This comment was posted at another blog in response to an attack on Biola philosophy. Mr. Anderson actually responded to it, arguing that the starting point of Christian faith is at least as valid as the starting point of empiricism. In reading DSH’s comment, he relied heavily on the authority of 20th century empiricists and mentioned the Vienna Circle. I thought it would be a good time to dive in to the project and fate of that group as their “criterion of verifiability” illustrates a rather large problem in the empiricist project.

I think Matthew put the rebuttal to the attack on Biola philosophy well. One word about the Vienna Circle and 20th century empiricism. As you noted, the main premise behind the project of the Vienna Circle was to advocate a robust materialism. Their epistemology is characterized by the “criterion of verifiability”, which means that for any proposition to be true it had to be perceived by the senses.

The question then arises, what about propositions of things we haven’t been able to perceive with our senses? A.J. Ayer says “No rocket has yet been invented [at the time he wrote the piece] which would enable me to go and look at the far side of the moon.” (The Elimination of Metaphysics) He solves this problem thusly, “But I do know what observations would decide it for me, if, as is theoreticaly conceivable, I were once in a position to make them. And therfore I say that the proposition is verifiable in principle, if not in practice.” So our knowledge could hypothetically expand as far as the physical universe because we can verify, with our senses, all hypotheses about it. Non-physical/metaphysical objects are not objects of knowledge (like God, for instance) because they simply can’t undergo the Vienna Circle’s criterion for what counts as knowledge.

So far, so good. But why doesn’t the Vienna Circle exist today? One big question tripped them up: how do we verify the principle of verification by the senses? That is, the very idea that all items of knowledge must be justified by empirical observations doesn’t appear to be a physical thing at all. They never admitted that it was a metaphysical object (they still held their dogma of materialism), but whatever it (the idea) was, it couldn’t be seen, tasted, touched, etc. Ayer, Carnap, and the others didn’t have an answer for this question and the Vienna Circle collapsed.

The point is, as Matthew put it in his post on Mere-O, we all must begin from fideism. Whether our faith is in a principle of empiricism or faith in Christianity, we have to begin somewhere. This doesn’t mean we can’t go back and apply tools of logic and empiricism to our principles of faith to find out which type of faith is the most reasonable. That might be a very productive project.

By the way, as an entailment from the arguments in my post, there truly is no class difference between a “Biola philosopher” and an atheist philosopher. It’s far from clear that beliefs in metaphysical objects are laughable or superstitious. But I am open to more arguments…

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. […] In response to my earlier post and some astute questions by Mere-O’s own, Mr. Buhler, a writer named Soarin’Blonde took up the cause of the Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism. I respond to excerpts below: First of all, Mr. Selby and Mr. Buhler, death, and the non-propagation of one’s theories, is no means of evaluation for the truth-status of those theories! While intellectual fecundity is a positive sign, it is by no means a sure sign of validity or truth. […]


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