Saturday, August 22, 2009

Verificationism & The God of the Philosophers

How did you lose, or find, your faith? | The question | Comment is free |

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra and Arithmetic...[which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing...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.

I've been reading through the articles and comments at the Guardian CIF Belief section addressing the question of the week: "How did you lose, or find, your faith?

Losers are running about 100 to 1 over finders and their comments are both surprising and illuminating. In almost every case the losers complain that religious belief either fails to deliver the practical benefits they were lead to expect or that it commits believers to implausible factual claims and moral principles.

I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

As a religious believer my boogie is verificationism. The verificationist asks: if the existence of God makes no empirical difference, if religious claims aren't verified in experience and can't be falsified, then what, if anything, do they mean? Back in Logical Positivist days when verificationism was an article of faith, John Wisdom put this question to religious believers in his Parable of the Gardener:

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 fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds...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...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?."*

Religious believers, Wisdom suggests, face a dilemma: if their religious views commit them to empirical claims about the organization of the cosmos or the origins of species, the history of the Middle East, the occurrence of miracles or the efficacy of petitionary prayer, then they are false; if their religious convictions have no empirical import then they are literally meaningless. What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?

If Wisdom is right, then the question of whether there is reason to believe that such a God exists cannot even arise. Religious claims are not even false: they are literally meaningless, so the question is unintelligible.

Logical Positivism is out of favor in the philosophical world these days and in any case it seems clear that religious claims are meaningful. Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent. There may not be any compelling reason to believe that such a being exists, but the question of whether such a being exists is intelligible--or at least as intelligible as the question of whether humans other than ourselves or other animals are conscious.

In the case of humans and other animals overt behavior is evidence for consciousness, though we can be fooled. Paralyzed humans, locked into virtually inanimate bodies, may be conscious and the complex behavior of some animals, which suggests intelligence, is mechanical and hardwired in. It is controversial whether whether it is possible that there be "philosophical zombies," individuals who are exact physical duplicates of ourselves down to the structure and activity of their brains, but are not conscious. The Folk, whose intuitions have not been corrupted, generally believe that philosophical zombies are possible and that there is a difference between conscious beings and duplicates who are not conscious, even if that is a difference which others could not even in principle detect.

If they're right then there is a difference on the grand scale between zombie worlds and worlds which are like them materially but include an immaterial, transcendent, conscious being. It is a further question whether ours is a zombie world or a theistic world and whether there is any reason to believe that it is one way rather than the other. But the question is intelligible.

Still, even if it is not meaningless to claim that there exists a God who makes no difference to the way in which the natural world works one may ask: what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.

I can only speak for myself, though my answer is hardly original. God is an object of contemplation. It is remarkably hard to discover by introspection what one really thinks about these matters because they are so overlain by conventional pieties. I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world--not because the world is bad but because it isn't good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

That's what's in it for me.

It's hard for me to understand why most people aren't after this. For any good thing, who doesn't want more? Still, religion isn't everybody's cup of tea and I don't see why it should be. If there's one thing that I do not believe it's that God cares whether we believe in him or not.

*Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-5, reprinted as Chap. X of Antony Flew, ed., Essays in Logic and Language, First Series (Blackwell, 1951), and in Wisdom's own Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).


ben nelson said...

Thanks for the article. My reply is here, if you're interested.

Suffice it to say, by leading in the article with a Hume quote, I feel like I was promised filet mignon, but you gives me a logical positivist Big Mac instead.

Heuristics said...

>I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits

You might want to look into sociology of religion and also medicine.

Belief and practice of religeon has many practical benefits.

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