Critically assess the verification principle of the logical positivists. (30)

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  • The Vienna circle, a group of scientists, philosophers and mathematicians formed in the 1920’s, gave rise to the logical positivist movement which in turn paved the way for the verification principle.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus influenced logical positivists in 1920’s through saying that ‘some language is meaningless’ and ‘Language that has meaning is based on science, Empirical reality or senses’.
  • The group, who included Schlick, Hahn and Carnap, regularly met in Vienna to investigate language and methodology in order to attempt to redefine empiricism through the advancement in science at the time.
  • Logical positivism considers that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis and the verification principle is a characteristic of such investigation. 
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What is verification?

  • Logical positivism considers that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis and the verification principle is a characteristic of such investigation.
  • The verification principle is focused not on whether a statement is true or false but whether it is meaningful. A statement can be both meaningful but false or meaningful and true as the investigation is not looking into the trueness of a statement.
  • It is often used in debates surrounding philosophy, metaphysics and ethics to establish criterion for the meaning of language.
  •  An analytic statement, also known as a tautology, is something that is true within itself and therefore needs no further ratification to be accepted. An example of this would be ‘all bachelors are men’ as the word bachelor inherently means man and so the statement is true within itself and is a tautology. 
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Types of verification

  • Through the verification principle aesthetic statements, historic statements, ethical statements, metaphysical and religious statements and general scientific laws become meaningless.
  • Any synthetic statement that requires bringing things together and verifying by the senses through observation becomes meaningless through the verification principle if this criterion cannot be met.
  • Anything that is subjective or relies on people’s opinion cannot be verified as there is no one correct opinion and right and wrong is not universally accepted.
  • Further, historic statements cannot be meaningful as, as they happened in the past and they can never be seen again they cannot be classed as meaningful thus are dismissed.
  • Newtonian laws and the theory of evolution are not verifiable by the senses either and so are meaningless.
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A.J Ayer

  • A.J. Ayer’s weak verification is thought to be an improvement on the strict criteria of the Vienna circle. Ayer argued that for a statement to be meaningful it must either be a tautology, a priori, or verifiable in principle, a posteriori.
  • We do not have to conclusively prove something by a direct observation rather we should suggest how it could possibly be verified.
  • Ayer states it is too limiting to have to directly verify something by experience and we should suggest what may be required for the statement to be considered factually true.
  • In order to be meaningful it may not be provable however we may be able to show that it is probably true beyond any reasonable doubt.
  • Ayer’s weak verification allows us to make statements about the past and people’s emotions as well as more predictions about science.
  • Through the weak verification science and history are meaningful but religion and ethics are not.
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  • Religious pluralist John Hick believed that statements about God can be factual and meaningful. Hick states that there are claims that can in principle be verified for example ‘There is life on Mars’.
  • Though this may not be verifiable at the moment, it may be verifiable in the future thus it is in principle, verifiable. We know what we would have to do in order to establish the truth of the claim.
  • Hick agrees with Ayer that the only statements that make claims about the world, factually significant, are meaningful.
  • Accepting that religious propositions cannot be falsified, Hick stated that if there is no God then after we die we will just be dead and we don’t be able to confirm the existence.
  • However, he argues that religious statements can be verified. For Hick it is the potential verifiability of religious statements that makes them meaningful
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Celestial city

  • To illustrate how such verification is possible he uses the parable of the Celestial City;Two people are walking a road; one believing it leads to the Celestial City, the other does not. Refreshments and dangers await them, which the believer takes as encouragements where as the other believes none of it. When they turn the last corner it will be apparent which one was right about the city.
  • The parable points to the possibility of what Hick calls eschatological verification, verification after our death in the next life. Hick is arguing that many religious statements rest on the claim of an afterlife, and they are meaningful because they can be verified in the afterlife.
  • However, a weakness of Hicks eschatological verification is that it can only work is there is an afterlife, something that is arguably impossible to prove and so almost makes this pointless.
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Strengths and weaknesses

  • Both the verification principle and Ayer’s weak principle have strengths and weaknesses. By using the verification principle of the logical positivists it saves what would be considered wasted time discussing god and his existence as the Vienna circle would see this to be meaningless and therefore dismissible.
  • However there is no empirical evidence to support the verification principle and so cannot be verified meaning it doesn’t meet its own criteria and so must be meaningless.
  • It is not consistent with modern science as many scientific statements such as atoms or forces are not verifiable and historical statements cannot be empirically verified and are therefore rendered meaningless under the verification principle.
  •  Laws and factual statements that are relied upon in the modern day are considered meaningless under the verification principle allowing its accuracy to be questioned.If you apply the weak verification principle then you can justify anything. 
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  • In conclusion, the verification principle only questions a statement’s meaningfulness and makes no claim about its actual truth. It does not cause great challenge to religious belief for the main fact that statements about the verification principle itself cannot be verified, or even falsified.
  • There are reasons to challenge the verification principle and reasons which make it seem like a logical way to tackle religious language.
  • Therefore it is, and always will be, difficult to reach a final decision about whether or not the verification principle offers a real challenge to religious belief and the problem of religious language.
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