A. J. Ayer and the Verification Principle

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Alfred Jules Ayer (d. 1989) was an influential British philosopher and representative of the logical positivist movement best-known for his work Language, Truth, and Logic (1936).

As a proponent of logical positivism, Ayer proposed the verification principle. He was thus an empiricist in that he was convinced that all knowledge of the world comes from sense experience. Ayer considered his verificationist principle to be a helpful development of the empiricist tradition. This principle was a criterion seeking to affirm the meaningfulness of propositions; Ayer puts it this way,

“The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (1).

To Ayer, the only meaningful or “literally significant” statements are those that can be translated into factual observations (“empirically verifiable”) or logical observations (“analytically verifiable”). For example, the statement “The grass is green” constitutes a factual observation whereas “3+3=6” or “All triangles have three sides” are logical observations. Both statements are meaningful. Particularly meaningful are scientific claims that open themselves to testing and thus can be verified through experience. By consequence, Ayer relegated a great deal of human knowledge and talk about transcendent subjects; for example, talk about aesthetics, morals, and theology are literally meaningless because it is unverifiable and therefore “nonsensical”. Talk about God or morality cannot open themselves up to factual observation and so do not tell us anything about the way the world is.

It is easy to see why Ayer was an atheist who saw talk about God and religion as unverifiable and meaningless. Ayer was a part of several organizations and publications including the Rationalist Press Association, the New Humanist magazine, and the president of the British Humanist Association from 1966 to 1970. Ayer’s logical positivism has come to influence modern-day atheism, particularly that of early twenty-first New Atheist movement that is remembered for defining itself as rational and dismissing all religion as superstitious nonsense.

Interestingly, Ayer had a near-death experience in 1988 that motivated him to write an article called What I saw when I was dead. In hospital, he died for four minutes (his heart stopped) after suffering from pneumonia and this challenged his view that death puts an end to consciousness. According to his account, Ayer saw a red light “exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it” that governs the universe. He witnessed two creatures who had been put in charge of space and how the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should. But Ayer remained skeptical saying that his brain must have continued to function although his heart had stopped. Although the experience “slightly weakened” his conviction that death would be the end of him, though he hoped it would be, Ayer did not view his strange encounter as proof of a God,

“A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an afterlife would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists” (2).

Although Ayer’s philosophy and verificationist principle were influential for a time, most philosophers have come to view it as problematic. The very strong view that we should only believe in that which can be empirically verified seems immune to verification. This means that by its own criterion, Ayer’s principle is meaningless because there is no way of verifying it. Moreover, Ayer spoke at length about metaphysical topics and affirmed beliefs about these despite declaring them meaningless, which seems inconsistent.

References

1. Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1936. Language, Truth, and Logic. p. 16.

2. A. J. Ayer – ‘What I Saw When I Was Dead’. Available.

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