Part a explain what is meant by Verification and Falsification in the context of Religious Language. 18 points (60%)

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Part A


Explain what is meant by Verification and Falsification in the context of Religious Language. 18 points (60%)
1/ Always start with a definition – Religious Language is the particular method of trying to communicate Religious Experience. Because Religious Experience is often perceived as ineffable (William James) it follows that the method of expression of that Experience will also cause problems.

2/ One particular group of philosophers that found Religious Language lacking in meaning were the Logical Positivists.

3/ Brief history: A group of philosophers, led by Carnap and Schlick, got together in Vienna and were known as the Vienna Circle. They were examining Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, The Tractatus (1921). They were joined Wittgenstein and together they postulated the Verification Principle.

4/ The group were seeking ways of understanding how Language was used as a method of conveying experience and knowledge rather than trying to understand the way we gain knowledge of the world.

5/ The Logical Positivists only accepted 2 forms of verifiable language:

a/ Analytic propositions (a priori) - by which knowledge is gained by logical reasoning. These are mostly little more than definitions E.g. All spinsters are unmarried women (Tautology). Most Analytic propositions appear trivial with the exception of mathematics.

b/ Synthetic propositions (a posteriori) – by which knowledge could be ‘proved’ true or false (verified) by sense experience or experiment.

6/ Logical Positivists believed the meaning of a statement was its method of verification.


7/ Another definition - The Verification Principle stated that ‘we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false’.

8/ So verifiable statements are meaningful even if they are true or false but if we do not know how to prove a statement true or false then the statement is meaningless.

9/ To Logical Positivists it was pointless discussing conceptual subjects like God, Ethics, art and metaphysics as such propositions could not be verified through the senses and are open to differences of interpretation.

10/ Therefore Religious Language has no meaning as it cannot be proved using empirical evidence.

11/ A J Ayer joined the Logical Positivists some time after the Vienna Circle and he tried to develop the Verification Principle in Light of criticisms levelled against it.

12/ Ayer differentiated between verification in principle and verification in practice. A statement may not be verifiable in practice but if it is known what steps could be taken to verify it in principle (maybe at a later date) then a statement may have meaning.

13/ Later Ayer realised we accept some scientific and historical propositions which have not been verified with certainty and he introduced the Weak and the Strong forms of the Verification Principle.

14/ The Strong form is identical to the original Verification Principle.

15/ The Weak form follows on from Ayers ideas of ‘practice and principle’. This stated that a statement could be verifiable in the weak sense if it is possible to render it PROBABLE. This could include historical statements that are probably true is there is enough historical data to support them and possibly future statements if the reason something is not already verified is because lack of funds or sufficient technical ability. This could allow for some biblical data to be accepted E.g. The construction of the Jerusalem temple, but not the doctrinal data E.g Jesus is the Son of God.


16/ Ayer continued to uphold Logical Positivism to the 1950s when he received some support from Anthony Flew with his Falsification Principle.

17/ The Falsification Principle was not the exact opposite to the Verification Principle but was based on the same concept - ‘we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false’.

18/ Flaw stated that if a person will not let anything count against a statement (to falsify it) then it is meaningless.

19/ Flew argued that Religious statements can neither be proved true nor false because religious believers do not accept any evidence to count against (falsify) their beliefs. E.g. God is good – believers will not accept any evidence that goes against this concept and will qualify their concept to continue to believe ion the goodness of God. Flew stated that these constant qualifications render religious statements meaningless because they ‘die the death by a thousand qualifications’.

20/ Flew used a variant of John Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener to show that religious statements are meaningless.

21/ The Falsification Principle is different to the Verification Principle in a couple of ways:

a/ It depends on falsification rather than verification to decide whether or not a statement is meaningful.



b/ The challenge of falsification is based on the insight that to assert something is to deny something else. Flew is asking that the proof of the existence of God must be based on what the believer is in a position to KNOW, and not just to BELIEVE.

Part B


Evaluate the criticisms of religious Language that it may be understood as meaningful or meaningless. 12 points (40%)
1/ The main support for Verification Principle comes from the Falsification Principle and the main support for the Falsification Principle comes from the Verification Principle; a mutual admiration society.

2/ The main strength of Logical Positivism was that it injected a new lease of life into philosophy which had been in the doldrums since the end of the 19th century with the ‘Death of God’ movement of Nietzsche. Although based on an earlier ‘Positivist’ idea of Comte and an even earlier idea of Hume; The Vienna Circle specifically looked at the area of Language and this concept played a large role in philosophy throughout the 20th century.

3/ The Verification and Falsification Principles both rely on empiricist ideas where everything of value must be objectified and be able to be experienced by the 5 senses, but the supporters of these arguments failed to recognise that language, including religious language is far more complex that that and includes concepts and emotions and commands etc.

4/ The biggest problem with the Verification Principle is the fact that it cannot be verified by its own criteria, but this did not stop Ayer from developing his weak and strong forms.

5/ John Hick stated that under the weak verification principle of Ayer then we will know the truth of God’s existence when we die (eschatological verification) and used the Parable of the Celestial City to illustrate this, but this is a weak argument because e are guaranteed no such thing. Even if there was another existence after this one, there might still not be an empirically viable God


6/ Other philosophers believe religious Language does have meaning and they all try to show the difference between cognitive (scientific, verifiable and falsifiable) language and non-cognitive language which cannot be proved true of false though still have meaning.

7/ Richard Swinburne used the example of ‘toys in the cupboard’. We can never falsify or verify that the toys do not come out of the cupboard and move around when no one or nothing is watching them, but due to anthropomorphic films like ‘Toy Story’ we can understand the ideas of toys moving.

8/ Basil Mitchell believed there was a reason that believers might not thinks falsify their faith and that was because believers had already made a prior commitment to trust in God based on their faith and for this reason will not let anything count against their faith. Mitchell used the Parable of the Stranger or Partisan to illustrate this.

9/ R M Hare agreed that falsification could be used to decide the meaningfulness of cognitive statements but stated that religious statements are non cognitive. He said Religious language cannot make factual claims but it still has meaning – not because it imparts knowledge but because it influences the way in which people look at the world. Hare called this way a BLIK. He said religious beliefs are bliks because of the impact they have on the way in which people look at the world and lead their lives. Bliks are dynamic and are based on the experiences that make us human. Are religious believes feed into our bliks and our bliks govern the way we interpret religious (& other) non-cognitive statements. Hare used another parable – The Parable of the student and the dons - to illustrate this.

10/ R B Braithwaite believed Religious Language was meaningful and agreed that it was non-cognitive and believed the verification and Falsification Principles had been mistaken when understanding it as cognitive. Braithwaite argued that religious language is Moral Discourse and is about the way people should behave towards each other. He believed religious claims are meaningful because:

a/ they express an intention to follow a specified code of behaviour.

b/ they go beyond purely moral claims as religious ones refer to story as well as intention.

c/ it is not necessary for the believer to believe in the literal truth of a story in order to resolve to adopt a certain way of life (see Myth and Parable).

11/ All Language can be categorised as either, Univocal. Equivocal or Analogical.

a/ Univocal is straightforward language when a word is used to mean the same thing no matter what the context. E.g I wear a white had when painting a white fence.

b/ Equivocal language is the opposite of Univocal and is ambiguous when a word can have different meanings dependent on context. Eg. I fancy a little tart for my tea.

c/ Analogical language is when we understand that a word applied to God of a religious concept is similar to a word used in an empirical manner but is also different. Paley’s analogy of a watch in his design argument is an example – Paley compares a watch maker (empirically known) with a world maker – God (not empirically known)



12/ Univocal language is impossible to use about unknown terms and if we use Equivocal language we are no closer to discovering the truth, but analogical language allows us to go beyond what we know and opens up new possibilities.

13/ Thomas Aquinas and his 2 forms of Analogy: a/ Analogy of Proportion


b/ Analogy of Attribution

14/ Ian Ramsey has a good example with his models and qualifiers. The model is the similar aspect of the known and unknown, while the qualifier is the different aspect. E.g God is good is the model – God is infinitely good adds the qualifier if infinitely.

15/ Analogy can help us see possibilities but it can never give us anything more that that. We are basically endeavouring to understand an ineffable subject.

16/ If the question allows then bring in Myth (see handout of 23/11/09. Metaphor (see my essay) and Symbol – see Tillich in Jordan. The three ideas are all linked and serve a similar purpose. They all help our awareness of different viewpoints but ultimately cannot go beyond what we already know.

17/ We finish off with Ludvig Wittgensteins’s Language Games. Wittgenstein had a complete about term from his earlier Logical Positivist position . He decided that religious language was indeed meaningful. He wrote Philosophical Investigations which was published a couple of years after his death in 1951.

18/ This later Wittgenstein decided that meaning of words is in their use – their context; the function they perform as agreed by the particular group or society using them. Each activity has its own language and Wittgenstein regarded this rather like a game with its own set of rules. It was after watching a football match that Wittgenstein had the idea of Language Games. He stated that Language Games exist within all forms of human activity and life and are based on a communal blik of the group or society. Wittgenstein believed that language within the group’s language game was meaningful for the group but probably meaningless to those outside the group.


19/ Wittgenstein believed it was meaningless for one language game group to criticise another language game group if it did not use the same language. This allowed for people to talk with their groups but caused problems when trying to make outsiders understand. Wittgenstein believed he had come up with the ideal answer to the problem of religious language but all he had done was to create his own private languages which were totally unfalsifiable.

20/ But People from one language game are involved in many other language games. Eg a scientist may also be a cricketer and a religious believer might also be a cricketer and through their commonality (cricket) then some understanding of the different aspects can take place.

21/ Conclusion - Non Cognitive, subjective, anti-realist language can help us discover new insights but ultimately can not allow us to understand the transcendent. Cognitive language allows us to understand the here and now but again it is impossible to go any further. We probably need to utilise both cognitive and non-cognitive language to gain maximum insights but in the end it must be faith alone that convinces the person whether their truths are probable or not.





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