An Illusion with a Future:
Religion, Epistemology, Narrative


Edmond Wright

Cambridge, England

Copyright © 1999 by Edmond Wright, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    I cannot see --

    I, child of process -- if there lies

    An end for me,

    Full of repose, full of replies.

    -- Alice Meynell


  1. A number of attempts have recently been made to trace a connection between religion and epistemology. Clearly, whatever theory of knowledge theologians rely on is crucial to the course they will pursue. A claim to know God or that God knows me cannot be understood at all unless I have some idea of what knowing is, since the hidden presuppositions in any theory of knowledge will inevitably govern the type of belief that I hold. This article presents two outcomes for religion, (1) that of following a traditional Wittgensteinian epistemology, and (2) that of carrying through the implications of the New Critical Realist epistemology. Whereas the first epistemology regards knowledge as distinct from illusion, a matter of grasping the facts, for the second it is a continual struggle, an endless re-aligning of them. 'Knowing God', therefore, could be either a matter of confronting an unchanging reality, that exists remote from the contingencies of human culture, or a struggle to conceptualize and control the changing aspects of culture.
  2. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud's critique of religion, Freud takes issue with Vaihinger's analysis of religion as an 'as if' (1924, pp. 313-327), attacking the notion that religion ought to be performed as if it were true:
    This line of argument is not far removed from the Credo quia absurdum. But I think the demand made by the 'As If' argument is one only a philosopher could put forward. A man whose thinking is not influenced by the artifices of philosophy will never be able to accept it; in such a man's view, the admission that something is absurd or contrary to reason, leaves no more to be said. It cannot be expected of him that precisely in treating his most important interests he shall forego the guarantees he requires for all his ordinary activities. I am reminded of one of my children who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked matter-of-factness. When the children were being told a fairy-story and were listening to it with rapt attention, he would come up and ask: 'Is that a true story? When he was told it was not, he would turn away with a look of disdain. We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards the fairy-tales of religion, in spite of the advocacy of the 'As If'. (Freud, 1985 [1927], pp. 210-211)
    Illusion shimmers in this very passage: as a lover of literature and an interpreter of literary works Freud might have asked whether there was after all something in those fairy-tales that caused such 'rapt attention.' Yet here he apparently approves of a child who thought that only objective experience was worthy of attention. Like a Wittgensteinian, Freud is under the impression that illusion can be laid aside. However, Wittgenstein is curiously similar to Freud in that he is also fascinated by illusions and spends much of his time discussing them, even though in the final analysis he wants to do away with them: once an agreement has been reached about what is to constitute a fact, the notion of rule steps in to authenticate it, safely banishing illusion, with its threat to truth. For Wittgenstein, "the word 'agreement' and the word 'rule' are related to one another, they are cousins" (86e, his italics). Once a rule has been agreed upon, that is virtually the end of the matter; any deviations can henceforth be seen as 'queer', even meaningless, because the public nature of the agreement has now guaranteed the correctness of the rule. Although Wittgenstein will allow that revision of the language is possible, he gives no explanation of how this could come about, since a private understanding is regarded as suspicious, associated with the impossible 'private language.' For the genetic epistemologist, on the other hand, any language agreement, however publicly secure, is always open to challenge from a private point of view; otherwise, this would appear to block the evolution of concepts. This correction comes, not from a private language, but from a private understanding of the public language. Here, then, is an indication that the traditional epistemology might be opened up to critique.



  3. There are many theologians and philosophers of religion who take their bearings from Wittgenstein, both 'realists' (God is real) and 'non-realists' (God is a projection). In the view of one typical realist, we begin with a notion of sense perception based on a reliance upon general opinions and judgements ("doxastic practices," Alston, 1991) that have been established over time. They become 'innocent until proven guilty,' deserving to be employed until such a time when we have good reasons for abandoning them. This view differs from that of Wittgenstein in refusing to accept an a priori justification for the reliability of sense perception on the ground that all such claims assume what they set out to prove, unable to get away from 'epistemic circularity' -- that is, relying on sense perception in the course of the argument to prove its reliability; but if we use our 'doxastic practices' in successful prediction, we shall have got our perceptions right (be in 'accurate cognitive contact' with actual things). The conclusion can therefore be that, just as actual perceptions find their own internal support in these practices, the perception of God can be supported within the society of religious persons, namely, by mystical experience of God, which amounts to 'direct perception' of Him, a justification for regarding Him as real. This then permits the knowledge of a "supreme reality that really exists through which one can find ultimate fulfilment" (Alston, 1995, 55-56).
  4. As regards the Wittgensteinian non-realists, they hold to a view of science as an activity that has successfully objectified nature to the point where natural theology has been rendered powerless to justify a belief in God. The world has thereby been finally disenchanted, so that nature can only be seen as morally and religiously neutral, devoid of all magic (Cupitt, Taking Leave 17). Thus it is now impossible to articulate a relation to God through knowledge, for the appeal to facts and evidence for His existence is a mistake. The reality of God is traced in a Wittgensteinian manner to religion's established language-game: religious language is not descriptive but expressive. Hence, the authority of God is to be found in that of religious categories in a person's life, an 'autonomous inner imperative' of a Kantian kind that urges us to fulfill our highest destiny as spiritual self-conscious beings emerging from nature (Cupitt, Taking Leave 56): this makes life into a story, an "inner drama of our response to the eternal religious requirement" (Cupitt, Taking Leave 166). To believe that there is only the flux of language-formed events is a thoroughly Wittgensteinian position. In this epistemology there is an endless series of interpretations of what the sensory fields present, while language, with its structure of interdependent differentiations, publicly determined, gives us "no single point of entry and no exit" (Cupitt, Taking Leave 54). As with Wittgenstein, there is the same reliance on the public language, the same refusal to allow a step outside that language, and the same admission that meanings can change -- but without any explanation of how this last can come about.
  5. Nevertheless, realists and non-realists share a common view of science as providing objective knowledge about nature. The realists are determined to keep faith and reason, mythos and logos, apart so that they can hold on to belief in God that can ground itself outside the sphere of evidential knowledge and point to a sense of transcendence that challenges the notion of our being limited to the natural order. The non-realists, on the other hand, cannot deny the claim that science has banished the evidence for an objective personal god as creator of the universe and guarantor of the highest value, and that therefore the only way of retaining the virtues of religion is to accept with Feuerbach that God is the expression of changing social and personal ideals which have sustained society and personality throughout history. However, realists and non-realists alike still see the positivist atheist as an old enemy for whom science has revealed the mythical status of religion.[1]
  6. With this both materialists and theologians have moved little from the position of someone like Cassirer who, fascinated by myth as he was, remained insistent upon disengaging 'mythical' thinking from 'scientific' thinking (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: 2). A related distinction, just as rigid, can be seen in analytical philosophy, where there is a strong determination to keep fact and fiction apart (Searle; Walton). This rooted fear that a dangerous scepticism lurks inside the attempt to blur fact and fiction echoes Wittgenstein's dismissal of 'queer' deviations from the 'compulsiveness' of conventional rule (86e). Thus science and reason, instead of being in a dialectical relation with faith, are left by both realists and non-realists as a sphere on their own, divorced from matters of faith.


  8. If, on the contrary, faith and reason can be shown as inextricably connected, then one of the unquestioned premisses on both sides of the argument falls away and the debate is opened up to new exploration. New Critical Realism (NCR) addresses itself to this connection.
  9. First, NCR is a version of naturalized epistemology, one which sees knowing and reason as features of an evolved organic system of regulation of action. Naturalized epistemology has redoubtable opponents, who rule it out on the ground that it relies on the Correspondence Theory of Truth, has to presuppose reason, and cannot account for normativity of any kind (e.g. Putnam). The present argument has answers for these three accusations, which will become apparent later. NCR is not based on a search for truth, but sees truth as a necessary assumption in a system of intersubjective adjustment, seen for the postulate it is, no more than a regulatory idea adopted by the participants. It is an assumption taken for granted and forgotten in action, depending on its prepositional verb -- 'taken for': the statement "I took him for the Government Inspector" implies that misapprehension, pretence, postulation or illusion are involved. 'To grant' is to raise no objections as regards our own desires and fears, because something has apparently been mutually identified.
  10. Second, it is a genetic epistemology, which sees organic regulatory systems as constructing themselves over time, whereby each creature tries to maintain and develop the viability of its own living processes and species, categorizing in ever more refined ways so that it can avoid maladaptive situations and pursue adaptive ones. It is not so much that the organism identifies so-called objects and properties while improving its powers of discrimination, but that it fits its actions to sensory stimuli organized into remembered units as a result of pleasurable or aversive experiences. A constant 'equilibration' goes on, in which every 'perturbation' causes a new 'accommodation,' thereby allowing future experience to be 'assimilated' (Piaget, Genetic Epistemology).[2] Unlike the Wittgensteinian view, these temporary agreements are not guarantees that a rule is the foundation of meaning.
  11. Third, NCR has itself evolved to meet a series of problems: to counter the claim that knowledge arrived at by evolutionary means has no ground on which to establish any objectivity; to answer the accusation that genetic epistemology neglects the social; to provide a ground for the evaluation of the true and the false. In order to meet these problems, NCR conceives of the evolution of perception in a number of distinct stages. The faster an organism can adapt to new challenges ('perturbations') the quicker it can evolve: what marks the difference between one evolutionary stage and another is precisely the speed at which change can take place. Thus in advanced species there are continual alterations of 'fit' to incoming sensory distributions, with no fixed correspondence between an internal concept and an external 'object': "Knowledge is not a reflection of the world -- it reflects what one can and cannot do" (Glasersfeld 438). This argument depends on the hypothesis that neither the pleasure/pain module nor the sensory fields have access to knowledge. For NCR, sensory fields contain no consciousness in themselves, being merely evidence of external distributions of mass or energy.[3] Thus, there can be no conscious learning in either man or animal unless the sensory fields and the pleasure/pain module are working together, the latter embedding its selections in memory marked with desire or fear. Knowing is not a simple matter of a given subject confronting a given object.[4]


  13. The rate of change at which adaptation proceeds is for human consciousness enhanced by means of language. It is here that a structure emerges which can be found in the Story, the Joke, the Game, and all forms of Play (Wright, "Neglected Technique"). In all these cultural forms there will be a region of sensory experience in which a failure of interpretation becomes apparent, corresponding to a Piagetian perturbation, an ambiguity. The word 'region' is here used so as not to presume that two subjects will necessarily arrive at a final objectification, or that they have even singled out the same portion, although they behave as if they have. The question is what new interpretation will prove itself viable: somehow a clue or clues to this new intentional perspective is foregrounded and the old one is abandoned. Since the structure of the Joke is exactly the same as that of the Story, a simple example can suffice. Take the children's joke "What does the hedgehog have for his lunch?" -- "Prickled onions" (Ahlberg and Ahlberg 72). The sensory region over which the interpretations will move is "P(r)ickled onions." The clue to the first interpretation is "hedgehog," which elicits "prickle"; the clue to the second interpretation is "have for his lunch," which elicits "pickled onions." This example is useful in showing that the selection can move over the sensory field so that the second selection is not even the same in its boundaries as the first. There is no 'this' that is preserved, an unsettling conclusion for those (like Husserl and others) who hold to a single real entity being identified as a 'thing.' It also demonstrates the point that Freud was aware of, namely, that there will be a change in affective charge from one meaning to the next: here one moves from the harmless and pleasant associations of food to the pain associations of prickles. To be properly general, the new interpretation need not preserve the boundaries of the old (not in every case does all of the 'Duck' change into all of the 'Rabbit'): the change of intentional perspective can produce two or more entities where there was only one before. As regards the Story, both sets of clues emerge early and the rival interpretations are present throughout (as in apparently 'plotless' stories); in others the reader enjoys the puzzle of finding out the contrary clues (as in the classic detective story). In a straightforward plot, one protagonist is faced with an equivocal situation but does not see it as such, but, on the contrary, there are many clues taken as strong indications of the rightness of the interpretation. Little by little the reader will become aware of the rival clues to the correct interpretation, while the protagonist fails to see them.[5] Of the Game, Wittgenstein specifically denies that it is possible to give an overall definition, using it as his prime example of family-resemblance; but the point of all games without exception is that each successive position is a challenge to interpretation. [6] In every case above the structure is the same as for the revision of knowledge, since a region presenting itself as a threat is transformed under a new intentional perspective into one under control. Instead of 'perturbation' we have 'accommodation', and the new challenge is 'assimilated.' Language is a game in this very respect that what has to be provided is a clue to a new interpretation: the old concept-selection, by means of some clue, has to be shown to be in need of revision. When this happens, the original apparently single entity undergoes a transformation, betraying its nature as an experimental selection.
  14. A statement is a story.[7] Whenever we ask a question, we make plain to another that one of our concepts requires revision. Suppose a son asks of his mother, "Where was Father this morning?" The concept up for revision is that of the son's concept of his father, for there is a part of his father's life that is a blank to him. What the mother knows of the father will be very different from what the son knows. However, mother and son need to bring their concepts into rough superimposition in order to get a common grip on this region of existence. They assume that, if there is a difference in their understandings that they do not know about, it can be regarded as irrelevant. But before the statement is over, this assumption has been abandoned, because the mother has changed the concept of Father by the addition of the rest of the statement, say, "Father was in his workshop" (which constitutes the clue to the new intentional perspective). Thus in spite of the useful assumption of agreement, there was a difference that is relevant. The concept has been revised for the son, moved about on his sensory experience. The concept was only assumed to be 'innocent' -- it was 'guilty' all the time. The structure is the same as in the Story, the Joke and the Game in that a selection has been transformed by the addition of a clue to a new intentional perspective. [8]


  16. Thus into the Piagetian scheme a social aspect has been introduced which abandons the belief that 'objects' pre-exist the adjustment of reference. The trick of language is to assume a completed reference in order to obtain a partial one, in order to allow the objectification to be shifted about upon existence. There is no single subject -- no soli-ipse -- for an accusation of solipsism to fix upon since blank existence shows through the cracks in 'objectivity,' even that of a Cartesian ego. Any correction is therefore a correction of the subject itself, proving the existence of sensory fields, including those of others since they have been able to produce the correction -- thereby breaking through Berkeley's barrier. Finally, no Cartesian Demon arguments, no claim that all experience is a dream conjured up by a malicious god, can apply, for not only are others engaged within the language-game but also experience is existent regardless of the objectivities projected upon it.
  17. Under this analysis, public agreements are made in order that, not only can co-operative action proceed, but also revisions of them can be carried through. Wittgenstein's remark that "the word 'agreement' and the word 'rule' are cousins" thus has force. The Laws of Thought, the preconditions for the selection of entities, are projections made in common faith so that a provisional co-reference makes it possible to move language forward to a new reference, showing logic to be the ghost of a scheme by which intentions are matched. Logic owes its impressiveness to the empirical successes that are the result of human co-operation; it cannot provide the 'accurate cognitive contact' with actual 'things' that Wittgensteinian theologians have claimed.
  18. The three objections to naturalized epistemology thereby lose their force. 1. If the system is one in which the Correspondence Theory of Truth is mutually projected merely as a bridge, then it cannot be an unquestioned premiss. 2. Since reason is constructed through a presupposition of commonly agreed entities, to accuse naturalized epistemology of presupposing reason is merely to point out what it is doing as a deliberate part of its method, which openly acknowledges that presupposition for what it is, no more than a regulative idea. 3. Since NCR yields verdicts the reliability of which requires mutual co-operation to establish, naturalized epistemology does not suffer from a supposed circularity in which the subject is providing his own guarantee.
  19. It now becomes clear in what way Berkeley was right in claiming that God guaranteed the perception of things. Since faith in the word ("In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God") has created all that is human ("Who made you?" -- "God made me"), the history of human speech, nationhood, and culture arises out of a common idealization. Hence there is not the secular on the one hand and the mythical on the other: a virtual god guarantees the order of things. Pure logos coincides with pure mythos, in that the validities of logic and mathematics have no reference to the world, resting on an imaginary agreement. This Epistemological Proof of the Existence of God does not depend on His objectivity. It arrives at its conclusion by scientific means, yet shows the mutual projection of God to be creative. The world has not become disenchanted since it has never ceased to be a construct of our imaginations.


  21. So what kind of faith are we committing ourselves to if it cannot be absolute belief in the Object? To have already entered language constitutes an act of faith. Any subject that produces a correction in the language has been able to take a step outside language while remaining within it; there is an entry and an exit. An act of faith is to accept something that is not the case, but the idea that religion might have something of the fictitious about it has produced protests from a wide variety of authorities besides Freud: "a worship of fictions, confessed as such, is impossible" (Caird 167); "without belief in the reality of its object, myth would lose its ground" (Cassirer, Essay on Man 72); the attempt to employ myth without believing it has been called 'doublethink' (MacIntyre 437). Here, on the one hand, Plato's Noble Lie, a tale to convince "the children of the soil" of the worth of their city (The Republic III: 414-16), appears as mere manipulation, while, on the other, to be like Freud's child and not believe in fairy-stories, banishes the advantages of religion for a community.
  22. In the games of children there are two levels, the level of make-believe and the level of reality. On the level of make-believe, the players are real persons -- the cops and robbers being performed; on the level of reality, the players know they are children performing a game. Only the children who can play seriously can handle the discrepancy between reality and fiction even where the play touches on a specific vulnerability, as distinct from the child who cries when it is 'taken prisoner.' Religious myth likewise exists on these two levels: it cannot be illusion in Freud's sense for it is as real as the second level of the children's game. It can be played, provided that there is an element of awareness of its being a necessary performance, rather than a deceitful illusion, an attempt to treat God as no more than an image. [9] The power of myth is used to dire effect both by those who totally believe it, for example, the fascists, and those who cynically disbelieve it, the late communists. Contrary to Pascal's wager -- that belief will come by going through the motions -- it is a case of going through the motions while knowing that final belief will never come. [10] Credo quia absurdum.
  23. Therefore myth needs no invention since it is already present in the act of language, the fictiveness of which only needs enhancing by a constant attention to the aesthetic, which cannot be done in a society where either the fixity of identity is rigidly adhered to or as carelessly abjured. The religion recommended here would be one which promises no heaven, whose reward is merely to maintain the illusion, with a future in process.


Edmond Wright currently resides at 3 Boathouse Court, Trafalger Road, Cambridge UK, CB4 1DU. E-mail:


  1. R. B. Braithwaite, for example, is still referred to as one who would reduce belief in God to no more than "a behavioural policy," and who sees religion as a story simulating reality, functioning primarily as a psychological support (Wolterstorff 19-20). Back

  2. Piaget has been accused of inconsistency in his confident use of the terms 'subject' and 'object' (The Mechanics of Perception; Hamlyn 12) because, on the one hand, he talks of "an endless construction of new schemes by the subject during his development," but then, on the other, refers to "initial distortions," as of a pre-existing object, being overcome in the accommodation process. It is rather the case that old epistemic structures are replaced by new ones: for example, what was taken for a single entity of time1 becomes perhaps two and a half at time2. Such a process includes all science, and makes reason itself part of the evolving system. Back

  3. In this they are like any natural evidence, being "natural signs" in H. P. Grice's definition, just as tree-rings can be evidence of years and weather-changes without in themselves being marked for knowing. Within this theory they are part of the material real, admittedly in a form which has so far escaped the ability of neurophysiologists to explain, but which may not yet yield to scientific analysis. The reason for the sensory fields being no more than blank evidence is clear: the selections must be free to move about upon them in order to guide the organism in a new way. The notion of given objects inevitably brings with it for theory the trap of unchangeable automatic response. For further on the arguments to sustain this theory, see Wright, "Negelected Technique" and "What it Isn't Like." Back

  4. There is a deeper philosophical claim: being and knowledge are not the same -- "Being is independent of knowing, which is a transient event earnestly disclaiming any grip on being" (Sellars 200). Back

  5. Indeed, often a rival clue is taken as confirmatory of their misconception (see Jane Austen's Emma who determinedly sees the evidence that Mr. Elton is pursuing her as proof that he is pursuing Harriet). The pleasure for the reader lies precisely in enjoying the sensation of being in the know, of not being in the protagonist's predicament (for further on the Story see Wright, "Derrida, Searle"). Back

  6. Wittgenstein contrasted chess and tennis, but in both the skill is to see the clues that reveal the opponent's attack as displaying a hidden weakness. Back

  7. Cupitt is thus right to say that "our life is a story" (Taking Leave 166). What he does not provide is an analysis of narrative. To accept the NCR definition is to move away from Wittgensteinian epistemology. Back

  8. This dovetails with the argument of those philosophers of rhetoric who have insisted that rhetoric is "epistemic," that is, we are "participating in making reality," in altering epistemic judgements within the constraints of sensory data, which they believe is meaningless of itself. This participation depends upon a "dramatic normativity" (Brummett 28). Back

  9. Baudrillard has pointed out that when the Iconoclasts broke the idols, what they really could not stand was the thought that perhaps God was no more than an image (169). Back

  10. Certainly no one individual can do it on his or her own. Nor can one bring faith into the open by public fiat as Robespierre and Comte tried to do, for that would be the Ignoble Lie all over again. Spinoza, too, thought that mythology was invented for the 'masses' (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Ch. 5). The conditions must be made auspicious for its growth in the community itself. If a child can play seriously, why not the 'masses'? An anthropologist reminds us that "the savage is a good actor" (Marett 45). Back

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