Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pragmatism and Pluralism

In a comment below, I was asked as to what motivated my shift from What is Fundamentalism? to Fundamentalism vs. Pragmatism?

The shift in my position was prompted by thinking about fundamentalism in light of what John Dewey says in A Common Faith and Reconstruction in Philosophy. He uses similar language to describe the errors of fundamentalism in CF and the errors of rationalism in RP, and this prompted me to consider their similarities.

I was also reminded of Peirce's essay "The Fixation of Belief" and re-thinking that little essay in light of the posts I read in Uncommon Descent. Several of the regular commentators there are skilled or semi-skilled in philosophy, theology, and law, and they are very good at presenting arguments for their views, and at finding problems with the arguments presented by others.

What they are not good at, however, is recognizing the importance of experiments that can test their premises or their consequences. (It does not seem to me that they even recognize the difference between argument and experiment!)

For example, one of the more astute commenters there repeatedly hammers home the point that world-views must be given proper intellectual foundations. (He makes this point in order to establish that theism is more adequate than materialism.) This is not a stupid or foolish thing to say -- not at all! But it does show what to my way of thinking is a restricted and narrow conception of what intellectual activity consists of. It does not, for example, consider the pragmatist conception of intellectual life as one that is explicitly and emphatically anti-foundationalist, pluralistic, and melioristic.

I have therefore come to think that Peirce, James, and Dewey were exactly right to stress the importance of openness to experience as having a transformative effect on concepts and theories. And I also think that the anti-foundationalistic arguments of Quine and Sellars, but above all Wittgenstein, are, while not decisive, at any rate illuminating in showing us how the world, and our relationships with it, can be seen as drastically different than they are taken to be from within the rationalistic framework.

Which brings me to my next major point for this post: the meaning and value of "pluralism." For the time being, I'll provisionally define pluralism as a negative thesis: the claim that there is no single description of reality that fully satisfies all human needs and interests. There are some needs and interests that are satisfied by science (and of course different needs and interests are satisfied by different sciences in different ways); others by history; still others by poetry, or by music, or by religion, or by communion with bird and trees and wild things; or by love and friendship.

I don't have a perfect term for the contrast with "pluralism" -- "fundamentalism" comes to mind, as does "monism" (of course), "rationalism," and "Platonism." I shall use "rationalism" here as a general term for the thought that there is, or must be, a single description of reality which fully satisfies all genuine human needs and interests. (Notice my use of 'genuine' here -- see note (1) below!)

By this light, classical (non-liberal) Christianity is a form of rationalism, but so too are the metaphysical systems of philosophy -- including those of antiquity, such as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism -- and those of modernity, such as those of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. But so too is the metaphysical naturalism and 'scientism' that has been a rival to theological metaphysics since the time of Hobbes, and which today finds no shortage of defenders among scientists (e.g. Dawkins, Pinker), philosophers, and cultural critics (e.g. Hitchens). (But see note (2) below.)

In short, my contention here is that religious fundamentalism and 'scientistic' fundamentalism -- the most extreme, and therefore the loudest, of the views in the debate between intelligent design supporters and evolutionists -- are both contemporary fruits of the rationalist tree. The pluralism which I support, and to which I hope to contribute, is therefore critical of both of them.

(1) A rationalist promises to satisfy all genuine human needs and interests; conversely, whatever needs and interests are not satisfied by a certain description of reality, the rationalist maintains, are not genuine but false or misleading or distorted. This line of thought can be clearly discerned in Platonism, in Christianity, and in Marxism. I do not contend, by way of contrast, that there are no preferences to be made with respect to human needs and interests. On the contrary, I'm a strong advocate of the capability approach when it comes to social justice, and I am something of an ethical perfectionist in terms of self-relations. (Reading 'ethical perfectionism' in a broad sense so as to include virtue ethics.) I am pluralist insofar as I don't think that there is any correct way of hearing, and responding to, the perfectionist call.

(2) There are in fact many different kinds of rationalism and pluralism. For example, Sam Harris in his The End of Faith insists that there is only viable method for assessing beliefs -- the method of science -- but allows that some "religious" beliefs could be vindicated by such a method. In particular, he suggests that the Buddhist belief in reincarnation could be so vindicated. But this does not detract from his larger point, which is that no belief which is not justified through scientific means should be treated as justified at all. Whereas my pluralism goes "all the way down," even to the point of embracing pluralism with respect to forms of justification


Wendy Hoke said...

Thank you for this explanation. In my own weird, feline way, I chimed in on the subject. But, us cats don't use logic the way humans do.


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