Saturday, 16 February 2013

Philosophical pragmatism - Saint William James?


For a big chunk of my adult life I was a William James type pragmatist - although I came at it via Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I read at 17.

But, having explored (not mapped!) the far reaches of Platonism, Aristotelianism and the like - since becoming a Christian - I find myself reverting to type and coming back to pragmatism - but this time as a Christian.


Pragmatism is a focus, rather than a theory - it is the focus on experience as the data and common sense as the method for what needs to be explained and the type of explanation which is regarded as successful.

Jamesian pragmatism, and the modern pragmatists (like Pirsig, or Richard Rorty) are nearly always non-Christian - indeed anti-Christian. And this kind of pragmatism subverts Christianity - but usually in the second generation.

(William James was sympathetic to religion, without actually being religious - he would have liked to be religious, but never quite managed it.)


However, I am Christian, and am being pragmatic within that framework - so it means trying to see not only what is in front of my face but what has been revealed (by God); and to theorize in ways that preserve that experience, and trying to theorize in ways that are simple applications of common sense.

Nowadays I am as likely to reject an explanation because it is incomprehensible as because it is not-completely-true. Because all explanations are not-completely-true - but we can and should strive to make Christianity comprehensible.


(Of course there is mystery - but I think Christian mystery works by ritual and liturgy - it is somewhat like an aesthetic experience, although more than that (think the Eastern Orthodox Church, or old style Anglicanism) not as a mechanism for trying to make people satisfied by explanations which make no sense to them. Crumby explanations are way-too-often excused on the basis that 'it is a mystery' - now that, as a pragmatist, I won't accept.)


What this means for Christianity is that Biblical interpretation needs to be literal. Not legalistic nor asserting fact over myth and symbol - but not a matter of reading back-into scripture philosophical concepts.

And the Christian religion must be personal, about a personal God - we must think of the Holy Trinity as personalities or else we wont think of them in any useful way.

Better crude anthropomorphism than seeing God as a swirl of vague forces and influences... 


Modern evangelicals mostly overcome the excessive and disengaging philosophical abstraction of traditional Christian theology by ignoring God the Father (ignore Him in practice, although not in theory) - and focusing 99 percent attention on Jesus Christ (and therefore the New Testament, and such parts of the Old Testament where Christ is most obviously prophesied).

This focus on a personal ('lively') relation with God mostly accounts for the success of evangelicals - which is against the trend of Christian decline in the West.

(Note, to those who don't already know - I attend a Conservative Evangelical Anglican church.)


But since it was God the Father who sent Jesus, there is a cost to ignoring him: indeed our only scripturally-instructed prayer is to God the Father, and does not mention Christ.

God the Father must be seen and felt as a person, or else he cannot be my Father (nor can he be the Father of Jesus).

Evangelical Christ-centred Christianity can do a lot, and is the best mainstream option available in many situations, but Christ is our (Heavenly) brother; and there will be something important missing from a brother-focused Christianity.

The worship of Christ-absent-His-Father will not (at a psychological level) mobilize that necessary (humble) sense of being a dependent and trusting child with respect to our Heavenly Father.


And the Holy Ghost also must be seen as a person and personality, not a vague mist or magnetic field.

The work of the Holy Ghost needs to be felt, not inferred.


In sum, I feel that Christian scripture is - and indeed long has been - strictly incomprehensible; because abstract and philosophical.

When there was real ritual and liturgy, this was compensated - because the adherent could participate in enacting a Platonic ideal of worship which combined truth, beauty and virtue - but since real ritual and liturgy has been so badly weakened and subverted through most denominations (either denominations have lost the will - as with Roman Catholics, and Anglicans; or else the church is simply too small and poor to 'stage' frequent, effective, mass ritual and liturgy - as with Eastern Orthodoxy in the West) - then we must be ruthless in discarding the incomprehensible from Christianity.


We need to become aware of those - often crucial - places where Christians are fudging, flanneling, hand-waving, and (if you'll pardon the expression) bullshitting about their beliefs.

I feel that we should be less afraid of "exposing" ourselves (and our faith) by making "absurdly" simple, simplistic, statements of belief - and instead much more concerned to avoid the sinful temptation to 'cover ourselves' and defuse ridicule and opposition by retreating into incomprehensible (and uncomprehended) abstraction (principally philosophical/ theological in nature).

Plain speaking to plain men on the basis of experience and common sense applied to revelation - that's what seems necessary here and now.

More William James, and a lot less Plato and Aristotle.



Anonymous said...

The founder of pragmatism was the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, a friend of William James:

Peirce is not very well known but is arguably the greatest philosopher America has ever produced.

Peirce believed in God:

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes I know about Peirce, but I find him essentially unreadable. Peirce may perhaps be the best technical philosopher that the US has produced, i.e. of greatest interest to modern professional philosophers; but what does that matter, really? William James was a great writer, and a great soul.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he is quite difficult to read. Much of his attention was devoted to very technical matters in logic and mathematics. And much of his more accessible writings haven't been published yet.

There are some modern professional philosophers that take great interest in Peirce, but he is generally neglected. He is mainly mentioned in passing or as a footnote as the "father of pragmatism".

He does have some great accessible writings on a wide variety of philosophical topics.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce, something about your latest post made me write the following story. I shall call it ‘The Inadvertent Suicide’.

There was once a society which had reached a certain intermediate stage of human and scientific development.
As yet, however, it had no complete science of nutrition. The science it had could only measure the most crude distinctions.
Luckily enough, though, among those people, over thousands of years, dietary traditions had been established. These were arrived at through observation, long experience and the revelatory insight of a series of gifted and intuitive people.
By following this body of custom and inherited lore the society managed to stay healthy.
One of the unusual customs inherited by those people counseled strongly against mixing certain of the staple foods available in that part of the world. They were not to be included in the same meal or even consumed on the same day.
No one knew how this rule had arisen, by whose recommendation, or why it should be so, but it was well-established and the general tenor of that society was to respect the traditions of their elders and to assume there to be good reasons for such ancient strictures.
However, in recent times a new spirit of questioning had arisen among the people and there were those who began to grumble about the old taboos.
It so happened also that some of these ancient dietary laws stood in the way of the sales of certain types of produce. The farmers concerned began to spread the word that the ancients knew nothing of the latest nutritional discoveries and their rules could safely be discarded without any untoward effects. What, after all, could one expect from the superstitious inventions of primitive times?
This attitude caught on amongst the more ‘forward thinking’ among the people and the leaders of fashionable opinion.
Those who objected and who counselled staying with the old ways were made to seem foolish, backward-looking and obstructive.
‘All foods are equal’ said the taboo-breakers, ‘The only way to judge things is according to personal desire.’
No one knows why, but within decades the women of that realm stopped conceiving.
It wasn’t long before that society died out completely.

ajb said...

"What this means for Christianity is that Biblical interpretation needs to be literal. Not legalistic nor asserting fact over myth and symbol - but not a matter of reading back-into scripture philosophical concepts."

This sounds right, but when I try to apply, I ask what does it *mean* for something to be taken literally? The people writing scripture had a concept of the universe, of physical reality, a familiarity with prophecy, religious concepts, understanding of how organisms have developed, and so on, that is significantly different from (most of) our own.

For example, what does it mean to take the Genesis account of Adam and Eve literally?

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

...Biblical interpretation needs to be literal. Not legalistic nor asserting fact over myth and symbol - but not a matter of reading back-into scripture philosophical concepts.

Of course, Biblical interpretation must be literal first, but if it should be so limited, how could legalism and deformation of myth and symbol be avoided? If there are no philosophical and theological concepts to enable human reason to understand them, how are myth and symbol to be justly interpreted?

I must thank you for an occasion to remember a key insight I encountered when I began to study theology. There are four main ways under which Scripture may be considered – and was considered from the Fathers of the Church: literal, allegorical, moral (or tropological) and anagogical, like, for example, “Jerusalem, according to its literal sense, is the Holy City; taken allegorically, it denotes the Church Militant; understood tropologically, it stands for the just soul; finally, in its anagogical sense, it stands for the Church Triumphant” (Catholic Encyclopedia, article “Biblical exegesis”).

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - that story resonates with me. Also, the way in which "the women of that realm stopped conceiving" is used as a test of change is what I mean by pragmatism.

The most horrific aspect of modern life is perhaps the way that it has become experience-proof, personal evidence-proof.

I have seen this situation harden in one area of life after another. We implement bad ideas, then evaluate them such their badness can never be seen - yet the bad results are obvious to common sense and experience.

As I have often said, this is possible only because of the mass media - and mass addiction to the mass media - which displaces common sense and personal experience much as if the brain was being continuously flooded by a consciousness-changing drug.

People simply cannot think when they are plugged into the mass media near-continuously.

By 'cannot think' I mean they cannot see what is standing right in front of them, cannot recognize for themselves threats or benefits, cannot evaluate other people they meet - basic things.

(I include interpersonal communication technologies within the mass media.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - "what does it mean to take the Genesis account of Adam and Eve literally?"

Perhaps 'literally' means in a child-like fashion? As a depiction of events.

(The child may be the place where all times and places come together.)

I think you are right to focus upon Genesis - because it is very near the beginning of the Bible that an immediate choice must be made between literal/ concrete and symbolic/ abstract understanding.

2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man...

This raises the question of what was going on here - how this situation should be depicted - but 'commanded' is ambiguous, perhaps.

The interaction between 'the woman' and the serpent is a personal one - a literal conversation is described.

The comes the famous description:

3:8 - And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day...

And we are confronted with a choice between picturing God as a man with a voice in a garden (perhaps sensitive to heat and cool) and - something else...

The following passages (concerning God's reaction to the man and woman's transgression) is consistent with God as behaving like a man.

So, someone reading the Bible would naturally have a picture of God as a man - doing and saying things, and having emotions and motivations as a man - unless this inference was thwarted or pre-empted.

I think this is what happens now. People come to the Bible knowing only that they must not fall into the childish trap of anthropomorphism (God as an old man with a beard in the sky) - consequently they find the Bible meaningless, dull, incomprehensible.

When they read about God's anger and wrath, they 'know' that such negative emotions are evil and cannot be possible for God, so they begin to make abstract symbolic interpretations of what are perfectly lucid and immediately comprehensible descriptions of a personal God's behaviour.

So, modern culture pre-empts scripture by its fixed idea that God cannot be man-like; and right from the start God is made abstract, remote - more like a magnetic-field than a Saviour.


Now, the favourite 'chestnut' about the historical accuracy of Genesis (has it been refuted by geology, archeology, evolutionary history etc?) is itself an abstraction - because these scientific fields are abstractions. In fact, hardly anybody understand any of these scientific fields (I speak from experience of trying to teach natural selection, most people don't *ever* get it), and hardly any of what they say has relevance to people.

They are not the kind of things that naturally affect scriptural understanding - the whole science v religion 'conflict' is a set-up job in which incommensurable and unrelated forms of knowledge are meaninglessly pitted against one another.

This is because the relevance of Genesis is not scientific and the relevance of science is not Christian.

If Genesis is understood in a literal and anthropomorphic way (as above) then is is not the kind of account from which one can legitimately extract the kind of abstract principles which can be pitted against the abstract principles of science. The 'problem' arises at the level of abstraction.

What Genesis is 'about' (when read literally) is a personal God's personal relationship with his people (and his people is seen as literally a family).

Genesis is not naturally nor obviously a theory, not even a true theory; and if Genesis is made into a theory (or several theories) then there is a price to pay - that price is abstraction and reduced personal relevance - that price is the decline of Christianity.

Matthew C. said...

"(I include interpersonal communication technologies within the mass media.)"

I know that for me, unplugging from the brainwashing of the TV news, BBC Radio, NPR and the like was facilitated by reading blogs that exposed me to truths.

If it weren't for certain blogs -- including this one FWIW -- I would not have repented for my personal mistakes and my loss of faith and I would not have turned away from my socially-transmitted false beliefs and (frankly!) brainwashing and back to Reality.

Arakawa said...

I have to point out that, straightforwardly speaking, the magisteria of religion and science _do_ overlap. However, that's not the trouble; the trouble is that they don't coincide. Science speaks of things that religion is silent about, and religion makes demands where science is indifferent.

A naive reading of the Bible tells us that God created the world in a certain order, in a short period of time, and many people in the past who had no competing assertions assumed this to be true in the literal sense. This obvious reading of Genesis does not mesh easily with the assumptions of people who study the fossil record, or even basic observations of astronomy.

The problem arises when we declare that because these magisteria contradict one another, we must immediately discard one of them.

If forced at gunpoint to choose one or the other, I would say that the Bible does not tell us much about geological and evolutionary history; but the archaeological record does not give any sensible historical context for the human condition that we actually experience. (Indeed, the actual stories that archaeologists and paleontologists tell us about both prehistoric animals and ancient civilizations are revised with annoying frequency, and often with underlying ideological intent.) So the Bible wins out as being more immediately practical and relevant.

But then again, it is a little like being forced at gunpoint to choose between quantum mechanics and relativity on the grounds that they are incompatible models of reality, so we must definitively affirm one and deny the other.

The truth is more difficult than that.

The key statement to keep in mind is one of humility.

The theory is not the object.

Your understanding of God's plan is not God's plan itself.

There is no reason why you should expect to immediately fit all of the things which you know are true into a coherent and unified theory. You are far more likely to be forced to discard a variety of facts in order to obtain a simple explanation of some subset of them; a particular magisterium.

To say otherwise is a sort of lesser precursor to idolatry. (Once we have started confusing a conception of our mind with a created thing, that's good practice for confusing created things with God.)

When we actually need to _choose_ between the conclusions of different magisterial is when they give conflicting moral or practical prescriptions. In the practical dimension, it is merely a question of which theory actually gets the job done. (Based on direct engineering experience, one knows to correct for quantum effects in one situation, and for relativistic effects in a different one.) In the moral dimension, the ultimate test is not the structures of the theories themselves, but a person's sense of right and wrong, which is a faculty beyond and above mere reason, requiring spiritual development.

This is particularly important since reason alone can easily be deceived by the introduction of hidden assumptions; or, to put it another way, to obscure the message of the Bible, the forces of Hell set out some time ago to author their own dictionary.

Arakawa said...

[continued from the previous comment]

(As a matter of personal opinion, I believe this is why the Bible does not resemble any man-made book of philosophy, but has a fractal and obscure structure. It is a reasonable engineering solution if one is a divine being aiming to write a work that must survive long enough that even the original language it is written in will die out, and indeed many of the individual words of the language might completely change their meanings before it even gets to that. As long as one of the key points is understood correctly, a process of prayer and contemplation can serve to restore the true meaning of the misunderstood portions, by a sort of continual reinfection.

This is entirely in contrast to the human preference for minimal and argumentative formulations, where one premise wrongly understood or ignored can place the whole thing in question.

It is also commonly understood that most of the Bible was written down and compiled by historical human beings (obviously) but in some crucial sense authored in its entirety by God at the same time. We can't precisely see where the act of God is in the fortuitous assembly of the books of the Bible, but we accept that it was first and foremost an act of God that caused it. For some reason, people seem entirely comfortable with this paradox, but can't bring themselves to live with the paradox of Genesis.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - "I have to point out that, straightforwardly speaking, the magisteria of religion and science _do_ overlap. However, that's not the trouble; the trouble is that they don't coincide."

Yes, but this is also the case for all complex specialized forms of discourse. For example, Law does not coincide with Science - one or the other must be applied to interpret a situation, or prevail in a specific situation, but they cannot be fused (without making something different from either).


"Your understanding of God's plan is not God's plan itself. There is no reason why you should expect to immediately fit all of the things which you know are true into a coherent and unified theory."

True and important. Critique of another persons incoherence is one of the glibbest and most dangerous power games in modernity. When somebody pours scorn on the incoherence of another world view, I feel I want to shout "incoherent compared with what?"

Very, very few are prepared to reveal their underlying assumptions - or reveal that they do not have any. Public, aggressive atheists (of whatever political view) are among the worst offenders.

Arakawa said...

Amusingly, the people who hate a religion can sometimes be the best argument for the religion itself.

One ingredient in my (in-progress) conversion was this incredibly loathsome presentation by one David Brin, evidently channeling Screwtape (in a disturbingly real sense), who basically destroyed my respect for the Singularity movement at a stroke:

The strident tone of Dawkins' "God Delusion" (which I suffered through for the sake of 'balance') sealed the deal.

George Goerlich said...

Would it be sufficient to dismiss modern obsession with science as the only means to truth as mere idol worship?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - I don't think it has one cause. For a real scientist, he may come to worship Science because he lives in this world, and has his profoundest experiences (and hopes) in this world; but a non-scientist obsessed with science is usually wanting to use it as a tool to control other-people (or, to a lesser extent, things) - if such a person makes science as idol then there can be no legitimate resistance to him doing what he wants using science (or what he calls 'science').