Wittgenstein's Bastard

Waxing - and Waning - Philosophic


An investigation into the utility (or futility) of seeking meaning in a quasi-post-modern world.

In his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein sought to design a philosophical system encompassing everything logic could show. He concluded, "That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence." Even though the phrase is a tautology, it is still wrong. Our aim is to speak of that which Wittgenstein could not: the illogical majesty of the universe, the nature of its creator and the meaning of man's being all wrapped up in it.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Two Kinds of Narrative

Wittgenstein tells us:

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it. – There is nothing paradoxical about that! (Culture and Value, 1937)

The key word in the passage is andere, different or other: The Bible is contrasted with “anderen historischen Nachtricht” and we are therefore asked to make a “eine ganz andere Stelle” for it in our lives. But are we prepared to do that?

Biblical literalism has taken some interesting turns. In America, we fritter away endless hours debating the wisdom of telling children the earth was created in seven days. There are some for whom it is self-evident: The Bible says so. There are others who are equally sure it was not, and that the children should be tell no such rubbish. Why not? Well, for starters, it’s wrong… But the real problem is… the Bible says so.

I confess to a certain indifference on the question itself. Whether we are descended from monkeys or separately created by God is not important. Where we are and where we go from here is the real issue. And the real issue in the evolutionism-creationism debate, likewise, is not actually about our origins. It’s about how we’re supposed to feel about ourselves.

Creationists want us to believe God made us, our ancestors messed up and now we’re all lousy vessels of spirit whose only hope is divine redemption, but somehow we still have dominion over the earth. Evolutionists want us to believe we come from monkeys, are just like other animals and so shouldn’t get a swelled head about ourselves except that we’re responsible for the earth.

Evolutionism and Creationism both are religious in flavor. Evolutionists seek the holy grail of the missing link in order to show the unbelievers once and for all the truth about something whose truth they haven’t actually proved, only made a good case for considering. Creationists hunt for the site of the original Garden of Eden, splinters of the Ark on a mountain and pieces of the Cross in order to show the unbelievers the truth about something whose truth is… to be lived, not proved.

Curiously, the sort of people who become Creationists because the Bible tells them so rarely stone intemperate youth, though the Bible calls for that too. They also don’t spend much time looking for the Tree of Knowledge, somehow construing that carnality and original sin are bound up, though this metaphoricization of the Tree of Knowledge is highly suspect. They eschew the uglier parts of the Old Testament, saying that the New Testament brought a new law. But then they open up Leviticus when they get a burr in their saddle about the next door neighbor’s latest social experiments.

Curiously, the sort of people who become Evolutionists because “science says so,” are indifferent to science that confuses their understanding of the process. They denigrate man as a mere animal, rather than celebrating him as the most successful product of natural selection. They denounce investigations into differences among ethnologies within the human family while announcing that modern man is the offshoot of a lowlier species. And if one suggests that a species ought to be allowed to die because man, the most successful product of natural selection, has rendered it unsustainable in its current environment, the typical Evolutionist rapidly discovers within man both noble tendencies and superpowers that obligate him to save that species, rather than letting natural selection take its course. They simultaneously denounce frail, cruel, useless and infirm man for ever letting it come to this.

What the Evolutionist and the Creationist have in common is a) belief in a basic narrative from which they are unwilling to stray except that b) they’d rather not deal with the more unpleasant aspects of that narrative.

Wittgenstein tried to develop a philosophical system that explained (away) everything. But he found God in the middle of his writing. This was too much to explain away, so he declared it inexplicable (That of which we cannot speak…). In the 1937 journal entry with which we started, though, he gets to the heart of the matter and philosophy’s biggest dilemma: There are not merely different levels but different kinds of truth. His presentation, though, suggests that in understanding this we have a way out.

When we read a really moving novel, it may drastically affect our worldview. By paring away the honking of car horns, the shouting of schoolchildren in the background and the feel of sand slipping across the sidewalk beneath your feet, the novelist can concentrate on what is actually registering as meaningful in his characters’ lives. The effect is stories that are truer than life, capturing life’s essence on the printed page when attempts to live life’s essence are frustrated by the constant intrusion of banalities that irritate us too much for us to concentrate but without leading to new and different illumination.

Those who teach the Bible as fact, in a way, do it a disservice. It’s more than mere fact. Those who teach it as literature, by contrast, unwittingly elevate it. If you treat the Bible as a historical document, it gets tedious. If you start with a snide remark about it but capture the warp and woof of the motley collection of texts, astute and open-minded readers will not be able to help being moved by the same themes that move the more sure-footed believer. Eventually, there comes a point where the literati’s condescension becomes ridiculous because such condescension is not displayed toward other literary works, nor even other cultures’ creation stories.

Wittgenstein reminds us to approach the Bible sensibly: with an understanding that this isn’t history; it’s the Word of God. The Word of God is a much bigger thing than mere history. Find an extra bullet on the mall in Dallas and the history of JFK’s life and death changes. Obviously, no sincere believer would be so fickle about his belief in the Bible – or the Koran, or the Gita or the Upanishads… The faith that moves mountains should not be susceptible to a small scrap of wood or metal.

While belief in one’s religion shouldn’t be altered by the discovery of seemingly incongruent facts, there comes a second question: should facts be altered by belief in one’s religion? In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams tells us of the electric monk, a device designed to believe in all the ridiculous things you’re supposed to believe in for yourself but couldn’t possibly be expected to. Much of the story centers on one of these that has gone bad, a monk whose faith may not move mountains but that can at least believe them pink when they’re plainly not. Adams had sadly rejected religion, and showed just how silly it looks from the outside. One wishes he had lived to rediscover it; he would have had marvelous observations on the beauty of believing in the nonsensical. But in the meantime, he points us to a bit we have to understand: you can’t reject facts just because they differ from your religion’s narrative.

I could conceive a religion where mankind once knew how to fly. I could posit that anyone holy and pure had within him that divinely granted ability. And if I could sell it well enough, I could push my followers one by one off of cliffs and into oblivion, sadly writing each one off as insufficient in his belief. It sounds ridiculous, but to read the Bible, I ought chide any Jewish parents displeased with their children for their failure to stone them. I could cluck my tongue at any Jew who has failed to marry his widowed sister in law. For that matter, I could question the faith of the Christian who lives in a nice house while his neighbors struggle.

The only thing we could do that we be worse than asking those who claim literal belief in the Bible to actually live like it… would be to celebrate those who claim to believe literally in the Koran and make a serious effort at doing so. Religions are formed in heady times by heady people. Most of them had the good fortune to be formed when populations and weapons technology were insufficient to the provocation of an actual Armageddon. Today, we have to be more careful. We have to recognize that what God hath wrought in the early days is not for us, mere mortals, to replicate today.

In the Bible, in the Koran, in the Gita and in many other works, we are given a narrative. It is a narrative unlike other narratives, truer than history. It is so true, in fact, that we must never mistake it for mere history, must never act as though our small minds could grasp the true purpose of each and ever last detail, however minute. Rather, we must read for the narrative, attempting to capture the feeling that comes when we sense that the perplexing is nonetheless right and just.

Lot’s daughters gave him to drink, and then lay with him, wherefrom issued successful tribes. Does this mean that lonely times call for incest? Or that the race must do what the race must do to survive, even setting aside conventional laws? You won’t find the answer in the passage. You have to read the whole book and see what fits.

Men were called upon to marry their widowed sisters in law. Does this mean that fraternity equals paternity? Or does it require that families help one another even when the original bond between them is lost?

Onan famously spilled his seed on the ground while pretending to consummate marriage to his widowed sister in law. He was struck by lightning. Does this mean that sex without the possibility of children is wrong? Read a few sentences of the passage alone and you’ve got a case against masturbation and birth control. Read it in the context of the whole Bible, though, and you might find that Onan’s crime was to shirk his familial obligations, severing the bonds his brother had sealed by transgressing against the custom that should have reaffirmed them and given his widowed sister in law a second chance for a family.

Wittgenstein does not tell us to believe the individual sentences of the Bible. My poor lot of examples is not a proof that there is one way to read the Bible, but it should hint at what Wittgenstein meant when he said to take the narrative and believe: Our faith is not to be challenged by mere facts, for it does not deal in mere facts. Our faith, rather, should rest on the knowledge that there is a story to be told whose ultimate truth excels what archeologists and geologists tools unearth, showing the relationship man has to nature, to nature’s Creator and to his fellow man, and pointing the way toward the bettering of all these relationships till they approximate that blissful moment when man was but a twinkle in God’s eye and a wish upon His breath.

* * *

We have come far afield of our original nugget, Evolutionism vs. Creationism. It is time to return. We have already seen the utility of believing in something that isn’t, in our literal sense, true. We have hinted at why Creationists believe the world was literally created in seven days and suggested that a) this might be wrong, b) it might be true anyway and c) it doesn’t matter because what the scientist proves has nothing to do with the creation story’s inherent otherly veracity.

The problems Creationists run into are beside the point here. The real issue is whether the Evolutionists aren’t just like them. Both have a broad narrative with implications for the meaning of life and man’s place in it. Both have gaps in their evidence that they swear they will fill. And they both denounce anything that contradicts their Weltanschauung as poorly researched, misunderstood and quite possibly fraudulent.

There are people who think the evolutionary model offers a way of understanding how life came to be the way it is. They look at new research and find it exciting if it furthers their understanding and uninteresting if it doesn’t. If the evidence casts doubt upon the evolutionary model, they wonder whether the result will be the creation of a sharper, more precise model or whether the model will become so contorted by efforts to explain away data that complicate, rather than filling in, the picture that it becomes untenable. If the evidence confirms the model, by contrast, they wonder what new pieces of the puzzle will be fit in and how much more we’ll know about the mechanics of our world as a result.

People who don’t care whether new evidence supports or detracts from the evolutionary theory are not Evolutionists. They are people who think it’s worth working with the evolutionary hypothesis unless or until something better comes along. They know that quantum mechanics upset Newtonian physics just when it looked like Newton’s models, properly refined, contained all the answers within. They know that if evolutionary theory is ultimately to contribute seriously to our understanding of how the world works, it must face more serious challengers than Kansas school boards and must either finish far more complex and wonderful than it even now is or be supplanted by something new created to highlight where it went wrong.

Evolutionists care about the evolutionary model. It isn’t about amino acids then. It’s about what it means to be a man today. Like the Creationists, they have a Weltanschauung that they’re defending. If you get the opportunity to challenge a Creationist and Evolutionist on successive days, I suggest that you try it, even if you’re a partisan of one of the camps. The results are instructive. There is the same passion, the same conviction that contradictory evidence is wrong or a trick of the other side. Knowing the human propensity for error and the human tendency to see what one expects to see, there could be no greater deathblow to the feasibility of the evolutionary theory than for all the data to confirm it. Even if it were right, errors would creep in that messed up the data here and there. Absolute proof of evolution would more likely suggest absolute unconscious commitment to the theory and inadvertent data cooking on the part of the experimenters. Evolutionists don’t account for this because they’re pursuing Truth, not fact.

* * *

I do not write to belittle either Creationists or Evolutionists. In truth, I have sympathies with both camps. In fact, I’m frustrated by both, for both are so hell-bent on pushing their own understanding of the world – an understanding that isn’t really driven by science or proofs on either side – that they shut each other out over nonsense from ages ago instead of meeting to discuss the real issue: What is man, why is man and what should he strive to become?

Wittgenstein’s passage should be gloriously troubling to both camps, suggesting to the Creationists that they don’t fully appreciate the deeper meaning of their sacred texts while suggesting to Evolutionists that they’re awfully worked up over something that’s supposed to be dispassionately scientific. The beauty of the passage, though, is that it shows the way to squaring the circle, getting a grip on how we can go about existing as human beings on both the spiritual plane and within the confines of this sphere where we are all too unquestionably mortal.

posted by gbarto at 5:28 PM

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Original Sin, Christian Redemption and God as Father

From Culture and Value (selections from Wittgenstein's notebooks):

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
-1937

Within Christianity, it's as though God says to men: Don't act a tragedy, that's to say, don't enact heaven and hell on earth. Heaven and hell are my affair.
-1931

What would it feel like not to have heard of Christ?
Should we feel left alone in the dark?
Do we escape such a feeling simply in the way a child escapes it when he knows there is someone in the room with him?
-1931

The first and second quotations almost run contrary to one another. And yet they stand together quite nicely and are given real sense by the third. To encapsulate them into one, let us say that it is not man's place to recreate divine order, but that our experience of divinity and its absence are nonetheless real-life experiences, with the experience of divinity or divine protection coming to the Christian when he or she feels Christ's presence in life.

One of the oddities of contemporary Christianity is the profusion of pollyannish comforters of Job - people who tell you how blissful life is because of their great and loving God, then attribute to Him the most childish of sentiment in order to explain why others don't seem to know the blessings they're convinced they experience.

The singular greatest failure of Christianity across the ages is the failure to appreciate the problems inherent in the metaphor of God the Father. By misapprehension of what this means, we discover a world where we do not, it is true, create heaven and hell on earth, but where we pretend that God does. More upsetting, we beat our breasts and decry the fallen state of the world, using this belief to allow others to make a hell on earth while refraining from helping others along, save by preaching words.

Questions of heaven and hell are indeed God's dominion, not ours. But the drama of the soul is a thing of earth as well as the celestial spheres. To find in God - to find in Christ! - justification to dismiss another's sorrows, or worse, to dismiss a fellow human being altogether, is an abomination. Christ taught us to endure the suffering of this world as a better one awaits. But by his example, He taught us to alleviate suffering where and when we could.

Supposing that God is everywhere and in everything reminds that He is in us. As Christ declared, "I am in the Father and you are in me and I am in you." There is a bond among men that exists in that we are all infused with divine spirit. It is our ability or inability to harmonize with this component of our existence that determines the progress and process of the drama of the human soul.

Bible scholars read maps, handbooks and scripture and then set about looking for where Eden was. They are foolish. Where Adam and Eve were they may find, and that may be of historical interest. But if they wish to find Eden, they need only look left, or right, or front or back. For does one suppose that God made an entire earthly sphere, populated the whole thing over with plants and animals and then set aside one little square that would work right?

In the beginning, I suspect, the whole of the earth was Eden, for wherever man walked he found joy and bliss. And after the fall, he could not cross back into that joy. Eden did not exist where it was, as a place, but where man was, as a thing to be experienced.

We are told that we are infused with the breath of God, that this is the source of life. And we are told that tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge brought our joy to an end. And we are told that a loving God who created us set us this test, which He surely knew we would fail, then threw a hissy fit and took away paradise for our failure.

This doesn't sound like an all-loving, all-knowing, all-seeing God of infinite compassion and mercy. It sounds like us. We know parents hell-bent on absolute obedience from children from whom this is too much to expect. But shouldn't God know better?

When we use the phrase "God the Father," we make God into a human being. He is not. All human beings, certainly. And the rocks and trees and the babbling of the brooks and more. But a single human being He is not. God the Father, a perfect father, still made one mistake if He seriously thought we would pass His test. Having made us, He should have known better. Unless He is truly cruel, vindictive and vain, like the arbitrary gods of Calvin and Hobbes' comic strips. Let us try a different way of thinking that will explain "original sin" while allowing a better understanding of God the Father.

Robert Heinlein suggested that God divided Himself into many, that He might have friends. Scott Adams suggested that God might have blown Himself to bits to see if He could. Certain Eastern religions can at least partially buy the premise, as they see spiritual struggle as an effort for an infinite and divine consciousness to reunite with itself. Chopra tells us that God is the field of all possibilities, the sum total of all the energy in the universe as it conspires to shape and align itself. Remembering that we are gods, set to come before the mightiest of gods - God - judge of judges, creator among creators, we see the truth of Christ's declarations about doing the work of the father and about the good and harm we can do another.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God. God created a world out of His spirit, a world which at least in our earthly sphere culminated in the creation of a creature in His own image, a create with will, with the power to create something out of nothing, with the capacity to shape the stuff of the universe by deliberate act. To be created in the image of God does not mean that God has nostrils because we have nostrils. It means that we have free will because God has will.

In the beginning, we inhabited an Edenic paradise, a place where we exercised our dominion with love and care, glorying in the wonder of it all. And then we tasted the tree of knowledge and knew original separation. I do not think that God would have set us a temptation simply to see if we'd make Him happy or break His heart. For one thing, He'd have known how that would turn out.

When God created us, there was one hitch that even God couldn't overcome. In free will comes the potential for willfullness. But for God to fully realize us in His image, He had no choice. I suspect that the warning about the tree of knowledge was like the warning about looking both ways before crossing the streets. It was meant to keep us whole and intact. The wrongness of breaking the rule comes not in the upsetting of a vindictive and arbitrary God, but in placing oneself in mortal jeopardy.

When we tasted the tree of knowledge, what we had done was to experience the earthy an earthly side of our nature. As Aphrodite's pomegranite seeds bound her to Hades, so the fruit of the tree of knowledge bound us to earth. We realized we were vessels of clay, when formerly we were so infused with spirit as to not notice. And so we grew ashamed in realizing that the divine spark within was housed by the stuff of corporality, the form of animals. And where we had felt as with a kindred spirit before, from this point on we knew ourselves other than as an extension of God.

The pains of childbirth are hard on woman, and the Catholic church among others likes to point to this as evidence of who bore the brunt of original sin. But the truth of the matter is that the true pain of original sin is the same pain that we gave God. The pain of separation.

When our earthly existence starts, it is with man and woman becoming one. Nine months later, the result is a creation physically separate from both. In time, the child grows, becomes mobile first, then hungry for independence. From that point on, we see a drama not unlike the drama of the soul, in which our dependencies, both physical and psychological, draw us back and heap upon the parents many cares. Reassured, the child finds security enough to again seek independence. For most people, the drama plays out for a lifetime, all the way down to visiting graves or remembering the birthdays of loved ones now gone, in a never-ending search for the security of the first moments in the presence of one's mother coupled with the independence to survive when that sense of security erodes. The drama is most painful and acute for those who achieve the fullest separation.

Our relationship to God proceeds in the same way, with us standing on our own two feet, going to work on our own, raising our kids on our own, and then getting tested. All of a sudden, there comes the involuntary, "Oh God," and we are again helpless and as reliant upon the spiritual aid of the One who created our souls as a two-years child is upon mother after scratching its knee.

Whence cometh peace? Peace and security come in spirituality where self-confidence and strength come in life - when we know we can do it on our own because, paradoxically, we aren't on our own. The child confident in his parents' love and his parents' ability to care for him, develops a self-assurance from their reassurance that guides him in life. By absorbing the best of what our parents offer - dependent upon the good they were able to offer - we cease to need our parents' active direction because it becomes inherent in our experience of the world.

If our childhoods are painful and filled with fear, though, we find ourselves taking one of two paths: separation for protection or security in insecurity. The question for those with good childhoods is how to access the reserves of strength therein provided. For those with troubled childhoods, things are trickier, for wholeness comes in being connected to something harmful.

Here is where the imperfection of the metaphor of God the Father comes into play. Just as coping with earthly life is aided by connecting with that within which best prepares us for the drama of human existence, so spirituality relies upon connecting with that within that is divine, the holy spark which brought our first breath.

God may be perfect, but we are not. Our parents were not, ever, perfect parents. And so we all have elements of our personalities, parts of who we are, with which we deliberately avoid contact. And that we access at our peril. In this state, it is hard to access the divine within, for so much else is corrupted by the cares of this existence.

There are people we meet who seem to live without care, though. How do they do it? Let's glance back at Wittgenstein:
... don't we have the feeling that someone who sees no problem in life is blind to something important, even to the most important thing of all? Don't I feel like saying that a man like that is just living aimlessly - blindly, like a mole, and that if only he could see, he would see the problem?

Or shouldn't I say rather: a man who lives rightly won't experience the problem as sorrow, so for him it will not be a problem, but a joy; in other words for him it will be a bright halo round his life, not a dubious background.
-1937
What Wittgenstein is showing us is what happens when you are in alignment or harmony with life. There are those who suffer but maintain faith. That is fine. But there are others who suffer and remain joyful. This is the difference between piety - knowing that a greater good exists and ought be respected - and being in contact with the divine within.

Original sin, it seems to me, consists in our separation from God and adherence to our earthly natures. Finding peace in life, then, comes in surmounting the worst of the horrors unleashed by original sin, or original separation. It comes when we endure the darkness of life as the child endures the darkness of the room. The child can handle the darkness when his mother is there, the sound of her breath letting him know he is not alone. And we can learn to handle the darkness by realizing that Jesus is right there with us - right there inside us, in fact - if we only reach within to discover the immortal soul which is our true source and whose safety He has secured.


Take as a postscript to this discussion, the following that Wittgenstein wrote in 1939:
In a way, having oneself psychoanalysed is like eating from the tree of knowledge. The knowledge acquired sets us (new) ethical problems; but contributes nothing to their solution.
This view of the tree of knowledge is apt, for before Christ, our own view of original sin could only be "We're sorry, but now what?" With Christ, we partially resolve this, for eternal separation from the Father is no longer necessary. But there is still the matter of how free our free will is if its only acceptable use is to align ourselves with the will of heaven, all other uses being possible but in vain except as gestures of defiance. The matter is more troublesome than the free will vs. predestination question, since it asks not merely whether but why God gave us free will. The question is one I will take up later. My thoughts are inadequate to the task and probably wrong, but it's worth exploring since, I suspect, the key to inner peace lies in figuring out whether there's actually an answer and what it might be.

posted by gbarto at 6:43 PM