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    Ludwig Wittgenstein may be the most important single philosopher of the 20th Century, and he has proven very quotable. One of his most famous quotes could be rendered (from the original German) as “The belief in the causal nexus is a superstition,” or in more everyday English, “The belief in the causal connection is imaginary.”

    What he’s asserting is that the belief in causality is a belief that can’t be proven to a dead certainty. It’s not provable in the way that logical or mathematical assertions can be proven. In that sense, a physical statement like “all metals expand when heated,” which seems always to be true, remains a contingent truth, one based on evidence, and not a necessary truth like “if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C,” which is easy to prove.

    Tobacco company attorneys who may never have heard of Wittgenstein have made hay over the years by arguing that you can’t show tobacco causing lung cancer. Luckily, the statistical evidence is undeniable. But the laws of physics are contingent, too. They aren’t built on deterministic proofs but on repeatable experiments. We may discover a new metal element someday (in my mind’s eye, I can see chemists and physicists rolling their eyes), one that shrinks when heated, and if that happens it will no longer be true to say that all metals expand when heated.

    Science is driven by evidence, and while it uses mathematics and logic, math and logic don’t make physical laws absolute. They remain contingent, dependent on a body of evidence and repeatable experiments.

    While a belief in causal connections may be just a belief, it’s a necessary belief. Not just science, but in everyday life, we can’t get off the dime without it.

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    One might say that a belief in the “causal connection” between events is an axiom we assume to be true as the assumption has great utility.



    I’d not looked into Wittgenstein before.  Turns out three of his five brothers committed suicide!  Three!  Statistical probability unlikely. I’m probably alone here but I find that rather ironic 🙂



    Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein. Names don’t get much better than that. LOL

    I don’t think there’s much doubt his family was wildly dysfunctional. Perhaps that’s why he gave his own inheritance back to his siblings. Divorcing his family? He could have been one of the richest people in the world, but decided instead to be a “normal” person, though of course he turned out to be anything but…

    I wrote my master’s thesis on his book On Certainty, a book about knowledge theory (epistemology). I quote the last two entries below in italicized type.

    Whether he is right or not, his gift was always to look at things in a totally novel way. He thought thoughts no one had ever thought before and had a talent for expressing his thoughts in clear and relatable ways. An aspect of his “ordinary language philosophy.” While his thoughts are deep and sometimes hard to comprehend, the language he uses isn’t dense and almost always avoided philosophical jargoneering.

    675. If someone believes that he has flown from America to England in the last few days, then, I
    believe, he cannot be making a mistake.

    Maybe he’d be crazy or joking, but he wouldn’t be making a mistake.

    And just the same if someone says that he is at this moment sitting at a table and writing.
    676. “But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken, isn’t it possible that I am drugged?” If I am and
    if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. 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.

    (Sorry about the spacing. The system isn’t helping.)


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