Verification and Falsification

The process of science is undertaken through two similar but distinct paths; verification and falsification. The two, though different, have more similarities than they have differences. Verification and falsification are based on two strands of knowing something; these are empirical data and rationality.

Empirical knowledge is basically that knowledge which is presented to our senses. Direct empirical knowledge is generally considered reliable and so is a route to knowledge. If I can report that there is a white thing in front of me that appears to have the characteristics of a wall, then it is reasonable to assume that I am standing in front of a wall.
Taking a step away from this direct knowledge does lead us away from certainty. For example, if I was to claim that yesterday I had a wall experience then I am adding another category of explanation to my wall experience, that of memory. A remembered experience is not as reliable as a current experience. But a current sensory experience is one of the best and most reliable chunks of knowledge that we can have.

The Logic of Science

Rational knowledge tends to depend on things that are logically true and which could be no other way. One plus one equals two is a logical truth. The law of excluded middle, “All objects of a certain type have attribute x, or all objects of a certain type do not have attribute x.” is a logical truth.

For example ‘all pigs have four legs’ is either true or not true. If we find a pig that does not have four legs then the statement is false. But we can be sure that all pigs either have four legs or do not have four legs, because if they do then they do, and if they don’t then they don’t. Either way; they do have four legs or they do not have four legs; there is no middle ground.

Two sides of the Same Coin

Verification and falsification are each based on empirical data and rational argument though each places a different emphasis on one side of this equation over the other. Verification demands that any scientific hypothesis be confirmable through the senses. So important is the idea of verification that any statement which cannot be examined via the senses is dismissed as nonsensical. The scientific verificationist would therefore go out into the world, make an observation and then construct a theory based on that observation.

The falsificationist would take an approach which could be considered to be the reverse of this. Falsification requires that an idea be put into a theoretical postulate which is assumed to be a candidate for truth. The postulate has to be capable of being falsified. The process then necessitates the scientist designing an experiment which is capable of disproving the hypothesis. If the hypothesis stands up against the experiment it is not considered to be true, merely a candidate for truth.

The more experiments the hypothesis defeats the more that hypothesis is considered to be a candidate for truth. It will never reach the status of being thought of as a truth. With falsification nothing advances past the idea of being a theory, though something could be highly rated as a good theory.

Simply put then, in verification the observation comes first and the theory develops out of the observation. In falsification the theory comes first and our observations are manufactured in an attempt to disprove our theory.

Two complimentary Approaches

Which should we prefer between verification and falsification? Science can provide examples from history where both have proven to be successful routes to knowledge. Often the methodology used was more a matter of luck or circumstance rather than something that was considered beforehand. If someone has a good theoretical idea then he will design an experiment to test that theory. This would make him a practitioner of falsification. But through experiment the scientist spots an anomaly in his theory and adjusts that theory because of what he observed. He is now verifying his observation.
Another scientist might have noticed something in nature and designed a theory around that observation. The point is it is often only after the science has been completed that we are in a position to claim that the road to truth was through the process of verification or the process of falsification.

How God Can Be Scientific!

So how does this impinge on the theme of this blog? This blog, being concerned with the ideas of atheism, pantheism and theism, and the universe as a whole, seeks to place the theories of each under the scrutiny of verification and falsification.

The verificationist would view theism and say that it was meaningless. There is no empirical data for the scientist to work on so the notion of God is no more than a meaningless construct of the human mind.
The falsification approach would be a little less condemnatory. It would accept the hypothesis of a God as a theory but then would insist that the theory be expressed in a form that is falsifiable. The God theory then needs to be put into a hypothesis which the scientist can attempt to falsify. If the hypothesis cannot be formulated as a falsifiable proposition then it doesn’t rank as a valid scientific hypothesis.

The theist therefore needs to present his best idea of what God is; describe His nature, His attributes how He works and then it is up to the scientists to attempt to disprove the hypothesis. The theist unfortunately seldom presents a satisfactory description of what God is. When a hypothesis is presented it often collapses through its own internal inconsistency. The theistic god never manages to pass any test of logical consistency. The atheist has therefore a very strong case for her position that theism is false.

The pantheist on the other hand can describe a God that is internally consistent. Pantheism is a very strong, often scientifically based idea which roots the god hypothesis into the idea of nature or the universe as a whole. The pantheist god is capable of being expressed in both verifiable and falsifiable terms. It can even be considered to be a metaphoric interpretation of the theist god. As is one theme in these posts, the theists of the world have a very serious and insurmountable position if they which to interpret their doctrines literally. Their ancient texts are only of any meaning in the light of the interpretation of those texts being metaphorical.

What we can assume however is that our rational and sensory faculties do give us a route to knowledge. Standing testimony to this fact are the scientific achievements over the last four hundred years. Whether we wish to point to skyscrapers, bridges, washing machines, computers or landing on the moon, we can be sure that the knowledge we have is knowledge that comes with a high degree of certainty. And that certainty has its roots in the soil of our sensory experience and rational capabilities. We have every reason to be trusting in those faculties.

Gifts From God

If God does exist then, we can thank him for these two wonderful gifts. What else could we consider to be greater gifts than sensory experience and the ability to reason? They are truly remarkable gifts. Further if it is the case that these are marvellous gifts then it is incumbent on us to use those gifts in a way that does justice to them. It is not for us to pick and choose where and when we use them. They are there for us to use to their full capability at all times. It is the gifts of rationality and sensory experience that truly enables us to interact with God’s creation in an intelligent way. It is not for us to decide to ignore that ability.

The argument then is clear. God has given us sensory and rational abilities. They are the method by which we can gain the greatest understanding of God’s kingdom. By failing to use our God given faculties we allow ourselves to be led astray from the path of truth. By failing to use our God given faculties we permit the possibility that charlatans and fraudsters will deceive us.

If God does exist, He will be discovered through rational and empirical endeavours. No rational god would create us with such precious faculties and then ask us not to use them to uncover ultimate truths. Verification and falsification are the two proven methods of uncovering reality. There may be a place for faith and in the life of humans, but they have no place in understanding or in knowledge.

The hypothesis of a pantheist God and the metaphoric description are two of the themes that are examined in TheRationalGod. The Rational God is a complete scientific description of the universe and expands in greater detail on the themes in this blog.

Advertisements