Argument from pragmatism

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The argument from pragmatism says that belief may be justified without evidence in certain circumstances. It was proposed in a lecture The Will to Believe by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist.

The original argument essentially tries to shift the burden of proof because of Pascal's wager.

"Wouldn't it make better sense, even pragmatically, to live as though the God of the Bible does exist than as though He doesn't? [1]"

The argument[edit]

We can adopt a policy of believing as many true things as possible or disbelieving as many false things as possible but either extreme is impractical.

"We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance."

A reasonable approach is to pursue truth and at the same time minimising false belief. Excessive fear of error is only a "preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe" but this has to be kept in proportion.

"the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge"

Some evidence of truth is only accessibly to believers of that truth. James cites the example of friendship beginning on the assumption of trust and respect.

"There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the "lowest kind of immorality" into which a thinking being can fall."

A principle of knowledge cannot be valid if they rule out the possibility in this kind of truth. Therefore, skepticism and agnosticism are unworkable in cases where actually believing a particular truth may be very significant. Skepticism and science are taken on faith as much as absolutist belief.

"for to say under such circumstances, "Do not decide, but leave the question open," is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or not—and is attended with the same risk of losing truth."
"a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."
"To preach scepticism to us as a duty until {27} 'sufficient evidence' for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true."

Some truths exist that are worth believing and are important enough to risk possibility of error. This is particularly true in which a decision must be made and skepticism is not possible. This is generally the cause in interpersonal situations.

"Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist."
"In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing."
"Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds"

Religion is a similar forced choice, rather like Pascal's wager. It is also "momentous" according to James (in an unspecified way).

"religion is a forced option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve."

Religion is an instance where belief is justified without evidence. Because it is the apologist's "sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side".

"We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way."

Mathematical theorems[edit]

It seems as if certain mathematical theorems in a specific mathematical system cannot be proven in that system, such as Goodstein's theorem in the system of Peano arithmetic. [2]

Alternate formulation based on quality of life[edit]

An alternative formulation runs: [3]

  1. Beliefs that benefit the believer should have that counted in their favour (or the appeal to consequences is valid).
  2. Evidence for certain beliefs are only available to believers.
  3. Religion makes people's lives better.
  4. Therefore, belief is justified.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]