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Pragmatism Morphed into a Reasoning System

  1. May 5, 2003 #1

    Les Sleeth

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    In discussions of philosophy participants rely on a reasoning system. Some are put together haphazardly, others seem distilled from a commitment to beliefs or a particular philosophy, while still others appear carefully constructed. In this thread I want to suggest that a reasoning system derived from a variation on the philosophy known as pragmatism may be most suited for philosophical debates at PF.

    But first, let me briefly explain what I mean by “reasoning system,” and limit the definition to philosophical discussions. Within the context of philosophy, reason is the avenue for the exchange of ideas about the nature of reality, and how one thinks properly about it. A reasoning “system” then, is a collection of components in service to the overall reasoning function.

    Strictly for the sake of quickly moving ahead to the point of this discussion, I’ve selected a list (incomplete, I’m sure) of reasoning components as key quantitative and qualitative contributors to the ideal of reason. I’ve also situated them in three levels I’ll call foundational, advanced, and vanguard.

    The chosen foundational components are: information, logic, and integrity. About information one might say it needs to be accurate, while logic should obey the formal rules (i.e., not one’s own version of logic), and integrity means being fully committed to using accurate information and correct logic. For the advanced components we might settle on: comprehensiveness and depth. Comprehensiveness refers to finding and using all relevant information, not just that which supports one’s argument; and depth means of understanding, and so it’s a commitment to think things out thoroughly rather than superficially. Finally, like the tip of a strong pyramid rests on a solid foundation and quality materials, so too does the vanguard of philosophical reasoning: inference. Inference is truly the most advanced skill of philosophical reason, and totally dependent on doing all the other components well.

    Okay, let’s get to pragmatism and what sort of reasoning system might be derived from it. Those who’ve read any of what I’ve written here or at the previous PF know I have been influenced by quite a variety of people. But when it comes to philosophical debate, no idea has influenced me more than pragmatism. Pragmatism is a uniquely American development that began in the late 19th century with the insights of C.S. Peirce and later William James, John Dewey, A.J. Ayer (who I’ve quoted often), and many others, and it is still vital today.

    I am going to express a pragmatism principle first by how I’ve come to see it, and I’ll admit it’s a bit simplistic. Principle: if something “works,” then at least some part of it is based on the true nature of reality. For example, if you lift rock and drop it in a deep lake, it will fall and make a “kerplunk” noise. If you do that because you know it will make that noise and so signal your friend on the bank, then you’ve correctly assessed the way reality works. If you drop your rock in a shallow area of the lake hoping for that sound, the lack of the “kerplunk” tells you that you have not assessed reality correctly.

    Peirce, in my opinion, was the man in terms of developing a practical, objective approach with pragmatism. James, who is also known for his contributions to pragmatism, gives it a psychological twist that can become idiosyncratic. James might say, “if it works for you there’s some truth to it, which Peirce didn’t like at all (nor do I except in a limited way). Taken to the extreme, one could say, “it worked for Stalin to kill everyone he perceived as a threat to him.” To evaluate this one has to consider every effect of Stalin’s approach (comprehensiveness). What effect did it have overall and long-term, did it really work for everyone? Did it enrich the economy, did it spawn creativity, did it strengthen the society, did it even make Stalin happy?

    Anyway, in terms of philosophical debate at PF, people make various philosophical proposals. My standard for evaluating a proposal is to look for evidence that any element of the proposal has been proven effective (again, comprehensively). Heusden preaches dialectical materialism, so I look for instances of it working. LG proposes an all-mind theory, and I look for examples of that working somewhere. Some people say chemistry can spontaneously start life, so I look for chemistry working that way.

    Now here is where we reach the “vanguard” of reason. If you can’t show something works so well, then how far can you leap with inferences using it? Obviously different categories of things have different standards for what “works.” A theory, for example, doesn’t have to work by achieving what it theorizes, but it should work in the sense of accounting for lots of observed phenomena and not being unequivocally contradicted by anything. With the pragmatism principle I’ve outlined, one can only leap inferentially as far as one’s concept is supported by evidence that it works. Works little, leap little; works lots, leap lots. At a science-oriented site, to me this seems like a good standard for philosophizing.

    What do you think?
    Last edited: May 5, 2003
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  3. May 5, 2003 #2

    Tom Mattson

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    Would this be the same as empiricism?

    It sounds like you are saying that philosophy should be approached in the same way that science is approached. I agree with this; as I've argued in FZ's thread "limits of reasoning" (or something like that), there is no such thing as a purely deductive proof of anything pertaining to reality. That kind of "pure logic" is reserved for proofs on abstract objects (like mathematics and logic itself).

    If I'm right on your take on philosophy (that is, that it should be approached in the way science is approached), then we should not be looking for instances in which the philosophy works, we should be looking for instances in which it fails.
  4. May 5, 2003 #3

    Les Sleeth

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    Re: Re: Pragmatism Morphed into a Reasoning System

    To keep my opening post reasonably short, I decided I'd cover all the particulars and exceptions when people brought them up. Let's call what I described "pragmatic reasoning," and there is at least one way it isn't really empiricism.

    One of the defining principles of empiricism is the role of experience in both proof and hyphothesizing. I have quoted A.J. Ayer a few times saying, “All propositions which have factual content are empirical hypotheses; and the foundation of an empirical hypothesis is to provide a rule for anticipation of experience . . . “ I like that concept because it places serious responsiblity on the theorizer.

    However, the standard for experience in empiricism is sense experience only. You probably know I am open to a certain other type of experience as the basis for hypothesizing (such as the Buddha's experience of enlightenment). Nonetheless, even with that I apply the pragmatic rule, and so I have searched for instances of how or if the enlightenment experience "works."

    Yes, exactly. I think those days when philosophers depended so heavily on a priori reasoning was a time when they didn't have the means for acquiring good information. But now we do. Plus, we have understood the role of experience in knowing. With all that, I would love to see a whole new standard develop for philosophizing that is both restrained and encouraged by any and all types of evidence.

    Well, philosophy is more speculative than hard science, so I wouldn't have such a tough standard. As a regular test of proposals I can see it because if it fails anywhere, then obviously it has a problem. But sometimes enough of a philosophical idea is right that a few mistakes might be ironed out rather than throwing the whole thing away.
    Last edited: May 6, 2003
  5. May 5, 2003 #4
    Just a technicality, pragmatism can't be uniqely American if you're including a Brit. A. J. Ayer. But then I wouldn't lump him in with the pragmatists. He's a modified logical positivist. But, yes, pragmastism is American and without Ayer. It might have been better to have included Rorty instead of Ayer. As you say, it's important to get the basics right before we proceed.
  6. May 5, 2003 #5

    Les Sleeth

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    Indeed. I skimmed the details to get to my point -- what I meant was that it originated in the US. I cited Ayer as someone whose ideas I appreciate, and who understood the notion of pragmatism whether he fully endorsed Peirce or not (he did, by the way, agree with Peirce's key ideas). But then it doesn't really matter so much who supported pragmatism as what it means. If it's principles work, then as far as I'm concerned Rin Tin Tin could've developed the pragmatism concept without diminishing it's significance.
    Last edited: May 6, 2003
  7. May 5, 2003 #6
    Excuse my ignorance, but at the end of the day, isn't 'pragmatism' just a fancy-term for 'materialism'?
  8. May 5, 2003 #7
    That pragmatism is one of those american classics is not surprising to me. Like the blues and jazz, it has attitude that reaches up from the ground through the souls of your feet yet reaches for the stars. What you have described thus far is the conservative of pragmatism, it is the blues and the rudiments of jazz before the invention of swing. It classical steps are ill suited to modern dance floor.
  9. May 5, 2003 #8

    Les Sleeth

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    I think this is a great question for you to ask LG because sometimes I think you resist certain rules of reason thinking it is going to lead to materialism.

    Let's take your over-riding idea that all creation is a manifestation of God's mind (forgive me if I've been less that precise in describing your belief). If it is true, then shouldn't your theory "work" in every way you believe it is true?

    Now, often you propose ideas meant to demonstrate your belief, and just as often you find individuals competent in working with materials who dispute your proposals. Why? Is it that you are wrong? Or might it be that the steps you take to argue your point don't conform to the standards of reason?

    If God exists, it would wonderful if you could "prove" it objectively. But if God exists, he/she/it is not an object. Think about it, just as you are held to demonstrating something works through pragmatism, so are the materialists. Do you believe they are making claims beyond what they can prove? If you have faith in your beliefs, then you also should have faith that you can find a problem in their theories.

    What I am suggesting is not materialism, but rather a fair standard for a debate. Can you demonstrate chemistry can spontaneously generate life? NO? Then don't speak to the world like it's all but been accomplished. Can you demontrate God made creation in 6 days? NO? Then don't speak to the world with confidence that it's true.
  10. May 5, 2003 #9

    Les Sleeth

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    Wuli, you are speaking my language. I especially like bluesy, swinging jazz. Hopefully I won't seem too ethocentric here, but philosophy (and music) from the Earth-up seems to me to be what Americans do best.
    Last edited: May 5, 2003
  11. May 5, 2003 #10
    America's innovations tend to be stylish as much as fashionable. That is, we invent classics as well as fashion trends. Pragmatism and the blues are classics from which countless new works branch out, competing and collaborating to express themselves and the world around them. They can be equally artform and science to any extreme. It is these flexibly vague yet distinctive attitudinal styles that is the source of their power to surprise us. And their power to still surprise us, that is half their strength.

    Often jazz will take us where eventually more plodding classical methods would have taken us eventually anyway. Other times, the process is reversed and a more plodding approach reveals what no one could have maybe found in any other way. The blues and pragmatism have room for all attitudes, and not just sad songs, because they share this openness to experimentation. Each is as rudamentary as you can get, but leads to unparalleled complexity. From my own point of view, they share an accepting attitude, affect, and expression with room for all others.
  12. May 6, 2003 #11
    Amen to all of that.
  13. May 6, 2003 #12


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    But at some point you have to make assumptions on available data, and there is more evidence that chemistry created life than God. Not confidence, but a matter of the current picture of things.
  14. May 6, 2003 #13
    As you know I admire your writing and thinking and this post lives up to all the rest that I've read; however, I have a problem with Pragmatism. Perhaps I do not fully understand it and/or am to influenced by the definition of pragmatic.
    I think that pragmatism as a branch of philosophy is necessary and beneficial but I find it too limiting as it, in my understanding, it does away with pure abstract and ideal thinking which to me are just as necessary in philosopy as reason and pragmatism.
    As a System of Reasoning I believe as you do, I think, that it goes hand in hand with logic and the scientific method. That is all well and good even in pure abstract, ideal and, if you will, artistic thought and writing. It gives form, meaning, clearity and coherence to our thinking and writing and for those reasons alone it should never be abandoned; but, Pragmatism is and should, IMO, remain a branch of Philosophy and this is the philosophy forum.
    Hopefully to better illustrate my thinking, is it possible to describe Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, four dimensional spacetime and infinitities, all major theories in modern physics that are completely outside human experience and common sense, in a purely pragmatic way?
    Last edited: May 6, 2003
  15. May 6, 2003 #14

    Les Sleeth

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    What are you making assumptions for? For empirical research, for making practical decisions, for maintaining your own personal philosophy, or for discussing philosophy with others?

    Let’s say it is research, and you assume “chemogenesis” is the origin of life for the sake of helping you investigate if it happens that way . . . then I would agree with you. Similarly, if you need to make practical decisions then it has to be based on your best guess. And if the only evidence you know of is that which supports chemogenesis, then again it makes sense to maintain that as your “current picture of things.”

    Then there is discussing philosophy with others. I don’t know if you recall any of my debates with DT Strain on chemogenesis, but there was a grueling exercise for me because his assumption that chemistry can spontaneously generate life was carved in stone. DT would list all the evidence supporting his position, then I would point out the gap in the evidence, plus I introduced other evidence. He consistently ignored or belittled by points (even though he know nothing about what I referring to), and then would lecture me again with his evidence.

    That sort of approach to reason is why I included in my little pragmatic reasoning pyramid “comprehensiveness” at the advanced level. If you are already committed to and/or more interested in being a materialist or theist over the desire to know the truth, no matter what the truth turns out to be, then you will be far less likely to seriously consider any evidence that contradicts your commitment. In my opinion, this is exactly why some of the debates here are hopeless. You can almost see someone starting to bolt or shut down when you introduce any evidence or logic contrary to their beliefs.

    Of course, it isn’t only here one finds over-commitment to beliefs, we merely reflect the state of things in society. And it isn’t just the theists you catch advocating without evidence – I see it in science publications and documentaries all the time where one expects to see objectivity instead.

    I mentioned in another thread a special I saw on one of the Discovery channels where a neuroscientist claimed it was her duty as an empiricist to prove consciousness is the result of only material processes. Is that the proper approach to research? I could’ve agreed if she’d said her job was to discover the material processes that contribute to consciousness, but she openly declared her pre-committed belief and that she was going to try to prove it. To me, she was trampling on the principle comprehensiveness and letting us all know she was going to single out that evidence which supported her beliefs. It also lacks integrity to use a platform that claims objectivity (science research) to make your theories appear more trustworthy.

    So, my suggestion of a morphed pragmatism is to suggest a standard for philosophical debate (and public claims) rather than whatever personal views one maintains.

    (Regarding there being enough evidence to assume chemistry can spontaneously generate life, I'd be more than happy to debate that with you. )
  16. May 6, 2003 #15
    Excellent points LW. I made alot of similar remarks in my "corrupt philosophy" thread.
  17. May 6, 2003 #16
    The mistake some people make with pragmatism is to think of it as glorifying common sense and personal experience by sacraficing all else. Pragmatism is as much a social endevor as anything else and need not sacrafice anything. Quite the opposite, pragmatism is inclusive by the very nature of it to avoid placing abstractions on a pedestel.

    According to one story Plato once asked his students how many teeth a nearby horse in a field had. One after another his students speculated on the issue until one of them actually walked over and began counting the horse's teeth. According to the story plato immediately expelled the student from his school.

    Modern physical theories only have meaning in the sciences in their pragmatic applications and expressions. The theory of Quantum Mechanics in particular can be said to be an utterly pragmatic theory due to the fact that exactly what QM describes is hotly debated. Instead of an abstract idealistic theory compatable with the human mind and perception, it is a pragmatic statistical one based on observation. Relativity is a more idealistic theory not entirely outside of human cognition, but there is room within a pragmatic approach for idealistic approaches as well when the occation apparently warrents their use.
  18. May 6, 2003 #17

    Les Sleeth

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    I don’t believe it is true that philosophical pragmatism does away with any sort of thinking. However, let me make it clear that I am not an expert in or advocate for any formal version of philosophical pragmatism. To be honest, I only read enough of it (mostly Peirce and James) to get the idea of “if something ‘works,’ then at least some part of it is based on the true nature of reality.” That appealed to me instantly as a basis for discussion (rather than using it for say, research or thinking), and I’ve relied on successfully in debates ever since (hey, there’s some pragmatism right there).

    This is why I used the word “morphed” in the title of this thread. I am not pushing pragmatism, but instead I am looking for standards which can help make philosophical discussions more realistic. If you have to demonstrate a practical connection between reality and your theory, and are constrained in your inferences by how much you can make such connections, that will bring the theory down to Earth pretty fast.

    Also, remember there are different sorts of philosophical discussions. When Heusden advocates dialectical materialism, the first thing I want to do is ask for instances where it has worked (plus point to all the dismal failures with it). I personally don’t think dialectical materialism makes sense philosophically (knowing what I do about human psychology), but if we only discuss it theoretically a person can reason in circles forever. But ask someone to cite examples of it working, or even elements of it working, then that makes the discussion more realistic right away.

    In your examples of QM, relativity etc., these are theories. A big part of good theorizing is when one’s theory accounts for facts better than alternative explanations. So theories in development like QM gain status as we find more and more supporting evidence. That standard for theory development is close to Ayers pragmatic principle that along with a hypothesis should be the expectation of confirming experience. It doesn’t mean one can’t think wildly creative ideas, such as the way Guth now is theorizing about bubbling universes, but it would, using my little reasoning system, limit how far one would inferentially leap from that theory. Already at this site I’ve seen it stated as fact that the zero point energy figure means energy can come from nothing. That is not a fact at all, it is one possible interpretation of zero point energy.
  19. May 6, 2003 #18
    Your point is well taken and as I said I agree completely if used as a reasoning tool or method. I meant it quite literally that "I" have a problem with Pragmatism. (Probably in part because my wife is such a pragmatist)
    Wuli said that Pragmatism, while it has it feet firmly angored to the ground, can still reach for the stars; but, can it reach beyound the stars? It's hard to soar the heavens with your feet stuck in the mud. "I"
    Last edited: May 6, 2003
  20. May 6, 2003 #19

    Les Sleeth

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    Ha! My wife too (though that sort of pragmatist and the philosophy of pragmatism are two different things). I admit she helps keep my feet on the ground while my head is in the clouds.
  21. May 6, 2003 #20
    Pragmatism can't reach beyond the stars using a classical western dialectic either-or approach, but Asian philosophies such as Taoism can and have often been described as pragmatic. Just as the object of QM is unknown, the paradox of existence remains an enigma that may well extend beyond the stars for all we know. By pragmatically addressing everything between the ground under our feet and the stars above we do not deny the possibilities of transcendence and the supernatural, but instead, simply expand our awareness.
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