Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Praise of William James, with Constant Reference to Myself

When I heard of William James' paper The Will to Believe I thought to myself, "well, that sounds like something my perspectivist ass could gush all over," and it was! I did a quick read through of an HTML copy I found through Google tonight, I will probably have to read through it a few more times. Thus far it seems the paper can help my vocabulary immensely, serve as a recurring source of inspiration, and help to keep my focus aligned by comparing my approaches to his. He did differ from me in important areas, the chief one I am thinking of being when he most strongly endorsed his pragmatism.

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo [the beginning point] of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem [the end result]. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true.

James clarifies that he has not given up on the quest or hope of truth. I, on the other hand, basically have. I am here talking of a kind of privileged truth: statements that are qualitatively better than all other statements that can be made on the relevant subject. Instead I rely on Geography of Thought, the idea that there are a collection of statements that can be made on a subject that all derive a legitimacy from the initial axioms and preferences that lend them comprehensibility. That is, James is willing to think according to his preferences and therefore is able to conceive of progress in thought, whereas I continue to fixate on the arbitrariness of my preferences and therefore cannot imagine our thoughts getting better, only different.

It should be noted, though, that James's thought approached human history in a far more active way than mine does. He was a psychologist, it is essential that he be able to say that his theories and ideas are in some way advancing the human condition. I, on the other hand, have chosen to stay nestled safely in my philosophical corner trying to understand the framework of propositions and human claims to knowledge. If I were to one day step into a science, I too would need a standpoint from which I could say that my scientific work were advancing human knowledge; for the moment, though, I can happily point out the futility of setting up any method of reasoning as being absolutely better than any other method.

Most impressive, though, was his argument endorsing religious belief. I have mostly made an implied argument for the justification of religious belief: that rationality depends on the context of an Epistemic Lens, and therefore under some Epistemic Lenses theism will be rational and under some it will be irrational. James's argument is far more detailed, but, on the face, I think it could also be characterized as providing an example of how theism looks through different lenses. He himself makes it clear that his argument is not coercive for a non-believer, his argument serves merely to justify the belief without condemning the lack thereof as it relies on what he calls the passional nature, which I would say is roughly equivalent to what I call love or preference, which differs in different men.

I aim to post another blog unpacking his main argument at a later time.

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