Ludwig Wittgenstein: Darwin doubter
Published: 31 May 2011(GMT+10)
German Jewish-Christian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (26 April 1889–29 April 1951) is considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.1 He played a pivotal role in the development of 20th-Century analytic philosophy and continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, aesthetics and culture, ethics and religion.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy is often divided into the early and the late stages, both of which were pivotal in their respective periods of history. Wittgenstein was one of Cambridge University’s “greatest contributors to 20th-century philosophy … and his most trenchant disciple, the Cambridge-trained physicist and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin (1922–2009)—inoculated us against the naïve view that science shows God does not exist and is irrelevant to cosmology”.2
Lifelong skeptic of Darwinism
I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his theory doesn’t account for all this variety of species. It hasn’t the necessary multiplicity.—Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein was a lifelong skeptic of Darwinism and in his writings he detailed why. For example, while walking in a Zoological Garden he admired the immense variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, birds, reptiles, and other animals. He wrote regarding what he observed there:
“I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his theory doesn’t account for all this variety of species. It hasn’t the necessary multiplicity. Nowadays some people are fond of saying that at last evolution has produced a species that is able to understand the whole process which gave it birth. … you can’t say [that today].”3
The argument from design clearly impressed him. He also wrote that “Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former [emphasis in original]”.4
The Wittgenstein family was classified as super rich, the second wealthiest family in Austria behind only the Rothschilds.5
Ludwig lived in a palace in Vienna, and when his father died of cancer in 1913, he became the wealthiest man in Austria.
Two of his grandparents were Jews that were baptized as Christians when children, and his other two grandparents were evidently gentiles. As an ethnic Jew, Wittgenstein was adversely affected by Darwinism. His biographer noted that one reason for Wittgenstein’s opposition to Darwinism was because he realized that Darwinian “science took the place of superstition in giving visceral hatred” to Jews.6
As historian Steven Beller wrote, the “success of biology, with its inspiration of social Darwinism,” was integral to
“ … nationalism and racialism, [and] threatened the liberal, Enlightenment-grounded assumptions behind Jewish integration in Central Europe. When combined in Vienna with the ability of the Governing Mayor, Karl Lueger, and his Christian Social cronies to harness the really not very modern resentment by the ‘little man’ of Jewish success, this ‘biological turn’ in the form of ‘scientific’ anti-Semitism, effectively destroyed the emancipatory assumptions of Jews (and their allies).”6
Wittgenstein had little respect for scientism, and instead he criticized
What a curious attitude scientists have: ‘We still don’t know that; but it is knowable and it is only a matter of time before we get to know it!’—Wittgenstein
“ … scientists for their arrogance. In Culture and Value, he writes, ‘What a curious attitude scientists have: “We still don’t know that; but it is knowable and it is only a matter of time before we get to know it!”’ Later, he seems almost to rebuke [Stephen] Hawking from the grave: ‘Science: enrichment and impoverishment. One particular method elbows all the others aside. They all seem paltry by comparison.’”7
He thought about this topic of God, science and meaning for much of his life. His thoughts include the conclusion that:
“To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.”8
Sure way to happiness
He also “was unshaken in his belief that: ‘Christianity is indeed the only sure way to happiness’” because it offers “help in dealing with an otherwise unbearable and meaningless existence”.9 About God he wrote:
“What do I know about God and the purpose of life? I know that this world exists. That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field. … To pray is to think about the meaning of life.10
Professor Memarsadeghi wrote that although Wittgenstein was influenced by German mathematician Gottlob Frege and British philosopher Bertrand Russell, his
“ … early anti-naturalist attitude led him to turn his back completely to Darwin, and to say that Darwin’s theory ‘has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.’ It appears, in addition, that Wittgenstein was skeptical of Darwin’s theory throughout his life.”11
In conclusion, Wittgenstein was only one of many major intellectuals who could not accept Darwinism for philosophical and scientific, not merely religious, reasons.
- McGuinness, B., Young Ludwig: Wittgenstein’s Life, 1889–1921, Clarendon Press, New York, NY, 2005. Return to text.
- Romano, C., Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking, The Chronicle Review, p. 3, 26 September 2010; chronicle.com/article/Cosmology-Cambridge-Style-/124568. Return to text.
- Rhees, R. (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, p. 174, 1981. Return to text.
- Anscombe, G.E.M. and von Wright, G.H. (eds.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: On Certainty, Harper & Row, New York, p. 43e, 1972. Return to text.
- Edmonds, D. and Eidinow, J., Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, HarperCollins, New York, NY, pp. 80–81, 2001. Return to text.
- Edmonds and Eidinow, ref. 5, p. 103. Return to text.
- Romano, ref. 2, p. 4. Return to text.
- Wittgenstein, L., Notebooks 1914–1916, Harper, New York, NY, p. 74e, 1961. Return to text.
- Monk, R., Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, The Free Press, New York, p. 122, 1990. Return to text.
- Wittgenstein, ref. 8, pp. 72e–73e. Return to text.
- Memarsadeghi, M., Wittgenstein and Darwin: An Essay on Evolution and Language, paper presented at The International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, University of Guelph, p. 1, 14 July 2005. Return to text.