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Ludwig Wittgenstein

“A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs. Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such a way.

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but, e.g., sufferings of various sorts. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, — life can force this concept on us.

It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation. Instruction in religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience. And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference. It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of my rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.

Suppose someone said: ‘What do you believe, Wittgenstein? Are you a sceptic? Do you know whether you will survive death?’ I would really, this is a fact, say ‘I can’t say. I don’t know’, because I haven’t any clear idea what I am saying when I am saying, ‘I don’t cease to exist.'”


Excerpts from Culture and Value and Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition). Two quotes to supplement Wittgenstein’s interpretation of religious conversion and the religious worldview:

“Credo quia absurdum.” (“I believe because it is absurd”)
Tertullian, De Carne Christi 

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
C.S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?

In terms of the final paragraph, Wittgenstein’s answer is my favorite reply I’ve yet read to the question, “What do you think happens after death?”

I can’t say. I don’t know, because I haven’t any clear idea of what I am saying when I am saying, ‘I don’t cease to exist.’

Acute and essential. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of (or ever heard of) that line of reasoning.

Also, for a very condensed introduction to Wittgenstein’s fixation with objects and qualities, read the illustration below (from his dissection of Augustine’s theory of language in Philosophical Investigations).

“When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires…

Think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked ‘five red apples’. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked ‘apples’, then he looks up the word ‘red’ in a table and finds a color sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word ‘five’ and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—’But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word “five”?’ Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’? No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used.”