Immortality as a language game

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Or life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) held that the meanings of words could only be understood within ‘forms of life’. We don’t simply come to use language by a teacher pointing to an object, a chair for example, and saying, ‘chair.’ This misconception, that words had meanings that could be understood outside their wider context was, for Wittgenstein a mistake:

Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word ‘this’ innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.



“Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” – Wittgenstein

We know someone is adept at communication when they use language correctly, hence Wittgenstein’s famous slogan: ‘meaning is use.’ There are rules for using a language within every domain, rules for what Wittgenstein called a ‘language game’, to draw attention to the fact that speaking a language is part of a rule-bound activity, or of a form of life. He gives a number of disparate examples of language games, including:


Forming and testing a hypothesis— Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams— Making up a story; and reading it— Play-acting— Singing catches— Guessing riddles— Making a joke; telling it— Solving a problem in practical arithmetic— Translating from one language into another— Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

For Wittgenstein then, to understand someone, we have to know which language game our interlocutor is playing, and be at least open to playing by and have a tacit understanding of the same rules. The same also goes for the rules or ‘grammar’ of religious belief.

Suppose someone were a believer and said: ‘I believe in the last Judgement’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.’ You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ‘There is a German aeroplane overhead’, and I said ‘Possibly. I’m not so sure’, you’d say we were fairly near.

It may seem on the surface that the person who speaks the last Judgement is making a scientific claim, but this is a misconception. There is a particular (religious) language game in play here, and we only confuse matters by interpreting his remarks as if they were part of another language game, that of science. Asking if there will be a Last Judgement within the context of the scientific language game is absurd as asking if a violinist has scored more points than the conductor during a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

The Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D.Z. Phillips (1934-2006) claims that it makes no sense to ask for proof of validity of religious beliefs once they are understood as language games: ‘philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs,’ he writes. ‘After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over.’ Phillips sums up his view by listing examples of religious rituals and suggests their possible significance or functions:

A boxer crosses himself before the fight; a mother places a garland on a statue of the Virgin Mary; parents pray for their child lost in a wreck. Are these blunders or religious activities? What decides the answer to this question is the surroundings, what the people involved say about their actions, what their expectation are, what if anything, would render the activity pointless, and so on. Does the boxer think that anyone who crosses himself before a fight will not come to serious harm in it? Does the mother think that the garland’s value is prudential? Do the parents believe that all true prayers for the recovery of children lead to that recovery? If these questions answered in the affirmative, the beliefs involved become testable hypotheses. They are, as a matter of fact, blunders, mistakes, regarding causal connections of a kind. […] But perhaps the activities have a different meaning. Perhaps the boxer is dedicating his performance in crossing himself, expressing the hope that it be worthy of what he believes in, and so on. The mother may be venerating the birth of her child as God’s gift, thanking for it, and contemplating the virtues of motherhood as found in the mother of Jesus. The parents may be making their desires known to God, wanting the situation which has occasioned them to be met in Him. The beliefs involved are not testable hypotheses, but ways of reacting to and meeting such situations.

In the same way, for Phillips, those who assess talk of immortality of the soul as if it rested on a claim about duration beyond death are really missing the point. Rather, the meaning of eternal life, for those who speak of it is not ‘something which happens after human life on earth is over’ but ‘the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed.’ For Phillips then the question of the immortality of the soul is an ethical one, and not one of assessing a quasi-scientific or metaphysical belief.

The soul which is rooted in the mortal is the soul where the ego is dominant […] The immortality of the soul by contrast refers to a person’s relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer’s life […]. I am suggesting then, that eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God, and that this life has to do with dying to the self, seeing that all things are a gift from God, that nothing is ours by right or necessity.

The Wittgensteinian approach to religious statements is not without its critics. Stephen Law points out that it is disingenuous to claim that the believer has a different relation or approach to her creedal statements than her atheist opponent. And it certainly appears that many sincere Christians, Muslims and Jews do believe quite literally in a life after death. Even if we take the view that there views are simply naïve compared to a more sophisticated philosophical theology, would that not be, to say the least, a little patronising? Can we really accept that for example, a regular church goer does not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead?

Over eight centuries ago, Maimonides could write in his Essay on the Resurrection about the common people who he describes as needing:

precept after precept, precept after precept, now here, now there [Isa. 28:13]. The sense of it is that they understand but little, the comprehend a bit, a little here, a little there. But the right thing to do is to address each group according to its capacity.

However, if written today, such statements might be considered unacceptably elitist. And yet, literalism seems to be a blunt tool for interpreting religious beliefs and texts, and perhaps an anachronistic one at that. Looking back to the way that generations of religious philosophers have interpreted and reinterpreted sacred texts  bearing in mind the Talmudic adage that the “Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” We see that at least as far back as Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – c 40 CE), scriptural passages were read as allegories or parables. We might, therefore, be taking an unduly narrow approach if we dismiss texts and mythologies describing life after death as merely prevalent forms of pseudoscience.