Friday, December 30, 2011

Pragmatic subjectivism

Interesting On Point last night (rebroadcast from last month plus a few text essays from James).  The subject was the philosophy of William James, and his religious philosophy in particular.  I have read a lot of his more psychological writings, but not his philosophic work.  I was multi-tasking during the show, so I didn’t really hear a lot of it, but I really liked the basic gist that I got from the discussion.

He kind of mixes his ontology and epistemology.  There is no such thing as a noun or adjective truth/true.  It is a verb.  Truth is a process not a thing, and it involves two components – subjective experience and pragmatism. 

Subjective experience means that anything can be true for me if I experience it to be true.  The example they used is that if I see a goddess in a tree, then that goddess exists for me.  If you don’t see her, then she doesn’t exist for you.  This isn’t my own epistemology, but I like it because it has a strong libertarian quality to it.  I have no reason to feel insecure about my beliefs based on whether others agree with me or not.  So why pressure anyone to believe it also?  In fact, if no one else believes in my goddess, then I get her all to myself.  It is kind of the opposite of the atheist arguments of Christopher Hitchens. He rejects religion because it can’t be proven and it is improbable on its face.  But the opposite is true of the radical subjective experience.  It is both proven and obvious that our beliefs can have a huge impact on our lives. 

But he also adds on the requirement of pragmatism.  He was a utilitarian.  The belief is only true if it has a positive result on society.  So if something you think you believe has a net negative impact, then you must have misunderstood it and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.  This way, you can't just believe that theft is good and all of a sudden it is.  Otherwise, psychopaths would rule the world.

And then the last thing they discussed is his belief in an objective reality.  What James said was that it was only when everyone believed something to be true did it become objectively true.  And because truth was a process, it truly did “become” true.  It wasn’t true before that. 

A caller made a really interesting point that because he was more of a psychologist than a philosopher (or at least his philosophy emanated from his psychology) he wasn’t describing any ontology, but rather he was saying that this is how our minds work.  So if our brains are wired so that a majority of people believe something, then it doesn’t really matter if it is objectively true, you are not going to convince the world of something they don’t want to believe.  I wish this weren’t the case, but my own cognitive behavioral research tells me that it has a large ring of truth to it.  That is why we have so much obesity, climate change denial, conspiracy theories, flat earth societies, predictions of the apocalypse, etc.  Our brains are pretty much wired to believe what we prefer to believe.  James puts some interesting philosophical meat behind this finding.