Must Christianity be Empirically Falsifiable? A Reply to Dave Armstrong

Must Christianity be Empirically Falsifiable?

It was the subtitle that caught my attention in Dave Armstrong’s recent Patheos post:

— …in Order to be Rationally Held? Positivist Myths and Fallacies Debunked by Philosophers and Mathematicians —

I was not immediately sure what I was told here. Part one of the post recapitulates Jerry A. Coyne’s argument against religion:

One of the big differences between religion and science as “ways of knowing” is that in science we can almost always specify what observations or experiments would prove our theories wrong. In contrast, the faithful do not (and cannot) specify what observations would disprove their beliefs—or the whole basis of their religion […] the faithful carefully insulate those beliefs from disproof […] Evidence for religious beliefs is counted; evidence against them is dismissed.

[…] the faithful often won’t let themselves even consider counterevidence. […] Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right.

Falsifiability is, so Armstrong’s insinuation, the thing positivists have demanded, and it is (part two of his article) the very thing positivism has failed to deliver. Not even the system of mathematics can be falsified. Big heads, professors of philosophy, make their statements and this is where I was suddenly not so sure any longer that I would get an answer from Dave. My guide disappeared quietly behind his authorities without, so I felt, actually agreeing with them. The manoeuvre was simple: Why should Christians bother if all these philosophers cannot offer us more than their perspectives on a philosophy that died after it failed to meet its own impossible standards of falsifiability? Why should Religion not be allowed to be non-falsifiable if we agree that mathematics is.

A few thoughts from the dead positivist’s point of view:

By the way, the positivists were the verification guys

It was Karl Popper who was so proud of his having blasted the positivist camp with his hint at the importance of falsifiability. His adversaries, the logical positivists, had claimed that we could understand all our empirical data, the entire world as far as we are experiencing it, as a collection of positive statements. Maps make positive assertions about what we should find out there in the world. Why can we read a map? Because it is true? No. That is something we might realise with a look at things out there. We can use a map because we know what would be true if it was right. Can a map prove that it is right? No. Only a look at the world can prove that. We need positive statements, statements of facts, not negations to make sense. Wittgenstein discussed this until he was fed up with these necessary statements:

4.022       The proposition shows its sense.
        The proposition shows how things stand, if it is true. And it says, that they do so stand.

4.023       The proposition determines reality to this extent, that one only needs to say “Yes” or “No” to it to make it agree with reality.
        It must therefore be completely described by the proposition.
        A proposition is the description of a fact.
        As the description of an object describes it by its external properties so propositions describe reality by its internal properties.
        The proposition constructs a world with the help of a logical scaffolding, and therefore one can actually see in the proposition all the logical features possessed by reality if it is true. One can draw conclusions from a false proposition.

4.024       To understand a proposition means to know what is the case, if it is true.
        (One can therefore understand it without knowing whether it is true or not.)
        One understands it if one understands its constituent parts.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico philosophicus (1922).

…and so on and so on. All this will sound mystical just as it dares to state the triviality of the obvious. Your new French flatmate might not have the slightest clue of what you mean when you speak of “milk” which he might find in that fridge. He finds a package of tomatoes, knows that these are “tomatoes”, and still does not have a clue what to consider as “milk”. The negation – the empty fridge (or the fridge filled with tomatoes) – will not help him to make sense of the assertion that he might find milk in there. Our maps are not filled with statements of falsifications. That is why the positivists focused on the positive assertion.

Falsification, a killer who appears when positive solutions have already done the job

Falsification can theoretically kill any more complex system of knowledge. Our planet is not the stable centre of the universe. Let Foucault’s pendulum swing in its strict to and fro movements and you will see (if the experiment is not conducted in an equatorial region) our planet rotating underneath the movements.

Earth and Venus, 8 Orbits
Earth and Venus, 8 Orbits

Falsification is deadly but only one option to blast a system and perhaps not even the regular option. We abandoned the most beautiful of all systems (and the geocentric system was incredibly beautiful) far before we realised how we could empirically falsify its premises. The heliocentric system was, once Kepler had revised it, the far simpler and the far more precise system. Kepler could state basic geometrical laws. Newton redefined it with his theory of gravity and his idea of inertia. The empirical falsification of the geocentric worldview took us still more than a century. We needed Newton to think of the pendulum. The proof came late, the new models did not wait that long. We accept new models as soon as we realise that they will work better with the increasing mass of data. Darwin’s theory had this very advantage. It works better with fossils, with the continental drift, with the biological variation, and now even with genetics.

Positivism with its insistence on positive data has not been beaten as a theory that lacks an appreciation of falsification, nor is it much of a problem that we cannot falsify positivism itself. Positivism is rather trivial. You are a positivist as soon as you tell your kid why we can use a map or a satellite image to see where we are. You can prove that maps can mislead, but it is true, you can actually not that clearly say how you would prove that you cannot give a picture of what you see.

Popper’s insistence on falsifiability has its own qualities nonetheless.

Know where you can’t be proven wrong and and you get a transparent debate

Coyne was right: “…in science we can almost always specify what observations or experiments would prove our theories wrong.” The almost always is important. Actually we cannot falsify the statement that Julius Cesar died of 42 wounds (42 being the answer of all answers). History does not have a rewind button. Plutarch spoke of 33 wounds, others spoke of 23; we will probably never get beyond these disagreeing statements. We will otherwise do our research as historians with clear ideas of what we would accept as a proof or falsification of a particular statement. We discuss which archives to see with the aim to verify or falsify assertions.

The question “what would you accept as a proof that you are wrong” is useful where we are trying to anticipate dissent. It is otherwise intriguing wherever we meet people who (so our uncanny feeling) do more or less pretend that they defend “empirical knowledge”. Ask the anti-vaxxer what he would accept as a proof that he is wrong. Statistics? Are forged! Cases of people who died after infections? This patient did not die from Ebola, a harmless virus, he was told he had the deadly disease and that was what killed him, or they secretly poisoned him, or he was just sad and that was killing him… You just will not get the anti-vaxxer to state what could change his mind. His position is irrational so the empiricist’s conclusion.

To play in one league with mathematics and madness?

David Armstrong asked this question whether Christianity should really want to be non-falsifiable, and did not really give an answer.

In other words, if Christianity is unworthy of belief on these grounds, then so is mathematics, and since mathematics is crucial and central to science, the latter collapses with it (by this fallacious, incoherent reasoning). Conclusion: the argument proves too much, and so must be discarded as worthless. Christianity cannot be rationally dismissed on this basis.

What about mathematics? 12 x 12 is 144. Yes. And it is true there is no empirical operation imaginable to falsify this computation. Perform the calculation with sheep. Twelve dozens; count them one by one: exactly 144. You have made a mistake if you counted 143 or 145. Why? Because mathematics is empirically true? No, it is because Mathematics is a tautological system of man made definitions. The equation gives us a predetermined result.

Armstrong’s argument was simple: If mathematics do not have to be falsifiable, then why should our religion be? The twofold question is at this point: Are you ready to put religion into the same league? – and is this really one unified league? Positivists are not too concerned about the foot with which they play in that particular league. We are all positivists where we read the map, even though we might all be unable to state why map reading should be impossible. We see that one can use statements with a look at reality. The agreement which David and I will reach on any field trip looking at the map and at our surroundings, will end at the positivist’s border. Dave seems to “know” things about his God and I am not quite sure how he is knowing these things. The next religious person will no agree with him, and that is making things worse.

I am not startled about the fact that we can count sheep. Our operations in numbers are operations in a system we have generated for that purpose. I am not quite sure whether Dave is ready to demystify religion in the parallel move. Conspiracists and paranoids live, on the other hand, in systems which they cannot falsify and I am again not quite sure whether this is just as good as being religious, as being a mathematician, or as being able to read maps.

Move first and you are dead?

I am trying to make it clear that to be not falsifiable, to be right against all or without any evidence, is no unified phenomenon. It can be the trivial bottom line of having reached reality (where it will raise the question: what exactly is this “reality”)? It can be the simple indication that we are dealing here with a well designed construct of rules (think of chess or go). Non-falsifiability can innocently playful and as ironical and satirical as in Last Thursdayism (the belief that all, including our memories has begun only last Thursday). It can be a personal or a social strategy of complex and persistent denial of facts: Be a holocaust denialist and reject all evidence of the extermination of Jews as fake and propaganda. You can be alone with your non-falisfiablity as a paranoia patient or part of a larger movement of people who feel that we are all deceived.

The strategies of achieving non-falsifiability are different in all these cases and they differ even within one and the same arrangement. The non-falsifiability of mathematics or positivism is relatively simple and apparent. The non-falsifiability within religions is by contrast immensely complex and multi-faceted in all its instances, whether social, textual or personal.

Mormons make specific statements about the history of the Americas. A Jewish tribe was defeated on American soil. The battle sites are known. We should have found the relics of advanced weapons on these sites long ago. Joseph Smith gave us his readings of Egyptian hieroglyphs and a key to the script. Egyptologists remain puzzled. We could say that these are blatant empirical falsifications of a religion that was all too eager to act as a science.

Yet, we will also know the standard manoeuvres that can make this as any religion non-falsifiable: Mormons can decide that archaeologists have just not yet found the indicated places. They can claim that modern Egyptologists are actually not able to read the hieroglyphs. The missing positive proof is in these particular manoeuvres moved into a future which no one is able to access. Conspiracy theorists are using the same ploy wherever they claim that “research” is presently simply not ready to take them seriously. Theologians will prefer the standard manoeuvre of an allegorical reading: All this is not empirically true but true on another level of interpretation. The more fascinating option to deal with religious statements that were once accepted as empirical truth is the historical reading. My Catholic Jerusalem Bible performs this manoeuvre with its first footnote on Genesis 1. This is, so we read, what people believed when Genesis 1 was written. They thought they were living on a land mass protected by a dome against the waters from above. Our present views do admittedly differ due to our advanced technical means; what has remained stable though, is the believer’s attempt to understand God’s cosmos. The Bible is in this manoeuvre the irrefutable chief witness of the continuing quest of inspired believers to reach out to God.

Any of these manoeuvres has its own rationality. The different manoeuvres lead into a different debates in which the supporters will find both, different enemies and different partners who will take them seriously.

Must Christianity be empirically falsifiable? Must the Christian consider how he creates the particular non-falsifiability of his religion, of his personal denomination or creed, or of individual passages of his text base? Can he not simply say he feels God’s presence – though the atheist might not share his sensation? Yes.

Risking the question of falsifiability is a tool of deconstruction and self recognition. You get a clearer view of your system and how it relates to similar systems. Mathematicians and positivists have not been afraid of the questions involved, they wanted to understand the constructs they are using – may be that’s all the difference.

Title cover The Web

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