The Wittgenstein Merit Badge

It seems hard to reconcile with everything you know is right, but I was once a scoutmaster. Not long mind you. After my first summer camp and the boys all came back without merit badges and believing in evolution and global warming I was quickly called to be the High Priest quorum instructor. You can tell what kind of scoutmaster you were by where you end up after. Good ones are immediately called to be Bishops and Primary teachers. Other kinds land in High Priests where they can’t do much damage.

But I’ve always loved scout camps. With four sons, normally I attended as one of those fathers who are treated like royalty because the beleaguered leaders are just so happy you are there. I always came for the whole week because it was a chance to be with my kids and wander around, breath fresh air, watch ants for hours, and of course catch up on my reading. One summer, like many of you (and this experience is so common I almost feel kitschy mentioning it), I was drawn to read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus during the carefree afternoons among God’s creations. How can you resist a book that begins “The world is everything that is the case.”

But it’s the book’s last sentence I want to blog about “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This book became part of the positivist manifesto, which declared that only those things that could be confirmed had metaphysical reality. Everything else was nonsense. Religion or anything that could not be measured and quantified were distained as irrelevant to the search for understanding the universe. Wittgenstein never joined the positivists. They read him as supporting their efforts, but he did not. The Tractatus was meant to be a work of ethics. Unlike the positivists’ reading, that those things ‘that one must remain silent’ about were worthless, Wittgenstein’s point was that those are the most important things. It was in that silence, that we find our values, our loves, and yes the deep spirituality that informs our lives. (He was a spiritual man and in the end, as he succumbed to the pain and despair of prostrate cancer, he called upon a priest, not to discuss philosophy but to talk about God.)

In the end he intellectually moved way from his Tractatian attempts to thus carve up different ways of knowing. He became a towering figure in the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy in which philosophy started dissecting ‘meaning’ and how that played out in language and thought. He left the book forever because he thought it failed in its attempt to end philosophy.

But I like the way he sliced things up. Science really does seem to be a very good way to get at ‘what is the case’ questions. And yet the values that inform what things we choose to study, what we do with the information once we have it and in picking how the information is used, and those ineffables that structure the meaning of our lives in spiritual and ethical terms are not things ‘where of we can speak,’ at least not completely. And on these matters science really does have not much to say. This is important. As science reaches deep into the bag of ‘what is the case, to pull out some useful models of reality, the things that it grabs onto are in many ways completely defined and structured by our values. But this does not mean they just are our values.

The next two blogs are going to address the deep suspicions about science I find floating almost everywhere I look. Even friendly views of science-types seem concerned about science in ways that are inappropriate to the way science actually works in our society and the role it can play. These views are conditioned on inappropriate suspicions—suspicions based upon the influential positivist misrepresentations of science. These often take the form of warnings to hold the findings of science in suspension until they agree with what you already believe. I will use Global Warming as an example of how scientific findings are misunderstood and dismissed without warrant because of misguided suspicions about the role that science should play in our epistemological understanding of the world. Don’t worry. I’m not going to argue that science is above suspicion, just that there are good ways and bad ways to be suspicious. Through these examples, I will attempt to show how scientific suspicions form the Scylla and Charybdis onto which both the science-based anti-Mormon antagonists and the scientific apologists are shipwrecking.

In the meantime, go to scout and youngwoman’s camps and pick up a good read. Might I suggest Tractatus?

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6 comments to The Wittgenstein Merit Badge

  • Too bad there isn’t an evolution merit badge.

  • steve

    Maybe we should propose one!

  • Hey, I like my HP instructor’s job!! If they yank me I will be at a loss.

    I like your take on Wittgenstein. I lean toward the behaviorist and positivist traditions, but I also understand that science knows very little, and that our religious traditions are extremely valuable.

    Also, count my vote for the evolution merit badge. One of its requirements ought to be to find a fossil older than six thousand years old, and the Bishop should have to sign off on it. Just kidding.

  • steve

    I like the idea of having to find a fossil! How about an automatic Eagle if it is good transitional fossil?

  • MAtt W.

    I know evolution is mentioned in the geology merit badge, and global warming is discussed in the environmental science merit badge.

    There’s also animal science and plant science merit badges…

  • Steve, Thanks for this jewel:

    “After my first summer camp and the boys all came back without merit badges and believing in evolution and global warming I was quickly called to be the High Priest quorum instructor.”

    I will keep this strategy in mind as a covet and/or try to avoid certain callings ;)

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