How to avoid the charge of Logical Positivism? The issue of falsifiablity
I’ve generally shied away from any real investigation on topics outside my comfort zone (that being basic definitions of atheism, and issues relating to such). In the online world of theology, critical discussion etc, it’s very easy to be misconstrued in the written form and with these topics being as sensitive as they are to as many people as they are, it gives me pause. Having said that however, I do prima facie investigations for my clients benefit here, and don’t feel as self-conscious when discussing positive belief or ways of life people should adopt, even though the issues I discuss there are just as open to debate (see here, here, here, here and here ) and criticism (though the sports science field seems less willing to do so), if less controversial.
Upon reflection though I begin to consider that being afraid of the limits of your knowledge and cognitive faculties and the likely criticism received for such is not a sufficient reason to stay silent on issues you wish to explore. I expect a certain amount of deference is all that’s really needed and perhaps even your critics might be gracious in their readings and criticisms. At the very least you give yourself an obvious out.
With that fallibalistic mindset in place and a caveat set. I want to do an initial investigation into why atheists are charged with Logical Positivism (hereafter: “LP”), why there are principles we can take from it, while staying seperate from the dogma, and some attempts in philosophy to do so. It should be noted for my readers I am not a scholar, or an expert on philosophy, logic, evidence, theism or LP, I’m merely a guy at his computer with some time on his hands, doing a very simple look into some issues related to LP. I want to, simply for issues of space, focus on the issue of falsifiability (I’ll try and do another post on the meaning of God-talk, if it in fact has meaning at all, in another post).
I think the main reason atheists are charged with LP, is because we’re always asking for “the evidence” and charging theists with holding “non-falsifiable” beliefs. This to a theist seems to beg hard scientism or LP.
What can a theist say in response? The most obvious and apparent thing for the theist to do is to call shenanigans. To charge an atheist with LP gives the theist a strong basis (and admittedly, depending on the atheists argument, a reasonably valid one) to attack the presuppositions of the atheist, which requires at least moderate training in philosophy and logic, to reply to, which coincidentally is generally the theists strong suit.
But does the atheist need to accept the charge of LP (they might if they’re making claims congruent with it)? I’m not entirely sure. Let’s define our terms first. Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification lays out the definition of the LP’s theory of meaning as follows:
“(1) A statement has factual meaning if and only if it is empirically verifiable.
(2) A statement has formal meaning if and only if it is analytic or self-contradictory.
(3) A statement has cognitive or literal meaning if and only if it has either formal meaning or factual meaning.
(4) A statement has cognitive or literal meaning if and only if it either true or false.
Since statements about God and other such metaphysical entities were not considered either verifiable even in principle or to analytic or self-contradictory, they were declared factually meaningless by the logical positivists.” (Martin pg -42, 1990)
LP is often cited as invalid due to its internal inconsistency, after all, if a statement has factual meaning if and only if it is empirically verifiable, then for that statement to be true, it would itself have to be, as the argument goes, an empirically verifiable statement (as we see Randy Everist charge hard scientism, an offshoot of LP, with here), which it is not. I can accept this charge, and accept that LP is defunct and dead, this blog is simply a response to what I believe is an incorrect charge of LP to some atheists.
Some atheists and philosophers such as Michael Martin, Malcolm Murray, Stephen Law, Antony Flew, Kai Neilson and to a lesser extent Karl Popper have attempted to separate the issue of falsifiability from LP dogma , but for our purposes we’ll be referring to Murray (as he covers much of what I want to say on the subject) from his book: The Atheist’s Primer. To use the words of Murray: “My intent here is to use the principle of non-falsifiability without the logical positivist baggage- at least as far as that is possible. Specifically I shall not speak of falsifiability as a criterion of meaning. Instead I shall understand falsifiability as a requirement that specific kinds of hypothesis be testable.” (Murray pg- 169, 2010).
A defense of falsifiability needs to be offered, separate from LP dogma, to establish a general heuristic that claims/hypothesis be testable .
Firstly, what is falsifiability? Murray says it’s all to do with predictions, if a claim makes one and that prediction fails to come true, this failure would normally count as evidence against the hypothesis, in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence, but only in this instance. If the test was well conducted the disconfirming result is a standard case of falsification, for said hypothesis. For a claim to be non-falsifiable it would mean that nothing counts against the claim, even in principle (Murray pg- 170, 2010). To my mind it would seem apparent that Christianity (and obviously other religions) for example makes testable claims (the efficacy of prayer for example?), if those claims are tested (as prayer has been) and the expected results are not seen, is it not fair to consider that particular claim falsified? That might depend on the methodology of the test, but we can agree on that basis, that the belief is testable in principle.
Is this fair to put theism to this kind of test (this site thinks so)? Is this not exactly why theists charge atheists with LP? We try to make everything scientific? I would say no, this heuristic only applies to testable claims. That is the delineation between LP dogma and simply using falsifiability to test claims. LP claims that for anything to have meaning it needs to be empirically verifiable, but that is not what I and Murray are saying. When attempting to discern the truth or falsity of any claim we should consider what would count against it, this kind of thinking, using the falsifiability criterion is completely separate from LP dogma. This is the scientific method, not an absolutist worldview. To elucidate I shall use Murray’s examples:
“If I say “my cat has fleas,” you understand that some investigation of the cat may be in order. You understand roughly what conditions would support the claim. You see fleas on the cat, perhaps. Likewise you understand what conditions would count against the claim. You see no fleas on the cat after close examination for example. If I say, “I am the greatest golfer ever,” you understand that my claim should be consistent with my shooting very low scores. If bogeys and double bogeys are the norm for me, this should count against my claim. If I say, “God is love,” you are entitled to wonder what kind of test is needed to decide the matter. If I reply that no test is appropriate, I have entered the realm of the non-falsifiable.” (Murray pg- 169-70, 2010)
How does this apply to God, if at all? As asked, is it fair to put theism to this heuristic? Is it LP dogma, or a case of Hard Scientism? There are claims that are seemingly untestable, for example: logic and mathematics, but does this apply to God, belief and religion? Murray wonders that if appeals to faith mean simply that the faithful are unwilling to change their belief in God no matter what, they have ventured into the realm of non-falsifiability. Murray is quick to admit though, that belief in God isn’t necessarily non-falsifiable, that if a believer is willing to admit when her prayers are unmet, for example when her child’s recovery from illness does not occur, she will abandon her belief in God. Murray says that in such a case she has put her belief to the test of non-falsifiability. There are obvious problems with this example as Murray states:
“Notice that her childs recovery cannot count as verifying her belief in God’s existence, since the child may have recovered notwithstanding God’s non-existence. Of course, in this example, the child’s non-recovery may not itself count as proof of a God’s non-existence, any more than the child’s death would count as proof of the mother’s non-existence, or th mother’s non-love. Our concern is not what counts as good falsifiability tests, but simply to note that sometimes people admit no falsifiability tests.” (Murray pg- 168-69, 2010)
Murray deems from this that a non-falsifiable hypothesis about God (or anything) is not deemed false, but vapid. What does he mean by this? Isn’t this LP dogma? He elaborates that falsifiability is crucial (but not necessary, as in LP dogma) in establishing whether we should or shouldn’t accept a claim (if we care about our beliefs being true that is) and that claims should be subject to some kind of test, at least in principle. If a claim isn’t falsifiable, it follows that it is not testable, and non testable claims are as empty as horoscopes: vacuous predictions in which everything counts as support for the claim (verification is not enough, we want nothing to count against the claim, to quote Murray- “Not merely do we want to see a bunch of cases where pickles are sour, we want to find no cases where pickles are sweet.“). Murray thinks falsifiable predictions are courageous in the sense that, they boldly make predictions others can debunk, they proclaim the exact kinds of events that would disconfirm their hypothesis. To continue his analogy: “When I say “pickles are sour”, I imply that the next pickle you eat will taste sour to you.” Murray wonders that if you say “God loves you“, presumably you are claiming something, what that is exactly, without clear, falsifiable predictions that hypothesis is as “uninspiring as someone yawning” to use his somewhat harsh terminology (Murray pg- 171-72, 2010) . I believe this to be separate from LP dogma, Murray has shown that God beliefs can be falsified, hence they can have meaning, it is more to do with the believer themselves and how they choose to go about their beliefs that can make them meaningless.
Obviously this has only been a very basic, prima facie examination of the falsifiability issue, if I’ve been successful at all in separating falsifiability from LP dogma will be up to you to decide.
It seems to me that the charge of LP is generally based on perhaps a too literal interpretation of what the average atheist means when they claim a theist has non-falsifiable beliefs or they ask for confirmation of their beliefs or discuss general scientific principles (though that would really depend on the atheists and theists interactions). I can understand the miscommunication, that if asked for a scientific explanation for a belief you didn’t come to scientifically (and admittedly there is a genuine debate on whether it is testable), I can see why you would offer the charge of LP. I think sometimes it is also used to shift the attention (and the burden of proof) onto the atheist, a tactic if you will, to avoid having to provide testable evidence for the claims of religion (and the deity itself), but that is pure speculation on my behalf.
Ultimately I think an atheist can avoid the charge of LP if she isn’t being too stringent on the need for empirical evidence, in the sense that, there is still a way to ask a theist for their evidence and reasoning (generally that involves discussion, not condescension), than simply saying: “you don’t have any evidence ergo your belief is false“. I think some atheists use this as a shorthand, which can perpetuate the LP charge.
Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. Pp- 42
Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. Pp-168-172,