God as an Experimental Proposition
Does God exist? According to British philosopher and logical positivist Alfred Jules Ayer, the question itself is nonsense because it lacks empirical verifiability. God defined as a mysterious, intelligible, immaterial, entity outside the scope of human verifiability is nonsense. Simply put, if it cannot be sensed, it is nonsense. The theist and atheist make the same mistake of rejecting the literal existence of such an entity because there is no way to empirically verify such an entity. Whether the theist affirms, or the atheist rejects said God is irrelevant when the argument is over metaphysical nonsense. A God that is neither verifiable or falsifiable might be filled with emotive qualities, similar to an esteemed fictional narrative, but that does not make a God a literally significant hypothesis.
In “Language, Truth, and Logic,” A. J. Ayer argues for the elimination of metaphysics because debates concerning metaphysics, such as God, are filled with truth claims and sentences which are not literally significant. To reiterate, truth claims that cannot be verified or falsified are nonsense, according to Ayer. However, verifiability of a literally significant statement can be complicated. Ayer argues there is a distinction between “practical verifiability” and “verifiability in principle,” and between “strong” and “week” verifiability. In his critique of theology, Ayer argues that while religious experiences may have emotive significance, they lack literal significance and empirical verifiability.
Although the aforementioned God may not be empirically verifiable, what if instead we treated God as an experimental proposition? What if God were attributed verifiable or falsifiable qualities? What if God could be verified or falsified within the scope of sensory experience? Within the primary text, “Language, Truth, and Logic,” I demonstrate that God as an experimental proposition can be verified or falsified within the scope of sensory experience.
Like other logical positivists, Ayer argues for the rejection of metaphysics. “We may begin by criticizing the thesis that philosophy affords us knowledge of a reality transcending the world of science and common sense” (pg. 33). While people might be inclined to think that knowledge of a transcendent reality can be acquired outside the limits of experience, Ayer argues that any meaningful inquiry into empirical knowledge must be verifiable or falsifiable within sensory experience. For example, truth claims must be said in a literally significant way so that the statement can be verifiable or falsified. If not, the sentence is an articulation of nonsense.
The metaphysician who is eager to disprove empirical knowledge of a transcendent reality is just as nonsensical as the metaphysician who claims empirical knowledge of a transcendent reality. One can neither prove or disprove what is outside human experience. According to Ayer, both speak nonsense when neither produce verifiable or falsifiable sentences. For example, the statement “God exists” is not literally significant if God cannot be tested through sensory experience. Some may argue that sensory experience alone through scientific inquire is not verifiably reliable because our senses deceives us. Ah, but the solution lies in the criticism. If one can claim that their senses have deceived them, it is those same senses that have found the mistake and corrected them. “It is further sense experience that informs us of the mistakes that arise our sense-experience.” (pg. 39). Whether we are being deceived or corrected, it is at the discretion of sense experience. Yet, if a proposition makes claims outside sense experience, we cannot be deceived or corrected beyond our own senses because the proposition was not within the framework of sensory experience to begin with.
According to Ayer, people commit grammatical errors when making truth claims about unverifiable or unfalsifiable statements. For example, the statement “I know the Church is true” is not a literally significant statement. There isn’t a significant truth proposition to verify or falsify. It might as well be said, “I know this pencil is true.” The existence of an object does not make it true or false, it simply is. Although, it is worth noting that just because the statement may not be literally significant doesn’t mean it is not emotively significant. The values and emotions behind such a statement could be translated to “I love the Church” or “I’m loyal to my religious community” or “The Church makes me feel good.” All of which express an emotive quality but should not be conflated with an empirically verifiable of falsifiable truth proposition. According to Ayer, those who state “I know the Church is true” or “I know the Church is not true” commit them same error in producing a sentence that is literally insignificant. The word “true” may deceptively provoke a quest for empirical verifiability, but a pencil nor a church can be proven true. The statement “I know the Church is true” is only emotively significant, not literally significant.
Ayer’s views of knowledge depend on verifiability, which can be complex. Due to complexities in verifiability, he takes care to distinguish exactly what verifiability entails. He begins by distinguishing the different between “practical verifiability” and “verifiability in principle.” Some truth proposition can be proved in principle but cannot be practically achieved. For example, one could propose there are mountains on the far side of the moon. To verify this statement, one would only need to fly to the moon, look out at the landscape on the far side of the moon, and verify or falsify the proposition. Now, if I cannot fly to the moon and see for myself if there are mountains on the far side of the moon, the proposition is still literally significant. It just means my “proposition is verifiable in principle, if not in practice, and is accordingly significant” (pg. 36). The proposition could potentially be verified even though it has not been verified. Another slightly more complex example might be the statement “There is a polio vaccine.” If this statement was said prior to 1950, this statement would be false. There was no polio vaccine before the 1950’s. However, belief in the potential existence of a polio vaccine made it possible for the vaccine to be created. No one could verify or falsify the polio vaccine prior to its creation—it existed only in potential, in the imagination. The creation of the vaccine was the verification of its physical existence outside human imagination. This demonstrates that literally significant statements are not simply, true or false, but can be made true or false through time.
Ayer also distinguishes the difference between “strong” and “week” verification. According to Ayer, “A proposition is said to be verifiable, in the strong sense of the term, if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established in experience. But it is verifiable, in a week sense, if it is possible for experience to render it probable” (pg. 37). If verifiability is the criterion for significance, then strong verifiability may not be possible. For example, if someone asserts “All men are mortal” the only way to conclusively verify that statement, in a strong sense, is to kill all the men to prove that they are in fact all mortal. Sure, it is possible for women to discover if all men are mortal by executing them, but for practical reasons we may conclude through life experience than all men are mortal without killing them. Week verification is more practical, and more compassionate in this case, than strong verification. Strong verification may also not be possible when accounting for the infinite. If there are an infinite number of cases to verify, the proposition is such that it cannot be strongly verified by very nature of the proposition account for an infinite number of potentials. This is not to say that the statement “All men are mortal” is not a literally significant statement, only that it cannot be considered “strong” verification.
If we accept strong verifiability as the only criterion for empirical knowledge, we will fall short. We must accept that “. . . truth can never become more than highly probable” (pg. 37). An experimental proposition can only be verified as highly probable. However, we should acutely consider what “highly probably” means through sensory experience, and by extension, scientific inquiry.
According to Ayer, people committed grammatical errors when discussing fiction, because people assume existence is an attribute. Ayer contends that existence is not an attribute. Similarly, being fictitious is not an attribute. For example, the proposition “Unicorns are fictitious” is similar to “Dogs are faithful,” but they cannot be regarded of the same logical type. Dogs exist and can be assigned the attribute of faithful. “Dogs are faithful” is a literally significant and verifiable claim. However, unicorns do not exist and cannot be assigned the attribute of fictitious because it would be a contradiction to assign an attribute to something that doesn’t exist. According to Ayer, “It is plainly self-contradictory to say that fictitious objects exist, the device is adopted of saying that they are real in some non-empirical sense—that they have a mode of being real which is different from the mode of being of existent things” (pg. 43).
If this is the case, Ayer has underestimated the role of fiction in our everyday lives. For example, unicorns may not exist in an empirical sense, but there are tangible expressions of the idea of “unicorn” everywhere. I can buy a unicorn figurine or stuffed animal. Unicorn merchandise is everywhere, embodying the fiction of “unicorn.” Fiction affects the tangible realities of the sensory experience and cannot be dismissed as a grammatical error.
Consider with me the statement, “Counties are fictitious.” A country is a product of fiction. Humans have drawn imaginary lines in geography, with imaginary rules, with imagine rights, and imaginary claims as to what gets to happen in which country. A country does not exist in a literally significant sense, but the fiction of a country produces tangible realities in the world of sensory experience. Humans build walls to divide our imaginary countries. So, while it may be self-contradictory to say, “Countries are fictitious” and “Countries exist,” it cannot be denied that fiction and human imagination are affecting sensory experience in very tangible ways. There has to be a way of reasonably stating the difference between existing in fiction and existing in reality, while noting that the two overlap in a world where human imagination and fiction manifest tangible realities. Being fictitious is an attribute, because unicorns, counties, and Gods do exist, at the very least, inside the world of imagination. Ayer may contend that my argument is an appeal to “a special non-empirical world” to house these fictitious ideas, and he would be correct. That is exactly what I’m arguing. We need a special, non-empirical world to house our imaginative ideas from the empirical world. If there is no separating fiction from reality, then Ayer must assert that unicorns, countries, and Gods exists in so far as they produce tangible realties effecting our sensory experience. Yet, unicorns, countries, and Gods don’t exist in the same sense that a chair exists, so they must be discussed differently.
For example, let’s posit there is no God. Even so, it cannot be denied that the fiction of a God has inspired some of the greatest, most beautiful, and most terrible acts in the history of our species. Even if God doesn’t exist, the idea of God alone manifests tangible realities. We act, create, sacrifice, baptize, build, recite, pray, kill, kiss, govern, breathe, love, live, and die all in the name of God! Living in a fiction of our own creation cannot be separated from our sensory experience, whether one asserts a literally significant statement of God’s existence or not. Fiction does exist, and it exists inside human imagination. Consider this, let’s continue positing there is no God. Yet, there is a temple built and dedicated in the name of said God. The temple that exists in the world of sensory experience literally exists because of a God that exists inside human imagination. The temple literally exists because of an imaginary God.
Let’s not forget that human imagination is its own sort of metaphysics. Let’s say a person has a religious experience in which they claim to see God. There is no way to prove or disprove an argument that takes place within human imagination. Whether they see God or not, I cannot prove or disprove it. This is the metaphysics of imagination. I agree with Ayer that we are arguing over nonsense. We cannot prove to the other what we see, we can only confirm with “high probability” we are experiencing a similar sense content. It is only through the physical expression of sensory experiences with each other that we are able to prove or disprove propositions. For example, I cannot prove to you I’m feeling pain. You might see the effects that pain is having on me via my reactions to the pain, but you cannot feel or confirm my pain. You cannot prove or disprove my pain. Generally, you might accept my pain as real based upon your sensory experience. You might see or hear me exhibiting signs of pain, but that does not prove that pain does or does not exist. Pain, like fiction, exists inside the imagination, and it is only when our mental states or ideas are expressed physically that they cannot be proven or disproven. You may or may not see God, but it is of little consequence until you start acting in the name of said God.
We are living in a world of fiction which overlaps with a world of sensory experience and the two cannot be compartmentalized as separate from one another, even if it is practical to speak of them separately. Literally significant claims must account for how fiction effects our sensory experiences. This include statements such as “Unicorns are fictious,” “Countries are fictious,” “God is fictious,” and “Pain is fictious.” Though these ideas take place inside the mind or in human imagination they affect our actions and the sensory experience of others. If Ayer cannot assert these idea as fictious, he must assert them as existing. “Unicorns exist,” “Countries exist,” “Gods exist,” and “Pain exists” even if only inside the human imagination. I find it more practical to embrace their existence with qualifiers than to assert them as non-existent.
Existence is an assignable attribute and existence cannot be limited to only one type of existence. For example, these two statements convey two very different meanings: “God exists as a physicality entity” as opposed to “God exists in human imagination.” While most people would agree that God exists in human imagination, far less would agree that God exists as a physical entity. The point is there are different types of existence and we ought to distinguish different types of existences.
An Experimental Proposition
For Ayer, knowledge is gained through experimental propositions that are asserted through literally significant sentences. This comes with a rightful criticism of metaphysics as a reliable source of knowledge. While Ayer notes that God can have emotive significance, he denies that truth claims about God having any literal significance. While I agree with his criticisms of an intelligible, immaterial God not having any literal significance, I would contend that it is possible to create a literally significant God. If the reader will grant me the assumption that God exists inside the imagination, I’d like to address how God might exist outside the imagination.
Before venturing further, I’d like to continue using Ayer’s example of unicorns. If unicorns exist inside the human imagination, I contend is it possible for them to exist outside the imagination through an experimental proposition. Just because unicorns don’t exist in the physical world doesn’t mean they can never exist inside the physical world. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that genetically engineered unicorns may at some point roam the earth, or Mars for that matter. Human imagination took humans to the moon, why not unicorns to Mars? Sure, it would be a difficult endeavor, but not impossible. If there is anything to learn from human history, it is that human imagination is capable of truly bizarre and awesome fruitions—both beautiful and horrifying. This proposition of sending unicorns to Mars is not a matter of being literally significant or not, the proposal is one of degree in which its verifiability has not been empirically proven or disproven at this time. However, it could be verified or falsified in the future. While a claim may seem outrageous on the surface, human imagination has the potential to produce truly outrageous realities in the world of sensory experience. Going back to our previous statements concerning vaccinations, vaccinations existed in human imagine before they were empirically proven to exist and work. Sometimes it takes time for an idea to move from existing in human imagination to existing in the empirically verifiable world. If it could be the case that we send unicorns to Mars in the future, much of the proposition’s verifiability depends on human imagination followed by human ingenuity.
To be clear, I am asserting verifiably empirical propositions always exist in human imagination before they are proven. Just like the example of mountains on the moon, the scientist had to imagine the possibility of there being mountains on the moon before seeking after verifiable evidence. All experimental propositions exist inside human imagination before they are brought to fruition or falsified by scientific inquiry.
Now, let’s look at the idea of God beyond Ayer’s rightful critique of metaphysics and theology. What if God were an experimental proposition? If we accept the premise that God exists inside human imagination and human imagination produces tangible realities, it is at the very least possible that God could come to exist physically by human creation. God as an experimental proposition would have to be a scientifically verifiable proposition, meaning God would necessarily be material and existing within the physical world of sensory experience. The trick is assigning God literally significant particulars. If God is assigned unknowable metaphysical qualities, we are no longer working within the bounds of sensory experience. Beyond the criterion of God being within the limits of sensory experience, human imagination could conjure a numberless amount of beautiful and horrifying Gods. Sure, people would argue and debate of what qualified as a “God,” but this is an argument over what a God is not if it is possible for a God to exist in the physical world. Depending on the literally significant particulars that are assigned to God, God could exist now. The verifiability of God as experimental proposition would depend upon the literally significant assigned particulars, which no doubt people would argue over, but this does not mean it is impossible for God is exist in a literally significant sense.
In conclusion, I agree with many of Ayer’s critiques of metaphysics and the linguistic problems that arise from metaphysical approaches to epistemology. Those who affirm or deny immaterial metaphysical claims outside the world of sensory data are both in error. One cannot prove or deny a non-sensory experience. Even imagination cannot be proved or disproved until those ideas venture out of the world of imagination and into the sensory world. If we are to make truth claims about fiction than we must use literally significant statements in our propositions, which includes translating imagination into reality. One without the other is nonsensical. As Ayer pointed out there are limits to certain verifiable knowledge—notably the distinction between “practical verifiability” and “verifiability in principle,” and between “strong” and “week” verifiability. Though there are limits, we can still have knowledge based on probability. Finally, if we are to examine or create a God with any sort of literal significance it must be within the scope of sensory experience. All other Gods cannot be anything more than a figment of the imagination which may have emotive significance, but not literal significance. However, God as an experimental proposition is more than fiction, it’s a process of verification and falsification of the realities manifested in the sensory world by human imagination. In a very real sense, Gods, countries, unicorns, and vaccinations exist to whatever extent we allow them to exist. Existence, like fiction, is an assignable property.