invented by a group of 1920’s philosophers called the
Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle
Language is only meaningful (Tautology) if it can be
verified by sense observation
Influenced by science
gives us knowledge about the way the world is
Must be seen as true or false
= factually meaningless
Language that talks of God is meaningless
Cannot be proved true or false/ No meaning in a
Can you think of any strengths and weaknesses?
Swinburne: people generally accept
‘all ravens are black’ but no way to
confirm this statement
Strict scientific views mean that
statements people say are
meaningless even if make perfect
No statement can be made about
history as these cannot be verified
as fact with observation.
A. J. Ayer
British philosopher wrote “Language, Truth and
“the criterion we use to test the genuineness of
apparent statements of facts is the criterion of
Meaningless = not “factually significant.”
Not arguing that statements that are made are not
important: “God answers my prayers” just that this
is unverifiable and therefore has no factual
Ayer: Two types of verifiability
Strong = verified conclusively by observation and experience
Weak = shown to be probable by observation and experience
“Practical verifiability” statements that are tested in reality
e.g. Manchester united wear red football shirts = true
“Verifiability in Principle” = there is life on other
planets in the Milky Way = meaningful and
verifiable we just do not have the technology to
visit every planet
Ayer: Religious language
Religious claims are meaningless = cannot be supported
by observations from sense experience that are probable.
Secondly we can make no meaningful statements about
Metaphysical ideas – statements beyond the world of
senses because we have no knowledge beyond our own
“such a reality have all been
devoted to the production of
God is: perfect, immutable and transcendent
tell us nothing about the world around us and
are talking of ideas beyond human sense
observation = meaningless.
Religious experiences are similarly
meaningless as not verifiable as one is
recounting a set of emotions that can be
explained through psychological means.
Critics against Strong verification :
Swinburne: Excludes many areas of
knowledge “generally agreed to be false.”
Cannot talk of history as meaningful using
strong verification as no observation can
confirm historical events.
statements e.g. water
boils at 100 degrees
centigrade as there is
always a possibility this
In second edition of his book Ayer responded to
many of his critics.
He acknowledged that the distinction between
strong/ weak was not a real distinction as:
‘Strong’ verification “ had no possible
Weak verification is also “far to liberal”
Direct and Indirect Verifiability
Changes Strong and Weak to:
Direct: statements that is verifiable by an observation
e.g. all post boxes red
Indirectly: using proof based on sense experience to
support an idea that cannot be directly observed
e.g. science can use
observation to predict that
existence of black holes in
space. These black holes
cannot be directly observed.
Verification is unverifiable:
“statements are only meaningful if verifiable by sense observation” is
God talk is eschatological verifiable:
John Hick suggested the religion is not meaningless because its truth is
verifiable in principle. (Celestial City story)
Weak verification Evidence problem:
What evidence counts? Ayer says religious experiences are rejected
however researches say there is clear evidence such experiences happen
and God cannot be ruled out =therefore can religious experiences be
What can be Verified?
What about Poetry, Music or Shakespearean Sonnet? Just because
these cannot be verified they still have meaning.
Swinburne and his obsession with
Possible for a statement to be
meaningful without being
Example: toys in a cupboard. Toys
come out at night when no one
Situation is meaningful even
though it is fictitious and
Karl Popper: “the criterion of the
scientific status of a theory is its
falsifiability or refutability or
Antony Flew (also part of Vienna Circle):
Had discussion with Hare and Basil on
For a statement to be meaningful, it must be
known what empirical evidence could count against
it (or prove it wrong)
Religious statements like ‘God is good’ cannot be
proved false to a believer.
Their belief in God dies a
‘death by a thousand
Used the parable of a lunatic who
believes all his teachers at
university are trying to kill him
This is the way in which
the lunatic saw the world
and nothing could
change his view of the
• Hare coined the word ‘blik’ to
describe the way in which people see
and interpret the world.
• The importance of a ‘blik’ is that they
are not falsifiable and it does not
make factual claims.
• No evidence or argument can
demonstrate the falseness of a blik.
Religious believers have to take care not to create a
‘vacuous formulae which experience makes no
falsification arguing the
statements cannot be
conclusively falsified any
more than statements
can be conclusively
R. B. Braithwaite:VP and
mistake of regarding
religious language as
cognitive (fact) when its
Religious language is
Flew was wrong – we can
understand ideas even though
they may not be falsifiable.
E.g. toys in a cupboard – we cant
prove they don’t move around
when we’re not in the room but
the idea is meaningful to us.
Ultimately, does the via negativa move us any nearer to saying anything about
God that is definitely true?
May give people an insight into nature of God by pointing beyond the
• Supporter: Maimonides – know that God exists but we
do not know anything about God. In Bible God described
as ‘I am who I am.’ – beyond any description.
X Aquinas: Using
does not get us any
closer to describing
God – does not say
• But Hick believes
himself by saying God
is ineffable, yet
revealed in the Bible
Have deeper significance and ‘point beyond themselves’
“A pattern or object which points to an invisible
metaphysical reality and participates in it” (Erika
They can be pictorial, abstract, verbal or active (a
E.G. A light burning over a Tabernacle in a
Catholic church= the presence of Christ
The light could mean so much to a Catholic
Christian…Christ/ tradition/ worship/
Tillich held belief that symbols ‘participate’ somehow in the object they refer to.
E.g.. The national flag-
it represents national pride
and is also part of that national pride.
How does this link to the Crucifix?
• Argued that when you say something about God in concrete terms,
you are using physical, contingent language
• Yet what you are saying about God is likely to be non-physical and
• The language you employ points beyond the concrete concepts to a
• Considered the issue of symbols changing meaning and dying
Any language beyond the
statement “God is Being-Itself”
of faith is the
1. What is the historical and modern interpretation of this symbol.
2. How has this symbol participated in making a specific point?
3. How has that participation changed?
Note: Tillich only spoke of the language of
symbols not physical symbols.
J. H Randall argued symbols work by:
1. Motivating- by firing up emotions and
inspiring people to action
2. Socially binding people with the same
understanding of the symbol
3. Communicating- things that are not literal
4. Disclosing- revealing hidden depths to us
about spiritual matters
There are some things that believers would want to claim are
literal, e.g. “God is good”
Symbols can become objects of worship in themselves
They can be trivialised and their original meaning lost e.g
Symbols are intended to ‘point beyond’ themselves to a
metaphysical reality, but there is no way of knowing if the
symbol gives the right or wrong insight into the ultimate
reality, therefore we cannot know if they are appropriate.
Paul Edwards did not believe symbols convey any factual
knowledge and are meaningless
John Hick argued Tillich’s view of
symbols ‘participating’ in their object
is vague about what this means
Communicate truths – the
values of a society
Myths more significant than a
fable (made up tale) or
Deal with ultimate questions
about life, death, goodness and
E.g. Myth about Zeus or
Hercules (Greek Culture) or
Creation Myths (Christianity
Preserve and hand down the cultural
Retellable and easy to
It is recited, chanted, intoned,
learned… at Sacred places, Ritual
and re-enactments, Rites of passage,
Healing ceremonies ....
Myth is not fixed and unchanging,
but can adapt, transform, re-seed
itself according to a community’s
needs and interpretations
Christianity: creation myths communicate deep
and real awareness of God as creator
Since myths communicate the identity,
experience and values not concerned with literal
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr myths should be
taken “seriously but not literally.”
William Paden who argues religion gives a person a particular
‘Worldview’ ‘–set of values, beliefs and that this colours all
If myth is made up story like a fable does not communicate
truths about God.
Instead myth is expression of values in story form, so like
symbols, they point beyond themselves.
Belief in God/ gods = living pieces of myth
All religious language:
1. Voice of myth- the foundational stories of the religious
2. Doctrine, commentary and religious law which speaks
about 1. above (second- order)
Myth gives meaning to past, present and future
‘Mythic power’ found in the absolute status of scripture
What about competing myths – there is no agreed
criteria to judge which myths communicate truths.
What is the need to explain truths as myths will this
not mean the original meaning or eternal truth is lost
e.g. the use of word ‘stewardship’ is now interpreted
as ‘ dominate.’
Gilbert Ryle myth commit a “category mistake” using
concrete terms to refer to the non concrete ideas.
Wittgenstein famously used the example of Chess.
Rules state how the pieces can move
However to talk of ‘queen’ or ‘pawns’ in any other
context would not make sense
Therefore if you use words that do not follow the
particular rules then you will be talking ‘nonsense.’
• Meaning of words are determined by the
‘Language Game’ the words are part of
• Words meaning comes from the situation
words are used e.g. computers, mobile
• How many games can you think of that
use words as part of the game e.g. snap,
hangman, scrabble, weakest link
• This does not mean words rigidly have to follow rules.
• Way of expressing that words only make sense in the
context with other words that all belong to the same
• Some words have a very technical meaning and also
another meaning when used in ordinary life.
• This means that language is only meaningful if applied
in the most appropriate way in a particular language
• The language games are the reality
• Language games do not refer to language as a whole
• Using the term very loosely to refer to different ways in
which language can be used
• E.g. through story telling, telling jokes, thanking,
• Speaking is ‘A form of life.’
This means that it is not private
Shared and used by groups of people
These can develop, evolve, change and be disregarded
Wittgenstein rejected his earlier work with the Logical
Positivists as language games are not verifiable based
on ‘sense experience.’
Religious language therefore is a language game
How many words can you think of?
What rules apply to this game?
The problem with theories like ‘verification’ when applied to
religious belief is that the language game applied is more
appropriate to the physical world/ empiricism rather than God.
Therefore ‘Religious Belief’ is meaningful to people who
participate in the ‘Religious Belief’ language game
1. A strength is that it gives believers a way to express the meaningfulness of
2. At the same time explaining why atheists or people not in the language game
do not understand the meaning.
3. It does not mean what is said is meaningless just that you do not know the
rules of the game.
1. It removes the link between claims made with language and empirical
2. Many believers speak of their faith as a true proposition which can be
3. Makes religion a select group which often goes against the
Comparison between two things
Univocal – uses word in same way exactly – meaning is
the same e.g. Paris is a city, Rome is a city
Literal Language: Swinburne argues that one can use
univocal language to talk of God as God is the same just
the greatest degree.
Equivocal – language is unclear/ ambiguous e.g. John is
on the right – could mean 2 things ‘right’ in terms of
location or political view
Aquinas: language is said by God = is an analogy e.g.
God is love or god is my father. This language is being
Aquinas goes against the views of Via Negativa –
words such as ‘just’ applied to God and
E.g. The bread is good the baker is
good (Brian Davies) similar meaning
but not exactly same meaning.
Bread = soft tasty – not baker. Baker is
good in the qualities necessary e.g.
E.g. The medicine is healthy, the urine is
healthy (Aquinas) Similar way but not
the same. Medicine being healthy causes
urine to be healthy. Medicine source of
Looks at ‘good’ e.g. ‘this is a good car’
because it measures up to what you
class as a good car. So ‘God is good’ =
God measures up to what it is for God
to be good – lives up to what it should
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