Wittgenstein and Religion

Ludwig Wittgenstein is often regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. He wasn’t.

Most of his later writing is obscure, patchy and delivered in a series of jarring rhetorical questions. This opaqueness of style has led to an endless variety of interpretations of his work. There are as many Wittgensteins as there are philosophers who have read him. If clarity is the greatest philosophical virtue, then Wittgenstein clearly falls short. Wittgenstein, alas, has a reputation that far exceeds his contribution, but perhaps matches his influence.

To put my misgivings about Wittgenstein’s reputation to the side, he undoubtedly had some very interesting ideas. In particular, his theory of religion is curious to say the least. He directs scorn at those who take religion as though it were a sort of hypothesis; a theory about the way the world is, has been and will be. He says, for example:

“Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened & will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.”

And elsewhere he says:

“Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather: it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied.”

For Wittgenstein, religion, and even religious language, is just like this. It does not consist in a body of empirical hypotheses that might turn out to be false. “What could it even mean for some religious hypothesis to be false?” he often asks, in his characteristic rhetoric. Religion just is an activity, akin to a game, consisting in certain rules. The rules themselves imbue the world with religious meaning, and our picture of the world depends on this basic framework for it to be intelligible. But rules cannot be true or false.

I am not particularly convinced or impressed by Wittgenstein’s account of religion, and the very existence of young Earth creationists suffices to show that it is wrong, as far as I can tell. What would it mean for the theory that the world is 6000 years old to be false? It would mean that the world is not 6000 years old! Evidence that the world is far more ancient abounds. Certainly, young Earthers do not accept this evidence, but this does not show that the claim was really just a rule, or a framework. The fact that some hypothesis can be insulated from criticism by the acceptance of ad hoc auxiliary assumptions does not imply that the claim is not a hypothesis.

There is, as there always is, much more to be said. And on both sides. I will leave it to the BBC to do that for me. Here is a charming documentary on Wittgenstein’s account of religion. Enjoy!




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