I've been thinking about William James and Charles S. Peirce lately, and I want to do something in the future that compares their epistemology to the one developed in Barfield's Saving the Appearances. [That's a heavy lift, and we'll see if I have the energy for it during the summer] I like Jamesian Pragmatism, because of its open-endedness, its aptness for the way we actually live and think about the world. It's somewhat simplistic to say that for James 'truth' is what works, but it points us in the right direction. Truth is what has 'cash value'; it's what you have confidence enough in to act on. It's never identical to the Real. At best it gives us a working model for or map of the 'Real'. And as such Pragmatist 'truth' is not static, but continuously open to deepening or rejection.
We are acculturated into working models for how the world around us works, but we should never assume that the model is the Real. It's just something that allows us to navigate in the Real. And over time we individually or collectively make revisions in the model, or we replace it with another one because it works better or because it delivers benefits the older one did not. This is the way science works, but it's also the way we live our lives if we're sane. Delusion is persistence in the use of a model that no longer works.
We humans have the understandable tendency to persist in the habits of mind formed by the model we grew up with and got comfortable with. We fear change and we often fear losing something that is precious to us. The mistake fear makes is to think that the model and the Real are the same thing, that to lose the first is to lose the second. But it's liberating when you come to understand that's just not true, that our loss of one model does not mean rejection of what it modeled, but that we have a need for a better model. The only important thing is that we be in the best possible relationship with the Real. When the old model becomes an obstacle to that it must be discarded.
It's this pragmatic view of truth that has been at the heart of my critique of Conservatism. Conservatives too often persist in habits of mind that are no longer adapted to the world that we live in. Liberal views are simply better adapted to the world created by Liberalism, especially in the decades since the French and Industrial Revolutions. Liberals are not the cause of the changes that conservatives lament. They are people who simply went with the flow rather than to have resisted it. They saw that the old model wasn't working very well, and it really wasn't. And they saw that there were many significant advantages in the new model, and clearly there were.
But thoughtful conservatives were not wrong in recognizing that something was lost in the shift to modernity. They were mistaken, though, when they reisted the clear advantages of the new model rather than finding ways to revise it so that it could account for what they knew had been lost. Reaction is never a solution. The Real and our model of it are not the same. If there are aspects of the Real that you know about and which are not part of the collective model, then you have to work to develop a model that delivers a robust account of what you know that has advantages the secular model lacks. My challenge to religious conservatives is hold fast to the Real that has been filtered out by modern habits of thinking, but to trust in their capacity to adapt to the world that the Real sustains.
Now I do not consider myself a Liberal because I think that Liberalism no longer works. It no longer explains adequately the world we live in, and its assumptions grounded in beliefs about the capacity of Reason, unencumbered by the constraints of traditional wisdom, can create a better world for everyone have been proved invalid. It brought some short term advantages, and it's understandable that some of the West's best minds explored its possibilities, but that Liberal model no longer works.
As I've written here frequently before, the Liberalism that was the child of the Enlightenment and the source of the optimistic republicanism of 1776, 1789, 1848, the revolutionism of the Paris Commune, the Bolsheviks, the Maoists, and so many others died in Western Europe after by World War I, in the U.S. during the 1960s, (when we said Bye Bye to Miss American Pie), and during the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China and everywhere else where the Jacobin spirit of 1789 was its inspiration. It had a good two-hundred year run, but now we're at a very interesting point in history. It's like a cultural/historical slack tide.
Neoliberal ideology has filled the political vacuum for want of anything better, but anything goes and who knows where it's going. It's going to be a rocky ride, and we have to trust in our ability to adapt, and to realize that to cling to habits of mind that no longer work will not preserve order, but rather lead to more suffering and to a more destructive collapse. Better to adapt, to go with the flow, and try to manage things to mitigate the inevitable transitional suffering as best we can. We need to be prudent, but not fearful. Fear almost always inclines us to make the wrong choice.
We take for granted the solidity of world around us, and yet we also understand, even if only abstractly, that the way we experience it is profoundly shaped by our acculturation. Our experience of the world is shaped by habits of perception and thinking that enhance or filter out aspects of the Real. At any given moment, we only experience and understand what our acculturation has programed us to see or understand. Our habits change when we are forced to adapt to changes in our environment. We resist the change, but sooner or later we make it when we come to understand that we receive benefits from the change that our current habits prevent. This is Pragamtism 101.
We change our habits because we discover the benefit of the change on our own or because we imitate those whom we notice are thriving because they have already made the change. And when our habits change, as they did when the medieval model broke down to make way for the modern, our experience changes. This is not a process that moves quickly. It happens slowly from generation to generation. But the world given to the French peasant in the 18th Century has more in common with his contemporary in China than it does to the French bourgeois information worker employed in a glass tower in Paris.
The biggest cultural gulf is not defined by whether one is Asian or European, Christian or Hindu, but by whether one's habits of mind are modern or premodern. We are now moving into another transition in which the differences will be defined by whether one's mind continues to be shaped by modern habits or by whatever the New Thing, the no-longer-modern modeling of the Real will be, with the new habits it forces us to adopt. Many are living intensely aware of our being in this slack tide, and it's not easy to flourish in such a time, but it's interesting.
And so because we are now living at a time when the modern model has broken down, we live with modern habits of mind for want of better ones. And so those of us who recognize this, especially if we are Christians, have a special opportunity and responsibility to develop new habits of mind that are both inspired by the spirit of the gospel but which also have "cash value" in the Jamesian sense, that model the Real in a way that works. The biblical term for cash value is "fruits".
Jamesian Pragmatism brackets questions about metaphysics, but it recognizes the central role that belief plays in shaping the world we work in and think about. So I consider myself a Jamesian Pragmatist when it comes to understanding the real world we live in, but I combine that with Barfield's dynamic Christocentric Idealism when it comes to framing hypotheses to be tested by real-world experience. If the test for any belief system is its 'cash value', the burden on Christians is to prove that its beliefs deliver. It has to deliver meaning that makes sense in the real world that we live in, and it also must help us to be productive in the world in a way that has advantages that others would notice and imitate. It happened in the Roman world as it slowly disintegrated; it could happen in the modern Liberal world as it continues its disintegration. I accept, in a Jamesian key, that the best we can do is develop working models that map reality in ways that work. Do we have enough faith in our model to actually live by it and shape our life by it? Can we be ruthlessly honest about whether that is working for us or not?
One of the main consequences of the shift from matter to mind consequent to the gradual collapse of the modern rationalist/materialist habits of mind over the last hundred years is that “believing” no longer has the pejorative connotations it once had. It’s possible now to entertain metaphysical questions in a way that it was not even thirty years ago.
Since Kant, metaphysics has been suspect; it was perceived by the mainstream of western thought to be about believing something rather than really knowing it, and “believing” until recently was considered a weakness of mind. And for lots of people whose habits of mind are still modern, it still is. But one of the pillars of the postmodern critique of modern rationality has been that most of what we think we know is really only what we believe. Our truths—even scientific facts like our model for the atom—are just provisional maps that have meaning only insofar as they work, i.e., have explanatory power that allows you to work with them, but they make no pretense of understanding the 'thisness' of the atom. That's open to different interpretations, and I would say the same is true for evolution. It's for now a provisional map; it works, but no one can claim to know with certainty the 'thisness' of evolution. What we know about it is open to different interpretations.
The postmodern thinkers recognize this, and while I don't buy into the nihilism that many of them think is the ineluctable consequence of their critique, I find what they say interesting because their mood of "deconstruction" reflects accurately the spirit of our decomposing age. I have the same relation with Marxism. I find much value in its critique of capital, but I reject the materialistic metaphysics and its prescription for a cure. Marxism gives us a good map for understanding how capital works; it gives us a deeply inadequate model for something better.
So the question for me is whether a saying No as the Marxists and postmodernists say is possible to join with a Yes which the Christians have said. Can we show that there is more 'cash value' in our model? And such a project starts by acknowledging the opportunity now being afforded to us because we are at a new stage of cultural development in which believing has become rehabilitated—it’s at the heart of the Romantic impulse as it continues to operate in the popular culture.
‘Believing’ is one of the best things you can do. “You gotta believe” is a commonplace in our sports and pop psychological worlds. We are constantly admonished to believe in ourselves and to believe in one another. And the assumption that lies beneath these admonitions is that our believing it’s so will make it so if we have enough faith. Believing is what gives life meaning and purpose. It doesn't matter really what you believe, just so long as you do it one way or the other.
Now I don’t want to equate this popular idea of believing with the deeper and more mysterious phenomenon we recognize as religious faith, which has a cognitive dimension that the popular idea of believing does not, but it bears a family relationship to it. It can have heuristic value. The practical benefits of belief have a long heritage from St. Augustine’s De utilitate credendi, to Pascal’s “wager” to the pragmatism of William James, to the prescriptions of our current health care professionals who have noticed that people who have religious practices live happier, healthier lives.
This is just another way of saying that the metanarrative precedes the ethical. What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. Whatever narrative we ultimately choose to model the Real for us opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to. But most important, the narrative we choose points to and defines that which we most deeply long for. Every narrative is shaped in one way or another by hope. Even nihilism. If you live with a materialistic narrative, your longing focuses on materialistic goals; if a spiritual narrative, spiritual goals.
So I hope I can count on the flexibility and adaptability of my readers as I try to make my case for the plausibility of my beliefs. And I hope I've made the case to day for the idea that there are worse things that you can do than to believe something. And if 'belief' is where it's at, why not loosen it up a little, get wild and crazy and see if it works. The worst that can happen is that it won't, and then we'll make the necessary adjustment. But anything is better than the thing we have now, which just isn't working. The bottom line is whether your beliefs lead you to live a fruitful life or one that is sterile and puerile.
[Ed. Parts of this post are adapted from an 2006 post entitled "Believing"]