Verificationism: are meaningful statements verifiable via senses?

  • Clarifying the question

    A pair of glasses.

    For a statement to be cognitively meaningful, must there be some conditions of experience that could exist to show that the expression is true? Must it be in principle something that can be conclusively determined (strong verificationism) or evidenced (weak verificationism) to be true by tests which impact one's sense perceptions (what they can see, hear, taste, etc.)? Is the verifiability criterion of meaning (i.e. the verification principle) true?

  • Experts (epistemologists) agree verificationism is false

    Three scholars sit behind a desk. Two pictures are on the desk, one is an unfinished puzzle, the other is a bearded 1st century man.
    • Michael Loux: “The nearly universal verdict of the philosophical community at large is that positivism has been thoroughly discredited. Philosophers seldom like to speak of the refutation of a view; but the vast majority of philosophers would agree that if any 'ism' stands refuted, it is positivism; and the alleged refutation claims as its victims theses from virtually every area in philosophy—epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics, metaphilosophy. Even to use the language in which positivists expressed their views-with its talk of protocol sentences, physicalist language, sense data, reduction sentences-is to evoke derisive smirks. And nowhere have positivist views been more roundly criticized than in the theory of meaning. The central target of attack here has been the verificationism that is so prominent in positivist writings, and the philosophical community is so convinced of the success of the attack that we often hear philosophers speaking of ‘the verificationist fallacy’-the ‘fallacy’ of concluding that where evidence is, in principle lacking, there is no fact of the matter.” [“Realism and Anti-Realism: Dummett's Challenge” in The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, eds. Loux & Zimmerman (Oxford, 2005), 661.]
    • 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) ]
“No, after all…
  • A competing theory of meaning is true

    There are two boxers, and a referree between them holding up the arm of one (the winner).

    A competing theory of meaning is true. 1


    • The correspondence theory of meaning.
    • The coherence theory of meaning.
    • The constructivist theory of meaning.
    • The consensus theory of meaning.
    • The pragmatic theory of meaning.

    This is relevant because these theories of meaning are not compatible with the verificationist theory of meaning.

  • Verificatonism is self-refuting

    A man stands holding a gun to his own head.

    Verificationism is self-refuting. (After all, the statement that “only observation-affecting statements are meaningful”, is not an observation-affecting statement).1 This is relevant because self-refuting statements are false.

    1. Or more elaborately: “In order to be meaningful, an informative sentence must be capable in principle of being empirically verified/falsified.” Rather than saying this renders verificationism self-refuting, following Plantinga, it could be more accurate to say it is self-referentially incoherent.
  • Scientific laws can't be verified for all points/times

    A man with a magnifying glass inspects a raven.

    Universal generalizations (i.e. inferences to natural laws) cannot be verified by experience.1 (For example, no matter how many ravens are observed to be black, one cannot thereby confirm that all ravens are black. The same goes for the exemplification of laws like gravity.) This is relevant because universal generalizations, like “all ravens are black,” are perfectly meaningful.

    1. The Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia, Vol 1: A-M: “Wittgenstein's principle of verifiability posed fairly obvious problems in any scientific context. No universal generalization can ever be verified. Perhaps independently, Karl Popper perceived the same problem... This led him to replace the requirement of verifiability with that of falsifiability, though only as a criterion to demarcate science from metaphysics and not as one to be able also used to demarcate meaningful from meaningless claims.” [The “Rudolf Carnap” entry, eds. Sahotra Sarkar, Jessica Pfeifer (Routledge, 2005), 83.]
      The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a series of studies about cognitive significance and empirical testability, he demonstrated that the verifiability criterion implies that existential generalizations are meaningful, but that universal generalizations are not, even though they include general laws, the principal objects of scientific discovery. Hypotheses about relative frequencies in finite sequences are meaningful, but hypotheses concerning limits in infinite sequences are not. The verifiability criterion thus imposed a standard that was too strong to accommodate the characteristic claims of science and was not justifiable.” [James Fetzer, “Carl Hempel”, in Edward N Zalta, ed, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013)]

  • Math/logic are neither “analytic” nor “synthetic”

    Truths about logic and math are neither true-by-definition nor empirically verifiable.1 This is relevant because truths of logic and math are meaningful.

    1. This analytic-synthetic dichotomy is how verificationist philosophers tried to divide propositions into two categories: Analytic = those true trivially by definition (e.g. All bachelors are unmarried, triangles have three sides.), and Synthetic = propositions which aren't analytic; true because of how their meaning relates to the world (e.g. bodies have mass). However, verificationists were famously unable to reformulate the analytic-synthetic distinction so as to reduce math/logic to semantic conventions (true by definition) and they certainly were not synthetically true.