Wittgenstein, Science, and God

by Robert Brow   (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

(This was part of an exchange posted on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list, Feb. 20-23, 1997)

 While he was an artillery officer during the 1914-18 war , Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And Cambridge University gave him a Ph.D. for this incredibly difficult-looking book.

 But the heart of the argument is really quite simple. Say two men were confined in a cell with a window to the outside world. The window is divided into six panes, which the men agree to name P1 to P6. Now we imagine the total language of these two men limited to saying "object in P1" or "no object in P5." In that language there would only be six true or false propositions. It would be possible to combine some facts together by saying "object in P1 and object in P3, but no object in P5." But that still only allows them six possible facts to work with.

 Now they invent a language in which they agree distinguish the objects they can see as tree, bird, or cow. And they can call them either big or small. In their language a dog is a small cow. Already the number of their possible facts has increased from six to thirty-six. Next they invent a language for movement so they can say "small bird moving from P1 to P2" and this again multiplies the number of their possible true and false facts by five.

 So far their world is flat and two dimensional. If they can learn to distinguish near, middle, and far , they have added a third dimension which gives them distance. If we gave the men a pendulum, and taught them to count up to a hundred, they could add a time dimension for the movements of the birds, and the big and small cows. "Three swings ago small cow moved from P2 to P3." Now the number of true and false possible facts has already increased beyond easy counting. But of course, however many posible facts we arrive at with that language, the men have millions of other possible facts which remain outside their language world.

 Wittgenstein expressed this sense of the limits of our science by enigmatic words. "The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things. The facts in logical space are the world" (1.1-13). In any scientific system "the totality of true propositions is the total natural science (or the totality of the natural sciences)" (4.111). It is the propositions which are possible in our scientific language, which "show the logical form of reality. They exhibit it" (4.121). Which means that "empirical reality is limited by the totality of objects. The boundary appears again in the totality of elementary propositions" (5.5561) "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (5.61).

 Scientists will of course object that the simplistic picture the two prisoners at the window fails to connect with the vast elegance of modern scientific explanation.

 In the forty-five years between the Tractatus (published in 1922) and the Philosophical Investigations (published in 1967), Wittgenstein developed the idea of the scientific logical grid which he had begun to set out. He first worked at the language-games for colour. Then he reflected about the language-games needed for psychology, art, and ethics. It became clear that propositions only have a meaning in a mutually agreed language game.

 Then he saw that there was no logical dividing line between the propositions of science which use a four dimensional logical grid and other kinds of proposition. Agreement about truth and falsehood is not limited to a certain kind of scientific language. Ordinary people know that all sorts of propositions have meaning in the langage-games of ordinary life which scientists cannot for the present include in their grand unified theory.

 Humans, for example, have always used the language-games connected with sound. "That's a nightingale" is as old as civilization. As physics progressed scientists were able to include sound in a larger sound wave theory. But the point of the Tractatus is that there is always way more to be explained beyond the limit of the current scientific world. Every note of a piano concerto has indeed been "reduced" to sound waves, but an explanation of how the concerto was inspired and composed, and why the concerto moves us is still outside the current explanatory model. Scientists answer "hold on a bit, part of our creed and commitment is that we will eventually get there." But the goal is still distant as a constant progression of new language games need to be included in a grand unified theory.

 By the time he wrote the Investigations Wittgenstein had seen that there was much more to include. "Making up a story, play acting, guessing riddles, making jokes, asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying" (Investigations, 23). As in choosing to engage in any new game, the art is to learn the rules of the other's language-game, and see what is counted as true and false in it. But we should realize that the meaning of the words will be a function of the other's language-game, not ours (Investigations, 43). Having learned a game that is offered to us, we may decide we do not want to engage in that form of life and play that game. That is our freedom. But the scientist is not free arbitrarily to exclude any meaningful language-game as an item for future explanation.

 At present we have no way of including the language-games of agency in a grand unified scientific theory. As Wittgenstein pointed out in the Tractatus, the scientist as observer is not part of his world. "The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world"(5.632). He had also seen that "the sense of the world must lie outside the world" (6.41). And that means "the solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time" (6.4312). "God does not reveal himself in the world" (6.432). That suggests that when the Tractatus was published in 1922 the language-games of personal agency and divine agency were totally outside the purview of science. The Tractatus ends with "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (7).

 But now the climate is changing. At a lecture on "Physics and Religion" at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, February 8, 1997, John Polkinghorne chalked out his concern to include the language-games of agency in the larger picture that science now needs to explain. In our observations of other people there are hundreds of predictable regularities of heartbeat, genes, bodily reactions, colour, accent, grammar, etc. But we also recognize when a person acts as an agent with behaviour that expresses his or her freedom. No one, especially a scientist, can doubt his or her own unpredictable agency. Those who doubt that are deranged.

 What is of supreme interest for theology is that if the language-games of personal agency could conceivably be included in a grand unified theory, then by analogy we could also conceive God as agent. On the one hand science would explain the predictable regularities of gravity, atomic and genetic structure, and quantum mechanics. But physics would also work at the unpredictable signs of agency, not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the interventions of God which individuals have spoken of in the language-games of moral conviction, prayer and worship.


A scientist could argue that all sorts of insects and plants exhibit behavior that look like agency, but can with patience be explained as ordinary conditioned reflexes. But however far such explanations go they cannot be applied to the agency of the scientist who is involved in observing and explaining. She decides to try out a theory, she sets up the experiment, she observes a particle (and thereby changes what is observed), she arrives at conclusions, changes her model, writes a paper, etc. How does she include her own agency as scientist in her theory, however complex she makes it? If she tries to use a model of plant or insect conditioned reflexes to observe herself, the scientist is by definition no different from the fellow who thinks he is being cooked sunny side up for breakfast.

 Nor can any genuine scientific agency be broken down into building blocks. You can do that for another body as in dissecting a body in a morgue. But no scientist can do that with any credibility for genuine scientific work, which involves the pure agency of the total person. Philosophers know they can no longer posit a ghost or soul or whatever in the human machine. A total mind-body unity seems inescable.

 Scientists have great faith that a total explanation must be possible, but it seems that the Tractatus proved that the scientist as agent can logically never be part of the explanation. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein proved that the scientist must logically remain outside hir or her own grand theory (Tractatus, 5:641). He also proved that if there is a Creator God he or she must also remain outside any scientific grand theory (6.432).

 Between the Tractatus and the Investigations he struggled with the question of other minds. I think his conclusion was that we can never prove logically that other minds exist as persons. What we can do and must do is to use the language-games needed to treat them as persons. And the same applies to God.

 Having settled that a language-game using the word "God" could be picked up by listening to those who speak that way, how do we decide whether or not we want to adopt a language-game for the word God? Take a simple proposition like "God is the Artist of our world." That is obviously not a proposition of science. Can we learn its meaning, say in the first chapter of Genesis? First we need to agree about a language-game for world. We might use the definition in the Tractatus which includes all that we can say about the world around us using the true and false propositions of ordinary language observation.

 Secondly we need a language-game for artistic creation. Would we call a splash on a white wall by a car passing through red mud a creation? If we did, we make no distinction between chance and creativity. Jews and Christians who enjoy the first chapter of Genesis will want to use a language-game for creation which includes the idea of a creative artist. In that sense this world of land and sea, flowers and trees, birds and mammals, and the people we know, is a creation.

 In our proposition "God is the Artist of our world" the word "God" is merely a proper name for the artist. And every country uses a different name. But using a language-game for God as the Artist means that we have already agreed to talk about agency. The world didn't just happen according to predictable laws. The atheist on the other hand does not want to use the language of creation or agency. He or she prefers language in which there are only predictable regularities. In such a language agency is by definition impossible.

 Now having decided to use language in which God is the Artist of our world, the Theist wonders if we can know more about him. Does the Artist care about the people in the world around us, and ourselves in particular ? Is he mean or loving ? What does he have in mind for us in this life and the other side of death? Those are questions which, as Wittgenstein saw in the Tractatus, have no answer in the language of physics. And all these questions can only be answered by using language-games where we agree to talk about agency.

 What Wittgenstein demonstated is that if we can understand and learn the proper language-games to deal with questions relating to oneself, other persons, and God, such questions are not only meaningful, but of the utmost importance.


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