Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wonder and science

In the 1929 Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein says:
Let me first consider, again, our first experience of wondering at the existence of the world and let me describe it in a slightly different way; we all know what in ordinary life would be called a miracle. It obviously is simply an event the like of which we have never yet seen. Now suppose such an event happened. Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we should have recovered from our surprise, what I would suggest would be to fetch a doctor and have the case scientifically investigated and if it were not for hurting him I would have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have got to? For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that term. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.
The miraculous is, so to speak, a way of looking at things, looking with surprise and wonder. The scientific way of looking at a fact is different.

This is a misleading way to put things, I think, because it is not as if scientists are immune to surprise and wonder. Michael Faraday's The Chemical History of a Candle (a favorite of Wittgenstein's, as I remember) contains the words 'wonderful' and 'wonderfully' a total of 21 times, for instance. But obviously the attitude of someone who is amazed by the transformation of someone's head is not the same as that of someone who has recovered from such surprise and now wants to understand and perhaps reverse the change. Or both people might want to understand, but one does so in a "What the...!?" kind of way and the other is much more practical. One says "Wow!" and the other rolls up their sleeves. I don't think it's insulting to science to use its name as a label for the second kind of attitude, as long as this caveat is kept in mind. But Wittgenstein comes close to identifying ethics with the former and science with the latter, thus contrasting ethics with science, which does sound a bit insulting.

He makes a similar contrast in 1930 in remarks collected in Culture and Value:
In order to marvel human beings--and perhaps peoples--have to wake up. Science is a way of sending them off to sleep again.
I.e. it is simply false to say: of course, these primitive peoples had to marvel at everything. But perhaps right that these people did marvel at everything around them.--To think they had to marvel at them is a primitive superstition. (Like that of thinking that they had to fear all the forces of nature & that we of course do not have to fear. On the other hand experience may show that certain primitive tribes are very strongly inclined to fear natural phenomena.--But we cannot exclude the possibility that highly civilized peoples will become liable to this very same fear again & their civilization and the knowledge of science will not protect them from this. All the same it is true that the spirit in which science is carried on nowadays is not compatible with fear of this kind.)
Here Wittgenstein is not talking about wondering at the existence of the world but wondering or marveling at this or that phenomenon in the world. But he does contrast both marveling and fear with the spirit and the effect of contemporary science. Knowledge of science, he explicitly says, does not rule out fear of natural phenomena, and I think it's reasonable to add that it doesn't rule out wonderment either.

Right after this he writes:
What Renan calls the bon sens précoce of the semitic races (an idea that I already entertained a long time ago) is their unpoetic mentality, which heads straight for what is concrete. Which is characteristic of my philosophy.
Things are right before our eyes, not covered by any veil.--This is where religion & art part company.
He was talking about Renan on the (ancient) Semitic people when he talked about primitive people and marveling, etc. Heading straight for the concrete sounds not only unpoetic but scientific in the non-ethical sense, but perhaps one can head for the concrete while still marveling at it. Facts are not miraculous in the absolute sense, but they might not be absolutely non-miraculous either. That is, something like lightning can be regarded as a natural phenomenon to be understood and perhaps exploited or as wonderful or frightening. Neither is the absolutely correct way to regard it. Not because something else is the absolutely correct way but because there is no such way, or perhaps because the only meaning that "the absolutely correct way to regard things" has is as a personal endorsement, but the words "absolutely correct" were meant to head off that meaning.

I don't know where religion and art are supposed to part company. Does religion cover things with a veil? Not Semitic religion, apparently. So presumably it is art that Wittgenstein thinks veils things.
The work of art compels us--as one might say--to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.)
This last qualification is important, because "every life & everything whatever" is worth contemplating qua  "God's work of art" (also Culture & Value 1930). So justifiable coldness is only relative coldness. Still, apparently art is unjust, perhaps even dishonest. Thankfully there is an alternative:
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is--as I believe--the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.
The way of thought that leaves the world the way it is sounds like a reference to Wittgenstein's later idea of philosophy, but contemplating the world from above does not sound at all like that. So I'm not sure what he has in mind here. Maybe just literally a kind of thinking about things, contemplating the world.

Speaking of the world, we cannot marvel at the very existence of the world because the world just is whatever there is, the set of all that is the case. Someone who has the experience described as wondering at the existence of the world does not wonder that there is this rather than that, but at there being something at all. Even if what there is is an empty set? Or is that inconceivable? If it's inconceivable, why is that? Is it because there is always at least possibility? Which is to say something like logic or meaning, not as a necessary being  but as something presupposed or given by any question or thought. Its 'non-existence' is unimaginable or inconceivable because to imagine and to conceive is to already be in its realm. But I'm not sure how much sense that makes. Kant seems to think we need to go back further than this:
The supreme concept with which it is customary to begin a transcendental philosophy is the division into the possible and the impossible. But since all division presupposes a concept to be divided, a still higher one is required, and this is the concept of an object in general, taken problematically, without its having been decided whether it is something or nothing. (CPR A 290/B 346)
I don't know whether this is really thinkable either.

What about "The world is all that is the case"? We can't conceive of that's not being the case either, can we? So by Wittgenstein's lights, which are not particularly technical (I'm going by the Lecture on Ethics), we can't think this either. "I wonder at the existence of the world" was meant to be nonsense because the world is all that is the case. But now "The world is all that is the case" looks like nonsense too. Indeed, sentences of the form "... therefore x is nonsense" look like trouble. Nonsense is not a product of facts, or an empirical matter. Nothing turns out to be nonsense. There is nonsense and there is sense, there is no border between them. And in fact there isn't really nonsense either, any more than the world can be divided into the things that are and the things that aren't. But if the world cannot be divided like that, then it is inconceivable that it could be. I didn't mean that it just so happens that the world cannot be divided that way, after all. So saying that it can't be is nonsense too. The only thing to do is to shut up about all this metaphysical stuff (which isn't actually stuff or metaphysical at all).

Does this mean that we can only talk science all the time, facts facts and facts but no ethics? No. Because science (in the sense I'm using the word here) is not a language but an attitude. The attitude of ethics won't be killed off by sticking to factual language, i.e. language that makes sense. In fact the opposite might well be the case. If we have only one language instead of two (the language of value and the language of facts) then maybe the spirit of value will live in all our talk. The existence of an ethical vocabulary invites the non-use of this vocabulary in scientific work, which invites the keeping at bay of the ethical attitude during any serious business. We might be more ethical if we talked less about ethics. The proposal that we stop talking about it might sound risky, but actually, if Wittgenstein is right, there is no it to talk about in the first place. There are no rights, duties, obligations, persons, evils, and so on. (Which is not to say that there are no people or that there is no such thing as murder, for instance.) So not using those words deprives us of nothing that we need. And it might do us a lot of good.

At least it's possible that this might be a Wittgensteinian/Anscombean position that could be worth exploring. If there's anything both good and original in all this I suspect I stole it from Ed Dain, but of course if I've made a mess of it then that's not his fault.


  1. do you ever try this line out on proper ethicists who would hardly even recognize what's going on in wittgenstein as ethics?

    because i'd really like to see the next step in the conversation where they ask, 'there's no it to talk about?! tell that to the abused children…' etc.

    personally, i don't think i come off well in those conversations, but then i don't know how to hold my own with proper ethicists.

  2. Yes and no. I had a somewhat similar conversation recently in which I played the role of the proper ethicist, but I haven't tried it the other way around yet. Here's a quick sketch of how it might go, though. If I recall correctly, Ray Monk received some criticism for his account of Wittgenstein's physical abuse of children when he was a school teacher. Monk's response was to say that he had described the abuse accurately and that it hadn't occurred to him to add, "And by the way, hitting children like that is wrong." That seems like a good response to me, although of course a lot depends on how the facts are described. If the description is done well then any kind of additional editorializing would not only add nothing but would actually detract from the power of the facts themselves. Show it don't say it, and all that (not in a Wittgensteinian sense but in the sense often given to writers).

    1. how does that bear on the decision-making arm of practical ethics, where presumably the proper ethicist's thought will be that 'it' is needed in order to sort out what to do?

    2. 'It' doesn't help you sort out what to do. Does anyone really think you can prove utilitarianism true? Or any rival theory? I'm not sure any proper ethicists do. So you might be able to show that a certain course of action is most likely to maximize preference-satisfaction, say, but not everyone will care. And I don't think (m)any people think you can prove that anyone should care.

      What's left for ethicists to do is then to gather facts, make predictions, see what is consistent with what intuitions, and so on. The kind of things applied ethicists do, basically. There isn't much for normative theorists to do, but oh well.

    3. been a long time since I read it but for what it's worth this bubbled up from the memory banks:

    4. Have you read Conant's "What Ethics in the Tractatus is Not?"

      Ed also has another paper that might be relevant that should come out in Philosophical Topics sometime soon.

    5. Thanks for the suggestions. I've read only the Conant paper of these three, and that was too long ago.