Broadening The Positivist Criteria

In the tradition of natural theology, many philosophers have argued that the character of the empirical world overall affords good evidence for the belief that God exists. If any of these arguments should prove to work, we would be able to verify the claims of theism not merely in principle but with reference to known empirical facts, so meeting the condition of cognitively significant discourse imposed by the positivists. Any such argument will take the form of first, identifying certain facts and second, arguing that these facts are best understood in theistic terms. So any dispute regarding such an argument may accordingly relate to the former or the latter approach: the sceptic may doubt whether the supposed fact is really a fact, or may allow the fact but question the theist's interpretation of its significance. The positivist complaint against the theist is in effect that disputes between theist and atheist do not (at least do not any longer) turn upon disagreements of the first kind. Both sides agree upon the 'facts', in the sense of agreeing that the world is comprised of this and not that range of empirical phenomena. If that is so, the positivists urge, then surely the claim that there is (or is not) a God is not anchored in the nature of empirical reality, and is therefore meaningless.

To see whether the dispute between theist and atheist can be treated as a factually significant one, even if there is no disagreement as to the empirical facts, we might recall the nature of disputes in other disciplines. For instance, in law there can be agreement on all the facts of the case (whether the defendant turned right at the lights at forty miles per hour, and so on) but disagreement about what label to apply to a certain pattern of behaviour (was the defendant driving 'with due care and attention' or not?). This sort of dispute is not 'factual' in so far as it cannot be settled by empirical enquiry (for the empirical facts are all agreed); but even so we are inclined to say that the dispute is 'factual' in so far as the ruling of the court is not merely an arbitrary affair: arguments on each side need to be weighed, and while the ruling is not simply an empirical judgement, it needs to be sensitive to the empirical facts.

Now if this sort of disagreement is factually significant in the sense just identified, we might ask whether the dispute between believer and unbeliever is not similarly a factually significant dispute, where there is agreement on the empirical facts but disagreement about what name to apply to these facts. Thus we might represent this sort of dispute as a dispute about whether or not the world exhibits an order of the kind that may be labelled a 'mind pattern'. Here again the disagreement is not about individual facts, but about the pattern they present, and about what label it is appropriate to apply in view of the pattern (Wisdom 1953:149-68). So here is a reason for thinking that it may be possible to anchor theistic sentences in the empirical facts, even if empirical enquiry alone cannot decide whether these sentences are true. This line of argument could be presented as a way of accommodating the positivist criterion of meaning, by showing how theism might after all be open to confirmation by the empirical facts even if it is not itself simply another such fact. At the same time, it amounts to a criticism of the positivist approach, which calls for a broadening of its conception of anchorage.

This sort of argument could be considered as explanatory. But the claim that a person was, for example, driving without due care and attention is more naturally considered not as an explanation of certain events but as a way of characterizing (or labelling) them; and similarly we might suppose that the label 'mind dependent' is to be taken as a description of the data of observation, rather than as an appeal to some further reality which lies behind them. (This interpretation is borne out by Wisdom's closing remarks on the factual significance of Greek mythology, 1953:166-7.) Other sorts of argument are more clearly explanatory. Thus we may try to anchor the claims of theism by supposing that God is the best explanation of a certain range of empirical phenomena (or perhaps the best explanation of the very existence of finite things). This sort of argument may proceed relatively informally, as in the work of Basil Mitchell (1973:39-57), or may appeal to a formal calculus of probabilities, as in Richard Swinburne's writings (Swinburne 1991:64-9). Here again, there need not be any disagreement between the theist and the sceptic about the empirical facts: the disagreement may have to do with what best explains those facts. And this sort of disagreement, like disagreements about naming, seems to be factual. Consider by analogy a scientific debate concerning the need to cite some unobserved entity in order to explain certain observations; on the standard account, this would rate as a factual issue.

These natural theological arguments attempt to establish the truth of theism; and showing the truth of a claim is, of course, one way of demonstrating its meaningfulness. But a further sort of approach is possible, where it is argued that theism is verifiable in principle, and is therefore cognitively significant, even if its truth cannot be established in fact. This is the approach taken by John Hick in his article 'Theology and Verification' (1971:53-71). Hick argues for the conceivability (not the truth) of the idea that after death I will enter a resurrection world where I will have 'an experience of the reign of the Son in the Kingdom of the Father' (ibid.: 69). Such an experience, he suggests, would serve to establish the claims of Christian theism beyond reasonable doubt. Hick believes that the world is religiously ambiguous, favouring decisively neither the claims of the believer nor those of the sceptic. But, he argues, since theism can (at least in principle) be verified eschatologically in this fashion, it follows that its claims are cognitively significant even so.

It has been objected, for instance by Nielsen (1971:74-7), that Hick's description of the verifying experience here merely begs the question. It may be said:

The positivist observes that the language of religion is meaningless in so far as terms like 'God' cannot be grounded in experience; and it is no reply to this objection to say that we could have an experience of being in the Kingdom of God, for the positivist will still want to know how a belief about the Kingdom is to be anchored in experience of familiar kinds.

In Hick's defence, we might try to specify in non-theistic terms (that is, without referring to God) what sort of experience would serve to verify Christian belief. Providing it is confirmation that is required, and not conclusive verification, it seems that certain non-theistic experiences would most reasonably be interpreted in terms of the Christian world-view—experience, for instance, of a figure who answers to the description of Jesus in the Gospels, who works miracles, and so on (Mitchell 1973:12-14). It seems to me that sense experience could make such an interpretation reasonable independently of any reference to further kinds of experience. But the more difficult issue raised by Nielsen's criticism concerns the possibility of a non-sensory experience of the divine. This is to broach a large epistemological topic; but if we do admit the possibility of such experiences, then the believer could claim that the language of religion is anchored in much the same way as our ordinary perceptual language, with the difference that non-sensory experience is relevant in this further case.

These various ways of tying the claims of theism to the realm of empirical (or at least experienceable) fact seek to preserve the idea that religious claims are factual. In this sense, we may say that in their view religious language is cognitive: such language can be used to make assertions, or (equivalently) to frame sentences with a truth-value. Alternatively, we might seek to keep the connection between the language of religion and empirical claims in a way which confers upon such language a non-cognitive significance. For instance, we may argue as follows. Our willingness to pursue our empirical enquiries without limit rests upon a commitment to the final intelligibility of the world; and the idea that there is such a congruence between reality and our ideals of reason is well expressed by the theistic belief in the existence of a self-explanatory deity who governs the created order in a rationally intelligible manner. In that case, we should say that religious language can be anchored in the realm of empirical fact on account of its role in animating our empirical investigations, even if it does not advance any knowledge claim itself (for we do not know that reality is intelligible in this sense; it is just that we act upon the assumption that it is).

The first Critique of Immanuel Kant (1729-1804) is the classical source for the idea that religious language may have such a regulative function (Kant 1933: A619-20, B647-8). But a similar proposal has been advanced by R.M. Hare (1959), who suggests that the principles we apply in distinguishing between fact and illusion cannot themselves be known, but may involve something like a faith in a 'divine order'. This proposal, it seems to me, is an improvement on Hare's earlier but better-known idea that religious beliefs constitute a blik (Hare et al. 1955:99-103). According to his earlier account, a blik is a perspective on the world which determines the way a person interprets the facts, although it is not itself a factual claim. For instance, suppose that a student believes that his teachers are out to murder him, and suppose that he persists in this belief regardless of all contrary evidence, preferring to explain away such evidence in various ways. Such a belief, or blik, is then unfalsifiable, since it determines the way the student understands the evidence, rather than itself resting upon evidence. Hare concludes that the belief therefore lacks the status of an assertion (here siding with the positivists). Nonetheless, he implies, the belief (or 'belief') still has a sense (we know what the student means by his claim). Analogously, Hare suggests, religious discourse may be unfalsifiable, and so non-cognitive, while still having a sense. But this sort of dispute (should we say that the teachers' pattern of behaviour exhibits murderous intent?) is perhaps more satisfactorily treated in the manner which Wisdom outlines in his discussion of the 'logic' of naming; in short, this seems to be a factual dispute.

So there are various ways of meeting the positivist challenge in the sense of showing that there is after all some connection between religious discourse and the world of empirical fact. In sum, religious discourse may provide appropriate labels for certain patterns that we discern in the empirical world; or it may offer a framework in terms of which we can explain the character of our experience (whether now or in some future, possibly eschatological, state); or it may provide a way of articulating a constitutive assumption of empirical enquiry. I have developed these different approaches on the assumption that believers and their interlocutors agree on the nature of 'the facts' with which we need to reckon. But some may argue that religious discourse is grounded in certain special facts which only believers acknowledge. For instance, it may be said that various miraculous events provide a grounding for the language of Christian belief. But this sort of proposal is perhaps less interesting in so far as it depends upon the introduction of factual claims which not all Christians (let alone all those who find the language of Christian belief meaningful) would wish to make.

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