Verificationism, Logical Positivism, and Self-Destruction
Recently I’ve been messaging with a fellow on facebook about verificationism. So, I’ve been inspired to write a post about it. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, verificationism is the view that a statement or proposition is only valid if there is a way to determine it is true. More specifically, verificationism is often associated with/as logical positivism. Logical positivism (philosophy of science) is a subset of verificationism (philosophy of language) that emphasizes empiricism. So, as you might imagine, there is much of verificationism/logical positivism in the New Atheism movement.
Before I begin into the content of my post, I want to warn you that I’m no expert in philosophy. Sometimes I have trouble understanding some of this stuff, so if you notice that I misinterpreted something or am poorly representing the view, please gently reproach me.
In the New Atheism movement there is a strong emphasis on the natural world and science as being the only way to verify something as true. Some Christian apologists like to refer to this thinking not as the philosophical positions of verificationism or logical positivism, but as scientism. The users over at the Great Wikipedia describe scientisim as “a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” The term is often used in a pejorative way, but I think it does a good job of coining a term for the belief that ‘If science doesn’t prove it, it’s not true.”
Consider the Craig-Atkins debate in which Atkins thinks that science can prove everything. In fact, a few seconds before Craig corrects Atkins, Atkins astoundingly says that science is “omnipotent.” Listen to Craig’s response to verificationism and logical positivism.
One of the biggest proponents of logical positivism and the verification principle during the 20th century was A.J. Ayer. And despite being an ardent support, Ayer ultimately came to the belief that the verification principle was false.
“I just stated [the verification rule] dogmatically and an extraordinary number of people seemed to be convinced by my assertion.” (A.J. Ayer, quoted by Keith Ward, The Turn of the Tide, (BBC Publications, 1986), p. 59.)
In 1973 he admitted that “the verification principle is defective . . .” (A.J. Ayer in Roy Abraham Vargese (ed.), Great Thinkers on Great Questions, (OneWorld, 1998), p. 49).
And in 1978, Ayer conceded, “Well I suppose the main defect was that nearly all of it was false.” He continues on to explain why: “the reductionism just doesn’t work. You can’t reduce statements, even ordinary simple statements about cigarette cases and glasses and ashtrays, to statements about sense data, let alone more abstract statements of science…If you go in detail very, very little survives.” Listen to Ayer below:
Antony Flew quotes Ayer’s obituary for verificationism:
“During my last term at the University of Oxford, the publication of A. J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic had persuaded many members of the Socratic Club that the Ayerian heresy of logical positivism—the contention that all religious propositions are without cognitive signiﬁcance—had to be refuted. The ﬁrst and only paper I ever read to the Socratic Club, “Theology and Falsiﬁcation,” provided what I then considered to be a sufﬁcient refutation. I believed I had achieved a total victory and there was no room for further debate. As any history of philosophy will show, logical positivism did indeed come to grief by the 1950s because of its internal inconsistencies. In fact, Sir Alfred Ayer himself, in a contribution to an anthology I edited, stated: “Logical positivism died a long time ago. I don’t think much of Language, Truth and Logic is true. I think it is full of mistakes. I think it was an important book in its time because preface xiii it had a kind of cathartic effect. . . . But when you get down to detail, I think it’s full of mistakes which I spent the last ﬁfty years correcting or trying to correct.”
So Ayer, the world’s leading verification principle proponent, eventually cedes the point. But perhaps others have been able to rescue from death or have even resurrected it from the dead. Some have tried to say that the verification principle isn’t a statement in as much as a question or rule of how we should come to truth. But, this, too is problematic. Even Ayer saw this when he asked himself, “why should anyone follow the prescription if its implications were not to his taste?” (A. J. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy, (Penguin, 1973), p. 34). And as Peter S. Williams remarks, “If we adopt the rule, then of course we will agree with Ayer, and of course Ayer will find that useful! But he can’t provide us with a reason for adopting his rule (certainly not one that doesn’t implicitly contradict the rule he wants us to adopt)” (“The Definitional Critique of Intelligent Design Theory–
Lessons from the Demise of Logical Positivism). To drive the point home, here’s a story between a student and Ayer (cited in Williams’s paper linked in the previous sentence, originally from: Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, (OneWorld, 2002), p. 184):
A student once asked [Ayer] if you could make any true general statement about meaningful statements. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘You can say that all meaningful statements must be verifiable in principle.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ said the student. ‘But how can I verify that?’ ‘I am glad you asked that,’ said the philosopher. ‘You cannot verify it. But it is not really a meaningful statement; it is just a rule for using language.’ ‘Whose rule?’ ‘Well, it’s my rule, really. But it is a very useful one. If you use it, you will find you agree with me completely. I think that would be very useful.’
It’s difficult to be persuaded by the thinking: ‘If you agree with me, then you’ll see my point!’ You don’t have to agree with my entire system of thought to see for yourself why verificationism has self-destructed.