Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Religion
What is wrong and what is right with it
One source of the appeal of ordinary language philosophy (OLP) is that it reinstates much of what was ruled out as cognitively meaningless by logical positivism (LP) but without rehabilitating the commitments of old-time metaphysics. In particular, OLP allows the reinstating of religious language. This post explains, with blogic brevity, how this works and what is wrong and what right with the resulting philosophy of religion. Since OLP can be understood only against the backdrop of LP, I begin with a brief review of LP.
1. Crudely put, logical positivism is just David Hume warmed over. The LPs take his famous two-pronged fork and sharpen the tines. Hume spoke of relations of ideas and matters of fact, and consigned to the flames anything thing that was not one or the other. In the Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he spoke of "school metaphysics and divinity" as deserving of such rude treatment. Since Hume's day, old-time metaphysics and theology have had a forking hard time of it.
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The LPs spoke of two disjoint classes of statements and maintained that every cognitively meaningful statement must be a member of the one or of the other. The one class contains the truths of logic and mathematics and such analytic statements as 'Every cygnet is a swan' all interpreted as true by convention. The other class consists of statements empirically verifiable in principle.
Any statement not in one of these two disjoint classes is adjudged by the LPs to be cognitively meaningless. Thus the aesthetic statement, 'The adagio movement of Beethoven's Ninth exceeds in beauty anything Bruckner wrote' is by their lights not false, but cognitively meaningless, though they generously grant it some purely subjective emotive meaning.
And the same goes for the characteristic statements one finds in theology, metaphysics, and ethics. Such statements are not false, but meaningless, i.e., neither true nor false. Imagine a debate between a Muslim and a Christian. Muslim: "God is one! There is no god but God (Allah)!" Christian: "God is triune (three-in-one)." For an LP, the debate between unitarians and trinitarians is cognitively meaningless because all theological assertions and counter-assertions are cognitively meaningless. The assertions are cognitively meaningless because they are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable.
Or consider a debate between two Christians. They are both trinitarians: there is one God in three divine Persons. But the man from Rome maintains that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque) while the man from Constantinople maintains that the Holy Ghost proceeds directly from the Father. For an LP, this debate about the procession of Persons is cognitively meaningless.
I chose these examples to show how attractive LP is. I expect that many of your will find it in some measure attractive. For many of you will be inclined to think of these debates as in some sense meaningless. "How could one know one way or the other?" “What does is even mean to say that the Third Person proceeds from the Father and the Son? What is this procession if it is neither logical not temporal?” Many of you will be inclined to want to tie meaningfulness to empirical verifiability. Nevertheless, LP is untenable. But that is not my present point. Because it is not, I will not explain why LP is untenable.
2. My present point concerns the appeal of ordinary language (OL) philosophy. The OL boys weren't out to resurrect metaphysics. They took on board the anti-metaphysical animus of the LP-ers. But their approach allowed the salvaging of ways of talking that the LP-ers had no interest in preserving. Religious language is a key example. So what I am contending is that one source of the appeal of OL philosophy is that it allows religious talk and thus religion itself to be saved from the accusation of meaninglessness. But it does this without crediting old-time metaphysics. You can see why that would appeal to a lot of people.
To explain Wittgenstein’s view properly would take a lot of scribbling. But brevity is the soul of blog and the soul of stack. Wittgenstein’s central idea is that religion is a form of life (Lebensform) and a language game (Sprachspiel), a self-contained language game that needs no justification ab extra. Hence it needs no justification from metaphysics or philosophy generally. It is in order as it is — to use a characteristically Wittgensteinian turn of phrase. By the same token, religion cannot be attacked from the side of philosophy. It is an island of meaning unto itself, and is insofar forth insulated from criticism. (L. insula, ae = island.) Nor can it come into conflict with science or be debunked by science. Religion and science are incommensurable: there is no common measure or standard relative to which they can be judged. Thus one cannot say that science puts us in touch with reality while religion does not.
Within the religious language game there are valid and invalid moves, things it is correct and incorrect to say; but the language game itself is neither correct nor incorrect. It just is. It is just there, like our life. Religion is a groundless system of belief, a system of belief that neither needs nor is capable of justification. But the same is true of science. Within language-games there can be well-founded and ill-founded judgments, correct and incorrect reasoning, justification and lack of justification, evidence and proof, correct and incorrect measurements. But there can be no justification of language-games themselves. In this sense, religions, as language games, are groundless systems of belief. All grounding occurs within them, but they themselves cannot be grounded. If there cannot be any grounding ab extra, then to say that religions are groundless is no criticism.
3. There is something about this that strikes me and many others as dreadfully wrong. Suppose a believer, in the context of a religious service, recites, "I believe in God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth. . . ." If Wittgenstein is right, this utterance neither makes, nor implies, nor presupposes any claim about reality apart from the language game. Reciting those words, the believer does not commit himself to the view that there is a creator of the universe, or that the universe has the status of being a divine creation, or that the universe does not just exist as a matter of brute fact. Now it goes without saying that there is more to religion than doctrinal commitments. But this triviality is not what Wittgensteinian fideism amounts to. It amounts to the radical claim that religious beliefs and practices imply or presuppose nothing about the way things are apart from these beliefs and practices.
Thus the beliefs and practices of members of the Abrahamic faiths neither imply nor presuppose that there is any fact of the matter as to whether or not God is real. 'God is real' is a framework-belief comparable to 'Physical objects are real.' Within the framework of talk about physical objects there is a fact of the matter as to whether or not the earth has a natural satellite; but there is no fact of the matter as to whether or not there are physical objects. Similarly, for one who operates within an Abrahamic-religious language game or form of life there can be no question whether God is real: the reality of God is constitutive of such a language game's being what it is. Consequently, external questions about proof and evidence cannot arise. Accordingly, all philosophical and scientific arguments for and against the existence of God rest on a misunderstanding. Questions about truth and rationality arise within language games; one cannot ask about the truth and rationality of the games themselves.
4. Taken literally, the Wittgensteinian view, pace D. Z. Phillips, Norman Malcolm, et al., is just preposterous. Surely either some reality corresponds to our God-talk or no reality corresponds to it. Either there is an afterlife or there isn't, in which case physical death is annihilation of the person. These are objective questions about the way things are and cannot be reduced to framework-features of some contingent ways in which we happen to talk and behave. 'Does God exist or not?' is not like 'Does the bishop move on the diagonals or on the ranks and files?' It is senseless to demand proof or evidence that the bishops move on diagonals; this is because the rule about bishops is framework-internal, a rule constitutive of the game of chess. It is not, however, senseless to demand proof, or at least evidence, of the existence of God. It makes all the sense in the world.
5. And yet if we are fair-minded we ought to admit that there is something to the Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion. Although it is nonsense to suppose that there is no framework-external fact of the matter as to whether God exists, it is also difficult to believe that the existence of God is like the existence of anything else. Although 'God is real' is not a framework-belief, it is not a belief like 'The Moon is real.' The claim that there exists a being having the divine attributes is not like that claim that there exists a natural satellite of the earth. Theist and atheist are not disputing over the ontological inventory with the theist adding an item to the inventory that the atheist refuses to add. The Moon is a being among beings; God is not a being among beings. For if God exists, he is 'implicated' in the mode of being of all else. If God exists, his existence must affect the ontological status of all else: modally contingent beings, for example, cannot exist as a matter of brute fact but must depend on God for their existence. God is not a being among beings, but a paradigmatic being who is Being itself. I cannot clarify this further at the moment, but I would urge that Aquinas' view of God as ipsum esse subsistens, self-subsistent existence is not only defensible, but essential for any adequate understanding of theism. If you have an attention-span, this is explained in my Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the divine simplicity, recently updated.
Well, suppose Thomas is right: God is not a being among beings, but self-subsisting Being. Then I think we have a way to accommodate what is right while avoiding what is wrong in Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion. The conflict between theist and atheist goes deep. It is not a dispute over an ordinary matter of fact but is more like a conflict of Weltbilder , world-pictures, in which the data of experience are interpreted in radically different ways. In that regard it resembles the conflict between incommensurable language-games. But talk of language-games strips the conflict of all seriousness. It is not a conflict merely about language-games and forms of life, but about reality itself.
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