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James Still W Why

The Mental Discomfort of “Why?”

James Still *

I do not believe in dead things and cannot distinguish between being no more and never having been.  -André Gide.


1. Preliminaries

2. Wittgenstein and God

3. The Expression of "Why?" and the Problem of Life

4. “Why?” in Religious Practice

5. "Why?" in the Cosmological Proof

6. Wittgenstein’s Solution to the Problem of Life

7. Conclusion

8. References

9. Endnotes



I use the following abbreviations for Wittgenstein’s works and those notes, conversations, and lectures compiled by others:

BB The Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
CV Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Ed. G. H. von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.
LC Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.
LE "Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics." The Philosophical Review 74 (1965): 3-12.
NB Notebooks 1914-1916. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Ed. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979.
PI Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. 3rd Ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968.
RC Remarks on Colour. Trans. L. L. McAlister and M. Schättle. Ed. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977.
RFGB Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough. Trans. A. C. Miles. Ed. Rush Rhees. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979.
RW Recollections of Wittgenstein. Ed. Rush Rhees. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
TLP Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. London and New York: Routledge, 1974.


1. Preliminaries

In Remarks on Colour, §317, Wittgenstein writes:

When someone who believes in God looks around him and asks `Where did everything that I see come from?’ `Where did everything come from?’, he is not asking for a (causal) explanation; and the point of his question is that it is the expression of such a request. Thus, he is expressing an attitude towards all explanations. -But how is this shown in his life? It is the attitude that takes a particular matter seriously, but then at a particular point doesn’t take it seriously after all, and declares that something else is even more serious. Someone may for instance say it’s a very grave matter that such and such a man should have died before he could complete a certain piece of work; and yet, in another sense, this is not what matters. At this point one uses the words `in a deeper sense.’

In this paper, I shall concentrate on understanding this difficult passage. First, in order to lay a groundwork for further discussion, I consider Wittgenstein’s early theory of language and his view of God. I argue that Wittgenstein holds a reductionist view of God in which God is understood as the feeling of the world as "a limited whole." The believer’s questions can be understood as expressions of unclarity about the problem of life. When we suddenly confront the problem of life, language cannot provide a basis for discussing or conceptualizing the brute fact of existence. Thus, we express a "mental discomfort" over the fact that we should exist at all. Second, I consider the believer’s questions in the context of religious expression. Wittgenstein argues that natural reason can never answer questions that emerge from contemplating the problem of life. Third, I discuss the attempt of the metaphysical realist to answer the believer by providing to him a cosmological proof for the existence of God. Last, I discuss Wittgenstein’s solution to the problem of life.

2. Wittgenstein and God

Before we can understand what Wittgenstein might mean when he says that the believer expresses an attitude toward all explanations, it is helpful first to determine what Wittgenstein believes about God. Brian Davies (1980) finds evidence in Wittgenstein’s curious remark for the view that Wittgenstein held a traditional (orthodox) view of God as a transcendent, personal being. Davies argues that Wittgenstein might be allowing that religious utterances have a subject matter, an essence, buried within the nonsensical expressions of believers. Thus, this essence allows that the believer is talking about something real. If Davies is correct, Wittgenstein takes a traditional approach to theology in the way that Aquinas considers religious utterances to be the use of words that analogously say something about a real being beyond our understanding.[1]

However, I think that Davies is mistaken to think that Wittgenstein perceives God as "real" in the traditional sense or that statements about God can be sayable.[2] It seems that Wittgenstein holds a reductionist view that equates God with the mystical feeling of the world as a "limited whole." As Anscombe (1967) points out, viewing the world as a limited whole is not at all obscure. Wittgenstein establishes quite early in the Tractatus that the world divides into facts, so it follows naturally that only a whole can be subdivided into constituent parts (169). However, Wittgenstein’s view of God is much more obscure. Wittgenstein tells us very little about God in his Tractatus except that God "does not reveal himself in the world" (TLP 6.432). This isolated remark can be understood by looking at Wittgenstein’s earlier Notebooks where he writes more fully on God. In the Notebooks, Wittgenstein considers God to be something we call "the meaning of life" (NB 73). The meaning of life lies outside of us and is all that is the case, i.e., it is the totality of facts. In other words, the meaning of life is the world, and the world is God.[3] It is clear that Wittgenstein does not think of God as a personal being, but rather God is a conception of everything taken together as a whole. Thus, to have a conception of God is to view the world as a limited whole (TLP 6.45). Although God is not a personal being, Wittgenstein thinks it is convenient for us to anthropomorphize the concept of God into a father figure, and when we pray to God, we contemplate the meaning of life (NB 73). Thus, to believe in God is at its essence to believe that life is not meaningless. The feeling that accompanies the contemplation of God can be experienced by asking questions that push beyond scientific explanation, which is what Wittgenstein calls the "urge towards the mystical" [der Trieb zum Mystischen] (NB 51). These thoughts from Wittgenstein’s Notebooks carry over into the Tractatus in the highly condensed remark: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it [the world] exists" (TLP 6.44). How things are in the world is determined by the totality of facts. But to consider how the collection of facts should come to exist is to push beyond any rational consideration of the world and to give in to the mystical urge. That those facts exist, or to put it another way, the particular configuration in which everything stands together (wie sich alles verhält) is the mystical. (TLP 6.44; cf. NB 79). Wittgenstein writes, "aesthetically, the miracle is that the world exists. That there is what there is" (NB 86; cf. LE 11). God and the mystical amount to the same thing.

The mystical, or God, cannot be spoken about meaningfully, but only shown. Wittgenstein demonstrates this saying/showing distinction in the beginning sections of the Tractatus. The propositions of language are complex and can be reduced to simpler elementary propositions (TLP 4.221). An elementary proposition is a concatenation of names (TLP 4.22). A name has meaning because it stands proxy for an object and the name necessarily has a determinate sense (TLP 3.203; 3.23). In order to see whether the name is determinate, the name must ostensively point to its object (TLP 3.261). What can be said has sense because it pictures reality and the possibility of its being true or false can be known. For example, Wittgenstein argues that an utterance like "the ball is red" says something meaningful precisely because it excludes a state of affairs in which the ball is not red. If we had no idea what it might mean for a ball not to be red, we could not find "the ball is red" to be a meaningful utterance; thus, the utterance would be nonsensical. Nonsensical utterances are quasi-propositions that lack truth-value conditions. Included among those important nonsensical utterances are the various attempts to say things about aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, and God. The concept of beauty has no truth-value conditions; thus, beauty cannot be clearly described. It can only show itself as through a work of art or perhaps in the last rays of the setting sun. "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence" (TLP 7).

Clearly, Wittgenstein is not a logical positivist condemning those believers who attempt to push beyond the limits of language to say what can only be shown. On the contrary, Wittgenstein deeply respects the attempt and says that he would not think to ridicule the desire to speak about ethics or religion (LE 12). The reason Wittgenstein refrains from criticizing the believer is because he realizes that any statement against nonsensical utterances can only generate more nonsense (TLP 5.61). Rather than compounding nonsense upon nonsense-as with the positivist critique of metaphysics-Wittgenstein advises us to point out to the believer that the utterance "God" fails to connect to an object that would give it meaning (TLP 6.53).[4] Metaphysical utterances about God are nonsensical propositions masquerading as meaningful propositions. On the Tractarian view, meaningful propositions must be either true or false; they are what can be said. What cannot be said will be clearly seen by identifying the set of propositions that can be said (TLP 4.115). All that can be said is the totality of facts, which is all that is the case.

In a conversation with Drury, Wittgenstein makes it very clear that if a being were such that one could meaningfully speak about it, then that being would not be God:

It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him" (RW 107-8).

Natural reason does not bring about belief in God because one can never reach transcendental values from the finite propositions of a limited world. All propositions have equal value, so that an infinitely powerful being within the world cannot be an object of reverence (TLP 6.44). Wittgenstein insists that Christianity "doesn’t rest on an historic basis in the sense that the ordinary belief in historic facts could serve as a foundation . . . . Those people who had faith didn’t apply the doubt which would ordinarily apply to any historical propositions" (LC 57). Reason, mysticism, and sense experience cannot show the concept of God, but life experience, culture, and upbringing can instill a belief in God. As we experience joy and suffer loss, the concept of God can force itself upon us (CV 86). When in those rare moments of life in which the finititude of the world is glimpsed, the idea of God as the culmination of absolute value emerges.

To know what God is, we must look at the way believers speak about the concept of God, to include heresies (for blasphemous utterances tell us just as much about what God is as pious utterances do). Thus, Wittgenstein writes "the way you use the word `God’ does not show whom you mean but, rather, what you mean" (CV 50). For example, just as the believer may use a picture of God as a father, he might also use a picture to describe another concept of God in which the "eyes of God" are upon him. This vivid picture suggests a particular use of grammar in religious life, and as Wittgenstein notes, one never goes on to speak of the eyebrows of God (LC 71). The utterance was not meant to explain how God is able to perceive, but is instead a description of the need for moral behavior.

3. The Expression of "Why?" and the Problem of Life

We now see that the believer who looks around and wonders where everything came from, realizes that the entire set of facts (all that is the case) does not seem to touch aesthetics, ethics, God, and all of the things that human beings find truly important. If the world is all that is the case, then what occurs within the world-the domain of natural science-does not address why the world should exist in the first place (TLP 6.4321). Thus, the dissatisfaction we experience with finding no value in the scientific enterprise, drives us toward the mystical. How the facts picture the world, i.e., science, is not the problem since science can explain the events within the world. However, that those facts exist as the set of all meaningful propositions, which are perceived as a limited whole, is the problem of life (6.44). Thus, to view the world as all that is the case, as a limited whole, is to possess the mystical feeling that the world should exist at all. The feeling of the world as a limited whole creates a "mental discomfort" within us and we feel as if it is an intractable problem in need of solving (BB 26).

Wittgenstein’s consideration of the problem of life seems to be informed by Tolstoy’s spiritual struggle in his Confession.[5] Tolstoy (1983) wrote that the problem of life was the sudden realization that life is both finite and utterly meaningless. Tolstoy found that when he contemplated life "moments of bewilderment" would overtake him and the recurring question "Why?" would arise (26). "I had to know why I was doing these things," Tolstoy writes, "as long as I do not know the reason why, I cannot do anything" (27). Tolstoy’s existential situation was thrust upon him suddenly with the death of his brother:

"The death of my brother was another instance in which I realized the inadequacy of the superstition of progress in regard to life. A good, intelligent, serious man, he was still young when he fell ill. He suffered for over a year and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying. No theories could provide any answers to these questions, either for him or for me, during his slow and painful death" (23).

Tolstoy seems here to reduce Hegel’s idea of a progressive, history-creating Spirit to "superstition" so that no event within the world can possibly succeed in answering the problem of life. The insight that Wittgenstein and Tolstoy share is not at all the result of mystical visions or supernatural experiences as at least one commentator has suggested.[6] When Tolstoy speaks of the problem of life as the realization that facts can never transcend the contingency of the world, he does not say anything that other thinkers such as Kierkegaard or Camus have not thought of as well. Anscombe (1967) points out that

"Wittgenstein took the term [the mystical feeling] over from Russell, who used it in a special way, with reference to an entirely ordinary feeling; one that is well expressed at 6.52: `We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, still the problems of life have not been touched at all’" (170).

Tolstoy realized the existential human predicament quite clearly. How can we find meaning in the finite fact of our existence when the world itself is nothing over and above the collection of finite facts? Tolstoy concluded that the only way the finite can have meaning is by way of the infinite. This is expressed in the Tractatus as well when Wittgenstein writes that the "sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists-and if it did exist, it would have no value" (6.41). But to wonder at the existence of the world is to go beyond rational comprehension and to thrust deeply into the mystical in a futile search for absolute value. Once divorced from language (what can be said), any further utterances that emerge from this mystical urge become nonsensical. To ask why something, rather than nothing, should exist is to express "an utterance of unclarity" over the use of the words "something," "nothing," and "existence" in our depth grammar (BB 26).[7] While the attempt to answer the question of life by looking beyond it is a noble one, it is also utterly futile (LE 12). What cannot be said, can only be shown.

The believer’s mental discomfort of "Why?" is similar to what Stephen Toulmin (1953) calls a "limiting question" (204-5). A limiting question is an expression that attempts to push beyond the boundaries of human reason, or in Wittgenstein’s terminology, attempts to say what can only be shown. For example, we can imagine a grief-stricken mother whose child has just died asking, "Why did my child have to die so young?" The mother’s question is an outpouring of grief brought on by the sudden realization that life in this world is both fleeting and fragile, and thus, problematic. Like Tolstoy, the mother does not want a causal explanation involving a further fact in the world and it would be no answer at all to explain to her that her child had a terminal illness. Her attitude towards the death of her child illustrates the surface and deeper senses of the utterance that Wittgenstein alludes to in RC §317. On its face, the mother’s utterance expresses her grief that her child died, but at a deeper level she also expresses the realization that everyone is born, must live, and will die. In this more profound sense, the mother experiences anguish over the meaninglessness of life and the problem of existence. Toulmin notes an example of a limiting question in Pascal’s Pensées, which paradigmatically illustrates the mental discomfort of the mother’s expression:

When I consider the briefness of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know me not, I am afraid . . . . Who has set me here? By whose order and arrangement have this place and this time been allotted me? (qtd. in Toulmin 209-210).

Wittgenstein insists that the believer, like Pascal, does not ask for a causal explanation when he or she initially poses the limiting question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Any attempt to answer the believer who asks this question by providing reasons or causes for the existence of the universe, is misguided and will fail. The believer’s attitude stands prior to the law of causality or scientific explanations (PI 126). He or she does not want to consider a new cosmological proof, but instead desires to puzzle over the problem of life. Thus, there is no meaningful answer to the believer’s question because the believer was not asking a question to begin with. Any causal explanation we provide misunderstands the believer’s motive in expressing his or her religious feelings. The reason the believer asked the question was because he or she was suddenly confronted by the problem of life. To contemplate this problem is to contemplate the mystical.

I think that the mental discomfort of "Why?" can be understood in the same way that Wittgenstein wants us to reorient our thinking around the notion of death, which he suggests

is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits (TLP 6.4311).

The early Wittgenstein’s solipsism suggests that the world consists only of my experience of the world; thus, at the moment of death, memories, experiences, and sensations cease to occur and the world ends. If it is perceived as a limited whole, the world must end. In this understanding, life is eternal because there is no moment in which I do not experience the world. From this point of view, it is misplaced to ask "What will happen after death?" for such a question is nonsensical. The mystical feeling is the paradox generated when we try to push beyond the limits of language and pose questions such as these. Another way of getting at what Wittgenstein is trying to point out is to think, not just of the end of time, but of the nonsensicality of a "beginning" of time as well. We cannot know what would be the case for time to exist "before" time or the world and our use of "before" in this utterance is a misuse of language. To go "prior to" the first moment of time is to move beyond what is sayable, and to pose meaningless utterances that cannot be said.

4. "Why?" in Religious Practice

Wittgenstein likens faith to a search for value (TLP 6.41). When the believer searches for value and meaning, he or she does not want explanations or hypotheses that fall short of the real problem of life. Wittgenstein writes that "whatever one said to me [to explain value], I would reject it; not indeed because the explanation is false but because it is an explanation" (LE 16). As we saw earlier, nonsensical utterances cannot be true or false because they do not have truth-value conditions; however, explanations are propositions that have equal value in the world. Yet, value cannot be explained, it can only be manifested or shown. Therefore, just as Wittgenstein regards it as his duty to defy a powerful being reached via natural reason, he also regards it as his duty to reject any explanation that is doomed a priori to be utterly valueless.

Wittgenstein’s resistance to explanations of faith and value form the basis of his critique of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. By looking at Wittgenstein’s critique of Frazer, we can better understand why the believer’s questions in RC §317 are expressions of mental unclarity rather than requests for causal explanations. The problem Wittgenstein has with Frazer’s study is that Frazer characterizes the religious expressions of primitive peoples as mistaken attempts to explain the world (RFGB 1). However, mistakes are possible only when one attempts to advance an explanation or theory. Wittgenstein insists that the ritualistic behaviors of primitive people are not explanations or hypotheses about the world, but rather behaviors that precede all causal explanations (RFGB 1). This is because a description is only a perception of the world, while an explanation attempts to say something about the world in truth-conditional terms. Thus, ritualistic behavior cannot be mistaken, but only described:

I think one reason why the attempt to find an explanation is wrong is that we have only to put together in the right way what we know, without adding anything, and the satisfaction we are trying to get from the explanation comes of itself. And here the explanation is not what satisfies us anyway" (RFGB 2).

What we know is our description of the world. When the believer asks "Why?" he or she is not satisfied with scientific explanations and so expresses a mental discomfort that goes beyond all explanations. The believer’s question is a sort of religious expression concerning the problem of life. Frazer’s explanation for the religious practice of the primitive people takes literally a ritualistic behavior that never intended to advance a theory. In just the same way that the believer expresses his mental discomfort to ask "Why?" without really desiring an explanation or answer, so too the primitives desire only to express their religious attitudes without explaining how the world really works. These expressions are not scientific hypotheses, but rather they find their meaning in the actions and attitudes of the language game in which they are at home. We can discern the meaning that these religious expressions have in people’s lives by describing what goes on in their religious practices. The explanation will then show itself rather than being imposed from without. For example, does the believer look up with outstretched arms when he prays? Or perhaps he instead touches his forehead to the ground? Perhaps another believer utters the word "remarkable!" with a look of amazement on her face at being told that there are billions of stars in the heavens. Or perhaps she lowers her head a little and squeezes her eyes shut in a certain manner. We can easily imagine a case where a primitive people ritualistically greet the rising sun each day as if to say "Look! Creation is born anew." But in no way would we think that their ritual explained why the sun rose.

Wittgenstein accuses Frazer of presenting such actions and beliefs in a manner that trivializes them because Frazer portrays them as mistaken notions of cosmology. Yet, Frazer’s explanation for the primitive people’s belief is itself a hypothesis (RFGB 3). The primitives are not advancing a cosmological theory nor are they trying to explain the universe, but rather their ritualistic practice expresses an attitude toward a universe in which they have been inexplicably placed. For example, Alexander Bapa-referring to the nomadic Siberian singer Kaigal-ool-remarks that "when Kaigal-ool sings, he doesn’t try to draw conclusions, his soul demands the singing." In this utterance, we see that Kaigal-ool is not forming a hypothesis about the world that he sings of, but rather he releases a religious expression that comes from deep within him. This effort reveals the struggle to come to grips with the problem of life.

Wittgenstein concludes that the ancients were not as primitive as we moderns tend to think. Frazer had thought that the reason the primitives continued to practice fertility magic and rain dances for so long was because they did not know that these practices failed to work. However, Wittgenstein argues that the primitives surely knew that their ceremonies were ineffective in causing rain (RFGB 2). Can we really believe, for example, that the primitive native Americans thought that their rain dances caused the sky to rain? Or was it instead the case that their rain dances were ritualistic expressions that communicated the desire that it ought to rain? To desire for rain is not to form a hypothesis; therefore, the native Americans who prayed for rain could not have been mistaken in their beliefs. Explanations of religious behavior can be mistaken, but someone’s religious behavior can only be described. Thus, the believer, struck by the problem of life, who questions why something, rather than nothing, should exist is not asking for a causal explanation. Explanations and hypotheses can only be about states of affairs in the world. Any explanation that we might give to the believer is doomed to failure because it entirely misses the point of the question in the first place.

5. "Why?" in the Cosmological Proof

I have argued that the believer’s limiting question "Why?" is an expression of the mental discomfort experienced when one is confronted with the problem of life and the wonder that the universe should exist. As Tolstoy put it, the problem of life is the fact that we are finite beings who exist in the world and this fact of our existence is unexplainable. The cosmological proof is the mistaken attempt to answer literally the question of life that the believer poses. In his BBC radio debate with F. C. Copleston, Bertrand Russell suggested that the "universe is just there, and that’s all," to which Copleston replied "I can’t see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing? That is the question" (175). Here Copleston echoes the believer in RC §317 as well as Wittgenstein’s experience par excellence of wondering at the existence of the world (LE 8).

As we have seen, Wittgenstein argues that the question "Why?" that Copleston poses is an expression of mental discomfort that cannot be taken literally. However, proponents of the cosmological proof make this very mistake when they seek to provide a causal explanation for the problem of life. The cosmological proof demands that the question "why should there be something rather than nothing?" is both meaningful and answerable. Tolstoy counters, "if experimental science should run into a question concerning an ultimate cause, it stumbles over nonsense" (39). Wittgenstein cogently puts this another way to say that "propositions can express nothing that is higher" (TLP 6.42). An examination of the cosmological proof demonstrates the problem with taking "Why?" as a meaningful utterance.

Copleston (1964) glosses Aquinas’s first proof from motion, which argues that (1) the existence of finite beings calls for an explanation, (2) the only explanation that can satisfactorily explain the existence of finite beings is a transfinite First Cause, therefore (3) a First Cause is the solution to the existence of finite beings. Copleston insists that the naturalist must deny (1) in order to escape the conclusion to a First Cause. Only by declaring, as Bertrand Russell did, that "things just are" and the problem of life is a pseudo-problem, can one escape Aquinas’s conclusion to a First Cause. However, Copleston feels that Russell’s denial is absurd since he is like a chess player who avoids being checkmated by refusing to even sit at the table. Copleston argues that we must admit that there is a reason for the existence of finite beings; moreover, only by admitting that we are here for some reason can we explain why there are finite beings in the world.

Of course, the first premise is itself a restatement of the believer’s dismay that something, rather than nothing, should exist. The crucial difference is that the believer (like the native American rain dancers) is merely expressing an attitude that there ought to be an answer, while Aquinas’s argument erroneously attempts to reason toward a definitive answer. Proponents hope to build up to a first infinite cause by way of pure reason. However, since the world is the totality of facts, a finite fact can be explained only by means of another finite fact. Proponents of the cosmological proof make the mistake of treating the question "Why?" as if it were a literal question that had a meaningful answer. In other words, the cosmological proof makes the same mistake that Frazer made when he attempted to treat primitive people’s belief as if they were scientific explanations of the world. The cosmological proof does provide an answer, but it is an answer to a nonsensical problem that has been removed from the language game in which it was at home. As Tolstoy understood in a slightly different context,

"such an answer does not constitute a reply to the question. I must know the meaning of my life, but to say that it is a particle of infinity not only fails to give it any meaning but destroys all possible meaning" (42).

Science can only address issues of cause and effect within the world; natural causes can never mount up to a final cause that lies outside of the world. It is mistaken to think that the answers Tolstoy and Wittgenstein seek can be provided by taking their questions literally and supplying to them a proof from natural reason. To see how the cosmological proof misunderstands the existential question for a literal one, imagine a conversation along the lines that Toulmin (1953) considers to be "peculiarities" of limiting questions:

"What holds up the apple?"

"The book."

"What holds up the book?"

"The table holds up the book."

"What holds up the table?"

"Well, the floor holds up the table."

"What holds up the floor?"

"Why the Earth of course!"

"What holds up the Earth?"

This final question, which asks what holds up the Earth, reveals that the entire series of questions never sought literal explanations, but rather expressed concerns that there are books, that there is an Earth, and ultimately, that anything should exist at all. The purpose of these limiting questions is to go beyond literal answers and to contemplate the fact of existence. Wittgenstein wishes us to understand the question as a mental discomfort that there should be books, tables, floors and an Earth. Taken literally, of course, the question is nonsensical. However, proponents of the cosmological proof indulge in such nonsensical discourse by answering that Atlas holds up the Earth on his mighty shoulders.[8] Despite the question’s nonsensicality, the cosmological proof has answered it anyway and in so doing, it confuses the questioner’s mental discomfort with a request for a causal explanation. Atlas becomes the "clear and acknowledged terminus" in the explanation for why there is an earth being held up rather than nothing at all (TLP 6.372). However, as Schopenhauer realized in his Fourfold Root, making the Deity a terminus is like dismissing a hired cab once we reach our desired destination. The whole enterprise is presupposed from the start. Yet, this is exactly what one should expect since belief in God does not emerge from proofs; rather, the proof is an expression of belief in God. Moreover, how can we consistently maintain that the problem of life cries out for an explanation only to dismiss our curiosity once we reach a terminus in Atlas?

The cosmological proof confuses the meaning of these words by plucking them from their use in grammar, and in so doing, it has needlessly created a philosophical problem. The mystical urge expands to fill its new boundaries and we now want to know, "what holds Atlas up?" There can be no end to the limiting questions that probe beyond the limits of language and the world. After slipping on the ice of speculative confusion, we soon find that we must retreat to the rough ground of actual language in order to see clearly what went wrong (PI 107). In the end, any causal explanation that seeks to explain the world becomes, paradoxically, part of the facts within the world; thus, no explanation can adequately answer the questions of life.

6. Wittgenstein’s Solution to the Problem of Life

Theology attempts to answer the problem of life by teaching that the soul is immortal and will extend into an eternal afterlife. However, it is illusory to think that the immortality of the human soul answers the question of why we live (TLP 6.4312). The problem is not how long we are to live but that we live. This is why the believer expresses a mental discomfort and asks why there is something rather than nothing. Extending life into an infinite future fails to soothe the mental discomfort of "Why?" because, rather than address why we are here, the explanation merely extends life’s duration and thereby postpones the question altogether. Wittgenstein asks "is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time" (TLP 6.4312).

The believer’s question is nonsensical and cannot be answered literally because all meaningful propositions must have truth condition possibilities. "If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it" (TLP 6.5). Answers, in turn, exist only if something can be said (TLP 6.51). Yet, nothing in the world can satiate the desire to know why we are here. Since the solution cannot lie within the world, and language mirrors the world, the solution must lie beyond the limits of language. Thus, the solution to the believer’s question cannot be put into words, but can only make itself manifest (TLP 6.522). Further, since the question cannot be put into words, there can be no meaningful answer. If there can be no meaningful question or answer, neither can there have been a problem in the first place. Absent meaningful questions or answers, the nonsensical problem is exposed for what it is and dissolved at its source. Wittgenstein advises us to point out to someone who insists on framing meaningless propositions of metaphysics that he or she has "failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions" (TLP 6.53). Ideally, to avoid philosophical problems we should say nothing except what can be said and pass over in silence all other nonsensical utterances (TLP 6.53; 7). Wittgenstein realizes that such an answer will be deeply unsatisfying to the person who strives to communicate religious utterances. Who wishes to remain silent on issues of theology and ethics? We cannot keep silent and so continue to push against the boundaries of language; yet, "this running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless" (LE 12).

7. Conclusion

I have argued that it is misguided to attempt to answer literally questions that we pose from the mystical feeling that the world should exist. Wittgenstein realizes that the mental discomfort of "Why?" is not satiated by the appeal to a supernatural being; therefore, it is incorrect to view Wittgenstein as holding a traditional view of God. The person who asks "why is there something rather than nothing?" is expressing an attitude toward the brute fact of existence. The believer is not asking how a thing came to be, but expressing the mystical feeling that a thing is. We need only see how the limiting question "Why?" lingers long after the cosmological proof is employed to see that this is so. No matter what terminus the proof finally settles upon, "Why?" continues to push itself beyond the limits of language. There can be no answer from reason to the problem of life.

8. References

Anscombe, G. E. M. An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. 3rd Ed. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1967.

Copleston, F. C. "God and Creation." The Existence of God. Ed. John Hick. New York: Macmillan, 1964. 86-93.

Garver, Newton. This Complicated Form of Life. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1994.

Hodges, Michael P. Transcendence and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Monadology. Trans. George Montgomery, with revisions by Albert R. Chandler. The Rationalists. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1974.

Mounce, H. O. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Nieli, Russell. Wittgenstein: From Mysticism to Ordinary Language. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Phillips, D. Z. "Philosophy, Theology and the Reality of God." Wittgenstein and Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Russell, Bertrand and F. C. Copleston. "A Debate on the Existence of God." The Existence of God. Ed. John Hick. New York: Macmillan, 1964. 167-191.

Throat Singers of Tuva. "Kongerei." Night Prayers. Kronos Quartet. Elektra, 1994.

Tolstoy, Leo. Confession. David Patterson, Trans.. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.

Toulmin, Stephen. An Examination of the Place of Reason In Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.

9. Endnotes

[1] Davies writes that "Aquinas’s doctrine [of analogy], as becomes clear in S.T. Ia, 12-13, is that things somehow point beyond themselves to something unclassifiable and that in talking of God we use words to mean more than we can understand" (108). Thus, Davies finds support in Wittgenstein for the view that religious utterances succeeds in saying something about God.

[2] The tendency to want to speak of God as ontologically "real" presents additional problems that I shall not address in this paper. As D. Z. Phillips (1993) writes, for believers "it is not that as a matter of fact God will always exist, but that it makes no sense to say that God might not exist" (1). On the Tractarian view, if God’s existence were a matter of fact, then God would not transcend the world but instead be a genuine proposition within the world. This is to say that it would be possible to know what the conditions might be for the truth or falsity of the reality of God. However, the believer is never prepared to say that it is possible for God not to exist, therefore, the utterance that "God is real" is not a genuine proposition anyway. God’s reality is determined by the religious utterances of believers and the use they make of those utterances in their lives.

[3] Garver (1994) suggests that because of his identification of the world with God, Wittgenstein is a pantheist. Concerning Wittgenstein’s Notebooks entry Gott ist, wie sich alles verhält (79) taken with TLP 6.44, Garver concludes that these passages "seem to indicate a sort of pantheism in that the attitude expressed toward the world conceived as a totality-that is, when one regards it as a limited whole rather than focusing on details of it-is an attitude that is paradigmatically appropriate toward God" (135). I am also reminded of Hegel’s declaration from The Phenomenology of Spirit that ohne Welt, Gott ist nicht Gott, however, I shall not pursue the possibility that Wittgenstein was a pantheist in this paper.

[4] In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein criticizes the position that a proposition is what can be true or false and argues instead that a proposition derives its meaning from the use it has in a language game (PI 136-139).

[5] We know from Bertrand Russell that Wittgenstein was deeply affected by Tolstoy sometime during the Notebooks period (1914-16). Russell wrote that "once in a village in Gallicia during the war he found a bookshop containing only one book, which was Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought the book, and, according to him, it influenced him profoundly" (Paul Englemann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967). This book was probably The Gospel in Brief (1883) first published in Switzerland. In the preface, Tolstoy mentions the Confession as being an integral part of his gospel harmony and exposition of Christ’s teaching.

[6] Russell Nieli (1987) characterizes Wittgenstein as a "prophet" and a "rabbi" who experienced ekstasis or mystic-flight and came to write the Tractatus in light of his unique religious experience.

[7] Wittgenstein distinguishes "surface grammar" from "depth grammar." Surface grammar involves the rules of syntax words have within a sentence while depth grammar is the meaning of an utterance within the language game in which it is at home (PI 664).

[8] Toulmin (1953) writes that Wittgenstein used Atlas to illustrate the point that those who ask how science can be justified are like the ancients who wondered what held up the Earth. It is misguided to look outside of a system for its justification. We think that there is some neutral privileged position that one may stand from which to judge all other systems, but language needs the "rough ground" to be able to say anything.

* I want to thank Professor Gene Mason, University of Minnesota, for his guidance and many stimulating conversations on Wittgenstein over the past two years. I also want to thank my wife, Katherine, for her skillful editing and brutal honesty on all aspects of this paper. She brought me back when I strayed from that which can only be said.

© Copyright 1998 by James Still. All rights reserved.

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