You are on page 1of 11

Explain and evaluate how the later Wittgenstein might respond to Flews falsificationist challenge to religious belief.

In this essay I will be proposing a response of the Later Wittgenstein to the falsificationist challenge to religious belief as presented by Flew in the University debate. I will go about this firstly by presenting Flews challenge to religious belief and explaining what falsificationism is. Having set out the challenge I will then proceed to the Later Wittgensteins response. To construct this response I will be using the Lectures on Religious Belief and Culture and Value. This response will consist of two separate points. Following this two-pronged response I will give an overview of the whole response and how it fares with the falsificationist challenge. After this, I will move on to my evaluation of this Wittgensteinian response. I will be examining whether it is consistent with Wittgensteins overall philosophy and whether the account of religious belief given in the response is viable. Having completed this evaluation I will draw my final conclusions. Firstly let us examine Flews challenge. Before proceeding further I think it useful to define what is meant by falsificationism. Falsificationism is a theory of science which states that for a statement to be an assertion it must be logically possible for this statement to be proven false(Thornton 2013). Flew applies this theory to religious belief in his paper. He understands religious believers, when they say something like God loves us, to be making grand cosmological assertions (Flew 1955). This he takes to be the orthodox view and he thinks that interpreting these statements as anything else but an assertion would be neither properly orthodox or practically effective (Flew 1955:14).

Flews argument then goes like so: religious believers intend their statements to be assertions. An assertion requires that it be logically possible for there to be evidence against the assertion. If there is nothing that can count against the statement then it is not an assertion. Thus assuming religious believers will allow nothing to disprove such statements as God loves us then these statements fail to be assertions and all that remains of the pseudo-assertion is a tautology. So Flews point is that religious statements make no grand cosmological assertions but are nothing more than mere tautologies or perhaps expressions of picture preferences (Flew 1955). From Flews perspective this is a damning criticism. Now I will turn to a response to this challenge from the Later Wittgenstein. This response is two-sided firstly denying that Flews understanding of religious belief is accurate and secondly that with the proper understanding of religious belief the challenge still fails. So the first section of this response will argue against Flews understanding of religious belief by looking at what Wittgenstein terms superstition. The second part of the response will firstly establish what religious belief really is for Wittgenstein and secondly see how this form of religious belief fares against the falsificationist challenge. Firstly then, let us look at what might be wrong with Flews understanding of religious statements as grand cosmological assertions which he takes to be the only understanding that is either properly orthodox or practically effective(Flew 1955:14). Wittgenstein, I will argue, does not see this as being the real meaning of religious statements but that this understanding is rather superstition. From this Wittgensteinian perspective then, Flew is not attacking religion in his paper but, rather, superstition. Flew is thus missing the target he is seeking and instead of attacking religious belief he is instead

attacking a kind of strawman- a confused version of religion. Let us now look in detail at what Wittgenstein means by superstition and why this is not actually religious. The Later Wittgenstein would argue that the type of religion which makes grand cosmological statements is in fact superstition. This contention is evinced in Culture and Value where he says that Religious faith and superstition are quite different. One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is trusting (Wittgenstein 1980: 72e). Another relevant passage here is to be found in Lectures on Religious Belief where he describes Father OHaras attempt to make religious belief a question of science a s ludicrous and moreover he says if this is religious belief, then it's all superstition (Wittgenstein 1967a:8). There is a great deal established in these quotations about what Wittgenstein means when he speaks of superstition. Superstition can be an attempt to make religion scientific. Also he makes it clear that superstition is not identical with religious belief. Related to this he emphasises that religious beliefs are certainly not reasonable, that's obvious (Wittgenstein 1967a:7). But he does not see this as a criticism of them but merely a fact of their nature. So superstition misunderstands the meaning of religious statements by seeing them as reasonable and by making religion a sort of false science. Religious belief is something different to superstition and also to assertions. So Flews understanding of religious statements as grand cosmological assertions is not, on Wittgensteins account, the actual meaning of these statements but is rather a superstitious understanding of them. If Flew is not talking about religious statements in his paper then his application of the falsification challenge fails by missing its target. In this section I am going to examine what Wittgenstein takes to be the true meaning of religious statements and, having established this, I will reapply the falsificationist challenge and see whether it is represents

any danger to the validity of these statements or whether it fails. As we have seen above what Flew takes to be religious belief was actually , on Wittgensteins account, superstition and in confusing the two he fails to hit the target and so there is a discontinuity between his challenge and his application of it. So then, what is religious belief for Wittgenstein if it is not the false scientific variety he calls superstition? What Wittgenstein means when he is speaking of religious statements can be divided into three closely related themes which I will go into individually here. The first of these themes is what was outlined above when contrasting religious beliefs with superstition. This is the unreasonable nature of religious belief. This is no rebuke to religious beliefs it is merely their nature. Part of this unreasonable nature is that religious beliefs are not based on facts. They are not like scientific or historic hypotheses. On this matter Wittgenstein goes so far as to say that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business (Wittgenstein 1967a:4). So religious beliefs are not just a different form of hypothesis but are rather completely aside from reason and evidence. The point here then is that religious belief is completely different to science and history and that it not only does not rely on evidence as they do but that on the contrary even if there were indubitable evidence for the belief it would not be enough to matter religiously because this indubitability wouldn't be enough to make me change my whole life (Wittgenstein 1967a:6). In the preceding quote the next theme is hinted at: the foundational nature of religious belief. For the Later Wittgenstein religious beliefs are not identifiable by the words even of the believer but their classification depends on further surroundings of it (Wittgenstein 1967a:8). As noted in the previous paragraph religious beliefs are connected to ones whole life. Religious beliefs will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary

grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life (Wittgenstein 1967a:2). The religious belief is not an isolated belief but is interconnected in all of the believers life. The further surroundings of ones religious belief, then, is ones whole life. Religious beliefs act as a foundational picture. Wittgenstein notes that it is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition; but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else, so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition (Wittgenstein 1980:83). So, religious beliefs are foundational pictures at the root of our lives. This is how we are to understand his comment about the further surroundings: the religious belief is such if it is interconnected with all of ones life , that is, if it is at the foundation of ones life. The superstitious belief on the other hand is a shallower non foundational picture. In summary it cannot be judged whether one has a religious belief by the words one uses but rather by the role it plays in ones life. The final theme in Wittgensteins understanding of religious beliefs is faith. Wittgenstein speaks about religious belief, as noted above, as trusting. He also speaks of it as an unshakeable belief (Wittgenstein 1967a:2). But we can understand more of this element in looking at what he says about risk. Of religious beliefs he says that in one sense they must be called the firmest of all beliefs, because the man risks things on account of it which he would not do on things which are by far better established for him (Wittgenstein 1967a:2). And also tying in with one of our earlier themes he says that what you say won't be taken as the measure for the firmness of a belief? But, for instance, what risks you would take? (Wittgenstein 1967a:2). This concept of risk can be seen as another way of speaking of faith (Ray 1990). How far are you willing to go with your belief? How essential is it to you? As has been noted above the words of a believer are not the judge of whether their belief is

religious but it is the further surroundings of the belief. In this case, the case of faith, we see it is how much one is willing to risk how central to the life the picture is. One final point on this theme is the notion of the belief being on a different plane. Beyond disagreement over matters of fact is this idea of a picture. One person is speaking of matters of fact the other of a fundamental picture through which the life is lived. Let us summarise now what Wittgenstein means by religious belief. It is a picture, or perhaps more aptly a lens, through which the believer lives his entire life. If we take, for example, the Last Judgement: the believer goes about his life with this picture always in the foreground. Every action of this believer is informed by his belief that he will be judged for all he does at some point. This creates and inhibits his actions. His life makes sense only if we understand this lens through which he is living his life. This is not a belief in a factual event that is secondary to the issue. It is that he lives his life through this lens it affects every decision he makes. It is his way of seeing the world. How does this conception of religion fare against the challenge of falsificationism presented by Flew. The mere tautology that Flew saw being left of an assertion is now a much more solid looking notion. It is on a different plane entirely to an assertion. The falsifiability of the religious belief is irrelevant because there is no assertion, there is no claim, being made. Religious belief is, on Wittgensteins account, immune to the charge of falsifiability because it is on a different plane to it. So then it seems that for the Later Wittgenstein the charge of falsificationism fails due to his account of religious belief but in the proceeding section I will be evaluating this account. There are a number of concerns with Wittgensteins account which n eed to be investigated. These concerns fall into two separate groups. The first is a group of worries about the consistency of this account within Wittgensteins greater philosophy. The second

group of worries is to do with the actual content of Wittgenste ins account and whether even this is consistent. The first set of worries arising in the course of this account relate to the internal consistency of Wittgensteins philosophy. The main worry here is that Wittgenstein fails to be true to his own philosophy in the way he deals with this issue. A couple of principles of his philosophy are relevant here both of which come from Philosophical Investigations. Firstly we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place (Wittgenstein 1967b: no.109). Also If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them (Wittgenstein 1967b:no.128). Quite clearly sticking a pejorative label such as superstition on what many people understand to be their religious belief is neither saying something they would fail to disagree with nor is it sticking to description. Wittgenstein seems to part with his philosophy here. But what is the explanation for this? Why does he leave his own philosophy behind on this here? Richter (2001) proposes that these are merely personal opinions of Wittgenstein and do not represent his philosophical view. This would be plausible if the sources of these ideas were to found only in his personal notebooks. It seems odd however, though of course still not inconceivable, for Wittgenstein to lecture on his personal opinions. All of this serves to cast doubt over this branch of Wittgensteins philosophy. Its inconsistency while not easily explainable does imply that this is neither a fully worked out branch of his philosophy nor is it even certain that it is philosophy for him. Is it possible to move beyond this inconsistency and to reconcile it with his philosophy? Perhaps what Wittgenstein is at in this account of religious belief is his therapeutic philosophy. Perhaps he is trying to cure confusions by bringing them to the

surface. We could imagine that religious believers misunderstand the nature of their belief and it is the duty of the philosopher to set them straight. This would be in keeping with Wittgensteins Later philosophy as evinced in Philosophical Investigations. So while believers may think they are making assertions there is a need for them to be educated in the nature of their belief through a process of description (Ray 1990: 482). At the end of this pedagogical phase the believer has learned that their belief is actually Wittgensteins religious belief not the superstition they had once suspected. This would not however justify his contradiction of his own philosophy. The elements of his philosophy which he contradicts are the cornerstones of his therapeutic approach. The descriptive method and the idea behind saying nothing the believer disagrees with is to bring to the believers attention where he is mistaken by rearranging the facts for him. In contradicting these I would argue we lose the therapeutic philosophy and an internal inconsistency remains between this account of religious belief and Wittgensteins conception of philosophy. Let us turn now to the second group of worries to be found in this Wittgensteinian account of religious belief. This group has to do with the account itself and not its relation to the rest of his thought. Firstly let us think about where exactly we are to draw the line between superstition and religion. Is one religious if and only if they have a religious belief in the Wittgensteinian sense? Wittgenstein says no evidence is enough to make a religious belief for it would not be enough to inform the whole of ones life (Wittgenstein 1967a:6). But is it possible to have the religious belief of, for example, the Last Judgement but to be sceptical or even disbelieving in the fact of it? While religious beliefs are on an entirely different plane to scientific/ historical beliefs is it not perhaps necessary in adopting such a belief, such a picture, that one must first believe it in this way? Or does a picture take hold of us suddenly though we do not believe it? A defence of Wittgenstein on this count would

require an account, preferably descriptive, of this belief process. But surely one must stand on the doorstep of fact to reach the plane of religious belief. One more issue with the account is that the term religious belief can seem, upon closer examination, to be rather arbitrary. One can imagine a non-religious variety of Wittgensteins religious belief. We can think of a person with a sceptical picture which has the same attributes as a religious belief. This picture says that nothing and nobody else is real and we can imagine the person who carries this image around with him and for whom it is always in the foreground. Are we to call this picture a religious belief since it seems to have all the characteristics of Wittgensteins religious belief or do we perhaps settle for a more secular rendering, perhaps blik, to reflect the secular nature of the belief as Hudson (1968) suggests. Perhaps by extension we should call religious beliefs a special instance of a blik? What I am trying to get at here is the seeming arbitrariness of the name religious beliefs as it is conceivable that all the features of such a belief could also be captured by a non-religious picture. One final issue in this group is that there does not seem to be room for an awful lot of religious beliefs. If it is a foundational belief, a foundational picture, which one holds onto most, for which one is willing to sacrifice most, then holding onto more than a single religious belief may prove to be something of challenge. Take two religious pictures: the one of a wrathful vengeful God as depicted in the Old Testament and another of an all-merciful God as depicted in the Gospels. Both these are religious images but one seems able only to choose one or the other in Wittgensteins understanding of religious belief. To take the two of them would be contradictory and surely when it came down to it one could not live their life thinking I will be judged for everything I do whereas on the other hand there is a picture which sees that everything I do, no matter how wretched, will be forgiven. So the issue here

is whether it is possible for one to have any more than a single or small handful of religious beliefs? For if one can only have a single religious belief then Wittgensteins view defeats the point and the reality of most if not all religions. What is the state now of Wittgensteins religious belief? As a branch of Wittgensteinian philosophy it fails to live up to the demands of that philosophy. As an independent philosophy, taken in isolation from the strictures of Wittgensteinian philosophy, it is stronger but it is still inconsistent with the variety of religious perspectives and it seems to fail entirely to account for the diversity of religious beliefs. With the failure of the notion of religious belief it seems what Wittgenstein dismisses as superstition can once again find its place within religion. In conclusion Wittgenstein produces a fascinating insight into the varied nature of beliefs. However, the application of this insight including the terminology is, in my opinion, far from satisfactory. Wittgenstein does offer us a type of belief which operates in isolation and on a different plane to the prevalent scientific perspective of our age and I think this is the greatest insight of this branch of his thought. In a way he accomplishes one of the goals of his philosophy by bringing a new insight a new perspective to our eyes even if he fails his own methodology.

Bibliography: Flew, A. 1955. Theology and Falsification: A Symposium. In: The Philosophy of Religion. ed Basil Mitchell, 1968. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp.13-15 Hudson, W.D. 1968 Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Bearing of his Philosophy upon Religious Belief London: Lutterworth Press. Pp.48-55 Ray, R.J. 1990. Crossed Fingers and Praying Hands: Remarks on Religious Belief and Superstition. Religious Studies, [online] Available at: < S&volumeId=26&issueId=04&aid=2421788&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societ yETOCSession=> [Accessed 20 November 2013] Richter, D. 2001. Missing the entire point: Wittgenstein and religion. Religious Studies [online] Available at: < &volumeId=37&issueId=02&aid=78727&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyET OCSession=> [Accessed 20 November 2013]

Thornton, S. 2013 Karl Popper. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 November 2013] Wittgenstein, L. 1967a. Lectures on Religious Belief. [pdf] University of Edinburgh. Available at: < OUSBELIEF.pdf> [Accessed 14 November 2013] Wittgenstein, L. 1967b. Philosophical Investigations/ Philosophische Untersuchungen. 2nd ed. translated from German by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Wittgenstein, L. 1980. Culture and Value. Translated from German by P. Winch. Oxford: Basil Blackwell