Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Foundations of Agnostic Science

By Ralph Difiore

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century.

He was a key figure in the logical positivist movement that continues to this day. Logical positivism and logical empiricism, which together form neo-positivism, was a movement in Western philosophy whose central thesis was that only statements verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful. This is why it is often called verificationism, which seems self-explanatory.

From these definitions it is easy to see why Wittgenstein was so highly regarded in his time as his ideas lended support to the galloping agnosticism of 19th and 20th Century thinkers, the anti-God assumption that once glittered as the unopposed acme of Science, even as Einstein and Bohr’s New Physics were moving in a different direction.

Bertrand Russell Connection

Wittgenstein arrived on this earth on April 26, 1889 a mere six days after fellow Austrian Adolph Hitler. Born into the wealthiest family in Austria, young Ludwig was brought up in the intellectual and cultural fervour of Viennese society. He started his university studies at Manchester University and studied aeronautical engineering. It was here that he became interested in pure mathematics, philosophy and logic under the great logician Gottlieb Frege. Frege encouraged Ludwig to go to Cambridge to study philosophy under Bertrand Russell in 1911. During his time in Cambridge, Ludwig worked with philosopher George Edward Moore. Moore, along with Frege and Russell, is considered one of the three founders of analytic philosophy.

Bertrand Russell

Analytic philosophy is characterized by an emphasis on argumentative clarity and precision, making use of formal logic and conceptual analysis. The movement flourished in the 1920s and 1930s in several European centers with the key city being Vienna, home of the Vienna Circle.

The logical positivist position that the only statements that are true are those verified though empirical observation led to Wiggentstein’s most famous line, found in his Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This statement by Wittgenstein led one commentator to conclude that it had the unique distinction of being portentous and vacuous at the same time!

While vacuous it has a not-so-hidden and unsettling agenda. That is it furthers the movement of so much of today’s science and philosophy in that it places the human mind at the center of any search for truth. As such it gives an advantage to the men and women in white coats in their laboratories who claim to be only conducting empirical research. This supposedly all-conquering image remains still even though it has suffered some body blows in the past half-century as Science itself has seen the need to reappraise some of Wittgenstein’s certainties in the light of Chernobyl, the environmental movement and counter-movements in philosophy itself.

Obviously notions of Special Revelation or unaccountable happenings outside what can be explained logically – Virgin Births and Resurrections – a hallmark of the religious perspective – cannot be countenanced under logical positivism.

We are learning that there is more going on than meets the eye.

Inter-Mural Disputes

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, was first published in German in 1921 and then translated and published in English in 1922. This work came out of Wittgenstein’s Notes on Logic (1913), “Notes Dictated to G. E. Moore” (1914), his Notebooks, written in 1914–16, and further correspondence with Russell, Moore and Keynes, showing Schopenhauerian and other cultural influences. The work evolved as a continuation of and reaction to Russell and Frege’s conceptions of logic and language. Russell supplied an introduction to the book claiming that it “certainly deserves to be considered an important event in the philosophical world.”

It is fascinating to note that Wittgenstein thought little of Russell’s introduction, claiming that it was riddled with misunderstandings. Wittgenstein also thought very little of G.E. Moore because Moore didn’t fully grasp, in Wittgenstein’s mind, all the key points of his treatise. This caused a rift between them that was never mended.

Wittgenstein has had more success as a pioneer of the late 20th Century studies into language and how one has to be careful about definitions. The word “God” or “Crusade” he would say means one thing to a Christian and another to a Muslim which pursued to a reductionist end serves again to point to the impossibility of attaining “meaning.” “Reality is always slipping through the net” is one of his tags. Of course the exact opposite can be argued – language is mysterious and complicated enough to “connote” as well as “denote” says theologian Tom Torrance. Thus when Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life” he isn’t just denoting a grainy substance he is “connoting” a whole range of metaphor, intimation, suggestion and significance that preachers exploit as pathways to meaning their audiences can grasp. Wittgenstein had little use of poetry – now we know why.

Alfred North Whitehead

The Divine Spark

At the core of all these disputes is what philosophy is and what can it do for us. When one thinks of philosophers, one immediately is drawn to the ancient Greeks for it was there that philosophy appeared in the western world. One is further immediately drawn to the words of Alfred North Whitehead when he stated that, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

This was a rather startling assertion by the co-author of Principia Mathematica, Harvard professor and one of the great geniuses of history. Not known among the lay public, Whitehead nonetheless was a deep and profound thinker who understood the true nature of philosophy as it was outlined by Plato. Plato was, according to Whitehead, “the greatest mind ever produced by western man.”

In short, for Plato and his fellow Greek philosophers, philosophy had one main purpose. To awaken us from our ignorance and reveal the divine luminosity that dwells in us so we can truly live the life we were put on this planet to live. “Metaphysical nonsense!” Wittgenstein and his logical positivists would retort to this definition of philosophy. According to Wittgenstein, it should be the philosopher’s routine activity to react or respond to the traditional philosophers’ musings by showing them where they go wrong, using the tools provided by logical analysis. In other words, by showing them that many of their propositions are nonsense.

Not all scientists and thinkers embrace Meaninglessness by any means.

Limitations of Logic?

Wittgenstein discovered, after much pondering and mental processing using formal rules of logic, that logic can only get you so far in reaching the ultimate reality that stands behind the reality that we inhabit. This frustrated him to no end, made him extremely bitter and in his own words, suicidal on a daily basis. This limit to logical reality was further highlighted by the great logician Kurt Godel whose famous Incompleteness Theorems also highlighted the fact that formal logic could not “capture” the totality of the mathematical world. Thus, by extension, formal logic would also fall short of capturing ultimate reality.

According to Wittgenstein, beyond the bounds of language and logic lies nonsense – propositions which cannot picture anything – and Wittgenstein bans traditional metaphysics to that area. No Ultimate Reality, God if you will, but only nonsense lies beyond the world of language and logic. The traditional readings of his Tractatus accepted, with varying degrees of discomfort, the existence of “that which is unsayable,” that which cannot be put into words, the nonsensical. More recent readings tend to take nonsense more seriously as exactly that – nonsense. In Wittgenstein’s words, this essential nihilism should lead us away from such temptations of believing in a metaphysical reality beyond the reality we experience every day.

The Popper Debate

A famous event occurred on October 25, 1946 in a debate between Wittgenstein and philosopher Karl Popper (then at the London School of Economics). This occurred at a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club, which was chaired by Wittgenstein. The two started arguing vehemently over whether there existed substantial problems in philosophy, or merely linguistic puzzles – the position taken by Wittgenstein. In Popper's, and the popular account, Wittgenstein used a fireplace poker to emphasize his points, gesturing with it as the argument grew more heated.

The intense debate (everything Wittgenstein did was intense) culminated in Wittgenstein threatening Popper with a fireplace poker he had been holding during their debate. Physical violence was averted when Bertrand Russell, the moderator, exclaimed in a loud voice, “Wittgenstein put down that poker!” This ten minute argument became the subject of a best selling book written in 2001 and titled appropriately, Wittgenstein’s Poker.

Philosophy if it is only confined to merely linguistic puzzles as proposed by Wittgenstein does indeed become nonsense. Nonsense morphs into depression as you begin to think that all you are doing is playing around with silly linguistic puzzles. Evidence of this is Wittgenstein himself. Depressed and suicidal on a daily basis, philosophy became a curse for him rather than the liberating, expansive and illuminating process that it should be according to Plato.

One (or Many More) Steps Beyond

What lies beyond our reality is the mysterious, the unimaginable, the ineffable. Again, “I am the Bread of Life” are words put together in such a way to further this impulse. This hunger, this search for meaning, this divine luminosity is in all of us and we obscure and hide it when we fail to utilize philosophy in bringing it out. (The Christian philosopher Richard Mouw alludes to the fact that while the “beyond-nature and logic” position is alive in modern agnosticism, for example, it thrives in the popular culture, as so many Stephen King novels and movies attest while the logical positivists deplore that particular reality. The metaphysical aspects of life haven’t just survived, they thrive, as a glance at any movie page confirms).

In conclusion, I feel sorry for the tortured genius Wittgenstein because he failed to grasp the essential nature of philosophy that the ancient Greeks understood. The Platonic notion of a divine spark inside helped the Christian missionary St. Paul explain to the Greeks thinkers in Athens that there was more going on than meets the eye in terms of a divine revelation (Acts 17:27). Philosophy was life-altering for the ancient philosophers of Greece and it should be life altering for us today. We need to see through the fallacies of the logical positivists and embrace the true foundations of philosophy. When we have done this, the divine spark that animates us all will come forth like a roaring fire and life will truly become what it was always meant to be.