Wittgenstein and the Bible

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous early 20th century philosopher, was also a devout Christian. He came to Christ while serving at the front in the 1st World War thanks to another Christian convert from an earlier age, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s writing on the Gospel convinced Wittgenstein, at the time nearly suicidal with depression, of their truth.

I wrote an article for Aeon.co a few months ago on Wittgenstein and quantum theory but I haven’t had a chance to write about his faith. In particular, I am struck by the contrast between his philosophy and that of his mentor, Bertrand Russell, a noted atheist.

While Russell’s lifelong goal was to solidify mathematics and give it a firm foundation, Wittgenstein was unconcerned with goals at all. He wanted to get at the truth and he believed he found it, not in mathematics, but in the language of human beings.

Wittgenstein attacked the very philosophy upon which Russell stood, attempting to show how it was all grounded in particular linguistic and culturally based assertions that had no truth grounded in objective reality. He believed that mathematics and all other human ways of representing the world could not be grounded in reality at all but only in how humans relate to other humans.

Wittgenstein has been accused of many things for his philosophy: anti-realist or postmodernist for example. His philosophy, however, attacks such philosophical frameworks themselves and he was not opposed to the concept of ultimate truth. He was a Christian after all. Rather, he proposed that we could say nothing about whether words and symbols were objective or subjective. They simply direct our actions.

In fact, he considered the Gospel to supersede all philosophy while Russell considered philosophy to be his Gospel.

What I want to look at today is how Wittgenstein’s philosophy can also be interpreted as Christian in the same way that the philosophy of, e.g., Thomas Aquinas is Christian while Russell’s philosophy seeks to define truth without God.

A central concept in Christian thought, which comes from Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, is that God is the source of all truth and wisdom. God gives human beings wisdom by grace.

Likewise, when human beings do wrong and abuse their power, God takes their wisdom away. This happens to the King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon–the same king who destroys Jerusalem. The whole story, found in the book of Daniel, is interesting, but, to be brief, God wants to show the King who is Boss and stop the King’s idol worshiping and self-aggrandizing, so he takes away the King’s senses. The King goes out of the city and lives in the wilderness, completely out of his mind, living like an animal, for seven years. Eventually, God restores his senses and he comes back a changed man, far wiser than he was before.

Another story is the Tower of Babel found in Genesis. In that story, people are building a tower up to heaven where they plan to usurp God’s glory by “making a name for” themselves. God confuses them, taking away their ability to understand one another by making them speak different languages.

A third example is Solomon. One night God comes to Solomon and offers to give him anything he wants. This turns out to be a test, which Solomon passes by asking for wisdom to rule his people. Because Solomon asks for wisdom, God grants him wealth and power as well.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy fits into this narrative, not by suggesting wisdom comes from God, but that humans are incapable of recognizing or manufacturing truth. They can neither create objective nor subjective truths, in fact. They have no control over it. All they can do is use words to influence the actions of other beings.

On truth, human beings have to remain silent because they have no access to it. What they do, instead, is create tautologies. These are conclusions derived from premises. Tautologies are not truths but lines of reasoning or argument that are intended to remind people of what their assumptions imply.

Because Wittgenstein’s philosophy forces human beings to remain silent about truth, it leaves truth up to God, where it belongs.

Contrast that now with Russell’s philosophy. Russell believed that there was an ultimate truth that human beings could discover if they could just get their definitions right. Working with Whitehead, Russell published the Principia Mathematica at considerable personal expense. This book attempted to place mathematics on firm footing, but ultimately failed. Russell grounded mathematics in ideas of set theory but ended up running into contradictions.

The book was hugely influential on another mathematician, Kurt Gödel, who proved that mathematics was either inconsistent or incomplete. Since we believe it to be consistent, the proof is called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

The theorem showed that there are true statements, meaning tautologies, that we cannot prove. This means that, not only can we not ground mathematics in absolute reality, we can’t even discover everything there is to know.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy says that mathematics is like a game that we play to influence the actions of other mathematicians. That doesn’t mean that mathematical proofs have no utility or we don’t gain understanding from them. It just means that we aren’t getting at anything fundamental about reality or ourselves when we prove theorems. We are just playing the game by the rules.

Like the Tower of Babel, Russell’s Principia is a lesson. When we attempt to take on a role that God reserves for Himself, we always fail, but like Solomon we can ask God for wisdom and receive it and much else besides. If like Nebuchadnezzar, we try to usurp God’s place, however, we receive wisdom another way at great cost.

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