Wittgenstein: science can’t tell us about God

What the new atheists get wrong about religion

‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy written about it is false’ This pronouncement has not served to endear Wittgenstein to many philosophers of religion or militant atheists seeking to debunk religious belief. The former think that Wittgenstein has eviscerated religious belief of serious content, while the latter believe that what Wittgenstein is offering is a recherché form of apologetics for religion. Both characterizations are wide of the mark. To understand why, one has to appreciate Wittgenstein’s unique philosophical approach. Doing so will help one recognise why contemporary debates around religion, like the one surrounding the so-called new atheists, mistakenly conflate religion with other practices, like science.

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Wittgenstein not only invented a new philosophical method – which he once described as similar to the shift from alchemy to chemistry – he also used it in an iconoclastic manner, in order to dissolve, rather than solve, the great philosophical problems of the past. Philosophy is not a body of knowledge for Wittgenstein, but an activity of grammatical (conceptual) clarification or elucidation. Wittgenstein aims to liberate us from the spell that language casts by freeing us from the conceptual confusions and illusions that hold us in thrall. Because language is full of substantives, for example, and we naively assume that the meaning of a word is the object it refers to – Wittgenstein calls this Augustine’s picture of language – if we are unable actually to find such an object in the world, we take it that there must be a ‘supernatural’ object or spirit that the word can refer to instead: ‘Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit [Geist]’ (Philosophical Investigations §36). Arguably, this temptation is behind Plato’s theory of the Forms – the ‘Form of the Good’ or of ‘Beauty’ can never be found in the myriad different objects we actually apply the words ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ to, but only in a metaphysical realm of ‘Forms’ populated by the abstract objects that are the alleged referents of these unadulterated essences. Similarly, many mathematicians (including philosophers of mathematics) think that since number words cannot refer to empirical objects in the world, they must refer instead to abstract objects. Relatedly, philosophers of religion, theologians and ordinary religious people believe that the word ‘God’ is the name of a supernatural object or entity. For the word ‘God’ looks like a proper name, but clearly cannot refer to something that is empirically locatable, otherwise God would be a spatio-temporal object, something that most monotheistic religions would deny. Hence, we assume instead that ‘God’ must be the name of a disembodied, purely ‘spiritual’ being: something very much like a ‘gaseous vertebrate’ (a phrase that Wittgenstein borrows from Häckel). In other words, the ‘surface grammar’ of the word ‘God’ tempts us to think that ‘God’ names a human-like, disembodied, entity, when, really, Wittgenstein is suggesting, the ‘depth grammar’ is quite different.

But how do we work out what the ‘depth grammar’ is – that is, how can we avoid being taken in by the surface appearance of how words seem to function? By attending to practice and use, rather than focussing primarily on reference. In the Lectures on Religious Belief (LC), which Wittgenstein held in Cambridge in 1938, he points out that while the word ‘God’ is amongst the earliest learnt, and instruction in its use often occurs by means of pictures, the role that these pictures play is not representational. If a child is shown a picture of her aunt, for example, then she can ask herself whether this picture is a good likeness of the aunt she has seen in the flesh, what age her aunt was when she was photographed or painted, whether she still looks like she did in the picture etc. But none of these ‘consequences’ follow in the case of being shown a ‘picture of God’ (e.g. Michelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam) – here it makes no sense to ask whether the picture is a ‘good likeness’ or whether it corresponds to the God I have ‘seen’. To think otherwise, would be to be misled by the surface grammar of ‘God’ into adopting the ‘gaseous vertebrate’ view – the notion that God is like a spatio-temporal being who can be painted if one happened to catch him in his ‘corporeal’ form.


Wittgenstein heaps scorn on the idea that one could make religious belief ‘a question of science’


Similarly, when we speak of the ‘existence’ of God, this word cannot play the same role as it would were we to speak of the existence of tables and chairs, unicorns or the Loch Ness monster. For while one could mount an expedition to try and find out whether some strange animal lives in a Scottish lake, there can be no such thing as setting out to ‘discover God’ by empirical means (by conducting an ordinary search). Anyone who attempted to do so would be considered very badly confused, if not crazy (like Nietzsche’s ‘madman’, perhaps).

For similar reasons, Wittgenstein heaps scorn on the idea that one could make religious belief ‘a question of science’. Wittgenstein mentions a certain Father O’Hara in this regard. O’Hara was a professor of physics and mathematics at Heythrop College, London, in the 1930’s and thought that recent developments in relativity theory and quantum mechanics provided evidence for the existence of God. In other words, O’Hara treats belief in God as being no different from belief in a scientific hypothesis that could be corroborated or falsified by empirical (or theoretical) evidence. The problem with this is that, if someone holds that religious beliefs ought to be assessed by the ‘modern scientific criteria’ (as Swinburne, who shares O’Hara’s view, once put it), then they must be prepared to hold their beliefs to the same exacting standards of empirical corroboration and falsification as employed in science. And this causes trouble for religion, as religious believers will then have to be construed as basing ‘enormous things’ on evidence that taken in one way – namely, the scientific, empirical way – will, as Wittgenstein says, seem exceedingly ‘flimsy’. This might then tempt one to go down the Dawkins route: religious believers hold their beliefs out of sheer stupidity.

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But Wittgenstein thinks we should resist this move. For it’s not just that Wittgenstein believes that no empirical evidence is, in actual fact, available, it’s rather that even if, per impossibile, it could be available, this would not be a good thing, but would rather ‘destroy the whole business’ (LC 56). That is to say, if there could be such a thing as evidence for the ‘existence of God’, then God would become an in principle perceivable (observable) entity, whose existence one could infer from empirical grounds, such as, say, from footprints or the behaviour of light. This would be to treat the concept of ‘God’ analogously to the idea of the Loch Ness monster, for example, or to a distant planet. On such a conception, there would only be a quantitative difference between being God and a human being (that is, the former would only differ from the latter in respect to how much more of certain properties – such as powers – this entity has), there would not be a qualitative distinction. But to conflate the grammar of ‘God’ with that of a bodiless super-person constitutes, to speak with Wittgenstein’s kindred spirit, Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, a ‘confusion of the spheres’ (Book on Adler 5). It makes no sense to think that one could find information about the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in a geography book – as Kierkegaard ironically puts it – or make God ‘observable’ by means of an electron microscope.

In this respect, there is no similarity between God and unobservable entities in science. Anyone who wishes to transfer the grammar of observation talk in science to God is guilty of making a ‘category mistake’, as God is necessarily unobservable and not just contingently so (as are electrons, for instance). Hence, if it were possible to acquire empirical evidence for the existence of God, then this possibility would make God only contingently unobservable – like an electron that could, in principle, be made visible – and this is at odds with the grammar of ‘God’, which is not the grammar of an elusive spatio-temporal particle. In short, a belief in a god whose existence one could empirically demonstrate would not be a religious belief, just an ordinary belief that a strange new entity exists (such as a very powerful alien, say).

So, if Wittgenstein is right, one cannot quantify oneself into faith: ordinary empirical evidence is not germane to the question of whether or not one should acquire a religious belief. Neither is ‘belief in God’ constituted by bare intellectual assent to the proposition ‘God exists’ – where this is taken to mean something like ‘a gaseous vertebrate exists’. Rather, Wittgenstein agrees with Kierkegaard that Christianity is an existence-communication – something that is supposed to transform my life – not a theory about the behaviour of strange entities. For these reasons, Wittgenstein thinks that religious belief is something much more fundamental than an isolated intellectual belief. It is, he says, a ‘passionate commitment’ to a whole ‘system of reference’. That is, although it’s belief, ‘it’s really a way of living, or a way of judging life. Passionately taking up this conception’ (Culture and Value 73).


Nothing Wittgenstein says entails that religious claims cannot be ‘about anything real’


Read the wrong way, this could make it sound like Wittgenstein is saying that Christianity requires commitment to a ‘doctrineless’ form of life, where all that matters is that you live a certain way, rather than that you hold certain kinds of belief. Although this interpretation of Wittgenstein is, unfortunately, very common, it is false. For Wittgenstein is not saying that religious belief is not belief (just way of life). Rather, he is saying that is simultaneously belief and way of life.

What is more, Wittgenstein rejects the idea that one could adopt a ‘factorization’ model of religious belief that assumes that it is possible to separate ‘form’ (religious way of life; religious attitudes) from ‘content’ (doctrinal claims), since, as I show in the book, the form contributes to and transforms the meaning of the content. In order fully to appreciate this point, however, we need to think outside the philosophical box and the orthodox philosophical dichotomies. For philosophers standardly tend to think that there are only two ways of regarding matters here – either religious beliefs are ‘cognitive’ and hence assimilable to ordinary empirical (or super-empirical) beliefs, or they are merely ‘non-cognitive’ expressions of attitudes and commitments to live a certain way. On the reading that I propose, on the other hand, there is no such thing as dividing religious belief into two components: putative cognitive (doctrinal) content and attitude taken toward the content. Rather, the ‘how’ of religious faith impacts the ‘what’ and vice versa.

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Neither should we allow an overly narrow construction of ‘realism’ – be that in the theological domain, where it takes the form of excluding anything non-metaphysical or non-supernatural from ‘religious reality’, or in the secular one, where it takes the form of excluding anything non-empirical or ‘non-natural’ (often, two sides of the same coin) – to mislead us into writing off Wittgenstein’s view as implying a ‘religion for atheists’. For nothing Wittgenstein says entails that religious claims cannot be ‘about anything real’. Rather, this remark itself stands in need of grammatical clarification, as the word ‘real’ also does not have a context-invariant use. For example, we speak of ‘real inflation’, ‘real love’, a ‘real Leonardo’ etc., but there isn’t one common and invariant set of criteria that will cover all these different uses (or any new ones that might arise).

Consequently, we need to be careful that we don’t impose an alien, or dogmatic, conception of ‘reality’ on practices where the grammar is different. For, if we do this in the religious case, we will end up with an O’Hara-type view that turns religion into a form of false science (what Wittgenstein calls ‘superstition’). On Wittgenstein’s alternative construction, on the other hand, a much richer and more plausible interpretation of religious belief is available that doesn’t reduce the grammar of ‘God’ to that of a gaseous vertebrate. For, as Wittgenstein once said to his friend, Drury, ‘‘If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.’

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