Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Classes start in 321 days.

I have requested official transcripts, and now need to start working on verifying my in state status.

Meanwhile, the more I read about pragmatism, the more I seem to like it.

I want to offer a word of warning. My exposure has been limited, and I may be reading things into it that is not there in fact.

When I originally encountered pragmatism long ago, I got the impression that this was one of those early 20th century philosophies that was considered, rejected, and now only of historical importance. Consequently, I decided to spend my time on things that were more practical (or "pragmatic", if you do not mind a bit of irony).

Now that I am looking at it, I see elements that I already favor.

For example, thought - or 'mental states' - are to be understood pragmatically - according to their use. Their use is determined by their relationship to what we do. I would say that a desire that P is a disposition to try to bring about or preserve states of affairs in which "P" is true. A belief that Q is a disposition to choose those actions that would realize or preserve "P" in a universe where "Q" is true. These accounts understand desires and beliefs pragmatically.

Pragmatism, then, seems to anticipate functionalist theories of mind - that understands mental states as functions that relate input (sensory experience) to other mental states to intentional action.

Pragmatism also seems to anticipate a coherentist theory of justification. We examine a belief and we look at the strength and number of its connections to other beliefs. In modern terms, we are told to imagine a web. Beliefs sits at the nodes where different different strands come together. How firmly a belief is anchored depends on the number and strength of these connections.

Early pragmatists, who wrote long before the World Wide Web imagined a cable where separate strands of material, each individually weak, combined to provide a great deal of strength.

Desirism, of course, evaluates desires pragmatically - according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. Rewards such as praise, and punishments such as condemnation, are justified pragmatically by their use in molding desires.

If you want to look at whether to accept or reject a proposition, according to your pragmatists, you have too look for the ways in which it matters whether you accept or reject that proposition. This means asking about what the proposition predicts. If the proposition does not predict anything pragmatic, then the proposition is worthless - there is no reason to bother with it. Propositions are only meaningful or significant if its implications have pragmatic value.

This is an earlier way of describing the falsifiability requirement for scientific theories. The scientist creates a hypothesis. The scientist then asks, "What does it matter whether this is true or false? What does it imply?" Finding a practical application - something that matters - is the same as finding a way to falsify the hypothesis. We can never prove a hypothesis true, the pragmatists tell us, but we can show whether it has implications we have reason to reject.

In fact, some of the principles that we use in science - Occam's Razor and parsimony among them - can only be justified in pragmatic terms.

Occam's Razor says not to add entities beyond those that are strictly needed to explain a set of observations. Why not? The fact that an entity explains nothing does not prove that it does not exist. However, it does prove that the entity does not exist for all practical (pragmatic) purposes, and that is good enough.

Parsimony says that, all things being equal, the simplest theory is the best. Ptolomey's theory for the orbit of planets can, with proper modification, do just as good a job at predicting the motions of planets as the Compernican/Newton model. However, the latter model is much simpler and easier. What reason do we have to adopt the simpler theory? Our reasons are purely pragmatic.

In fact, my atheism is ultimately grounded on these practical considerations. When it comes to the proposition, "God exists," I ask, "What practical use does this have?" It has none. Everything that happens in the universe is compatible with the proposition, "God exists". It doesn't tell me anything. Now, one may argue that "scripture" tells me something important. However, "God exists" does not imply that "the claims found in scripture are true." We can well imagine that a god exists, that this god created us and gave us a capacity to reason, that some humans came along and invented scripture. To this development, God said, "I gave them brains and the capacity to reason. If they use the abilities that I gave them, they should be able to determine that these scriptures are largely works of the imagination, not descriptions of reality. Its authors are claiming to speak for me when anybody who can reason should be able to determine that they speak only for themselves." So, "God exists" does not give us the conclusion, "The claims of scripture are true." It gives us nothing.

Consequently, I judge that "God exists" to be a claim that is simply not worth bothering with. My belief that the proposition, "At least one god exists" is almost certainly false is actually the belief that, for all practical purpose, the proposition, "At least one god exists" is, for all practical purposes, worthless. It tells me nothing about what I should do.

Belief in a god might have some practical implications in the sense that, if there is a god, and this god punishes people who do not believe that he exists (though why a god would do that without providing some very clear and unambiguous evidence that this is the case is beyond me), then I will be punished. However, the set of propositions of which this may be true is infinite and incoherent. There might be a god who decides to punish anybody who believes in him on faith - thinking that only those who use the divine gift of reason are to be given everlasting life. Or might punish people who do not soak their toes in milk every evening at 7:00 PM local time. Or punish those who do soak their toes in milk. There is just nothing we can do with these types of claims. They are - for all practical (pragmatic) purposes - worthless - and that is why I do not bother with them.

In short, pragmatism sounds promising at this point. It certainly deserves more investigation.

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