Falsification and Theology: Continuing a Topic Raised by Feser

Falsification and Theology: Continuing a Topic Raised by Feser

Edward Feser recently posted a “Note on Falsification,” beginning,

Antony Flew’s famous 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” posed what came to be known as the ‘falsificationist challenge’ to theology.  A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable — that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.  The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper.  Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us.  No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us.  But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to?  And why should we accept the claim?  Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists.

Though he covered considerable ground in a relatively short essay, there’s an issue specifically related to theology that I do not think he addressed. The call for falsifiability with respect to the existence of God is inherently absurd and self-defeating. It goes something like this:


  1. The falsification principle applies properly to knowledge of the existence of God, and
  2. The falsification principle requires that we can conceive of and test the possibility of some circumstance in which this God did not exist, and
  3. There is an omnipotent creator God who created all observable reality, including humans,Then:
  4. This God’s existence is knowable only if humans can conceive of circumstances in which nothing of current reality exists, including ourselves.

Which is plainly impossible by the rules of the game and in advance of any possible positive evidence for God. Our interlocutors tend to be those who insist on evidence for all knowledge claims, and reject all evidence-free conclusions but here they have a rule of knowledge that reaches a conclusion without regard for any possible evidence at all. It’s an absurd requirement. If God is knowable in any way (and I am convinced he is), it cannot be by way of any falsification principle. If he did not exist, his non-existence would not be able to be deduced by way of the falsification principle either.

In his post Feser succinctly explains falsification, its properly intended application, and the problems with the principle even in its most nearly proper context.

(I note by way of being thorough that my formulation here leaves open a door to the existence of a God who truly cannot in any way communicate his existence to humans; but to think in those terms is to redefine “God” beyond all recognition.)

9 thoughts on “Falsification and Theology: Continuing a Topic Raised by Feser

  1. ” If God is knowable in any way (and I am convinced he is), it cannot be by way of any falsification principle. “

    I am rather familiar with Popper’s arguments for falsificationism, and the arguments against it. But I have no idea what the phrase “knowable by way of a falsification principle” is supposed to mean.

    One thing that falsificationism (which is false) got right is the notion that there have to be rules for deciding when one is allowed and disallowed from using a particular set of words. Otherwise, the words have no meaning.

    But if there are no rules for listeners to decide whether or not I’ve made a correct move in the language game, then there are no rules to decide whether you have, either.

  2. I take it you think such rules are lacking. Please clarify.

    “By way of any falsification principle” refers to failed epistemological approaches to the knowledge of God

  3. Falsification may work to some degree with testable scientific hypotheses but how would it work with philosophical world views.

    For example I would argue that the following world views are logically possible.

    A. Naturalism
    B. Theism
    C. Pantheism
    D. Virtual reality idealism
    E. Solipsism

    Which ones are falsifiable and why?

  4. Both the dead battery theory and the bad alternator theory are falsifiable theories about why my car won’t start. But “the falsifiability principle” isn’t a method to figure out which one is true.

    Every religion has its own unique mix of falsifiable and unfalsifiable doctrines. It’s a case by case basis. The Hindu belief that humans have existed for billions of years is an example of the former. The Catholic belief that wine can pass every logically conceivable empirical test and yet still somehow essentially “be” human blood is an example of the latter.

    The problem with sentences that have no rules about when someone has spoken or thought them in the correct or incorrect circumstances is that the ruleset is just WHAT IT IS for words to have any meaning at all. If I see you in broad daylight holding what is obviously a cat and say “vous avez un chien”, you should conclude I do not know the rules (and hence, the meaning) of using the word “chien”, since that is the word for a dog. If there were never an occasion where it would be appropriate to correct someone’s use of the word “chien”, it could never be used falsely and therefore could not play any theoretical role in a descriptive model of the objective world (although it may express some tautology or non-cognitive emotive state).

  5. Mechanics falsify hypotheses about car problems every time they go to work, staircaseghost. Their epistemological (diagnostic, that is) method here actually does depend on the falsifiability principle. That’s not to say that the falsifiability principle is a method, so your second sentence here is technically not false. What it is instead is a principle that guides a method, so your overall point in that paragraph is still severely undermined.

    Your second paragraph is a statement of obvious fact. I’m not sure of its relevance.

    And I realize there are problems with sentences that have no rules. It is another obvious observation. I just don’t know (again) what relevance you think that has in the current context.

  6. Consider a couple of sentences. Here’s the first:

    “This sentence has six words.”

    This is an example of a self-referential sentence, or a sentence that is about itself.

    Is it true or false?

    It’s false. Count the words.

    Now consider this sentence:

    “This sentence is false.”

    It’s also a self-referential sentence.

    Is it true or false?

    Hint: [If it’s true, then it’s not false, which means it’s true but it says it is false, which it means that it’s true but again it can’t be because it says it’s false… you try to figure it out.]

    Yeah, I know some interesting fun things about sentence and language too. Does it have anything to do the topic? Maybe in a tangential way. For example, it illustrates that there are two kind of self-referential sentences: those which are falsifiable and those which are not. In other words, like sentences maybe there are some things which are falsifiable and others that are not.

    But with God we are not considering language and sentences, we are thinking about being, Being itself and the ground of being. Can we make falsifiable claims about being? What kind of being is God? Can we make falsifiable claims about Him?

  7. That said, there exist claims about God that are testable. The Old Testament contains many situations where God says to Israel (paraphrased) “Put your trust in me, and see if I deliver”. Similarly, the Scriptures make claims about the world that we can compare to our experience to verify their truth (or, I suppose, otherwise).

    If, however, you mean testing whether we live in a theistic or atheistic universe then I agree that the question is a nonsense, empirically. Neither of these is a “model” of the universe in any scientific sense; rather they are philosophical claims about the nature of reality. We may be able to “test” whether God as revealed in Scripture is true or false, but a philosophical exercise (such as the so-called “Problem of Evil”) cannot prove or disprove a divine “first cause”.

    But even this avoids facing the interesting question, which is not “What / Who are we?” but “Who ought we?”. Does something greater than us give us purpose, and thus morality? Or are we simply choosing goals that happen to please our perceptions, and “morality” is nothing more than what our current society decides works towards our current goals (which may well change)?

    Note that the latter could be true even in a theistic universe. Something more than simple theism is required to get from “exists” to “has moral purpose”.

  8. Recently, Rice University biochemist Dr. James Tour gave a lecture where he claimed that no one, including world leading biochemists like himself, has any idea “how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions… Nobody has any idea on how this was done… using… commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those that say they understand are generally wholly uniformed regarding chemical synthesis…

    He makes it clear up front that he is not talking about Darwinian evolution which, for sake of argument, he assumes could explain the subsequent evolution of multicellular life. He is limiting his discussion to the origin or so called “chemical evolution of life”—abiogenesis.

    He goes on and states:

    “It is intellectually baffling as to how Nature could have progressed toward complex functional systems, over and over again, from basic molecular structures, where no basis for their collective function had preexisted.”

    Watch his lecture and see if he claims that because we do not know how life originated that this necessarily falsifies the hypothesis that the origin of life can be explained naturalistically. His argument for this lecture is simply that nobody knows but also sadly there are a lot of influential scientists who are unwilling to be honest about that fact.

    However, if we compare explanations on the basis of one’s world view—theism vs. naturalism, for example—I would argue that theism AS A WORLD VIEW has more explanatory scope and power than naturalism. Indeed, theism as a world view has the best explanation for not only the origin of life but for the origin of the universe as well as mind and consciousness. While in the above lecture Tour was limiting himself to simply the science, as an out spoken Christian himself I think he would undoubtedly agree with me that theism is a better explanation than naturalism or any other world view.

  9. Vincent Torley at Uncommon Descent has post which provides an extensive transcript of the key points of Dr. Tour’s lecture.


    Here is another key quote. Notice again that Dr. Tour does not argue that because we do not know how life originated that that falsifies naturalism. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know.

    Those that think scientists understand the details of life’s origin are wholly uninformed. Nobody understands. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. So to make ad hominem attacks upon those who are skeptical of the science to-date can be inhibitory to the process if science. Would it not be helpful to express to students the massive gaps in our understanding so that they, as the next generation of academic soldiers, could seek to propel the field upon a firmer, and possibly radically different scientific basis, rather than relying on increasingly ambitious extrapolations that are entirely unacceptable in the practice of chemistry? The basis upon which we as scientists are relying is so shaky that it would be best to openly state the situation for what it is: a mystery.

    To clarify, the point I am trying to make here is whether or not certain basic philosophical assumptions are falsifiable. For example, as was touched on in the OP, is the existence of God falsifiable? Again, I would argue that it is not. Nonetheless that an eternally existing transcendent mind (God) exists is a basic assumption of theism. To believe in God is to believe that the world is the way it is because He exists. On the other hand, working back the other way, the evidence from the natural world, I would argue, is very compelling that an intelligent transcendent creator does indeed exist. (Romans 1:18-20)

    In other words, unlike certain kinds of hypotheses in science, the basic assumptions of any logically possible world view—theism, naturalism, pantheism etc– are unfalsifiable. One can only argue for a world views truth by abductive inference— inference to the best explanation.

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