# Wittgenstein's rhetorical question

This story always bugged me. I heard it many years ago and now I think I can respond to it.

Wittgenstein asked, “Why do people say it was natural to think that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth turned on its axis?”
His pupil Elizabeth Anscombe answered, “I suppose because it looked as if the sun went round the Earth.”
“Well,” he replied, “what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?”

Students are not usually apt to challenge their professors, but Wittgenstein really does a disservice here. It makes me think the story isn’t true. It took hundreds of years and some of the best thinkers in history to work out planetary motion. Our atmosphere protects us from feeling the rotation of the earth and its motion around the sun. The answer to his question is, it would have looked the same.

We are told the Earth revolves around the sun at an early age, and most of us don’t give it much more thought. Any of the physics, math, geometry, or whatever will confirm that it’s true. Or, you could be one of those who realize they never questioned their teachers and decide there is a conspiracy about it. Wittgenstein avoids the discussion of how you figure something out and how knowledge is passed down through generations. This is bad philosophy.

I’m not so sure it was that simple.
As you correctly observe, on earth there is not a single hint of motion, other than weather patterns. Winds shift directions, ocean tides shift directions, but the sun and the moon always move in the same direction and are “obviously” in motion relative to the earth.

It would be perfectly normal for the average observer to assume the earth stood still and stuff was circling it, until more sophisticated instruments and mathematics were invented.

Well, sure. It looks the same, if you don’t look too close. If you stick a couple sticks in the ground and measure their shadows, you might see something that looks different than a flat earth. If you figure out the retrograde motion of those wandering “stars”, you could understand those are orbits, and we’re in orbit, not that they are reversing direction and we are stationary observers.

No matter what, to the person just looking up, and needing to spend most of their day working on getting food, it would look the same.

Well, if you are literally looking only, then you really can’t see the difference. But there were strong arguments for the earth standing still: you do not feel the earth turning around its axis, and if you jump straight up in the air, you land on exactly the same place. But the earth should have turned while you were in the air.

It was Galileo’s principle of relativity, that showed these arguments wrong. With Newtonian mechanics it became established science. Still, I think it is not bad philosophy. There are two possible models to explain the apparent daily movement of the sun: it is impossible to decide which is correct by looking at this movement only. Anscombe’s answer is simply incomplete.

This kind of argument is also used by proponents of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. When people doubt the MWI, by saying they do not feel ‘split’ by observing quantum events, the proponents counter that it makes no difference for your experience, because the ‘you’ saying it is per definition always living in only one of the possible worlds. It seems some physicists even got convinced of the MWI because of the Wittgenstein anecdote.

I never liked Wittgenstein way back when I studied philosophy in school. Always seemed like word games. But assuming you captured his question correctly, he’s asking how primitive people would have perceived things (…it was, past tense, natural…). And I think you’re right, he’s being disingenuous. When people were first considering the heavenly motions they had no clue earth had an axis, nor that it was even a thing that could turn. He’s projecting his current knowledge backwards, he knew he was doing it, but he went on nevertheless. I had more than one professor who would do the same.

Welcome back Gert .