Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 13, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 3

In his third lecture James turns to a more specific application of Pragmatism: “Some Metaphysical Problems”. Those metaphysical problems turn out to be (1) the question of design in nature and (2) the free-will problem. Both of these problems hinge on the kind of the world we live in. James is adamant on this point. Pragmatism is only concerned with problems that have real consequences in the real world. The question always is: what difference does it make?

There are two ways of looking at the world: materialism and spiritualism. They seem to be diametrically opposed in their world views. Materialism says “The laws of physical nature are what run things…Spiritualism says that mind not only witnesses and records things, but also runs and operates them: the world being thus guided, not by its lower, but by its higher element.”

This is a very old dispute – going all the way back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. There were champions on both sides of the question then, and the basic question is still the same: Is matter all that there is? Or is there something else behind or beyond matter, something we call Mind or Spirit actually running things? What difference does it make?

James wants to make sure we don’t get sucked into a pointless debate here. He asks “What practical difference can it make now that the world should be run by matter or by spirit?...It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.” He’s not interested in what came before, he only wants to know what will be the practical consequences in the future that lies ahead of us.

And what does lie ahead of us? “The theist shows how a God made (the world); the materialist shows…how it resulted from blind physical forces.” If there were to be no future and the universe was suddenly frozen in time forever, then James says “The pragmatist must consequently say that the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exactly the same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal.” But even though it may be “merely verbal” when we look behind us, it is anything but verbal when we look ahead of us – “In this unfinished world (the world we live in) the alternative of materialism or theism is intensely practical…” Spiritualism or materialism may not make any difference at all when we look at the past, but they point to wholly different endings when we look to the future.

Materialism sees a future that will end tragically “Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on anything…This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. The lower and not the higher forces are the eternal forces…” and these eternal forces are on an irrevocable rendezvous with total destruction. Under materialism, our destiny ends not with a bang but with a whimper. On the other hand, “The notion of God…has at least this practical superiority over (materialism), that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved...” The cosmos may burn up or freeze, but somewhere out there God is watching and will preserve life, perhaps in some other form, in some other place, at some other time, but it’s still comforting to know that the universe doesn’t end in the silence of cold, dead matter. There’s still an eternal moral order to the universe that remains preserved and “This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast.”

So it does indeed make a difference which side you choose: “spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of promise, while materialism’s sun sets in a sea of disappointment.”

This doesn’t prove that either view is either true or false. It merely shows the result of each view seen through the prism of pragmatism: what it means to me, right here, right now.

-- RDP


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