Verification and falsification question

Qn. a) Explain what is meant by verification and falsification in the context of debates about religious language. (8)

Antony Flew believed that religious claims are cognitive in that they are intended to be factual assertions. Flew insisted that claims by the believer such as ‘God loves us’ are not to be taken as ‘anything but assertions’. Verification means to prove the truth of a statement whilst falsification means to prove a statement is false.

Logical positivism was developed by the Vienna circle. They only accepted two forms of verifiable language: Analytical a priori statements which are logically true or false, an example would be ‘all circles are round’ and synthetic a posteriori statements which are true or false, based upon experience or evidence.

This thinking formed the basis of the Verification Principle and as Schlick, the leader of the Vienna Circle believed that ‘the meaning of a proposition is the method of verification’, with only those that can be verified as analytical a priori or synthetic a posteriori having meaning. The logical positivists argued that propositions about God, ethics, art and metaphysics were meaningless as such propositions could not be proved true or false. A.J. Ayer argued that ‘God exists’ is neither true nor false because there is no empirical evidence to support the claim.

The Verification Principle doesn’t threaten all religious language, for example ‘all priests wear black robes’, much is intended to be taken literally and it is only when an attempt is made to get beyond such literal descriptions that a problem occurs.

Antony Flew formulated the Falsification Principle which accepts that a statement is verifiable and therefore meaningful if it is known what empirical evidence could count against it.

John Hick said ‘In order to say something may possibly be true, we must say something which may possibly be false’. In other words the Falsification Principle demands that believers should be able to say what would cause them to withdraw their statements or acknowledge that they are seriously challenged, if those statements are to have meaningful content. Flew argued that believers do not satisfy these demands and so is religious language is meaningless.


Qn. b) Analyse and evaluate the ways in which EITHER verification OR falsification can be used to discredit the meaningfulness of religious language. (12)


Flew used the Falsification Principle to attempt to prove that religious statements are meaningless because a religious believer will allow nothing to count against his or her beliefs, for example, believers give reasons that maintain God’s goodness whatever evidence is offered to the contrary and Flew stated that these constant qualifications render religious statements meaningless, because they die the ‘death of a thousand qualification’.

Flew used Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener to illustrate how believers will not allow evidence to count against theological statements. Flew argues that the believer is guilty of the same error as the man who believed in the presence of a gardener. Failure to prove God’s existence doesn’t lead to a withdrawal of the believer’s faith claims, rather they continue to believe in a God, who like the Gardener can only be described in negative terms.

Flew also used the provocative example of a child dying of a terminal illness. The believer fails to acknowledge that their assertions about God are threatened by the prevailing circumstances, but in order to maintain their claim that ‘God loves us’ they qualify the nature of His love. For Flew, it is better to recognise that conceivably there are grounds which present a real faith challenge.

The Falsification challenge is based upon the insight that to assert something is to deny something else. In the context of religious belief, asserting God’s existence is to deny his non-existence. Flew asks that the proof of the existence of God must be based upon what the believer knows and not just believes.

Many philosophers argue that religious statements are non-cognitive and so wrong to treat them as such. It is argued that religious statements still have meaning even if they do not contain facts that could be proved true nor false.

The Falsification Principle does not work for all statements but they are still meaningful. They cannot be falsified but yet we still understand the meaning behind them. Swinburne uses the example of toys in the cupboard, although one cannot prove that the toys do not leave the cupboard and move around when unsupervised, and cannot falsify whether they move or not; the concept of their movement still has meaning because we can understand it. Similarly although it may not be possible to falsify religious statements, the concepts that they convey still have meaning for they can still be understood.

R.M. Hare proposed that a believer’s statements were ‘bliks’: ways of regarding the world that in principle are neither falsifiable nor verifiable. Hare illustrated the point with the example of a university student, convinced the dons were trying to kill him and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. Although the student would not accept any evidence that because it influenced his perception of the university. Hare felt that religious beliefs are ‘bliks’ because of the impact that they have on the way in which people look at the world and their lives.

Basil Mitchell wanted to show that religious statements are meaningful even if they are neither straightforwardly verifiable nor falsifiable. Mitchell argued that Flew was wrong in his supposition that believers never allow anything to count against their beliefs. Using the Parable of the Partisan and the stranger, he claimed that Flew had missed the point that like the partisan, believers had a prior commitment to trust God based on faith. Mitchell claims that believers do not allow anything to conclusively falsify their belief in God, but this does not mean it is meaningless because they do show, like the partisan, that there is a real problem of which they must be aware.

It does not seem that the Falsification Principle can be used to discredit the meaningfulness of religious language because it has been shown that religious statements can still have meaning even if they cannot be falsified, nor does it fully appreciate the role that faith must play in the life of a religious believer.


Did you find this information helpful?