Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Lighter Side of Verificationism

There's an aspect to verificationism I think goes unappreciated.

A short wiki summary is: Verificationism is the view that a statement or question only has meaning if there is some way to determine if the statement is true, or what the answer to the question is.
For example, a claim that the world came into existence a short time ago exactly as it is today (with misleading apparent traces of a longer past) would be judged meaningless by a verificationist because there is no way to tell if it is true or not.

The few times I've encountered them, I notice that fans of verificationism tend to give what would normally be considered outlandish examples like the one mentioned. "The world came into existence a short time ago exactly as it is today"? Why, that's meaningless! No way to tell! Every verificationist I've bumped into loves examples like that, and I wonder if it's because it plays to common sense intuitions and beliefs. You get to (in essence or practice) rule out something most people would consider to be utter nonsense - after all, how do you empirically verify such a thing?

Here is, as near as I can tell, an equally valid example that is never brought up: "The world didn't come into existence a short time ago exactly as it is today."

Bring up examples like that and suddenly verificationism isn't so fun. You get to disregard some things you find ridiculous as nonsense, not even worth discussing - but quite a lot of common assumptions and beliefs end up in the crapper too, no longer able to be asserted without inconsistency. A good way of thinking about this is that it's possible to come across as a lunatic due not only to what you believe in, but don't believe in. (If you believe there's a superplanet-sized demonic bat beyond the very edge of the observable universe, that's crazy. Crazier than not believing that minds other than yours exist, or that the world began a week ago? That's not so clear.)

The same goes for other questions - God, other minds, etc. The impression I get is that people dive for verificationism, oddly enough, for pragmatic reasons: They want a hammer to take to the God question, for example. But they don't want to have to give up on belief in other minds, inferences to multiverses, accepting that there really was a past, etc. No, verificationism is only supposed to work against beliefs they don't like and wish would go away. Please don't make them apply it to cherished beliefs, or beliefs they'll seem lunatic for rejecting.

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