Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roll away the stone

I first noticed Hugh Chandler's paper on "Wittgenstein on the Resurrection" when it was on PhilPapers. I wasn't sure then that the idea of a historical fact, or of what a camera would have recorded if..., is quite as straightforward as he makes out, but he makes his case well. Still, I think some things in the paper could be debated.

Chandler appears to think that Wittgenstein believed in what he labels "Theory 2," namely that "No genuine religious belief is religiously risky," while Chandler himself prefers "Theory 3," that "Some genuine religious beliefs are objectively and religiously risky." Obviously we need to know what "objectively risky" and "religiously risky" mean.

Chandler defines these terms as follows: "A belief is objectively risky if it is at least epistemically possible that it is false." And "A belief is religiously risky ... if it is objectively risky and its falsity would constitute a threat to the believer's religious or spiritual well being. That is to say, its falsity would be religiously damaging, or perhaps disastrous, for her (whether or not she ever learns of it)."

But what does that mean? Chandler includes moral well being in the category of religious or spiritual well being, so that feeling self-righteous, for instance, would count as suffering a kind of religious damage. But it isn't only a moral issue. Believing that God, having given up on humanity, was about to destroy us would be, in Chandler's opinion, "religiously misguided." This still sounds moral, since the sin of despair is surely at least part of what makes this belief religiously misguided (in addition, Chandler says, to its being objectively risky). So I don't see what "religiously risky" can mean except with reference to moral judgments. And if Wittgenstein approves of all genuine religious belief, then the extent to which we can argue with (or against) him seems quite limited.

But Chandler's point seems to be more that religious belief can be objectively risky. An example I think he has in mind is belief in God. If you pin your hopes on salvation but God does not exist then you have bet on the wrong horse, so to speak. And, as he sees it, there is a fact of the matter whether God exists or not. And this, I take it, is meant to be the same kind of fact as the kind that cameras can verify, even though cameras would happen not to help much in this particular case, since God is invisible. It might not be an empirical fact, but it's an objective fact, I think Chandler would say, whether God exists or not.

But then the meaning of "objective fact" would need to be explained.

What if there had been a camera at the tomb, which could show us whether the body rotted or was re-animated or what? Would the risen Christ have a mind or be a (possibly very powerful) zombie? Is this a matter of objective fact too? Some facts might matter, but at some point one's attitude surely has to matter, too, if religion is to come into the matter. And cameras can't show what attitude is called for.

There ought to be a story about a battle between two sides whose perspectives are so different that, at the end, each thinks it has won and the other lost. Nietzsche's take on the crucifixion is a little like this, I think. Jesus succeeds perfectly in being Christian (on his terms) while the Romans succeed perfectly in being anti-Christian (on theirs). But then, as Nietzsche sees it, the Christians bought into the worldly view of the Romans and invented a resurrection. Hence the last true Christian died on the cross.

This isn't what Wittgenstein says, but it's compatible with it. As is Schopenhauer's nice account of some people's everything being nothing to others. In the end I wonder whether Chandler's perspective isn't making it impossible for him to see what it is that Wittgenstein understands genuine religion to be.

That's all probably in need of unpacking, but that might have to wait for another day.

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