Falsification Principle Essay

Here is the Sevenoaks Philosophy page’s summary of verification and falsification. I would like you to comment on the three parables of Flew, Hare and Mitchell – say what you think they are trying to do and whether they succeed.

Verification and Falsification

One way of establishing whether or not a statement is meaningful was proposed byA J Ayer. This criterion for meaning was called the Verification Principle and insisted that for a statement to be meaningful, it must be verifiable by sense experiences – or, in the weaker form of the principle, it should be possible to know what sense experience could make the statement probable. This form of realism implies a very strict view of language: words have meaning only in so far as they correspond to things in the world which can be known. Such a view is deeply influenced by scientific notions of truth, and evolved from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle.

Such a theory of meaning has potentially dire consequences for religious statements. How is it possible to verify claims like ‘God is infinite’ or ‘The soul is constantly reborn’ or ‘There is life after death’? Do such statements really pick out things and properties in the world? Or are they as meaningless as claims in astrology or the paranormal?

The Verification Principle was intended as a tool to allow us to distinguish between the meaningful statements of science and the meaningless claims of pseudo-science and mysticism, and in that sense it has at times been valuable: as Ayer argued, sometimes people assume that because a word exists, there must be a corresponding real thing to which it refers. But the principle was quickly discredited as an adequate criterion of meaning, and much recent philosophy has examined less narrow ways in which language is used. But it is difficult to abandon completely the notion that for a statement to be meaningful, it must in some sense be shown to correspond to reality.


Various implications of this notion were put to the test in a famous exchange that played out in the philosophical journal University in the 1950s. The debate opened with a paper by Antony Flew which centred around an old parable of an invisible 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. ‘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’s point is a subtle one. The believer’s initial claim that a gardener must exist is tested in several ways, and each piece of evidence is dismissed by a qualification – the gardener is invisible, then intangible, then free of scent, and so on. By the end, there seems no way of testing the existence of the gardener at all. The claim seems empty of content and therefore meaningless. Taking his cue from Karl Popper, Flew argues that for a statement to be meaningful it must at least be open to falsification– there must be some way of showing it to be false. A statement that fits any imaginable state of affairs doesn’t appear to say anything at all, and is therefore meaningless. Religious statements tend to suffer from ‘death by a thousand qualifications’: the claims they embody are so immune to falsification that they are, in fact, empty.

Consider a statement like ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. By invoking mystery as the defining characteristic of God’s plan, a believer can make the statement fit anysituation. Earthquakes, plagues, diseases, holocausts – all are compatible with ‘mysterious’ intentions and none can be considered evidence against the claim. Of course, a statement like ‘God always prevents suffering’ is easily falsified, which is the thrust of the problem of evil: but at least it says something specific, asserting one state of affairs and denying another. Flew’s argument is that such assertive and meaningful statements are absent in religious discourse. The only statements that remain are meaningless.

Three key responses to Flew’s paper refined the discussion in different ways. The first response came from R M Hare who offered another parable:

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. 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 his 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.

At first sight Hare’s paranoid lunatic seems to confirm Flew’s argument, and Hare agreed that religious statements are meaningless by Flew’s standards of evidence. But what counts as evidence? For the lunatic, there is plenty of evidence to confirm his paranoia: from his perspective, every ‘diabolical’ don’s mild manner is just a pretence. It is this notion of perspective that is key: Hare calls this a ‘blik’, a frame of reference that determines what counts as evidence. A ‘blik’ is a way of seeing the world, a filter that affects our standards of evidence. The paranoid man’s blik leads him to see evidence of hostility in everything; the religious blik similarly allows the believer to see evidence where a sceptic may not.

Hare’s point is that religious statements are not assertions at all, and therefore are immune to verification and falsification. Instead they are expressions of a particular blik with particular standards of explanation and conduct. Religious people see the world a certain way, and from within that perspective all sorts of things count as evidence for God: a beautiful sunset, a flock of geese, the ‘miracle’ of birth, and so on.

Hare is certainly right about the way we choose to evaluate the world from within a framework. But it is difficult to resist the conclusion that some frameworks, some bliks, are better than others at representing the nature of things. Paranoia is not a flattering analogue to religious belief – and surely the scientific blik (if such a thing is admitted) trumps them both. Moreover, by claiming that religious statements are not assertions of fact, Hare seems to be weakening the important claims that believers make. As Flew replied:

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?

A second response came from Basil Mitchell who offered his own parable.

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a Stranger who deeply impresses him… 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 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.

Mitchell’s partisan is certainly more flattering to believers than a paranoid lunatic, and the parable illustrates that belief in the absence of conclusive evidence is not unreasonable. While Flew insists upon empirical tests to render a statement meaningful, Mitchell shows that belief is as much a matter of trust and commitment. Religious claims do not have to be intellectually convincing: a believer can trust in their relationship with God, as the partisan comes to trust the stranger. Moreover the partisan’s trust is falsifiable in principle (and thus meets Flew’s challenge) but the question remains: what would it take to change the partisan’s mind? How much evidence is required to show that the stranger has betrayed him? Mitchell admits that there is no simple answer to this question – but at least it is not unreasonable to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt.

Some time after the University debate, John Hick suggested another way in which verifiability can apply to religious statements in his parable of the travellers.

Two men are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere. But since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before, therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of his journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City… The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble… Yet, when they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong…

In other words, religious claims may, in the end, be verifiable if true (although not falsifiable if false). Hick’s point is that the two men experience the journey differently: the believer accepts the good and the bad calmly and pursues the path in hope of salvation. Belief makes a difference. It is important to note that Hick is not claiming that religious statements are true (or false), only that they aremeaningful and that belief in those statements is reasonable. This approach has become known as eschatological verification.

Perhaps Flew’s criteria for meaningfulness are indeed too strict. After all, religious claims do seem to be asserting something, and Hick may be right to suggest that they are verifiable in principle. But the other extreme is also unacceptable. A statement must be bound by some criteria for it to be useful and meaningful: if a claim is not open to any process of verification or falsification, then it seems likely to be meaningless after all.

Like this:


Flew's response to Mitchell

Antony or Anthony? It's Antony - the Anthology spelled his name wrong in the first part but gets it right now
Flew concludes by thanking the other Symposiasts and re-stating his Falsification Principle. He refers to University which was the magazine this debate was originally published in in 1950 (although the version in the Anthology comes from a book by Basil Mitchell in 1971 which re-printed the essays).
Flew argues that "sophisticated religious people" are particularly guilty of ignoring this. He thinks their religious language becomes "bogus" and "vacuous" because they don't allow their statements to be disproved.
Flew has already outlined his challenge. This time, he is more careful to target "sophisticated" religious believers - he is targeting liberal believers like Paul Tillich who treat the Bible symbolically. Religious fundamentalists who take the Bible literally have a slightly different problem. Their beliefs can be falsified (and frequently are falsified) by science, but they carry on  believing them anyway.
Flew points out the views that he and Basil Mitchell share in common:
  • They both think religious beliefs are assertions or explanations (unlike, say, R.M. Hare who thinks they are bliks)
  • They both think religious beliefs can be falsified
  • They both think that some believers make a mistake by making their beliefs "vacuous" (empty, meaningless) when they refuse to allow them to be falsified
Flew admits he was wrong to suggest that all religious believers respond to contradictory evidence by "qualifying" their beliefs. He admits that Mitchell is right: many believers look for an explanation for this contradiction instead. That's where various theodicies come in - explanations for why there is evil in a world created by a good and loving God.
However, Flew doesn't think Mitchell's solution works in the long run. He thinks Mitchell is stalling or playing for time. Flew doesn't think any of the theodicies ultimately work because the Problem of Evil & Suffering contradicts the idea of a good and loving Creator God. Therefore, at the end of the day, religious believers have to admit that their God doesn't exist or start "qualifying" their definition of him, making their language "vacuous".
Flew shows this with the Mysterious Stranger in Mitchell's Parable. This Stranger is not a good analogy for God because, as a human being, the Stranger can't be everywhere at once and sometimes has to do or allow evil things to bring about good ends. However, God is omnipotent: he really can be everywhere at once and doesn't have to do evil in order to do good. There can't be a good reason for an omnipotent, omniscient Being to permit evil and suffering.
God [has] attributes which rule out all possible saving explanations - Antony Flew
Flew concludes that Mitchell hasn't really shown that religious language is meaningfully true. Mitchell has admitted that religious language is, in the long run, false.
However, it does seem that Flew makes two mistakes here. Firstly, he assumes that no theodicy successfully explains the existence of evil and suffering alongside a good and loving Creator. But many philosophers believe that Augustine's theodicy or Irenaeus' theodicy or the Freewill Defence do exactly that. If these solutions to the Logical Problem of Evil are successful, then the believer is right to trust in God (or the Mysterious Stranger) even when the evidence is against her. Alvin Plantinga's Freewill Defenceis particularly important here, because it demonstrates that it is reasonable to believe in God in a world with evil and suffering in it.
Of course, critics like J.L. Mackie argue these theodicies are all "fallacious" and contradictory.
Secondly, Flew seems to miss the main point of Mitchell's argument. Mitchell's Parable of the Partisan is not supposed to be a solution to the Problem of Evil. It's supposed to be a solution to Flew's challenge, which was to explain whether there are things that falsify belief in the love or the existence of God.

Mitchell isn't arguing that the Parable of the Partisan solves the Problem of Evil. Instead, he's arguing that things DO seem to falsify religious beliefs and that believers ADMIT that things seem to falsify their beliefs, but they still continue to believe because they TRUST that things are not really the way they seem to be. He calls this a "trial of faith" and says it's supposed to be a mental struggle. They don't have an "answer" to the Problem of Evil but they hope that there is an answer out there and that they will learn it in the future, perhaps when they die.
There's a link between Mitchell's position andJohn Hick's idea of Eschatological Verification. Both of them suggest that the believer hopes to be proved right in the future - on Judgement Day or in the afterlife - but has to make do with hope till then

Flew's Response to Hare

Flew has two objections to R.M. Hare's idea that religious language is non-falsifiable but still meaningful.
  1. Flew doesn't think ordinary Christians regard their beliefs as bliks
  2. Flew doesn't think bliks are actually meaningful anyway
Hare claims that ordinary (orthodox or mainstream) Christians treat their religious language as making factual statements - that there is a God, that Jesus rose from the dead, that the soul goes to heaven after death. They don't regard these statements as bliks the way Hare does. If Hare treats his own religious beliefs this way, then Hare is being "unorthodox" (not going along with the proper beliefs).
Flew is maybe being a bit slippery here. Throughout his essay he attacks "sophisticated" religious believers - people like Paul Tillich and John Hick. He's not really taking aim at fundamentalists, who treat the Bible literally and regard their religious language as making factual statements. Then when Hare comes along as a sophisticated believer, Flew criticises him for not being a 'proper' Christian at all. There's just no pleasing Flew!
Flew also argues that Hare's bliks aren't actually meaningful. He points out that religious believers often use religious language to justify their behaviour or gives reasons why other people should do what they say. But bliks don't do this.

Flew gives the example of a believer saying "you ought because it is God's will" - Flew thinks that, if religious language is a blik, then this amounts to just saying "You ought because I feel you ought" or just "You ought!!!" The bit about "because it is God's will" isn't adding anything to the sentence of religious language is just a blik.
Flew is being rather perverse by criticising Hare for being "unorthodox". His whole criticism of religious language is aimed fair-and-square at liberal Christians whose beliefs are rather unorthodox. Flew claims these believers get around the problems faced by fundamentalists (whose beliefs are contradicted by science), but only at the cost of being non-falsifiable. Then along comes Hare, showing that liberal Christian beliefs aren't really unfalsifiable - and Flew says this doesn't count because Hare's beliefs are a bit unusual and liberal.
Flew is right that most Christians aren't like Hare. Most Christians don't think of their beliefs as being bliks. Most Christians think their beliefs are factual statements. But then, most ordinary Christians make falsifiable statements: they think that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, they think there's a heaven and a hell and a literal Devil. Their beliefs don't "die the death of a thousand qualifications".
Flew's complaint that bliks are really like "dud cheques" is a stronger criticism and it links to Horsburgh's idea of "impure bliks". Horsburgh suggests that "pure bliks" are unfalsifiable because they express something no one really objects to - a personal viewpoint on the world that makes no difference to anyone else. But Horsburgh argues that religious bliks are "impure bliks" because they DO make a difference to other people. For example, some believers claim that abortion is against God's will. This is not just stating a personal preference; it's trying to justify why something should be banned. Admitting that your religious language is a blik is admitting that it doesn't really explain anything or justify anything to anyone but yourself. It's like writing dud cheques for a million pounds: great fun to do, but you can never take them to the bank and turn them into real money.

Flew's Parting Shot

Flew concludes by linking religious language to "doublethink" which appears in the novel 1984 by George Orwell.
Flew's parting shot is a bit unkind. He's set a challenge to the Symposiasts, which Hare and Mitchell have answered clearly and thoughtfully. Flew gets in the last word, criticising their arguments, then finishes off by suggesting that they (and all other religious believers) are brainwashed dupes like the Party members in 1984.

What's so frustrating about Flew's final point is that it seems to be echoing Hare's point about bliks or Mitchell's point about trust/commitment. If you are committed to a worldview (the way the Party member is to the Party in 1984), then you will believe contradictory things. Maybe atheists have their own version of doublethink, clinging to their belief that there is no God even when evidence mounts up that there is.
John Frame's alternative Parable of the Gardener illustrates this.
Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the skeptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?"
Frame's Parable cleverly shows that atheism also involves commitment to an idea, sometimes in spite of evidence that goes against it, and that atheists sometimes engage in doublethink. This is what you would expect if atheism is also a blik, as Hare suggests.
The Falsification Symposium began with Antony Flew setting out the Falsification Principle and its implications for Religious Language. Falsification had originally been proposed by Karl Popper as a way of thinking about scientific knowledge, but Flew applies it to religion.

In this section, Flew concludes the Symposium. He addresses responses to his challenge, which was for religious believers to identify what would count as disproof of the love or the existence of God. In particular, he comments on the responses by R.M. Hare and Basil Mitchell that form part of our Anthology.
Flew uses the analogy of cashing "a dud cheque". Since cheques aren't used much any more, this might be an odd expression to students. A cheque is a payslip that you can take to a bank and convert into money. A "dud cheque" is on the bank will refuse, because the person who gave it to you doesn't really have any money in their account.
A cheque can look very impressive. For example, I could write you a cheque for a million pounds! But since I don't actually have a million pounds in my bank account, if you presented the cheque at a bank, they would refuse to pay you: the cheque would be a "dud" (useless, fake). Flew thinks religious bliks are the same as dud cheques: they sound very impressive but they can't be turned into meaningful reasons or justifications.
1984 is a novel by George Orwell, set in a nightmarish future where the Government controls everybody's lives. People who work for the Party (as the Government in the book is called) know that what they are putting in their propaganda and news reports isn't true - but they also convince themselves that it is true, because the Party can never be wrong. Orwell calls this trick of convincing yourself that something is true when you know it to be false "doublethink".
Flew suggests that religious language is also a sort of "doublethink" because believers convince themselves something is true (that a loving God is in charge of the world) while their ordinary experience tells them this is false (because there is gratuitous pain and suffering).


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