Books on Science and Religion #42: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part One.

Books on Science and Religion #42: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part One.

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 12, 2015

Newton’s statue in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, home of Russell, Mc Taggart, and Moore.

It is tempting to say that Bertrand Russell represented the apex of British atheism. But two more thinkers – Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer – and a whole new philosophical movement – logical positivism – were waiting in the wings to take the stage. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, sets the scene:

1927 was probably the high water mark of British atheism, or at least academic atheism, with [the atheists] [Bertrand] Russell, [John McTaggart Ellis] McTaggart and [George E.] Moore among the most respected philosophers in Britain. [But this ignores] the still more defiantly atheistic tone that academic philosophy took the following decade.

This defiantly atheistic tone – which also was mirrored in the United States – held that only science provided valid knowledge. All else – philosophy, ethics, morals, religion – had to bow down before science and acknowledge its authority.

This cultural atmosphere was that of my youth growing up on a college campus, even though it had long been acknowledged – even by logical positivists themselves – that logical positivism had failed to meet its own criteria. Much of what modern atheists say or think is a legacy of this refuted tradition, directly as is the case for A.C. Grayling, or indirectly as is the case for many others still under its sway.

logical positivismLogical positivism promoted the idea that much of philosophy – and perhaps all of theology and religious belief – was not verifiable. If something was not verifiable – if there were no ways to test ideas, propositions, statements, or hypotheses – then there was no way to make sense of them. If they were not sensible, that meant they were nonsense. Whether or not this nonsense had meaning varied from thinker to thinker – and the decade when you talked to them.

ayerajWittgenstein thought that there could be substantial and significant meaning to these non-sensible realities. A. J. Ayer, very young and very sure of himself in the 1930s, felt not. Metaphysics, religion – and even atheism – was meaningless, according to Ayer (see logical positivism):

Traditional metaphysics, with its abstract speculation about the supposed nature of reality, cannot be grounded on scientific observation, and is therefore devoid of significance. For the same reason, traditional religious claims are meaningless since it is impossible to state any observable circumstances under which we could be sure – one way or the other – about their truth.

The logical positivists themselves – much as Baha’is wanted to purge religion of superstition – wanted to purge philosophy of “metaphysics.” But, they felt that their ideas had broader applicability as well. Famously, the logical positivist philosopher of science Karl Popper described both Freudianism and Marxism as pseudo-sciences, holding that they were unverifiable even in principle. They advanced “propositions that are not open to the possibility of disproof” (see Freud and His Critics). In a similar vein, the Baha’i philosopher and mathematician William Hatcher criticized logical positivism as a pseudo-philosophy or pseudo-epistemology.

In Part One of this blog, we review the foundational contributions of Ludwig Wittgentstein to logical positivism and note his rejection of the concept that philosophy is all there is that has meaning.

Ludwig_Wittgenstein_by_Ben_RichardsLudwig Wittgenstein

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – Bertrand Russell’s great student and protégé – was the instigator of the trend of thought that led to logical positivism. From an immensely wealthy and cultured Viennese family, Wittgenstein met Russell in Cambridge in 1911, intensely studying the foundations of philosophy and logic with him for two years. During the war years that followed and while serving in the Austrian army, he wrote out his conclusions – he considered them to be the solutions – to the major problems of philosophy. It was the famously concise – and enormously influential – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes his thinking as follows (BTW, Wittgenstein is notoriously difficult to grasp):

The world is represented by thought  … Wittgenstein sees the world as consisting of facts rather than the traditional, atomistic conception of a world made up of objects. Facts are existent states of affairs … The world is precisely those states of affairs which do exist.

Tractatus_title_page_1922_HarcourtPhilosophy, therefore, is necessarily about thought and propositions about the facts and the states of affairs they represent. So, we have to understand thought and language and how it works. According to Wittgenstein, it is through “pictures”:

The move to thought, and thereafter to language, is perpetrated with the use of Wittgenstein’s famous idea that thoughts, and propositions, are pictures – “the picture is a model of reality.”

Philosophy, therefore, necessarily is about the language describing facts and the pictures we use to convey what we know – how we communicate, discourse, and discuss about those facts. These pictures, to be meaningful, must correspond to the way reality actually is – they must be isomorphic to reality (note: isomorphic means “corresponding or similar in form and relations”)

The logical structure of the picture, whether in thought or in language, is isomorphic with the logical structure of the state of affairs which it pictures.

To be meaningful then, the picture and propositions about the picture have to make sense – they have to be communicated in sensical language. According to Wittgenstein, only

“the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning”

This, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, is what “provides the reader with the two conditions for sensical language”:

First, the structure of the proposition must conform to the constraints of logical form, and second, the elements of the proposition must have reference (bedeutung). These conditions have far-reaching implications … logic itself gives us the structure and limits of what can be said at all.

Wittgenstein concludes by telling us that some things can be said and some things not:

Having developed this analysis of world-thought-language [Wittgenstein] ends the journey with the admonition concerning what can (or cannot) and what should (or should not) be said, leaving outside the realm of the sayable propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

philosophy now logoDoes this mean that Wittgenstein thought of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, etc as lacking in meaning? This was not his conclusion. Indeed by most accounts, he was religious, albeit unconventionally. Stuart Greenstreet, in Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, notes that Wittgenstein, although Jewish by family background, had embraced Christianity during the war because of Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. In writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus after reading Tolstoy,

Wittgenstein had begun to feel that logic and what he strangely called `mysticism´ sprang from the same root. This explains the second big idea in the Tractatus – which the logical positivists ignored: the thought of there being an unutterable kind of truth that `makes itself manifest´. Hence the key paragraph 6.522 in the Tractatus: “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

In other words, not everything can be captured by philosophy – or by science. Here is how Greenstreet puts it:

In other words, there is a categorically different kind of truth from that which we can state in empirically or logically verifiable propositions. These different truths fall on the other side of the demarcation line of the principle of verification.
Wittgenstein´s intention in asserting this is precisely to protect matters of value from being disparaged or debunked by scientifically-minded people such as the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle.

ludwig-wittgenstein-260x340Wittgenstein made this clearer in several paragraphs in the Tractatus:

“Paragraph 6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value which is of value, it must lie outside of all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.”

“Paragraph 6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

“Paragraph 6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.”

Greenstreet summarizes as follows: “all worldly actions and events are contingent (`accidental´)” but “matters of value are necessarily so, for they are `higher´ or too important to be accidental, and so must be outside the world of empirical propositions.” 

And Wittgenstein goes on to say that “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences” (Paragraph 4.111); “It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved” (Paragraph 6.4312); “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all” (Paragraph 6.52); “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical” (Paragraph 6.522).

Comment and Summary

There is a lot to ask of Wittgenstein. If he is correct about philosophy not having anything to say about many of the larger truths of the world we live in, does that mean that theological proofs of the existence of God – or their refutation – don’t mean much of anything?

Is Wittgenstein consistent with what `Abdu’l -Baha says – in the Baha’i writings – about logical proofs of the existence of God?

The existence of the Divine Being hath been clearly established, on the basis of logical proofs, but the reality of the Godhead is beyond the grasp of the mind. When thou dost carefully consider this matter, thou wilt see that a lower plane can never comprehend a higher. … no lower degree can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible.

There are many of this sort of question to ask. But the next time – instead – we will look at the emergence of logical positivism, perhaps the most influential soundly-repudiated philosophy of the modern world.

Next Blog

The next blog is Part Two of Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists.


This is the 42nd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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