Post Author: Bill Pratt
The empiricist David Hume believed so. According to Hume, who is possibly the most famous skeptic in the history of modern philosophy, only ideas that are based on direct sense experience or are true by definition are meaningful. Hume famously said the following:
If we take in our hand any volume — of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance — let us ask, “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?” No. “Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?” No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
The logical positivists of the twentieth century picked up Hume’s torch and ran with it. They developed the principle of empirical verifiability. This principle, which was the core principle of their philosophical system, states that there are only two kinds of meaningful propositions: 1) those that are true by definition and 2) those that are empirically verifiable.
Obviously theological statements about the attributes of God are not true by definition and are not empirically verifiable, so if the logical positivists are correct, then all talk about God is literally meaningless! Are Hume and the logical positivists correct?
Norm Geisler recounts his first introduction to the positivists in a college philosophy class where the entire semester would be spent on studying logical positivism. To make it even more fun, the professor considered himself to be a logical positivist! Here is his account retold in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist:
On the first day of that class, this professor gave the class the task of giving presentations based on chapters in [logical positivist A. J.] Ayer’s book Logic, Truth, and Language. I volunteered to do the chapter titled “The Principle of Empirical Verifiability.” Now keep in mind, this principle was the very foundation of Logical Positivism and thus of the entire course.
At the beginning of the next class, the professor said, “Mr. Geisler, we’ll hear from you first. Keep it to no more than twenty minutes so we can have ample time for discussion.” . . . I stood up and simply said, “The principle of empirical verifiability states that there are only two kinds of meaningful propositions: 1) those that are true by definition and 2) those that are empirically verifiable. Since the principle of empirical verifiability itself is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, it cannot be meaningful.”
That was it, and I sat down.
There was a stunned silence in the room. Most of the students . . . recognized that the principle of empirical verifiability could not be meaningful based on its own standard. It self-destructed in midair! In just the second class period, the foundation of that entire class had been destroyed!
Both Hume and the logical positivists built their philosophies on self-defeating principles. In their zeal to rid the world of God-talk, they also rid the world of their own philosophical systems.