What Can Be Said

4.116 Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

4.12 Propositions can represent the whole reality, but cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it – the logical form.

To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.

4.121 Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the proposition.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot be said.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it. (Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus’)

Here Wittgenstein makes some interesting observations: namely that proposition cannot picture the pictorial relationship between language and the world – the logical form is the pictorial relationship between language and the world. The standard example: a mother and daughter share a resemblance. You see the mother and see the daughter, but you don’t see a third thing called ‘resemblance’. That has to be shown – not said. To attempt to put into words the pictorial resemblance between mother and daughter (which must be shown) is to speak nonsense. It is something that cannot be said and must be shown.

This comes, obviously, from Wittgenstein’s early period – when he thought of language as strictly representing the world. Language obviously does much more than just represent the world – speech-acts, for example, don’t represent anything in the world – they don’t have a pictorial relationship with the world. Insofar as language does picture the world, as it obviously does, I think Wittgenstein is broadly right.

I detect some form of Kantianism here – we cannot gain direct access to reality through language/propositions because there is an aspect of reality which cannot be expressed by us in language but must be shown instead. This is the unsayable – ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical’, (6.522). The limit to the world of sense is the limit of language – we cannot go beyond language to reality. We seem to be trapped in language.

The obvious problem is that Wittgenstein’s whole project is nonsensical – fascinating, thought-provoking, brilliant, but nonsensical. He later came to realize this, by realizing what I noted above – that language cannot be restricted to only picturing reality. Language is much more subtle, complex and rich than that – it cannot be pigeonholed into such a narrow area without self-contradiction. If language was only used to picture reality, then Wittgenstein would be right:

4.001 The totality of propositions is the language.

4.01 The proposition is a picture of reality

‘…while it has been known for long before Wittgenstein that ‘we make ourselves pictures of fact” or that “the picture is a model of reality”, the real problem consists in the closer determination of the relationship predicated in the aphorisms, and it is at that point that the contentions of logical atomism turn out to be exceedingly restricting. This was recognized by Wittgenstein in his later years. The painstaking gropings of the Philosophical Investigations are a far cry from the self-assuredness of the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed nothing less than to have formulated “unassailable and definitive” truths. As years went by, he came  to see that the full meaning of human discourse far transcends the realm of propositions that, as he put it, can be said clearly. Beyond what he called “surface grammar,” a “depth grammar’ emerged before his searching eyes. It was a discovery that made shambles of the sanguine hopes of his early days. “No wonder,” he remarked, ‘that we find it so difficult to know our way about.”


More on Science, Theology and Nothing

‘Nothing from nothing comes.’

Something cannot come from nothing – or can it? Can nothing bring forth something, being bring forth nonbeing? Some edgy physicists would claim that that is in fact the case – the universe came from nothing (see previous posts for a bit of context on this issue). The trick has been to redefine the word ‘nothing’ – instead of meaning what is normally meant by ‘nothing’ – namely, the lack of any thing, the absolute lack of any and all being, etc, etc, ‘nothing’ comes to be an odd sort of something – in some cases (Victor Stenger, for example) the word defies explanation. In most of these cases, though, ‘nothing’ comes to mean a quantum foam filled vacuum governed by the laws of physics.

The standard reply: that’s not nothing. The laws of physics and the quantum foam are indeed something – they are obviously not nothing. I’ve tried to think of how such a definition of ‘nothing’ can be acceptable – I can’t make it work. Maybe it is in fact the case that nothing is a weird sort of something – but I doubt it.

If this definition is acceptable, then the idea of a universe from nothing becomes much more palatable – and with it, the idea of a creator less so. If the universe can and will create itself from nothing (Stephen Hawking) then there is no need for a creator.

Philosopher of science John Lennox (as well as others) have rightly that the definition of nothing as the quantum foam filled vacuum governed by physical laws simply does not work. All those things are something, not nothing. This seems to be a pretty insurmountable obstacle.

The other great objection to this idea is Leibniz’s famous question: why is there something, rather than nothing? Why does the universe exist? Why are there contingent things? Lawrence Krauss declares that when we ask ‘why does the universe exist?’ we actually mean ‘how does the universe come to exist?’ No, we mean, why does the universe exist. They are two separate things: why and how do not mean the same things and are not interchangeable is this context. When I say ‘why?’ I do not mean ‘how?’ I mean, ‘Why does the universe exist? For what reason? For what purpose?’ Questions of purpose, however, lead far too close to realms which some physicists reject as nonsensical (expect some more thoughts on purpose in the near future). For to admit of purpose in the universe is to admit that the universe is created for that purpose – and that is to admit that something, or Someone, created the universe with and for a purpose.

A Few Thoughts on Hebrews

Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I couldn’t give any great reason why – perhaps it’s because of the saturation of Old Testament concepts and ideas, worked out in depth and applied to Christ. In Hebrews, one smells the blood of sacrificed animals, feels the heat of burnt offerings, smells the incense and is guided through the temple.

One sees the purpose of the old covenant and law, the priests in liturgy, the remembrance of sin every year. Then one comes to Christ – and the great themes of mediation, expiation and atonement come together and one sees the perfect sacrifice, Christ, who takes away our sin. We are told to pursue holiness and exorted to hold to the confessions of our faith, knowing that the blood of Christ allows to boldly go before the throne of God.

There’s raw, bloody power in Hebrews. It demands familiarity with the equally raw, bloody history of Israel – one cannot appreciate Hebrews (or the entire New Testament, for that matter, but in my mind this applies especially to Hebrews) without knowing Israel’s history. Hebrews calls to mind the grim stories of David, Jepthah and Saul – but shows the brilliant reality of Christ.

Theology and Psychology

Generally, the term psychology refers to the study of the mind – William James defined it as ‘the science of mental life, both of the phenomena and their conditions’ in his ‘Principles of Psychology’. The definition has changed somewhat since James’s time, but broadly that seems to be a good working definition.

What would a more theologically informed definition of psychology be, however? I’m hardly an expert on physiology, but here is what I would suggest: a theological psychology is holistic and unified – rather than treating the mind as totally separate from the body it would act on the knowledge of man as a unity of body and spirit. This would therefore be a broader kind of study – not limited to only studying mental workings (which are separate from and cannot be reduced to brain activity, but obviously are dependent on the body). A theological psychology would be a discipline that would study the whole of man, because man is a unity – but though man is a unity that does not mean that there are not differing aspects to this unity that must be studied/treated differently.

There remains much to be worked out here, and I can only reiterate that I am far from an expert on psychology. I expect a fair amount of criticism and refining to take place here.

Etienne Gilson on Truth


‘Through this intellect, every man is a person and through the same intellect he can see exactly the same truth as any other man can see, provided they both use their intellects in the proper way. Here, and nowhere else, lies the foundation for the very possibility of a philosophia perennis; for it is, not a perennial cloud floating through the ages in some metaphysical stratosphere, but the permanent possibility for each and every human being to actualize an essence through his own existence, that is to experience again the same truth in the light of his own intellect. And that truth itself is not an anonymous one. Even taken in its absolute and self-subsisting form, truth itself bears a name. Its name is God.’

God, Rights, and Justice

‘The assumption of Israel’s writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God. We not only fail in our obligations to God. We wrong God, deprive God of that to which God has a right.

‘Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom… God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that.’

God holds human beings accountable for doing justice; and God himself is committed to justice, both in the sense that God does justice and in the sense that God works to bring it about that human beings treat each other justly. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 91, 83, 89)

Our obligation is twofold: to our fellow human beings and to God. By treating our fellow human beings justly is to honor that which to God has a right. Treating others justly is to honor their natural human rights, which are grounded in both the imago dei as well as God’s love for all human beings – when we honor this right, that is doing justice, and that is how we bring about shalom.

Belief and the Will

Is belief an act of volition? Can I simply choose to believe some proposition freely?

Suppose I say that I am a married bachelor. This is a self-evidently false proposition – but if belief is an act of the will, is it possible to believe it in spite of its self-evident falsity? The question here becomes a different one, however – can a self-evidently false proposition be believed?

Warrant is the key, here – I suppose anyone could belief anything if they truly wanted to – though we would be inclined to call such belief delusion. There has to be warrant for belief. Perhaps I need to read up on Alvin Plantinga.

Consider a slightly different case: self-deception, or deception of any kind, or a circumstance in which someone becomes convinced, either through self-deception or outside deception, that a false proposition is true. These cases are such that there appears, at least to the believer, sufficient warrant for belief. But whence cometh warrant? Is warrant strictly external evidence that P is true? If I am deceived into believing a false proposition, perhaps someone else isn’t – there is warrant for me but not for them. Is warrant then purely subjective? Perhaps an either-or dictotomy is unwarranted. Warrant can be both external-objective (say, an experiment) as well as internal-subjective (say, my gut feeling). But which really counts? A fervent believer will believe P in the face of any and all external-objective evidence (EOE) to the contrary – so does EOE even matter? Is belief strictly an internal affair? There appear to be some things that I believe without making any conscious choice to believe, and with no warrant, either of the external or internal variety. These would fall under the banner of properly basic beliefs (more Plantinga) – things that we simply take as basic, like the existence of a past, the world, other people, other minds, etc.

Consider fideism – holding something by brute animal faith, in the teeth of all evidence. Believing what you know ain’t so. A leap in the dark, or a poorly thought out wager. Does fideism hold up to scrutiny? One would hold P by faith because there is no reason or evidence that warrants it – but is not the fact there is no evidence serve as evidence that one needs to hold it by faith? This seems self-refuting – fideism holds things by faith because there is no evidence for it – and that is the evidence that one needs to take it on faith! Note that this kind of faith is not the kind of faith that historical Christianity, or myself, holds – which is a personal trust in a covenant God who has revealed and proved Himself worthy of that trust.

Thoughts on Truth and Perspective

‘There is no absolute truth.’ Is there any way to save this statement from its self-refuting?

The obvious riposte would be: is that statement absolutely true? Is it true, in all times and places, for all people regardless of whether or not they believe it, that there is no absolute, objective truth? If it is true, then it is an AOT (absolute objective truth) – it is the very thing it seeks to deny.

Another angle would be to tie the non-knowability of truth to our subjective, perspectivally-bound nature. Perhaps there is or isn’t AOT –but even if there was, our subjective-perspective bound nature prohibits us from knowing it. This would seem to fall prey to the same self-refutation as before – if the above is true, then it would appear that our perspective-subjective bound nature is not so binding as to prohibit us knowing that we can’t know AOT.

A more plausible objection against Truth would be linguistic – perhaps we are trapped within language. Language is notoriously slippery and ineffective at conveying information – Saussere’s ideas on the pure arbitrariness of the sign come to mind when thinking on this matter. With something as relative, culturally conditioned and arbitrary as language, how can we ever come to terms with something absolute?

A World Come of Age

Bonhoeffer is famous (or infamous, perhaps) for his thoughts on how Christianity relates to a world come of age, in which the only place left for God is in the ‘big questions’, like the meaning of life, death, and other things. Bonhoeffer asserts that Christianity, in response to a world that has come of age and has no need for religious/spiritual talk of any kind (due to the general advancement of mankind), has crafted these ‘ultimate questions’ to provide a place for God, and for the Church – these questions are questions that can only be answered by God. Bonhoeffer then asks, in what is one of the most profound theological questions ever posed, what happens when these questions too can be answered without God? If we have come of age, and see that we no longer need God as a hypothesis for so many things, what happens when even the ultimate questions no longer need God to be the answer? When these last refuges have been overtaken by the come of age world, what then?

There’s a lot going on in Bonhoeffer’s questions – so I’ll see if I can tease out a few assumptions and come to some conclusions.

Has the world come of age? Has mankind reached a point where religious/spiritual discourse means nothing? I once saw an interesting interpretation of Augustine’s famous ‘restless heart’ quote – and the point was that, by all indications, it would appear that it’s not true. There aren’t masses of people trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum inside; indeed it would appear that said vacuum doesn’t exist – such was the tenor of what I read. Theological discourse would be unneeded in such a climate.

Here is my thought: there is a God-shaped vacuum, as Pascal observed. We were made for God – God is that to which we tend; God is our spiritual teleology, and God is working in all men to achieve His end in us. However, the effects of sin are such that we can stifle and resist the workings of God – we can quench the spirit. I’m a synergist – I hold that we do in fact cooperate with God in our salvation (charged of Pelgianism here are simply mistaken – synergy does not = Pelagianism), and to the extent that we resist him our hearts are hardened, and to the extent that our hearts are hardened we no longer recognize the workings of God or our natural desire for God. ‘God gave them up’, wrote St. Paul. The Old Testament is full of times when God departed from Israel, whre they were given over to their desires, where they came of age because, to quote Rabbi Heschel:

‘We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken the ideals in vain. We have called for the Lord. He came. And was ignored. We have preached but eluded Him. We have praised bu defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of our failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skillfully it was trapped in the temples! How often it was drowned or distorted. Now we behold how it gradually withdraws, abandoning one people for another, departing from their souls, despising their wisdom. The taste for the good has all but gone from the earth. Men heap spite upon cruelty, malice upon atrocity.’ (‘Man’s Quest for God, p. 147)

Crucial to Bonhoeffer’s criticism is the notion of the invented ultimate questions. Man no longer needs God – we now know that the thunder in the sky isn’t the voice of an angry deity but rather simply weather patterns, etc, etc. We no longer need to postulate God as the best hypothesis.

Bonhoeffer is right to react against God-of-the-gaps theology. Christian theology has, historically, never postulated God as simply an explanation to some phenomenon. There have, obviously, been those who would postulate God as said hypothesis – but this cannot be confused with historical Christian theology of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

So, then, is Bonhoeffer’s criticism of invented questions a valid one? Yes and no. To an extent, these questions (the meaning of life, the cause of the universe, our spiritual state, etc) have been used as refuges and crutches. Christianity and God have been reduced answers to these questions – which is not to say that Christianity does not provide answers for life’s ultimate questions. I would personally reject the proposition that these questions have been invented by the church as a refuge for God, though I would recognize the broader point behind Bonhoeffer’s statements.

Max Planck on Realism



‘Let us consider the facts of reality. Theoretical physics is based on the assumption that there exist real events not depending upon our senses. This assumption must in all circumstances be maintained; and even physicists of positivist leanings make use of it. Even if this school maintains that the priority of the sense data is the sole foundation of physics, it is yet compelled, in order to escape an irrational solipsism, to assume that there are such things as individual deceptions and hallucinations; and these can be eliminated only on the assumption that physical observations can be reproduced at will. This, however, implies what is not evident a priori, namely, that the functional relations between sense data contain certain elements not depending upon the observer’s personality nor upon the time and place of observation. It is precisely these elements which we describe as the real part of the physical event and of which we attempt to discover the laws.

Whenever we observe an event taking place in nature we must assume that something is happening independently of the observer, and conversely we must endeavor to eliminate as far as possible the defects of our senses and of our methods of measurement in order to grasp the details of the event with greater perfection. There is a kind of opposition between these two abstractions: while the real external world is the object, the ideal spirit which contemplates it is the subject. Neither can be logically demonstrated and hence no reductio ad absurdum is possible if their existence is denied. The history of physics bears witness, however, that they have played a decisive part throughout its development. The choicest and most original minds, men like Kepler, Newton, Leibniz, and Faraday, were inspired by the belief in the reality of the external world and in the rule of a higher reason in and beyond it.’ (Max Planck, ‘Physics and World Philosophy’ in ‘The Philosophy of Physics’, chapter 1)