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:
- The falsification principle applies properly to knowledge of the existence of God, and
- The falsification principle requires that we can conceive of and test the possibility of some circumstance in which this God did not exist, and
- There is an omnipotent creator God who created all observable reality, including humans,Then:
- 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.)