Debates on Religious Belief

by Witty Ludwig

Something I have wanted to write about for some time is the nature of debate, conversation etc. in regard to religious belief.  This was an area that struck me in particular when watching the debates between atheists and Christians/believers unfold on that creationist website;  there was an immeasurable gulf between the parties despite both believing that they were using logic as their common ground.  There are* numerous examples of debates on a matter that have ended in complete frustration and exasperation (more often for the atheists, it must be said) as a result of this inability to bridge the gap.

Unfortunately, despite being an intensely religious man, Wittgenstein devoted very little time to discussing religious belief, which I always found to be a shame given that I feel he could have shed great light on the issues at hand.  Having waded again and again through much of his writing in the last few years, I obtained Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, of which nothing contained within was in fact written by him.  It contains notes that several of his students had taken (much to his displeasure and annoyance) in seminars with him, conversations he had with friends etc., on the title subject matter.

Despite his lack of approval at these words now being read, they are very characteristic of him, consistent with his style, and, I feel, extremely insightful.  The main point I take from it, or, as Kripke has described in his own case, how it struck me, was that it’s often overlooked or, at least, underestimated how fundamental the differences are:

“Take two people, one of whom talks of his behaviour and of what happens to him in terms of retribution, the other one does not.  These people think entirely differently.  Yet, so far, you can’t say they believe different things.
Suppose someone is ill and he says: ‘This is a punishment,’ and I say: ‘If I’m ill, I don’t think of punishment at all.’  If you say:  ‘Do you believe the opposite?’– you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we would normally call believing the opposite.
I think differently, in a different way.  I say different things to myself.  I have different pictures.
It is this way:  if someone said: ‘Wittgenstein, you don’t take illness as punishment, so what do you believe?’– I’d say:  ‘I don’t have any thoughts of punishment.’
There are, for instance, these entirely different ways of thinking first of all–  which needn’t be expressed by one person saying one thing, another person another thing.’
What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day–  The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role.
If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgement Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn’t say: ‘No.  I don’t believe there will be such a thing.’  It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.
And then I can give the explanation: ‘I don’t believe in…’, but then the religious person never believes what I describe.
I can’t say.  I can’t contradict that person.
In one sense, I understand all he says–  the English words ‘God’, ‘separate’, etc. I understand.  I could say: ‘I don’t believe in this,’ and this would be true, meaning I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them.  But not that I could contradict the thing.
“You may say they reason wrongly. 
In certain cases you would say they reason wrongly, meaning they contradict us.  In other cases you would say they don’t reason at all, or ‘It is an entirely different kind of reasoning.”  The first, you would say in the case in which they reason in a similar way to us, and make something corresponding to our blunders.
Whether a thing is a blunder or not–  it is a blunder in a particular system.  Just as something is a blunder in a particular game and not in another.
… If they do something very like one of our blunders, I would say, I don’t know.  It depends on further surroundings of it.
“Suppose someone dreamt of the Last Judgement, and said he now knew what it would be like.  Suppose someone said: ‘This is poor evidence,’  I would say:  ‘If you want to compare it with the evidence for it’s raining to-morrow it is no evidence at all.’  He may make it sound as if by stretching the point you may call it evidence.  But it may be more than ridiculous as evidence.  But now, would I be prepared to say:  ‘You are basing your belief on extremely slender evidence, to put it mildly.’  Why should I regard this dream as evidence– measuring its validity as though I were measuring the the validity of the evidence for meteorological events?
If you compare it with anything in Science which we call evidence, you can’t credit that anyone could soberly argue: ‘Well, I had this dream… therefore… Last Judgement’.  You might say: ‘For a blunder, that’s too big.’  If you suddenly wrote down numbers on the blackboard, and then said: ‘Now , I’m going to add,’ and then said: ‘2 and 21 is 13,’ etc. I’d say: ‘This is no blunder.’
There are cases where I’d say he’s mad, or he’s making fun.  Then there might be cases where I have to look for an entirely different interpretation altogether.  In order to see what the explanation is I should have to see the sum, to see in what way it is done, what he makes follow from it, what are the different circumstances under which he does it, etc.”

If you have read the above, I sympathise in you perhaps thinking he sounds mad, or talks gibberish, etc. but on this I would stress again that, whilst characteristic of his writing style, refrain from too critical a judgement since the context was him speaking aloud, following a train of thought, rather than trying to construct a specific, coherent argument.  The parts I have highlighted in bold are what I consider key.

The mathematics example is perhaps the simplest to follow:  The point is that there are well established rules and a common ground for logical inference as in this case.  In a mathematical equation, it is often very easy to see where someone has erred in a calculation:

“You forgot to carry the three at this point, which is why at the multiplication stage…”
— “Ah!  You’re right.  My mistake.”

If someone were to add 2 and 21 and have the result of 13, would we know where to begin looking as to where they have gone wrong?  They both believe they’re playing the same game.  This person might even have their own consistent rules and function perfectly happy with their grasp of mathematics for their purpose.  To get to the root of the difference, it is necessary to go right back to the beginning, to examine the very first foundations they formed for having this view;  this view that is worlds apart with your own.

My emphasis on this is that, when getting caught up in (a)theistic debates, often both parties try to justify their position, or corrode the other’s, by appealing to mutually acknowledged logical principles.  For some, however, the differences are so fundamental that it affects their entire outlook, their entire way of viewing the world.  What’s needed is to examine the bedrock from which their beliefs have developed.

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*Unfortunately, the ‘Question Evolution Blog’ editors are in the habit of deleting any arguments presented that have any strength at all and so a lot of what might have proved interesting to anyone wandering through the site is lost.