Verification and Falsification

Definition: Verification is the testing of a statement to find out if it is true


The verification principle was invented by the Logical Positivists of which Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer and Anthony Flew were particularly well known members.

In the 1840s Auguste Comte held that ‘all true knowledge must be based on what can be observed and scientifically tested to be factual‘. The Logical Positivists called this knowledge verifiable and there are two types of statement which can be made:

    Analytic statements and
    Synthetic statements

Analytic statements are those which can be verified by analysing the meaning of the words:

  • 2+2 = 4
  • the dog is black
  • it is raining
  • this bachelor is a married man (false because the meaning of the word bachelor means unmarried man)

Synthetic statements are those which can only be verified or falsified by observing or testing their validity:

  • there is a dog outside the door
  • this tea has gone cold

AJ Ayer proposed a weak form of the verification principle which allowed that even if you couldn’t directly observe e.g. an historical event, if you had been there then this is what you would have seen and heard, could count as verification.


Which then do religious statements go into?

If religious statements fall into neither category it is because they are neither true nor false but meaningless, nonsense.

Revisit the parable of the gardener by John Wisdom as Antony Flew re-presented it.

The parable of the Gardener

Two explorers come across a clearing in the jungle. It is seen as beautiful because of the flowers and the orderliness of it. One of them conclude there has been a gardener at work, the other disagrees because of the weeds.

So they set watch but the gardener fails to show up. ‘Perhaps he is invisible,’ says the believer.

So they fence it off with barbed wire but it never moves. They electrify the wire but no shocks ever register. They patrol with dogs but they never bark. Each time the believer suggests some other explanation: that the gardener is not only invisible but also intangible, immune to shocks, soundless, scentless’.

Each qualification reduces the possibility of the gardener’s existence.

Ultimately how different is this gardeners from no gardener at all?

Apply this to God and Logical Positivists call this the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.


Wittgenstein who was a leading light in the Logical Positivist cause came to see that in fact it is an oversimplification to say that there are only two sorts of statements; now it is agreed that there can be any number of meaningful statements but each has to be played by its own rules (like games.) Even AJ Ayer who once claimed in his book ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ that Logical positivism had demolished philosophy for ever, admitted in 1976 that ‘…the most important defect is that nearly all of it was false.‘!!


So to find the meaning of language you have to ask those who use it. Therefore to understand and ultimately to verify the meaning of the statement ‘there is a God’ or ‘God is good’ you need to ask those who use these kinds of words. (When people talk about the eye of God, don’t ask what colour!)


The Falsification Principle

Under this a believer’s claim ‘God protects me,’ (see Job’s catalogue of disasters) is reduced to nonsense if each time he is challenged, he explains that is not what he meant but that God would prevent his soul from being lost or killed. This becomes non-verifiable and therefore meaningless.

Antony Flew claims that religious statements are so over-protected to avoid falsification that they are reduced to nonsense and wonders what it would take to dissuade a believer? What kind of proof since believers always fall back on such statements as ‘how can we expect to understand God?’


Logical problems

  • religious language cannot be taken literally
  • Don Cupitt said ‘There is no such thing as literal truth.’
  • We interpret things within the context of our own experience (the cave man and the lighter; he would call it magic, we know better.)
  • In its purest form it holds that nothing can be utterly proved since you would have to test every single case or tiger to find out if they all have stripes!
  • The verification principle itself can not be verified.


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