The Rhinoceros in the Room: Young Wittgenstein, God, and the End of the World

–What do I know about God and the purpose of life?  I know that this world exists.   (Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916)

–To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.  To believe in God means to see the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.  To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.   (Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916)

–The way that you use the word ‘God’ does not show whom you mean–but rather, what you mean. (Wittgenstein, Culture and Value)


According to biographer Ray Monk, in 1911 Ludwig Wittgenstein began formal studies in logic with Bertrand Russell who had recently published his magisterial multi-volume Principia Mathematica.  After exhaustively working on mathematical logic for over a decade, Russell turned to what he thought would be less arduous concerns, a lucid popularization of his main philosophical views in The Problems of Philosophy.  When Wittgenstein arrived at Cambridge to pursue logic studies, Russell was planning a book on religion.

Russell became young Ludwig’s philosophical mentor.  As his student, Wittgenstein engaged with Russell in many areas of philosophy, including religion, which was a recurrent topic for him in his career.  In the later work, many of Wittgenstein’s remarks on God and religious belief can be found in Philosophical Grammar, Culture and Value, and in his Lectures on Religious Belief.  

In fact, interspersed in his earliest meditations on logic and language, the Notebooks 1914-1916 and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein contemplated issues about God and the meaning of life.  As indicated, he did not hesitate to comment on the “big questions,” e.g., happiness, death, God, and good and evil.  Although Wittgenstein attacked logic problems with high-octane zeal, it didn’t take long for him to take exception to Russell’s lifestyle and religious views.  The young logic student was not particularly religious or church-going, but his background was Judeo-Christian.  However, Russell’s views were scathingly opposed to Judeo-Christianity, similar to deism or agnosticism, and eventually evolved into strident atheism.

At the time, Russell advocated a “religion of contemplation” by which he meant “a mystical union with the universe in which our finite selves are overcome and we become at one with infinity” (Monk 37).  With the publication of Russell’s “The Essence of Religion,” Wittgenstein could no longer hold back his contempt for the elder philosopher’s approach to the topic and his manner of expression.  Apart from his own beliefs, Wittgenstein believed that Russell’s paper violated the standards of logical clarity, precision, and reasonableness that philosophy and logic upholds—the very principles that Russell establishes in the Principia.  For Wittgenstein, the issue was not so much about the content of Russell’s beliefs, but the way a logician should approach questions about religion.

On the topic of Wittgenstein’s religious views, scholars such as Peter Winch, Norman Malcolm,Kai Nielsen, and D.Z. Phillips have discussed various influences or have compared his views to contemporaries.  In such discussions, connections are frequently made to writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Arthur Schopenhauer, Frederich Nietzsche, Sir James George Frazer, William James, and Soren Kierkegaard.  Generally speaking, scholars have discussed Wittgenstein’s supposed advocacy of Judeo-Christian “fideism.”

Hardly an apologist, Wittgenstein’s unsystematic statements on religion comment on the nature of belief, the “unreasonableness” of faith, and can be seen to offer a middle ground for believers.  Overall, he maintains that believers speak from a completely different perspective, worldview, or “form of life” than non-believers.  That is, believers and non-believers have different “pictures” of reality.  Accordingly, they don’t necessarily disagree inasmuch as they talk passed one another.

Briefly, believers and non-believers may competently speak the same language, and use the same words, such as “God” or a “god,” “Soul,” “Afterlife,” “Last Judgment,” and “Resurrection,” but a believer means something entirely different with these words than a non-believer, and the difference hinges on different backgrounds.  Thus, according to contextual use and the “language game” of a particular “form of life,” a speaker’s words literally may be the same as ours, intended non-figuratively, but register different meanings.  In a way, to use a familiar expression in the Philosophical Investigations (PI), it is as if we had encountered linguistically competent strangers in a strange land, or had found ourselves exiled in a country where the natives speak our language but we nonetheless do not understand them.

As Wittgenstein remarks, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him” (PI).  The lion is analogous to a competent speaker of our language who uses the same words that we do but has a completely different understanding of them.   What is it to be like a lion who speaks?  Or, as Tom Nagel asks, what is it like to be a bat?  On religion, Wittgenstein’s concern was similar—what is it like to be a believer?  What are the semantic truth-conditions for words spoken by a believer as opposed to a non-believer?

Rather than discuss influences, I think it’s more profitable to examine the development of Wittgenstein’s thought in light of his early work in logic with Russell.   I advance the following claim: Wittgenstein’s religious views are indebted to his early preoccupations with Russell’s logical atomism—the connection between names and objects— whereby emerged his views on the unity of propositions, relations, and descriptions.  Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s analysis of the form and content of propositional attitudes (“Bill believes his soul is immortal”) follows from his frustration with Russell’s evolving religious views—from mysticism to dogmatic atheism—as lacking logical rigorI’m aware of only one scholarly study that makes a connection between Wittgenstein’s early work and his religious views, and it is Mark Lazenby’s Early Wittgenstein on Religion (Continuum Press, 144 pages).  As Lazenby points out, Wittgenstein’s early views on religion are not taken very seriously.  However, much more can be said about it.  Here, I offer some preliminary thoughts on the topic.

In one of the earliest encounters between Russell and Wittgenstein, they debated about whether a rhinoceros was in the room.  Monk quotes Russell’s account of the event: “Wittgenstein refused to admit that it was certain that there was not a rhinoceros in the room,” then after looking underneath desks for the beast, Russell concluded, “My German engineer, I think, is a fool.”  Presumably, Wittgenstein thought that “nothing empirical is knowable-I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.”

The dispute centered on the nature of propositions.  As he spelled out in the Notebooks (“Notes on Logic”) and in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein held the view that there is nothing in the world except propositions—that is, only propositions exist in the external world.  But why does Wittgenstein say this?  Why is anything empirical unknowable?

First, logic does not make commitments to there being objects in the world.  Thus, logic does not permit us to make epistemic claims.

Second, to comprehend the point of Wittgenstein’s objection, we must first clarify the scope of a proposition.  Wittgenstein did not think that Russell’s claim about a rhino in the room took the form of a proposition.  Wittgenstein’s point had to do with the logical structure of the world.  Accordingly, the world consists of facts—or propositions—not things or objects.

The content of a proposition is not a psychological phenomenon.  Facts are true propositions. Truth is an attribute of a proposition.  The proposition denotes an object of belief.  The difference between a true and false proposition is that the former is asserted.  When a proposition is true it has a certain property in distinction to false propositions, and the logical property is assertion.  True propositions have the property of ‘being asserted,’ and false propositions do not.  In challenging Russell, Wittgenstein says that there is nothing in the world except propositions—also, false propositions are not (abstract) entities.  There is no state of affairs in the world or fact that satisfies the logical function of negation.

In the conversation, Wittgenstein’s point concerned whether any facts or terms could be presumed to exist in virtue of a rhino not existing in the room.  Thus, Wittgenstein allowed existence only to propositions or facts.  He had anticipated the first propositions of the Tractatus: the world consists of facts, not things or objects.

Scholars debate a point over whether Wittgenstein meant “asserted” or “unasserted” propositions.  In the Notebooks, Wittgenstein often discusses the relevance of “unasserted propositions,” which leads some critics to think that Wittgenstein criticized Russell’s notions on “asserted propositions.”

It is likely that Wittgenstein holds that Russell’s “assertion” is incoherent, because his worry concerns that which can be meaningfully asserted.  In Russell’s case, an “asserted proposition” is psychological; Wittgenstein’s objection would point out confusion on the nature of a proposition.  For Wittgenstein, an asserted proposition is meaningful, and not at all psychological.

In his conversation with Russell, if Wittgenstein was concerned with meaningful assertion, then we can see that he was challenging Russell’s proposition: “There is no rhinoceros in the room.”  It does not meaningfully assert anything.  If we understand Wittgenstein in this way, then we can take the view that there are only asserted propositions in the world to imply for Wittgenstein that “There is no rhinoceros in the room” is nonsense.  That is, the statement seems to assert a proposition, but it does not.  Because it does not make an assertion, then the expression makes no sense.  Only propositions that assert something make sense.

But what’s wrong with Russell’s statement, “There is no rhino in the room”?  Presumably, we could agree with him.  Surely, there is no rhino in the room.  How is the statement nonsensical?  Wittgenstein’s point is about the way the world is; “asserted propositions” involve our talk about the world, and the logic of the world.  They aren’t assertions about the world.  The expression “The rhino is not in the room” only seems to be an assertion about the world, but for Wittgenstein it isn’t an assertion about the world.  According to him, not all empirical propositions form correct judgments, and not all correct judgments form empirical propositions.

Russell’s statement seems to make us believe that we can know or can assert something about the rhino, i.e., it is not in the room.  But Wittgenstein thinks it is nonsense.  Prior to ontological considerations, we look at the context of the statement.  We don’t claim that the statement is meaningless because there is no rhino in the room, but because we would not expect according to normal circumstances that a rhino would be in the room.  The statement is meaningless against the background of our lives.  Under normal circumstances, we don’t walk into a room occupied by a rhino.  Of course, the situation is not impossible.  But possibility and actuality is not at issue.  The statement simply makes no sense; it cannot be meaningfully asserted because rhinos form no part of the speaker’s background.  (For a good discussion of “the background” see John Searle’s Intentionality— and Barry Stroud’s critique of it in John Searle and His Critics).

Thus, Russell’s statement that “There is no rhinoceros in the room” seems to fall apart under pressure.  Logic cannot allow us to make commitments about there being a rhino in the room.  Furthermore, the statement is meaningless against a background for making meaningful propositions.   It is likely that Wittgenstein was upholding the idea that ‘background propositions’ are propositions or assertions.   It’s quite possible that he was anticipating his later view that the only meaningful propositions are those that we use every day.  In daily life, we do not ascribe ‘true’ or false’ to propositions about rhinos; thus, it is not a bivalent asserted proposition.

Members of the Vienna Circle, logical positivists, developed a similar view, annexing to it the “verification principle.”  A.J. Ayer’s English version of logical positivism is the classic Language, Truth, and Logic wherein he examines statements, such as “God exists.”

Taking their cue from Wittgenstein, members of the Vienna Circle maintained that the most difficult problems in philosophy are expressed in tautologies, or in the form of the law of excluded middle: “God exists or God does not exist.”  By itself, the truth value of this statement cannot be disputed.  It is true.  The problem, of course, is that we simply do not have enough evidence to say which disjunctive expression is true.

In what world is “God exists” an asserted proposition?  Presumably, a believer believes on faith that the statement is true.  But since a believer has the same empirical evidence in support of the truth-value of the statement as a non-believer, that is to say not much, if any, then what picture of reality or state of affairs makes the statement true?  What makes it believable?

Is God any different than the rhino in the room?  Can they exist in the same world?

For Wittgenstein, one of the problems with philosophy was its tendency to embrace scientism.  He believed that Kant made some sound conclusions about metaphysics and God: the human mind cannot not think about God; i.e., God-talk cannot be squeezed out of speculative metaphysics.  However, scientism is the view that the methods of science can be usefully employed in areas outside of science, such as in the humanities.  Thus, the principle of verification established a criterion to ascertain the truth-value of hypotheses and judgments—one only needs to secure empirical facts for proof to consensus.   But obviously, a believer believes without having evidence, and, according to Wittgenstein, does not appeal to the actual world for support of her faith.  Her belief is not about facts or states of affairs in the actual world.  Her belief is expressible in terms of an “unasserted proposition.”  Wittgenstein deliberated his entire career about whether such propositions are meaningless or not.  What we know for sure is that no amount of empirical data can support the truth-value of the proposition; no amount of criticism of the believer’s belief will disprove it or dissuade her from holding dearly to it.  Moreover, a form of life is based on it—perhaps not our picture of reality—but one in which religious beliefs, rituals, creeds, and images fashion a meaningful picture.  It may be unreasonable to assert a proposition such as “God exists,” but it is not entirely irrational to belief it.

The person who utters such a statement uses the words differently than the non-believer; she understands something quite different by them.  Her language game is different; the words form and are based on a completely different picture of reality.  In fact, the world in which “God exists” can be asserted meaningfully, if at all true, is a different world in which the statement is meaningless.  Thus, by extension we can also say that the end of the world, its limits, cannot be uttered; for the utterance cannot be understood meaningfully by all in the linguistic community.  The limit of language is the limit of the world.  “God” represents a limit of our language, and in uttering the word “God” is the end and limit of our world.  Surely, as Wittgenstein likely thought, the end of the world is ineffable.

For Wittgenstein, the laws of nature cannot help us with “big ideas” in metaphysics, such as God and Fate.  Here, we turn to the Tractatus, wherein he says, “So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients with God and Fate” (6.372).  One of Wittgenstein’s most famous Tractatus aphorisms is: “The world is independent of my will” (6.373), which presumably means that God cannot be reasoned (or proven) into existence—we cannot speak about something that has no assertoric meaning in the world.  This line of thought leads him to the points we find in 6.41 – 6.422, 6.43, and 6.4311-6.4312, which culminate in 6.432, “How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher.  God does not reveal himself in the world.”  [Compare these statements to similar ones in the Notebooks, pp. 72-74]

God does not reveal himself in the world.  Is this a statement of belief?  What would it be like to believe it with the conviction of reality on our side?  Or is this the only kind of statement that logic permits Wittgenstein to make?

Because the world is a world of facts, asserted propositions, “God in the world” cannot be asserted meaningfully.  What would it mean for God to “reveal himself”?  Would the believer have deeper insight into her fate or the scope of her will?  It is impossible for God to reveal himself because such a revelation, beyond the language of the world, outside its limits, would violate logical necessity?  My will is contingent, and so is my existence, my beliefs.  To know God would mean to have an acquaintance with the whole world, all the facts, and the ability to speak his name with familiarity.  But logic provides only partial access to the world; we can only imagine the possibilities; we can only say the sayable; Whereof we cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s