The problem of religious language
Religious language is language which is about God or religion.
The issue of understanding. There is a problem for religious language, which is that most theologians agree that God is beyond human understanding. God is typically thought to be transcendent, infinite, timeless – these are not quality we can really comprehend or understand. However, we normally think that to meaningfully talk about something requires an understanding of it. Yet, if God is beyond human understanding, then there is a problem for religious language. Religious theories of religious language aim at solving this problem.
Religious language would include sacred texts and religious statements, including everyday statements like ‘God be with you’ or ‘God exists’. If they are about something (God) beyond understanding then this is a challenge to them that they are unintelligible.
The issue of subjective interpretation. Religious language in texts can have multiple seemingly subjective interpretations, so there can be no shared understanding or experiences taken from religious language.
The issue of the requirement of shared experience. If you aren’t religious, or are of a different religion then you’re just not going to understand the religious language. It’s meaning is not universal, it depends on subjective experiences. If to understand language you have to be part of a shared experience (like a congregation) then that suggests that the language is not inclusive nor accessible nor objective. If it’s not objective then that questions whether it’s about reality.
Cognitive vs non-cognitive
When words come out of someone’s mouth, they are coming from, being triggered by or, most accurately said, ‘expressing’ a certain part of their mind. If you say “The table is made of wood”, that is expressing the part of the mind that contains beliefs. Philosophers call such language cognitive.
If you are in pain and say “ouch”, that word is not expressing the part of the mind which contains beliefs. Philosophers call that non-cognitive, to indicate that it is a non-belief. In this case, it would be an expression of a feeling of pain.
The debate is where religious language fits into this distinction. When a religious person says “God is exists”, it looks like they are expressing a cognitive belief, but some philosophers argue that it is really more of a non-cognitive feeling/attitude.
When a religious person uses religious language and says ‘God exists’, do they believe that God exists, or feel that God exists?
Logical Positivism is a philosophical movement aimed at rejecting non-empirical language as meaningless. Philosophers like Comte and Mill, impressed at the power of science, wanted to universally extend the use of the scientific method, thinking scientific knowledge the only factual knowledge. Comte coined the term positivism to describe the scientific method of reliance on objective empirical data used to make empirical generalisations with predictive power. This was developed to focus on language by Russell and early Wittgenstein. ‘Logical’ emphasises Russell’s influence of focusing on the logical form and use of language.
Verificationism was invented by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, the most famous of which was A. J. Ayer. They believed that metaphysical claims (a priori reasoning about reality beyond empirical investigation), including religious language, is meaningless.
Ayer argued that the classic debates between empiricists and rationalists “are as unwarranted as they are unfruitful”. The empiricists claim that knowledge must be derived a posteriori from sense experience. However, rationalists/metaphysicians often claim that their premises are not based on their senses but derived from an a priori faculty of intellectual intuition which enables them to know about reality beyond sense experience.
Ayer claims that it is impossible for an empiricist to prove that a priori reason/thought cannot know things beyond a posteriori reason, because empirical thought cannot tell us about anything beyond empirical thought, including whether or not there anything beyond it. In other words, the problem with denying metaphysics is that it requires a metaphysical claim to do so.
So, Ayer concludes that the elimination of metaphysics should not be based on empirical claims, but on logic. It cannot be attacked by factually criticising its method of a priori intuition. Ayer claims instead he can eliminate metaphysics not by suggesting a factual limit to empirical thought but by accusing the metaphysician of disobeying the rules governing the significant (meaningful) use of language. So, Ayer thinks he can avoid the question of whether there really is in fact a faculty of intuition by claiming that metaphysical language is meaningless.
The verification principle is how Ayer did this. It states: “A sentence if factually significant (meaningful) if, and only if, we know how to verify the proposition it purports to express – that is, if we know what observations would lead us to accept the proposition as true or reject it as false.” If a claim cannot be verified by sense experience, then it is not factually significant and only has a non-cognitive emotional significance. This allows Ayer to avoid having to make the metaphysical claim that metaphysics is impossible. Instead, he can say that metaphysical utterances are meaningless because they cannot be verified in sense experience.
The idea is that words get their meaning by connecting to things in our shared experience, or by being true by definition. If a word connects to the world, that connection should be verifiable.
For Ayer, language can only be meaningful if it is cognitive and either analytic or verifiable.
‘God’ is a metaphysical term according to Ayer, which means it is about something beyond the empirical world, so there can be no way to empirically verify it.
Overly restrictive: Ayer’s theory was criticised for being overly restrictive of meaning. Wouldn’t History be considered meaningless because it can’t be empirically verified?
Ayer’s response was to come up with weak verification. We can weakly verify anything for which there is some evidence which provides probability for it being the case. E.g. Historical documents and archaeological findings can be verified, and on the basis of those we can weakly verify that there were certain civilisations in the past with certain histories to them.
Arguably Ayer has opened the door to religious belief here, however. For example, the teleological argument attempts to infer God’s existence from experience of the world.
Ayer initially argued for weak verification, but later decided it ‘allows meaning to any indicative statement’. So, he developed:
- Direct verification – a statement that is verifiable by observation. E.g. ‘I see a key’ is directly verifiable and so has factual meaning.
- Indirect verification – when things we have directly verified support a statement which we haven’t directly verified but know how to verify, we can be said to have indirect verification for it. E.g. ‘This key is made of iron’.
This seem to rule out the possibility of verifying God since we don’t know how to verify God.
Eschatological verification. Hick argued that there is a way to verify God and religious language, because when we die, we’ll see God and then we’ll know. Parable of the celestial city.
However, we can’t be sure that there really is a celestial city at the end of the road – that there is an afterlife where we can experience and verify God. It’s only a possibility. So arguably Hick only shows that religious language is ‘possibly’ verifiable, he hasn’t shown that it is verifiable in principle.
The verification principle cannot be verified
It states that to be meaningful a statement must be analytic or empirically verifiable. However, that means that in order for the verification principle itself to be meaningful, it must be analytic or empirically verifiable. If we try to take the verification principle empirically then it would be an empirical claim that if we investigate what kind of meaning people use then we will see that it is either analytic or empirical. But that appears to be false since empirical evidence shows that people have meant something else by meaning throughout history e.g. Plato found it meaningful to talk of the world of forms and theologians find it meaningful to talk of God, both of which involve unempirical metaphysical terms.
Ayer responds by admitting that the verification principle cannot be a factual statement about the meaning of factual statements and claims instead that it is a methodological stipulation, a tool which the logical positivist adopts for methodological purposes. It is a tool which enables us to figure out whether a statement has empirical meaning.
The tools of empiricism do not disprove rationalism: this appears to reduce the verification principle into a tool one might use if you already agree with empiricism. A priori metaphysical statements are now only meaningless to this particular empirical tool, rather than categorically meaningless. In that case, Ayer has not shown that the non-empirical approach leads to meaningless metaphysical statements, only that they are meaningless from the perspective of the tools of empiricism. This no longer shows that we have to accept empiricism to avoid saying meaningless things, only that if we accept empiricism, we will find the results of a non-empirical approach meaningless.
Karl Popper thought he could capture empiricism better than verificationism could. Popper was impressed with Einstein who claimed Mercury would wobble in its orbit at a certain time in the future because if that prediction was wrong, Einstein’s theory would be falsified. Popper was less impressed with Marxists and Freudians because they only looked for verifications of their views without ever admitting a way they could be falsified. True empiricism operates by falsification, not verification, Popper concluded. Furthermore, Popper thought verficationism couldn’t capture empirical generalisations, which he illustrated with the claim ‘all swans are white’. To verify that would require knowing that at no point in time nor at any place in the universe did a non-white swan ever exist. However, the claim is falsifiable because we can say what would prove it wrong; seeing a non-white swan.
The key idea is that scientific knowledge is only ever our current best explanation of the available evidence; all scientific knowledge could be false, it never attains absolute certainty. In general, all our beliefs about reality could be wrong. You might think it is certain that the Sun exists, for example, but you could be in the matrix, dreaming, or in an alien reality TV show. You can’t know anything about reality for certain. Empiricists tend to accept this.
The important consequence of this is that all our beliefs about reality could be wrong. Therefore, if there is a belief that is unfalsifiable – that we can’t imagine how it could be wrong – then it cannot be about reality. This means that we can test whether a belief is about reality by asking whether we can imagine how it could be false.
It’s important to see that falsifiable doesn’t mean false. Consider Popper’s example of Einstein again. When Einstein made his theory, he predicted Mercury would wobble in its orbit. It was easy to imagine what evidence, were we to discover it, would prove Einstein’s theory wrong: if we observed Mercury and it didn’t wobble at the time predicted. Just because we can imagine what evidence, were we to discover it, would make a belief false – doesn’t mean the belief is false. It would only be false if we actually discovered that evidence.
Anthony Flew applied this to religious language. He claimed that because religious people can’t say what logically possible state of affairs is incompatible with their claim that God exists (in other words, because they can’t say what would prove them wrong), they are not actually asserting anything about the way things are (since there is no entailed claim about the way things are not).
Flew concludes that religious language is meaningless. Religious language fails to assert anything about reality. Cognitive meaning requires expression of belief, but a belief is a mental representation of reality. In order for a belief to be about reality, for Flew it must be falsifiable. So, even though religious language expresses beliefs, since they are unfalsifiable beliefs religious language fails to have cognitive meaning.
The parable of the gardener
Flew illustrated his approach using belief in a gardener as an analogy for belief in God. Two people are walking and see a garden. One claims there is a gardener who tends to it, so the other suggest waiting and seeing if that is true. After a while, the other says ‘actually, they are an invisible gardener’, so they set up barbed wire fences and so on to try and detect this invisible gardener, at which point they then say ‘actually, it’s a non-physical gardener’.
At this point the other person gets annoyed an asks what is for Flew the crucial question: “But what remains of your original assertion”. The religious person claims to believe in a God, but in order to protect that belief from empirical testing they continually add qualifications to the belief, saying it’s ‘not this’ and ‘not that’, etc. Well eventually, it’s going to be nothing, is Flew’s point, causing the concept of God to ‘die a death of a thousand qualifications’.
Flew ends with the question – what is the difference between a world in which this gardener (God) exists, and a world in which it doesn’t exist. If belief in God is consistent with any possible discovery about reality, then its existence surely can make no difference to reality. It cannot be about reality. Flew claims Religious language therefore ‘fails to assert’ anything. It is unfalsifiable and so meaningless.
The falsification principle cannot be falsified and is therefore meaningless.
Popper responded to this criticism by claiming that falsificationism was not a criterion of meaning, just a method of distinguishing the empirical from the non-empirical.
Since Flew used falsificationism as a criterion of meaning, however, it seems he makes falsificationism vulnerable to the same criticism verificationism had.
St Paul claimed that if Jesus’ body were discovered then belief and faith in Christianity would be pointless. This suggests Flew is incorrect to think religious language is always unfalsifiable as there are at least some believers whose belief is incompatible with some logically possible state of affairs. That would show that Paul’s religious language would pass Flew’s test of falsification and so would be meaningful.
The parable of the gardener suggests, however, that if we did discover Jesus’ body, Christians including St Paul might make some excuse as to why it’s actually not a valid test after all. For example, Christians might be tempted to think that the body is a fake put there by the devil. Tempting though that is, it underlines Flew’s point that there really is no way to falsify belief in God.
Basil Mitchell argued against flew’s conclusions with the parable of the partisan. Mitchell is not happy with Flew’s characterisation of religious belief as irrationally blind to any evidence which goes against it. Mitchell argued that rather than need to say what would prove them wrong, religious belief can be said to be connected to empirical reality if it allows empirical evidence to count against it, like the problem of evil. Mitchell imagines the example of a soldier fighting for the resistance against the government in a civil war. One day someone comes to them and claims to be the leader of the resistance, on their side, but a double agent pretending to be on the other side. The soldier decides to have faith in this person, even when they see them fighting for the government. This is analogous to faith in God, despite the counter evidence of the problem of evil. Mitchell’s point is that religious people do allow empirical evidence to count against their belief, they simply judge overall to retain faith. Their belief is connected to empirical reality as a consequence however, and can therefore be said to be cognitively meaningful according to Mitchell.
Arguably Mitchell’s criteria for falsifiability are insufficient. Merely allowing evidence to count against your belief doesn’t make it falsifiable. Only being able to say what would prove it wrong, not merely count against it, makes something falsifiable. Explaining what evidence runs against your belief is not sufficient to explain what evidence could disprove your belief.
R. M. Hare disagreed with veriticationism and falsificationism and instead argued for non-cognitivism. Hare argued that religious language doesn’t get its meaning from attempting to describe the world, but from expressing ‘attitudes’ – which he called a Blick. The expression of attitudes is not an attempt to describe the world, therefore they cannot be true or false. Hare illustrated this with the example of a paranoid student who thought his professors were trying to kill him. Even when shown the evidence that they were not trying to kill him, by meeting them and seeing they were nice people, the student did not change their mind. Hare argued this shows that what we say about the world is really an expression of our Blick rather than an attempt to describe the world. If it were an attempt to describe the world, the meaning could be changed by that description being shown to be false. Because the meaning in the students mind was not changed by contrary evidence, Hare concluded that meaning must be connected to a non-cognitive attitude or Blick. Hare concluded that since Bliks affect our beliefs and behaviour, they are meaningful.
Blicks might look like beliefs about the world, but ultimately they are rooted in attitudes brought to the world and thus we should understand their true meaning to be as an expression of non-cognitive attitude.
Criticism: Although Hare saves religious language from being disregarded as a meaningless failed attempt to describe the world, nonetheless he only does so by sacrificing the ability of the meaning of religious language to have any factual content. So when a religious person says ‘God exists,’ for Hare they are really expressing their attitude rather than actually claiming that there objectively exists a God. Many religious people would claim however, that they really do mean that ‘there objectively exists a God’, irrespective of their attitude. Aquinas wrote many long books attempting to prove the seemingly cognitive belief in God true. So arguably Hare fails to capture the true meaning of religious language
Defence: Hare could respond that although many religious people may indeed feel like they are making factual claims about reality, their conception of reality is really just an aspect of their Blick. Saying God exists therefore really serves to add psychological force and grandeur to what is actually just their attitude.