Friday, July 29, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 3, the practicality of God

James takes on traditional philosophical problems such as the meaning of matter. Matter as a substance underlying experience.  What does it mean to say that the world is constituted by such?  Philosophers later in the century would say that such metaphysical questions are meaningless.  James has a different approach.  He says first:

"What do we MEAN by matter? What practical difference can it make NOW that the world should be run by matter or by spirit? I think we find that the problem takes with this a rather different character...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..."(pg. 41)

It sounds like he might agree with those later thinkers when he says:
"The pragmatist must conclude consequently say that the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exact same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal."(pg. 41)

"For just consider the case sincerely, and say what would be the WORTH of a God if he WERE there, with his work accomplishment and his world run down.  He would be worth no more than just that world was worth."(pg. 41)

"Wherein should we suffer loss, then, if we dropped God as an hypothesis and made matter alone responsible?"(pg. 42)

"...the future end of every cosmically evolved thing or system of things is foretold by science to be death and tragedy."(pg. 44)

"This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood."(pg. 45)

A world ruled by matter means a world that ends in tragedy.  This is beside the point of whether it makes sense to talk about matter metaphysically the way other philosophers argue.  Matter has a role in determining what we think the ultimate meaning of the universe is, which has the practical affect of changing the way we feel about life.

"The notion of God, on the other hand, however inferior it may be in clearness to those mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved.  A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.  This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. "(pg. 45)

"Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope."(pg. 45)

"...spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of PROMISE, while materialism's sun sets in a sea of disappointment."(pg. 46)

"If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer."(pg. 49)

He takes on free-will as follows:
"Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past."(pg. 50)

I'm not so sure about this since quantum theory means exactly the above.  Free-will has to do with our own determination, not randomness.  But then James says:
"It holds up improvement as at least possible; whereas determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance, and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world."(pp. 50-51)

So free-will is practically about improvement, that we caan get better, morally better, which is, after all, the real question of free-will: can we do better?
"Other than this practical significance, the words God, free-will, design, etc., have none."(pg. 51)


  1. I think I understand the post, but let me our world people seem to hold ideals in absolute with perhaps the exception of "too much of anything is a bad thing." It seems to be "nver lie", "work hard", etc. These are things i do not argue with, but when one makes a valuation of these things as wholly good or bad, then I wonder because most philospohers (as you discuss above) and indeed most peole would agree they are not perfect - and seem so certain of what perfection is.

  2. let me add this was spurred by the comments that we are to better, do we know what makes "better"? And if so, have we as a species made progress in that direction?

  3. I think you make a good point: I don't think morals can be handled the same way we handle math or science. You should check out my posts on The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. Ultimately, I disagree with him that science can answer moral questions, but I don't believe his book deserved all the nastiness it got.

    Thanks for the comments!!