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.
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.