Monday, November 16, 2009

The Divine Huppity Hoo-Ha

“Rationalist” philosophers have long claimed that our reason can generate knowledge about things which go beyond what we can experience with our senses. “Empiricist” philosophers to the contrary have insisted that all genuine knowledge must in fact be grounded in sensory experience. The British philosophy A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) takes this empiricist idea a step further: it’s not merely knowledge that must be grounded in sensory experience but also meaning. A given sentence is only meaningful if it is “verifiable”: that is, if it is either a direct statement about something we can observe with our senses or logically leads to such a statement. Any sentence which is not verifiable isn’t even worthy to be called “false”: rather it is literally meaningless or nonsense, and therefore no more true or false than some random series of sounds. And if so, it certainly is not something one could be said to have any “knowledge” about.

This criterion of meaning now wreaks havoc with many areas of philosophy, including that concerned with God.

For what, exactly, is the meaning of a sentence such as “God exists”?

Well, “God” either refers to something which transcends the world or is somehow present within it. Most theists have in mind the former, but to say that God transcends the world is precisely to say that He is not accessible to sensory observation. But if so then the sentence “God exists” is not related to anything observable and therefore, by our criterion, as meaningless as a sentence like, say, “The huppity hoo-ha exists.” To avoid this conclusion some may insist that “God exists” entails the existence of certain regularities within the world, perhaps even the specific laws of nature. But then the sentence “God exists” must either mean simply “there exist regularities in the world” or it means something more than that. If the former then the sentence is true but not useful to the theist: asserting that God exists amounts merely to asserting that there are regularities in the world, which even the atheist can accept. But if the sentence means more than that then once again it transcends sensory observation and is therefore meaningless.

Either way the theist is not in good shape.

This result also sheds some light on the age-old question of the conflict between religion and science. There can be conflict only where the sentences of one are inconsistent with the sentences of the other. But that occurs only if both are uttering genuinely meaningful sentences. If religious sentences are not genuinely meaningful then they can in no way conflict with any scientific sentences.

This may seem bad for theists but in fact many theists ought ultimately to agree, or at least Ayer suggests as much. They commonly admit that God transcends our intellectual capacities, but that is to admit that God is unintelligible--and what is unintelligible cannot meaningfully be talked about. Or they say that God is an object not of reason but of faith, accessible only by some purely mystical intuition that cannot be put into words. But if it cannot be put into words then one is bound literally to talk nonsense when describing it!

This is not to say that religious experience or feelings have no value. It is only to say that religious sentences are not properly meaningful sentences. Whatever “truth” religious belief might contain, it is not truth in the way in which ordinary sentences are true--in which case there can be no such thing as genuine religious knowledge, or knowledge about God.

Lest this give comfort to the atheist, however: note that the sentence “The huppity hoo-ha does not exist” is no more meaningful than the sentence claiming it does.

The whole debate between theists and atheists turns out to be a meaningless one!

Source: Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London, UK: Gollancz, 1936). 2nd. Edition, 1946. Reprinted by Dover Publications (New York, NY: 1952).