A few months ago I received an intriguing email from a young man I’ll call “JC” who had once been, in his words, an “on-fire, orthodox, passionate, evangelizing” Christian. Unfortunately, JC’s faith had crumbled in the face of insurmountable doubts, but he was open to anything that might restore it. That’s why he offered to give me $500 in exchange for answering six difficult questions related to his doubts.
JC’s request was even more heartening because in the past few days I had been dialoguing with atheists online and offered to send them my book Answering Atheism for free, an offer they all refused. So when I heard JC’s offer, it restored my faith in the existence of genuine truth-seekers.
I agreed to his offer but asked that, instead of money, JC grant me permission to share parts of our correspondence with other people it might benefit. So far we have been discussing what is perhaps the most basic question dividing skeptics and believers: how do I know what’s true? After we discussed the question of God’s existence and proofs for the existence of God, JC wrote this:
Without the empirical data to show whether arguments succeed or fail, we simply do not know whether said arguments succeed or fail (this is true only when the arguments involve things in observable experience such as the universe we live in, as opposed to abstract concepts with agreed-upon rules, such as in mathematics).
I agreed that empirical data can indeed help answer factual questions about things we often observe. It is often the best way to answer scientific or historical questions. But I was concerned that he had slipped into a belief system called verificationism, which was popular among early twentieth-century logical positivists like AJ Ayers, who described it this way:
A sentence is factually significant if, and only if, we know how to verify the proposition it purports to express—that is, if we know what observations would lead us to accept the proposition as true or reject it as false . . . with such metaphysics as “the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress” one cannot conceive of an observation which would determine whether the Absolute did or did not enter into evolution; the utterance has no literal significance.
Ayers claimed that statements about God aren’t just false, they’re incomprehensible gibberish because there is no way to verify whether the statements are true.
Now, of course, some combinations of words can be just gobbledygook and have no meaning—even if they sound impressive. (Physics professor Alan Sokal once submitted an article full of meaningless buzzwords and jargon to a post-modern journal and had it accepted!) But that doesn’t mean all metaphysical concepts are just word salads unless they can be verified empirically. In fact, one of the biggest problems with verificationism is that it is self-contradictory: the principle of verificationism cannot be verified by its own standard of truth.
Indeed, any method of determining truth, whether it’s empiricism, verificationism, rationalism, skepticism, scholasticism, etc., can’t be empirically determined to be the best or only method of obtaining knowledge. Anyone who defends any such method will make a philosophical argument that starts with a basic principle about knowledge or truth. He will then try and show how his method best attests to that principle. The arguments may be simple or complex, but in the end, their truth rests or falls on their soundness, not any empirical discovery.
JC also expressed concerns about consensus and truth. He raised the point that nearly everyone accepts truths we can establish empirically, like the shape of the Earth or the existence of the Higgs boson particle. Why don’t we have that same consensus when it comes to the existence of God? How can we be confident that God exists when so many people disagree with that claim?
It’s true we can establish many truths empirically with a high degree of consensus, but it doesn’t follow from this that we can’t be certain about our beliefs just because others disagree with them and there is no empirical way to settle our disagreement. Here are just two examples that verificationists like Ayers can never answer to their satisfaction:
Do moral truths exist? A little more than half of philosophers hold to moral realism, or the view that moral truths really do exist and can be discovered. Others, like the famous atheist J.L. Mackie, say that such truths must be illusory because otherwise they would entail that God exists. Of course, many moral realists are atheists and disagree with Mackie—but the point is that they are all doing this on the basis of philosophical arguments, not empirical observations.
Also, if moral truths exist, what are they? Science can empirically determine what the physical consequences will be for certain actions, but it cannot tell us which consequences we should aim for in our actions. For example, if we had to choose between increasing well-being for many people or treating all people fairly, which should we choose? This is a legitimate question with an answer that cannot be determined empirically.
What am I? Science can determine what species we belong to and other facts about our bodies, but it can’t tell us if we are only our bodies. For example, imagine you were offered the chance to upload your mind to a computer in a way that would destroy your body in the process. Would you survive this upload, or would a copy of you be created instead? Empirical inquiry can’t tell us if we are just bodies, just minds, or some kind of composite of mind and body. It also can’t tell us if we are merely material beings or if there is some immaterial aspect of our existence that continues after the death of the body.
I raise these questions about morality and people because they 1) can’t be settled empirically, 2) are sharply contested issues in the field of philosophy, and 3) closely resemble the question “Does God exist?”
God is not a material object that we can discover and analyze empirically like the Higgs boson. Instead, the God of theism is the ultimate, immaterial, and eternal foundation of reality. Any way of determining if God exists will resemble the way we determine if other foundational elements of reality, like moral truths or our own personal identities, exist. Specifically, it will involve logical arguments that start with what we observe and then reason to the existence of these foundational, immaterial elements of reality.
So I’m hoping that JC and I can find common ground on these points:
- Not every important question about reality can be resolved empirically.
- Some important questions about reality can be resolved only with philosophical argumentation. These arguments won’t convince everyone—but that doesn’t mean they’re false or that a person can’t rationally accept them, even if others do not.
- The existence of God is one of those questions.
I’ll let you know how our discussion of the various proofs for the existence of God turns out, but until then, please pray that all skeptics may have the same openness to the truth that JC has!
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