Below you will find a essay written by a good friend of mine, Russ Manion. Longtime readers of the blog will find his name familiar as I have posted some other material produced by Russ in the past. This essay was a presentation at a local apologetics and philosophy discussion group in response to another presentation by an atheist. Here Russ discusses Karl Popper’s Falsificationism and the Demarcation Problem.
Roughly, Popper’s Falisificationism was response to the problems faced by the Verificationism of the Logical Positivists and an attempt to mark the line that separates science from non-science. I’ve posted this essay for a number of reasons. First, it is very useful for apologetic purposes as atheist interlocutors often toss out falsifcation as a criteria that Christian truth claims must meet. Second, if the reader will endure to the end, I believe they will find their reward. Russ has some very interesting things to say about the relation between science and nature, the nature of signs and the signs of nature. And that is very relevant to Christmas.
Demarcation and a Meaningful Research Project
Copyright © 2015
by Russ Manion
Reason and sense perception have always been our two primary modes of knowing, two means of determining facts about what is real about the world. Since the pre-Socratics there has been debate over which means is primary, which is the most reliable, and how the two are related.
Historically these have been refined into sophisticated theories of knowledge called rationalism and empiricism. They were championed respectively in ancient times by philosophers such as Parmenides and Democritus, then later by Plato and Aristotle. Plato drew a line of demarcation which is a bit counter intuitive to the modern mind. For him reason determined what was real, substantive, and true; that which had ‘being.’ Perception was derivative, mere shadow, illusory; always in the process of ‘becoming.’
The modern exemplars of rationalism and empiricism were Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and John Locke (1632-1704), but it was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), also a rationalist, who did something interesting. First, he gave these two modes of knowing, names. He called them “necessary truths” and “contingent truths.” Then he made an observation that seems obvious from our side of Modernity; he said that for every true proposition the predicate term is “contained” in the subject term and can be deduced by analysis of that subject term. This is exactly what we would expect of “necessary truths;” but, he believed the predicate term was contained in the subject term of “contingent truths” as well. However, he believed that only God could ever complete the analysis of “contingent truths.” Thus for man, “contingent truths” are only probable.
David Hume (1711-1776) referred to these two modes of knowing as “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact.” He agreed with Leibniz that the predicate is “contained” in the subject, but only for “relations of ideas,” thus making them a priori and “necessary.” But there is a price to pay for “necessary truths;” for they tell us nothing factual about the world. In contrast, “matters of fact” are a posteriori and can be found only by sense perception; but these are “contingent truths,” so contingent that we know nothing of their causes.
For Hume, any writing that is not the product of reason or perception, such as those of divinity or metaphysics, are mere sophistry and illusion, fit only to be burned. Unfortunately, as reason is free of facts and because perception cannot perceive its own cause, all of reality lies on the wrong side of Hume’s demarcation; leaving him a despondent philosopher with a beer in one hand and a Backgammon piece in the other, wondering if his own works should be burned.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) referred to these “two ways” as “analytic judgments” and “synthetic judgments.” He agreed with Hume that “analytic judgments“ are a priori and necessary; but departs from Hume as to “synthetic judgments.” He believed these could be a priori as well as a posteriori. Not willing to give up on facts about the world and having recognized that synthetic judgments are constructs, he proposed a hybrid proposition which provided judgments which are both synthetic and independent of experience. He called these judgments “synthetic a priori’s,” and said they give us the form of facts.
It is with the Logical Positivists (1920-1950’s) that all this starts to become a little more relevant to religious philosophy in our time. They took Kant’s terms, “analytic” and “synthetic,” attached Hume’s distinctions, and announced that a statement is meaningful if, and only if, it is either analytically necessary or empirically verifiable. This was called the Verification Principle, and came to be the line of demarcation between meaningfulness and science on the one side, and meaninglessness, metaphysics, ontology, and ethics on the other side. Kant’s “synthetic a priori” and all talk of God were rejected as meaningless metaphysics.
We will put aside the embarrassing fact that the verification principle is itself neither logically necessary nor empirically verifiable, and is therefore meaningful only on the assumption that it is not true; for Karl Popper (1902-1994) drew the world’s attention to another problem with “verificationism.” He pointed out that no number of particular instances of a thing are sufficient to prove a universal proposition – such as a law of science – is true. There is no inductive principle. You can count black crows till the cows come home and you will never prove all crows are black. Without an inductive principle no theory of science ever gets positively verified. Yet, it is still common to run into secularists who object to religious knowledge on this basis.
Popper did not, however, oppose the idea of demarcation, indeed he insisted on such a principle. But he did have a different idea as to what exactly is being demarcated and how that demarcation is made. Having demonstrated that no scientific theory can be positively verified, Popper proposed that a theory is scientific only on the condition that it is empirically falsifiable. This is called the Falsification Principle, and it demarcates between theories or statements which are scientific on the one hand and those theories or statements which are metaphysical on the other hand. For example, we have a theory, “all ravens are black.” This theory predicts there are no non-black ravens in the world. Since the discovery of a single white raven would falsify this theory, the theory is falsifiable, and therefore testable, and therefore useful, and therefore scientific.
But this seems to be about as far as many people get with Popper. Thus, they mistakenly take the Principle of Falsification as just another form of verificationism and assert that theism is “meaningless” on the grounds that it is not falsifiable. The irony here is that the Falsification Principle can demarcate between science and metaphysics only because it does not demark between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. In fact, it not only allows for the meaningfulness of metaphysical statements, it demands that some metaphysical statements are meaningful.
Popper is a critic of the claim that non-scientific statements are meaningless. Indeed, he points out that science requires “unscientific” and “metaphysical” statements. In fact, and this is something many may not realize, existential statements, statements like, “there are non-black ravens,” or even, “there are black ravens,” are not falsifiable. They are not falsifiable because no empirical observation can count against them. No empirical observation can count against them because they make no universal claim about all instances. They are therefore, though this may be counter intuitive for some, metaphysical statements. Popper says,
“Strictly existential statements, by contrast, cannot be falsified. No singular statement (that is to say, no ‘basic statement’, no statement of an observed event) can contradict the existential statement, ‘There are white ravens’. Only a universal statement could do this. On the basis of the criterion of demarcation here adopted I shall therefore have to treat strictly existential statements as non-empirical or ‘metaphysical’.”
Such statements are un-falsifiable for the exact same reason universal statements are un-verifiable. No observation can count against the former or for the later.
Now, what makes some universal statements useful, in other words scientific, is the fact that they are falsifiable, and therefore testable. But they are falsifiable only because their non-universal antithesis, a purely existential statement, is metaphysical, meaningful, and empirically decidable. Popper continues,
“Strict or pure statements, whether universal or existential, are not limited as to space and time. They do not refer to an individual, restricted, spatio-temporal region. This is the reason why strictly existential statements are not falsifiable. We cannot search the whole world in order to establish that something does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist. It is for precisely the same reason that strictly universal statements are not verifiable. Again, we cannot search the whole world in order to make sure that nothing exists which the law forbids. Nevertheless, both kinds of strict statements, strictly existential and strictly universal, are in principle empirically decidable: each, however, in one way only: they are unilaterally decidable. Whenever it is found that something exists here or there, a strictly existential statement may thereby be verified, or a universal one falsified.” 
I want to draw attention to this fact, that the very notion of falsifiability as the means of delineating between statements that might be scientifically useful, and those that are not, entails the existence of a class of statements which are metaphysical, yet meaningful, and also empirically decidable. This is just the kind of statement with which the central claim of the Christian tradition, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” is asserted. Is this falsifiable? No, it’s not a universal statement, it’s an existential statement. Is it meaningful? Yes, certainly, as an existential event it either happened or it did not, there is either evidence for it or there is not, it is decidable. But doesn’t the meaningfulness of this statement and the possibility of it being true depend upon whether or not it is meaningful to talk about God’s existence? Yes, and this in turn depends upon whether or not it is meaningful to talk about God’s non-existence. And herein we may have a useful criterion for a line of demarcation between meaningfulness and meaninglessness.
Any attempt to interpret the world, whether in part or as a whole, involves us in narrative construction. We seek to formulate coherent sets of propositions which fit easily with available data points. But not all narratives are equal. Some fit easily; some not so easily. And, some self-stultify; that is they contain propositions which preclude the possibility of narrative construction itself. We should consider then, that all such self-stultifying narratives are meaningless and therefore useless; and therefore need not be explored as possible interpretations of the world.
It may turn out that most meaningful narratives are in fact not true, but that fact can be discovered only if they are at least meaningful. Only if a narrative can possibly be true is it a meaningful research project. Meaningless narratives cannot even be coherently constructed and as such they are pseudo-narratives. Therefore, we need only to consider those narratives which are meaningful and have the possibility of being true.
II. A Meaningful Research Project
At a recent meeting of Dialog a presentation was given by the title “Seeing Through Revelation.” The presentation began with a brief discussion of two types of revelation, General and Special. General revelation was described as the “observation of nature” and as the “authority of scientists.” Special revelation was described as “personal disclosure,” presumably by God, and presumably as the basis for the “authority of the church or scripture.” The claim is that if we look at certain “identifiable” facts in natural history, a form of “general revelation” here, we can “see” that the “Christian revelation” and “belief system” is not really a “disclosure” but a mere “human construction.” It might be fair to put it this way, “General revelation reveals that special revelation is not revelation.” What is not explained, however, is why “revelation as a human construct” implies that it is not also a “disclosure.” An accounting of how providence brought something about does not mean it is not providence.
What is particularly interesting here is that “general revelation” and “special revelation” are juxtaposed in this way; “general revelation” is described as an “observation” while “special revelation” is described as a “disclosure.” This is an amazing equivocation on the term “revelation.” Because “disclosure” and “revelation” are such closely related terms, using the term “observation” for “general revelation” as apposed to the term “disclosure” seems to imply that nothing is “disclosed” by “general revelation.” But we must be careful here lest we undermine the “authority of scientists,” for we are told that the scientist’s authority comes through the “observation of nature.” But if nature does not “disclose” or “reveal” anything, then there is nothing for the scientist to observe. We surely don’t want to “see through nature” in the same way we “see through revelation.” The very possibility of science, indeed the very possibility of knowing anything about the world, assumes that nature is a sign, that it signifies things, that some kind of revealing is going on. That, “somehow,” nature and scientists are related to each other in such a way that nature signifies to scientists the meaning of nature. An assumption upon which, whether it is true or not, both religious people and secularists generally agree on.
But we need to pause here, for this idea, that “nature signifies to scientists,” is going to need a narrative of its own. We don’t even need to be concerned about probable narratives at this point; we just need a narrative that is at least possible, that is, we need a narrative that is at least meaningful. In the prior paragraph we placed the word “somehow” in italics, bold print, and quotes for a purpose. “Somehow” is a place holder for that narrative which explains just how “nature” and “scientists” can have such a rich relationship. Most just leave that “somehow” alone for fear of too many possible explanations. But there are not so many possible explanations. There are only two that we need to be concerned with. They are the same two possible explanations for the world itself. In the end, that special relationship between nature and scientists exists either intentionally or by accident.
The first story is easy. It is not difficult to imagine a story in which scientists are what they are on purpose and for a purpose, and in which nature is created for that same purpose. What if nature was made to be read? What if reading nature was the very purpose for which scientists were made? What if nature was made to be an epistemic environment, an environment which signifies, discloses, or reveals something, to be a sign? And what if scientists were intentionally made to be epistemic beings, with epistemic faculties for the purpose of observing and interpreting those signs? What if reading nature was a form of communion between scientists and the maker of nature? It’s a neat story, a simple story, perhaps a story that is not true, perhaps a story which is even objectionable to those who prefer an accidental or natural story. Nonetheless, it is still a story which explains why nature and scientists are in an epistemic relationship. In that sense, it makes sense. It is a possible narrative. What about the alternative?
Well, the alternative story is too easy. If nature and scientists are not what they are intentionally, then they are what they are by accident and we must tell an accidental story. But nature, as accident, just is. Scientists, as accident, just are. Their relationship just is, and anything we might want to say or think about them, just is. But “just is” just means there is no narrative for that “somehow;” because “just is” just means there is no reason or explanation whatsoever for this “epistemic relationship.” That is, the “accidental” story is, “there is no story.” Nature doesn’t mean anything at all. A purely accidental state of affairs signifies nothing. It is absurd to declare at the outset that there is no reason whatsoever why anything is what it is, and then go on, in the name of science, and give reasons for why things are as they are. In an accidental world there are no signs, and if there are no signs, the world does not signify that it is accidental. The opening line of this story precludes the possibility of there being a story at all.
“The world is an accident,” says everything there is to say about the world. Only if this statement is not true does it mean anything, and that is what we mean by self-stultifying. Any narrative which starts this way is meaningless. We cannot proclaim the world to be an accident and then go on to describe it as some kind of a secular sacrament declaring itself manifest to scientists and all who have eyes to see. Nature is either revelatory or it is not, if it is just an accident it is not a revelation at all, neither secular nor sacred. Any narrative which seeks to impute meaning to accident is itself meaningless. And only if the world is meaningful does it make sense for us to argue with one another as to what that meaning is. Thus, the one thing we know, if we know anything, is that it is not accidental.
Because a narrative about the world as accident is meaningless, the world can never be described that way. It is absurd therefore to attempt to interpret it that way. And this has two very significant hermeneutical consequences.
First, it means that as we seek to interpret the world, whether we seek to understand physics, biology, or the history of the Christian tradition, we cannot give weight to an interpretation just because it supports or comports with the idea that the world is accidental and natural. An interpretation is never more probable because it supports a narrative which is impossible. The data may not mean what the Christian thinks it means, but it can never mean that the world is accidental and “natural.” Second, it means that only intentional narratives need be considered, for only intentional narratives are meaningful, and therefore possible. And this means that we do not seek to discover if the world is intentional, but how to best understand it as intentional. The data means that much, or it means nothing at all. Thus, theism is both a hermeneutic principle and our research project.
We do not engage in historical enquiry to discover if God exists. If he does not exist, there is nothing to enquire about at all. All history can tell us is what he has done, if he has spoken, and what he has said. The claim, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” does not tell us God exists, it tells us who he is, where he is, and what he is doing. This is the Christian tradition. It says God is telling a story, that first story, the intentional story. We may struggle to understand it, but it is the only story that can be true. It might not be true, but only on the condition that nothing is true. There is no contrary truth to pursue.
Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1977. Part of My Life. Oxford Paperbacks.
Hacohen, Malachi Haim. 2000. Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902 – 1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hume, David. 1738. A Treaties of Human Nature.
_____, 1993 . An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Kant, Immanuel. 1993 . Critique of Pure Reason. London: Everyman.
Lewontin, Richard. 1997. ‘Billions and Billions of Demons.’ The New York Review. January:31.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von. 1686. Discourse on Metaphysics.
Popper, Karl R. Popper. 1968. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Shanker, Stuart G. 1996. Philosophy of Science, Logic and Mathematics in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.
 A demarcation is the boundary between things such as: science and pseudo-science, or reality and illusion, or meaningfulness and meaninglessness.
 This is called Leibniz’s Containment Principle. “Now it is evident that all true predication has some basis in the nature of things and that, when a proposition is not an identity, that is, when the predicate is not explicitly contained in the subject, it must be contained in it virtually. That is what the philosophers call in-esse, when they say that the predicate is in the subject. Thus the subject term must always contain the predicate term, so that one who understands perfectly the notion of the subject would also know that the predicate belongs to it.” (Leibniz 1686, Section 8). It should be noted that the idea that the predicate is contained in the subject goes back to Aristotle’s Prior Analytics.
 Leibniz 1686, Section 8: “Thus when we consider carefully the connection of things, we can say that from all time in Alexander’s soul there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, even though God alone could recognize them all”
 Hume 1993, 15: “All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact.”
 Hume 1993, 15: “Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is any where existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths, demonstrated by Euclid, would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.”
 Hume 1993, 105: “The mind has never present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects.” Thus Hume identifies the boundery of autonomous human experience and makes what I believe to be one of the most profound insights in the history of philosophy.
 Hume 1993, 114.
 Hume 1738, 1.3.7: “The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me and heated my brain that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. … Most fortunately, it happens that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind or by some avocation and lively impression of my senses which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends; … But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy.”
 Kant 1993, 35: “In all judgments wherein the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought …, this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A, as somewhat which is contained (though covertly) in the concept A; or the predicate B lies completely outside the concept A, although it stands in connection with it. In the first instance, I term the judgment analytical, in the second, synthetical.”
 This is why the project died by the mid-sixties. A. J. Ayer, one of positivisms primary proponents, when asked of its shortcomings in 1979 said of it, “I suppose the most important… was that nearly all of it was false.” (Shanker 1996, 193) In 1977 Ayer wrote, “The verification principle is seldom mentioned and when it is mentioned it is usually scorned; it continues, however, to be put to work. The attitude of many philosophers reminds me of the relationship between Pip and Magwitch in Dickens’s Great Expectations. They have lived on the money, but are ashamed to acknowledge its source.” (Ayer 1977, 156.)
 Of course we already knew this from David Hume, but here are a few statements on the subject from Popper:
Popper 1968, 29: “For the principle of induction must be a universal statement in its turn. Thus if we try to regard its truth as known from experience, then the very same problems which occasioned its introduction will arise all over again. To justify it, we should have to employ inductive inferences; and to justify these we should have to assume an inductive principle of a higher order; and so on.”
Popper 1968, 29: “My own view is that the various difficulties of inductive logic here sketched are insurmountable. So also, I fear, are those inherent in the doctrine, so widely current today, that inductive inference, although not ‘strictly valid’, can attain some degree of ‘reliability’ or of ‘probability’. (Italics are Popper’s)
Popper 1968, 40: “Now in my view there is no such thing as induction. Thus inference to theories, from singular statements which are ‘verified by experiment’ (whatever that may mean), is logically inadmissible. Theories are, therefore, never empirically verifiable.”
 Popper took responsibility for the death of logical positivism. “In his Autobiography, Popper posed as a murderer, confessing to have killed logical positivism. ‘Logical positivism is dead… Who has done it? … I fear that I must admit responsibility.'” (Hacohen 2000, 212.)
 Popper 1968, 34-35: “… my main reason for rejecting inductive logic is precisely that it does not provide a suitable distinguishing mark of the empirical, non-metaphysical, character of a theoretical system; or in other words, that it does not provide a suitable ‘criterion of demarcation’. … Since I reject inductive logic I must also reject all those attempts to solve the problem of demarcation. With this rejection, the problem of demarcation gains in importance for the present inquiry. Finding an acceptable criterion of demarcation must be a crucial task for any epistemology which does not accept inductive logic.”
 Popper 1968, 36-37: “And it is precisely over the problem of induction that this attempt to solve the problem of demarcation comes to grief: positivists, in there anxiety to annihilate metaphysics, annihilate natural science along with it. For scientific laws, too, cannot be logically reduced to elementary statements of experience. …This shows how the inductivist criterion of demarcation fails to draw a dividing line between scientific and metaphysical systems, and why it must accord them equal status:…”
 It should be noted that there are problems and limitations to “falsifiability” as well. As theories do not stand alone but belong to a network of theories it is not always clear, given a falsifying instance, which theory in the network is falsified, or whether or not a theory simply needs modification, or whether or not the instance is just an anomaly; and in practice, theories are often protected by ad hoc rescue hypothesis. For example, does the existence of an albino crow falsify the theory, “All crows are black,” or is it just an instance of a defective black crow?
 Popper 1968, 51: “Nothing is easier than to unmask a problem as ‘meaningless’ or ‘pseudo’. All you have to do is to fix upon a conveniently narrow meaning for ‘meaning’, and you will soon be bound to say of any inconvenient question that you are unable to detect any meaning in it. Moreover, if you admit as meaningful none except problems in natural science, any debate about the concept of ‘meaning’ will also turn out to be meaningless.”
 Popper 1968, 278: “Our science is not knowledge (episteme): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability…. We do not know: we can only guess. And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical … faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover – discover.”
 Popper 1968, 69.
 Popper 1968, 70.
 My own view is that all constructs, as unperceived background stories, are metaphysical; but only those which self-stultify are meaningless. The challenge of course is to justify a background story upon which any proposition can be meaningfull. As to falsificationism, it is certainly part of the story, but I agree with Feyerabend that it is naive in as much as the world, and therefore science, is not that simple.
 2 Corinthians 5:19.
 For purposes of this discussion we will use the word “nature” and “natural” simply because a criticism of the term will take us too far afield. In short, I’ll just say that if the world is intentional there is nothing natural about it, and if the world is accidental it most certainly does not have a nature. It must be one or the other; but it is natural in neither.
 One might be tempted to think that if “A” caused “B” that even if “A” is a pure accident, it is an “explanation” for “B.” But we must not allow the term “explanation” here to fool us into thinking it has imputed some sort of epistemic meaning to the term “cause.” If “A” is an accident, then so is “B,” and “B” is just as inexplicable as “A.” If “A” is without meaning, then so are its effects. In fact, we should think of “A” and “B” as a single inexplicable accident “AB.” But, we can only think of it this way if the world itself is not accidental, for if the world is an accident then the belief, “that ‘A’ is the explanation of ‘B,’ call that belief “C”, would just be part of a completely inexplicable accidental world event “ABC.”
 A commitment to naturalism, as an essential element of the scientific method, is to commit to a meaningless hermeneutic and the absurd project of rigorously interpreting the world as meaningless. Thus, Richard Lewontin’s commitment: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Front in the door.” (Lewontin 1997, 31.)