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Wittgenstein on religious belief

Wittgenstein demonstrated, throughout his life, a distinct interest (and at times unusual absorption) in religious questions. He normally did not consider those questions suitable for philosophical exploration. In his early Tractatus, for instance, he placed God - alongside goodness and beauty - on the far side of the line he drew between what we can and cannot speak about. His scientifically-minded followers took this as a license to denigrate religious talk as "meaningless", but Wittgenstein made clear that he considered the unwritten half of his book to be more important than the written half.

Tonight we'll examine some of Wittgenstein's remarks from late in his career - after he had abandoned the earlier binary distinction between speakable and unspeakable domains, replacing it with a more subtle and pragmatic picture of numerous, ongoing "language-games". A language-game constitutes an entire form of life and activity, involving but not reducible to linguistic behavior. The philosopher's task, in Wittgenstein's view, centers on acquiring familiarity with the language-games we actually use and inhabit when asking questions. To better understand what God is, for instance, we must first and foremost understand how people speak about God and how they behave in relation to what they say.

As with his better-known investigations into concepts like language, mind, and knowledge, Wittgenstein insists that we ask, not whether religious claims are amenable to one or another kind of verification or falsification, but whether we even understand what is going on when people begin thinking and speaking them in the first place.

Here is the text of the relevant lectures:

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  • Dustin

    will arrive late

    August 15, 2013

  • Thrashionalist

    I'm very intrigued by the theme that, when religious believers appeal to evidence in favor of their views, this should not automatically be interpreted as "evidence" the way we mean it when conducting empirical inquiry. If we were to treat the Last Judgment as something like a meteorological event, for which accurate forecast is available, then the principal data used in such forecasts by believers - including scripture passages and mystical visions - would seem ludicrous to us. But the consistent citation of ludicrous evidence is so far outside the purview of meteorological practice that, instead of condemning religious forecasts as groundless, we should probably treat them as belonging to an entirely different kind of inferential system.

    2 · August 14, 2013

    • Dustin

      I'm not sure I would say that they have a different inferential system. The fact that they feel the need to offer reasons does not mean they are using them to make inferences. I think it would be more accurate to say that reasons play a different role for them.

      1 · August 14, 2013

  • Jenny T.

    sitting this one out:(

    August 4, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I plan to wear something distracting

    July 27, 2013

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