sample ayer essay

izzy smith
Note by izzy smith, updated more than 1 year ago
izzy smith
Created by izzy smith about 4 years ago


an ayer essay written by me, recieved a high b.

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1 (a) Examine the argument and/or interpretation in the passage. A.J Ayer was a British philosopher who was known for his promotion of Logical Positivism with a focus on verificationism ; a theory of knowledge which asserted that only statements which were verifiable through empirical observation could be cognitively meaningful. These concepts were explored through his works such as Language, Truth and Logic (1936) in which Ayer rejects all ‘God talk’, on the basis that without empirical proof it was essentially meaningless. Many of Ayer’s ideas were inspired by the work of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers and scientists united in the aim of making philosophy scientific with the help of modern logic, in the 1920’s. These philosophers formulated the Logical Positivism movement and created the Verification Principle which would be central to the work of Ayer and the ideas expressed in the given passage. In the first paragraph of the passage, Ayer introduces the idea that he is not concerned with the ‘causes of religious experience’, his focus is limited to the meaning of language, especially in asserting that religious ‘truths are not literally significant’. Immediately, there are some who would disagree with Ayer in his dismissal of religious feeling, for example, this concept of religious feeling lies at the heart of Schleiermacher’s theology. He writes that ‘religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling’, this directly contradicts the ideas of Ayer who was looking to ‘establish that there cannot be any transcendent truths of religion’ through his use of thought, logic and knowledge. This paragraph simply clarifies Ayer’s aims which are concerned with religious language, rather than the history or future of religion, it links to his earlier criticisms of religious truths in previous paragraphs of his discussion of theism. In the second part of the given passage, Ayer explores the concept that theists themselves also believe that they cannot describe God, which suggests to Ayer that the overall concept of God does not have any meaning. The initial argument of this paragraph is that theists believe that ‘God is a mystery which transcends human understanding’, this is evident when looking at religious belief. Some theists believe that mysticism is important for religious belief as it strengthens both individual and communal experiences, resulting in closer relationships with the Divine. Many religions base much of their belief in mystic practices, for example, Sufism has mystical experiences at it’s core, and the Catholic church believes that St Teresa of Avila's mystical experiences have strengthened the church’s credibility. In fact, this idea that God is beyond our understanding is explored frequently in the Bible, ‘for the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:9). This verse is a direct statement about God’s transcendence ; his nature and plan are infinitely beyond human understanding. Ayer goes on with argument to say that ‘something [which] transcends the human understanding is… unintelligible’. However, there are many who would disagree with this interpretation, as there are many methods used within religious language to make that which is transcendent more easily understood. For example, J. H. Randall noted that religious symbols serve important functions, in some circumstances symbols express religious faith better than religious language can and they can clarify and disclose our experience of the divine in the same way as a poet or artist can reveal hidden depths to events. Through these methods, symbol can be seen to be making that which is transcendent - intelligible and therefore, meaningful. Ayer goes on to argue that ‘what is unintelligible cannot be significantly described’ bringing the discussion in the paragraph back to the heart of the problem with religious language. Empiricist philosophers accept that sense experience is the best source of knowledge and the point of reference when we try to establish meaning, or in this case ‘significance’, in language. For logical positivists such as Ayer and Moritz Schlick meaning can either be analytic, in statements whose clarification relies entirely on definition, or meaning can be synthetic and refer to a sense-experience. There are limitations to this view as analytic statements do not extend the sum of human knowledge and synthetic statements can only relate to a limited range of controversial topics. Nevertheless, empiricists are satisfied to reject all other statements as ‘meaningless’, which includes all discussion of morality, beauty and and, of course, religion. Thomas Aquinas would disagree with Ayer’s argument in this passage as he argued that religious language which Ayer deems to be ‘unintelligible’ is best understood through the use of analogy. Aquinas developed the analogy of proportion, which states that there is a proportionate relationship between all things. Ian Ramsey supports Aquinas’ idea that of using analogies in religious language; Ramsey argues that words such as ‘kind’ or ‘caring’ cannot be used univocally or equivocally, so we have to qualify the model with words such as ‘infinitely’ or ‘eternally’. By qualifying the terms we use within religious language we are able to use analogies to intelligibly express God. However, some argue that by using analogy we lose the meaning and purpose behind what we are trying to communicate - so perhaps it is meaningless as opposed to meaningful. Finally, Ayer introduces the argument that those who claim God is an object of faith rather than reason, are merely admitting that ‘the existence of God must be taken on trust, since it cannot be proved’. It is clear from the interpretation presented in the passage that Ayer doesn’t agree with the idea that we should allow for the existence of God on trust of those who have faith and experience, as to Ayer, ‘faith’ ‘trust in god’ and ‘mystical intuition’ are all nonsensical as none can be tested or explained with any intelligible meaning. However, Richard Swinburne has appealed to what he calls the ‘principle of credulity’ in support of the argument from religious experience. The principle of credulity states that if it seems to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present. Generally, says Swinburne, it is reasonable to believe that the world is probably as we experience it to be. Unless we have some specific reason to question a religious experience, therefore, then we ought to accept that it is at least ‘prima facie’ (based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise) evidence for the existence of God. If Ayer applied the ‘principle of credulity’ then he would have to accept some people’s arguments for the existence of God on the basis of ‘trust’, unless he could find a verifiable reason not to. The contribution of this passage to the overall work of Ayer is large, as through the interpretation given in the passage he is advancing a fairly bold and original argument, that theists themselves really believe that God is meaningless as he writes; ‘I think there are many theists who would assert this’. He justifies this by observing that some theists may readily admit that God cannot be fully described. However, some theists would disregard this as they find meaning in God, as W. P. Alston writes; ‘it is worth stressing that the general experience of the presence and activity of God in one’s life… can be of enormous religious importance’. In this Alston is showing that even the most basic experience and understanding of God can have real importance and meaning in the life of that particular believer, despite whether or not logical positivists such as Ayer find it to be intelligible or verifiable. 1 (b) Do you agree with the idea(s) expressed? Justify your point of view and discuss its implications for understanding religion and human experience. Ayer’s dismissal of the ‘causes of religious feeling’ could have drastic implications for understanding religion, without this; ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ (Schleiermacher) there may be a decline in overall religious belief. Since Ayer’s writing of the given passage in 1934 there has been a large increase in scientific knowledge, and also in the popular understanding of science. Through bestselling books like Richard Dawkins’ ‘the Selfish Gene’ and Stephen Hawking’s ‘a Brief History of Time’ have drawn people into about scientific ideas at a level unknown to the previous generation. If Ayer’s ideas about the progression of society due to an increase of scientific knowledge and a dismissal of ‘religious feeling’ were correct then you would expect to see, as an implication of this, a decline in religion, since people would rely increasingly on ideas which they can empirically verify and would begin to reject those ideas which could not be explained in analytic or empirical terms. It is true that there has been a decline in formal organised religion in the western world, this can especially be seen as atheism has become more commonplace in the media, comedians such as Bill Maher have publically stated; ‘religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do’. However, charismatic christianity is the fastest growing religion on the planet, with a staggering 14% of all christians identifying with this label, this amounts to 305,000,000 charismatic christians worldwide. And even in the west, formal religion has to a large extent been replaced by a variety of alternative spiritualities, many of which have far less empirical or historical foundation than the traditional organised religions which they are attempting to replace , quite the opposite of the implications which might have been expected on the basis of Ayer’s theory. I see this to be a positive movement in religion as a theist, this movement away from empirical fact in religion has allowed for more individualised belief and a focus on one’s own experiences and feelings towards the Divine. If, however, Ayer’s views were widely accepted there would be drastic implications for religion and religious believers, in theory, religion itself would be removed entirely from society as according to Ayer, ‘there cannot be any transcendent truths of religion’ and therefore all talk or worship of God would be entirely without meaning. Atheists such as Dawkins would see this as a societal improvement as he believes that religion is an unmitigated evil; ‘religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness’, and would like to see it eradicated from society. Dawkins would see the implications of this to be an increase in rational thinking, more altruistic (unselfish) morality, more concern for welfare and improvement of conditions for everyone in this life and more tolerance for others. R. A. Sharpe would agree with these implications, as his atheism stems from his belief that religion provokes people to live in ways which are immoral and that we shouldn’t do good because it is what God wants, but because it is the right thing to do. Although I can see the merits in these schools of thought, such as more of a concern for what is happening in this life and improving conditions for those in need, I disagree with Ayer’s view that a removal of religion would be positive for morality. I would see the disappearance of religion in society as a very negative implication of Ayer’s thoughts. The British justice system, as well as our health and education institutions, was founded by those who had Christian faith. Major social events have come about through the actions of theists, for example, the abolition of slavery in this country came about largely as a result of William Wilberforce’s Christian convictions, and Martin Luther King explicitly cited his Christian faith as the motive for his non-violent struggle for racial equality in the USA. Through movements such as these, I can see that the impact on religion on society today has been monumental and I cannot see how a removal of the morality which is not only the basis of our key institutions but also the beliefs of many civil rights activists could be beneficial or positive. Arguably, the implications of Ayer’s work would be even larger for human experience, areas of life such as humor, personal relationships, vast areas of psychology and doubtless many more areas are rendered meaningless. Another implication is that, there are no moral standards upon which to go about our everyday lives, and discussion of such need for morality would have to be avoided as Ayer wishes for us to avoid any conversation of such meaningless matters. I would argue that to live in this manner is not only detrimental to religion, but to human striving altogether, however, it seems that Ayer himself managed to continue his work as a philosopher in spite of having demonstrated that philosophy is a meaningless discipline, we can perhaps conclude that the implications for human experience are less than they first appear - maybe it is impossible for the human race as a whole to adopt Ayer’s principles. There would be implications for morality if Ayer’s ideas were widely believed and applied, according to him it followed that since only analytic and synthetic propositions were verifiable, only the statements of science and logic could be analysed and investigated by means of philosophy. Moral statements were outside the scope of such enquiry, and since they could not be verified or falsified, they must be meaningless. So we can confidently say that, based on Ayer’s own views, that God talk is nonsense, along with all metaphysical, theological, aesthetic and ethical statements, then nobody has any grounds for criticising the moral decisions of others, despite how ‘wrong’ we would consider it to be. If one person’s emotional preference has no more significance or value than others, why should we not allow people to act as they choose in such matters, why waste time trying to decide what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? Under Ayer’s mentality, would it really matter how anyone behaved? To conclude, I do not agree with Ayer’s views as I can see that the implications of what is written in this passage would have a negative effect on both religion and human experience. I also disagree with Ayer’s overall opinion that religious statements do not hold meaning as this contrasts directly with things I have seen in my life. In my personal experience of theists and religious language I have seen that often religious statements can hold unimaginable amounts of meaning, this is true of statements made by believers themselves and religious scriptures such as the Bible. Although religious language may not hold meaning to Ayer himself, he cannot state that statements which cannot be analytically proven don’t have meaning to anyone else. Ayer’s work can also be questioned on principle, as he claims that only what can be proven through science, logic and maths has meaning, yet his writing is synthetic and cannot be verified in itself, in fact, even by being a philosopher, he is contradicting his own beliefs.

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