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LOGICAL POSITIVISM EXAMINED
 
THE DOCTRINE
 
Logical positivism is the following doctrine:

A statement of fact is saying that something is the case, like “It is raining now”.

We all make the mistake of thinking that a statement of fact is either true or false but it isn't that simple. A statement can also be meaningless. It can look meaningful and still be really nonsense. Meaningless means that the statement is not factually significant (page 344, OCR Philosophy of Religion for AS and A2, Matthew Taylor, Editor Jon Mayled, Routledge, Oxon, New York, 2007). The statement may be emotionally significant but not factually significant. If the statement cannot be shown to be correct/incorrect by evidence or it is obviously true/false then it is meaningless.
 
In other words, logical positivism means that to say a statement makes sense or has meaning is to say it can be proven or at least shown to be likely to be true. Meaning is about what experience and evidence teaches you. So a statement can look meaningful and not be. The Verification Principle is that a statement is gibberish (even if it seems to make sense) when you don't know how to verify it sufficiently or show it to be wrong.
 
The Logical Positivists recognised that philosophy is all about the meaning of ideas and concepts and making the meaning clear. They used the Verification Principle as the ultimate and foundational weapon against religious metaphysics and theology which was guilty of making doctrines and claims which could not be supported or verified in principle or falsified. Or in practice either! Thus the only conclusion possible was that the religious were pretending to believe on sensible grounds but were really just talking about ideas they wanted to believe and imagine were true. A theological doctrine speaks of what a person wants to believe not what they think is true.
 
To sum up, only a statement having a truth value - meaning you can know if it is true or false - has meaning or is about anything. Ayer is the philosopher most associated with propounding logical positivism. "Ayer decided that a proposition is meaningful if it is known how to prove it true or false" (page 195, (Philosophy of Religion for A Level, OCR Edition, Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Thornes Ltd, 1999).
  
EXAMINING LOGICAL POSITIVISM

Logical Positivism is the doctrine that the verifying and refuting of a statement have to be done or at least can be done by sense-experience and logical and mathematical reasoning. If this is not done then the statement is not meaningful even if it is true. This is called the Verification Principle. The principle teaches that a statement that can be verified but isn’t yet is meaningful as long as you have evidence that you can verify it. For example, if X is accused of murder and you have not seen the evidence for his guilt but somebody you trust says they have this means you can check up and if you assert X is guilty it is a meaningful statement.

When I say that a statement is meaningless I mean that it is neither true nor false because it is meant to be neither. That is to say it is not intended to be literal. I must verify before I speak in order for what I say to have real meaning. When I say there is a bear at my back door without evidence one way or the other, I am talking nonsense for I cannot mean it literally. When I state something when I can neither verify or disprove it I am just talking about nothing. My statement is absurd for it is worded as if it is meant to be true and it isn’t.

A statement that is meaningful to me will not be meaningful to another who cannot verify or disprove it.

AJ Ayer who founded Logical Positivism taught that if a statement is not verifiable then it is either meaningless or a tautology (truism). A tautology does have meaning (page 345). Ayer never said that all unverified statements are necessarily meaningless (page 345). A tautology is a statement like bachelors are unmarried men which you know is true but which you cannot verify by sense experience. You know its true for bachelors are unmarried men and vice versa or in other words because the definition of bachelors is unmarried men.
 
Ayer taught that something could be practically verifiable like when you go to see if there is a statue down the road.
 
Another way something can be verifiable is if it is verifiable in principle. For example, we can't get to Mars to see if there is life on it but it can be verified in principle if there is life on it or not.
 
There is also strong verification. This is conclusive. Its like when you find out that somebody you have been warned about really is a thief when you catch them in the act.
 
There is weak verification when everybody tells you that there is a country called Spain though you have never been there and you know they couldn't all be lying (page 345 ibid).
 
If you deny that reason and sense-experience verify you finish up denying that there are any meaningful statements at all. Even this denial would be meaningless. But what if you say there is no contradiction in saying that the only meaningful statement is that there are no meaningful statements when you don't mean to include the meaningful statement you are making. Yes but you are saying reason is rubbish and you are reasoning that there are no meaningful statements. That is where the fatal flaw is.

A problem faced
 
Today’s Logical Positivists have a problem with the Verification Principle. They reject it though they say it is right in spirit for they feel it eliminates too much – for example, when J says she feels elated this is meaningless to everybody else for they cannot prove or disprove it – or too little. Therefore they say that it cannot be formulated properly. But some answer: “But they know fine well that if a principle infers things they despise it does not make it wrong. They are lying.  It doesn’t matter what the problems are for it is self-evidently true that the principle is perfectly correct.”

According to some, “The principle verifies all we want so there is no need for such lies as that the principle is wrong for it leads us to conclusions we do not like or which prove harmful. It does not matter if J’s statement is meaningless. It does us no harm to act as if it might be true. The lies were told because the Logical Positivists failed to see this and didn’t want to declare most of our statements meaningless – out of the fear of being despised and out of prejudice – which they didn’t have to do at all. Happily, we know that all doctrines which are specifically religious and have no support are meaningless. They are nonsense – in the sense of being meaningless. It is nonsense to say there is a God but it is not nonsense to say there is no God for we can verify that. Or those who disagree would say it is nonsense to say one or the other.”

Finally, it is true that you cannot prove that J is elated but when she says it she is probably telling the truth. You know that she looks happy enough so she is a bit elated. You really have to go by her testimony although she might be a good actress.

The meaning of unverifiable statements
 
At any given moment, I am only conscious of one thing and one thing only. When I make a statement I don’t know if it is true or false at that moment. For example, I can't prove even to myself that I thought of an apple a minute ago. Perhaps my memory is an illusion?
 
If logical positivism is true then it seems there are no meaningful statements at all. Statements you can't verify such as the existence of a God beyond the senses would be the most meaningless statement of the lot along with the statement that Sleeping Beauty existed and slept for a hundred years. And especially when God is spirit. We might not understand matter but we know its there. But we cannot be sure that spirit, which many define as a nothing that is a something and a something that is a nothing, is possible or that the concept of spirit is coherent. Religion has arguments for the existence of spirit or God but how do we know they are no better than arguments for the existence of a dog that is a cat?
 
A statement can be verified right now but the future is a different story. Afterwards, it is the memory of the verification that verifies it for you. So if you think a past statement is believable, the statement becomes meaningful for you through memory afterwards. This seems to say that as long as you believe in something you make it meaningful for yourself. You can never verify that your memories are real or accurate or complete.
 
So a statement being verified now is meaningful in a way it will not be in a few minutes time. Memory makes it meaningful in a weaker way.

Suppose I deceive myself that a statement or proposition is true or false. A statement of fact that I pretend is verifiable or shown false would seem to be meaningful when my self-deception succeeds. If so, then logical positivism is incorrect. The truth of the matter is that if I fool myself, part of me knows the truth or thinks it knows it but won't admit it. Thus the argument fails to refute logical positivism.

VP and rationality
 
It is said that the Verification Principle contradicts reason if reason cannot be verified itself. But reason is the truth of experience that A is A. This is self-evidently correct therefore the principle should not be abandoned to protect reason for it does protect it.
 
If reason is a method rather than something proven, then the VP is fine. It would in fact be demanded by reason.
 
If the alternatives to the Verification Principle are more irrational than it is, then it is reasonable to accept the principle.
 
Also, the VP even if it contradicts itself still at least says reason is correct and demands to be discarded if it is irrational.
 
Objections to Logical Positivism
 
1 Strong verification doesn't work. Even if you experience the taste of an apple you can't prove that the taste is not an illusion. Ayer himself put this problem in the second edition of his Language, Truth and Logic. Another problem with it is that you can do experiments to prove something works but one time you may do the experiment and you may get a result that proves it or indicates it does not work.
 
Weak verification is too liberal and allows any silly statement to have meaning. For example, you can feel that there is a God and conclude that there is one for the feeling verifies it. You can say he sent you the feeling to tell you. Ayer himself outlined this problem in the second edition of his Language, Truth and Logic.
 
Reply: Ayer proposed two things in the place of these. One is direct verification and the other is indirect verification. Direct verification is what you use when you go to see if a statue you have been told about is there. Indirect verification is when you look at the evidence for black holes and you see that they must exist though you cannot directly prove there is such a thing. You use indirect when you wish to prove that somebody is a thief though nobody will be able to catch in him the act.
 
It has been pointed out that strong verification means you cannot verify that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. It was too long ago to be sensed. If the past is made meaningless because of that, then how much more is the future? The past happened but the future hasn't happened yet. The future doesn't exist yet.
 
2 Verificationism is unverifiable itself for sense observation cannot prove it true. In other words, the Verification Principle - which says that a statement of fact is meaningless unless it can be proven or disproven - cannot itself be proven. The Verification Principle is no good for it fails to verify itself.
 
Reply: What if a statement is meaningless unless you have a way of proving or disproving it? If it is meaningless then it is in the same category as 2 + 2 = 5. It speaks for itself and its lack of meaning does not need any verification. The objection is totally rigged. It is wrong. The argument is as ridiculous as saying, "Proof shows something to be true but you cannot prove that proof proves anything".
 
Once you understand what it means to say a statement is meaningless or factually insignificant you experience that it is meaninglessness yourself so you do verify it by your inner sense. Your mind senses things too as distinct from touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. Once you understand what it means to say that a statement is meaningful you will understand that the principle is right. It is right for the same reason as, "Bachelors are unmarried men", is right.
 
Even if the objection were reasonable it still does not debunk Logical Positivism. We could need the principle as a working model for it is the only suitable one even if it is imperfect. But only as a very rough model. Beggars cannot be choosers.
 
People say that scepticism is silly for it says there are no beliefs and yet the sceptics believe there are no beliefs meaning they believe in something after all. But it is rationally possible to believe that the only thing that can be known is that you can know nothing else. In other words, that to believe there are no beliefs other than the belief that there are no beliefs is fine. The refutation of the Verification Principle which says it makes itself meaningless is wrong for similar reasons.
 
3 Religion is not meaningless for one day we will know if it was all true. For example, we will meet the risen Jesus one day.
 
Reply: But what religion? But what about now? That's the whole point. You could use the argument this way: "If it is meaningless to say Jesus was a fraud then it won't be the day when God tells us he was." It is no good.
 
I know logical positivists say that a statement can be meaningful if it can be verified but ONLY IF YOU HAVE EVIDENCE THAT VERIFICATION IS POSSIBLE. You cannot verify that you will ever see or not see Jesus again. Also, if you end up going to Hell, you will never see Jesus. There is no evidence that verification is possible in relation to religion for religion is basically about religious experience and people have conflicting experiences. For example, the resurrection of Jesus means nothing if the disciples who reported it didn't have a religious experience of faith and joy and spiritual transformation because of it. Without that the miracle was just a show-off and it is undignified to attribute it to God. The important miracle was what it did for the disciples. But the problem is their "miraculous" response to the seeming resurrection is the miracle. Was it really a miracle response? Even if it was, it does not indicate that the miracle of resurrection is real.
 
4 Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne says that a statement can be meaningful without being verifiable (page 349). He gives an example, It is meaningful to say that the toys come out at night to play even though you cannot prove or disprove this and though it is clearly nonsensical.
 
Reply: That is not a refutation of the principle. You may feel the statement is meaningful but the principle says that a statement is not factually significant though it can be emotionally significant. It can feel like it has meaning but it might have none. Also, you can prove the toys don't come out for they are not alive. The statement has meaning because of the principle.
 
Saying the toys come out to play may be meaningless but it is emotionally meaningful and to say language is meaningless is not to say that is is useless. The language is useful but that has nothing to do with whether is is meaningful or not.
 
Logical positivists are familiar with statements that people assume are meaningful but which are not. Giving examples of such statements does not help refute the positivists. If one says statements a to z are meaningless and one picks out statement h and says look that is meaningful that is failing to make a point. It is failing to deal with the objection. Statement h is one of the statements which meaningfulness is being questioned so making an example of it does not help at all.
 
Also, Swinburne is speaking of a miracle in the toys coming alive and being able to play. We know the Verification Principle is right in spirit even if we can't get the details of what it does right we certainly know that an extreme belief such as the belief that the flow of nature can be interrupted by a miracle is definitely one thing it can refute the meaningfulness of.
 
If miracles are logically impossible then you can prove that the toys stay in the cupboard. Believing in miracles or believing in a God who uses nature such as winds to make the toys come out to play decreases our confidence in evidence. A person who denies such things happen can have more confidence in the unknown than can a person who does. For example, he can be more sure the knife won't come out of the drawer by itself and kill his child. Even if we are wrong it is better to have confidence in natural law.
 
If you need to know how to prove or disprove a proposition to make it meaningful, what if the evidence for its truth/falsity is only slightly better than the evidence for its falsity/truth? It shows that a statement is in fact not necessarily either meaningful or meaningless but is a shade of grey. Statements can be partly meaningless but mostly meaningful. They can be partly meaningful but mostly meaningless. Perhaps they are not meaningful or meaningless at all.
 
If miracles happened all the time our language would be meaningless. An apple would be really a pear and water would be turning into wine and all-sorts all the time. Communication would be wrong and nonsense all the time. Any miracle is an outbreak of chaos and an evidence against the trustworthiness of natural law. To use examples like Swinburne's is to reduce the meaningfulness of language. The more miracles that are accepted as possible or as facts the more the meaningfulness of your statements is compromised.
 
Really good evidence is needed to back up extremely demanding or seemingly magical claims. You would need to see all the laws in the universe and how they work together before you could dare to say that a stone spoke to you even if you are not saying its a miracle. That is a huge claim though it might look small. If one stone in the universe could speak any one could so you are challenging the fact that stones don't talk. You would need bigger evidence still if you said it was a miracle. For anything we say to have meaning and to be intended to have meaning we must believe in the historical method of investigating evidence - that is assume the natural explanation that is the simplest to be the truth. Even the smallest miracle claim denies this so all miracle claims are false or unacceptable. No God would do miracles if they are meaningless and if they are meaningless to us though we may imagine they mean something. Miracle beliefs are founded on arrogance on pretending you know more than you do.
 
What if Swinburne had used the example: "This statement is meaningful though it cannot be verified or falsified. That stranger at the nearest beach who is getting into the car now and who I never met and will never meet, drank some sea water"? You are still claiming a miracle that is meaningless took place, namely that you know this without being able to verify it. You are still denying the validity of evidence and therefore talking gibberish though you seem to be using coherent words to do it.
 
5 Ayer believed you must depend on your sense-data - just on what your senses tell you and to keep any analysis of this out of it. For example, if you smell something let the sense speak to you and do not try to rationalise it in any way. Do not ask yourself if you really smell it. I hate people saying that sense data seems to be totally private. There is no seems about it. It is totally private.
 
Ayer was right. The problem sense-data created for logical positivism is that you can never say that your wife exists or that you met her. You are locked in your private world of senses. You know your sense impressions of her but not her. She is not really your wife for you married what your senses told you about her and not her. In reality, each person is in a condition of total mental solitude. The person has to delude themselves that this is not true. You have never really met anybody else. If our powers of delusion are so strong imagine what they are like when it comes to God who by definition is the only being who can look after us. Others only help us if he empowers them to.
 
As regards memory, if you see the Statue of Liberty and recall it, you do not really see the Statue in your mind. You are pretending you see it but you do not. Creating an image of the statue is not seeing the statue in your mind. You do not recall anything but merely an image of it.
 
We certainly tell ourselves and therefore each other a lot of lies. That is why nobody who says they know God and have a relationship with him should be trusted. That is only a boast coming from liars.
 
All we have is our sense data. It is private to each of us. Each of us is in our private world. We cannot criticise logical positivism on the basis that we don't want that to be true. It is true and we can do nothing about it.
 
Quantum physicists such as Bernard d' Espagnat tell us that objective reality - things as they really are without us imposing our imagination on them - is eternally hidden from us. All we know is how things appear to us in the the laboratory but have no reason to think that this appearance is accurate.
 
Is Meaningless Talk Useful?
 
Logical positivism denies the meaningfulness of ethical statements. One person says a painting is beautiful and interesting and somebody else says it is ugly and boring. Neither statement is really factual. But the statement lies that it is. Just because somebody thinks that the painting is beautiful doesn't mean that it really is. And so logical positivism says that ethics is just preferences as well. If such talk is meaningless it is still not wholly useless. It has its uses. Some use is better than none.
 
It might be meaningless to accuse an adulterer of doing wrong. You might say it is always wrong for a man to cheat on his wife - even it it is to earn a million dollars to save her life. You might say it is wrong for the bad consequences but many adulteries don't have bad consequences. You can't prove that it is really wrong only that you want it to be wrong. But as meaningless as such talk is, it is still useful. Does it really matter if most statements are meaningless as long as they are useful? They are emotionally useful to us - that's all.

 

Science

 

The verification principle certainly advocates that we be scientific before all else.  But religionists and philosophers say it cannot be scientifically verified that the Verification Principle is scientific.  So they argue that the Verification Principle is unscientific.

 

It amounts to saying that claiming that only verified science is any good is making an assumption and you may as will guess it is no good. 

 

That is extremely odd reasoning.  They will answer that science in fact does not verify very much and to insist only verified statements are worth caring about means you will end up not believing in very much.

 

It is obvious that we should worship the proven scientific data first and foremost.  We can still give secondary status to scientific ideas that are not so clear.  So it is verified that scientific facts matter supremely but that does not mean we cannot let other beliefs matter too but in a lesser way.  It is self-verifying that we should.  God by definition is that which alone matters and thus he is the creator of science.  The facts of science mattering while he matters not or less means there is no God.

 

The error is that science is being boxed away like it was something in a bubble and unrelated to other disciplines. But in fact no discipline stands alone. Even the historian is doing philosophy in a sense for he has to reason and serve the truth. So the philosophy of the VP can connect to the philosophy of science (or vice versa).  And does.
 
Finally
 
Logical Positivism needs to be approached with tremendous caution though there is much of value in it it is easy to take it too far. It is certain that its view of the God belief and many religious statements being meaningless is correct. Meaningful statements have different grades of meaningfulness. A proven statement has more meaning than one that is simply backed up by good evidence at this moment in time. If God statements had any meaning they would not have much. We would not be entitled to absolutely commit to God if the meaning level was low. If there is a problem applying the VP correctly that still makes it likely that supernatural and magical and God statements are devoid of meaning. You are not saying they are meaningless but at high risk of being meaningless.
 
OXFORD DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996
 
PHILOSOPHY AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, Colin Brown, IVP, London, 1973
 
OCR Philosophy of Religion for AS and A2, Matthew Taylor, Editor Jon Mayled, Routledge, Oxon, New York, 2007 
 
Philosophy of Religion for A Level, OCR Edition, Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Thornes Ltd, 1999