Applying William James’ Pragmatism

There are many reasons to believe in God, some of which aren’t very good. However, there are patterns and designs that suggest there might be a god, but this isn’t the place for natural theology. What I would like to discuss is William James’ pragmatism which attempts to make judgements and relieve the mind from problems that are otherwise indeterminable. We have to find a way to get on with the day without paralyzing hamletian indecision, don’t we? William James’ pragmatism is just that, so let’s dive in and understand what William James has to say about pragmatism in his own words:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—free or fated?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one I these notion rather than that notion were true? I no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing and all disputes are idle. Where a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side of the others being right. …Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas in which we can rest.

James gives us a concrete illustration on how pragmatism works. Here it is:

If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of the true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.

So truth on pragmatic grounds is not an abstract principle or idea, but a consequence that is in the concrete world here being the house that would save him from starvation. It’s anchored to reality. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events”

Let’s march backwards for a moment and look at the metaphysical dispute of whether there is a god or not. God’s existence is an interminable metaphysical problem, which the tender-minded and the tough-minded wrestle over. We can’t see a god empirically, but it seems we may be able to prove its existence rationally. James wrestled with this question himself. Remember, his father was a theologian which had deep resonance in James’s life. Before we decide if god exists though, let’s examine the philosophy of the absolute a little closer. The ‘absolute’, which is unimaginable to the human mind, creates a block-like universe of fixed eternal laws leaving free will and individuality impossible to fathom as James understands it. Of the philosophy of the absolute James says:

The “through and through” philosophy, as it actually exist… seems too buttoned-up and white chokered and clean shaven a thing to speak for the vast slow-breathing Kosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides,

Everything is in its right place within this absolutist cosmos. The drama has already been written, and the characters are left to play their predestined parts. On pragmatic grounds, James rejects the ‘absolute’ in favor of a pluralistic universe, with a temporal, finite god. James chooses to believe in god on pragmatic grounds because the spiritual life can bring with it rich meaning and hope, hope in one’s future and in humanity. So, if James were in the woods he would choose the path that leads to God. However, his god is not the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent entity given in Hegelian or scholastic philosophy. James has this to say about his concept of god:

He [God] need not be an all-including “subjective unity of the universe” … all I mean is that there must be some subjective unity in the universe which has purpose commensurable with my own, and which is at the same time large enough to be, among all the powers that may be there, the strongest. … In saying “God Exists” All I imply is that my purposes are cared for by a mind so powerful as on the whole to control the drift of the universe.

He continues:

[T]he truth is too great for any one actual mind, even though that mind be dubbed “the absolute,” to know the whole of it. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. … the practical consequences of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.

James pragmatism creates the foundation for his vision of a pluralistic universe. Pluralism leaves the noble nature of the democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality, something which is engrained into his American mind.

We perceive the universe as partly unhinged, James believes. We see ugliness and evil in the world, and a cosmos with exploding stars and dead planets. With pluralism, a drama is going on, but one which we can edit some of our own lines and change the course of our character so to strive for a better destiny. In a pluralistic universe there are conflicting purposes such as God’s will, religion, evolution, the laws of physics, human interests and our aims etc.

The world as the physicist sees it, in mathematical equations and abstract concepts, is only a mental substitute for how we actually perceive the world. The world as we perceive it is much messier. The ‘absolute’ of the Hegelians would suggest that there is a complex equation that would have universal explanatory power for the cosmos. It of my personal view that what we try to do as physicists is to discover patterns and designs which hold some explanatory power. However, what we actually do is roughly graph laws, laws are only true to a certain capacity. The proof of the messiness of how we percieve the cosmos is given in the fact that physic’s very foundation is built upon probablism. So, I believe there is room for James view of a pluralistic universe which might be partly unhinged with conflicting, cross purposes of evolution, physical laws, and for James belief in God’s will.

I see the struggle in James’s heart. Nietzsche and James were roughly born during the same period and both were trying to wrestle with scientific discoveries and the impact they had on faith. Nietzsche goes one route and James takes the other. James accepts scientific discoveries and concrete facts, but he weaves his way through the corridors of the tender-minded rationalists and the tough-minded empiricists to give reason to believe in god. It’s quite extraordinary what he is accomplishing. His accomplishment is a synthesis between the two dominant perspectives that oppose each other vehemently. He isn’t just another empiricist or rationalist, he is a paradigm shift. As for his concept of god, he’s accounted for the dappled world, and has brought God closer to reality, and I think that is noble and I think there is wisdom in this.

Back to the path in the woods now. If you were given a chance to live in a vibrant world of meaning, hope, and Beauty, would you choose that belief, the belief out of the woods, or would you rather live in a world based on the probablism of physics, which may seem mechanistic in its stiff materialistic stance? This is how James Saw the world.

All arguments welcome.