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It is probably uncontroversial to describe Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers. In my less charitable moods I’d be tempted to say that this is rather like being one of Kansas City’s tallest buildings. Still, his vast influence over the philosophies that come after him is undeniable – but I often wonder why.

I’m led to think about Wittgenstein by a few recent comments from Thill, quoting a text called On Certainty. Readers might recall that in my most extensive reading of Wittgenstein to date – looking at the Philosophical Investigations – the main effect he had on my thought was to push me away from his thought and closer to the thinkers he disliked, like Plato and Augustine. But a brief look at On Certainty does even less for my estimation of Wittgenstein as a thinker.

The main aim of On Certainty, as I understand it, seems to be to dispense with the kind of doubt that René Descartes expresses in the Discourse on Method and the Meditations. In my own reflection on certainty I expressed sympathy with Cartesian doubt – but not with his solution, so that even “I think therefore I am” is uncertain to me.

But Wittgenstein wants to do away with all this. Some things, he thinks, simply should not be doubted: “Even if I came to a country where they believed that people were taken to the moon in dreams, I couldn’t say to them: ‘I have never been to the moon. – Of course I may be mistaken’. And to their question ‘Mayn’t you be mistaken?’ I should have to answer: No.” (section 667) Why? “From its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it.” (section 2, emphasis in original)

I don’t see how Wittgenstein can say it doesn’t make sense to doubt it. The Matrix gives a clear and graphic illustration of what it would mean to doubt our everyday experience, to show that the world could be completely other than we imagine. It’s not necessarily plausible; but what seemed hugely implausible or even impossible to past generations (the earth revolving around the sun, the adaptation of living species without the help of an intelligent designer) has turned out, as far as we now know, to be true.

While Wittgenstein isn’t thinking about the Matrix, he does seem to have some similar cases in mind. One might think here about possibly the most famous passage in the work of Zhuangzi, where Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly, wakes up, and then wonders if, rather than Zhuangzi having dreamed he was a butterfly, he is actually a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. (I’m not entirely sure that this doubt is the real point of Zhuangzi’s passage, but it can be used to illustrate the point at hand, which is the important thing for the moment.) Wittgenstein isn’t much for such uncertainty based on dreams. Yet the very conclusion of On Certainty, in attempting to refute a position like Zhuangzi’s, seems effectively to defend it. Wittgenstein says:

I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

Was Wittgenstein unaware of lucid dreaming? The existence of lucid dreaming, in which one is aware that one is dreaming but continues to dream, is well attested scientifically; I’ve done it once or twice myself. I don’t see how one can judge the lucid dreamer incorrect about the fact that he is dreaming. Section 383 says: “The argument ‘I may be dreaming’ is senseless for this reason: if I am dreaming, this remark is being dreamed as well – and indeed it is also being dreamed that these words have any meaning.” I don’t see how claims made in a lucid dream are meaningless, given that the same words can be intelligibly recalled when the dream is over – is Wittgenstein turning to the juvenile habit, so endemic among logical positivists, of declaring “meaningless” anything that he does not wish to put in the effort to understand? Perhaps Wittgenstein has a different point in this passage; but then again, perhaps he’s just being willfully ignorant. The latter seems to be the case in section 108 of On Certainty, pointed to a while ago by Chris Mathews at Philosophical Misadventures:

If we are thinking within our system, then it is certain that no one has ever been on the moon. Not merely is nothing of the sort ever seriously reported to us by reasonable people, but our whole system of physics forbids us to believe it. For this demands answers to the questions “How did he overcome the force of gravity?” “How could he live without an atmosphere?” and a thousand others which could not be answered.

As we all know, these very questions were all in the process of being answered definitively right as Wittgenstein wrote, to the point that in 1969 – the very year On Certainty was published – Neil Armstrong did indeed walk on the moon. What might have once appeared to have been a profound aphorism turned out shortly afterwards to be just plain wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if recent attempts at lucid dreaming wound up refuting the previous passage in the same way.

There’s plenty more to Wittgenstein’s thought than On Certainty, of course, and I’ll try to say more next time. But for the moment, I will note that I feel mostly certain that Wittgenstein is wrong in that text. The only reason I can find to doubt that he’s wrong is itself based on the fact that I disagree with him, and think that to a certain extent we can and should doubt everything.