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In this short essay, "Theology and Falsification", Anthony Flew argues that the idea of God is unfalsifiable.

Flew gives the following example: A person of faith asserts that God loves his children. A sceptic points out that there are innocent children dying of cancer, so how can God love them? The person of faith then answers that "God's love doesn't work that way" or that "God's love is inscrutable", essentially making their original assertion impossible to disprove.

He then challenges his readers:

‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of God?’

How can a theist respond to this argument and challenge?

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    Neither falsifiability nor proof are criterions of faith. – Mr. Kennedy Dec 12 '16 at 20:19
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    @PédeLeão Q.E.D. "The truth is always unfalsifiable"? First off, all true statements are falsifiable. To the point, you seem confused as to what constitutes falsifiability - it is the capacity for a statement to be demonstrated as false. For example, "Obama is President" is true and falsifiable. After Jan. 20 it won't be true but in either case all one need do is cite instance of another person who is President of these United States to falsify the statement. – Mr. Kennedy Dec 12 '16 at 21:26
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    @Mr.Kennedy. So what you're saying is that the truth is falsifiable when it's false. That's quite a theory. – user3017 Dec 12 '16 at 22:27
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    What I don't get is why this is a challenge. I imagine the response to be "nothing can possibly occur that would do that, God willing" (something might actually do it, but typically such turning events have more to do with emotions than reasoning, so I would discard that here). But so what? Falsifiability is disputed as a requirement even for science, but even if a believer accepts Popper's prescriptions for scientific knowledge they can (and do) reject the idea that it exhausts all knowledge, there is unfalsifiable Scripture, revelation, etc. – Conifold Dec 12 '16 at 22:32
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    @PédeLeão no, that is quite a misread. You seem confused regarding what constitutes falsifiability - the ability to be demonstrated false. Or perhaps you are confusing truth and true. Truth is a condition of propositions, satisfied when what is said is is what is, e.g. the statement "Obama is President" is true as of today it satisfies the truth condition. Note as well the statement is falsifiable, but it fails a falsifiability criterion in that there is none other with claim to office. In ten years when the same statement is false, it will be falsifiable by the same means & demonstrably false – Mr. Kennedy Dec 12 '16 at 22:45
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There's two general answers I perceive to this. One is that the Flew argument targets a god with no fixed traits (that is hence infinitely mutable). In other words, the argument starts from the assumption that the god being defended does not exist. No believer actually believes in such a god, almost by definition. Every actual theist believes in a God that has at least some assertable characteristics, reflected in some way in the universe as we experience it, such that one could create a description of an entity that could confidently NOT be equated with God as that believer envisions God. A Christian does not believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Space Teapot can be identified with God as understood by Christians. So it not the case that God is not falsifiable for the same reasons as the Space Teapot is non-falsifiable, from the viewpoint of a theist.

However, a theist might be comfortable with the notion that God is a necessary being, and unfalsifiable for that reason. One cannot prove logic with logic, or mathematics with mathematics. If God is the ground of all experience, then there can be no experiential way to falsify God.

Is this a problem for a theist? It's important to remember that the principle of falsification is foundational to the concept of scientifically established fact. It does not preclude the existence of truth or verification outside of science (such a statement would be non-falsifiable, and therefore self-defeating). Our intuitions about what lies beyond the boundaries of all experience cannot be empirically falsified. Someone who restricts themselves to scientific verifiability must forever suspend judgement on such questions, but a theist is under no such obligation. Another way of putting this is that the belief in God is the primary and foundational belief for (at least some) theists. Their answer to Flew's question is thus that is not even theoretically possible to disprove God for the reason that all other beliefs are less secure (including the belief in reality as we perceive it).

  • What good is a god that has no set attributes? (I know that's kinda the concept of I AM). Such a god could deliberately do evil and no one would recognize it as such, because "god works in mysterious ways!" – Jesse Cohoon Dec 12 '16 at 20:58
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    @JesseCohoon Exactly. My contention is that no believer actually believes in a god with no set attributes. – Chris Sunami Dec 12 '16 at 21:20
  • Actually to evade argument completely, a God only needs one fixed attributed -- ineffability, right? – jobermark Dec 12 '16 at 22:19
  • @Jobermark - The first attribute of an ineffable God is that we don't speak about the ineffable God? – Chris Sunami Dec 12 '16 at 22:23
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    @jobermark point taken. – Alexander S King Dec 13 '16 at 22:21
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first, please define "theist". is that somebody who goes by reason rather than faith? does a "theist" accept "relevation" as a source of genuine knowledge?

"What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of God?’"

Well that's pretty easy, and you have already answered it, indirectly: the undeniable presence of Evil in the world. Aleppo, for example

what that question is really about is the problem of theodicy. see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodicy

but you asked two questions. the other is "How can theists respond to the argument that God is 'unfalsifiable'?"

since only propositions are falsifiable, you'd have to change that to sth like "'God exists' is falsifiable" or similar. and that's a very different question. "God exists", "God is just", "God loves us" etc. are very different proposals.

  • I note for the record that you have so far declined to say what you mean by "theist", which makes it impossible to offer a good answer to your question. – user20153 Dec 17 '16 at 21:33
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The challenge:

‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of God?’ How can a theist respond to this argument and challenge?

Definition of key terms:

theism [thee-iz-uh m] noun 1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism ). 2. belief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to atheism ).

Vs.

deism [dee-iz-uh m] noun 1. belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism ). 2. belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.

See:

rev·e·la·tion ˌrevəˈlāSH(ə)n/ noun 1. a surprising and previously unknown fact, especially one that is made known in a dramatic way. "revelations about his personal life" synonyms: disclosure, surprising fact, announcement, report; More 2. the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.


The problem:

Theists allow for the import of premises that are not grounded by the same criteria as facts founded on scientific inquiry (e.g. revelation vs. a theory that predicts an exact amount of energy produced by a reaction of fixed quantities in kilojoules after some given period of time). I would argue that "theists", insofar as they allow for "divine or supernatural disclosure" by what William James would call 'mystical experience' in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, have a different epistemic criterion for what counts as falsifiable. How can I discount the subjective experience of another person, if the alleged source of that experience is possibly not the type of thing that can be confirmed by merit of its very type? If I have no direct access to another's experience, how can I verify it (verifiability being a key criterion for something to be scientifically verifiable)?

The Impossibility of a coherent response from a theist based on the incongruency of essential premises:

If the position of theism and all other positions are mutually exclusive based on the presupposition of the validity of certain key premises (the source of creation being in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God & the soundness of divine revelation as an epistemically sound means of knowledge), I do not see how a satisfactory answer could be given to the question.

Mystical experience, or divine revelation, which the theist purports to exist, is unfalsifiable to them. It is not propositional in structure, like an atomic expression of sentential logic. It is not the type of sensory datum that can be considered to be false without the theist accepting the possibility of instrumentation error (e.g. delusions of reference caused by psychotic delusions, themselves grounded in structural and functional abnormalities of the brain). I'm certain we all know at least one (and most of us, many) theists who are not psychotic or developmentally impaired. As to whether or not all delusions need to originate from biological abnormalities or some are psychogenic and memetic in nature is another question altogether...

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I consider myself an "theist." Therefore, as a theist, my response would be, "there is no argument, I agree with you, God is unfalsifiable."
With regards to the skeptic, my answer would be, "allowing a human being to live or die sooner or latter, suffer or not suffer, etc., has nothing to do with God's love for them".
God's love for His creation, is independent from what His creation does or does not do!

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The question as written must be rejected because accepting it requires agreeing that there is some contingency in the existence and eternal attributes of God. Of course, that is contrary to all sound theology. In fact, the Bible teaches the eternal self-existence and independence of God from all of creation. Rather than being contingent on anything, all things are contingent upon Him. One of the best passages concerning this is in the Gospel of John, in which the apostle speaks of the eternal Logos:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." (John 1:1-5)

Jesus was the eternal Logos who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He was not a statement (as someone suggested) that could be falsified, but rather the eternal Truth, the Truth prior to all other truth making possible all knowledge:

"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'" (John 14:6)

It simply doesn't make sense to assert that the truth, whose essential nature precludes the possibility of being false, could be falsifiable.

However one thing that I find remarkable about this question is that it also suggest that there is some evident reason to doubt God's existence and his eternal attributes. That strikes me as odd because history has always confirmed the Word of God and continues to do so. Everything that we see today is as the Bible said that it would be:

"Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.' For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." (2 Peter 3:3-7)

Man in his rebellion against God has mounted up reason after reason to incur His wrath, and the Bible affirms that wrath is exactly what we should expect to find in the world:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." (Romans 1:18-23)

However, in spite of the fact that the depravity of man leaves no reason to expect God's mercy and love, He demonstrated his love by making the greatest sacrifice of all, i.e. the crucifixion of his only begotten Son:

"But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand." (Isaiah 53:10)

"For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)

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    I interpret this answer as indicating that the category of falsifiability simply does not apply God since His features not contingent; i.e. that the original question makes a type of category error. – Dave Dec 13 '16 at 14:50
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    this is the philosophy se, not the Christianity se. please stop with the biblical stuff. – user20153 Dec 13 '16 at 21:58
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    @mobileink. I you don't want to hear biblical stuff don't read questions about theology. If people want to talk about God, I'm going to quote the Bible. – user3017 Dec 13 '16 at 23:29
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    excuse me, since when did "god" mean your Christian god? i didnt notice any reference to the bible in the question. i'm not anti-christian, I just think you should keep your religious beliefs to yourself. – user20153 Dec 13 '16 at 23:35
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    @mobileink: It seems you want believers to answer only if they are willing to pretend they don't believe it. – WGroleau Dec 14 '16 at 3:25

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