As a Christian, you may have been challenged by the claim that your proposition that God exists is meaningless. This is a different argument to the one that says that the proposition is false. Atheists are more likely to say that the proposition is false, but there are still some who think it is meaningless, which is to say that it is neither true nor false. Where does the idea that ‘God exists’ is meaningless come from and what ought to be the Christian response?
The philosopher A J Ayer (1910-1989) is perhaps most well-known for the verification principle that he thought means that ‘God exists’ is a meaningless thing to propose. According to his verification principle:
A statement is only meaningful if, and only if, it can be verified.
A statement can be verified if there are grounds for thinking it is true or false.
For example, if I say that the River Thames flows through London, I can verify this by going to London and seeing for myself. I can verify it also by asking trustworthy people and consulting guide books and maps. I do not need evidence that puts the statement beyond reasonable doubt; I just need some evidence that it is true or false for the statement to be verifiable and therefore meaningful.
For a statement to be meaningful, it just must be potentially verifiable rather than it has been verified. In other words, I need to be able to state what could be done to verify a statement, even if what I state ought to be done has not been.
Going to see if the River Thames runs through London, or asking truthful witnesses and consulting guides and maps is one of the methods of verification recognised by Ayer. It might be called verification by observation. There is a second method of verification and that is what is known as analytical truth: something is true by definition. Therefore, if I said all bachelors are unmarried, that would be true by virtue of the meaning of the word bachelor. I do not need to observe bachelors first to know that bachelors are unmarried. If I was unsure of what the word bachelor meant, I would need to look it up in a dictionary, but that would be a different kind of verifying. In that case, I am verifying the meaning of a common noun within the statement and not the truth of the statement.
Ayer was of the view that talk about God is meaningless because God, if he exists, is a metaphysical being. God therefore cannot be observed because he is beyond the world in which we live. ‘God exists’, according to Ayer, is not analytically true either. There is nothing about the nature of God that means that he necessarily exists.
Some people who are atheists, but who wish to retain some elements of religion, respond by saying that when they say that God exists, they are not claiming that God exists, but that this is a metaphorical statement for their optimism that life has meaning, or that love is important or that there are such things as good and evil. The statement that God exists can mean this, though it is a statement that might confuse and need further explanation as to what the speaker really intends, but most people who believe in God mean by it that God indeed exists and most atheists would understand the statement to mean the same thing, though they think it to be highly unlikely to be true. How then might the Christian (and other believers in God) escape the verification principle’s conclusion that their statement that God exists is meaningless?
The most well-known criticism of the verification principle is that it is itself meaningless since it is unverifiable. The principle appears neither to be an analytic truth nor verified by observation. It is what is called self-referentially incoherent.
This may be the case, but it could be argued that the verification principle is a bedrock belief that guides our thinking without being itself justifiable. It is perhaps synonymous with basic moral beliefs and states of consciousness that seem not to require justification but are obviously true. For instance, ‘genocide is wrong’ seems obviously true. If I asked you why you enjoyed cooking for your friends, the conversation might go like this:
“Why do you enjoy cooking for your friends?”
“I like to see their looks of appreciation.”
“And why do you like that?”
“Because I like to do them good.”
“And why do you like to do them good?”
“Because it makes me happy.”
At that point there is no further reason. This kind of selfless happiness needs no justification.
The verification principle arguably is good at keeping us epistemically virtuous. It reminds us that when faced with statements, and in particular statements that make extreme claims such as ‘the Loch Ness monster exists’, that we are to go through a two-step process: is this statement verifiable and if it is, is it true or false. If the statement is analytically true, we can immediately accept it.
The point of conflict between Ayer’s use of the verification principle and Christian belief is Ayer’s conclusion that the statement ‘God exists’ is neither true nor false, and therefore is meaningless. This conclusion does not come solely from the verification principle. Ayer had other beliefs about God which means that God falls foul of the verification principle. God is a metaphysical being whose being does not entail his existence. Therefore, ‘God exists’ is uncheckable and not analytically true.
It is a moot point whether God’s being does or does not entail his existence. Ontological arguments have come in for a lot of criticism, though they have been proposed by great philosophers such as Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, and Hegel. There is no space in this article to look at this complex area of philosophical debate. It is sufficient to say that the debate continues and that Ayer’s dismissal of ‘God exists’ as not analytical truth cannot be taken for granted.
Is ‘God exists’ verifiable and therefore meaningful? Contrary to Ayer, it seems to be. The cosmological arguments use observations of the universe and the conclusions drawn about its beginning to propose God’s existence. The teleological and the fine-tuning arguments also use observations of the universe’s unlikely existence and its regularity and complexity to suggest that there is a God who made it. Other Christian statements are also verifiable. If X states that a miraculous healing has occurred, that is potentially verifiable and so meaningful. If Y says that Jesus lived in first century Israel, that can be verified using historical sources.
Another line of argument comes from the atheist philosopher Stephen Law who finds Ayer’s argument ambiguous. What does Ayer mean by an observation? Would it include what John Hick has called an eschatological verification, which means that when we die, we will be able to verify if God exists or not because we may get to meet him?
We can conclude that as the statement ‘God exists’ and other Christian statements are verifiable in an observational sense, these statements are not meaningless as Ayer supposed. That does not make them necessarily true or false, but at least they are meaningful and therefore cannot be dismissed as metaphysical gibberish.