concept.

    3. Universal scientific laws (This isn’t Popper talking: this is the Logical Positivists.) No number of finite observations will verify a universal law, thus no universal law is meaningful. Boyle’s law? Not even wrong.

    4. Correspondence theory of truth What’s this “reality” you’re corresponding to? All you’ve verified is a coherence of statements.

    5. Look it’s the fucking sun, ok? No mate, you and I have different procedures for verifying the sun, so the sun means different things to both of us, so it’s a different sun.

    Logical Positivism was a HUUUUUGE thing and it’s collapse was hugely liberating.

    Not that Logical Positivism was all bad, in fact a lot of it was very, very, good. (I hate it when people say “here, read this” but do consider reading Passmore’s classic (and short) piece on the movement here: http://www.igs.net/~pballan/logicalpos(Passmore).htm )

  10. Azuma Hazuki says

    @Tony

    Fascinating. I never knew the names for any of this as a girl despite thinking about it, so I basically just went “human things work for humans, so let’s be human.” I now know this attitude is a combination of methodological (though NOT metaphysical) naturalism and pragmatism :)

  11. Anri says

    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.

    Here I’m going to disagree with you.

    An all-mighty god can hide infinitely well, and could therefore remain utterly undetectable to a mortal intelligence.

    Of course, this raises the problem for the apologist of why god would hide, assuming he wants us to follow his dictates. Presumably, the more proof provided, the more people end up in heaven.
    Most apologists at this point retreat into the formulation that god’s mind is so far advanced beyond our own that we cannot hope to understand his motives. The irony of an apologist saying, “no-one can know the mind of god – let me tell you what god wants for you…” is usually worth a logic crash when you put it aloud in those terms.
    At this point, you usually get a lot of handwaving and bluster, “You atheists are just being Rude! And Nasty! And Militant! And you’re going to hell and I’ll pray for you and god loves you and shut up, that’s why!”

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