Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Pragmatism and the Rise of Science

Pragmatism is a belief which claims that philosophy is only worth doing if it "makes a difference" in the world we live in. In other words, if it is "useful." Of course, this statement raises the awkward problem of how we measure the "usefulness" of anything, e.g., whether it is better to study the Bible or handbooks on nutrition. Nutrition can be justified because it results in better health. Better health is good because it leads to longevity and a better quality of life. Presumably, life itself needs no further justification, although we should not infer from this datum any claim that life is necessarily the highest good. In this manner, all things under the sun can be factored into a calculus of value in which the most useful things are also held to be the most important.

For William James, as for other pragmatists, philosophy can only be deemed valuable if it yields tangible results. Otherwise, it must be regarded as an entirely frivolous enterprise. Following this logic, can openers should be valued more than sonnets, and electrical engineering should be celebrated more than philosophy. And, in fact, today this is what we find. Philosophy has now been relegated to the obscure corridors of academia, whereas the study of technology (e.g. computer science or metallurgy) is deemed worthy of our best minds.

In pragmatism, we behold the very tendency that Plato predicted would emerge in a democratic society: the misappropriation of philosophy by charlatans, followed by the fallacious claim that science now provides what philosophy failed to accomplish...that is to say, verifiable results. In Lecture 3 of Pragmatism, James gives several examples of problems that philosophy cannot solve: for example, mind vs. matter; theism vs. materialism, and freedom vs. determinism. Let us examine one of these problems.

The problem of substance (matter) and spirit (mind). Human knowledge is limited by our powers of comprehension and sensation. Rationalists like Plato tended to put more emphasis on comprehension (reason) than sensation. The information our senses bring to us is often distorted. We think we see one thing and it turns out to be something else. Likewise, for sounds, smells, taste and touch. Our senses are often fooled, so we can't ever be sure that how we are experiencing the world is really the way it is. In fact, over many millennia the human nervous system has evolved to process information in highly specialized ways. Our vision and hearing are limited to a narrow band of wavelengths. We don't see well in the dark, and we don't hear sounds below 20 or above 20,000 hz. Thus, our senses are able to give us only approximations of what we encounter. When we see a table, what we perceive as a solid object is really a conglomeration of chemical bonds and atoms floating in space. All that we experience are sensations (electrical impulses in the brain) stimulated by the presence of some external matter (i.e., what Kant calls "phenomena").

The problem of substance arises when you try to describe what an object is. All you really have to go by are the qualities which you perceive through your senses. Behind these qualities is the "thing itself," which is indescribable. For lack of a better description, this "thing" is called "substance." Nominalists object to using names like substance. They say that since you cannot see or hear or feel substance, you ought not to invent a name for it. But without the concept of substance, how can you account for why these different qualities adhere in one time-space continuum? Substance is just a name for a concept which gives meaning to our perceptual experience. It is no more ambiguous than our use of a word like "quantum" to describe an event which the human eye cannot perceive. We infer the existence of substance just as we infer the existence of "quarks." I don't see why talking about substance is any different than talking about any number of phenomena whose existence can only be referred to as a metaphor for something we do not comprehend. Insofar as science poses a theory of "quarks" or a theory of gravitational waves, it also attempts to describe behavior (action) which is beyond our human (perceptual) capabilities. Another way of putting it is that language serves human experience. We see things and we give them names. Thus, we create the very world we inhabit ("logos"), for to name a thing is in a very literal sense to give it reality, even if the reality is provisional. "Substance" exists because we say it exists. The idea exists in our mind and has its effects on the way we construct other ideas about the world. Does that mean that the idea of substance is "useful"? Possibly. Depending upon what you regard as useful. To me, "useful" does not mean "good" or "true." It simply refers to how we regard something.

The idea of substance becomes troublesome when we apply it to mental phenomena. When we talk about physical things like chairs, substance clearly refers to matter. But when you speak of spiritual substance, what are you really trying to say? There is a tendency to confuse spiritual substance with ideas. But if you mean "ideas" then it is easier to just say ideas. But if you mean something like "soul" then it becomes a problem. Some people believe that "soul" is that mysterious essence which animates the human body. It cannot be seen or measured. But neither can Stephen Hawking (or anyone else) see those microscopic black holes which he posits with all sincerity. Does that mean they don't exist? No. But if meaning is always contingent upon verification, then science must abandon much of its own theoretical framework. Of course, Plato's belief in the realm of Forms was not just a useful theory. But, nevertheless, whether or not we speak of the "Good" in an absolute sense or of substance in a linguistic sense (subject-predicate), the idea has reality because it accounts for our way of interpreting (understanding) the world we live in. So, in this larger sense of the word, James, along with the other empiricists are correct. Reality is what we experience.

But we need to recall that a human experience of the world includes consciousness, as well as feelings. We are not just a bundle of sensations, as Hume believed. We impose our creative (conscious) will on the sensations we experience. We decide to act or not to act based on what we see and what we think of the situation. Thus, we arrive at the faculty of judgment which precedes action. Action proceeding without judgment is not rational and thus not human. For it is our capacity to judge which separates us from nature's other creatures. Insofar as we judge well, we are deemed wise. If we judge foolishly, we suffer. Empiricists like James want to have it both ways. They want a solid foundation beneath our claims to knowledge and they want us to behave like moral beings. But metaphysical claims and moral claims are always connected. If you believe that everything worth talking about can be seen ("meaning is verification") then you will act accordingly. And action, of course, is what Pragmatism is all about. It is optimistic and forward looking. It is a philosophy born of the industrial age in a society where bold adventurism is rewarded. It accommodates itself within a sphere of capitalistic endeavors where individuality is a virtue. Its attractions are especially felt by those who want definite answers and quick results, and in that sense it is very much an American movement. As a technique for resolving logical disputes, it may have some small benefit. But as sustenance for the human soul, it is a poor repast, a milquetoast meal that satisfies only the surface tremors of our deepest spiritual hunger.


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