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Being Pragmatic About Pragmatism

by Francois Tremblay



In the common sense, being pragmatic sounds like a reasonable approach. After all, no one wants to waste time in irrelevant endeavours. One would like to know that he is not following futile directions. Idealism may be good for dreamers, but of little use to our lives, which are inevitably practical.

This is all well and good, but has little to do with pragmatism as understood by the philosophers, the prevalent ideology, as far as it can be called an ideology. Pragmatism is the principle that something is true because it “works”, because it is “useful” – hence the name pragmatism. The test of truth, in that perspective, is that something contributes to obtaining results.

As such, pragmatists hold most of the same things we do – existence, logic, causality, reason, science, and so on. If you ask a pragmatist why he holds them as true, he would say “because they work”. Indeed, this is correct. They do indeed “work”, in that they have contributed greatly to our search for knowledge and a better life.

However, the problem arises when we look at the basis for this justification within the pragmatic context. Why should we accept this standard of “working” as valid ? Well, because this is the standard that the pragmatic system establishes. Very well : but why should we measure the pragmatic system by its own standard ? This is circular reasoning. The pragmatic system is true because it says that it is true. Without an objective standard of “working”, everything we evaluate basically reduces itself to the un-established truth of the system.

So the pragmatic standard of truth reduces itself to self-coherency – anything that “works” within its own frame of reference is true. This is ultimately trivial. For instance, the Bible is declared to “work” by many people because they are happier when they have faith. Since the Bible claims that faith is necessary, they then claim that Christianity is “true” because it made them happier.

To take the more common ideology. there is no question that we should accept logic, causality, reason and science. We should not, however, accept them on the basis of a standard of “working”. Any such standard could only be derived from logic, causality, reason and science. Therefore all we’ve proven is that those things are self-confirming. How is that relevant to their correspondence to reality, as most people would define truth ?

I do not support correspondence theory (as I discussed in my article “A Process-Based Theory of Knowledge”). Rather, I define truth as adherence to rationality in a given context. But this is not circular because I am not a pragmatist. I justify my adherence to rationality based on the objectivity of reality, which itself is based on other metaphysical facts, which are ultimately based on the axioms of reality. A pragmatist, on the other hand, would have to justify his use of reason by using a standard that is based on reason, thus being circular.

I do not deny that pragmatism is useful (pun not intended). However, pragmatism can only be useful within an objective standard. The assertion that science is useful, for instance, is true because of objective measures of value – such as human life – and objective measures of knowledge – rationality.

The ramifications of rejecting pragmatism, apart from annoying any philosopher you know, are limited. In terms of worldviews, it means that theists cannot invoke pragmatism to justify features of their worldviews. Even when we disprove the necessity of any feature of the theistic worldview with TANG and Materialist Apologetics, the Christian can still reply “well, I use logic because it works”. But without the necessity of logic and causality, the Christian cannot have any objective standard of usefulness. “It works because it says it works”.

The atheist, on the other hand, can still use pragmatic arguments, insofar as they demonstrate that there are more options then the “rationality vs theism” model. The theologian thinks that by disproving your own worldview, he has proven his own worldview : but there are many other options that he has not disproven. If you hold the rational-scientific worldview (as we do on this web site), you can use pragmatism to demonstrate that the theist has in fact not proven his worldview at all, only, if he is right, disproven yours. There are many other atheist positions on most topics. Simple nihilism is another example of an alternative worldview.

Last updated: January 30, 2005