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Sticky: A Sceptical Anthology

Some favourite sceptical quotations, accumulated over the years

The authors cited
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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
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Last modified on 2015-08-15 15:13

Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D health benefits?

More than half the adults in the USA take dietary supplements for health and the figures are probably similar in other wealthy societies. This is certainly good news for the manufacturers of these supplements but do they actually work? Increasingly, claims of this kind are being shown not to be supported by evidence.

The latest instance of this comes in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine,, which carries articles looking at omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer in the light of two large trials (VITAL and VITALD). (Incidentally, these are all free to read.). Ths significance of the research is discussed in an editorial.


Thus, in the absence of additional compelling data, it is prudent to conclude that the strategy of dietary supplementation with either n?3 fatty acids or vitamin D as protection against cardiovascular events or cancer suffers from deteriorating VITAL signs.


The same issue of NEJM also has an article looking at whether low-dose methotrexate can reduce cardiovascular disease. Methotrexate is a drug used to treat cancer and also some autoimmune disorders. It reduces inflammation, which is important in cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately it didn't work.

A chair of astrology at Harvard?

Is the strange interstellar object that has been ,named 'Oumuamua' perhaps an alien artifact? Apparently this idea is being considered by Professor Loeb, chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University. In this morning's Today programme one of the presenters, Nick Robinson, introduced Loeb as chair of the department of astrology. I don't know if this is an indication of how seriously we are supposed to take the idea.

'Informer' on BBC1: 'Dirty Old Town'

I found the rendition of 'Dirty Old Town' on BBC1's 'Informer' particularly attractive but I couldn't see anything in the credits to show where they got it. I spent much of a day learning how to extract and edit the sound track from the programme (an interesting and probably useful exercise) but eventually I located what seems to be the source on Youtube. If you've looked for it yourself you can find it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMT6WaSEy5U

There are other versions of the song by the same singer, Esther Ofarim, on Youtube but I preferred this one.

Book review: The Dead, by James Joyce

,The Dead is the final story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, published in 1914. At almost 1600 words it is long enough to be called a novella, but that is not the only reason I'm reviewing it on its own; its richness, depth, and complexity are characteristic of a novel rather than a short story and that is how I think it should be judged.

The central characters are Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, who attend a Christmas party given annually by Gabriel's aunts, Julia and Kate, and their neice Mary Jane, who lives with them. Gabriel arrives late at the party and we see events largely through his eyes, as he interacts, sometimes awkwardly, with other people. A friend who is an ardent Irish nationalist twits him about what she thinks is his sympathy for British influence on Ireland; he is stung and reacts badly to this.

When the party breaks up Gabriel and his wife go to a nearby hotel for the night because it is snowing. Gabriel is anticipating a romantic and passionate evening, but matters take a strange turn. Gretta has been in a abstracted mood since overhearing a song that was sung at the party, and in answer to Gabriel's questioning she tells him it used to be sung by Michael Furey, a young man she had been in love with in her youth in the country. He had been in poor health and had come to see her in the rain one night when she was about to leave for Dublin. He died at seventeen and she believed it was his coming to see her in the rain that night that caused his death.

After telling Gabriel this, Gretta cries and then falls asleep. Gabriel lies awake,reflecting on what he has experienced during the evening. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


I don't remember when I first read The Dead but it's a piece of writing, especially its final paragraph, that I've never been able to get out of my mind, and I've reread it periodically since then. Wikipedia tells me I'm not alone. Critics have described it as 'just about the finest short story in the English language' (Dan Berry), 'one of the greatest short stories ever written' (T.S. Eliot), and 'that magnificent short novel of tenderness and passion…' (Daniel R. Schwarz). I concur. I don't think Joyce ever wrote anything better than this, not excluding Ulysses.

New light on religion in the USA

The picture many of us have of the USA as largely dominated by religion is based on the fact that most U.S. adults, unlike those in Western Europe, describe themselves as belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination. Others say they have no formal religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, but exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. All these conventional descriptive categories are potentially misleading and conceal a lot of discrepant beliefs, so that reading the results of surveys of religious attitudes often leaves one with the impression that much that is important is being left out.

In this new survey by the Pew Research Center the whole question is treated in a refreshingly different way that makes it enjoyable to read as well as providing many new insights. Although this is a serious research project it is presented in an accessible and indeed almost light-hearted style, as exemplified by tbe names of the categories it uses to describe the respondents to the survey. There are seven groups 'based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives'. The names, in descending order of belief and devoutness, are Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular.

These somewhat unconventional categories are more informative than those used by most researchers. For example, they go a good way towards classifying the large number of people who now reject formal religion (often called 'nones' in other surveys) while still identifying themselves as 'spiritual'. Here the term is not left undefined and vague, as it often is, but is characterised in terms of belief in specific 'New Age' ideas such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and the inherence of spiritual energy in trees, crystals, or other physical objects.

Nevertheless the conventional religious groupings are not ignored totally; a section at the end of the overview looks at how the different religious traditions (Jews, Catholics and so on) are distributed amont the seven categories used here.

The seven-fold scheme allows for finer distinctions than is often the case. For example, the Solidly Secular and the Religion Resisters are quite similar in their rejection of formal religion and contain similar numbers of agnostics (one-fifth). But 'Religion Resisters are more likely than the Solidly Secular to describe their religion as "nothing in particular" (45% vs. 23%), while the Solidly Secular are more likely than Religion Resisters to describe themselves as atheists (31% vs. 6%)'. Incidentally, the Solidly Secular group is the only one to be made up mostly of men (two-thirds).

Although the research is now complete you can still answer the questionnaire on line and discover your own category. I thought the questions were generally well chosen and clear; there were just a few places where I felt that any answer I gave might be misleading, but I didn't disagree with the category assignment I received.

All in all, I think this review is probably the most informative and interesting, as well as the most readable without sacrifice of scientific rigour, that I've encountered in this area. Its only limitation is that it is confined to religion in the USA. I wish a survey of similar quality could be carried out in Britain.



Book review: Limpieza de Sangre [in Spanish], by Arturo Perez-Reverte

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This is the second novel in the series describing the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune and hired assassin. We meet again with most of the characters who appeared in the first novel, El Capitán Alatriste, including his young page, Iñigo Balboa, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, who has an important role in this book. There is also a new character, Angélica de Alquézar, a young girl who fascinates Iñigo and is destined to have a major impact on his life in later years.

The plot is triggered by Quevedo's request to Alatriste for help in rescuing a girl who has been forced to enter a convent. Iñigo climbs into the convent and opens a door to Quevedo, Alatriste, and the girl's family members, but they are caught in a trap and Alatriste and Quevedo barely escape with their lives. Meanwhile Iñigo, who has disobeyed Alatriste's instruction to return home, is captured by Alatriste's old enemy, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who delivers him to the Inquisition.

Quite a lot of the book is taken up with Iñigo's experiences at the hands of the Inquisition. These are suitably horrific, although luckily he is not tortured on the rack because he has not quite attained the age of fourteen. (The Inqusition's rules did not allow torture of children below this age.)

The question of 'purity of blood' which gives the book its title, relates to people whose forebears had been 'conversos' (Jewish converts to Christianity) and who were suspected of backsliding. If convicted of this crime they were liable to execution by burning. The central event in the novel is an 'Auto de Fe', which is staged in Madrid with the King and Queen in attendance. Iñigo is one of the accused, alleged to have taken part in Jewish rituals, and is now awaiting sentence.

As usual, there is plenty of drama and sword-play, which on one occasion takes on a near-farcical character, when Alatriste breaks into the house of Luis de Alquézar, Angélica's powerful uncle and guardian, intending to terrify him into getting Iñigo released. But Angélica comes on the scene and attacks Alatriste savagely, scratching him and biting his arm.

There is a lot of local colour, with depictions of seventeenth-century Madrid low life. Sometimes the details of this may be obscure to readers who lack some background information. For example, Chapter III describes Iñigo's encounter with Angélica in the 'Acero' district of Madrid. This was a place where water containing iron was drunk for medicinal purposes ('acero' = 'steel'), but in the seventeenth century 'tomar el acero' ('to take the steel'—compare 'to take the waters') could also refer to the making of romantic assignations.

As in the previous book, Iñigo includes a good few verse quotations, mostly from Quevedo, in his story, along with political reflections on the sorry state of decadent Spain. Fortunately these don't hold up the action too much. The principal characters, Alatriste and Iñigo, continue to develop in a convincing manner.

The final episode in the book has Alatriste encountering Malatesta, with whom he had fought a few days previously, now lying in bed seriously injured. Alatriste wants to kill him but can't bring himself to do so while the man is defenceless. And he is forced to recognise that he and Malatesta have more in common than he likes to admit.

Book review: Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich

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In 2003 Stephen Oppenheimer's book Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, presented a popular but detailed account of the way that genetics was beginning to supplement, and sometimes contradict, archaeological evidence for how humans had populated the world after their exit from Africa. This information was based on mitochondrial DNA and on the sex chromosomes, Y for the male line and X for the female line. The new insights into human evolution that Oppenheimer described were certainly fascinating, but the whole scene has been radically transformed within the last decade. Two technological developments have brought this about. First, sequencing of the whole genome has become much faster and cheaper, so that it can be done on an 'industrial' scale. Second, it is now possible to extract DNA from much older bones than was previously thought to be possible.

The first, and most dramatic, development in the application of genome sequencing to archaeology was Svante Pääbo's sequencing oeanderthal genome in 2009, which showed that there had been interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Reich started working with Pääbo in 2007, and in 2013 Pääbo helped him to set up the first laboratory in the USA for the large-scale production of ancient genomes. Similar work is beginning to be carried out in other countries as well.

In this book Reich presents an overview of what has been discovered so far. He emphasises that this cannot be a definitive description; new discoveries are being made continually and much of what he says here will inevitably have to be modified or even contradicted later. Still, enough has been achieved, he insists, to produce a radical transformation in our ideas about prehistory. 'The ancient DNA revolution is rapidly disrupting our assumptions about the past.' This is the first book to provide a popular account of what has been discovered so far.

The central fact to emerge is that it is no use looking at the genetics of people alive today to infer where they come from or what happened in the past. Study of ancient DNA has shown, time and again, that earlier people were much more mobile than many scholars had supposed. Large migrations have occurred repeatedly on a worldwide scale and there has been a vast amount of interbreeding. So the metaphor of an evolutionary tree is misleading; what we have is more like a network.

The book is in three parts. Part I is about interbreeding between modern humans and other species—mainly the Neanderthals but also the Denisovans and other now extinct species. Part II looks at the evolution of modern humans in five regions of the world: Europe, India, America, East Asia, and Africa. Part III is more 'political' and considers the relevance of this work to modern life and ideas of identity.

Part I is mostly a recapitulation of Pääbo's work and adds little to what readers of Neanderthal Man will know already. However, Reich has an interesting discussion of the idea of a retrograde migration from Eurasia to Africa as the source of modern humans.

It is generally supposed that modern humans evolved in Africa from African Homo erectus. But Homo erectus had moved out of Africa and colonised much of the Old World long before this, and it is possible that the ancestral population that gave rise to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans actually lived in Eurasia (pp.68–71). 'In this scenario, there was later migration back from Eurasia to Africa, providing the primary founders of the population that later evolved into modern humans.' The advantage of this idea is that it requires one less major migration between Africa and Eurasia. At present it is speculative, but it would fit with the discovery of skeletons of 'Homo antecessor' at Atapuerco, in Spain, dated to about a million years ago.

Whatever explains these patterns, it is clear that we have much more to learn. The period before fifty thousand years ago was a busy time in Eurasia, with mulltiple human populations arriving from Africa beginning at least 1.8 million years ago.


Part II, or at least its first two chapters, was for me the most interesting part of the book. For Europe, a very important event was the westward spread into central Europe of the Yamnaya, people from the steppes of Central Asia, about five thousand years ago. The existing population at the time was mainly derived from farmers who had themselves arrived from the Near East, largely replacing the hunter–gatherers who preceded them.

The Yamnaya, themselves of mixed ancestry, are credited with the introduction of Indo-European languages into Europe, along with Corded Ware pottery. The idea that migration was responsible for these changes had been proposed in the 1920s but fell out of favour after the Second World War as a reaction to the abuse of archaeology by the Nazis. Reich is clear that the genetic evidence makes the idea inescapable.

Our analysis of DNA from the Yamana…showed that they harbored a combination of ancestries that did not previously exist in central Europe. The Yamnaya were the missing ingredient that needed to be added to European farmers and hunter–gatherers to produce populations with the mixture of ancestries observed in Europe today. Our ancient DNA data also allowed us to learn how the Yamnaya themselves had formed from earlier [Armenian and Iranian] populations. ,/blockquote>

The Yamnaya also spread east, into India, again bringing Indo-European languages as well as the religious ideas we find in the Rig Veda. The genetic evidence for this agrees with what many Western scholars have believed for a long time. The end result is that India contains a mixture, in varying proportions, of two highly divergent populations. But expressing this in scientific terms required careful handling when Reich collaborated with two Indian researchers. They objected on political grounds to the proposed term 'West Eurasians' and to the suggestion that immigration had brought outside ideas into India. They even suggested that there could have been an Indian migration in the opposite direction, to the Near East and Europe. Eventually the issue was fudged, with no reference being made to migrations.

I found the remaining chapters in Part II less satisfactory, probably because less work has been done on America, East Asia, and Africa, so what we get is a number of facts but not much of a coherent story to tie them together. But things are changing fast and if there is a subsequent edition of the book or a sequel, no doubt we will get a more comprehensive picture. In relation to Africa, Reich remarks that most researchers take little interest in what happened after the emigration of modern humans about 50 000 years ago (more recently than the 85,000 cited by Oppenheimer in 2003), yet there is a huge amount to be studied.

Research of this kind cannot be separated from social and political questions, as Reich found in India. It has also cropped up in the USA, with regard to archaeologists' alleged interference with the graves of ancient Native Americans. In Part III Reich discusses these questions with sensitivity and also considers the relevance of his research to 'race'. I found this section to be somewhat peripheral to the main part of the book.

Book review: Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

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The novels in which Psmith appears were written early in Wodehouse's career, before the first world war; this one was published in 1910. It has two main characters, Psmith and Mike, who is Psmith's friend from school and an enthusiastic cricketer. The two young men are sharing Psmith's flat in Clement's Inn, because both, for different reasons, have reluctantly started work in the City branch of a Far East bank.

Neither man is suited to life in banking and the humour comes mostly from Psmith's dealings with the bosses they encounter, especially the manager, Mr Bickersdyke. Psmith, a languid Old Etonian with an eyeglass, addresses everyone as Comrade and speaks in a formal, mannered, yet comic tone. He is, of course, the central character in the book, although we see events mainly through Mike's eyes. Psmith reminded me of another Wodehouse character, Jeeves. His attitude to his bosses—at once studiously respectful yet discreetly superior—also recalls that of Jeeves to his employer Bertie Wooster. Psmith's distress at the sartorial indiscretions of a young employee in his department is yet another echo of Jeeves.

The story has an autobiographical element. From Wikipedia I learn that Wodehouse, like his two main characters, was compelled as a young man to work, very unwillingly, in the London branch of a Far East bank (both he and Mike had fathers who had suffered financial losses which required their sons to take this course).

In spite of its age the book stands up well to a modern reading; the humour is timeless. It won't disappoint anyone who loves the mature Wodehouse oeuvre.

Should the healthy elderly be taking daily aspirin?

It has become quite fashionable for healthy people to take low-dose aspirin daily to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke (primary prevention) , although most of the evidence on which this is based comes from trials in people who have already suffered from cardiovascular disease (secondary prevention). It's not clear if the possible benefit outweighs the risk of bleeding for those who are healthy.

A new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the question in relation to older people (those over 70). The use of low-dose (100mg) enteric-coated aspirin over a median 4.7 year period did not prolong disability-free survival in this group. There was an increased incidence of serious bleeding in those taking aspirin (DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1800722).

Book review: Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk

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Monk tells us in his introduction that people interested in Wittgenstein fall into two groups. Professional philosophers generally study his work without reference to his life, while the many readers who are fascinated by his life and personality find his philosophy unintelligible. Monk's aim is to bridge the gap between his life and his work and to show 'the unity of his philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life'.

To accomplish this, he needed both to present a full account of the man and also to explain the main ideas of his philosophy. I should say he succeeds admirably in the first aim; as for the second, his success is perhaps only partial, but that was probably inevitable, because the difficulty of Wittgenstein's philosophy is different in kind from what is the case with most philosophers. The particular value of Monk's book is that he explains exactly where this difficulty lies. In fact, it has at least two roots.

First, philosophers' writing may be difficult either because they express themselves obscurely or because their ideas are intrinsically difficult to understand. Wittgenstein's difficulty is not exactly from either of these causes. He expresses himself very clearly, often in quite short sentences that are, in a sense, easy to understand; but he nearly always leaves you without the reference points you would expect. In particular, he completely refuses to announce any general conclusions, and this makes it hard to see the point of his remarks. 'As he himself once explained at the beginning of a series of lectures: "What we say will be easy but to know why we say it will be very difficult."'_(p.338)

Many non-professional readers probably get no further than dipping into the Tractatus, which is Wittgenstein's first published work and the only one to appear in his lifetime. It largely achieved its final form when Wittgenstein was a prisoner-of-war of the Italians at the end of the First World War. I found Monk's short paragraph describing this work to be illuminating (p.155).

In its final form, the book is a formidably compressed distillation of the work Wittgenstein had written since he first came to Cambridge in 1911. The remarks in it, selected from a series of perhaps seven manuscript volumes, are numbered to establish a hierarchy in which, say, remark 2.151 is an elaboration of 2.15, which in turn elaborates the point made in remark 2.1, and so on. Very few of the remarks are justified with an argument; each proposition is put forward, as Russell once put it, 'as if it were a Czar's ukase'. … [The propositions] are all allotted a place within the crystalline structure, and are each stated with the kind of finality that suggests they are all part of the same incontrovertible truth.


This exemplifies the difficulty described above. But there is a second kind of difficulty as well. To understand Wittgenstein seems to require a kind of moral seriousness on the part of the reader, particular in the case of his later work, the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously.

Philosophical Investigations—more, perhaps, then any other philosophical classic—makes demands, not just on the reader's intelligence, but on his involvement. Other great philosophers' works—Schopenhauer's World and Representation, say—can be read with interest and entertainment by someone who 'wants to know what Schopenhauer said'. But if Philosophical Investigations is read in this spirit it will very quickly become boring and a chore to read, not because it is intellectually difficult but because it will be practically impossible to gather what Wittgenstein is 'saying'. For in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unravelling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions the book will be of very little interest. (p.366)


Given this, there may be a temptation to wonder whether Wittgenstein's importance as a philosopher has been overstated. But this idea is hard to sustain in view of the impact that his ideas have had.

By 1939 he was recognised as the foremost philosophical genius of his time. 'To refuse the chair [of philosophy at Cambridge] to Wittgenstein', said C.D. Broad, 'would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics.' Broad himself was no great admirer of Wittgenstein's work; he was simply stating a fact (p.414).

Long before this, Wittgenstein had had 'a decisive influence on Bertrand Russell's development as a philosopher—chiefly by undermining his faith in his own judgement.' (p.80) Their first encounter occurred in 1911, when Wittgenstein, then a student in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University, arrived unannounced at Russell's rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell later reported that 'an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.' (p.38) Russell initially thought him a crank but later decided he was a genius. Looking back on their meeting three years later, Russell described it as 'an event of first-class importance in my life', which had 'affected everything I have done since'. (p.80)

Wittgenstein was at first 'passionately devoted' to Russell but later considered him to be 'not serious', which, for Wittgenstein, was a damning indictment that reflects a profound difference in temperament. Wittgenstein, unlike Russell, was fundamentally religious. As Monk makes abundantly clear, this theme runs through all Wittgenstein's philosophy. It appears as early as the Tractatus, where the concluding remarks are explicitly mystical and the book ends with the famous line: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.' Before reading Monk's book I had been aware of this mystical element, but I hadn't realised the extent to which it pervades practically everything Wittgenstein wrote.

Religion first appears in the account of Wittgenstein's experiences during the First World War, when he volunteered to serve in the Austrian army in order to experience suffering. This, not surprisingly, altered his outlook on life permanently. At one point he came near to suicide (three of his brothers did kill themselves) but was saved by reading the only book he could find in a bookshop he visited: Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief. This brought about a religious conversion, albeit of a special kind.

One might expect that Wittgenstein, as a philosopher, would discuss intellectual arguments for God's existence, but that is something he very definitely rejected. Towards the end of his life he heard a radio discussion between A.J. Ayer and Father Copleston on 'The Existence of God'. His reaction was not what one might have anticipated.

Ayer, Wittgenstein said, 'has something to say but he is incredibly shallow'. Copleston, on the other hand, 'contributed nothing at all to the discussion'. To attempt to justify the beliefs of Christianity with philosophical arguments was entirely to miss the point. (p.543).


For Wittgenstein, religious belief is psychological: 'he does not see it as a question of whether Christianity is true but of whether it offers some help in dealing with an otherwise unbearable and meaningless existence. … And the "it" here is not a "belief" but a practice, a way of living.' (p.122)

Wittgenstein himself puts it like this:

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, e.g., suffering of various sorts. These neither show us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts,—life can force this concept on us. (p.572)


Deciding how to live, and feelings of guilt at when he failed to live 'decently', preoccupied Wittgenstein throughout his life. At one point he insisted on making a formal 'Confession' to a number of his acutely embarrassed friends, although there is little information about what he actually confessed. He had a strong tendency to asceticism. As a young man he inherited vast wealth from his father but he gave it all away. He was attracted by the idea of becoming a monk at various times in his life and tried to do so on one occasion, but was told by 'an obviously perceptive Father Superior' that he was unsuited to this. He spent long periods living in semi-isolation in Norway, which no doubt reflects this side of his character.

A friend remarked on Wittgenstein's 'Hebraic' conception of religion, meaning the sense of awe which one feels throughout the Bible (p.540). I can see this, but it also occurs to me that Wittgenstein might have found Buddhism, at least its Theravada form, sympathetic, given its lack of emphasis on belief. So far as I know this didn't occur to him, which is perhaps surprising in view of his fondness for Schopenhauer, who was much attracted to Buddhism.

Although Wittgenstein was nominally a Roman Catholic, since that was his family religion, it seems to have left little trace in him; he was actually quite surprised to be told of the traditional Catholic belief in Transsubstantiation (the doctrine that the Host literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during the Mass). Two of his friends converted to Catholicism and he worried that he might have been partly responsible for this, unwittingly, by encouraging one of them to read Kierkegaard.

He has a brilliant simile to describe the difficulty of sustaining religious beliefs of this kind.

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it. (p.463).


He had the greatest respect for those who could perform this feat but he did not think he could emulate it himself. He also had a lot of respect for primitive magic, of the kind reported by anthropologists from remote parts of the world, saying: 'All religions are wonderful … even those of the most primitive tribes. The ways in which people express their religious feelings differ enormously.'

On the other hand, he had a profound distrust of science and he disliked books of popular science, such as Sir James Jeans's The Mysterious Universe, which he thought inculcated a kind of idol-worship of science and scientists. (I can imagine what he would have said about Richard Dawkins.) A fascinating sidelight on this comes from a series of lectures on mathematics which he gave at Cambridge, with the specific aim of countering the adulation of science. Among those who attended, at least for a time, was Alan Turing, who himself was lecturing on 'The Foundations of Mathematics' at the time. (p.417)

The lectures often developed into a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Turing, with the former attacking and the latter defending the importance of mathematical logic. Indeed, the presence of Turing became so essential to the theme of the discussion that when he announced he would not be attending a certain lecture, Wittgenstein told the class that, therefore, that lecture would have to be 'somewhat parenthetical'. (p.417)


There seems to have been no true meeting of minds between the two participants in these discussions, and ultimately Turing ceased attending.

When told by his doctor that he had only a few days to live, he replied: 'Good'. But his last recorded utterance was: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life.'

In spite of his rejection of Catholic beliefs, his friends arranged for him to have a Catholic funeral. Monk thinks this may have been appropriate, 'for, in a way that is centrally important but difficult to define, he had lived a devoutly religious life.' (p.591)

03-09-2018
%T Ludwig Wittgenstein
%S The Duty of Genius
%A Monk, Ray
%I Vintage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 97811448112678
%P 582pp
%K biography
%O kindle version, downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk 2018