Wittgenstein And The
Transcendental Argument
Michael Goetze

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Michael Goetze"
Subject: Re: TAG, TANG, etc.
Date: Tuesday, March 13, 2001 10:35 PM

If atheism is the lack of a god belief, then it doesn't matter whether or not the god-claim makes sense: if you don't buy it (or if you haven't even heard it) you are still an atheist in that you lack a god belief. Only when atheism takes a nonsensical god-claim and calls that statement "false" does it become tautological; if a tribe says that the local volcano is an animate being who expresses His wrath over the sexual lives of the tribespeople, we can easily state that such a god-claim is "false" by understanding what volcanoes are and how they work. Ditto for claims that certain historical (or mythical) figures were gods, such as Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, and Jesus.

The more sophisticated the form of theism, the harder it is to falsify -- that is, the closer it is to being nonsensical (ineffable). The less sophisticated forms of theism, animistic tribal polytheism as well as those forms of monotheism which originally arose when this or that polytheistic tribe's totem was elevated to universal omnipotence (being the "only" god, rather than just the "strongest" god), are very easy to falsify precisely because they are easier to understand ("So-and-so rose from the dead"). These simpler forms of theism must then build shields around their claims to render them untestable ("So-and-so rose from the dead, but he later ascended to Heaven, and is no longer here to testify to the claim that he rose from the dead").

Those who say that all god claims are nonsensical are called Noncognitivists. I would include these in the category of "strong" atheists, whereas all atheists, "strong" or otherwise, fall into the "weak" category of lacking a god belief for whatever reason. Theodore M. Drange shows that many of the more popular (and less sophisticated) god claims at least make some semblance of sense. The example he uses is that of the God character in the film The Ten Commandments: since this character can be easily portrayed in a film or a story, it is difficult to claim that this god idea makes no sense at all. It may fall apart under close scrutiny: How can a being be simultaneously all-powerful and all-knowing? If He knew what was going to happen, would He not then be powerless to change the course of the inevitable? But the basic gist of a large, invisible being who converses with humans and displays supernatural powers cannot be said to be completely nonsensical.

The Hindu concept from the Upanishads, on the other hand, deliberately defies any semblance of being understandable: "Not this, not this -- beyond all that is cognizable" and "From which, along with the mind, words turn back." Shri K. G. Mashruwala responds:


Ordinarily, this should lead one to expect that if God was beyond human (rather, mental) comprehension, there should be very little literature about Him. The seer should say simply, "I feel the presence of Something, which I am unable to comprehend and express. I have given the name God to it. I feel that I am inisolable from It. But I can say nothing more about It." But this is not what writers and seers usually do.
     -- from the "Introduction" to Gora, An Atheist with Gandhi,


Or, as Tom Lehrer once said, "I feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up!" (Commentary to the song "Alma" during the concert which was recorded and issued as the LP That Was The Year That Was.) More than a few atheistic philosophers and writers have expressed sentiments similar to Lehrer's when encountering the "ineffability" defense for theistic belief: If God is so indescribable, then why bother even telling me about Him?

I hope this provides a humorous, if not informative response to at least some of the issues you raised.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Michael Goetze"
Subject: Re: TAG, TANG, etc.
Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 7:29 PM

Whenever I have studied anything, I have always pretended that I was studying for the purpose of being able to teach this to a youngster. One young fellow named Richard (age 12) wrote to us and could hold his own while discussing a topic that I was, at the time, only beginning to fathom (the Anthropic Argument; I later discovered that two different ideas go under the same name). I had the monumental task of trying to make myself understood without sounding condescending. I think I did a pretty good job at that.

Perhaps you would be willing to render your ideas in a form that will make them available to a wider audience. The way ideas become useful is for them to be available to many people, to the point where the ideas become self-replicating "memes." Four examples of very successful "memes" are: commercial advertising, popular songs, comic strips, and religious liturgies.

I'm not convinced that commercial advertising is an appropriate venue to express the ideas I'd like to popularize, although Starbucks did have a series of print-media ads called, "Something to ponder over your next cup of coffee." One I distinctly remember asked, in a bold headline, "Why don't psychic hotlines call you right before you call them?" The small text expounded further on this idea, waxing absurd at one point, to show the absurdity of the psychic hotline industry. When I lived in San Diego, Chevrolet dealer Lou Grubb would come on the radio with a soft music theme and expound his easy-going philosophy of living. At the end, he's simply say, "Lou Grubb Chevrolet." My fellow broadcasting professionals all said that if they ever wanted to buy a Chevrolet, they'd buy if from Lou simply because he provided a unique breath of fresh air amidst an otherwise rank and raucous venue. But these are the exceptions, and advertisers who use their ad space to promote controversial ideas take big risks.

The ideas I'd like to popularize are so amply represented in popular song that we frequently hear of preachers staging bon fires to burn records and CDs.

The comics page has always been a haven for expounding controversial ideas; in fact, that's the original intent of the comic strip. Only later did comic artists mine that venue purely for its humor value.

I do not consider religious liturgy, slogans, hymns, etc., to be a valid form of learning. They are based upon rote and upon Ingersoll's observation that "the pew cannot reply to the pulpit." Much of the success of commercial advertising has the same basis as that of religious liturgy: endless repetition of a statement leads to the uncritical acceptance of that statement as fact.

What I am suggesting in all this is that I will need to go over your second explanation more than once in order to understand what you're saying -- and even then, I still might not understand. Of course, Bertrand Russell said:


A stupid man's report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.
     -- The History of Western Philosophy, quoted from Lee Eisler, ed., The Quotable Bertrand Russell


I have this saying posted on my kitchen wall, and it always brings a rise out of guests. However, I'm not sure that all the fault lies in the "stupid man": perhaps the "clever man" can help the situation by trying to make his ideas more available to the rest of us.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule


6.1 The propositions of logic are tautologies.

6.11 The propositions of logic therefore say nothing. (They are the analytical propositions.)

6.111 Theories which make a proposition of logic appear substantial are always false. Once could e.g. believe that the words "true" and "false" signify two properties among other properties, and then it woud appear as a remarkable fact that every proposition possesses one of these properties. This now by no means appears self-evident, no more so than the proposition "All roses are either yellow or red" would seem even if it were true. Indeed our proposition now gets quite the character of a proposition of natural science and this is a certain symptom of its being falsely understood.

    {So either God is not "substantial", or you cannot prove or disprove him with logic alone - can you say "agnosticism"? :-) }

6.4 All propositions are of equal value.

6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value -- and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.

It must lie outside the world.

    {Interpretation: Life could have a meaning. But we can't know it, so we might as well just get on with our life and not worry about it.}

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.

Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.

Ethics is transcendental.

(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)

    {Meaning that anything which would dictate ethics to us cannot be "stated a priori", i.e. shown for certain to be true. This applies equally to "Mein Kampf" and the Bible...}

6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another, it must so to speak wax or wane as a whole. The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

{Note that this probably refers to Schopenhauer.}

6.431 As in death, too, the world does not change, but ceases.

6.4311 Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.

If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.

Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.

6.4312 The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive for ever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.

(It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved.)

    {And this from a guy who calls himself a "religious person".}

6.432 How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. {And the Bible is, unfortunately, part of the world.}

6.44 Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

6.45 The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

    {And here it gets religious. But I think this idea of "das Mystische" is really quite a good one... I think I can kind of feel it when I listen to certain music in certain situations. Certainly there are things I couldn't express with logic. However, I believe the Christian "symbolism" for this is limiting, harmful, and detrimental to free thought. Just read through the history books...}

6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.

6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be asnwered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.

(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

    {And this sums up my views perfectly - The answer is that there is no answer! I have been accused by Christians of "avoiding the question" - but what's the point of thinking up answers to questions that have none?}

6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.

6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method.

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    {This is what you can be sure about -- everything else is speculation.}


Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Michael Goetze"
Subject: Re: TAG, TANG, etc.
Date: Thursday, March 15, 2001 10:54 PM

Thanks for all this. My understanding of the history of Western thought continues to grow, and every little bit helps put the bigger picture together.

I think Russell meant "uneducated" when he said "stupid." I just love the word "stupid," though.

I know several people who are entirely ignorant of music written after 1900 which was not part of a musical or motion picture. They are not like the rest of us. I have never owned a functioning television set in my entire adult life. I'm certain that I differ from those who watch television regularly. I do love my pop music, though, and have made several studies of popular culture by playing dozens of different versions of the same insipid song (e.g. "The Little Drummer Boy," "Fever," and, of course, "Louie Louie").

And I'd much rather listen to "Louie Louie" for hours on end than discuss anything with a person who thinks the Bible is a revelation of absolute truth!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.