Monday, 12 August 2019

Pragmatism: its Conception of Unverified Truth #2

Essay by an anonymous contributor* reposted from Pi Alpha

 
In this, the second of two posts, Pi presents reflections on ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’, a title which William James chose in 1907 for a classic paper on pragmatism.
In last month’s post, we considered pragmatism’s conception of verified truth. However, many of our beliefs are either not verified, or are only partially so. Rather, the vast majority of the beliefs we live by are unverified.

William James uses the example of a clock:  we do not know how it works, nor have we seen the insides of it. ‘We let our notion pass for true, without an attempt to verify.’ We believe the clock to be keeping accurate track of time with its cogs and weights, but we do not really understand how.

This is not a problem for pragmatism, as James points out: ‘Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so.’ So because of this, we assume that the thing hanging on the wall with the hands and a face is a clock which keeps accurate track of the passage of time, because it works for us to use it in such a way.

The verification of the assumption here means that our incorporation of this assumption does not contradict previously held beliefs, or is so overwhelmingly powerful that previous truths are altered (as little as possible) to make room for this new truth. The fact that we could verify that the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of the passage of time counts in this case as verifiability. It is because we know previous truths about cogs and weights that we can believe that a series of them can count units of time. This information is useful to us in our new belief that the thing on the wall is a clock and functions as such. ‘We use it as a clock.’ That is what makes it useful to use in a situation where knowing the current time is helpful to us. In another situation, knowing the time may not be helpful to us. In this case it does not matter if the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of time.

Another reason that James gives for us counting the possibility of verification as being just as good as actual verification is that ‘all things exist in kinds (groups) not singly’. When we verify a certain belief that we have, that verification can then be used to verify other beliefs of the same kind, or of the same type. ‘A mind that habitually discerns the kind of thing before it, and acts by the law of the kind immediately without pausing to verify, will be a “true” mind in 99% of cases, proved so by its conduct fitting everything it meets, and getting no refutation.’ These semi-verified or non-verified truths give us the same advantages of full verification, such as saving effort as we verify all our beliefs, which thus leads us to say that these beliefs are true.

Our actions (formed through beliefs), which allow us to willfully lead ourselves through persisting reality, form into habits of action. These habits of action are carried out at an almost unconscious level as most of our un-verified (but verify-able) beliefs form actions that we carry out every day.

Consider habits, as an example. Habits are things which we do every day, but do not really think about, like going to work or playing a certain card game. As long as these habits contain beliefs that are consistent with this persisting reality or realities, and lead us to moments worthwhile, they will be followed.
‘To “agree” in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed.’ 
 Reality is not a set thing that our ideas either match up with (which is true ideas) or do not (which is false ideas), but it is made by us. In pragmatism, to copy a reality is one way of agreeing with it, but not essential. The essential part of agreement is how you use it to guide you through this persisting reality we seem to be experiencing. Names are just as true or false as our other ideas or what James calls definite mental pictures. Names are arbitrary, however once set they need to remain so or there would be confusion. Names are labels given to objects that have the same grouping or kind, and as long as we use the right name for the right object, our name is always true.
‘You are sure to get truth if you can but name the kind rightly, for your mental relations hold good of everything of that kind without exception.’
In the end, philosophy needs to give us a theory that will affect out lives, giving us something almost tangible that we can hold on to and use. Pragmatism is not strictly speaking a philosophical theory of itself, but more of a lens through which all other theories must pass. It grants an idea to be true, and then asks, so what? What definite difference will this idea make to me in my life, if I were to believe it or chose not to believe it. It must always be remembered that all previous truths must be affected as little as possible when incorporating new beliefs.
‘We must find a theory that will work, and that means something extremely difficult, for our theory must mediate between all previous truths and certain new experiences.’ 
 In science, there are often two or more competing theories which attempt to explain the same phenomenon or situation. In times like this, we should look as much as possible to the explanation that incorporates all previously held truths, while at the same time accurately predicting new experience. This is a rather easy thing to do. We are naturally disposed to incorporate the theory which conform to our preconceived notions, and thus reject the one which changes our previous truths more.

Truth has a certain ‘cash-value’ in pragmatism. Truths pay. They pay because they lead us towards some way of predicting our next experiences. The truths that pay more, help us more, by leading us towards worthwhile moments in our experience. Pragmatism is a name for a verification process of our ideas and beliefs: truth is largely made up of other truths. It is a lens through which all other theories must pass, in order for us to incorporate them into our belief system.

Experience has a way of ‘boiling over’, which is to say that it forces us to correct our beliefs due to new experiences happening, which do not conform to what we believed before. While the facts may change in our situations, our use of truth also does.
‘The “facts” themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.’
 Beliefs make us act, and as they do so so, they bring with them new experiences which themselves redefine the belief’s guiding our actions. This may be likened to Berkeley’s descriptions of matter: people thought he was denying its existence. Similarly, pragmatism was accused of denying truth, but clearly just redefined the word to mean something other than copying a stagnant reality.

Copying reality is really not important. Who cares if our beliefs copy reality, if what we really want is to be able to use our beliefs to guide us to where we want to be? And to do so through this persisting reality that we seem to be experiencing through our sensory perceptions.



* This post is adapted from Pi Alpha, the first embodiment of Pi.  In the transition to Pi Beta, the name of the author was unfortunately lost.  His identity would be a welcome addition - if anyone can help.

4 comments:

Keith said...

From the anonymous essay:

‘In science, there are often two or more competing theories which attempt to explain the same phenomenon or situation. In times like this, we should look as much as possible to the explanation that incorporates all previously held truths, while at the same time accurately predicting new experience. This is a rather easy thing to do. We are naturally disposed to incorporate the theory which conform to our preconceived notions, and thus reject the one which changes our previous truths more’.

This is an interesting paragraph on the scientific method — which I assume accords, in some way, to William James’s philosophy of pragmatism. But might there be important exceptions to what the paragraph proposes as to how science progresses? I’m thinking, for example, of the thread from Newtonian physics, Einstein’s general relativity, Bohr’s quantum mechanics, and string theory (the latter the most ‘unverified’, to borrow the essay’s term).

Didn’t this thread introduce marvelous paradigm shifts in explaining what, for all practical purposes, is the ‘same phenomenon or situation’: reality?

As such, did each of these theories really ‘incorporate all previously held truths’, or take a singularly original path, tectonically shifting in the direction of a new paradigm? Did each new theory actually ‘conform to our preconceived notions’, or introduce entirely new ones? Did science necessarily ‘reject the [theory] which changes our previous truths more’, or in a revolutionary spirit not concern itself about such niceties? And was the paradigm shift, in each case, a ‘rather easy thing to do’, or in its profound originality, provocativeness, and inventiveness turn out to have been exceptionally difficult?

Lurking somewhere, I suspect, may be a nexus linking the essay’s description of the scientific method, the essay’s description of James’s philosophy of pragmatism, and my stab-in-the-dark queries immediately above.

docmartincohen said...

"we should look as much as possible to the explanation that incorporates all previously held truths, while at the same time accurately predicting new experience."

This sits in the essay as unchallenged common sense - but it is far from that. Take the long dogma of Aristotle that the Earth was at the centre of the universe - or maybe his less cited view that women had no souls but were rather a kind of dumb beast, like cattle. Why should it be considered desirable to prefer an theory that inherits such things, often wrong, often prejudicial to actually seeking out a better theory.

Keith said...

‘Who cares if our beliefs copy reality, if what we really want is to be able to use our beliefs to guide us to where we want to be?' Isn’t this what particularly disingenuous and cunning — worse: autocratic — heads of state do, in their poor Orwellian mimicry? That is, certain national leaders who, despite abundant and convincing empirical evidence to the contrary, brazenly bend or entirely disregard reality in order to stick to what best suits ‘where [they] want to be’?

Thomas Scarborough said...

'Beliefs make us act, and as they do so so, they bring with them new experiences which themselves redefine the beliefs guiding our actions.'

I see multiple troubles here. We may not self-correct fast enough, whether this be a self-defeating political trajectory or a counter-productive technological advance. Then the question is, too, why we chose such a trajectory or advance in the first place.

It seems to be a cavalier approach to life, waiting for disasters to happen, although some might point out they have happened already.

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