Is God a Working Hypothesis? The Problem With Pragmatism

© Domenic Marbaniang, Epistemics of Divine Reality (2007).

CHARLES S. PEIRCE (1893-1914) coined the term ‘pragmatism’ from the Greek word pragma (meaning act or deed)[1] for the philosophical position that defined truth in terms of workability. According to pragmatism, the test of the truth of any proposition is its utility. William James defined pragmatism as ‘the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.’[2] According to the pragmatist view, ‘reality is hardly a single thing: It is pluralistic.’[3] The only thing that matters, therefore, is not what ultimate reality is but what is ultimately useful. Thus, the end decides the validity of the means. In this sense then, it is not important whether God exists or not. The only thing that matters is whether belief in God’s existence is useful or not. Following are certain characteristics of truth as understood in pragmatism:[4]

  1. Truth is man-made. According to William James, truth is an adjective of knowledge that works in life. Truth is the result of human evaluation. Just as a thing is called heavy or light, long or short, to express the effects of human measurements similarly knowledge or belief is called true or false to express the effect of human valuation of it. By itself it would neither be true or false. Truth is made just as health, wealth and strength are made in the course of experience. Thus, truth is human engineered and not absolute.

  2. Truth is mutable. Truths are bound to be particular, relative, and therefore subject to change. The truth of any proposition depends on the context. For instance, the theories of Ptolemy were true to those of his context; but now, appear false. Thus, truths are neither absolute nor permanent. According to John Dewey, there can be no eternal and necessary truth.

  3. Truth is synonymous with utility. According to James, one can say of something that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful.’ Both these uses mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified.

  4. There are degrees of truth, according to James, depending on its degree of utility in one’s life. Truth is true in a degree proportionate to its level of use in one’s life. Thus, useless truths are no truths.

  5. Truth is only one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good. To say, for instance, that a fan is good is to say that it is fulfilling its functions properly; in other words, it is useful. In the same way, to say that a proposition is true means to say that it is useful or good.

  6. According to John Dewey, truth is warranted assertability. That is, any claim can only be true if its assertion is warranted by successful and practical results. Thus, any assertion can only be true if it is useful in scientific expedition or discovery.

The implication for religious knowledge is that religious knowledge cannot be segregated from its utility. In other words, the truthfulness of religious claims depends on whether they are useful or not. Obviously, pragmatists find that some religious beliefs like the belief in God and life after death are useful. For, they not only provide internal peace but add meaning to all the actions of life. According to William James, ‘since belief is measure by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true.’ Consequently, ‘the whole defense of religious faith hinges upon action.’[5] Thus, whether one believes in God or didn’t believe in God is an important question since the answer decides one’s walk of life and, obviously, its consequences for self and society.

However, critics have pointed out that the pragmatist acceptance of religious belief in God, immortality, etc. on the grounds of the criterion of utility is engrossed with so many problems. First of all, pragmatists do not offer any serious philosophical argument for the belief in the existence of God apart from the usefulness of the belief. Such delinquency in reasoning cannot be considered to be appropriate when belief in God is of such nature that a person’s whole way of living and perhaps even the afterlife may be at stake. Secondly, the law of utility, apart from proving whether a particular belief has presently some use or not, can prove nothing about the truthfulness or falsity of a claim. Thirdly, it has been argued that religion may not be indispensable to good conduct. However, this view is yet to prove true by means of ‘empirical investigation’ which is not within the purview of philosophy.[6] Further, there is a great possibility that any of the religious views, often contradictory to each other, may be proved to be useful. But since contradictions entail that either one or none of them is true, usefulness cannot stand as a standard test for truth. Finally, the pragmatist treatment of God as a means to some end is not in keeping with the spirit of religion.[7] Religion claims that it has the treasure of eternal truths, but pragmatism approaches it with not an interest towards such truths but with the interest of getting something out of it. This disinterest with truth is against the spirit of philosophy. This is what Russell had to say regarding the utility approach towards religion:
I can respect the men who argue that religion is true and therefore ought to be believed, but I can feel only profound reprobation for those who say that religion ought to be believed because it is useful, and that to ask whether it is true is a waste of time.[8]

Thus, though accepting the usefulness of the concept of God, the pragmatist is not able to establish with certainty the existence of God and His attributes. In fact, since to the pragmatist eternal and necessary truth doesn’t exist, therefore the concept of an existent God is of little consequence unless affecting the prospect of life. Some Christians have found the pragmatic test for truth highly appealing in an apologetic of their faith.[9] However, livability of some religious proposition alone may not validate its veracity. If that were true then the survival of polytheistic, atheistic, pantheistic, monistic, and monotheistic religions even to this present generation is evidence enough that the adherents of each of the religions find their own religions quite livable with and thus, pragmatically useful. However, it is certain that not all of them can be true at the same time since their tenets contradict each other. Therefore, the pragmatist approach cannot be accepted as tenable in the epistemics of divine reality.

[1] Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, p.412
[2] As cited by Velasquez, Philosophy, p. 223
[3] Ibid, p. 223
[4] Hridaynarayan Mishra, Paschatya Darshan, pp. 155-158
[5] Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p. 108
[6] John Hospers, Philosophical Analysis, p. 448
[7] Hridaynarayan Mishra, Paschatya Darshan, p. 169
[8] As cited by John Hospers, Philosophical Analysis, p. 449
[9] Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p. 110

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