Why Non-Falsifiable Beliefs Are Vacuous

Pair of black swans swimmingThe observation of a black swan falsifies the hypothesis “All swans are white”.

In a recent post, Professor Darrell Arnold introduced the idea of a non-falsifiable belief or hypothesis. I would like to briefly and simply explain this important concept.

Here is an easy way to understand falsifiability. Suppose you say “It’s raining.” I then point out that cars aren’t using their wipers; people aren’t using their umbrellas; there are no puddles on the ground; nothing is wet; we can’t see water falling from the sky; etc. I have now clearly falsified your claim.

But if you respond “Well it’s invisible rain that doesn’t land on windshields or umbrellas or create puddles or make things wet,” then you have advanced a non-falsifiable hypothesis. Now let’s say, in an attempt to falsify this invisible rain hypothesis, I tell you that I have a special rain detector to detect invisible rain and it shows no invisible rain in the area. But still, you aren’t convinced and respond “well, my kind of rain can’t be detected even by such rain detectors.”

In this case what you originally meant by “it’s raining” isn’t what we ordinarily mean by that statement. You were referring to an invisible rain that you just believe in no matter what evidence I offer to the contrary—in other words, a non-falsifiable hypothesis. Not only is this absurd but note that your claim here that it’s raining is essentially empty or vacuous. Why?

Because you aren’t really saying anything when you say it’s raining. After all, what’s the difference between your idea of it’s raining and no rain at all? What we mean by the phrase “it’s raining” is that we see water falling from the sky, things get wet, etc. But if you say it’s raining doesn’t mean any of these things then again, what’s the difference between your rain and no rain at all? Of course, there is none. What you are saying is meaningless.

So if a hypothesis is in principle incapable of being falsified—no matter what evidence I produce—then that hypothesis or belief is just vacuous nonsense.

Let me give a different kind of example to make the same point. Suppose I believe bread rises in ovens because of the color of ovens. That may be a stupid hypothesis but it’s not empty; it can be falsified. All I have to do is put the bread in different color ovens and see if it rises or not. If it rises in different color ovens or only sometimes rises in the same color oven then I know the color of the oven has nothing to do with the bread rising. The “oven color” hypothesis is falsifiable. In fact, it can be easily falsified.

On the other hand, if I say invisible gremlins (whatever they are) cause bread to rise, and no matter what evidence you produce I continue to insist on the “gremlin hypothesis” then my hypothesis isn’t just falsifiable, it’s nonsense.

Now if you tell me its yeast that causes bread to rise and you put yeast in the bread and the bread rises and you take it out and the bread doesn’t rise and you do this over and over a million times then you have given me lots of evidence to support your”yeast hypothesis.” Now, it’s always possible it’s not the yeast (the problem of induction) but you have provided overwhelming evidence for the yeast hypothesis that a rational person should accept. And if I still claim invisible gremlins cause bread to rise after all this evidence then what I’m saying is just nonsense.

I’ll leave it to the reader to consider the implications of all this for beliefs in gods, devils, angels, miracles, the power of prayer, ridiculous conspiracy theories, etc. If you believe in such things, are your beliefs falsifiable? Would you allow anything to falsify your beliefs? If not, then your beliefs in such things are empty or vacuous. Believing in invisible gods, devils or angels may be just like believing in invisible rain or invisible gremlins. Such beliefs are not just false but essentially meaningless.

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Here is a link to a more detailed and technical explanation of falsifiable and non-falsifiable beliefs or hypotheses.

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13 thoughts on “Why Non-Falsifiable Beliefs Are Vacuous

  1. I’ve not ever been able to explain successfully the rational to the irrational. My real conundrum is understanding otherwise rational folks clinging to irrational beliefs in the face of verifiable proof. Something psychological going on here I can’t explain.

  2. The non-falsifiability rule can’t be applied to hypotheses about historical events that are intrinsically non-repeatable. We have scores of hypotheses to explain the fall of the Roman Empire. None are falsifiable, but we cannot use their non-falsifiability to reject them.

    This is significant in considering events in evolutionary history, especially salient developments such as the development of eukaryotes, the Cambrian explosion, or the development of human intelligence.

  3. Agreed.
    There may be something to invisible devils and angels. A devil could possibly be defined as a negative meme; an angel as a positive meme. Would have to study hermeneutics.
    No motive was ever discovered re the Las Vegas mass murder three yrs ago:
    a reverent, or nutty, theologian might believe the perpetrator to have been possessed by a negative meme—‘demonic spirit’.

  4. I appreciate you taking up fallibilism again. Popper of course famously highlighted that all real science needed to have falsifiable hypothesis. Pseudoscience fails by proposing hypotheses that are not really amenable to counter-evidence. I thought I’d take the opportunity to try to think through the issue you’ve brought up a little bit more to see if I could gain some greater clarity on it for myself. I write these words after having finished my initial reflections and recognizing I’ve failed to think clearly. But I nonetheless think I’ll share my not yet very well thought through first impressions.

    The truth of your statement that non-falsifiable beliefs have no meaning of course depends on what we mean by “meaning.” On the one hand, we can understand meaning as “intending.” It seems to me that those who say “I believe in God” intend something. People who they say this to also understand one of the few things that they mean by this–namely, that they mean that they believe an omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving immaterial being, or that they believe in some “power” that is great and that can wield force over our lives. “God” is one of those signifiers that has multiple definitions in common language use. On the other hand, we might view “meaning” as “significance.” For its part, this can mean a couple things. First, significance; second, again, it can mean it signifies something. Many beliefs that are non-falsifialbe have incredible significance to the individuals who believe them. That is, many of those who believe in God would say that the belief in God is the most significant belief they have–meaning it is the most important one. But as noted, “significant” can be that it signifies something, that it is has a referent. Now, if there is no God, then the term “God” would not signify a real thing. But it would still signify some that has a definition (or some varying definitions) in a society, so could be uttered and have meaning at least in this sense. This takes me back to my first point about meaning above.

    I’d say that the statement “God exists” thus has meaning (even for those who would accept no evidence to disconfirm that belief) in both the senses I discussed. The statement still has a referent insofar, as it is a term that has a definition, or some varying definitions, in a society. Further, it is also significant or important for many of the individuals who make the statement.

    The problem, then, I think is not that the statement about God’s existence doesn’t have meaning. It’s just that many who believe in it do so without intellectual integrity, because they do not accept that there could be any evidence that would disconfirm their belief.

    As I think about this example, I’m wondering about my earlier essays. I spoke of Trump supporters holding beliefs firm and being unable to accept any evidence that would disconfirm their belief. One of the examples I used was their belief that there has been massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. It’s not that this belief itself couldn’t be disconfirmed. It could be, and I would say has been. But some of the Trump supporters are not willing to change their belief about even though there has been solid evidence that it isn’t true. It’s not though that the kind of statement that they have that is immune to fallibilism (like maybe some people’s meaning of ‘God exists’); it’s just that they will contort logic and evidence in any way necessary to deny the legitimacy of the evidence that does show it to be wrong and they will uncritically accept bad evidence, pretending that it is good. The problem then is they exhibit bad faith. Because of their dogmatism, they will rationalize away any good evidence while convincing themselves of the truth of their views on the most flimsy of evidence.

  5. I wrote all of that without having reviewed any literature on this, including the Flew piece that your link highlighted. I read that a long time ago, but don’t remember the details.

  6. Hi John, I’ll just betcha that DJT thinks invisible gremlines stole votes from the Republicans… What you describe is a useful and timely concept, so thanks for elaborating on it…even if it is non-falsifiable…? (I’m smiling.)

  7. Doc,
    This piece is a lovely, and important in these charged times. There is obvious conundrum when any of us bear witness to an event and another does the same, and you clearly, with all of your faculties, see validity and another denies it. Logically, “yes” and “no”, for example, are two opposing answers. As for their vacuous-ness, they breed conspiracy theories. If facts can be denied, then the empty spaces can be filled with whatever array of suggestive opinions fit a given agenda. Though this is not specific to any administration, for four years it is as though we have repeated witnessed the Black Knight scene in Monty Python’s, The Holy Grail reenacted. This resonates for me, and here is a refresher. King Arthur cuts off the Black Knight’s arm explaining to the knight that “I cut off your arm” and the Black Knight offers “no you didn’t”, and it is clear view, on the ground, a couple of feet away. And the repeated dismemberment is continued with the knight in clearly expressed denial of the event. Though a silly example, we have witnessed this event played out in the political arena, captured by a small section of the media, and regurgitated by 50 million (or possibly more) Americans. The age old “where’s the proof” be damned and that is absolutely terrifying. At a minimum it exposes the gullibility of the public and at worst it can be a call to arms. Perhaps we are moving into an era where this argument will have to be explained only in textbooks and not broadcasted daily to the public; it is deadly. May whatever mythical deity of whom they ask favors give them guidance to see these non-falsifiable beliefs for what they are, malarkey.

  8. Hey John:

    At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll take another shot at the topic, in the hope that I’m getting clearer.

    I think that my own writing on falsification was not clear. On the one hand we can think of statements that in themselves are not falsifiable. They are just untestable. Popper dismisses pseudoscience precisely for being composed of such statements. On the other hand, there is something like you describe in your text and that I was thinking of when writing of how conspiracy theorists have beliefs that aren’t falsifiable. In these latter cases, it’s not that the statements couldn’t be falsified. They could be. But what happens is precisely the type of thing you point out. Those with the said beliefs — that it’s raining, in your example — redefine what those beliefs mean. And suddenly, rain is invisible. Or suddenly it was raining in Timbuktu but not in Seattle, where the statement was made. So it was raining after all. Or, if I take the example I had referred to, we see something else — namely a shifting in the criteria of evidence needed for disproof such that the proposed beliefs are essentially then immune from criticism.

    We can likely all think of interactions in which individuals redefine terms in the way your example suggests, then maintain that they were right all along. Sean Spicer, in one instance, made a shift similar to the one you mention when he was speaking of crowd sizes at Trump’s inauguration. While the first lie of the premiere Trump administration press release was that Trump had a larger inauguration crowd [at the Washington Mall] than Obama did, on a later occasion Spicer proposed that this statement about the inauguration crowd was meant to include TV viewers. Mostly, Trump and his administration went ahead and maintained that they were even talking about the crowd at the Mall. And they even doctored a photograph to try to make their case. But pushed into a corner, the Trumpers could refer to the TV and even social media audiences. The statement might then be true. But the difficulty was in having any accurate data to evaluate the statement with. If the claim about TV audiences was disputed with evidence, then they could deny the validity of the sources used to question the claim.

    Looking at the fraud case, I don’t think we see a redefining of terms (though we could say that Trump has engaged in massive fraud, if we define it differently than he is); and we do have a statement that could in principle be falsified. But here we see that no realistic criteria for disconfirming the statement is accepted by many of those who argue that there has been massive voter fraud by Democrats in the 2020 election. Any source provided is challenged, regardless of how reliable. And by contrast, almost any evidence supporting the claim will be accepted, regardless of how dubious. So a statement about fraud that is in principle falsifiable becomes a statement about fraud that de facto is not.

  9. The audience for Trump’s inhoguratlion could have been dogs being walked in the vicinity;
    or sitting on the laps of TV viewers. Lapdogs.

  10. Good point, Al! When someone is hell-bent on making sure they have had true beliefs or that they win an argument, the absurdity often known no bounds.

  11. Darrell,
    Take a gander at Trump’s Facebook page; he is doing a remarkable job of arguing with himself—and he wins his self-argument every time.
    Yet let’s not forget that he is crazy like a fox, he is wasting our time (four years and counting), we are not wasting his. He has succeeded in one large goal: we are talking about him all the time! He is where he wants to be: at the center of attention and if such is losing, then what is winning?
    Liberace said to his critics,
    “I’m crying all the way to the bank.”

  12. I guess the point is: “So if a hypothesis is in principle incapable of being falsified—no matter what evidence I produce—then that hypothesis or belief is just vacuous nonsense.”

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