I’m taking a break from writing an essay on an argument put forth in Alfred Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. It’s an intriguing book, not only because of how it deals with metaethics (the subject of my essay) but also metaphysics and religion.
Here’s a condensed version of what I think is one of Ayer’s more compelling arguments:
1. The truth value of any statement is determined by its verifiability. For example, the statement “I am sitting down” has a positive or negative truth value because you can easily look at me and check.
2. Metaphysical claims are inherently unverifiable. For example, if you’re having an argument about Cartesian dualism, you can’t prove or disprove the existence of a soul by directly observing it.
3. Because metaphysical claims are inherently unverifiable, they have no truth content.
4. Metaphysical claims are sort of meaningless.
It’s something I’ve always suspected–and that always sort of bugged me when I was taking classes on metaphysics. But I’ve never heard this argument put so eloquently by a distinguished philosopher.
It gets even more interesting when he applies this argument to the existence of God. God, after all, is a metaphysical entity. The point Ayer makes is that when people point to certain physical phenomena as evidence in favor of God, that only really has a definite truth value if your definition of “God” is basically “the manifestation of these physical phenomena.” And nobody who believes in God believes that; they believe in a metaphysical consciousness causing those phenomena.
So the question is: If I subscribe to Ayer’s view–which I’m not totally sold on yet, but seems pretty convincing–am I really an atheist? Can an atheist be someone who, when asked if God exists, responds, “That question doesn’t make any sense?”
Where all of this starts to break down is where Ayer discusses ethics. He’s an emotivist, and while that view does, at first blush, seem fairly compelling, it has some pretty weird/disturbing implications; the strangest of which is perhaps the possibility that the sentence, “If murder is wrong, then you ought not to murder,” is actually completely incoherent.