Josephine’s motor

An illustrative story

One fine day in October, Josephine Muppet is on her way to work at Dagenham Community College, where she teaches a joint course in Celebrity Studies with Global Ecology. On this particular morning, her Renault Clio (which she chose, in preference to several other similarly-priced but more reliable cars, because she liked the colour) seems to be lacking its usual zippy acceleration, and there is an unfamiliar and disconcerting vibration.

She takes the car to the garage, where a misfire is instantly diagnosed. The mechanic’s first thought is that it will almost certainly be the inherently dodgy electrics that are to blame: probably a coil, or the ignition leads. But then again (thinks the mechanic) this is a Clio, so in fact it might alternatively be prematurely-worn piston rings, a broken valve, a failed injector or, for that matter, almost anything else. Ah well… let’s see, now… Closer investigation duly reveals a frayed ignition lead, which (along with its fellows, just in case) is replaced. The engine runs smoothly again. Josephine hands over £100, and everyone goes home happy.

Four weeks later, Josephine is back with, as she says, the same fault. The car’s acceleration is once again feeble, and there is the same strange vibration as before. This time, she knows that what she has is called a ‘misfire’ and, needless to say, she is not happy. Clearly, in her mind, the garage must have bodged the repair last time, and as a result the same fault has reappeared. At all events, the mechanic gets to work and the car is once again made to run normally. Josephine (reluctantly) hands over a second wodge of cash (she is not taken in by what she sees as the transparently dishonest insistence that it was a different fault this time), and everyone goes home.

Another five weeks pass, and now Josephine is really miffed: the same fault has occurred yet again. One thing is for sure: she’s not going anywhere near that garage full of crooks, which has so far lightened her purse to the tune of £200 while failing on two occasions to fix the problem. Christmas is coming, and she needs to control her finances more tightly. Instead, she invites Danny, a student with whom she is conducting an ill-advised affair, to have a look at the car for her.

(The affair is ill-advised not merely because, given Danny’s age and Josephine’s position, it involves criminality on her part, as well as a serious breach of the terms of her contract of employment. In addition, Danny, unknown to Josephine, is secretly in it only with a view to threatening, at some later stage, to post compromising pictures of Josephine on the internet. He hopes that, in this way, he will be able to blackmail Josephine into recommending for him a Pass Certificate for his course, despite the array of facts that might countermand such an award, namely: he is rarely in class; he is invariably under the influence of drugs on the few occasions when he is present; and he has yet to begin – let alone proofread – a single piece of his required coursework.)

Although Danny’s extravagant appetite for controlled substances is doing no favours, in Josephine’s estimation, to either his academic achievement or his sexual performance, Danny does have a bit of know-how when it comes to motors. This is thanks mainly to his father, who steals them for a living and who is a moderately significant player in the vibrant local banger-racing scene. When Danny looks under the bonnet of the Renault, he therefore immediately notices the following:

1. the new ignition leads correctly fitted by the garage in October;

2. the new set of fuel injectors correctly fitted by the garage in November; and

3. a large crack in the cylinder head adjacent to cylinder number 3.

Danny turns the key in the ignition, and the engine grinds, reluctantly and lumpily, into life.

‘So… it’s, like, a misfire, Miss, like… innit?’ he suggests.

‘I know that!’ snaps Josephine. ‘But it’s been fixed twice! Why does it keep coming back?’

‘So… like, … it’s not, like, an it, izzit? It’s, like, a them, innit?’ replies Danny, warring simultaneously against unfairly-redoubled enemies – the sheer conceptual complexity of the wisdom that he must convey, and the bafflingly uncompliant syntax of his native tongue. ‘I mean, like, they’re all, like, misfires…? But they’re all like, different, like, kinds… know what I mean? So… anyway… reckon my Dad’ll give you, like, fifty pound for the motor…? So… are you, like, gettin’ your kit off or what?’

Poor Josephine! She has a terrible job, an appalling boyfriend, and a Renault Clio! Why oh why did she never take the opportunity to sit in on the Level 1 Motor Mechanics course at the College? She still doesn’t really know what is going on with her car, nor whom to trust.

In desperation, she rings the Philosophy Helpline. And her life improves.

It is patiently explained to her that she is quite right: her car has had, repeatedly, what it makes sense to call the same fault: it has been uncharacteristically underpowered. A car engine (she learns) does not work by magic, nor via the diligent ministrations of a team of fairies resident under the bonnet. Accordingly, the fault was, on every occasion, nothing other than a physical state of the engine.

What physical state? Well, as she is told, her car has been, successively, in a series of physical states, all of which fall under the heading ‘misfiring’. These states can all be said to be of the same physical type, in that they all consist in a failure, for well-understood physical reasons, by one cylinder to ignite fuel and produce power; hence the common label ‘misfire’. So, in a way, it was the same physical problem each time. But the various instances of this single type of fault – misfiring – were also all, at a different and deeper level of description, of different types: one was an electrical failure, one was an injector failure, and the third was a leaking cylinder.

‘So was it the same kind of fault or different kinds of fault?’ she asks.

‘Well, there’s no single answer to that,’ comes the reply. ‘It all depends on how you individuate kinds of physical state.’

Following additional advice from the Philosophy Helpline, Josephine confiscates Danny’s mobile telephone the next day, when he pulls it out in class in order to update his Facebook status from ‘stoned’ to ‘stonked’. She ‘forgets’ to return it, and on her way home from work throws it, complete with its collection of photographs, into the River Beam. She trusts, correctly, that Danny will be too ignorant to realise that copies of the files on his mobile will have been automatically archived on his provider’s server. She dumps Danny, and for good measure has him expelled from the College for gross idleness; she also calls the police and alerts them to the shady dealings of Danny’s father. She sells the Clio to the unfairly maligned garage for £120 and buys, from the same source, a much older Volvo. She quits her job, takes a course in motor mechanics, gains an apprenticeship, and fifteen years later inherits a successful independent Volvo specialist’s garage from her kindly and childless employer. She sells the business, moves to France, falls in love with a handsome and romantic writer-cum-architect named Pascal, and lives happily ever after, gaining on the way a worldwide reputation of her own as a portraitist and essayist, and still driving and servicing the indefatigable Volvo. The beauty and happiness of her life are rivalled only by its length and the extent to which she is loved, respected, and admired by all.

‘All’ traffic

Next exhibit in my mini-campaign against absurd road signage.


This is the sign that you see if you are travelling in the opposite direction on the very same road as the sign in the last similar post.

Where to begin?

Well, start with the obvious: ‘All’ traffic? Really? What weird idiosyncratic meaning of the word ‘all’ has the authority dreamed up here? The sign says that you can go left. So it isn’t true that all traffic has to go straight ahead – not unless ‘all’ has a special new meaning. Or is there a new and technical sense of ‘traffic’ that they have secretly invented? Is ‘traffic’ now to denote only vehicles travelling on roads that are not at some reasonably proximate distance subject to restrictions affecting motor vehicles?

Or is it – just possibly – that they cannot think, or would not think? (I find it secretly pleasing that this sign seems to confirm my suspicion about the ‘other traffic’ sign that what is really at work is an officious and slightly spooky desire on the part of the council to control free citizens’ behaviour more tightly than do the legal constraints that are in fact applicable to them.)

The added joy here is that, together with the large sign’s unnecessary complexity and inaccuracy/dishonesty, we have one of the appallingly numerous and completely unnecessary ‘traffic enforcement cameras’ warning signs that litter the city. Is anyone unaware that there are cameras all over the place? Where would you have to have been living for the last ten years to be unaware of this? Jupiter? The signs do nothing to affect driving behaviour; they bear little relation to the exact presence of cameras; and motorists don’t need, or deserve, to warned of the presence of cameras. It’s just another instance of the ugly thinking that seems to underlie so much of the hideousness:  ‘Why have just one sign on a post if you can fit another on there?’

(I can forgive the ‘Ring Road’ sign as the sort of thing that is potentially useful for visitors to the city. I am not against all signs: indeed it is a major part of my opposition to excessive, confusing, misleading, and excessively complex signage that it distracts attention from the useful ones.)

‘Eschatological’ verification

A rather different response to the Verificationist assessment of religious language as meaningless from those considered in the last post, and advanced on behalf of a theistic view, is an argument proposed by the English philosopher-theologian John Hick (1922-2012).

Hick’s idea is that we can respond to the Verificationist’s criticism of religious claims by insisting that they are meaningful, because they are after all verifiable, contrary to what Logical Positivists like A J Ayer assumed.

Hick himself adopts a version of verificationism, claiming that a statement is meaningful only if it is ‘factually significant’, and that a statement is factually significant only if its truth or falsity makes a difference to our experience.

Hick therefore holds that the sentence

There is an invisible, odourless, intangible, tasteless, and silent rabbit in this room

is meaningless: its truth or falsity would make no difference to our experience, which would be exactly alike whether it were true or false.

According to Hick, however, religious claims are verifiable; and hence they are meaningful.

They are verifiable, Hick says, by waiting till you’re dead, when (if the claims are true) you will be able to see for yourself that God and Heaven and angels and all the rest of it really do exist, just as the theist claims that they do. It’s true that the religious claims aren’t verifiable by us now; but since they are in principle verifiable in the afterlife, they cannot be dismissed as meaningless, even if the Verification Principle is correct. They are capable of eschatological verification.

(‘Eschatological’: from the Greek eschata = ‘last/final things’; ‘eschatological’ means ‘relating to the end of time, or the last things’ – this might just mean the afterlife, or it might mean something like the Last Judgement, for religious views that contain such a belief.)

Illustration: the Celestial City

The claim is illustrated by Hick in a what the literature has labelled the ‘parable of the Celestial City’:

Two people are travelling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere, but since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before; therefore, neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of the journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City. She interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements and the obstacles as trials of her purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the sovereign of that city and designed to make of her a worthy citizen of the place when at last she arrives. The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. For him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompassing purpose ordaining their journey; there is only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad.

As Hick comments:

… [W]hen they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong. Thus, although the issue between them has not been experimental, it has nevertheless been a real issue. They have not merely felt differently about the road, for one was feeling appropriately and the other inappropriately in relation to the actual state of affairs. Their opposed interpretations of the situation have constituted genuinely rival assertions…

In other words, the thing that the theist believed was genuinely meaningful – she was saying and thinking something meaningful that was different from what the atheist said and thought; and as it turned out in the story, the theist’s view was right – she was ‘thinking appropriately’ in relation to the state of affairs that became apparent only at the end of the journey.

It is of course also true, and is admitted by Hick, that if the theist is wrong and there turns out not to be an afterlife, then nothing at all will be verified: you’ll just be dead. For the same reason, religious claims cannot be falsified by experience either: if there’s no afterlife, then you’ll just be dead and having no experience at all; you won’t be having experiences that confirm the falsity of the theist’s view.

Hick on post-mortem personal identity

Hick’s view that religious claims can in principle be verified post mortem in this way depends on its being possible for a person to continue to exist after his death. He has to believe that death does not necessarily mean the end of a person’s existence.

Death does indeed raise interesting questions about personal identity, in particular because of the decomposition and destruction of the body. If we are capable of still being in existence after death, and after the decomposition of our earthly bodies, then these bodies must be inessential to us. Hick seems to assume that post-mortem existence will involve being given a new body. And the task as he sees it is to justify the view that a person could retain his identity through such a change of bodies.

Hick tries to demonstrate that this is logically possible, by considering a series of thought-experimental cases.

Case 1. Imagine that a person vanishes in America, and that an exact duplicate of his simultaneously appears in Australia. The duplicate looks exactly like the original person, has apparent memories as of events in the original person’s life, and in every other way is psychologically just like the original person.

Everyone would say, Hick suggests, that the new person in Australia was the same person as the original person.

Case 2. As in Case 1, except that the original person dies, as opposed to vanishing.

According to Hick, the difference about what happens in the USA cannot mean that we must alter our judgement about the identity of the person in Australia. So here too, Hick thinks, we must say that the new person in Australia is the same person as the original person.

Case 3. As in Case 2, except that the duplicate appears in Heaven rather than Australia. (I thought they were the same place, but apparently this is an error.)

According to Hick, the difference about where the duplicate appears cannot mean that we must alter our judgement about the identity of the duplicate. So here too, Hick thinks, we must say that the new person in Heaven is the same person as the original person.


1. Do we really need this?

The need for the whole argument is highly questionable: I personally find it much more attractive and rational simply to reject the verificationism. If you abandon the verificationism, then obviously there’s no need to argue elaborately for the claim that the truth of the theist’s statements is verifiable after death. You can assert that the statements are meaningful without needing to show that their truth can in principle be verified.

2. If we do need it, then OK… maybe

But it seems right that, if you must accept verificationism, this is a decent way for a theist to maintain that her/his claims are not meaningless. And it seems to me true that if there is an afterlife, then it is not unreasonable to assert that we will indeed be able to verify this for ourselves by experiencing it. A possible objection is that, with no previous experience of Heaven or of God, it is not clear how we would be able to recognise these items as Heaven and as God. It may furthermore be that these things are beyond our comprehension in some way; that will only make the task of recognition harder. But, if these objections can be dealt with, then post-mortem verification of the existence of Heaven and God seems possible in principle.

3. BUT

The arguments concerning personal identity, however, are laughably poor. This is not to say that the conclusion is wrong; only that the arguments’ support for that conclusion is utterly feeble.

In Case 1, I would say, there is no remotely compelling reason to assert that the person in Australia is identical with the original. Anyone who judged that it was the original person would be making a forgivable mistake, at best.

Since the proper verdict in Case 1 is not remotely in line with Hick’s suggestion, the rest of the argument collapses.

What Hick could and should have said is this: if post-mortem existence is possible for us, then it must be that we have a nature such that our bodies are inessential to us: we are essentially immortal souls, which part from the body at death and somehow go to the afterlife, whatever and wherever that is. The fact that the person in the afterlife is identical with the person who died on Earth consists in the fact that it is one and the same soul that is both here and there, before and after death.

Verificationism and religious language

Some notes primarily written for F1 and F2, but blogged because also relevant for U1.


Verificationism is the best-known candidate theory of meaning according to which religious language would be revealed as meaningless. It is the central tenet of the Logical Positivism developed by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, and was brought to the attention of English Philosophy by A J Ayer in his 1932 book Language, Truth and Logic.

Verification Principle (“VP”)

A factual statement is meaningful if and only if

either (a) it is a tautology (it is analytic)
or (b) it is empirically verifiable in principle.

Application of the VP to the case of religious propositions like ‘God exists’ yields the result that such statements are meaningless – at least if they are understood in a fairly literal and traditional way.

For example:

•    Insofar as we speak of God as transcendent – existing outside space and time – it seems that we are talking about something whose existence could not possibly be verified by any empirical method. This is because neither our senses nor our scientific probes can reach beyond our world of space and time.
•    Similarly, if the claim is that there is an afterlife in a realm called Heaven or Hell that is similarly supposed to be causally isolated from the world in which we live. Nothing (or nothing that we can experience in this life) could count as empirical verification of the existence of such a world.

•    Similarly, if the claim is that we have immortal immaterial (non-physical) souls, or if the claim is that God, or angels, or any part of the Creation is immaterial. No such entities could be detected by our senses or our science.

Since the religious claims here are propositional in form, they are factual statements. But they are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable; therefore, according to the Verificationist, they are meaningless.


What is the attraction of the Verification Principle?

Well, what motivates it is really two thoughts:

1. If a statement is factual and meaningful, then there must be a real difference in the world between its being true and its not being true. The world is different, in some respect, if it is true, from the way the world would have to be if it were, instead, false.

Now, that thought is an excellent and persuasive one. If the world would be no different whether a statement was true or false, then, surely, that statement isn’t a factual statement about the world. It seems correct that the mark of a meaningful factual statement is that things would have to be one way for the statement to be true, and another – different – way for it to be false. To say that is to say that the truth, as opposed to the falsity, of a genuinely meaningful factual statement would involve a difference in the world – a difference in the ways things were.

2.The second, and more controversial, claim is the claim that scientifically-detectable facts about our world are the only facts that there are; and (?‘hence’) that the only things that we can meaningfully talk about are matters describable by science.

This seems to me much more dubious. First, we surely don’t know that there aren’t facts undetectable by science. Secondly, why can’t the meanings of our words stretch beyond what we can detect to be true or false? After all, we are very adept at manipulating concepts in our thought, by combining and relating and abstracting from simple concepts. We can accordingly construct complex concepts like immaterial realm causally disconnected from our world of space and time. But if we can construct such concepts, then why deny that we can create meaningful statements involving such concepts, even if we cannot tell whether such statements are true?

Objections to verificationism

1. Implausible results in certain areas of Philosophy

Verification leads to implausible results concerning certain subject-areas, including ethics and other minds.

In ethics, verificationists are forced (on pain of classing the whole of ethical discourse as meaningless) to adopt one of two views:

(a)    The ‘naturalist’ view that ethical facts are just facts about what is conducive to human happiness or well-being. This places them within the field detectable by science; but it is far from obvious that this is the best, or even a very plausible, moral theory.
(b)    The ‘non-cognitivist’ view that the meaning of ethical statements is not factual, but ‘expressive’ or ‘prescriptive’. Moral judgements like ‘torturing cats is wrong’ are not really statements of alleged fact, but disguised expressions of the speaker’s attitude, or disguised imperatives or exhortations to do or not to do certain things.

As to other minds, verificationism leads to the implausible ‘behaviourist’ theory that a person’s being in some mental state amounts to no more than his being disposed to behave in certain ways in response to certain stimuli. This is what verificationism has to do, in order to make the existence of other people’s thoughts verifiable by empirical means. Thus:

•    The fact that Jones believes that it is raining amounts to no more than a set of facts about Jones’s actual and possible behaviour: the facts, for example, that, if he goes out, Jones will carry an umbrella (other things being equal); that if he is asked what the weather is like, he will reply (other things being equal) that it is raining; and so on.

This deeply silly theory is now generally regarded as fatally discredited, not least because it seems to leave out what is really central to mentality – namely, what it is like for Jones: how things seem to him within the private, inner, mental, world of his thoughts and feelings.

2. Intellectual arrogance

Verificationism puts all meaningful factual statements within our epistemic reach – in principle, if not  in practice. We can in principle know everything that is a factual matter. But why think this? Why are we entitled to assume  that the world must be such that every aspect of it is accessible to us by empirical means?

Verificationism conflates factuality with our ability to tell whether something is the case. Factuality should (I think) be thought of, instead, simply in terms of truth-conditions: if a statement is factual, then it has truth-conditions: there are ways that the world would have to be if the statement were to be true. But there is no need – intellectual arrogance aside – to assume that we can always in principle tell whether the conditions are satisfied, for literally any and every factual statement. We have (I think) no right to assume that the question whether a factual statement is true or not is one that we must, in every case, be capable in principle of answering.

Verificationism is, as a result, unjustifiably arrogant about our intellectual capacities, and about the capacity of scientific methods to detect all factual matters. Surely, if we are intellectually modest, we should admit that there may be factual matters that are beyond our capacity to verify. Why think that our senses and our science must in principle be capable of detecting everything that is capable of being the case?

3. Intuitively wrong results

Many statements that the VP classes as meaningless don’t intuitively seem to be meaningless.

There is a wholly undetectable, because immaterial, elephant in the room.

There is an immaterial God who transcends time and space and who created the world.

Again, these seem (arguably – it’s a bit controversial) meaningful, at least in that we think that we can understand what would have to be the case for them to be true, even though nothing in our experience could confirm their truth.

4. Difficulties with universal statements

Statements of things like physical laws take the form of universal statements. For example:

•    All gases expand when heated

But it is obviously impossible to demonstrate their truth: it would be an endless task. When would you have finished verifying that every gas expands on every occasion of its being heated?!

5. Hollow victory over theism

Verificationism dismisses religious language as meaningless. But even from an atheist perspective, this is not really the desired result: it amounts to a rather hollow victory, because, since all talk of God is meaningless, if VP is true, the denial that God exists is just as meaningless as the assertion that He does exist.

Surely what we really want, if we are atheists, is to be able to say that we understand the theist’s claims all right; the problem is that there are powerful objections that suggest that the claims are not meaningless, but false.

6. Poorly motivated

Verificationism is poorly motivated, in that it is driven by the rather dubious assumption (see above) that scientifically-detectable facts about our world are the only facts that there are.

7. VP itself meaningless, by its own lights
Finally, there is a standard textbookish criticism that the Verification Principle doesn’t pass its own test of being meaningful.

The Verification Principle is not analytic – you cannot tell that it is true merely by reflecting on the meanings of the terms ‘meaningful’, ‘statement’, etc; so it must be synthetic.

If it is synthetic, then, by its own lights it is meaningful only if its truth can be empirically verified.

But how could the truth of the principle be empirically verified? You would have to identify all the meaningful statements, and check that all of them (and no others) were empirically verifiable. But this is impossible, for at least two reasons:

(a) To identify the meaningful statements, we would need a criterion of meaningfulness in order to do so. If the test were the one in the VP itself, then the exercise would be a pointless one. But if it were another criterion, then that criterion would be a competitor with the criterion given by the VP.

(b) Even if problem (a) could be overcome, the task would be impossible, for there is a potentially infinite number of meaningful statements.  But there is no possibility of empirically verifying an infinite number of statements.

So the VP fails its own test, and is therefore meaningless. It therefore cannot be true.