Is Talk about God Meaningless?

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.

  • Empirical verifiability is not self-defeating, it works quite nicely, and there lies its truth. Its a strategy for organising knowledge and rejecting ignorance, it forces us to act constructively. A strategy either is effective or ineffective at its task, it is not a truth proposition, its truth is in its effectiveness and the logic of its action.

  • The claim that only that which can be empirically verified is meaningful is obviously self-defeating because that statement itself is not empirically verifiable.

    No one is saying that empirical verification is a bad thing, or that it doesn’t work to help establish whether certain claims are true nor not.

  • What alternatives are you offering? Saying the claim itself is not empirically verifiable seems like wordplay. If a dementia-sufferer says they feel confused most of the time, and therefore “Can’t be sure of anything any more”, then I guess you could reply: “If you can’t be sure of anything, then how can you be sure that you can’t be sure?” but you’re really just playing with words. You haven’t proved their position is invalid.

    And I love that Mr Geisler pronounces that he left the room in ‘stunned silence’. Presumably if he’d told a joke he’d assure us that he left the room helpless with laughter.

  • It’s not wordplay, Andrew. In fact, the recognition by philosophers that this statement is self-defeating led to the eventual collapse of logical positivism.

  • I think it is verified by observing the fact that meaningful discussion is grounded in empiricism. What exactly are we talking about if our subject-matter is devoid of fact or source in the data? We would be talking about that which is irrelevant to the real world. We could talk about “what if pigs could fly”; how meaningful do you think that is? Beyond the data is nothing we can know, and if our speculation or some random train of thought happens to match a later finding, it is either a result of a cogent argument that creatively utilises the data and the latest theories to produce a hypothesis, or it is a coincidence.

    I think that to defeat that claim you must show that meaningful discussion lies outside of empiricism. If there is no instance of where the claim is false, then it is true. It is true based on a foundation of the non-observation of any alternative. There may be a black swan somewhere, but while we only know white, do we have any reason to believe there are black swans? We could place a probability on it based on feasibility and hypothesis why a black swan would occur and the likely prevalence of that scenario. Why are swans white? These questions reveal the likelihood of that which we have never seen. Can the same be said of subjects of discussion irrelevant to the data?

    I would say that as a Christian you are desperate for an excuse to flood the discussion with empirically unverifiable content, and when such content dominates, it is like a noise that obscures the real world, the world of relevance, and thus makes our perception of meaningfulness impossible. I think that there is a way to treat all these supernatural claims without hazing perception, I feel that it is so, but it requires a delicate touch, and my plan is but a seed of a seed, and I might not have the personal resources; I wish I was immortal with infinite time and resources. I’ll try.

  • I’m not sure you are getting the point, Adam. In your comments above, you just made numerous statements that cannot be empirically verified. So, do you want to admit that most of what you wrote is meaningless?

  • By rejecting the claim, you assert its opposite, that there is meaningful content beyond empiricism: Can you provide an example? If you cannot then the first claim is true, at least within the data, it is. And beyond the data, nothing can be said that is meaningful, therefore it is true. If you provide an example, I feel in some way you are just expanding the domain of the empirical, and the claim is still true, and thus it is, that this is a claim that cannot be defeated. The claim is more of a statement post fact, than prior to fact. So, using my words as such an example, you are engaging in the activity which expands the domain of the empirical.

    The way to defeat these reductio ad absurdum assaults on the castle is to transfer the claim into the post-fact realm, and let it stand that there are no exceptions within the data, beyond the data nothing can be said. So it is irrational to jump on a single hypothesis about the world beyond the data. Although there may be room for probability to give an idea, but its gambling and pure strategy, the food for knowledge acquisition later on. So, I’ll place probability into the realm of strategy where its instrumental for gaining future knowledge, and within the data, but inferential and uncertain.

  • Here is an example that you yourself just stated:

    “you are engaging in the activity which expands the domain of the empirical.”

    This statement obviously cannot be verified empirically because it is referring to the domain of the empirical. Your statement assumes that meaningful statements can be made about that which cannot be verified empirically, i.e., the domain of the empirical.

    The fact that you can talk about what is empirical and what is not empirical means that you think you can make meaningful statements about both.

  • There is nothing that cannot be empirically verified, it just might so happen that what you thought about a certain subject matter is not actually what it happened to be. You cannot point at nothing, you are always pointing at something, even if it is not as you thought it was. So, when you speak of God, it might just so happen that it is not an actual god, but a bundle of subconscious emotions that in some manner are a real reaction to real objects in the external world, and you just need to discover what those objects are, and re-frame your belief based on the true causes of your earlier irrational beliefs. Rational beliefs based on true causes.

  • Adam,
    If you are going to define empirical as that which exists, then you are using a completely different definition than I am.

    My definition of empirical is that which can be observed with one of the five senses.

  • I have had a change of tactic. Everything that exists is empirical, and there is nothing that is not empirical. Anything you choose to raise in a discussion, whether you like it or not entails a finger pointed at something, and this something may not be what you think it was, nevertheless it is an observable. If a god does exist, but you have never met it, then you can never point to it, instead you will be pointing to some mental apparition constructed in your mind. So, to go on about that which you have never observed, is meaningless, since you will in reality be pointing to a mental apparition, which can never be real in the sense of it being out there somewhere. It is also irrational and a little insane to go on about that which only exists in your mind as if it exists outside and that was not the result of observation (of the outside world).