The Ayer Legend
The life of British philosopher Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-1989 A.D.) has become not only the stuff of academic, but of popular legend as well.
Perhaps the most famous and celebrated parts of the legend are his World War II service in England’s S.O.E., the Special Operations Executive and then in M.I. 6; and the story of his confrontation, at age 77, with boxer Mike Tyson at a party in America in 1987. Ayer demanded that Tyson stop attempting to force himself on a not-then well-known model, Naomi Campbell. In reply to Tyson’s classic “Do you know who the f. . . . I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, ” Ayer calmly replied, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. A conversation ensued, and Ms. Campbell walked away. One cannot help but wonder if Ayer informed Tyson that Ayer had been a champion rugby player in his youth – which, no doubt, would most certainly have intimidated Tyson.
The Logical Positivist
Ayer was a life-long (or nearly so as discussed further below) atheist and logical positivist philosopher. He asserted a theory of knowledge whose primary basis was that only statements verifiable through empirical observation, or derivable from pure logic, are cognitively meaningful (this is known as the “verification principle”).
For Ayer, statements like “God exists” or “charity is good” were neither true nor untrue and were, therefore, meaningless. Any sensible, intelligent person may, therefore, exclude them or ignore them. Religious language, since it is especially unverifiable, was for him literal nonsense.
For Ayer, the logical positivist, ethical concepts were “mere pseudo-concepts”:
The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, “You stole that money.” In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. … If now I generalise my previous statement and say, “Stealing money is wrong,” I produce a sentence that has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false. … I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. [Language, Truth and Logic. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1971, p. 107; herein “Ayer I”].
Facts Aren’t Facts, Only
The work of many philosophers, thinkers, and scholars since the time of Ayer’s early work clearly and conclusively demonstrated that there is no bright line between fact and value; that both facts and scientific theories are “value-laden;” and that, at their most basic epistemological level, scientific theories are grounded on non-data-based unprovable beliefs.
The later work, which undercut Ayer’s effort to limit the realm of rational inquiry to these “statements,” showed that even Ayer’s “statements” are not the empirically-grounded entities he supposed. The verifiability principle itself was shown to be based on Ayer’s logical empiricist dogma or belief that factual provability is to be valued both in science and in philosophy. Such a valuation itself is, according to Ayer’s own principles, a meaningless “value” judgement.
Reality More Than Certain “Statements”
There is so much more to human reality and to human social reality than simply making Ayer’s “statements” — although much of what a scientist does and much of what a logical empiricist philosopher does can be reduced to making statements. For example, performative speech acts such as “I promise” can be reduced to the factually provable question of whether or not one has promised; but the performative real effect of “I promise” within a social community and the full meaning of the promise are not reducible to facts provable as true or false. A community’s agreed understanding of the full import of “I promise” gives such a statement meaning — in addition to its empirical status.
Ayer Backtracks – Existence of Things “Simply Posited”
In his later work, Ayer was forced to deal with the problems associated with his earlier positions. (The Central Question of Philosophy, Hammondsworth; Penguin, 1976, pp. 107-109; herein “Ayer II”). Ayer abandoned the verifiability criterion of cognitive meaning and asserted that the continued and distinct existence of physical objects is “simply posited” (Ayer II, 108). Something “simply posited” is not empirically provable as true or false, but is something to be believed and valued. By saying something should be accepted as “simply posited,” Ayer was expressing the application of a value which cannot be empirically verified.
Ayer denigrated metaphysics as nonsense, but to assert that anything is to be accepted as “simply posited” is much like a metaphysician’s statement that things like being, essence, existence, or substance are “given” and cannot be “proven.”
Common Sense –Though Not Science – Is Not Nonsense
Ayer’s retreat to a dogmatic “simply posited” status for the existence of physical objects brings to mind his initial rejection of all metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic statements which, for him were “examples transcending the world of science and common sense” (Ayer I, 1). This assertion of Ayer’s contains both the hint that there are some things, “common sense,” not empirically provable, which simply are, and that there are statements based solely on what is generally accepted – scientifically provable or not – that are meaningful.
“Common” connotes not only typical or usual, but that such statements do indeed have cognitive meaning within a particular language community in much the same way that Ayer’s fellow logical empiricists would nod in agreement, accept, and fully understand when Ayer stated that the existence of physical objects is “simply posited.”
Hope For Ethics & Aesthetics
The view of science was developed in response to Ayer and the logical positivists – that facts and theories are value-laden – established that what counts as a fact is determined by an underlying theory; and the theory itself, be it ethical or scientific, will assume, choose, accept, promote and elevate one or more dogmatically-accepted values, e.g. simplicity, consistency or completeness. As examples, many things count as a fact in quantum mechanics but not in Newtonian mechanics; and what counts as a fact in a phlogiston theory of heat transfer is nonsense to those who accept Boyle’s law and the laws of modern thermodynamics.
Thus it is possible not only for a person to meaningfully make a value statement, but it is also possible for the work of science itself to be judged as good or bad, morally right or wrong, according to a beyond-science, extra-scientific value system. Science run amok in a tyrannical dictatorship or totalitarian state can be judged a barbarity and the use of nerve gas on non-combatants can be called a crime against humanity — and these assertions can be cognitively meaningful.
In the aesthetic realm, Ayer could not successfully assert that it is meaningless to say “that is a beautiful sculpture” or “that Mozart minuet is true art.” Such statements are, indeed, statements based of value; but such statements, within a given language community, are made and understood all the time and they do convey real information and result in communication between members of the community. Ayer – having himself relied on something that for him is “simply posited” – would be forced to remain mute in the face of someone responding that “beauty” is simply posited and if he, Ayer, does not understand, then that is his loss.
Atheist Ayer Sees God
Ayer wrote an article – “What I saw when I was dead” – about an experience he had in a hospital the year before he died. He described his being pulled toward a red light, “exceedingly bright, and also very painful.”
After Ayer died, in 1989 A.D., an attending physician at the hospital where the near-death experience happened, Dr. Jeremy George, published some words of Ayer not reported in Ayer’s own article. He said that Ayer told him: “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions.”
“He clearly said ‘Divine Being,’” said Dr. George. “He was confiding in me, and I think he was slightly embarrassed because it was unsettling for him as an atheist. He spoke in a very confidential manner. I think he felt he had come face to face with God, or his maker, or what one might say was God.”
It is fitting that, once before he died, the logical positivist – who had seen God – when on a mountain near his home in France, exclaimed: “I suddenly stopped and looked out at the sea and thought, my God, how beautiful this is … for twenty-six years I had never really looked at it before.” His fourth and last (and once previous) wife Dee Wells said this was what he had realized about his philosophical work: “It was quite extraordinary. As he got older, Freddie realized more and more that philosophy was just chasing its own tail.”