Summa Contra Bill

First of all, apologies for the slightly jokey title. Just always wanted to write something called ‘Summa Contra Bill’. A proper title would be ‘Wood, Pascal, and Wittgenstein: The Danger of the Will for Natural Theology’. This not least because I’m actually using Bill’s own work in my argument, trying to replicate the strategy of the aliens in Independence Day.

Second, I am very much writing this as a Christian. As such, it’s a confessional piece of writing. I hope this isn’t too off-putting!

Right: Bill’s got us started on Rowan Williams’ The Edge of Words. His main question at the end of his post on the first chapter is why exactly the presuppositions Williams employs run counter to the arguments of traditional natural theology. To put it more specifically: why should taking a broadly Wittgensteinian position (in this case, one sympathetic to Thomism) mandate a suspicion of natural theology as it is traditionally understood?

To put it in Bill’s words, taken from a comment beneath the post:

‘The question I was trying to ask is: why aren’t the stereotypical arguments of traditional natural theology consistent with this [Wittgensteinian Thomist] approach? It seems to me that all of the traditional arguments end in a claim like “there is some X, on which everything depends [or that exists necessarily]. Call that X ‘God’.” That seems to me to be a claim that tells me something about myself and my world but not much about the divine nature.’

Now, I’m not sure that Williams himself explicitly broaches this question. I’m also relatively sure (though solely on the basis of my scant acquaintance with the broader literature) that this is not a question given serious enough attention by many who try and follow Barth or Wittgenstein in theological thinking (though Barth himself gives it quite considerable attention: much of CD 2/1, for example). Anyway, I thought it worth having a stab at.

My claim is as follows: as I understand it, the arguments Bill (informally) describes work by claiming that something must meet a specific description, then ending with the imperative that we call whatever meets this description ‘God’. These descriptions might include ‘that on which everything depends’, ‘that which exists necessarily’, ‘the greatest good’, ‘the most perfect being’, ‘the ground of being’, ‘the first cause’, ‘the unmoved mover’, and so on. I believe that arguments of this form are inadmissible from a Wittgensteinian point of view (if such a point of view exists) on the basis that our ability to identify any individual as meeting these descriptions is hampered by our fallen will (I would even go so far as to claim that Wittgenstein can be read as holding the fallenness of the will to be the primary source of philosophical problems). I am now going to try and argue for this belief, beginning with Bill’s own writing about Pascal’s account of the fallen will.

Bill and Pascal

In ‘Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall’, Bill writes that, under Pascal’s account, ‘since we are fallen, we are not able to love and evaluate goods properly’ (p30). Put more pointedly: ‘one sure sign that the will is depraved, according to Pascal, is that we have lost the ability to evaluate goods properly. Since we do not affirm that God, the universal good, is the standard of value, anything can seem like the highest good’ (p34).

This already has significance for natural theology, as outlined in Bill’s comment. Let us take the informal argument structure described by Bill above and lay it out thus: ‘”there is some X, which is the universal good. Call that X ‘God’.”‘ Now, the fact of our fallen will means that we will not truly recognise God as our universal good, but instead identify something else as meeting that description. If, however, we obey the imperative at the end of this argument, and then call that thing God, we would be guilty of recognising gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To put it another way: if our fallen will disrupts our ability to truly evaluate the goods of creation, then the mere fact we recognise that there is a universal good does not entail our recognising God as that universal good. And if we then seek to argue for God in this way, then we might well be guilty of uncritically subordinating the content of our beliefs about God to our fallen will.

Now, the above paragraph deals specifically with an argument about God as the greatest good in the context of an evaluative fall. As Bill notes, however, our inability to properly evaluate the goods of the world on the basis of the disordered desires of a fallen will has cognitive consequences beyond the realm of value judgements. Indeed;

‘Because our desires (occurrent or deep) shape our beliefs and actions, it follows that, if our desires are conflicting and incoherent, then they are likely to shape our beliefs and actions incoherently. Our beliefs must be split along the same fault line as our wills— incoherent selves with incoherent wills could only have incoherent beliefs.’ (p37)

This incoherence results in a vicious cycle of recursive self-deception: it leads us to affirm as true judgements of fact which will in turn affirm our flawed judgements of value. In Bill’s words:

‘We are likely to be attracted to goods that fit in with, resemble, and conform to our already existing interpretations of ourselves and the world. Because we are fallen, however, our already existing interpretations of ourselves and the world are likely to be false and self-serving. It follows that evaluative judgment is frequently a self-referential process and that we often engage with reality by determining the degree to which it conforms with what we already believe. Thus, we are highly vulnerable to self-deceptive reasoning, and especially self-deceptive moral reasoning. It is no surprise that Pascal argues that we are more easily persuaded by attractiveness than by truth and that, as a result, our reasoning is often rationalization.’ (p40)

The overall consequence of all of this is that ‘belief-formation therefore depends on a particular person’s disordered loves’ (p41). We cannot in fact understand the content of any of our beliefs apart from the effects of the fallen will upon belief formation, especially (as far as I can see at least) beliefs formed by the typically Scholastic residue of the image of God: the human faculty of reason.


Now, I imagine the step I’d like to make from this to different arguments given in natural theology as traditionally understood is fairly obvious. Before attempting to make that step, however, I am going to try and argue that the account of belief formation given above is in fact a very Wittgensteinian account, if we look at belief formation itself as determined by concept formation. I am going to attempt to show that the majority of the later Wittgenstein’s philosophical work is explicitly geared towards trying to navigate the ways in which the fallen will affects both our concept-formation and our ability to identify individuals as meeting the descriptions which are given by means of our concepts.

I’ve said several times on this blog that I believe Wittgenstein came to think that we have to treat our most fundamental concepts as aspects. ‘Aspect’ is a tricky word here, but I’m using it to mean something like ‘a thing as it is understood by an individual within a given context’. The idea (and it is not in the least an original one) is that our concepts, in their most reduced form, arise out of a relationship between that which is seen, that which does the seeing, and the context within which it is seen. None of these facets can be subordinated to or made sovereign over the others. None of them can be removed by further reduction. Our concepts are as such neither primarily subjective or objective, but both, insofar as they are the result of an object’s interaction with a perceiving subject in the setting of a broader context. We can then come to better understand the nature of our concepts by seeing how they are differentiated and dissimilated across different contexts, whilst remaining identifiable as the same, and the effect that this has on our understanding of both the subjective and objective facets of the relevant aspect.

(It is, I think, incredibly important to note that ‘aspect’ does not imply incompleteness; that is to say, that say of someone that that they are focussed on an aspect of a thing does not mean that they are not therefore also focussed on the whole. ‘Aspect’ should not be understood in the same sense as ‘facet’, then, and in this sense should be contrasted against ‘ideal’ as a term characterising the character of our fundamental concepts.)

In brief support of the view that this is what Wittgenstein held, I refer to two brief statements which crop up at the close of part seven of the Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics. Rounding off his discussion of the psychological (and so in some sense provisional) character of the mathematical concepts employed within expressions of mathematical laws in human language, Wittgenstein remarks that ‘the observer is preoccupied with a particular aspect; for example, he has a special kind of paradigm before him; he is engaged in a particular routine of application’ (RFM VII-68). Soon after this, he postulates that ‘to give a new concept’ can only mean to introduce a new employment of a concept, a new practise’ (RFM VII-70). I think the implication is clear, so long as we assume that Wittgenstein is thinking of the same sort of thing when he says ’employment’, ‘practise’, and ‘application’: our concepts are understood as manifesting themselves over the course of specific practises grounded in specific paradigms. And it is in these specific practises grounded within these specific paradigms that we are able to observe the aspect which serves as the live concept within that paradigm and according to that practise.

All Three Together

Now, I can imagine the reader asking what on earth this has to do with Bill, Pascal, and natural theology. The answer is this: Wittgenstein too, just like Pascal, holds that ‘our beliefs must be split along the same fault line as our wills’. And we can see this by observing the interconnection of will, society, and conceptualisation in Wittgenstein’s thought.

Under Wittgenstein’s view, both our concepts and we ourselves are irreducibly shaped by context and practise. Context and practise, meanwhile, are functions of society, which is in turn the product of the human will, such that ‘seeing an aspect and imagining are subject to the will’ (Philosophical Investigations, pt2: 256)- in much the same way as our value judgements in Pascal’s thought. Indeed, Wittgenstein writes elsewhere that, when it comes to philosophy, ‘what has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than the intellect’ (Culture and Value, p17).

The fact that there is indeed a fallenness in this sense can, meanwhile, be observed through two interrelated themes running through Wittgenstein’s work. The first is his interpretation of the state of contemporary society. The second is his diagnosis of the general nature of philosophical problems.

In terms of the first, Wittgenstein understood the prevailing scientism of his culture as a sign of moral decay. For the most choice quotes on this front, I would refer to Monk’s biography of a Wittgenstein, but I’m unfortunately writing this on a train having left that book at home. Instead I’ll turn to Maurice Drury, a student of Wittgenstein’s who became a psychiatrist, who writes in the spirit of his mentor when he says that ‘the increasing mechanisation and urbanisation of modern times is depriving us of any close contact with the wild things of nature.’ (The Danger of Words, p37) Wittgenstein saw this mechanisation as an attempt to attain a ‘deeper’ form of knowledge, trying to secure for ourselves afoundation which could eliminate the possibility of mistakes through the application of general principles expressed in absolute terms. In his own words: ‘the danger is that one will think one is in possession of the complete explanation of the individual cases when one has this general way of talking’ (RFM V-40). (It is worth noting that Wittgenstein was not anti-science, in and of itself; indeed, he was a gifted lab technician who took great joy in innovation and invention. It was not the science itself, but the stock placed on it within modern society which horrified him.)

This view of scientism then informs Wittgenstein’s diagnosis of philosophical problems in general. This is expressed in the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics where he writes that ‘our disease is one of wanting to explain’ (RFM VI-30). The will to explain is embodied in the context of scientism by ‘an urge to sublime or idealise [our] logic… [so that] the precise identity of a thought or an idea or a concept will be precisely captured with a linguistic formula’ (On Being With Others, Simon Glendinning, p84.) Because our concepts are inherently aspective, however, this leads us to reject the properly contingent forms of our best descriptions of the world and instead seek some sort of ‘deeper’ explanation. Over the course of this rejection, however;

‘A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense [of the word] unambiguously. The actual use, compared with that traced out by the picture, seems like something muddied. Here, again, what is going on is the same as in set theory: the form of expression seems to have been tailored for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees all of those infinite series, and he sees into the consciousness of human beings. For us, however, these forms of expression are like vestments, which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give them point and purpose.’ (PI, 426)

Here too there is an evaluative fall, and just as with Pascal it is one of epistemic and conceptual, as well as moral, justification. Because our fallen will leads us to demand certain things of our philosophy, we fail to recognise the philosophical goods we have: what we will is to be able to guarantee our own truths, to lay hold of final explanations, but this is not what the results of philosophical investigations throw up or what the tools we have to hand can do. And so we instinctively try and distort the nature of our concepts in order to try and better meet our desires, then misidentify particular things as identified with those concepts.

So: just as Bill says about belief, so too Wittgenstein might say of concepts: they are necessarily formed in the context of already existing interpretations, societal and personal, and ‘because we are fallen our already existing interpretations of ourselves and the world are likely to be false and self-serving.’ It is in virtue of this distorting effect of the will upon philosophical reflection, meanwhile, that Wittgenstein can write perhaps his most explicitly Pascalian line: that ‘nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself’ (C+V, 34).

The Relevance to Natural Theology

Let’s now explicitly bring all this to bear on the question of natural theology. On the basis of all the above, I would claim that, under a Wittgensteinian view, the arguments described in Bill’s comment are inadmissible to two reasons, both of which can also be found in Bill’s own reading of Pascal.(1) The first is that we are liable to misunderstand the nature of the concepts applied in the relevant descriptions, concepts such as ’cause’, ‘ground’, ‘perfect’, ‘necessary’. Specifically, we are liable to see these terms as expressing ideal properties, rather than aspects of a concept which are contingent upon both our individual natures and our societal contexts, which are themselves determined by the character of our fallen will. In doing so, we can think that we have uttered something with clear meaning when we say ‘first cause’, whereas we have in fact given a description which can mean many different things in many different contexts.

The second reason, following from this, is that since the descriptions employed in natural theology are necessarily ambiguous, we can in fact understand them as picking out a number of things other than God (even if we are mistaken in this understanding). We can agree that there must be a first cause, a ground of being, a necessary being, a most perfect being, and all of this. But just as we can deceive ourselves regarding the nature of the concepts employed in these descriptions, so too we can deceive ourselves regarding what it is that in fact meets them. As such, we can deceive ourselves as to who God is, worshipping instead the background features of our context which appear to occupy the unquestionable position of first cause or perfect being.

(Relating this directly to some of Wittgenstein’s central statements, it is worth reading his statement that ‘it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back’ (On Certainty, 471) in the context of an attempt to recognise a first mover. It is also worth, when we talk about the ground of being, asking whether or not there is theological significance to the idea that ‘the difficult thing here is not, to dig down to the ground; no, it is to recognise the ground that lies before us as the ground’ (RFM VI-30).)

Now, this might not seem like something to get all that worried about; after all, the word ‘idolatry’ does tend to get thrown about a fair bit (not least by those who read Barth and Wittgenstein together). It is worth emphasising, however, that idol worship is not (especially in the mind of Barth) a matter of merely bowing to the wrong statue. Worship is a whole life thing: what we worship is not demonstrated by the words we say on Sundays, but on the things in our lives which we allow to determine our decision making and our value judgements. And for both Barth and Wittgenstein, particular images of human nature became the objects of idol worship. For Wittgenstein it was the notion of man as master and surveyor of all things through the mechanisms of industrial science, a science which was underpinned by a self-deceptive understanding of the concepts employed over the course of our daily lives. For Barth, it was the image of the pure German nationalist, first exemplified in World War 1 (which prompted his abandonment of liberal theology), then in the Nazi Party’s rise to power.

There are modern day equivalents, not the least of which is the deifying of a particular understanding of what it means to be American, as well as the continued prevalence of a particular narrative regarding human progress. And just as Pascal says that we can misidentify the greatest good, failing to recognise it as God, so too we can misidentify both what is and what it is to be the first cause, the perfect being, the necessary existence, and the unmoved mover.

These are things it is important to unsettle. They are also concepts which can become entrenched within the arguments of natural theology. They can become entrenched as we read the natural concepts employed back onto God– concepts which are determined by our contexts and by our fallen will- and then call the ensuing creation ‘God’ itself. This reading back is are the target of David Hume’s ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ (and it is a mark of how entrenched they can become that these dialogues can be thought of as arguing against theism in general). It is also a target of Pascal, Wittgenstein, and Barth’s thinking. And it a target which should be taken seriously.

(This is where the ethical significance of Wittgenstein’s method can become apparent, as when he writes that ‘If anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would mean not realising something that we realise- then let him imagine certain very general facts of nature to be different from what we are used to, and the formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him.’ (PI- pt2, 366.))


Where, then, would all this leave us? There are two pertinent questions: the first is whether or not there can be a place for the arguments of natural theology in a broadly Wittgensteinian scheme. The second is how we should understand the purpose of philosophical theology in general.

With regards to the first, I would refer the reader to a current discussion between Alec Siantonas and I on these pages. Suffice to say, Alec has convinced me that there are potential uses for the arguments of natural theology, but that they must be deeply qualified. I also remain convinced, however, that they cannot be generally used to demonstrate either God’s existence or that He must have a particular quality. If we want to know these things, we have two options: Scripture and prayer.

Which brings us to the second question: wherefore philosophical theology? Well, I will first say that (as far as I’m concerned) philosophical theology cannot be understood as a means to escape the conceptual miasma which Pascal and Wittgenstein identify us as occupying. We don’t aim at clarity as a means of escaping confusion, but of navigating it. Wittgenstein puts it thus: ‘it may be put like this: we eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact; but now it may look as if we were aiming at a particular state, a state of complete exactness, and as if this were the real goal of our relationship’ (PI 91). We are not aiming at this state, however: rather, we are trying to find our way about in the hurly-burly of created and fallen existence (PI 123).

Within all this, though, we are still trying to clarify what we believe and why we believe it. We do not do this as an end in itself, of course (here slightly contra-Wittgenstein), but because what we believe and what we do cannot be divorced from each other. We do this because just as we are responsible to God in the way we live, so too we are responsible to God in the way we think. And the methods of philosophical and theological criticism can help us to think responsibly, to speak responsibly, and perhaps to act responsibly. Here we come to another discussion that Bill and I had on the virtue ethics of philosophy, and I will only add one qualification: that as far as I can see we do not try and think responsibly so as to one day be perfect. Rather, we try to think responsibly because we realise that, precisely because we will always be imperfect, we are commanded to love our God and our neighbour; and thinking well can sometimes help us to do this a little better in certain circumstances. In the end, of course, we can only pray.

Insofar as the arguments of natural theology can help us in this way, then, then let them be used. As it is, I think they are more liable to lead us into self-deception regarding the nature of the God we are called to love, as well as the nature of ourselves and our neighbour.

(Oh, and also: some of this is surely relevant to Rowan William’s The Edge of Words.)


1. This is another angle to an argument of mine Bill has already seen and offered criticism for: that the descriptions employed in the arguments of natural theology are non-rigid designators, such that they cannot be understood as necessarily picking out a particular individual in all possible worlds.








5 thoughts on “Summa Contra Bill

  1. One thing I’m not sure about is whether these arguments need to commit us to being able to identify an object fulfilling a description in the way that you suggest – you suggest that our ability to pick out ultimate goodness for instance could be problematic given a Pascalian type account of the Fall. Is this an issue though for arguments (following a Thomist type strategy) that afffirm that there must be an ultimate goodness/first mover, but without any claim that we are familiar with it or able to identify it? The argument may be trying to say that there is something beyond the universe, an ultimate: not to suggest we can pick it out for ourselves without the aid of revelation. I think Aquinas and other scholastic thinkers are quite clear that accepting such arguments does not bring us in any adequate sense to the God of the Bible and of revelation. So it could still be that we have a false and sinful view of God based on these arguments (the argument for a first mover leads to the sort of God a non-Christian Aristotelian might accept). This does not seem to imply that the arguments are unsound, or idolatrous themselves, as opposed to just not being the whole story. From a Thomist perspective, we could say that there are arguments that show the world is dependent on some non-dependent thing (without trying to say that God is a thing….), without this giving us the ability to define or categorise it. This seems compatible with accepting that our fallen state means that even from this point we can misidentify what the result of our arguments is (though such arguments may be helpful in guiding us towards a truer conception of God).

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  2. It’s a good point Emily: I think I’d say that it’s not a problem for arguments which don’t make any claim to our being able to identify the individual meeting the description. My reckoning, however, is that anyone using these arguments to argue for the existence of the Christian God *is* implicitly claiming that they can be used to pick out a specific individual. Again as you say, however, Aquinas and Anselm use these arguments in more nuanced ways than this, which even if it might be mistaken in this way from time to time, is also still edifying in several others (I wouldn’t want to try and make the argument above as a reason to discount the importance of the scholastic tradition, or to thereby not engage with the history of natural theology: after all, even if that history could be wholly undermined by these general considerations (which I don’t think it can) there would still be an awful lot to learn from it otherwise. I don’t think you’re suggesting that I am saying this, but I think it’s an easy thing to read out of the above, and so worth explicitly denying!) (It’s also perhaps worth saying that I certainly don’t think the arguments are unsound/idolatrous in and of themselves; rather, they are so/can be because they are employed in the context of fallen human society (though I’d also say that they *are* necessarily employed in this context, and that society is also necessarily fallen).)

    Anyway, in direct response to your last sentence: I agree that the arguments might be able to show that certain things are true (though tbh I tend to come across the fact here that I actually find most of the arguments either logically unconvincing or of minimal importance in particular as well). And in Alec’s vein, I think it might be the case that these argument can be used to clarify our understanding of the God of Scripture. Even given this, however, I think the nature of our conceptualisation is such that if we primarily think of God as first cause, rather than of our first cause as God, we are more liable to read the background features of our conceptualisation onto God than otherwise (it is also, of course, worth saying that taking the other side of the fork and saying that *God* is our first cause is just as open to such dangers, not least in view of the fact that our reading of Scripture is subject to the same danger as our formulation of propositions. The follow on from this piece is not, in my mind, that therefore a ‘Scriptural’ theology is somehow immune to anthropomorphising. It’s rather that nothing we can do, logically or exegetically, can guarantee that when we try to talk about God we’re actually talking about God. Which could be understood very nihilistically, which is why it’s probably important in the same breath to point to the incarnation as the promise of grace given, once and for all so that it might take hold of our speech from time to time. Or something like that…).

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