My Thoughts on Falsifiability: Meaning, Truth and the Consequences of Belief

Some of you may know Tim Martin of The Floating Lantern. He is an Atheist and I usually follow his interesting posts. In here, he posted about falsifiability and the speech that The Thinking Atheist gave about none falsifiability of religious claims. Tim in his post here has rightfully pointed out that religious claims are none falsifiable:

He has written: “In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.”

True, but I thought the following part should be added to that, in order to answer where we would like to go with this?

As many of you may have heard, falsifiability is the criterion of scientific knowledge. No, not exactly; But for the sake of the argument, and since it seems irrelevant to this discussion, for now I put aside it’s problems (logical, philosophical and historical). I may talk about them in another post.

If something is not falsifiable, it neither means that it is meaningless, nor it means that it is necessarily untrue; it means that we cannot determine whether it is true or not, with a scientific method.

Now, why none falsifiable things are not meaningless? The reason is, criterions of meaning could be proven to have philosophical and logical problems, problems so intense that make them practically meaningless! Yes, many of them have proven to be self refuting, including the famous Verification Principle of logical positivism, the dead school of philosophy of science.

The main thing is, Popper realized that his principle of falsification (didn’t I say? Yes, he was the first to promote it against Logical Positivism), cannot and should not have the same problem. You see, aside from being self-refuting, many thing are not falsifiable: Music, literature, art and maybe even social sciences (to some extent). How could we suggest that they are meaningless?! I personally not only enjoy music a lot, but also know many meaningless words that only find meaning in the context of their literature. I wonder how many people know what “Upsilamba” means, Or have even heard it?

Of course not every none falsifiable is meaningless, therefore, Popper wrote:

“Note that I suggest falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation, but not of meaning. Note, moreover, that I have already (section 4) sharply criticized the use of the idea of meaning as a criterion of demarcation, and that I attack the dogma of meaning again, even more sharply, in section 9. It is therefore a sheer myth (though any number of refutations of my theory have been based upon this myth) that I ever proposed falsifiability as a criterion of meaning. Falsifiability separates two kinds of perfectly meaningful statements: the falsifiable and the non-falsifiable. It draws a line inside meaningful language, not around it.” (You can see the book in pdf here, the point is made on page 18 as a note at the end of the page)

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Ok, how about the truth? As I pointed out, falsifiability criterion of knowledge is suppose to show us what cannot be determined by scientific method to be false. Logically speaking, we cannot derive the conclusion of falsehood simply out of not being able to determine the truth. It would be a logical fallacy, appealing to ignorance, which by the way religious people like a lot (including creationists).

Therefore, whatever none falsifiable is not necessarily untrue.

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What can we say from religion being none falsifiable? The following: It’s not scientific. Ok, but what makes it different from literature, or art?

It is interesting, that we understand, it seems to a great deal, that our understanding of art or literature is “ours”. We know that other people are entitled to their own realization of what is good music, and what is readable literature. But how is it, that we do not realize this for religion? (The answer might be in the gathering of the crowds, we feel maybe a sense of belonging, a sense of safety within that mass of people. But this is for another post)

Aside from that, religion makes claims that no art ever does. They make the claim that they know the key to life and death itself. They claim they are moral compasses, and so, they have a program for a meaningful life. What they do, is they make people forget how idealistic they are. They make people believe in them, and believe in them as absolute truth that no one can or should challenge. And so, people are not be able to see the consequences of those beliefs.

And that’s a huge thing: Beliefs have consequences. Music is not a belief, nor is art. Literature in its artistic form is not a belief either. But religion is “made” of beliefs, and the consequences of those are not just in one’s head, but in reality of the world. And what heinous consequences they are…

The upside is, none falsifiable claims have rivals just like themselves: Which Gods do you think are true? Here are just a few: Ra, Isis, Osiris, Set (Egyptian); Odin, Thor, Baldur, Loki (Scandinavian); Zeus, Hera, Prometheus (Creator of humankind in Greek mythology), Uranus, Gaia, (and many more, Greek gods), Allah; Jehovah and so on…

And just by raising the matter of probability, what are the chances that one God is the rightful God, assuming there is one?!

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thetruthfulheretic

Dear fellow Homo sapiens, or if you prefer conscious mammals! And of course, friends nonetheless: I created my blog in order to speak my very weird mind, mostly about three subjects (as I identify myself and my state of mind with them): Atheism, as I was born in the Middle East and saw and felt the affects of Islam; Homosexuality and equal rights, as a gay man who has tasted the Homophobia and also Sexism in that society; and Liberalism and political philosophy, which I think is a good ground for secular values and criticism of fundamentalism. If you wish, visit and join your state of mind to mine. I hope they don't short circuit!

16 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Falsifiability: Meaning, Truth and the Consequences of Belief”

  1. I must say, I’m quite confused by your post.

    To say that something is falsifiable is to say that there is some condition that could lead to its being false. For the religious person, “God is good” is unfalsifiable because there is no state of affairs that could lead to it being false. No matter how much bad occurs in one’s life, God, who let it all happen, is still good.

    “God is good” is, of course, a supposition. “Music” is not. Music is a noun. The concept of falsifiability doesn’t even apply, unless you can make sense of the question “Is music true or false?” I’m flabbergasted that you would use non-suppositions like music and art as examples of things that are unfalsifiable.

    Can you give an actual example of something that is unfalsifiable (it must be something to which the concepts of “true” and “false” apply!) but that still has meaning, in the sense that it conveys information to us?

  2. Hi dear Tim,

    “For the religious person, “God is good” is unfalsifiable because there is no state of affairs that could lead to it being false.”

    It is true, but yet “God is good” is none falsifiable for everyone, including you and me. Falsifiability is a criterion of knowledge, it shows (aside from its problems) that what statement is scietific and what is not. Or, what statement is such, that with scientific experiments we can show its falsehood.

    “Can you give an actual example of something that is unfalsifiable (it must be something to which the concepts of “true” and “false” apply!) but that still has meaning, in the sense that it conveys information to us?”

    Mmmmm, if the concept of true or false can be applied to a statement by conducting scietific experiments, thay “are” falsifiable. But let me explain more:

    “Apples taste better that oranges” is a scientificly none falsifiable statement, but “Apples are more nutritious than oranges” is scientificly falsifiable. I think you’d agree that the first statement maybe true or false, but it is scientificly none falsifiable, would you say it is meaningless? doesn’t it give you any new information?

    In case of music, let’s say, “Beethoven’s second movement of his 7th symphony is his masterpiece.”* Is scientificly none falsifiable, and so is “Music is good”, or “Classical music is boring”. Now, are they meaningless? These are trivial, but most of the things related to music are related to it as an art, our feelings and taste affect it. That’s why though I dont like hip hop music at all, I do not scientificly try to prove “Hip hop music is good” is false, it simply cannot be done, but it also is not meaningless.

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    * I genuenly think it is, I love that piece:

    1. “Apples taste better than oranges.”
      If you ask yourself what this statement actually means, you realize that it is eminently falsifiable. I’m being purposefully cryptic here, but indulge me for a moment. Go ahead and tell me what this statement means.

  3. It means exactly as it reads! You’r telling me, that when your friends tell you that, you ask them “What do you mean?”! No, that’s because you know it’s meaning, don’t tell me that you don’t! 😉

    But dear, we understand each other, though even now we are not talking falsifiable. That’s why we “can” read each others comments and give each other answers, though they are not falsifiable. That’s why no one should try criterions of meaning, they turn out to be more meaningless than most of what they criticise.

    And by all means, I can go through details to show why falsifiability is not even a good criterion of knowledge, usefull, maybe to some extent, perfect not at all.

  4. If it is your wish my friend, have it your way. I tried my best to show why we don’t have a criterion of meaning, and even if we have, why falsifiability is not it. I cannot think of a better way I could have done it.

    1. Yes, exactly. The original statement seems to state something objective about apples and oranges, but you and I both know that it is a subjective statement about one person’s preferences. “Apples taste better than oranges” must always be understood as having an implied “…to me” behind it.

      And as I already stated, this is eminently falsifiable. It’s easy to provide the state of affairs that would make this statement untrue. If the speaker didn’t actually like the taste of apples better than oranges, the statement would be false. (In case you’re worried about relying on personal reports, we could always use brain imaging to check on neural activity in reward centers of the brain, which would show differences based on how much a person likes one food over another.)

      The same goes for all subjective valuations – of art, of music, and of sports cars. “This is a good car” means “the attributes of this car are in line with what I like.” If this isn’t obvious to you, see Russell Blackford’s (relatively short) explanation of the concept here.

      All of these statements have meaning, and all are falsifiable. It is a scientific fact that hip hop music doesn’t cause dopamine release in reward centers of your brain. We could see it if we imaged your brain while you listened to hip hop.

      Similarly, if we wanted to know what would falsify the statement “God is good,” we would have to ask a person what exactly they mean. Is a good god one who doesn’t allow innocent people to die? Is it one who doesn’t cause innocent people to die? Is it one who sometimes does horrible things but loves us anyway? Once we have an answer, we can falsify the statement. But it’s already apparent from the way Christians talk about their god that they have no answer. Apparently, a “good god” lets the universe unfold exactly as it unfolds when there’s no god behind the scenes. And thus “god is good” has exactly the same explanatory power as “the universe exists.”

      Which is what atheists have been saying all along.

    1. Why are you all of a sudden asking about scientific experiments? Let’s stick with the original question.

      2+2=4: Math is not my strong suit. But I believe this equation is true by definition, which makes it not a supposition (I think).

      “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve” : What does this even mean? That the clock has struck midnight? That’s certainly falsifiable. Either the hour hand is in the 12 o’clock position, or it isn’t!

      “Real things exist.” : This is a tautology, similar to saying A=A. A=A would be false if A didn’t equal A, so there should be no problem there.

  5. Ok, Now let’s see:

    Firstly, philosophers like Wittgenstein (and I think Quine) would state that we don’t have anything as true by definition, but since I don’t like that idea myself, I would not go that way. My point be, you say it yourself: It’s “true” by definition, which means it cannot be falsified by a scientific experiment. Is it meaningless? No.

    On the other hand, what is the difference between Shakespeare and “The clock has struck midnight”?
    A big one, and that is Shakespeare’s work is fiction! How on earth could it be falsifiable? Is it meaningless? No… I don’t think there is anything more meaningful than literature, especially the ones that are “not” true. 😉

    But that’s not even the important part: The important part is, you ask as you asked before, “What does that mean?” If you “can” know what it means, you are always beginning with meaningful, not meaningless. So it seems what you’re actually after is “Whatever is meaningful, is falsifiable.” But then falsifiability would not be a criterion of meaning, would it?

    And as for A=A: No, not like that. Whatever thing that exists is not necessarily real (such is the nature of dreams or harry potter for that matter!). And though such statements are not falsifiable, they are not meaningless. (In fact, “the world is real”, which through that statement above leads to “the world exists” is one of the most important things for being a scientist.)

    But enough with this.
    Please hear it from me, criterions of meaning would turn out to be just as meaningless, and actually more meaningless than any other thing they claim is meaningless.

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