The Problem of Religious Language

Sandra LaFave

1.  Meaning and Verifiability


You remember the logical positivists from Palmer’s chapter on ontology.  They were the 20th-century radical empiricist heirs of David Hume.  The logical positivists said statements about the world (a posteriori statements) had to pass the verificationist test in order to be meaningful.


According to the verificationist test, an empirical statement is meaningful (not nonsense) if and only if you know, or you can imagine, what would verify it (what would make it true) and what would falsify it (what would make it false). Statements that do not pass the verificationist test are nonsense.


A statement is nonsense, then, if nothing makes it true or false. In other words, a statement is nonsense if it is compatible with all states of affairs.


The verificationist principle applies only to a posteriori statements. True statements about a priori matters (relations of ideas) are compatible with all states of affairs, but not in a dangerous way. For example, nothing falsifies “2 + 2 = 4” but according to the positivists, that’s not a statement about the world; it’s a statement about how we think. 


You’d probably agree that lots of statements are nonsense.  For example, consider the statement “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” That statement comes from the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Now, what would make that true? False? You don’t know where to look, because the statement is internally contradictory – whereas the universe isn’t.


Many statements of pseudo-science (bogus science) are compatible with all states of affairs.  Consider statements of astrology. Suppose your horoscope says “You may be disappointed today.” That’s going to be true whether or not you’re disappointed today. In other words, the claim is not falsifiable. And according to the logical positivists, if it’s not falsifiable, it’s meaningless nonsense.


“The universe came into existence five minutes ago, complete with so-called historical records and memories.” You can’t prove that’s false either, can you?  Anything you bring forward as evidence to the contrary is either a “historical” record (like “yesterday’s” newspaper, which of course came into existence with all the other “historical” records five minutes ago) or a memory (a false memory). Because you can’t prove the statement false, the statement does not pass the verificationist test for meaning.  The statement is not false; it doesn’t say anything at all, so it’s nonsense. 


That’s an important point.  “False” and “nonsense” are two different things.  The statement “Bill Clinton is on my roof” is meaningful, because I know how my roof would be different if it were true.  The statement is not compatible with all states of affairs. However, the statement “God is in this room” would be classified as meaningless, since I don’t know how the room would be any different if God were in it or not (assuming God is a non-material being that can’t be sensed – the usual definition of “God”).



2. Antony Flew and the Parable of the Gardener

I’m talking about these questions to introduce the topic of religious language in general. Antony Flew, a logical positivist philosopher, says exactly what you’d expect a positivist to say about religious assertions such as “God exists” and “God loves me.”  What would you expect?  Think.  Yes, he says these statements are nonsense. (Was that an easy question or what?)


Antony Flew, in an exchange called “Theology and Falsification”, makes the point by means of the following parable:


“Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fenced. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensitive 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.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘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 from no gardener at all?’”


Flew says the original assertion that a gardener exists has been so qualified by the end of the exchange that nothing remains of it. A “qualified” claim is one that’s partly taken back; for example,  “Jack said he loved his girlfriend more than he’d ever loved any woman.  Then he qualified his statement: ‘Except my mother, of course.’”


Flew’s point is that the original assertion doesn’t mean anything by the time the believer has finished qualifying it. The original claim (“There’s a gardener – a regular, flesh and blood fellow whom you’d see if he were standing in front of you”) could have been falsified. The flesh and blood gardener doesn’t exist if he’s invisible.  But the qualified claim can’t be proved false. And if it can’t be proved false, it doesn’t pass the verificationist test of meaningfulness; it is nonsense.


The gardener is a metaphor for God, of course.


Thus Flew challenges two other philosophers, R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, to respond to the question: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?” He is, of course, setting a trap.  If they say “nothing,” then their claims can’t be falsified and thus fall into Flew’s nonsense category. So the other two philosophers must find a way to respond to Flew that evades the trap.  See if you think they succeed.



3. R. M. Hare and the Parable of the Paranoid Man

The philosopher R. M. Hare writes: “I must begin by confessing that, on the ground marked out by Flew, he seems to me to be completely victorious.”  Hare thinks Flew’s conclusions follow if you accept Flew’s assumptions, particularly Flew’s assumptions about what counts as verification and falsification. 


But, Hare says, Flew does not realize that different people have very different standards for verification and falsification.  What counts as falsifying evidence for one person might not count for another. In Hare’s terms, not everyone has the same blik.  A blik is a frame of reference in terms of which data is interpreted – a mental filter in terms of which the notion of evidence is defined. Hare says: “ ... without a blik there can be no explanation; for it is by our bliks that we decide what is and what is not an explanation.”


Hare illustrates this with the parable of the paranoid man.


“A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. [A “don” is a tutor at a British university.] His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies, ‘Yes, but that was only is diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it, I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.”


The paranoid man’s entire frame of reference is paranoid.  Any evidence that might count to falsify the claim that dons are all killers (e.g., a large number of mild, kindly dons) simply does not count as evidence in a paranoid’s frame of reference.  Many kindly dons would eventually convince a non-paranoid man that not all dons are killers.  But for the paranoid man, the kindly dons only serve to reinforce the paranoid belief. 


What does this have to do with religious belief?  Hare says religious people have a religious blik.  Once you accept the religious blik, you have a brand-new way of looking at the world. Your frame of reference is radically altered, and with it, your evidentiary standards. Suddenly all sorts of things that previously did not count as evidence for God begin to count. Your evidentiary filter becomes much more porous. The existence of God becomes so obvious that nothing can falsify it.


In other words, Hare is implicitly agreeing with Flew that meaningful assertions must be falsifiable; he tries to avoid Flew’s trap by arguing that what appear to be religious assertions aren’t really assertions at all (rather, they are expressions or affirmations of frames of reference for interpreting data). As frames of reference, they aren’t falsifiable, and can’t be falsifiable  (because verification and falsification occur only within frames of reference). But this seems odd. Consider what this would mean.  For a religious person, “God exists” expresses a fact about the universe. When a religious person says “God exists,” he means that the universe is actually different from how it would be if no God existed, i.e., the claim is falsifiable. So when Hare depicts religious “assertions” as non-falsifiable, he is actually far removed from Christian orthodoxy.  As Flew says, “If Hare’s religion really is a blik, involving no cosmological assertions about the nature and activities of a supposed personal creator, then surely he is not a Christian at all?”


Furthermore, although Hare is probably right when he says explanations explain only within a blik, Hare gives no way to rank-order bliks. Religion is a blik, science is a blik, paranoia is a blik.  But surely we don’t want to leave it there.  Some bliks are surely better than others.  Surely Hare does not want to say paranoia is every bit as legitimate a blik as science or religion. Paranoia is a sick blik.



4.  Basil Mitchell and the Parable of the Stranger

Basil Mitchell agrees with Flew that religious assertions are genuine assertions.  However, Mitchell takes issue with Flew’s implicit assumption that religion is a matter of being intellectually convinced of the truth of certain propositions. Mitchell points out that the truth is not always cut-and-dried; we may be more or less convinced that a claim is reasonable to believe; and we might reasonably believe claims whose truth is objectively unknown.


Mitchell emphasizes that religion is a matter of relationship, rather than intellectual conviction. He illustrates this in his parable of the Stranger:


“In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance – indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.


“They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’


“Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handling over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him.  Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it.  Then he says, ‘The Stranger knows best.’ Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’  But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’”


What does this parable mean?


According to Mitchell, statements like “The Stranger is on our side” or “God loves us” are genuine assertions, in that they can be falsified.  But, given the partisan’s experience of the stranger, “The Stranger is on our side” is not obviously false. The partisan has reasons to believe it; the partisan has met the stranger and been impressed by him. When the partisan asks the stranger for help and doesn’t receive any help, the partisan is not logically compelled to say “The Stranger is not on our side.” The partisan can say instead “The Stranger is on our side but he has reasons for withholding help.” In other words, the partisan can give the Stranger the benefit of the doubt – just as you would give the benefit of the doubt to a friend. The real question is: “How long can he uphold [this position] without its becoming just silly?” How many times must you give a friend the benefit of the doubt? Mitchell’s answer: “I don’t think one can say in advance.” 


Mitchell is insightful here. He says the partisan can’t just “blow it off” when the Stranger appears to betray him. If the partisan has faith in the Stranger, the faith is only really tested if the partisan feels the full force of the apparent betrayal. The problem of evil is just as real for a believer as for an unbeliever. There is no solution but faith.  But it’s not unreasonable or illogical to maintain faith in a person with whom you have a relationship.


For many Christians, the essence of their faith is a personal relationship with God.  So Mitchell’s analogy speaks to them.


But there are numerous philosophical problems with Mitchell’s parable. For one thing, Mitchell seems to miss the point of Flew’s argument.  Flew’s point is that religious assertions are nonsense. It’s not that we don’t know whether religious claims are true or false; in order to be true or false in the first place, religious assertions must mean something, and according to Flew, they don’t mean anything. When religious people say “Just believe,” Flew replies, “Believe what?  There’s nothing to believe; the claims don’t say anything in the first place!” Statements like “The Stranger is on our side” or “God loves us” are potentially compatible with all states of affairs, especially since you can’t say when to stop giving God the benefit of the doubt.


Furthermore, there is the pesky problem of religious encounter.  The parable of the Stranger works if you’ve had an impressive encounter (religious experience), but not everyone has religious experiences; and mental hospitals are full of people who claim to have religious experiences.


Finally, Mitchell’s parable is especially weak as a “solution” to the problem of evil. The analogies do not hold. The Stranger of Mitchell’s parable is a man; he is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. “But suppose the Stranger is God. We cannot say he would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent.  We cannot say he would like to help if only he knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others.”


Thus, Flew (who gets the last word in the exchange) thinks his case has been proved: religious assertions can’t be falsified.  Therefore they fail the verificationist test of meaningfulness, and fall into the category of nonsense.




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