Is falsifiability (testability) required for a statement to be meaningful?

“No, after all…
  • Falsifiability/testability is incoherent

      “Falsifiability” (and “testability”) are hopelessly incoherent terms.1 After all,…
      • …see some of the ambiguities in the intro above.
      • …it depends on the hopelessly incoherent term, “observable.”2
      This is relevant because incoherent terms cannot play a role in criterion for determining meaningful statements.

      1. Elliott Sober: “That some propositions are testable, while others are not, was a fundamental idea in the philosophical program known as logical empiricism. That program is now widely though to be defunct. Quine's (1953) ’Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ and Hempel's (1950) ‘Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning’ are among its most notable epitaphs. … Many philosophers of science think there can be no ‘criterion of testability.’ It isn’t just that philosophers have so far failed to figure out what testability amounts to; rather, the idea is that there is no such thing. The concept of testability, like the analytic/synthetic distinction, is supposed to be a vestige of a bygone age, whose untenability we celebrate by speaking of ‘the demise of logical empiricism.’ […] I think this view is […] mistaken” [“Testability” in Presidential Address to the Central Division of the America Philosophical Association (May 1999): 47-48.]
      2. Elliott Sober: “Just as the idea of there being a criterion of testability has gone out of fashion, so too have many philosophers become skeptical about the concept of observation. The distinction between observational and theoretical statements is supposed to be inherently flawed, as is the distinction between observable and unobservable entities. The defects that have been advertised are various—sometimes the distinctions are said not to exist, at other times they are said to be vague, and at still other times, they are said to lack epistemological significance.” [“Testability” in Presidential Address to the Central Division of the America Philosophical Association (May 1999): 49.] Sober says this while personally disagreeing with the consensus.
  • A competing theory is true

      A competing theory of meaning is true.1 Like the…
      • …correspondence theory of meaning
      • …coherence theory of meaning
      • …constructivist theory of meaning
      • …consensus theory of meaning
      • …pragmatic theory of meaning
      This is relevant because these theories of meaning are not compatible with the falsificationist criterion of meaning.

      1. For example,
        Richard Swinburne: “In order to understand the words of a sentence, we need to be able to recognize instances where they would be correctly applied or where words definitionally related to them would be correctly applied. And, in order to understand the significance of the pattern in which the words are combined (for example, a subject-predicate sentence), we need to be able to recognize circumstances where examples of such a sentence-pattern would be true or false. But none of this shows that, in order to understand a particular sentence (and so the proposition expressed by it), we have to be able to recognize circumstances in which it would be true or false, or even to be able to recognize observations that would be evidence for or against it.” [The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1977).]
  • The criterion is self-refuting

      The falsifiability criterion for meaning is self-refuting. (After all, the proposition that only empirically falsifiable statements are meaningful is not itself empirically falsifiable.) This is relevant because self-referentially incoherent propositions are not true.

  • No statement can actually be falsified

      All good statements are impossible (or nearly impossible) to falsify empirically.

      After all,…
      • …ostensible falsifications are always blamable on background assumptions, even for good theories.1
      This is relevant because good theories and statements are nevertheless meaningful.

      1. This is called the “Durhem-Quine problem.” The problem is that it is arguably impossible to test an hypothesis in isolation, because any test involves background assumptions (“auxiliary hypotheses”) which could be blamed instead for an ostensible falsification. These include assumptions about the experimental set-up, potentially interfering entities, ad hoc explanations which cast doubt on the sample, and so forth. For a slight variation, as famously put,
        W. O. Quine: “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system [My insert: elsewhere in your web-of-belief].” [“Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review, 60 (1951), pp. 20–43]
        More elaborately:
        Alex Rosenberg: “…any hypothesis which is tested under the assumption that the auxiliary assumptions are true, can be in principle preserved from falsification, by giving up the auxiliary assumptions and attributing the falsity to these auxiliary assumptions. And sometimes, hypotheses are in practice preserved from falsification. Here is a classic example in which the falsification of a test is rightly attributed to the falsity of auxiliary hypotheses and not the theory under test. In the nineteenth century, predictions of the location in the night sky of Jupiter and Saturn derived from Newtonian mechanics were falsified as telescopic observation improved. But instead of blaming the falsification on Newton’s laws of motion, astronomers challenged the auxiliary assumption that there were no other forces, beyond those due to the known planets, acting on Saturn and Jupiter. By calculating how much additional gravitational force was necessary and from what direction, to render Newton’s laws consistent with the data apparently falsifying them, astronomers were led to the discovery, successively, of Neptune and Uranus. As a matter of logic, scientific law can neither be completely established by available evidence, nor conclusively falsified by a finite body of evidence.” [118.]

        Scientists will typically not consider a theory as falsified simply because of the existence of discrepancies between theoretical predictions and observations, even if those discrepancies remain unexplained for a long time; in fact, attempting to account for such discrepancies is what motivates a lot of scientific research. As an added layer of complexity, most explanations, even those in the natural sciences, also employ ceteris paribus clauses (“all other things being equal”), and these two provide avenues for blame which leave the original hypothesis unscathed.
  • Some unfalsifiable claims seem meaningful

      Ostensibly meaningful statements exist which are not falsifiable (including scientific statements).1 For example,…
      • …“x happened in the past” (i.e. most historical statements and meaningful memories).
      • …“change occurs”.2
      • …“x could have happened instead.”
      • …“I feel xyz” (e.g. statements appealing to a patient's emotions or state of mind).
      • …“causation occurs”.3
      • …“whatever begins has a cause”.
      • …“God exists”.
      • …“quarks exist” (which can’t be separated/examined individually).
      • …“electrons exist” (which we already know exist).
      • …“X is morally wrong” (moral facts).
      • …“2+2=4” (mathematical facts).
      • …“aliens visited/abducted me.”
      • …“clever toys dance when not being watched.”4
      • …“other universes exist.”
      • …“space-time reality is eternal in the future.”
      • …“space-time reality is finite in the future.”

      1. Mikael Stenmark: “The objection against these principles of cognitive meaningfulness that perhaps had the most impact was the growing realization among philosophers of science that not even science, which was taken to be the paradigm of rationality, is able to satisfy these demands. The history of science is filled with cases in which scientists were convinced of the truth (and meaningfulness) of some scientific theory but were unable to specify exactly the verification or falsification conditions.” [Rationality in Science, Religion, and Everyday life (Notre Dame), ]
      2. You cannot say you’ve observed the occurrence of change without assuming the reliability of memory.
      3. As famously noted by Hume, causation cannot be observed. All we can observe is a constant conjunction of events.
      4. Richard Swinburne: “Some of the toys that to all appearances stay in the toy cupboard while any humans in the house are asleep come out of their boxes and dance in the middle of the night without disturbing any detecting devices, and then go back to the cupboard, leaving no traces of their activity.” [The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1977)]
  • “No, after all…
  • An untestable entity is identical to nothing

      An untestable entity is identical to nothing (i.e. lacks empirical content). Recall the invisible gardener parable, wherein the exasperated skeptic declares, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from …no gardener at all?” [See full story: 1]

      • …sensible disagreement over the testability of x proves x is meaningful.2
      • …propositions can be distinguishable non-empirically.3
      • …explanations can be corroborated by facts already known,4
             • …e.g. consider the gardener parable if the garden had a gate and sign.5

      1. Antony Flew: “Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves. At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” [Antony Flew, R.M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, “Theology and Falsification,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, eds. Antony Flew and Alasdair McIntyre (Macmillan, 1955), 96.] (The parable of the invisible gardener is the brain child of John Wisdom originally.)
      2. Referring to Flew’s gardener challenge,
        William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland: “The very fact that the two explorers in the story could disagree about the merits of the undetectable gardener-hypothesis (or that Flew’s colleagues on the panel understood the story’s ending!) shows that the explorer’s statement was meaningful.” [Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, 2003), .155.]
      3. See the above list of “Ostensibly meaningful statements which are not falsifiable” (or verifiable).
      4. Contra Popper, the order of learning can't be relevant to the truth. The Popperian view is false. Dawes quotes this, “If the evidence shows that some consequence of a theory is true, then this cannot depend on whether the evidence came to be known before the theory was proposed or afterwards. Such historical considerations, interesting as they may be, ought not to affect questions of confirmation or evidential support.” Dawes adds: “As John Worrall points out, the facts concerning the perihelion of Mercury—the rate at which its elliptical orbit around the sun rotates—were known well in advance of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. (The apparent anomaly here, on a Newtonian view, had been noted as early as 1859.) But the fact that Einstein’s physics could explain this movement while Newton’s could not has generally been taken as evidence in support of general relativity. On a Popperian view, this conclusion would be illegitimate.” Instead, see Alan Musgrave’s “historical view” of confirmation.
      5. Imagine that in the parable the garden was surrounded by what looked like a gate, and the flowers formed a symmetrically decorated heart, with an ostensible sign saying, “Tended by John in memory of his wife Elsa.”