Ayer is suggesting that not only is the existence of the God of classical theism unprovable but also that it is of no value even to speculate up the existence of such a God. In addition he believes that it is not even worthwhile to suggest that such a God doesn’t or may not exist! In other words he says any discussion of God whether for or against is meaningless.
He goes on to claim that all arguments for the existence of God – such as the well-respected teleological argument, wherein the existence of God is seen in the evidence around us of design and order and purpose in nature – fail. Even this argument does nothing more than perhaps prove that there is order and purpose in the world.
Ayer is coming from the background of belonging to a group called the Logical Positivists (later called logical empiricists) who believed that only knowledge that derived from the cognitive, factual and physical realm of the phenomenon counted as knowledge. They particularly opposed metaphysics and dismissed all assertions which could not be empirically verified and consequently meaningless. He specifically became known for his alternative to the verification principle: “A proposition is said to be verifiable, in the strong sense of the term, if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established by experience.” Ayer goes on to claim that “no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be anything more than a probable hypothesis” and therefore can only be subject to weak verification.” (wikipedia: logical positivists)
However Ayer suggests he is speaking for all philosophers and yet he is not. There are many well-respected theistic philosophers, Swinburne and Hick not least among them, who would argue that the realm of the numenon has validity and assertions made about a ‘transcendent being’ do have meaning, at least to those who believe in that being. Indeed Swinburne would argue with Ayer’s assertion that ‘there can be no way of proving the existence of [such] a god …is even probable,‘ on the grounds that the cumulative weight of the arguments in favour of the existence of God must at least balance the probability in the direction of the existence of God!
A major problem of Ayer’s rejection of anything non-cognitive, i.e. affective, is that he is choosing to cut out a large portion of human experience which cannot be described in factual terms nor objectively verified but nevertheless has a reality e.g. the beauty found in art or a piece of music; the idea of being in love; or the feeling of being heartsick. None of these experiences can be verified, they cannot possibly even be adequately described and yet most of us at one time or another have been subject to their particular ‘truths.’
So is Ayer correct that there is only one form of truth? Or is he not seeing the ‘big’ picture? Ludwig Wittgenstein originally a logical positivist posited the idea of language games. He suggested that each facet of human experience has its own terminology and cannot be understood by using the vocabulary of any other ‘game,’ so e.g. you cannot play cricket using the rules of netball. This means that religion should not be expected to be subject to the rules of the science game. He also thought that you had to be an expert in the ‘game’ in order to fully understand it and the consequence of this for religious language games is that only a believer can fully ‘get it!’ and this might be a bar to the validity of the claims of religion since only a believer can understand therefore non-believers are never going to accept that there is any truth in their claims! Rather a Catch-22!
Indeed religious believers would claim that a ‘transcendent being’ by his very nature cannot be limited by the physical world and cannot be categorised nor verified in any cognitive terms. In fact Hick called God ‘transcategorical’ meaning he could be experienced through categories but God himself obscures them by His very nature. Quoting Dionysius he says in every way he can think of that God is utterly and totally transcategorial. God is ‘indescribable’, ‘beyond all being and knowledge’. God, the ultimate One, is ‘not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. . . It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding . The definition of transcendent means ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ this realm. Hick and Dionysius follow the example of all the major world faiths by actually differentiating between God and the godhead. God is the Real, the Ultimate and the ineffable (in Judaism called Eyn Sof and in Islam Al-Haqq) but the godhead can be experienced on a personal level. Ultimately it has to be left to the believers to have faith
(b) do you agree? Justify…
I do agree that the existence of God cannot be ‘demonstratively proved’
but would argue that Swinburne’s position has some authority here. He suggests that maybe any one argument on its own may not be sufficient to prove the existence of a ‘transcendent being’ but the cumulative weight of all the different arguments must be allowed to sway the balance in favour of the existence of God. After all any probability greater than zero is still a probability!
In addition the centuries of personal testimony cannot be disregarded out of hand as of no consequence purely because they do not fall within Ayer’s rather narrow definition of meaningfulness. After all where would we be without the words and works of so many inspirational people like Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper and Michael Angelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Milton’s Paradise Lost and Handel’s famous Messiah to name just a few. Or what about the dramatic conversion experience of St Paul on the Road to Damascus which had such a profound influence on the new church and Christianity. Can they all have been deluded? Surely the effects on their lives are evidence enough that there are experiences which are not wholly empirical. To these people the existence of God probable or otherwise profoundly influenced their lives and their works. Would Ayer deny that this creativity of humans had value? So are these really irrelevant and meaningless as Ayer suggests or is he missing the point? Clearly whatever he may think of the existence of God the concept at least most definitely has meaning.
On the other hand it is certainly true that religion has had its detrimental effects on society and history with the historical Crusades and terrorism in our own era. But ultimately it has to be said that though these arguments cannot prove the existence of God the non-existence of God has not been proven with any more credibility either and so to believers the sentence ‘God exists’ does have meaning and does have ‘literal significance’ in their lives.
Of course it is true that making any claims about God’s nature is to descend into difficult territory, it is also most certainly true that the journey is worth making. However even if we can never come to any agreement about the characteristics of a ‘transcendent being’ other than to use negatives to show that we understand what He is not like invisible, ineffable, intangible etc. not to try is to deny a whole realm of human experience.
Thus Ayer despite claiming to belong to a majority of philosophers is really out on a limb when he suggests that the debate is not even worth having. (A debate that Bertrand Russell and FC Copleston famously had in 1948??)
In the end it must come down to Ayer’s phrase ‘demonstratively proved’ and I do not feel that Ayer’s position is valid. It is short-sighted and ‘demonstratively’ untenable to suggest that just because the statement ‘God exists’ cannot be proved ‘true or false’ then it possesses no ‘literal significance,’ it self-evidently does have significance in the lives of those who have been directly affected and even on the scale of human history and the effects of religion on society.
Other things I could have mentioned:
describing God in terms of ‘certain empirical manifestations’ dangers of anthropomorphism; analogical language;
‘cannot be true or false’ analytic or synthetic, if neither then meaningless.
Myth and symbolic stories have no literal significance but have shaped society, beliefs and culture.
Must mention Dawkins too!!