Book Review: A challenge to the Western realist mindset

Book Review: A Challenge to the Western Realist Mindset

Science and Religion in Wittgenstein’s Fly-bottle, by Tim Labron, Bloomsbury, 138pp, £14.50
 
reviewed by Hugh MacKenzie
 
Tim Labron’s monograph invites us to “step out of traditional classical … realism” (p.70). He acknowledges that, “this is difficult territory to enter”. Yet, the relentlessness with which he brings Wittgenstein’s ever fresh, ever challenging aphorisms to bear on the subject, makes for a convincing read. That in itself is enough to make this an important book for Catholic philosophers of the dominant Thomistic "moderate realist" tradition.
 
The main evidence outside of Wittgenstein, which is adduced by Labron, is Niels Bohr’s interpretation of Quantum Physics. Labron quotes another Nobel-winning physicist, Hideki Yukawa: “Bohr’s argumentation has always appeared quite evident to [the Japanese] … you see, we in Japan have not been corrupted by Aristotle.” In this book Labron attempts to apply this "purifying" paradigm shift to the areas of philosophy, science and religion. It makes for a powerful, sustained call to recognise that meaning is always meaning-for-someone.
 
However, he risks giving this a bad name by going a significant step too far. His rejection of classical realism seems unnecessarily absolute. He excludes a more relational version. His justified denial of independent empirical reality “out there”, often denies the distinct existence of external reality - and the meaningfulness of metaphysics. This is no more obvious than in his convoluted reduction of the "frequently” used concept of “a transcendent God” in the “language game” of “classical theism”. Belief in a God external to our universe is, we are told, actually part of a dialectic between the concept’s “strict definition” and its religious “use” and “experience” (p.119-20). Like the Quantum Physics wave-particle duality the absolute God is a paradoxical mystery (p118-9).
 
Thereby Labron risks slipping into a form of relativism, and denial of a foundation of Judaeo-Christian revelation. He concludes that the respective language games of science and religion cannot be in real conflict simply because they are different "Forms of Life", that is they deal with different realms of value and practice. They are just incommensurate - as are many other Forms of Life.
 
Wittgenstein’s Insight
 
Labron gives a helpful definition of the realism that has dominated second millennium philosophy. It makes the primary criteria of truth the correct reference to (“correspondence with”, p.32-7) mind-independent reality, “out there” (p.2). It sees our concepts as like a TV screen that mimics reality. Nouns "stand for" things and grammar copies the basic cosmic dynamic. “Nonrealism”, that is Idealism, he well points out, has a similar view of referred-to “objects”, but just posits these objects as ideas within the observer’s mind.
 
He shows that these apparently opposed thought systems are caught in the same false way of viewing reality as simply the external object of the knowing subject. This Greco-Scholastic epistemology is Wittgenstein’s “fly-bottle”. It has set the terms of the debate for what science is, and for whether God exists. Both classical theists and the new atheists are both flies in the same bottle because their debates are about whether our concepts “correspond” with an external creator. And Wittgenstein has inexorably pointed out that what correspondence is, and how one measures its validity, is never explained. "Standing for" and "mimicking", reference and meaning, tend to become concepts of secondary importance. The observing mind if left out of basic Greco-Catholic metaphyics, if often adding the soul back in after having defined basic ontological concepts. 
 
Labron shows that Wittgenstein affirms that reality, and therefore the foundation of truth, is the dynamic human “use” of language to navigate empirical observation. Concepts are capacities to act for wanted goals. Intrinsic to the experienced content of knowledge are the evaluations and purposes that the observer brings to his encounter – his “Form of Life”: “Our contact with reality is … mediated by language, yet that reality is neither reduced to language, nor independent of it” (p.30, my emphasis). Much as units of measurement are in reference to a standard measurement, and so not independent and external to human specification, so the meaning of a statement uttered by the acting person, is in direct relationship to other ones. “It is part of the grammar [and logic] of the word ‘chair’ that this is what we call ‘to sit in a chair’” (quoted at p.27). Wittgenstein goes on, “it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game … children do not learn that books exist, armchairs exist, etc. etc., they learn to fetch books, sit in armchairs, etc. etc.” (On Certainty, 204, 476). Aphorism 110, I would add, has, “the end [to logical grounding] … is an ungrounded way of acting” (my emphasis). Words just don’t “stand for things”, things either “out there” or things somehow “in” the mind. Words are an intrinsic part of actions, engaging with others. I would add that they enable a shared purpose.
 
The overreach
 
Yet Labron often uses the concept of “use”, that is human action, without analysis, thereby seeming to claim that there is no foundation to truth, even at times as if there is no distinct (I don’t write independent) external reality. So, for instance he characterises western realism and idealism as positing “the container of knowledge as our mind, that is ideas, … separat[ing] the mind and the reality that is ‘out there’” (p.94). He is rejecting something more than realism as defined above. He is rejecting not just radically separate external reality, but also distinct,  objective reality. So, “reality is in our language – which is why ’physical objects exist’ is not a proposition but a grammatical remark” (p.96). He rejects “classical foundationalism, which maintains that some propositions are basic … either selfevident … or evident to our senses” (p.95). All we have is the network of interrelated linguistic statements, and the actions which result.
 
He concludes that there is no “connection to any underlying structure.” There are only grammatical rules that we successfully use in our Form of Life. These rules are “neither true nor false” (p.47). There is no ultimately measurable truth or falsity (p.44-45). Page 72 has, “2+2=4 … is actually not true or false”. Further he says on pp.71 - 73, “the search for a foundation [of truth] does not make sense… there is no underlying determinate reality that already is set and therefore determines what we can say and measure. What we say and measure is the determination.”
 
Wittgenstein’s Implicit Qualification
 
Inspired by the founder of this magazine, I would say that, in human knowing, there is actually (i) an underlying self-evident, foundational, and (ii) this involves there being intrinsic structure to creative “use”, which affirms distinct external reality, if not independent of us. This I would call a relational realism. It is true that Wittgenstein denies founding inference upon presuppositions, but not that there is a foundation - which he does, perhaps inconsistently, describe linguistically. He says, “the end [to giving grounds] is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting” (On Certainty, 110). So Labron is right that we must not be “tempted to get behind what we do, to something more fundamental, when what we need is a clarifying description of the place of concepts in our lives” (p. 99, my emphasis). But what we do is self-evidently real. And the said “clarifying description” will be a proposition. And this affirms external existence.
 
In his last work, On Certainty, Wittgenstein says that such is assumed and justifiably so: Our not doubting (some relevant facts) is simply our manner of judging, and therefore of acting” (232); “The squirrel does not infer by induction that it is going to need stores next winter as well. And no more do we need a law of induction to justify our actions or our predictions” (287). He confirms that there are self-evident propositions to be acknowledged here: “that the same thing has happened again is not a proof of it; though we do say that it gives us a right to assume it. This is what we call an ‘empirical foundation’ for our assumptions” (295-6). He says that we just cannot help inferring as if, “follow[ing] the principle that what has always happened will happen again (or something like it) … is it merely the natural law which our inferring apparently follows? This latter it may be. It is not an item in our considerations [or reasoning].” (135)
 
This rooting is not then an a priori presupposition. It is in the present moment (cf. Labron, p. 28-29). Such selfjustified propositions means Wittgenstein is, after all, a foundationalist. Indeed Labron himself approvingly quotes Fergus Kerr making the important point that the methodological “choice lies between atomism and holism, between supposing that what is fundamental is elements that you get down to by analysis and supposing that what is fundamental is what you see on the face of things right at the start” (my emphasis) – in the present moment I would note (p.100). And this leads Labron to come close to my position if only by contradicting himself.
 
Structure of Foundation
 
It is true that, “it is clearly not the case that at the most elementary level we are not distinct” (p.101). But the holistic level, Kerr's “what you see”, and Wittgenstein's human “use”, also has an intrinsic structure – the seeing and the what is seen are necessarily distinct and complementary. The holistic level is indeed what Labron calls the “context” of the seeing -- and, as he notes, of the fundamental human dynamic of willing, what he calls “work[ing] toward[s]” a “goal” (p.103). He then makes my point (if I add three words in square brackets, and change his surely inconsistent use of "independent" to "distinct"): “What is independent of language is not [the whole of] reality it is objects in reality”. The subject-object dynamic is quite intrinsic to the foundational concept of use. It is the irreducible complementarity between facts and manner (in 232 above), between “empirical foundation” and “assuming” (in 295-6 above), and between that “natural law” and “inferring” (in 135 above). Note that these are all self-evident, foundational, necessary, intrinsic contrasts - present in Wittgenstein's last work.
 
Labron is right to affirm, “Reality is neither a foundational structure with us living on top of it, nor is it a perfect reality “above” us”. But he is wrong immediately to add “instead reality … is based on language”. He is right to go straight on to say “the grammar of language is the limit of epistemology” but wrong to go straight on to affirm that, “what ‘is’ cannot be understood as a logical necessity since language can change and randomness is built into the system” (p.126). Wittgenstein does not accept the latter fluidity. He says, “If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put. … I cannot have doubts about the [chess] pieces perhaps changing places of themselves and my memory simultaneously playing tricks on me so that I don’t notice.” (343-6)
 
The complementarity of “wanting” and “deterministically predictable”, between user and used is foundational and necessary to an intelligibility built upon use. Indeed, Labron goes on, rightly, to affirm that the “language matrix relationally forms information and reality” (my emphasis). He is right that “what is missed [by classical realism] is our relational character, value and other features of life in contrast to basic scientific facts.” (p.128)
 
A Great Achievement
 
Labron has provided a powerful articulation of Wittgenstein’s challenge to the western realist mindset. This is as daunting a
task as it is important. The renewal of “proofs” of God is ultimately at stake. It is an invitation to bring the phenomenon of meaningful action back into consideration at the most basic philosophical level. It is a replacement of the western foundation of truth in self-evident correspondence between concepts and reality with selfevident action in a bigger environment. But this action is by a wilful human mind in hispredictable physical environment. Labron suggests that the mind-environment distinction and dynamic, propositionally expressible, is not a foundational part of this dynamic. Rather it is simply constituent of a particular Form of Life. Therefore, we cannot talk of founded truth about objective external reality. Wittgenstein did not go so quite so far. He recognised foundational propositions concerning the complementarity of actor and stage.
 
Still, it is true that external reality can only be understood and defined by reference to its usability and organizability by mind. Physical reality is an invitation to the human to act well. To have provided a strong enticement to the classical realist and correspondence theorist to move in this direction is a great achievement of this book.

Notes:

Fr Hugh MacKenzie is studying for a PhD in the History of the Philosophy of Science at UCL and is Chaplain at the John and Elizabeth hospital in St John’s Wood, London.

Faith Magazine

November/ December 2019