The Logical Positivists are famous for a test for meaningfulness termed
Principle of Verification or Verifiability.
This may be formulated in various ways. Simply put, it is the idea that a statement is meaningful if and only if it is verifiable at least in principle. If you can’t set up a situation in which you could tell via publicly available experience whether it was true or not, your statement is just waffle, or at most the expression of an emotion or an attitude or something like that.
Indeed, according to these people, there are only two kinds of meaningful
statement in language. There are the analytic statements of logic and mathematics
(thus Logical) and synthetic statements relating to experience as
in common everyday life or the empirical sciences (thus Empiricist
or Positivist). Now the language of religious people e.g. about
God as a Loving Father, about grace and original sin or the Incarnation
or whatever, doesn’t seem to fit into either category. It does not belong
to maths or logic, nor does it seem to be verifiable by reference to publicly
available experience. Consequently it is meaningless, or at most a sophisticated
way of expressing emotions or personal preferences or community identity
or something like that. Whatever, it is of no cognitive relevance.
Firstly, the Principle of Verification, no matter how formulated, tends to undermine itself. The Principle of Verification is neither a principle of logic or mathematics, nor a verifiable statement of common life or science. Consequently it is meaningless, or at most the expression of an attitude or preference etc.
Secondly, it rules out much of what would ordinarily be regarded as good science. Scientific theories are not verifiable: they always go beyond their experiential base, otherwise they would be useless. At most they are falsifiable. Thus Karl Popper. Indeed even this is naïve. Every research program of any significance in science commonly has a core of theory which is all but unfalsifiable; it is only on the periphery that falsification regularly happens. In practice, one is as likely to critique the experiment as to critique the theory, particularly as there are always all kinds of background assumptions at work in both. (Thus Imre Lakatos.) Developed science tends to come in paradigms, and, while within a paradigm things are pretty ordered and logical, the same thing can’t be said about transitions between paradigms. (Thus Thomas H. Kuhn.)
Thirdly, Analytic Philosophy itself has moved on, starting with the so-called 2nd Wittgenstein (i.e. Wittgenstein as known 1945ff., the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations 1953) and his followers and disciples at Cambridge, and Ordinary Language philosophy out of Oxford. It soon became a commonplace that language has many functions, and that there may even be a variety of ways for language to function cognitively. The problem is not to critique this and that bit of language so much as to find out how it works, what ‘game’ it is, and what are the various specialized ‘games’ being played within the big game. Nor should we require every cognitive game to work like science.
In spite of the demise of Logical Positivism and the new-found openness implied in the later Wittgenstein and following, the ‘problem of religious language’ did not go away entirely. Verifiability may or may not be a problem, but religious language does not seem to be falsifiable either. Thus Antony Flew in the Mitchell Collection, the parable of the garden. It does not seem to function like scientific or common life language. If it does function cognitively or descriptively, we need to be told how. Or maybe it does not in fact function cognitively and is not meant to: that question still remains to be resolved. Maybe it has other functions entirely.
As we shall soon see, the responses of religiously-inclined people to these challenges have been many and varied.
(b) religious language is verifiable, namely after death: eschatological verification. Cf. John Hick and the parable of the two travelers on the road...
(Discussion: this is part of the story but needs to be complemented. Both our belief in the eschaton and any conception we may have of it not only affects the way we approach life but is based on present and past experience of our God, the first fruits we have already received, the promise of things to come. In terms of the parable, there are indications along the way which make one of the travelers both have some conception of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God fully come, and to think the road is going there. The evidence may be ambiguous, capable of contrary interpretations, such that the ambiguity is not taken away until you turn the last corner. Even so, the present and the past lights up and projects us towards the future, as well as the future giving meaning to the past and present, interpreting the present in the light of the eschaton, as an event on the way to the final Kingdom. This takes us close to the next position...)
(c) Basil Mitchell: religious language is verifiable/falsifiable, but not usually conclusively --the parable of the leader of the resistence.
(Discussion: at the risk of turning Mitchell's parable into an allegory,
is there a counter-part to the 'initiating' experience, a 'conversion'
experience, followed perhaps by a honeymoon, followed by a sometimes difficult,
sometimes bright, journey in faith. Certain pivotal experiences motivate
a certain way of interpreting the rest of my/your/our experience. The course
of events may render the initiating experience redundant. On the other
hand, it may finally undermine it.)
(a) e.g. an intention to live a morally good life --emphasizing the emotive and pragmatic functions of religious language. In the Mitchell collection, R. Braithwaite, R. Hepburn; in the Charlesworth collection, cf. Matthew Arnold, religious language as moral-emotive; LeRoy, r.l. as practical; George Santayana, religious language as poetic-ethical. This alternative = "non- cognitive re-interpretation of religious language".
(Comment: religious language undoubtedly possesses emotive, pragmatic
and performative functions, and these are intrinsic to the game, but for
that very reason it needs also cognitive functions: we want the feelings,
behaviour and commitment and performances to be appropriate, not just nice
but realistic,fitting in with the way things are. The other functions,
while important and intrinsic to the game, properly considered, would seem
thus to require some kind of cognitive function as well.)
(b) expressive of what R.M. Hare calls a 'blik', a mind-set neither verifiable nor falsifiable, a way of looking at the world which determines how we take what we see, but not itself one of the things we see, determinative among other things of what would count as verification or falsification. Cf. parable of the paranoid student. Other examples might be, the assumption that the future will be like the past, the assumption that things don't just completely disappear.
This alternative = "quasi-cognitive interpretation of religious language".
(Discussion: religion/faith does produce/manifest as a certain way
of looking at the world, and it may be that it is largely on this level
that the difference between belief and atheism is to be found --we experience
the facts of life differently rather than experience different facts. Note
that the atheist also has a blik, it is not a contest between a blik and
a blik-less experience. Still, we probably need to go beyond 'blik' theory
of religious language: bliks are sane or insane, healthy or unhealthy,
rather than true or false, but doesn't healthy in this context imply among
other things, well co-ordinated with reality, better co-ordinated than
the others? This takes us to a further set of solutions to the problem
of religious language...)
Thus I.M. Crombie, I.T. Ramsey, F. Ferre, D.Z. Phillips, James F. Ross. There is variation on what is that special way, and how similar e.g. to language in science or in metaphysics, or for that matter football or law or carpentry language. Of the above, we will have a close look at Ramsey and at Ross.
Frederick Ferre is worth a look at if you have time: read Ch. 12, "The Manifold Logic of Theism", in Frederick Ferre, Language, Logic and God (Fontana, Collins, London, 1961), esp. pp. 219--233. For Ferre, theological language in its semantic dimension functions as metaphysical language, this coordinated with rather than in competition with its other functions, and may be evaluated according to similar criteria including inner consistency, coherence, applicability and adequacy to all of our experience. (Compare Alfred North Whitehead). That is to say, religious language is descriptive in the way of a metaphysics and is to be evaluated similarly.
(Discussion on Ferre:
1)one might add the criterion of Viability or valuational adequacy to the more usual Whiteheadean criteria of logical consistency and coherence and empirical applicability and adequacy;
2)while religious systems or world views and metaphysical systems are I believe to be evaluated according to similar set of criteria, it is perhaps to be doubted that a religious system is just a kind of metaphysical system. Reasons: (i)religious systems are vaguer than metaphysical systems: while religious committment will limit the varieties of metaphysics a religious person could subscribe to, e.g. a Christian can hardly be a atheistic materialist, it does not typically limit you to only one metaphysic system --e.g. you can be a Christianized neo-Platonist, a Christianized Aristotelian, a Process thinker, a Heideggerian...; (ii)religious language is as well directly related to a kind of experience which we may call "religious experience": e.g. the experience originally of the prophets and of Christ and Peter and Paul and Mary and Mary Magdalene, which provokes a particular way of interpreting life and the universe, which in turn enables further religious experience. The interpretation provoked will be related to the experience though it will in addition be validated more widely by reference to similar criteria as a metaphysical system.
The more direct relation to experience meanwhile will enable and
seems usually to provoke a much more evocative use of language than would
be proper in a metaphysics.)
Ian Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 1974:
Earl MacCormac, Metaphor and Myth in Science and Religion, 1976; and
Janet Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 1985.
See also Kung and Tracy, Paradigm Change in Theology (1989), by way of comparison from the reverse angle.
In both cases metaphors and models (often tamed metaphors) are deployed, and not just for decoration, even in science. Both are examples of tradition-constituted or paradigm constituted enquiries in which core commitments are not readily falsifiable. In both realms causal and historical theories of reference as put forward by the likes of Kripke, Putnam and Donnellan can be applied: in both cases reference is grounded in experience, community use and an interpretative tradition.
(Discussion: if correct the consequence of this would be that there are no special problems specific to religious language as such. The risk is that it might downplay the specificity of religious language and esp. the difficulty of talking about the Divine Mystery. One of the convictions of certain religious people after all is that language about God is difficult in a way that language about other things is not, and that this is a consequence of who or what they believe the Divine Mystery to be. There may yet be room for doctrines of analogy, Ramsey and de Pater. Another problem is whether it takes full account of the rhetoric of the post- structuralists and literary theorists affected by them and esp. the deconstructionists - that is, as distinct from ignoring them.)
Return now to Unit Outline
or go to Ian Ramsey