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.