verification principle

Philosophy: Religious Language: The Verification Principle

As a whole, a lot of Philosophy of Religion talks about questions raised by religious beliefs and concepts- we investigate them to try to establish whether they’re coherent, and whether they’re supported by evidence or not. 

Some philosophers, though, have argued that religious statements like “God exists” or “God is love” aren’t true or false- they’re meaningless. We can only have useful discussion about statements that mean something, and these religious statements lack any kind of meaning at al! There’s no point in even raising these questions because there’s nothing to talk about. 

When philosophers talk about meaning, they often identify two ways in which a word of phrase might mean something: 

  • denotation: the word stands for something, as a label for it, like the word window standing for the part of the wall which has a hole with glass in it!
  • connotation: the word carries other associations with it, so window might carry associations of opportunity, or finding a space in a busy week to do something. Connotation is about carrying meaning beyond the literal truth or words, and recognising that sometimes words can convey meaning that was unintended by the speaker. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein raised the question of the meaning of language and inspired debates across the world where people discussed the meaning of meaning, how meaning’s conveyed from one person to another, and what the necessary conditions for something to have any meaning at all might be. 

Wittgenstein was a strong influence on the Vienna Circle. The Vienna Circle was a group of philosophers who met after WWI and continued to meet throughout the 1920s & 1930s.

They followed the thinking of Auguste Comte to believe that theological interpretations of events and experiences belonged in the past, to an unenlightened age where “God” was used as an explanation for the things which science hadn’t yet mastered.
Comte said this theological era was replaced by the metaphysical era, where philosophical concepts were used as a replacement for the gods to fill the gaps science left. Then there was the positivist age, where it was recognised that the only useful form of evidence for investigation was that available to the senses which could be scientifically tested.

The Vienna Circle agreed that the theological way was outdated, and took up the idea of looking at empirical evidence, that which is available to be tested by the senses, as this was the key to understanding what was and wasn’t meanignful!

A J Ayer wrote a very influential book in 1936 called Language, Truth & Logic and in it he set out the main principles of Logical Positivism. He took the ideas of both Wittgenstein & the Vienna Circle and attempted to set down rules by which language can be judged to establish whether it’s meaningful or not. 

The main argument was the verifiability theory of meaning! It was a way in which statements could be tested to see if there was any point in talking about them. 

As a reminder, there are two types of statements: 

  • Analytic: propositions which define meanings of words, we don’t have to check whether they’re true using our experience, as they just give us information about what words mean. A dictionary is full of analytic statements. They’re true or false depending on whether the words in them actually mean what’s suggested… “a kg is a unit of mass” is true, “pigs are flying insects” is false, but both are analytic statements! The logical positivists chose to include some other types of statement in this group, like tautologies [statements which say the same things twice- ice is icey] & mathematical statements like 2x2=4. 
  • Synthetic: give information about reality, rather than just defining our use of language, like “it’s raining today” or “this sandwich has ham in”. 

Statements can be verified with a posteriori [synthetic statements] or a priori [analytic statements] knowledge. Those verified by a priori knowledge are trivial in that the add nothing to our understanding of the world. The most meaningful statements are synthetic. 

The logical positivists decided that for a statement to be meaningful it has to be verifiable using empirical evidence, it had to be possible to test the truth of it using experience available to the 5 senses. Both of the examples of synthetic statements given above meet this criteria. 

But if a statement is neither analytic or empirically verifiable, it says nothing about reality and is therefore meaningless… this way of thinking took up Hume’s ideas, he argued that if a statement didn’t contain any abstract reasoning [like that found in math] or experimental reasoning, then it said nothing at all! If statements go beyond just giving definitions, then they must be capable of being tested so we can find out whether they’re true, and we have to know the conditions the proposal would have to meet in order for it to be true. 

If we can’t state the conditions under which our statement would be true and false, our statement is meaningless. 

A J Ayer agreed that in order for any statement to be meaningful, it has to be in principle verifiable using empirical methods. 

This rules out talking about God, amongst other things, because they believed that we can’t show statements like “God created the world” to be true or false using our senses!

Ayer did distinguish between strong and weak verification, however. Strong verification applies to anything that can be verified conclusively by observation and experience, where weak observation can be shown to be probable by observation and experience, or where we can show we know how to prove it with experience- he said we should use it in the weak sense, because for example, “all human beings are mortal”- we couldn’t verify this without killing everyone, but we can verify it through probability thanks to observation & experience. 
He still maintained to talk of religious truths & God was meaningless. Keith Ward disputed this, saying they meet the weak form of the verification principle- we know how to verify things like “Jesus rose from the dead”.

He later changed this, as he concluded that the distinction wasn’t real because the strong form couldn’t really apply to anything, and the weak one was too liberal.

He used directly verifiable to talk about something which was a observation-statement [a statement which records an actual/possible observation], so something verifiable by observation- are post boxes red? You can check by looking at one. 
He used indirectly verifiable to talk about something not directly verifiable or analytic, though it might be verified if other directly verifiable evidence could support it, for example scientists predicted and demonstrated the existence of black holes in space despite the fact they can’t be directly observed- they looked at other evidence instead. 


The most significant criticism is that statement of the theory itself doesn’t pass the test as a meaningful statement!! The verifiability theory can’t be verified by sense experience as we can’t use our senses to tell whether these are the only types of statement to have meaning, therefore it’s not a meaningful synthetic statement, and if it’s analytic, it’s giving a new sense to the word meaningful, we do not necessarily have to accept this new definition!

Swinburne gave the example of “all ravens are at all times black”- we generally accept this, but there’s no way to ever confirm it, because no matter how many ravens we look at, there’s always the possibility that there’s one somewhere which isn’t black. 

There are also practical problems. Many claims made by scientific advances, like claiming the existence of black holes, can’t be verified, neither can many historical statements- we can’t now test them using our senses. Those who suffer from mental illness wouldn’t be able to explain their symptoms to a psychologist/psychiatrist in a meaningful way, because of the private nature of their feelings. We’d have to dismiss as meaningless statements like “I had a weird dream last night” or “I’m dreading my Philosophy exam” because we can’t test them using our senses… but these experiences do have meaning to us!

Logical positivists accepted there was a problem, and that they were disallowing too much as meaningless. The theory was weakened to allow for indirect experience as a result of this, but there was still a desire to dismiss as meaningless all talk of the supernatural & religious. 

John Hick argued that religious truth claims are verifiable by means of eschatological verification! We can’t test and see right now whether they’re true, whether the good will be rewarded of whether God really does exist, but after death these claims will be verified [but presumably only if they’re true!]. The example of the celestial city applies here! This raises an interesting question about the meaningfulness of any statement about the future- is it meaningful to say that in 789 years, the first Friday in August will be snowy in Kansas? 

Hick’s critics have said that eschatological verification isn’t possible because even if there is an afterlife where we have senses to perceive things, they won’t be the same senses we have now, and without an afterlife there’ll be no one to do the verifying! 

What counts as evidence? Does religious experience count? Miracles? Swinburne said there are many areas of debate where the biggest problem would be agreeing on what is admissible evidence. 

It eventually became clear [and Ayer acknowledged this] that the theory couldn’t be adjusted so scientific and historical statements were seen as meaningful yet religious claims were ruled out. However, there were/are people who consider[ed] that there are some assertions where the lack of possibility of empirical evidence renders them meaningless.