Dr John Frame: The Parable of the Invisible Gardener Part 3

Things to know:

– Falsification (in Flew’s case) is the idea that a proposition or statement is meaningful only if there is a method that could falsify the statement. The statement doesn’t need to be false, but there must be a hypothetical situation in which the statement could be proved false. For instance, ‘the cat is on the mat’ can be falsified by the cat not being on the mat. In contrast ‘sky blue rich tea’ has no method of falsification because it is nonsense.
– Verification is the idea that a proposition or statement is only meaningful if there is a method that could verify the statement. For instance, you can verify ‘the cat is on the mat’ by seeing that the cat is on the mat.
– For a proposition to be meaningful for Flew and Frame, it has to make a difference to our lives. For instance, if we hold the proposition that ‘the cat is on the mat,’ we act differently than if the cat wasn’t on the mat. Flew identifies this difference via falsification.
– Flew maintains that religious language is meaningless because it cannot be falsified. It makes no difference.

Who is John Frame?

Born in 1939, Dr. John Frame is a professor of systemic theology at RTS Orlando. In 1974, he published a paper called ‘God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence’ in John Montgomery’s God’s Inerrant Word. In it, he challenged Flew’s assertion that religious language is meaningless because a belief in God makes no difference to a religious believers life. Instead, he argues that religious language is meaningful despite their resistance to falsification. They are convictions which underpin how we view the world.

What do Flew and Frame agree on?

Frame and Flew agree that there are some odd characteristics to religious language which make its propositions unique. Frame believes that these do rightly make them resistant to falsification:

-In ordinary language, we only suggest a probability. When we say the cat is on the mat, we can accept that there may be a chance that the cat is not on the mat. We could be hallucinating, or maybe it was a dog. In contrast, religious language conveys a sense of certainty. When it is claimed that God exists, the person doesn’t believe that there’s a possibility that he may not. They are certain he does exist.
-Religious language is tightly connected to morality. In some cases, when a person states they believe in God, this leads to beliefs in how a person should act. For instance, believing in God may lead to believing that sex before marriage is wrong.

Why does morality lead to Frame challenging Flew?

Because religious statements are connected to morality and hence to a change in behavior, it cannot be argued that religious language makes no difference. A person may not steal only because of their belief in God. If they didn’t believe in God, they would steal. This is therefore a change directly linked to religious language. It disproves Flew’s claim that religious language makes no difference and is meaningless. In fact, it makes religious language verifiable.

What is the problem with Frame holding that religious language is verifiable but resists falsification?

These two acknowledgements seem to be in contradiction. On the one hand, Frame acknowledges that religious language can be verified due to it changing people’s behavior. However, he agrees with Flew that religious language resists falsification. These seem to be two contradictory positions. How can they be resolved?

What does John Frame argue religious propositions are?

Religious propositions are convictions or basic commitments. This in fact makes religious language ordinary as convictions occur throughout all language. Everyone has convictions. These are used to interpret the world. For instance, most people have a commitment that there is an external world or that killing in cold blood is wrong. There is no evidence that can be presented that would change these commitments. They are unfalsifiable. This makes religious language appear less odd.

How does Frame use the idea of convictions to resolve the apparent contradiction?

Frame explains that the reason for the apparent contradiction is that the arguments which verify our convictions are circular. There is evidence that supports our conviction. The misery and sorrow of those who have lost a loved one through homicide will use this as evidence that killing in cold-blood is wrong. However, the reason why this evidence is compelling to us is because we have a basic commitment that means this evidence has weight. If we had a commitment that killing is ok because it gave us what we want, then the sorrow of a family wouldn’t hold any weight. The evidence of us receiving money for someone else’s death would be far more compelling.

How does Frame apply his argument to the Parable of the Invisible Gardener?

John Frame adapts the story of the Invisible Gardener as follows:

Two explorers walk though a jungle and come across a clearing. A man is working there, claiming that he is the royal gardener. One of the men says this can’t be as it goes against all his findings. The two explorers camp in the clearing. Every day the man comes and tends the garden. Several other people come to the clearing and say that the man is indeed the gardener. However, the man still refuses to acknowledge that the man is a gardener. His fellow explorer asks him, “What is the difference between this gardener and an actual gardener?” 

‘God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence’ John Frame

How does Frame use the adapted Parable of the Invisible Gardener to argue against Flew?

Frame illustrates that Flew has a basic conviction as well: that God does not exist. To him, the evidence of the religious believer is not compelling because of this basic conviction. However, it also goes the other way. The evidence for Flew’s non-belief isn’t compelling to the religious believer because of their commitment to their belief in God. Therefore, Flew cannot conclude that religious language can be demonstrated to be meaningless and makes no difference.

Revision Questions:

  1. What do Frame and Flew agree on?
  2. Why does morality lead to disagreement between the two?
  3. What is Frame’s attitude to the falsification and verification of religious language?
  4. Why may Frame’s position appear contradictory?
  5. How does Frame resolve this contradiction?
  6. What does Frame believe religious propositions to be?
  7. How does Frame change the Parable of the Invisible Gardener?
  8. How does he use the new parable to criticise Flew?

Further Thought

  1. Do you agree that the link between religious language and morality makes religious language a) meaningful b) verifiable?
  2. Do you think religious language is ordinary or odd?
  3. Do you think Frame successfully deals with the contradiction effectively?
  4. Can circular arguments be justified within philosophy? Or are they always a sign of bad reasoning?
  5. Do you think Frame is successful in challenging Flew?
  6. Can Flew’s argument be justified through more than just circular reasoning. Is there something Frame has missed?
  7. Are there any consequences of Frame’s argument that make you uncomfortable?

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Dr. John M. Frame | Reformed Theological Seminary (rts.edu)


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Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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