What If We’re Wrong?: An Animated Video Challenges Our Most Deeply Held Beliefs–With the Help of a Ludwig Wittgenstein Thought Experiment

Philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein asked us to imag­ine a rope stretched around the earth at the equa­tor (and imag­ine the earth as a per­fect sphere). Were we to add one more yard to the rope, then stretch it out taut again, would any­one be able to notice the dif­fer­ence? Most of us will intu­it that it couldn’t pos­si­bly be so, a yard would dis­ap­pear in the immen­si­ty of the Earth’s cir­cum­fer­ence.

Some geom­e­try and alge­bra show, in fact, that the rope would hov­er about 6 inch­es off the ground, becom­ing a haz­ardous trip­wire span­ning the globe. The video above from the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz begins with this odd thought exper­i­ment and ends with a call to action: to apply more skep­ti­cism to our polit­i­cal posi­tions.

If we can be so wrong about a prob­lem with a math­e­mat­i­cal proof, we’re asked, “how should an open-mind­ed hon­est per­son regard her own cer­tain­ty in areas where there are often no proofs, like pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy, ethics, or aes­thet­ics? Maybe we should be a lot less con­fi­dent in our beliefs. After all, we might be wrong more than we real­ize.” Maybe so. But it seems there’s some slip­pery use of ter­mi­nol­o­gy here.

In any case, the short video is not, we should point out, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Wittgenstein’s thought, only a riff on his imag­in­ing a rope around the world. What did Wittgen­stein him­self have to say about skep­ti­cism and cer­tain­ty? It’s com­pli­cat­ed. Attempt­ing to char­ac­ter­ize his thought in brief might be an impos­si­ble task. He can seem like a high­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry thinker, refut­ing the ideas in his first book, the Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus, in his posthu­mous­ly pub­lished Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions, for exam­ple.

But per­haps it is more so the case—as A.C. Grayling writes of anoth­er posthu­mous­ly pub­lished Wittgen­stein col­lec­tion, On Cer­tain­ty—that the stages of the enig­mat­ic thinker’s career were each “a col­lec­tion of pro­vi­sion­al notes, record­ing a jour­ney not an arrival.” He had begun in the Trac­ta­tus by con­sid­er­ing phi­los­o­phy “a spu­ri­ous enter­prise.” Most famous­ly, Wittgen­stein wrote, “Where­of one can­not speak, there­of one must be silent,” sweep­ing away with one lofty ges­ture all meta­physics and abstract spec­u­la­tion.

In On Cer­tain­ty, he appears to final­ly accept philosophy’s “legit­i­ma­cy.” Any con­flict with his ear­li­er posi­tions does not trou­ble him at all. Wittgen­stein attempts to refute skep­ti­cism, return­ing to the image of a “world pic­ture” that recurs again and again in his work, build­ing his case with apho­risms like “I have a world pic­ture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the sub­stra­tum of all my enquir­ing and assert­ing.” Draw­ing on the foun­da­tion­al­ism of G.E. Moore, Wittgen­stein deploys rhetoric that sounds down­right fun­da­men­tal­ist:

If I say ‘we assume that the earth has exist­ed for many years past’ (or some­thing sim­i­lar), then of course it sounds strange that we should assume such a thing. But in the entire sys­tem of our lan­guage-games it belongs to the foun­da­tions. The assump­tion, one might say, forms the basis of action, and there­fore, nat­u­ral­ly, of thought.

Isn’t the ques­tion this: ‘What if you had to change your opin­ion even on these most fun­da­men­tal things?’ And to that the answer seems to me to be: ‘You don’t have to change. That is just what their being “fun­da­men­tal” is.’

This does not sound like a per­son like­ly to ever change their mind about what one might call their “strong­ly-held beliefs.” Wittgen­stein con­structs anoth­er view at the very same time. His sec­ond argu­ment “is not com­fort­ably con­sis­tent with—perhaps, indeed, under­mines” the first. While defend­ing cer­tain­ty, he argues for “rel­a­tivism… the view that truth and knowl­edge are not absolute or invari­able, but depen­dent upon view­point, cir­cum­stances or his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions.”

Our thoughts about the world, or our “world-pic­ture,” writes Wittgen­stein, “might be part of a kind of mythol­o­gy…. The mythol­o­gy may change back into a state of flux, the riv­er-bed of thoughts may shift.” Our beliefs change as the “lan­guage-game” changes. We put on new dis­cur­sive cloth­ing, con­tin­gent on our present cir­cum­stances. “The dif­fi­cul­ty,” writes the philoso­pher, with almost a hint of sym­pa­thy, “is to real­ize the ground­less­ness of our believ­ing.”

Nei­ther of these positions—that we are jus­ti­fied in believ­ing “fun­da­men­tal,” self-evi­dent propo­si­tions because they’re fun­da­men­tal; or that we change our beliefs because of a change in rel­a­tive “language-games”—fit neat­ly with the idea that we should try to be less cer­tain and more open to chang­ing our minds. Nor is any ref­er­ence in Wittgen­stein like­ly to help resolve our polit­i­cal dis­agree­ments.

We may find it a com­fort, or a deeply unset­tling propo­si­tion, that cer­tain beliefs might be anchored more deeply than proof or skep­ti­cism can reach. Or as Wittgen­stein put it: “And now if I were to say ‘It is my unshake­able con­vic­tion that etc.,’ this means in the present case too that I have not con­scious­ly arrived at the con­vic­tion by fol­low­ing a par­tic­u­lar line of thought, but that it is anchored in all my ques­tions and answers, so anchored that I can­not touch it.” Yet, per­haps it is the case that we share more of these con­vic­tions than we know.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Lud­wig Wittgen­stein & His Philo­soph­i­cal Insights on the Prob­lems of Human Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Hear Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus Sung as a One-Woman Opera

Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Short, Strange & Bru­tal Stint as an Ele­men­tary School Teacher

In Search of Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Seclud­ed Hut in Nor­way: A Short Trav­el Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (8)
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  • James says:

    Thanks David, that’s a well made point.

  • felicia permuter says:

    I would be glad to recieve more inter­est­ing opin­ions and thoughts

  • Alexandra Hopkins says:

    Exper­i­ment with the min­i­mum wage. In sit­u­a­tions that are not sub­ject to math or log­ic proofs, exper­i­ments tell us the real results. One can rea­son and the­o­rize about the min­i­mum wage indefinitely–with some­what per­sua­sive argu­ments on both sides. We’ve had min­i­mum wage laws for decades. What hap­pens? And what hap­pens when you raise them?

    Some peo­ple like the results and some don’t. But at least we can find out the real-life results. Then, we may still dis­agree because of dif­fer­ent val­ues.

    Some peo­ple val­ue pre­vent­ing oth­ers who work hard from falling into pover­ty — they like the results of a high min­i­mum wage like in Scan­di­navia. There’s lit­tle pover­ty in Scan­di­navia. Some peo­ple val­ue com­plete free­dom to take as much as they can. So, they like non-exis­tent or low min­i­mum wages like in the Amer­i­can South. Many peo­ple who work hard in the Amer­i­can South, how­ev­er, would ben­e­fit from a high­er min­i­mum wage (even if they agree with the 1% that com­plete free­dom to take what they can is more impor­tant).

  • Alexandra Hopkins says:

    One addition–We can also exper­i­ment to see if the rope lift­ed up only a lit­tle from the Earth. That’s what sci­ence is all about: The­o­rize and come up with a log­i­cal con­clu­sion. Then, exper­i­ment to see if the log­ic is correct–maybe some­thing was left out in the log­ic. Exper­i­ment will tell us what’s real­ly going on. Log­ic can often fail us because an assump­tion is miss­ing or wrong or a con­clu­sion does­n’t real­ly fol­low.

  • Christina Mills says:

    He’s talk­ing about two very dif­fer­ent types of “beliefs.” Believ­ing that some­thing is the case obvi­ous­ly does­n’t make it true, no mat­ter how strong­ly (nor how many of us) believe it. But believ­ing some­thing to be a fact isn’t the same thing as believ­ing in a prin­ci­ple or val­ue.

  • Gene says:

    I think you’re exact­ly right, Christi­na. The film is apply­ing one kind of pic­ture into a frame that calls for anoth­er type of pic­ture. The con­clu­sion from using one might not nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­low when using the oth­er.

    Still, as David Hume point­ed out long before Wittgen­stein, human rea­son is a fal­li­ble instru­ment and is used best with cau­tion and humil­i­ty.

  • Tony says:

    Test your beliefs. Stop only look­ing for the argu­ments and opin­ions that sup­port your beliefs (con­fir­ma­tion bias) and look for those that are con­trary to your beliefs. If you can hon­est­ly say that those beliefs have no mer­it, then you can be more con­fi­dent in what you believe. If not, then you may need to do some lev­el of mod­i­fi­ca­tion to your beliefs.

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