Verificationism is a theory related to whether or not statements have meaning. It postulates that aside from logical necessities and tautologies statements are only meaningful if they can be verified by external evidence. A strong verificationist believes that the exact phenomena that will cause a statement to be true or false must be needed, while a weak verificationist requires only a link with sensory experience.
Verificationism first arose following the Vienna circle gathering in the 1920's. It was used more forcefully later in the century by philosophers such as Anthony Flew and A.J. Ayer.
Religious language is not fully compatible with a verificationist view. Religious language is significantly different from the language of everday life, and its meaning can be unclear. Many believers in religion will seek to qualify their language when faced with objections, so that their views cannot be falsified. According to the verification principle, if the circumstances which might lead to these beliefs being rejected are not known then there is no substance behind the language which is used to describe the beliefs, and nothing is acutally being proposed.
Anthony Flew used the falsification principle (the flip side of verificationism) and this example to make the same point: (not an exact quote)
Two explorers penetrated a remote area of African jungle. Far from civilization they stumbled upon a clearing that contained a marvelous garden with perfectly symmetrical rows of plants. No weeds were growing, and the garden appeared fully cultivated.
Certain that there must be a gardener nearby, the explorers set up camp and waited for him to appear. The gardener never came. The first explorer suggested that they move along, but the second explorer protested, suggesting that perhaps the gardener was invisible. Maybe the gardener was slipping into the garden during the night. So the explorers set up a wire fence around the garden and hung bells from it that would ring in the event that the invisible gardener came to tend the garden.
During that night and subsequent nights the bells never rang. The first explorer now insisted that they move on. The second explorer still wanted to stay and wait for the gardener. He said to his comrade, "Maybe the gardener is not only invisible but immaterial as well." To this the first explorer replied, "What is the difference between an invisible, immaterial gardener and no gardener at all?"
The strong verification principle is quite easily rejected, as there are many examples in everday life in which the factors leading to belief in something cannot be given, but the assertions are quite obviously meaningful. The weak verification principle does not fall into the same trap, but it does suffer from the weakness of both versions. The verification principles are essentially self-defeating, because they cannot fulfil their own criteria of meaninfulness. If they are altered so that statements of this type slip through then the principles cannot indisputably be said to deal with religious language.
In spite of these objections, the issues raised by verificationism are those which must be resolved by followers of a religion if they are to better understand their faith.
Verificationism leads to logical positivism.
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