Falsificationism And Christianity

Another difficulty with religious language (and hence, Christianity) that non-religious people have concerns itself with “falsifiability,” or the aspect of any claim which states it must, in principle at least, be capable of subjecting to certain scientific criteria by which it can conceivably be proven false, in order to be considered meaningful. Like Verificationism, Falsificationism assumes an empiricist worldview, and so is subject immediately to some of the criticisms of Verificationism, including for instance, the seeming arbitrariness of the foundational principles undergirding it. Falsificationism was articulated as a way to circumvent the problems inherent in Verificationism. While Karl Popper (the author of Falsificationism) himself recognized metaphysical statements to be meaningful, his criteria of falsifiability was only useful, and only to a point, to determine between “science” and “pseudo-science.” As a common example we might consider the distinction between Astronomy and Astrology. However, even with this example, Astrology (a decidedly non-scientific idea) has actually been tested and proven false. And so taken by itself, not even falsifiability is sufficient to render Astrology meaningless as far as Popper seems to be concerned. For our purposes, in light of the way it’s commonly used, we’ll utilize the definition I gave above: the aspect of any claim which states it must, in principle at least, be capable of subjecting to certain scientific criteria by which it can conceivably be proven false, in order to be considered meaningful.

When opponents of Christianity cite falsifiability against Christianity, they are assuming a little bit more than Falsificationism says by itself: that only what is falsifiable is what is actually real. In other words, if it’s not falsifiable, it’s not real, and therefore not true. When such a foundational assumption has been made, it’s clear to see once again that the conflict is, not merely over evidence, but over worldviews. There are significant problems with this particular use of Falsificationism, as we’ll see shortly.

At what point can they consider any claim to be sufficiently proven false? Greg Bahnsen describes the issue of falsificationism as a primarily psychological phenomenon. In Always Ready, he gives the example of the Parable of the Invisible Gardener, authored by John Wisdom, and restated as follows by Antony Flew:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Skeptic despairs, ‘But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’

As we see here, a gardener that cannot be sensed is no better than no gardener at all. When contrary observations are made, the “believer” simply adjusts his hypothesis to fit the observational (or otherwise) data. But is the believer the only one who is capable of moving the goalposts? John Frame gives this counter-example in an essay of his:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the sceptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

All the evidence that has ever been offered against evolutionary theory has been reasoned away. For all “theories of everything,” as it were, there does exist some obligation to explain everything in light of it, if it is to be sufficient. Such things are paradigmatic. And this is appropriate. But in light of this, to say “there isn’t any evidence” is to beg the question in the largest way possible. In truth, there only exists evidence *for* God. The only thing the Christian needs to do, then,  is drive this car into a wall. 

And, in this manner, we see that the unbeliever takes great pains in order to reason away God. What opponents of Christianity routinely fail to take into account is that the debate over Christianity is not one that involves “facts” and “observations” and “evidence,” because as we saw above, one’s presuppositions are vital to what he considers to be “evidence.” This is precisely why we as Christians take the debate to the level of presuppositions, and argue transcendentally. When we take their presuppositions for the sake of argument, we discover there is no basis to consider their presuppositions to be intelligible to begin with. We find that they’re arbitrary, and we find that, in light of this arbitrariness, knowledge of anything else is therefore just as arbitrary.

Perhaps the reason Christianity can’t conceivably be proven false is that it can’t possibly be proven false?


2 Comments

Marie Hughes

Thank you for sharing, I like your article. Falsifiability or refutability is the trait of a statement, hypothesis, or theory whereby it can be shown false by way of some conceivable observation practically possible to achieve. In this sense, falsify is synonym to nullify, meaning not “to commit fraud” but “show to be false”.

SLIMJIM

Good post.


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