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The falsifiable principle

Culture | Y2K prophets demonstrate an important tenet of logic, which we can use to analyze other popular claims

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

As Christian bookstores try to unload their stock of Y2K books, the alarmists, though embarrassingly wrong, should be given at least one measure of credit: They made a prediction that was testable.

Their assertion that the world's computers would shut down would either happen or it would not. At the cusp of midnight, we would know. As it turned out, the Y2K problem proved no more serious than a car's odometer rolling over. But the doomsayers had the courage of their predictions. A good number of contemporary pundits make statements that can never be proven one way or another.

A number of logicians maintain that no assertion can claim to be true unless it is "falsifiable." They recognize that not every idea can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. But if it is the kind of statement that can claim to be true, it must be susceptible-if only hypothetically-to evidence that might disprove it.

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It may not be possible to prove that light is the fastest thing in the universe, but if something were found that was faster, the claim would be disproven. A statement such as "light is the consciousness of the universe" not only can't be proven; there is no conceivable way one could come up with evidence against it. It can't be verified, and it can't be falsified. Therefore, strictly speaking, it doesn't make sense, and we don't need to take it seriously.

The postmodernist position that our experience of reality is all a construction of our will or of our culture is not falsifiable. Any evidence against this view could be dismissed as just another subjective construction. There is nothing, in principle, that could disprove it; therefore, logically speaking, it is meaningless.

Darwinists refuse to accept even the possibility of evidence that might undermine their position. They argue from within a closed circle. But unless they admit some scenario that could disprove their theory, they cannot claim that it is true.

Christianity, in contrast, is falsifiable. "If Christ has not been raised," insists the Apostle Paul, "your faith is futile." If it could be proven that the Resurrection never happened-as some liberal theologians assert-the whole fabric of the faith comes unraveled. "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead," so we have a solid ground for our salvation--and a meaningful faith.

Not all of what we believe can be proven--faith remains a gift of God, not a logical deduction from a fallen mind--but ultimately it is testable. If when we die, we just rot-there being no God, no salvation, no everlasting life-our faith would have been proven wrong. But if, after death, everything is just as the Bible describes it, everyone-Christian and non-Christian-will acknowledge the same truth.

Liberal theology denies Christ's physical resurrection, interpreting it away while insisting that Christians need only see it as a symbol of hope. The liberals' vague theology, designed to accord with every cultural fashion, is not falsifiable. It is so open-ended and malleable that it resists all evidence.

The same is true of New Age mumbo-jumbo ("You create your own reality"), which is in stark contrast to the clear, tangible declarations in the Bible ("God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son").

The criterion of falsifiability can also be useful in evaluating political claims. Is there a point at which an economic plan can be seen to be a success or a failure? Or is it so diffuse and impossible to assess that it will continue indefinitely?

Does a policy designed to help the poor really improve their condition by putting them to work? Or is it an ungrounded generosity that ends up subsidizing poverty and keeping the poor in their place? There needs to be some criterion that could tell us if it doesn't work.

Will a particular educational reform plan either improve or fail to improve academic achievement, and be evaluated accordingly? Or is it just "pro-child" rhetoric that will continue to sound good regardless of the results?

Some logicians attempt to apply the falsifiable principle to moral statements, claiming that sentences like "Thou shalt not steal" can neither be proven nor disproven and therefore are mere subjective preferences, without the status of fact. But while an "ought" is not the same as an "is," and therefore has different criteria, the Christian worldview does offer a way to verify or disprove moral claims: the Bible. Having an objective, authoritative source for our beliefs allows us to think about moral and spiritual issues with great clarity.

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