Wittgenstein on Belief

‘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?



‘All things appear distorted if they are not seen and recognized through God. All so-called data, all laws and standards, are mere abstractions so long as there is no belief in God as the ultimate reality.’

‘Any perception or apprehension of things or laws without Him is now abstraction, detachment from the origin and goal. Any inquiry about one’s own goodness, or the goodness of the world, is now impossible unless inquiry has first been made about the goodness of God.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Ethics,’ p. 187)

This line of thought is an interesting one, and to my mind shows how radical Bonhoeffer is in his conception of reality. Bonhoeffer doesn’t just say that things are meaningless without God – he flat out denies them any existence in a substantial form apart from God.