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The Verification Principle Offers No Real Challenge to Religious Belief

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“The verification principle offers no real challenge to religious belief.” Discuss [35]
The verification principle is a significant concept used by many philosophers in order to determine whether a religious statement is meaningful or not. This was highly influenced by logical positivism: group of 20th century philosophers called the Vienna circle and was then further developed by British philosopher A.J Ayer. Religious language refer to statements such as ‘God exists’ and ‘God loves me’. Whilst these metaphysical claims are often rendered as meaningless by verificationism, one must take into account the strengths and weaknesses.
Ayer, in his first edition of ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ (1936), asserts that a statement is meaningful if and only if it can be verified by the sense observation or a tautology. By this he means that they are either a priori (before sense experience) analytic, where the predicate is entailed by the subject, or a posteriori (after sense experience) synthetic, where the predicate is not entailed by the subject. An example of a priori analytic statement would be that ‘all unmarried men are bachelors’ and this is also a tautology as it is true by definition. An example of a posteriori synthetic statement would be that ‘John is a bachelor’. For Ayer, if a statement cannot be verified in this way, then it is factually insignificant and thus, meaningless. He affirms that religious statements fall into neither category of priori analytic nor posteriori synthetic. This therefore, according to Ayer, provides a strong challenge to religious belief.
For Ayer, religious statements are a priori synthetic in that we assume its truth without having had actual experience and also, they do not have the predicate entailed in the subject and this concept can be explained with the statement ‘God exists’. We assert this truth without having had actual experience and the term ‘exists’ is not entailed in the subject. Ayer rejects this idea therefore in both the ontological argument and design argument and for this reason; he asserts that religious language meaningless, as one is unable to have knowledge beyond this world. This statement of ‘God exists’ does not fit into either one of Ayer’s proposals to verificationism. It is neither practically verifiable (in that it cannot be verified in reality), nor is it verifiable in principle (in that requires further advancement in methods of testing). Ayer would reject the idea of ‘God exists’ as it means that the believers are going beyond the approaches in verificationism to make this religious claim and thus, such statements cannot be conclusively verified and are thus, is meaningless.
However, Ayer’s first edition did appear to be flawed as it was criticised by Richard Swinburne when he argued that strong verification excludes universal statements of any sort. For example, you cannot say water always boils at 100 degrees centigrade at standard pressure and temperature, because there is always the possibility of repeating the test one more time and obtaining a different result. One would however, not regard this statement as meaningless and thus it is incorrect to deduce that religious statements are meaningless because they cannot be conclusively verified.
In response to this criticism, Ayer made amendments to his original verification principle to distinguish between two new aspects of verificationism and that is, strong verification (anything that can be conclusively verified by sense observation and experience) and weak verification (statements that can be shown to be probable by observation and experience). However, Ayer himself is aware of his mistake and admits that strong verification is indefensible and it had meant that nothing could be verified, for example to verify the statement ‘all men are mortal’, would mean that in order to verify it, every human would have to be killed. As well as universal statements being removed, historical statements would be too. For example, the Battle of Hastings cannot be proven empirically and would therefore be dismissed according to strong verification. This amendment that Ayer had made was to suggest that there are some statements that are more meaningful than others and this is inadequate for people would rather have meaningful and not meaningful statements present.
Due to this problem, Ayer asserts that weak verification is therefore, the best solution as historical and universal statements can now be verified using empirical sense observation. For example, the Second World War took place in 1945 and this can be verified from another person’s account of the event, or in technical terms, empirical observation. However, weak verification does pose a problem and it concerns what evidence can count in the verification assessment. While Ayer rejected accounts of religious experience, there have been other researchers that have claimed that such experiences are a result of God and thus, we cannot rule God out. Are religious experiences therefore a weak form of evidence?
John Hick had also challenged Ayer’s verification principle when he used eschatology, the study of life after death, to suggest that religious language was not meaningless as it is verifiable in principle and thus falls under one of the categories of verificationism. To explain this notion further, he presents Celestial City. He asks us to imagine two travellers on a journey through their lives to this city. One traveller believes that there is a Celestial City at the end and chooses to live their life as learning activities that the ruler of this city had given him. The other traveller, on the other hand, chooses to live his life as he wants for there is no Celestial City. Hick therefore states that the one who is correct will only be verified at the end of their journey and this is similar to life, we can verify that God exists in principle in death.
Due to the above criticisms, it would appear that the VP does not offer a real challenge to religious beliefs as it fails to consider the significance of religious language to believers and has within itself, many flaws.

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