Ayer - God Talk is Evidently Nonsense

For the Implications Paper 2012

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  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 24-04-12 18:19

Part A . Intro & overview

Intro - brief overview (5 lines) explaining extract given in exam, followed by overview of 8 paras in 'God Talk is Evidently Nonsense':

  • Now generally accepted existence of God cannot be proven, & not even probable
  • Teleological arg. (design in nature) cannot be accepted as sufficient proof of God, even if relies on empirical data, because otherwise 'God exists' would be synonymous with 'there is a certain regularity in nature' - & religious people have more than this in mind when they assert the existence of God
  • Logical Positivism (LP) not same as agnosticism or atheism, as atheism asserts God does not exist & agnosticism that he may or may not but we cannot know which
  • Both notions are rejected by LP since 'God exists' & 'God does not exist' are not significant statements & both are non-sensical - so can be no significant contradiction of them
  • In religions which believe the being that controls their world exists outside of it, word 'God' used to refer to a transcendent & supernatural object
  • However, can be no transcendent truths about such a being, since any such propositions of truths contain no empirical data so have no meaning
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Overview of 'God Talk is Evidently Nonsense'

  • Even theists (acc. to Ayer) agree that truths about God are mysteries which transcend human understanding
  • They are unintelligible propositions, & if so, follows that they are without any significance
  • Mystic may claim that their religious experience is presented to them via intuition, which itself is a cognitive faculty, but none of mystics' propositions contain anything which can be empirically verified, so remain unintelligible
  • All mystic is expressing is subjective description of their state of mind - tells us nothing at all about objective existence of a transcendent deity, thus rendering argument from rel. exp. as invalid
  • Not irrational to believe a person when they claim to see an empirical object & disbelieve when they claim are seeing a supernatural God - or at least, to believe only they are expressing a religious emotion
  • This is because the latter tells us nothing meaningful about the source of emotion other than that an interesting psychological phenomenon is occurring
  • However convinced a person is that their religious knowledge is true, unless can be substantiated with empirically verifiable facts, the person is deceiving themself - what they say is of interest to the psychanalyst but not the philosopher 
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Set in a Philosophical Context

  • A.J. Ayer comes within LP school of philosophy (group of philosophers known as Vienna Circle), whose writings were also inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein, though neither were members
  • E.g. Wittgenstein's comment that "The world is the totaliity of facts, not things"
  • Developing this idea, LPs had developed a theory based on the Verification Principle - that only propositions which were analytic or which could be empriically verified/falsified have meaning
  • Ayer embraced this, as it follows that no metpahysical, theological, aesthetic or ethical propostion can have any meaning since they cannot be empirically verified
  • Expanded this theory to say that ethical propositions are nothing more than an expression of the emotions of the speaker & have no deeper significance than a cry of pain
  • Also maintains that upon such meaningless subjects, can be no debate, & questions E.g. 'Does God exist?'/'Is stealing wrong?' are beyond philosophical enquiry since are not based on analytic propositions & contain no data which can be verified
  • Therefore, logical to say that God talk is indeed nonsense
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Is Ayer right?

Should all talk of God be dismissed as he can neither be proved nor is he probable, & there is no empirical hypothesis which can be formned? There are claims such things may be soemthing else, E.g:

  • There is an equivocal use of religious terms, such as 'exists', which has meaning - just not the same meaning as when people a material entity exists
  • R.M. Hare may say say it is a 'blik' - something which helps to clarify the world for one who believes in it
  • R.B. Braithwaite might see it as a story, which is not true but serves to influence a religious person in a moral way
  • Aquinas  also may argue that an anological use of religious terms exist - which has meaning - but although it is analogous to what we mean in human terms, it goes beyond this
  • Tillich might suggest 'exist' has symbolic meaning & points to a concept which may not actually have objective existence
  • Wittgenstein would say it is all part of a language game, which can only be understood by those already in the 'religious game', & should not be criticised by those not in it (like the LPs)
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  • Hick argues for eschatological verification - will know answer after death - which makes the proposition 'God exists' potentially verifiable (although not to anyone living)
  • = might satisfy Ayer's criterion of weak verification (that experience could render it probable)
  • Question of God's existence can be set out as Ramsey's theory of models & qualifiers - if we say God exists then existence is the model
  • we have human understanding of existence, but to understand what it means for God to exist need a qaulifier, E.g. that God is the cause of his own existence
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Furthermore, do believers really claim regularities are sufficient evidence, or do they see it as one of a range of pieces of evidence for God's existence?

  • Paley used watch analogy to support his teleological arg., but even he didnt think this was the only possible piece of evidence for God
  • Ayer can be further questioned by asking if it is correct that if 'God' is a metaphysical term, then it cannot even be probable that a God exists?
  • This is the case if the Verification Principle truly defines what we know, but it has been criticised for not being verified by its own criterion - so it is sensible to also reject principle itself as a way of testig the truth of metaphysical assertions
  • Is Ayer also right in saying that atheism & agnosticism are meaningless since they comment on a meaningless proposition?
  • Would only be true if were demonstrated 'God exists' is not a significant proposition - but many would not accept this
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  • Is the fact that something is unintelligible synonymous with it being meaningless?
  • Just because meaning is not intelligible to us does not mean it is meaningless - though Wittgenstein would say so; E.g. small child would find quantum theory unintelligible, but does not render it meaningless to everyone
  • We do not fully understand way mind works yet, & may never, but Hill remarked that if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we should be too simple to understand it
  • Thus cannot really define as nonsense all that lies beyond our ability to grasp
  • Ayer believed his arg. about the unintelligibility of religious experience disposes of the argument, but is this right? Is rel. experience merely interesting psychologically without implying religious knowledge?
  • Following verification principle, a person claiming such experience would be deceiving themself
  • Seems Ayer has replaced 'God' with 'science' as the explanation for everything
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Conclusion of Part A

  • Early in 20th C. Einstein would have asserted light is formed in waves & that it can be proven empirically
  • If Einstein had been applying verification principle, would not have been open to possibility of quantum field theory
  • Examples such as this put a large dent in Ayer's Logical Positivist theory, if not a hole straight through ti
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Part B. Intro & Dawkins

My opinion: As intro, & throughout/as conclusion

Line can be drawn from Ayer to Dawkins:

  • believes need empirical evidence to prove anything
  • Coined 'meme' - a virus of the mind, passed on through generations in cultures; some are harmless & benign, E.g fashions & stories, while others are 'nasty & virulent', E.g. Religion - leads to atrocities and beliefs are based on ignorance, as are improbable & demonstrably false
  • Talks about the Selfish Gene - he belives in evolution & natural selection, & that once poeople understand that is all there is and all that matters is the selfish gene, there will be no more religion (as selfish gene is all that is needed to survive)
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However, has been questioned:

  • Michael Behe - molecular biologist; claims no evidence for evolution on a molecular level, & has no problem reconciling scientific knowledge with belief in transcendent God
  • Francis Collins - argues don't have to be an atheist to be a scientist
  • Has been huge increase in scientific knowledge & popoular understanding since the 1930s among the general populace, with bestdelling books from 'Language, Truth & Logic', to 'Climbing Mount Improbable' & 'A Brief History of Time'
  • Thus would think that if Ayer were correct, would lead to a decline in religion, but not the case, E.g. Charistmatic Chrstianity is fastest growing religion in the world, followed by Fundamentalist Islam, & in west, surge of new spiritualities
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What would implications be for religion & religiou

  • Dawkins - would see this as nothing but good, as religion is evil & he would like to see it eradicated; believes that without religion would be mopre rational in thinking, more selfless in morality, more concerned with improwving life conditions inbstead of concerns for afterlife & be more tolerant of others
  • Sharpe - would agree with Dawkins, as believes religion allows people to be less moral, & doing good for the sake of religious beliefes muddies the waters - claimes should do good because it is right thing to do, not because what God wants us to do

However, some would argue eradication would be a bad thing:

  • May argue that British Justice System, health & education institutions were started by people acting out their Christian Faith
  • Also, abolition of slavery in Britain came about largely because of William Wilberforce's Christian convictions, & MLK explicitly cited his Christian faith as the motive for his non-violent struggle for black emancipation in USA
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Eradication = bad cont.

  • Former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries - recently spoke on BBC Radio 4 about upsurge in mindless violence in some sectors of society (E.g. recent riots)
  • Stated that many people from his generation were brought up into religious faith, which many abandoined to bring their own children up in a secular family but one which had underlying Christian morals
  • However, when these children had children, they raised them with no religion & this was one generation even further removed from religious morality
  • It is in this way that today's young people are growing up more remoptely detached from religious belief than any other generation, which is reflected in the recent breakdown in moral standards in some sectors
  • Harries argued religious morality could 'stem' the tide of amorality
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how would people's lives be affected if Ayer's vie

  • Acc. to Ayer, should follow that since only analytic & synthetic propositions were verifiable, only scientific & logical statements could be assessed/investigated by means of philosophy
  • Moral statements are outside of this & must be meaningless as they can be neither verified nor falsified b. "do not express genuine propositions"
  • Ayer supports this view by examining a moral issue which most agree on & regard as a matter of common sense - that stealing is wrong (for deontologists this is objective fact
  • Ayer disagrees & claims there is no way of either verifying or falsifying the statement
  • It is this view which has given rise to the 'Hurrah-Boo theory', where E.g. the statement 'you were wrong to steal' is equivalent to saying 'you stole - boo!', as it is no more than an expression of the speaker's feelings
  • Thus, can confidently say that based on Ayer's own view, that if God talk is evidently nonsense (along with all metaphysical / theological / aesthetic / ethical statements), then no-one has any grounds for criticising anyone else's ideas on these topics
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  • Many topics simply express an emotional preference - so with opposing views is no point even debating them as would just be a shouting match as all points are meaningless
  • Implications more serious however E.g Hitler's emotional preference for exterminating Jews & allied countries were so appalled decided to risk lives of soldiers to try to stop him
  • But why? = If one person's emotioanl preference has no more significance/value than another, why should it matter how anyone behaves?
  • Alasdair MacIntyre - saw this as major problem with LP theory of emotivisim, writing "we have...lost our comprehension, both theoretical & practical, of our morality"
  • He dismissed all versions of emotivism as a misconceived theory of ethics, believing it obscures what really matters in ethical discussion & behaviour - that is, the human qualities that give meaning & purpose to life
  • For him, virtues outlined by Aristotle & Aquinas are the qualities which make human life meaningful
  • He belives it is as a result of emotivism having a pervasive influence on contemporary culture that society has lost its moral compass
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Conclusion to Part B

  • Vardy - also criticised notion that morality is simply a matter of emotion, as argues there is a strong rational component in our ethical decision making, "Put simply, it is probably an empirical fact that caring for one's children is objectively better for their welfare than neglecting them"

+ Concluding Paragraph: Explain & Justify your pov after considering all other points, do any hold? & any evidence you can give for this

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Thanks, good notes. However could be layed out a little clearer?


Good notes, I would recommend this for those that are panicking.

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