The Verification Principle, presented by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth & Logic, holds that a statement only has meaning if a) you know how it could be empirically verified, or b) it can be verified through logic (e.g. tautology or mathematical truths). This Principle was the central thesis of a group known as the Vienna Circle. The group, including Ayer, Schlick, Carnap and others, developed in the 1920s a theory called Logical Positivism. The Logical Positivists aimed to cut the rubbish out of academia and to act as the ‘hand-maid’ to science and other academic pursuits, as they thought all philosophy ought to do. They rejected all religious, moral and emotional language as meaningless. Ayer, however, soon noticed the flaws in the Verification Principle: he points out that, according to the principle, any statement with the word “all” is meaningless, since it would be an endless and impossible task to prove it empirically. This, he says, is a flaw, since statements in which “all” is used are in fact meaningful. He also criticises the Verification Principle since it would imply that every statement about the past is meaningless, as the past cannot be empirically verified – he argues that statements about the past are, in fact, meaningful. He therefore renders a distinction between strong and weak verification, advocating weak verification over strong. However, weak verification (a statement has meaning “if it is possible for experience to render it probable”) is also flawed, since it is not actually empirical proof.
It is because of these weaknesses that Flew developed his own principle, the Falsification Principle. Flew explains that statements only have meaning if a) you know how they could be proven false, and b) if you would be prepared to accept that evidence. This idea was originally proposed by Karl Popper, who claimed that scientific language is more to do with falsification than verification. He suggests that an assertion is true until proven false. Thus, the Falsification Principle, unlike the Verification Principle, would say that the claim “All ravens are black” does have meaning, because if somebody were to find a red raven, it would be falsified. Flew comes to this conclusion in a University debate, ‘Theology and Falsification’. He begins by relating John Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener, taken from Wisdom’s article ‘Gods’: two explorers come across a garden that seems tended in parts, and untended in others. One explorer argues that there is a gardener, the other argues that there is not. They camp in the garden in order to find out, but no gardener appears: the believing explorer then qualifies his original assertion: ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up an electric barbed-wire fence and patrol with bloodhounds, but no gardener is caught and no screams are heard; the believer is still not convinced: ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’
The sceptic then asks: ‘But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even no gardener at all?’ Due to the believers rejection of falsification and his repeated qualification of the original assertion, the statement actually has no meaning at all. Thus, Flew concludes that a statement, to be meaningful, must be able to be falsified, and, if proved wrong, it must be accepted as wrong by the maker of the statement. Flew, then, implies that all religious statements are fideistic and therefore meaningless, since he views the Problem of Evil (and other evidence) as an argument against God, and sees religious qualification (i.e. God is loving, but he allows evil) as rendering statements meaningless. He questions: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?’
R.M. Hare, in the same debate, responds to Flew and presents his concept of the ‘blik’ (German for ‘view’). Hare uses another parable to explain his point: there is a lunatic who believes that all the dons at his university are out to kill him. Even though he meets very kind and respectable dons, he puts their kindliness down to their ‘diabolical cunning’. Hare explains: ‘However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.’ A ‘blik’, then, is an ingrained belief that cannot be changed. Flew would say that the statement ‘every don wants to kill me’ is meaningless, because he refuses to accept any falsification. However, if his statement was meaningless, then he would be asserting nothing, and thus there would be no difference in the lunatic’s beliefs and our own beliefs. This would therefore mean that the lunatic is sane, but this is not true: his actions show that the statement has meaning to him. Thus Hare questions Flew’s claim that religious people are making statements about the natural world, and he questions whether religious language can be compared to scientific language. He explains that religious statements are based on a perception of the natural world that has personal meaning. He also uses the example of the car: we assume when we drive a car that it will remain solid and not break (this is a blik), but there is no real reason to assume this – we can neither prove nor disprove that it will stay solid. But the statement ‘my car will not break’ is not meaningless, as it has a profound effect on the way we live our lives. He is, therefore, implying that falsification is fine for scientific language, but cannot apply to religious language, which requires more evidence to count against it. Finally, Hare explains a major difference between his own parable and Flew’s: the explorers in the parable of the gardener discuss the garden with slight curiosity, whereas the lunatic is incredibly concerned about the dons. In the same way, religious people care much more about their statements than scientific people, and so the student is not able to take up the explorers’ detachment.
Basil Mitchell also replies to Flew, and he too presents a parable. He describes a wartime conversation between a member of the resistance and a deeply impressive stranger, who is in fact the commander of the existence, or so he claims. The partisan believes him completely, and when he sees the stranger helping members of the resistance he says ‘He is on our side’. Even when he sees him in police uniform and handing over patriots, he still trusts the stranger and tells his friends, ‘The stranger knows best’. He refuses to put the stranger to the test because of his trust in him. However, he does not ignore the questions of his friends or the telling evidence that suggests he is not a member of the resistance. Rather, he recognises that the stranger’s ambiguous behaviour counts against what he thinks about him. It is, in a way, a trial of faith. Mitchell writes: ‘No, he will only be regarded as sane and reasonable in his belief, if he experiences in himself the full force of the conflict.’ The difference between Hare and Mitchell’s theories is that a ‘blik’ does not accept contrary evidence and let it count against belief; rather, the lunatic just continues blindly with his belief. In the same way, theologians consider the Problem of Evil, but do not necessarily give up their faith because of it – faith, for Mitchell, is stronger and more important than that. Faith means that religious statements cannot simply be falsified, but it also means that the statements are not simply vacuous formulae, since they are also explanations (Mitchell says that the partisan’s belief about the stranger ‘explains and makes sense of the Stranger’s behaviour.’) Thus, Mitchell holds that, because religion is the most important thing in many people’s lives, it cannot be condescended to a ‘meaningless’ belief, nor can it simply be put down to a ‘blik’. Religious belief is hard to give up, but Mitchell does point out that some people do give up their faith. Overall, then, he argues that religious faith cannot be falsified by rules that apply only to scientific statements – faith is far more important than that.
Flew responds to both of these ideas in his conclusion to the debate. He points out that there are many plausible explanations as to why the stranger in Mitchell’s parable seems not to be on their side: he is a man, and not an omnipotent, omniscient creator. He also argues against Mitchell when he says that, ‘if relentlessly pursued, he [the theologian] will have to resort to the avoiding action of qualifications.’ He responds to Hare by saying that, if religious utterances are affirmations of a ‘blik’ rather than assertions about the cosmos, then they are not religious statements at all. He also adds that, if they were not intended to be assertions, then many religious activities would be fraudulent and phrases like ‘You ought because it is God’s will’ assert no more than ‘You ought’. It is simply a fraudulent substitute for a reason. Controversially, he ends the debate with a proposition: when religious intellectuals retain their faith in a loving God in face of the reality of a heartless and indifferent world, they are using ‘doublethink’ – a method of holding two contradictory beliefs, while accepting both to be true.