Friday 5 July 2024

Wittgenstein - obscuring obvious incoherence

From Ludwig Wittgenstein a memoir, by Norman Malcolm

Wittgenstein did once say that he thought that he could understand the conception of God, insofar as it is involved in one's awareness of one's sin and guilt. He added that he could Not understand the concept of a creator... The notion of a being Making The World had no intelligibility to him at all.


How utterly extraordinary that a Great Philosopher found the notion of a creator God not untrue but incomprehensible, when every child and almost every human being in the history of the world found it natural, spontaneous, obvious that the world was created.

How extraordinary that anyone could suppose that strong emotions of sin and guilt were the best reason to believe in a God - but That God was Not a creator.

Yet such extraordinary stuff is now normal, mainstream, official, the basis of our society.

It's as if our world has been made by people who have something seriously wrong with them, something missing - and have remade life in their own, distorted and deficient, image...


Note: I should make clear that for significant periods I myself believed and expounded exactly this extraordinary stuff - so I know its whys and wherefores from the inside.

Further note: Previous posts on Wittgenstein.


Hagel said...

All things that we observe seem to have a cause, but if you take this to its logical conclusion, then there is an infinite chain of causes, and no final answer.
Eternity solves this, and is a logically coherent answer. Either the world itself, or something or someone that begat the world, is eternal, uncaused, and at the beginning of the chain.

What's so incomprehensible about that? Including in the variant of a creating god?
I don't understand Wittgenstein's problem. Can someone explain it? I understand that eternity is a bit of a mystical concept, but it is not incoherent.

Andrew Lomas said...

I made a study of Wittgenstein’s views on religion many years ago, and came to agree with the verdict of David Pears in his book on Wittgenstein: “[Wittgenstein] does seem to be especially unwilling to accept the subtle positivistic theory of religious belief. On the other hand, he frequently gravitates towards it, certainly does not reject it, and apparently has nothing to put in its place. So what he withheld, or at least sometimes withheld, was his formal acceptance of it. He had to accept it under protest, but perhaps it was the protest that came from the deeper source.” Wittgenstein does seem to have had a longing for God, to have been “God-haunted”.
I can also pass on an anecdote on the subject which I heard from my philosophy lecturer on Wittgenstein, who said he had it from his teacher on Wittgenstein, who was an actual student of Wittgenstein. Apparently someone asked Wittgenstein whether he believed in God. Wittgenstein replied: “Well, sometimes I say ‘God bless you’, and sometimes I mean it”. A typically gnomic Wittgenstein remark!

Bruce Charlton said...

@H. By Eternity,do you mean God, as creator? Because "eternity" seems ungrammatical.

I suppose W easily understood the argument you make, but he hated proofs of divinity, presumably because (like Pascal) he regarded them as missing the point.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AL. It seems that W found the idea of god as creator to be unbelievable. But he seemed to crave a personal god that underwrote ethics.

I regard this as the wrong way around. God is primarily the creator, God's nature is loving, and it is this loving nature that pervades creation, and leads to ethics. God's love of each of us, is what makes creation relevant.

Andrew Lomas said...

Bruce Charlton, I would not entirely dismiss Wittgenstein’s understanding of God the Creator on the basis of that remark to Malcolm. In “A Lecture on Ethics”, for example, Wittgenstein talks of the experience of wonder at the existence of the world and the experience of seeing the world as a miracle, and says that this is what people were referring to when they said that God created the world. That shows at least some understanding of God the Creator. As for finding God through a sense of your own radical evil, as contrasted with God’s goodness, that is one common path to God, as shown particularly in William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, a favourite book of Wittgenstein’s. After all people can appreciate different aspects of God, and in this life no one understands Him fully.
Btw have you read the Wittgenstein collection “Culture and Value”, which contains many of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms about religion, many of them fascinating? Another good resource I found for this subject is Wittgenstein’s conversations with M. O’C. Drury. Drury was a university student training to be an Anglican priest, but under Wittgenstein’s influence became a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry. Wittgenstein talked religion with him and Drury made several long records of these conversations. Back in the day they were hard to get hold of but I suppose they are somewhere on the internet now.

Andrew Lomas said...

@Hagel Positivism is the philosophical doctrine that the factual is only that which is verifiable, that is, which can be proven by scientific experiment. The idea of God the Creator involves metaphor/analogy, not verifiable by science, as does the idea of a First Cause, or “eternity”, so according to positivism these ideas cannot represent facts. Wittgenstein seems to have accepted, albeit unwillingly, some version of positivism all his life, even in his later thought when it does not really fit with his revised view of language.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew L - I've read all the books you mention, albeit some I read a good while ago and before I was myself a Christian.

I am distinguishing between generic theism and a properly (by my understanding) Christian understanding of God, which includes Jesus as necessary to salvation (after death).

W's religious interests and mysticism seem different from this. He pretty much ignores metaphysics (A description of the basic nature of reality). I get no sense of any description of his ultimate assumptions wrt reality and how we fit into it.

Indeed I'd say W focuses on what I regard as second order issues like epistemology, ethics, psychology, logic and mathematics - which is why he has been popular with the ideological mainstream.

His mystique is largely abstract, deistic in nature... wordless communion, unspecific depth, or awe at existence.

These are more "eastern" than Christian.

Andrew Lomas said...

Bruce Charlton, as I am sure you are aware during his service in WW1 Wittgenstein was known by his fellow soldiers as “the man with the Gospels”. The “Gospels” were actually Tolstoy’s version of the Gospels, where Tolstoy left out the bits he didn’t like—the miracles, especially—and emphasized those he did, particularly the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. But Wittgenstein was obviously deeply imbued with Jesus’ teachings. I think the Sermon on the Mount was always important to him—despite or perhaps because he struggled with a violent temper and pride—as was the idea of Christ’s redeeming, saving love.

As for an eastern influence, I have never seen any evidence he knew much about or was interested in eastern religion. He could have got some of those ideas from Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart who emphasized negative theology ( those who practised what Charles Williams called “the Way of Negation).

As for Wittgenstein’s attitude to metaphysics, Wittgenstein was part of a modern tradition of philosophy—beginning with Hume, and Kant’s reaction to Hume—which rejected metaphysics. I have come to see Wittgenstein as essentially a neo-Kantian. Wittgenstein says that in religion we run up against the boundaries of language as Kant said that in religion we run up against the boundaries of reason. As far as metaphysics being prior goes, it seems to me your “assumptions about ultimate reality” presuppose a theory about how we gain knowledge of reality (by assumptions) and so an epistemology (in fact an epistemology similar to the one Wittgenstein proposes in “On Certainty”). Moreover your assumptions are of course formulated in language which presupposes a theory of how language is meaningful and connects with reality (Wittgenstein would deny that your language here is meaningful and connects with reality). I don’t think metaphysics, epistemology, and theories of language are so easily separated. But these are issues too big to settle here.

Finally, a resource on Wittgenstein’s religion I am fairly sure you won’t be aware of. Iris Murdoch’s “Acastos” is ostensibly Platonic dialogues about art and religion. But her “Socrates” is in opinions and character very obviously supposed to be Wittgenstein (Murdoch being very familiar with the Wittgenstein crowd). So “Acastos” is actually a very interesting discussion of Wittgensteinian ideas on religion.

NLR said...

Did Wittgenstein elaborate on why he couldn't believe in God as a creator?

I'm not sure if this was the case for Wittgenstein, but often when people say that they can't believe something, it's not that they can't credit it, but that they can't fit it into some paradigm that they already accept.

For instance, when I've seen people discuss free will, it often boils down to that they have some framework which doesn't leave room for free will. But then there's other times when people say they can't understand the concept of free will. But what they really mean is that they can't make free will by combining ideas from within a pre-existing universe of concepts.

And then on a separate but related topic, there's the question of what it means to really believe something. On the one hand, you have highly imaginative people like some of the Theosophists, who could believe 5 impossible things before breakfasts, so to speak. And yet, these are all remote things that don't really affect their lives. Do they really believe them, would they sacrifice for those beliefs?

On the other hand, you might have a simple man from the Middle Ages, who believes that the monks and priests who taught him about Christianity are wise and good. In terms of imaginative and intellectual content, it's less elaborate, but he would risk his life for it.

Then also, there's times when people say they don't believe something but I think what they really mean is that they don't know how to put it into practice. I would say that for many modern people who are sympathetic to Christianity, but feel like they can't believe it, what they really mean is just that.

So, what exactly belief or disbelief looks like can differ for different people and in different circumstances.

Bruce Charlton said...

The place I came from with W is that in the 1970s/ 80s he was oft regarded as an exemplar of where Christianity should go - eg. Don Cupitt or Fergus Kerr OP. And maybe Rowan Williams said this ok, too.

These were "liberal Christians", and as such primarily liberal/ leftist and hardly or not at all Christians as I would now discern - but such things were somewhat blurred then. Certainly for me!

But from where I now am as a Christian, W has very little to say of value about Christianity, and I judge that overall and where most important, W was wrong.

Yet I return and reread W because he was interesting, influential, sincere and intense; and I want to see where he went wrong, why and how he painted himself into a corner.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew - BTW: I have posted a fir bit on Wittgenstein previously.

@NLR - My impression is that W. could not make sense of God as creator because he was 1. a strange personality, with "something missing" from his makeup; and also 2. because of the time and social/class milieu he inhabited (by choice, largely) and then his choices being influenced by that (chosen) environment; and 3. because of the corrupting effect of past unrepented choices.