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Naturalism and Pragmatism


Thumbnail Sketch of Pragmatism
William James (1842-1910)

Thumbnail Sketch of Pragmatism

1. An American Style of Philosophy

Pragmatism is a distinctively North American philosophical sensibility. It is practical, oriented to science, realistic about mistakes human beings make, and conceives inquiry as striving for a better answer to a bothersome question.

2. Epistemology and Belief

One definition of knowledge is "true belief." Pragmatists reject the distinction between knowledge and belief so defined, arguing instead that all we have are more or less well justified beliefs. Knowledge is a term used only vaguely to describe beliefs about which we are fairly certain or at least very hopeful.

This entails fallibilism with regard to all human knowledge because perfect warrant seems to be unattainable (perhaps some logical laws could be said to be perfectly warranted but even this is doubtful to a sufficiently radical empiricist).

This point of view is also firmly opposed to foundationalism in epistemology. Modern philosophy in the manner of Descartes, Locke, or Kant tried to show how what we take to be human knowledge can be conceived as logical consequences of relations between perfectly certain fundamental premises (of course, they disagreed about how these basic premises were known). In this way they found a home for every item of human knowledge in a vast structure with a firm foundation. Pragmatism considers this intellectual enterprise utterly vain. Our situation is less like the inhabitor of a perfectly founded fortress and more like a sailor in a boat who replaces the entire boat plank by leaking plank, as needed. That is, when there is cognitive dissonance we deal with it by trying to figure out a way to assess our beliefs and to adjust the relationships between them.

Modern philosophy has, as the twentieth century has unfolded, come to realize that foundationalist epistemology is a philosophical mistake. The rejection of foundationalism right from the beginning of Pragmatism justifies its description as "The Highroad Around Modernism," as Neville puts it in his book of that name.

3. Inquiry and Belief

Pragmatism is careful to attend to why people believe what they believe and to the way that they believe. The background assumption for its interpretation of human beings is evolutionary biology, which is why pragmatism is so often seen hand in hand with one or another form of naturalism. We simply find ourselves in the world, already with beliefs and already making discoveries and mistakes of judgment. We believe many things because they work for us, either socially (because everyone around us believes them) or practically (because they make sense of our experience). When we become restless it is because there is a problem that needs solving. Maybe we need to devise ways to catch food, to figure out how to protect ourselves from wild animals, or to design a giant cyclotron. That marks the beginning of a process of inquiry that continues until we achieve a state of rest again—either because we achieved a solution or because we decided the problem wasn’t so important after all.

Inquiry in this most general sense has been analyzed by the pragmatists in considerable detail. This analysis yields a unitary theory of inquiry that can be called the "hypothetico-corrective" method. This method corresponds to common-sense ideas of problem solving. We begin with an idea for a solution to the problem we have noticed and then we try to improve our solution. We may not need to improve it if it solves our problem just fine (the "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" maxim) but if the solution needs refining we set about doing that based on how the first version of the solution worked when we tried to use it. And so the process continues until the solution we achieve is as good as we want it to be. It is a maximally efficient theory of inquiry, which makes it exceedingly likely to be correct in view of nature’s miserly approach to the expenditure of energy.

The "hypothesis" part of the hypothetico-corrective account of inquiry is based on the very simple fact that our entire lives begin somewhere determinate, with many givens. Even as our givenness in life is a kind of large hypothesis, so each solution we try out to a problem is a hypothesis. The "corrective" part of the hypothetico-corrective account of inquiry is based on the fact that the aim is to try to improve our working hypotheses in every way possible. This, finally, is the meaning of rationality.

This method describes not only seat-of-the-pants problem solving but also the kinds of abstract inquiry we are familiar with from science, philosophy, and theology. And where others declare that metaphysics is impossible, pragmatists always take a try-it-and-see attitude. Will metaphysical inquiries progress or not? It remains to be seen in every case. This is how the age-old fight between the archetypal Socratic and Sophistic figures about the possibility of metaphysics is resolved. "Try it and see"; but be careful not to give up too quickly in case we overlook something. This expresses not a skeptical attitude toward metaphysics, and so theology-as-inquiry, but rather an ever-watchful, ever-suspicious one. This is a second sense in which pragmatism is the highroad around modernism: it neatly bypasses the debates over the possibility of metaphysics by taking a practical approach to the problem.

4. Metaphysics and Belief

Pragmatism’s theory of inquiry makes the simplest possible metaphysical assumption, namely, that there is something that is capable of correcting inquiry—call it a "feedback mechanism." Not all inquiries may be correctable by means of this feedback mechanism, of course. And recent science certainly shows that the feedback mechanism has for millennia stood by silently with information to offer the correctly phrased question. To comport our inquiries to the contours of what the feedback mechanism can successfully correct is to exploit the world in maximally rational fashion. That takes adventurousness because we can fail to ask unusual questions just because we don’t think of them. It may also take restraint in that we don’t want to waste our time on impossible inquiries.

As inquiry rolls on, we develop a sense for how good, how comprehensive, how refined this feedback mechanism really is. We can easily jump to conclusions about this, however, as the logical positivists and all others who tried to set the boundary between what kinds of inquiries will work out and what kinds won’t. In a few centuries from now we may be inclined to draw those lines in very different places. Assessing the character of the feedback mechanism must take the long view.

This feedback mechanism is the most natural and convincing argument for the claim that there is a world that causes our experience. It is also the best and most natural reason for thinking of truth as the correspondence between what we say and the way this world works. Of course, our more interesting and important inquiries are rarely corrected by correspondence considerations; rather they depend on coherence, pragmatic, and aesthetic criteria. But the meaning of truth is simply correspondence in the common-sense sense. This was a point of disagreement between C.S. Peirce (who affirmed it) and William James (who denied it), leading Peirce to rename his philosophical position "pragmaticism"—an uglier name, he thought, would dissuade people like his friend James from stealing it.

William James (1842-1910)

The Right to Believe

In The Will to Believe, James discusses the justification for believing certain things in absence of the kind of supportive evidence we might desire. Clearly, we would rather apportion the degree of our assent to the warrant we have for a belief. But some choice-situations have the rather strange and interesting characteristic that this policy for rational assent proves to be unworkable. The choice-situations in question James calls genuine options and he argues that they have three characteristics.

  • The choice in question is existentially live rather than dead or irrelevant.
  • The choice in question is forced rather than avoidable, which is to say that the choice will be made even if we try to sit on the fence.
  • The choice in question is momentous and of great import rather than trivial.

In the situation of the live, forced, momentous option, it is rational to choose even in absence of compelling warrant, especially because not to choose is effective to choose anyway. James took religious belief in some cases to be of this nature, which casts the question of the rationalisty of religious belief into a fascinating light.

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