‘There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘ The Silmarillion’, p. 1)
Reading through ‘On Certainty’ is interesting – because there are very few certain conclusions that Wittgenstein comes to. It seems odd that an investigation into the nature of knowledge and how we know things doesn’t really offer any firm, certain conclusions. But perhaps, despite a non-systematic format and method, a few things can be gleaned that shed light on the problems of certainty.
‘In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim: “Logic’s hell!” – And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problems of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.
I believe our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact: that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanations were unworkable. (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and this makes all explanation futile.)
But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into trying to give the definition of a concept. Again and again a use of a word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form. We say: but that isn’t how it is! – it is like that though! and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.’ (‘Culture and Value’, p. 30e)
The problem emerges in the last paragraph: the fluid nature of language is a real barrier to examining things like certainty and logic. This is why Wittgenstein adopts a more ‘therapeutic’ method of investigation, working, wading and kneading through the issues and problems. Perhaps no clear, concise answer appears – but can such an answer even be feasible given the limitations imposed on us by our language?
This is some of my favourite teaching. There is a lot of wisdom here.
‘This is where our innate knowledge leads us. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it be true, he finds therein great cause for humiliation, being compelled to abase himself in one way or another. And since he cannot exist without this knowledge, I wish that, before entering on deeper researches into nature, he would consider her both seriously and at leisure, that he would reflect upon himself also, and knowing what proportion there is… Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond an imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.
Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?
But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.
For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.
What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’, 72)
Can we wrong God?
Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his books ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’ and ‘Justice in Love’ that we can in fact wrong and even wound God by failing to treat people justly. Wolterstorff ties these notions together by pointing out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached. Wolterstorff draws upon the thought of John Calvin to fortify his thesis – in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues that because of the image of God engraved on each person, ‘God deems Himself violated in their person’. Roughly, to harm a person is to harm God. ‘…no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God Himself.’ Wolterstorff develops this though in more detail but that’s the basic idea.
This relates to the doctrine of impassibility that I’ve been thinking on lately – Wolterstorff does not hold to the doctrine. Calvin, however, makes a small but crucial point: ‘God deems Himself violated in their person.’ So in a sense, it seems that Calvin and Wolterstorff are at odds. Calvin says that God ‘deems Himself’ violated or injured, while Wolterstorff argues that:
‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (‘Justice in Love’, p. 154)
Wolterstorff does not make Calvin’s distinction that it is God who ‘deems Himself’ injured – at least so far as I can tell. Wolterstorff would hold that God is indeed wounded by our treating fellow humans unjustly, while Calvin holds that God ‘deems Himself’ injured. There is a substantial difference here.
‘If someone can believe in God with complete certainty, why not in Other Minds?’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Culture and Value’, p. 73e)
This is, so far as I can tell, where the first stab at something like properly basic beliefs (in the modern, Plantingan sense) was formulated. It’s interesting – Wittgenstein reverses the usual, ‘belief in other minds is rational, so why not belief in God,’ form of the argument. Can it still stand as a convincing idea?
What’s interesting is that Wittgenstein assumes that belief in God is totally, completely rational (we might even use the term, ‘basic’) – and that it’s belief in other minds as rational that is justified by the rationality of believing in God. We might be able to take his thought a bit further: can anything be believed in with complete certainty if God is not first believed in? Thinkers such as Cornelius van Til, one of the primary philosophers behind a movement in Reformed Christian thought, would say a resounding no. I do not agree.
Wittgenstein knew what ‘complete certainty’ meant here – not simply being sure or confident, but certain in the mathematical sense: as certain of God as one is of 2+2=4. One could argue that only in mathematics can one be certain of things in a mathematical sense, but the question still remains: is it belief in God that justifies belief in other minds, or belief in other minds that justifies belief in God, or is there another alternative?
The central thrust of properly basic beliefs ( a theory of knowledge developed by in part by Alvin Plantinga, referred to has PBB from here on out) is that there are certain things (God, other minds, the past) that do not require evidence to be rationally believed in. They can be believed in the properly basic way – to believe otherwise would seem to indicate some cognitive dissonance. This seems to be the case – to not believe that the past happened because of a lack of convincing argument would indeed seem to be odd.
Is this self-defeating, however? If I claim that I don’t need evidence to believe in, say, God, because I can believe in things like other minds, the past, etc, that’s giving evidence that I don’t need evidence.
Or, perhaps, this is a more helpful way of thinking of it: PBB says that evidentialism is wrong – but surely it says this on the basis of evidence. This seems to me to be a bit self-defeating. Can one say on the basis of evidence that evidentialism is wrong? If it’s not self-defeating, it certainly seems suspicious.
But perhaps PBB says something true: it says that on the basis of evidence, evidentialism is wrong – evidentialism cannot justify all our beliefs in a non-circular way. It is evidently true that evidentialism is wrong. If something is self-evidently wrong, then one is not unjustified to call it wrong on the basis of its self-evidence.
So on the basis of evidentialisms self-evident falsity, PBB can claim that evidentialism is indeed false without that claim being a case of self-defeat. It is not self-defeating for PBB to claim that evidentialism is false on account of its self-evident falsity.