Anthony Flew and A. J. Ayer - The Richmond Philosophy Pages

Anthony Flew and A. J. Ayer
The Rejection of the Religious
The Verification Principle
• A.J. Ayer argued for a strictly empirical understanding of what was
• In other words, if a statement cannot be shown to be true (either
by definition or by observations of the world), and we can’t imagine
any circumstances under which it might be shown to be true, then
it is meaningless
• The religious hypothesis (that God exists) clearly falls into this
category because it is about something transcendent and refers to
objects which lie beyond human experience (God, heaven, life after
death etc.) There are no experiments we could carry out, or
observations we could make, which prove them, and o such
statements are not meaningful
• This idea put forward by Ayer is known as the VERIFICATION
• What do you think of the verification
• Given the problems of the Verification Principle
philosophers have moved away from verification
as a way to attack theologians
• Flew revives the attack on the meaninglessness
of religious language by borrowing the gardener
parable from John Wisdom, and adapting it to
make his case
• In Flew’s reworking of the parable, the 2 people
spend some days in the garden.
• Anthony Flew used Wisdom’s parable to draw
the conclusion that religious claims about the
world are not only unverifiable (as Wisdom
acknowledged), they are also unfalsifiable
• For Flew this means that religious claims are
meaningless and they tell us nothing about
the world
Unlike in Wisdom’s parable, Flew’s sceptic regards the claim that there is a
gardener as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Since they do not observe any
gardener visiting the garden, the sceptic reckons there must be no gardener.
However, his companion, rather than giving up their belief that there is a
gardener, concludes that one must come at night. So the 2 of them stay up all
night keeping vigil, hoping to spot the mysterious gardener, but none appears.
Again the sceptic takes this as evidence that there is no gardener, but the
believer stubbornly responds that the gardener must be invisible. So they put up
an electric fence around the garden and guard it with sniffer dogs, but still they
find no evidence of a gardener sneaking in to tend the land. Despite this the
believer continues to maintain that there is a gardener, but now claims he is not
only invisible, but also odourless and intangible, which accounts for why they
have been so far unable to find direct evidence of his activity. Eventually the
sceptic despairs and asks the believer ‘how does your claim that there is an
invisible, odourless, intangible gardener differ from the claim that there is no
gardener at all? Because the believer holds on to the belief that there is a
gardener, despite the failure to see one, they have shown that no evidence at all
will make them surrender their belief. Each time their effort to find the gardener
fails, the believer simply modifies their belief so that it isn’t falsified. Thus their
belief is effectively unfalsifiable.
• In Flew and Wisdom’s Parables what do the
following represent?
– The garden
– The flowerbed
– The weeds
– The differences in belief between the two people
in the garden?
Flew’s Falsification Theory
• Flew is arguing that a statement such as ‘there is a
gardener’ is only meaningful if it is a genuine claim about
the world
• But it is only a genuine claim if the person making the
statement can imagine being wrong – if there is a
possibility of the statement being falsified
• This is because someone who refuses to give up their belief,
no matter what is discovered about the world, is not really
talking about the world at all
• When presented with evidence showing that their
statement is false, they add to and qualify it so that the
new evidence no longer refutes it – they move the goal
posts to accommodate the new evidence
• An example of how this happens with the religious
hypothesis is the Biblical story about creation
• Traditionally, Christians believed it to be literally true
that God created the universe in 6 days, and that he
created humans out of earth
• Modern cosmology and evolutionary theory have cast
serious doubts on such claims, and now most theists
have qualified their belief in God so that it can
accommodate such scientific advances. Instead of
saying the fact that humans evolved from other life
forms shows that God doesn’t really exist, they have
qualified their beliefs. They now say that God created
humans by using evolution in the modified form
proposed by intelligent design theory
• Flew thinks this is wrong. He thought if
someone qualifies their beliefs in the light of
new evidence to avoid having to give it up,
then one’s belief suffers what Flew calls ‘death
by a thousand qualifications’
• Through constant qualification and
amendment the original statement is shown
to be unfalsifiable and therefore it is not
about the world and according to Flew is not
• What do you think of falsification theory?

similar documents