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You Can Say Nothing Meaningful About God. Discuss (35)

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You can say nothing meaningful about God. Discuss (35)

Ayer believed that ‘No sentence which describes the nature of a transcendent God can possess any literal significance’ therefore according to Ayer we cannot say anything meaningful about God. Through the verification principle, he demonstrates that all religious statements are meaningless, because for any statement to be meaningful it must be empirically verifiable for example the statement “Jesus is the light of the world”; is meaningless as there is no way to verify this.

Ayer used the strong verification principle to reject any talk of ethics, metaphysics, historical and even scientific claims as they work in probability rather than certainty. The strong verification principle only regarded statements to have meaning if they could be tested in the past, present and future using sense or empirical measures to find the conclusion. Therefore statements such as “Jesus resurrected on the third day” would be seen as meaningless as we cannot test this claim in the here and now. Once again this stresses the fact that we cannot say anything meaningful about God using the strong verification principle as we cannot physically see him in our present time. This principle criticised itself because it not only meant that we could say nothing meaningful about God but also past historical events since we are unable to verify their certainty.

However the weak verification principle allows statements to have meaning if the means to which a statement can be verified are known. This allows for historical & scientific statements to be seen as meaningful if it is possible in practise to gather the evidence, and if experience and observation can establish the statements as probable. In this instance the statements “Jesus resurrected on the third day” or “God exists” are meaningful, even though I cannot go back to the past to witness Jesus’ resurrection or the future to know if God exists; But I know in principle what would be required to verify these statements, although I can’t produce conclusive proof, I am inclined to produce evidence that make these statements probable and so I could have a religious experience to indicate to me that God exists and conclude that a characteristic of God is that he allows miracles to happen therefore making the statement probable. The weak verification principle is a weakness of itself because it allowed all statements to be meaningful in principle if they could be established through experience and observation which would make them probable. Therefore the claim we can say nothing meaningful about God is not true, as the weak verification principle allows us to.

Hick also countered against Ayers verification principle, he claimed that religious language is meaningful as we can find out whether or not statements made about God are true or false when we die. This would be accepted by the weak form of the verification principle as in theory we know how to verify the statement (when we die) eschatologically. This therefore shows that religious language can be accepted as meaningful through the verification principle’s very own criteria. This allows meaningful statements about God to be made, and the only way we will be able to know whether they were actually meaningful is when we die.

Nonetheless Wittgenstein claimed that we are involved in a ‘language game’, where the meanings of words are determined by the language games of which the words are part of. Therefore a words meaning comes from the context of which it is used in and the other words alongside it. Religious terminology is a language game – it is only understandable and meaningful to those participating in the game. So a non-believer will find religious language meaningless because they are not part of the religious language ‘game’, for example, if a religious believer says ‘God exists and is a reality in my life’- this statement has a significant and profound meaning to the individual saying it, but to an non-believer it will be difficult for them to comprehend the meaningfulness of it because they are outside the ‘game’ and do not know the ‘rules’ of the game. Wittgenstein’s language game refutes the claims made by the verification principle because it applies a language game that is more appropriate for discussing the physical world rather than religious statements. It is therefore not a useful way of understanding religious language. Therefore according to Wittgenstein’s language game the claim “you can say nothing meaningful about God” is not true, because you have to be part of the ‘game’ to speak meaningfully about God if you are not then you won’t be able to understand the ‘rules of the game’.

On the other hand, the Via Negativa suggests that we can only speak about God in negative terms; this is because God is transcendent so we can’t say what He is. So regardless of being part of the religious language ‘game’, we cannot describe God; he is beyond human understanding, totally ineffable. Those who believe in the Via Negativa are not saying that we cannot say anything about God, such as God is good or God is all knowing. It’s the fact that these languages do not tell people about God, because our knowledge of goodness is that of human beings. God’s goodness is greater than human concepts. When we make statements such as “God is omnipotent” we can never know what it means. This can be seen as a critic of Wittgenstein’s language game, even though the individual may be involved in the religious language game they can never know the meanings of the religious terminology they are using. The Via Negativa effectively questions whether we can say anything meaningful of God.

Contrary to this, Paul Tillich argued that religious language is symbolic in nature rather than literal and therefore cannot be subject to the verification principle. Religious words, actions, objects and events may all be interpreted symbolically. Therefore symbols are independent of empirical criticism, “You cannot kill a symbol by criticism in terms of scientific and historical research”. In this sense belief in God can only be expressed through use of symbolic language. He gives an example of how Religious language works in a similar way to music or works of art. They have a deep and profound effect upon us that we can only explain in a limited way, and the explanation would only really be understood by someone else that has seen that same work of art or heard the same piece of music. So according to Tillich we can only say something meaningful about God through the use of symbolic language that open up the levels and dimensions of the soul that correspond to those levels of reality.

But Logical Positivists claimed that for a statement to be meaningful it had to have the ability to be proven true or false. A statement such as “Language is symbolic” cannot be empirically verified and is therefore meaningless. Another criticism of the use of symbolism to say meaningful statements about God or religion is that, symbols can’t be used to explain religious language as it won’t have the same meaning to everyone as people may interpret different meanings of the symbol.

The falsification principle says that statements can only be meaningful if some evidence can count against them, so the only way we can ever say anything meaningful about God is if there is evidence against the statements. Anthony Flew a contributor to the falsification principle believed that “God talk” was meaningless because it often implied that it could never be falsified, and individuals who made these statements were not prepared to accept any evidence which refuted their statements. For example when the believer says “God is merciful” they would reject all evidence brought to them that shows evil and suffering in the world making God unmerciful and because of this their statements become meaningless because they will modify their understanding of God to the point where their closing statements do not resemble their starting point at all therefore “God has died a death of a thousand qualifications”; thus the reason we cannot say anything meaningful about God, because believers who make these statements do not acknowledge evidence that challenge their beliefs.

Basil Mitchel believed that religious language has meaning for the believer. He used the story of a resistance fighter to illustrate his point. There was a resistance fighter who was claimed to have been seen helping out the opposing side but the believer carried on believing that the resistance fighter was doing all that was done for the right reasons. The believer allowed for criticism yet carried on believing. This illustrates that the believer didn’t let anything count against his belief and therefore his belief had meaning to him. The same can be applied to claims made about God. Religious believers know that there are claims made against their belief yet carry on believing in the statements given about God. This implies that religious statements are meaningful to the believer, so to speak about God is meaningful to them even though there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Once again this shows us that we are able to speak of God regardless of whether the statements are meaningful or meaningless because we can choose to accept the fact that the statements are meaningless but carry of believing giving them- the benefit of doubt.

Swinburne states that just because we cannot analytically or synthetically verify certain statements, but if we can grasp the meaning behind the assertion they contain meaning whether they can be concluded or not. For example, if someone claims that toys come alive and come out of their cupboard when no one is watching, nobody can verify or falsify that statement but we can still understand what the statement is trying to tell us. This can be applied to religious statements; just because they cannot be proven true or false doesn’t mean that we cannot grasp the meaning behind them. We can in fact understand the implications of religious language and therefore Swinburne argues that religious language is meaningful. Through the weak verification principle statements about God can be verified in principle and therefore according to its own criteria religious language can be seen as meaningful. This gives ground for meaningful statements about God to be made, because we are able to understand the meaning behind the assertion.…...

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