Notes on Metaphysics, Language and Religion

by Mark English

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein were diametrically opposed in their respective attitudes to science and religion. They had many other profound disagreements, but they were united in one respect at least. They both rejected the metaphysics of Idealism. Metaphysically speaking, Russell was mainly concerned to counter idealist notions and to defend a science-friendly and empirical view of the world. And Wittgenstein, like many of his contemporaries, saw no role for metaphysics as a discipline in its own right.

Early in his life Russell had accepted the general framework of Hegelian metaphysics that dominated English philosophy at the time. But he soon came to see problems with this point of view and felt a sense of excitement and liberation when he finally extricated himself from this way of seeing the world. He talks in his intellectual autobiography about his early rejection of the doctrine of internal relations which was a key feature of Anglo-Hegelian idealism.

Very roughly, this doctrine constituted a form of Coherentism or Holism according to which everything is related to everything else and nothing can be satisfactorily understood except in terms of the totality of these relations (i.e. ultimately in terms of the Absolute). This kind of Idealism fell out of favor, but gained renewed intellectual respectability when Willard Van Orman Quine proposed a form of Holism which was (ironically) partly inspired by the writings of Pierre Duhem, an historian of science who was not only a deeply religious man but also an orthodox and militant Catholic.

Wittgenstein, by contrast to Russell (and Quine), was not well-read in Western philosophy. He was blissfully ignorant both of classical and medieval thought as well as of German (and English) Idealism, and the “metaphysical stance” which he himself came to identify in the Tractatus derived from its logical absolutism: the attempt to reduce the intelligibility of the world to pure logical objects in logical space. The Tractatus was an attempt to give definitive expression to the scientific project and by so doing to reveal its limits. The particular understanding of language, logic and mathematics which was at the heart of the Tractatus Wittgenstein gradually came to see not so much as false but rather as unnecessarily narrow.

One of the factors which led him to see this was hearing, in 1928, three lectures by L.E.J. Brouwer. Brouwer’s mathematical Intuitionism was focused on numbers rather than geometry and on finite constructions rather than on infinite logical space. Wittgenstein had to face the fact that there were various ways of conceptualizing the basis of logic and mathematics, and he started to develop a philosophy of logic and mathematics which tried to explain these practices in terms of the sorts of common agreements which make social life possible. But most of his later work was focused not on mathematics or logic but on ordinary language and the ordinary social conventions which sustain it.

Friedrich Nietzsche had noted that each natural language is, as it were, pregnant with a metaphysics, the metaphysics of one language being different from the metaphysics of another. Metaphysics (as he saw it) was largely a projection of the structure of a particular language on to the world.

This general way of seeing metaphysics as a function of language can be applied not just to natural languages but also to more formal, constructed languages or logical systems such as those which were developed from the late 19th century onward. The crucial point is that metaphysics is seen as a kind of gratuitous by-product of a language and its use – or misuse. As such it is not something that can be studied in itself as the natural or social worlds may be studied.

The Vienna Circle is well-known for taking such a line and Wittgenstein, as a close friend of Moritz Schlick and an early participant in the deliberations of Schlick’s invitation-only group, played a crucial role in the development of the ideas which would come to be known as Logical Positivism.

Wittgenstein’s view of language developed beyond the position outlined in the Tractatus but there is a lot of continuity in his thinking and the Tractatus itself can be read as a critique of traditional metaphysics. It is this aspect of it which appealed to Schlick and the Vienna Circle. At no time did Wittgenstein write anything resembling traditional metaphysics (or ethics, for that matter).

But Wittgenstein also came to see the standard scientific view of the world as logically flawed and as incorporating metaphysical assumptions. The law of identity (‘A is A’) has a long history as a basic axiom of Western logic and plays an important foundational role in most modern formal systems. But in the Tractatus Wittgenstein was already moving away from this kind of approach, explicitly calling the law of identity into question. “To say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all,” he wrote. (5.5303)

What’s more, as a Christian primitivist in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy, Wittgenstein was not sympathetic to the anti-religious stance of most logical positivists. Probably on account of his religious commitments (which are often downplayed by philosophers), he was also rather less interested in scientific questions or in articulating a scientific view of the world than his erstwhile empiricist colleagues.

Wittgenstein certainly disappointed his old mentor, Bertrand Russell, by moving away from dealing with the sorts of science-and-logic-related questions which Russell himself was concerned with as a philosopher and focusing instead on an informal approach to language and other matters.

Wittgenstein saw language as something that has the potential to lead us astray, and much of his later work is designed to highlight the pitfalls of language (especially as deployed by philosophers). Metaphysical questions can usefully be approached in this way: in terms, that is, of language (whether natural or constructed). And often apparent problems can be dissolved.

Rudolf Carnap was a major 20th-thinker thinker who followed this general approach and sought to downplay the significance of ontological claims, characterizing philosophically-based metaphysical – and, specifically ontological – claims as being either trivial or problematic.

Carnap saw ontology, understood as “the study of what there is”, as being misguided. Questions about the existence of things which are assumed to be in a given linguistic or conceptual framework are trivially true. In his paper, “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” (first published in 1950), Carnap writes: “A question like: ‘Are there (really) space-time points?’ is ambiguous. It may be meant as an internal question; then the affirmative answer is, of course, analytic and trivial…” But if the question about existence is seen as general and unrestricted it becomes very problematic.

Thomas Hofweber (writing on language and ontology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) summarizes Carnap’s view:

Ontology, the philosophical discipline that tries to answer hard questions about what there really is is based on a mistake. The questions it tries to answer are meaningless questions, and this enterprise should be abandoned. The words ‘Are there numbers?’ thus can be used in two ways: as an internal question, in which case the answer is trivially ‘yes’, but this has nothing to do with metaphysics or ontology, or as an external question, which is the one the philosophers are trying to ask, but which is meaningless.

I am inclined to agree with this general position though I shy away from the word ‘meaningless’. Carnap termed such (external) questions “pseudo-questions”, and characterized the ontological pursuits to which they lead as “useless” and “futile”.

There is no question that metaphysical and logical ideas are related. The logical framework which one chooses has metaphysical implications. For example, if you reject the law of non-contradiction (as Hegel did, for example) this will have implications not just for what you see as valid forms of argument but also for how you see the world more generally.

I want to say something here – by way of clarification – about the various meanings and connotations of the word ‘metaphysics’. Sometimes it is used to refer to an intellectual discipline, sometimes more broadly to refer to a general view of the world. In the latter case, sometimes (but not always) there is a connotation to the effect that the view in question is akin to a religious view.

This can be confusing. For example, in his later writings, Martin Heidegger is often (and quite rightly, I think) seen as moving away from specifically philosophical and metaphysical discourse, at least as traditionally understood in the context of the Western academic tradition. But in another (quite valid) sense what he is doing is very metaphysical. When Graham Priest applies the term ‘metaphysical’ specifically to Heidegger’s later work (as he does around the 13-minute mark in this interview) he is using the term in my latter sense (and with the religious connotations, I think). I want to make it clear that this is not the kind of metaphysics which I am implicitly criticizing here. Nor (as I see it) is it the kind of metaphysics which (in their different ways) Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Carnap were attacking. (In fact, a good case can be made that that Nietzsche, (the later) Heidegger and (the later) Wittgenstein have a lot in common.)

The sort of metaphysics that Wittgenstein, Carnap et al. were concerned to counter was the traditional scholarly kind which (on their view) is based on pseudo-questions arising  from a misreading or misuse of language. They both rejected the view that there is a deep “ontological” sense in which the implicitly projected objects can be said to exist. Various kinds of objects exist, but only in an ordinary sense. And a keen sense of what language is and how it works – such as Nietzsche (as a philologist) certainly had, and as Wittgenstein and many of his philosophical contemporaries also had – helps to make this clearer.

Nouns are useful abstractions. The objects that concrete nouns describe exist individually in a practical or pragmatic sense (this dog, that fork…); or not, in the case of unicorns, etc.. Useful abstractions like nation states or agreements can also be said to exist in a practical and pragmatic sense. They are social realities. But all too often, and especially in the context of philosophical discourse, useful – or not so useful – abstractions are taken to be real in a metaphysical sense, or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.

One thing which is particularly interesting, as I see it, is the relationship between metaphysics (as a discipline) and religion. Western metaphysics – from Plato to medieval and through to modern times – grew out of what came to be called natural theology and was usually associated with a particular kind of (intellectualized) religion.

But other religious tendencies existed within the Judeo-Christian West which were hostile to metaphysics and which saw metaphysicalized religion as a betrayal of the more direct and intuitive form of religion to which they were committed. Blaise Pascal typified this approach. He rejected the “God of the philosophers” entirely, and embraced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein were decidedly within this fideist tradition.

A commitment to metaphysics is often associated with a commitment to religion. But a hostility to metaphysics can also be driven by religious commitments.

39 Comments »

  1. Mark, terrific stuff.

    “Various kinds of objects exist, but only in an ordinary sense.”

    Glad to see you’ve finally come around to my way of thinking on these matters. The trouble is that you contradict yourself just a short while later:

    “The objects that concrete nouns describe exist individually in a practical or pragmatic sense (this dog, that fork…); or not, in the case of unicorns, etc.. Useful abstractions like nation states or agreements can also be said to exist in a practical and pragmatic sense. They are social realities. But all too often, and especially in the context of philosophical discourse, useful – or not so useful – abstractions are taken to be real in a metaphysical sense, or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.”

    Here you regress back to your positivist leanings. I would stick with the first entry, and leave things at that.

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    • Hi Dan, So you would want to say that, continuing with the example, nation-states also exist “only in an ordinary sense”? (Does that mean you also reject talk of natural kinds?) Are there any topics where you think a social constructionist view is warranted/useful?

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  2. Your understanding of the impact of the later Wittgenstein on metaphysical questions could use help from Austin. Sense and Sensibilia really indicates what’s so wrongheaded about the second quotation from your piece in my previous comment.

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  3. I tend to agree. Asking if “redness” exists is like asking, “What does yellow sound like?”. It’s not even false; it’s just a category mistake

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  4. I’d like to echo (what I take to be) Professor Kaufman’s point, but come at it a little differently,

    Might “exist” — like “real,” “rational,” “good,” “free,” and other of our English terms that pick out weighty philosophical topics — be one of those words whose various negated forms “wear the trousers,” in Austin’s phrase?

    For example, an understanding of what “real” means in any context comes by way of understanding what it’s being contrasted with in that context, which can be quite variable. In one context you could be using “real” in contrast to something judged to be untrue (“The real story is that . . . .”), while in another you could be using “real” in contrast to something judged to be fake (“That’s the real diamond . . . .”), while in yet another you could be using “real” in contrast to something judged to be unimportant (“The real issue is that . . . .”). The contexts proliferate: “Real” gets contrasted with that which is toy, that which is unnatural, that which is illusory, and on and on. “Real” takes on a slightly different meaning in each of these contexts. And it would be a helpful exercise to articulate what the contrast is in contexts where we are inclined to assume — with all the warrant in the world, of course — that nation states and agreements are real, or exist, or whatever.

    All of this is to agree with you that various kinds of things exist, and that when they exist, they exist in an ordinary way — that is, /as being meaningfully contrasted in ordinary ways/. But I’d also like to suggest that because the contrasts are various, the existences are various — but all are /ordinary/ in their way. It’s only in theoretical metaphysics that we wish to level everything down to one or a handful ways of existing — e.g. as existing in THE ordinary way. Once you think there’s only one ordinary way of existing or being real, you’re tempted to say things like (I’m paraphrasing) “abstract nouns merely facilitate concise expression (i.e., they don’t refer to anything real).”

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    • Interesting idea about negative forms driving things. The context-based analysis of what real can mean is very good as far as it goes.

      “And it would be a helpful exercise to articulate what the contrast is in contexts where we are inclined to assume … that nation states and agreements are real, or exist, or whatever.”

      The point is, I think, that we don’t normally talk about the reality or existence of these things when (which is most of the time for most nation states, and much of the time for agreements) they are working well. If a nation state is breaking down or is in the process of formation, then people may in the normal course of discussion question its reality. It’s all very practical and pragmatic. Likewise an agreement may be contested. There is a difference here, however, in that the word ‘agreement’ derives from a verb; the concept of a nation state is a very different kind of abstraction. (See below.)

      “All of this is to agree with you that various kinds of things exist, and that when they exist, they exist in an ordinary way — that is, /as being meaningfully contrasted in ordinary ways/. But I’d also like to suggest that because the contrasts are various, the existences are various — but all are /ordinary/ in their way. It’s only in theoretical metaphysics that we wish to level everything down to one or a handful ways of existing — e.g. as existing in THE ordinary way. Once you think there’s only one ordinary way of existing or being real, you’re tempted to say things like (I’m paraphrasing) “abstract nouns merely facilitate concise expression (i.e., they don’t refer to anything real).” ”

      That, as you say, is a paraphrase (or attempted paraphrase). I did not – and would not – say what I am saying quite like that. (Far too sweeping and categorical.)

      However, many abstract nominals derive from verbs (or adjectives). Nominalization is a much-studied process in linguistics, and it allows for more powerful and concise forms of expression. But these forms of expression also tend to mislead us into hypostatizing the concepts in question.

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      • Mark wrote:

        The point is, I think, that we don’t normally talk about the reality or existence of these things when (which is most of the time for most nation states, and much of the time for agreements) they are working well.

        = = =

        We existentially quantify over things like countries and states all the time. The State of Missouri does literally scores of things every day.

        That’ all ontological commitment is. Quantifying over something.

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        • That is a very innocent form of ontological commitment. I have no problem with it. I am saying that we don’t normally explicitly assert “the existence” or “the reality” of functioning political entities or agreements. Why would we?

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          • Innocent? It’s what Quine lays out in “On What There Is.” Easily the most influential view in the entire analytic tradition.

            What did you think saying something exists consists of?

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  5. Certainly if you took apart a machine and created a pile of screws, nuts, rods, seals and other parts you could say those parts have an existence in their own right but the nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. form machinery that we call sentences, thoughts…Sentences, thoughts or the machinery of Language works because we all have a common biological platform for feeling and it is just a question of cultural learning how we apply those words, construct sentences etc. The arguments are trivial if we realize it is all neural activity inside of us.

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    • What you are saying sounds to me far too extreme and dismissive.

      “…Sentences, thoughts or the machinery of language works because we all have a common biological platform for feeling and it is just a question of cultural learning how we apply those words, construct sentences etc. The arguments are trivial if we realize it is all neural activity inside of us.”

      You say “just” a question of cultural learning. You seem to be privileging the biological over the cultural in an unacceptable way.

      This is not to say that the biological/neurological dimension should be ignored. As I see it, whenever we are seriously examining human behavior what we have learned since Darwin about human evolution and the brain needs (at least in general terms) to be taken into account.

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      • I wouldn’t be privileging the biological over the cultural or sociological as much as equating them. The sociological is actually a biological unit on a grander scale since it interacts with the environment over a larger area but still serves the biological needs of the individual agents. Language’s main evolutionary function is socio(bio)logical. Afterall Socrates great crime was abusing language to upset the social group. We also know the strict admonitions for abuse of public language in religious fundamentalist cultures.

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        • “The sociological is actually a biological unit on a grander scale since it interacts with the environment over a larger area but still serves the biological needs of the individual agents.”

          Initially perhaps. But even Dawkins accepts that over time cultural elements develop and take on a life of their own.

          “Language’s main evolutionary function is socio(bio)logical…”

          I prefer to talk about “functions” (plural). Certainly, the origins of language need to be seen in evolutionary terms. And language remains a biological and socio-cultural phenomenon.

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    • Russell had a nightmare once, I think, which was set in the future: the nightmarish content was that the Principia Mathematica had been totally forgotten and was gathering dust in libraries. It may be gathering dust but (as you say) it lives on in other ways.

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    • Well yes but the problem seems to be we stay in a two dimensional view. As we as a species developed those more expanded and complex lobes of the brain it gave us the ability for more complex thought and language but the scientific question is why? The easy answer is more complexity was given to our brains but the complexity to do what? The ‘what’ seems to be the ability to control the more fundamental feelings and drives we share with lower species. Control not only means self control but the ability to control others via language. The need to be dismissive or eliminativist is necessary to understand the argumentive pov’s. Russell’s work may have been more applicable to real world application but Wittgenstein understood the human as more feeling and drive based which explains the evolution of religion which was a cruder predecessor to science.

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  6. Mark, this section of your essay reminds me of a minimalist poem I wrote years ago that cites a sentence from Wittgenstein’s PI, IIRC:

    “The objects that concrete nouns describe exist individually in a practical or pragmatic sense (this dog, that fork…) . . . or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.”

    Conflation

    [The kinship is just as undeniable
    as the difference. — L. Wittgenstein]

    these:

    (this grass
    that field
    this horse
    that tree)

    and then:

    (in the tall grass
    of a green field
    the big bay horse
    by a shade tree)

    the embrace:

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    • My first thought is that some sets of things have closer potential affinities than other sets. Grass, field, horse and tree go well and naturally together.

      Forks and dogs not so much. 🙂

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  7. Dan

    I have just listened to your video discussion with Massimo and found it interesting and stimulating. As I see it, each of us has a slightly different perspective on these matters. We may not be on the same team but we are in the same ballpark.

    I can see that it might be thought that I am contradicting myself by embracing social realities (as existing in practical and pragmatic terms); and then saying: “But all too often, and especially in the context of philosophical discourse, useful – or not so useful – abstractions are taken to be real in a metaphysical sense, or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.”

    I stand by this. Note that the claim is not categorical. I begin: “All too often…”

    Many abstractions are not useful and even useful abstractions can be inappropriately hypostatized. (I note that you use this term in the video.)

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  8. But other religious tendencies existed within the Judeo-Christian West which were hostile to metaphysics and which saw metaphysicalized religion as a betrayal of the more direct and intuitive form of religion to which they were committed. Blaise Pascal typified this approach. He rejected the “God of the philosophers” entirely, and embraced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    I am not sure that this distinction can be maintained.

    The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is said to have created all that is seen and unseen. If that isn’t a metaphysical commitment I don’t know what is.

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    • The distinction certainly existed in Pascal’s mind, and can be seen as a sustained current of Western intellectual history right up to Wittgenstein. (You could see a parallel (non-Christian) tradition running from the pre-Socratics to the later Heidegger.)

      I think what Pascal was getting at was that the God of the philosophers is merely an intellectual construct, essentially a trivialization of the God he himself had (he believed) encountered in a series of powerful (mystical?) experiences.

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  9. Barry Smith discusses the practical aspects of ontology for science – we don’t need nominalists or…

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104413/

    “Smith (2005) describes how we see many of the most influential figures of 20th-century analytic philosophy, from Wittgenstein and Carnap to Lewis and Armstrong, as having been affected by the erroneous (indeed absurd) assumption that it is possible to infer the ontological structure of reality from the logico-syntactic structure of one specific language…”

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    • “Smith (2005) describes how we see many of the most influential figures of 20th-century analytic philosophy, from Wittgenstein and Carnap to Lewis and Armstrong, as having been affected by the erroneous (indeed absurd) assumption that it is possible to infer the ontological structure of reality from the logico-syntactic structure of one specific language…”

      This is not the view of the later Wittgenstein, nor is it Carnap’s view. Not sure what point you are making.

      I am familiar with the philosophical tradition represented by Smith but it would be too involved to explain my attitude to it here.

      I found this admission (from the linked article) particularly interesting:

      “We do not deny that there are many distinct philosophical approaches to the understanding of the scientific use of general terms and of what it is in reality towards which such terms are directed. For practical purposes, however, we believe that these philosophical matters are of secondary importance. This is because even the metaphysical anti-realist can, we believe, view all putative references to types or universals – including the many such putative references in what follows – as mere façons de parler about other, more commonplace entities – such as scientists’ beliefs or linguistic usage – and still gain full practical advantage from our methodology.”

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  10. Dan

    The discussion thread we were on can’t be extended apparently.

    You said:

    “Innocent? It’s what Quine lays out in “On What There Is.” Easily the most influential view in the entire analytic tradition.”

    I know!

    “What did you think saying something exists consists of?”

    I was distinguishing between explicitly saying something like “agreements are real” or “the State of Missouri is real” and more normal forms of communication.

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  11. On ‘what there is’, I noted that the SEP article “Fictionalism in the Philosophy of Mathematics” has a recent “substantive revision Mon Jul 23, 2018”.
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fictionalism-mathematics/

    In natural language semantics, Richard Montague is one with a legacy,
    A type theoretical framework for natural language semantics: the Montagovian generative lexicon
    https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00779214v2/document

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    • Thrift: On ‘what there is’, I noted that the SEP article “Fictionalism in the Philosophy of Mathematics” has a recent “substantive revision Mon Jul 23, 2018”.

      I have, from time to time, said that I am a fictionalist (about mathematics). However, my fictionalism does not agree with that updated SEP article.

      In my version of fictionalism, there isn’t any problem with saying that 2+2=4 or that 3 is prime, or that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street. According to that SEP article, a fictionalist should see all of those as false. But I think the problem here is not so much with the account of fictionalism. Rather, the problem is with the conception of truth that is implicit in that SEP article.

      (I hope this is not too far off topic).

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  12. “agreements are real” – we saw the psychological behaviorists lose out because of not accepting the reality of (or at least avoiding models requiring) things just like agreements or social organisations. It requires less data to predict the trajectory of the football once you know or infer the rules of the game.

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  13. ‘2+2=4’, ‘3 is a prime number’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street’ are just strings of symbols and are neither true nor false until you mean something by them.

    If ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘+”, ‘=’ and ‘prime’ have the usual meanings associated with them then the first two statements are straightforwardly true by the plain everyday version of ‘true’.

    If, by the second you mean ‘The fictional character Sherlock Holmes is usually depicted as living at 221B Baker Street’ then it is also straightforwardly true under the same meaning as true. If someone unfamiliar with the character says this then you might need to confirm this meaning, someone might not realise that Holmes was fictional.

    Compare with statements like ‘Robin Hood was an outlaw in mediaeval Britain’, ‘King Arthur was a King of part of the British Isles’,:’God is the creator of all things’, ‘Ern Malley was a 20th century Australian poet’.

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  14. Mark

    The distinction certainly existed in Pascal’s mind, and can be seen as a sustained current of Western intellectual history right up to Wittgenstein.

    But what distinction exactly? Can there really be a distinction between believing in God and having a metaphysical belief in God?

    Can you believe there is an actual God who created the actual world and that not be a metaphysical belief? I don’t see how.

    Or did they not really believe, was it just a happy myth that evoked a lot of powerful feelings?

    Or did they just not want to trust to much weight to the concept? Or not want to think about it too hard?

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    • The basic distinction is between a commitment to a faith-based view (or something like it) on the one hand and a view which does not go beyond natural theology (or metaphysics conceived as an intellectual discipline) on the other. The standard Christian view of “revealed religion” or “revelation” is based on this distinction.

      Fideism takes this distinction a bit further and questions – to a greater or lesser extent – the applicability of our language and limited reasoning capacities to ultimate questions, including those concerning God’s nature.

      “Can you believe there is an actual God who created the actual world and that not be a metaphysical belief? I don’t see how.”

      First, I draw your attention to two meanings of metaphysics which I discussed in the OP, alluding to Graham Priest’s remarks about Heidegger. I’m not sure exactly in what sense you mean it.

      Secondly, I think the fideist would balk at speaking in the terms you do for fear of reducing the dynamic, living reality which they experience to something cold and mechanistic. Is God *a being*, or the source or ground of being? Certainly not a being that can be described satisfactorily in words. God is envisaged as the source of reality, sure, but how does one articulate this? We are getting to the limits of thought and language here *and this is the point*. There is something which this tradition of thought has to offer us all – even those of us (like me) who totally reject the religious presuppositions. Something along the lines of intellectual caution or humility, but more specifically something which pertains to the necessary limitations of language-based thinking and reasoning. (This was one of Wittgenstein’s big themes of course, from the Tractatus on.)

      “Or did they not really believe, was it just a happy myth that evoked a lot of powerful feelings?”

      I don’t think so. Such ideas changed the direction of Pascal’s life. Wittgenstein’s life was also marked by his beliefs. He gave away his inheritance, for instance, alienating his siblings or at least his brother Paul. It was not just feelings. There were strong beliefs there about the fundamental nature of reality, but these beliefs could not be satisfactorily or clearly and explicitly articulated.

      “Or did they just not want to trust too much weight to the concept? Or not want to think about it too hard?”

      You can think as hard as you like but if you are on the wrong track (applying the wrong kind of thinking, say) your thoughts are not going to be worth much.

      I think I understand the fideist point of view, and your characterisation of it is a distortion. You see fideism as a cop out. The fideist sees rationalistic metaphysics as a cop out.

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  15. Hi Mark: As I understand it (which is very inexpertly), Russell and Wittgenstein differed at a basic level about the relation between language and reality. Russell hoped for a “logically perfect language”.

    Russell: “In a logically perfect language the words in a proposition would correspond one by one with the components of the corresponding fact, with the exception of such words as “or,” “not,” “if,” “then,” which have a different function. In a logically perfect language, there will be one word and no more for every simple object, and everything that is not simple will be expressed by a combination of words, by a combination derived, of course, from the words for the simple things that enter in, one word for each simple component. A language of that sort will be completely analytic, and will show at a glance the structure of the facts asserted or denied.”

    Russell: “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted.”

    I think that Wittgenstein from early on was uneasy with this Russellian dream of a language that mirrors the world, though it took time for him to clarify what was wrong with it. He came in time to distinguish between logical (intra-linguistic) relations and epistemic relations. Facts in the world determine the second but not the first. And sentences that refer to non-existent states of affairs can be quite as meaningful as sentences referring to actual states of affairs.

    To me, this (if correct) puts Russell in the company of philosophical dreamers along with the idealists he deplored, whereas Wittgenstein seems to be saying something eminently sensible and science-friendly. I can’t see clearly whether you agree with this view of their differences, but am interested on your take on this interpretation.

    Alan

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    • Hi Alan

      “… To me … Russell [is] in the company of philosophical dreamers along with the idealists he deplored, whereas Wittgenstein seems to be saying something eminently sensible and science-friendly. I can’t see clearly whether you agree with this view of their differences, but am interested on your take on this interpretation.”

      I disagree with your conclusion. I can’t accept the characterization of Russell as a philosophical dreamer. (But see below on logical atomism.) I have seen him described as a scientist manqué, and this seems closer to the mark. He was knowledgeable in various fields and of course made major contributions to logic. He was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy.

      Wittgenstein, on the other hand, had views on religion and other matters which seem to place him squarely in the non-scientific camp. Unlike Russell, he had no apparent interest in the new physical theories despite having a background in engineering. There is some evidence that he rejected Darwin’s theory of natural selection. What’s more he had no real sense of history and no interest so far as I know in historical scholarship. He exhibits little curiosity about the historical status of the Gospels (which he read – devoutly it seems). Someone like Albert Schweitzer, whose background was in theology and music and who wrote a serious and perceptive book on the quest for the historical Jesus, had a *far* more scientific mentality than Wittgenstein, as I see it.

      The question of the respective views of Russell and Wittgenstein on language and epistemology is a complex and interesting one. I am currently doing a bit of reading on these issues. And, yes, it is possible that some of that old metaphysics stayed with Russell. I had not previously known that his concept of logical atomism was defined against the “logical holism” of the idealist systems of metaphysics from which he was trying to escape.

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      • He was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy.
        = = =
        Arguably he was committed to the fetishization of these things, as was much of the analytic philosophy to which he gave birth — with the sole exception being Wittgenstein and the Oxford philosophers, referred to as the Ordinary Language School.

        So, I think Alan’s characterization is closer to the truth than you might want to admit.

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      • Mark: I don’t disagree with the claims in your reply, but the issue is about their actual philosophies rather than their general cultural attitudes. And, as Dan says, the issue goes deep into the shaping of what we call “analytic (or analytical) philosophy”. I do think “Ordinary Language” philosophy more generally had considerable respect for empirical evidence, whereas logical atomism seemed to want a theory of language that had no place for the distinction between the empirical and the conceptual.

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        • Alan

          “… the issue is about their actual philosophies rather than their general cultural attitudes.”

          Can you separate them? The latter often drives the former. I agree however that the results can sometimes be paradoxical and I am open to the idea that Russell’s thinking on language incorporated unwarranted metaphysical assumptions or unreasonable expectations.

          “… logical atomism seemed to want a theory of language that had no place for the distinction between the empirical and the conceptual.”

          There is a lot of scope for further discussion of these and related themes and I hope to delve into them more deeply in the future.

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