My Kind of Pragmatism

(Crossposted from LessWrong)

Recently I’ve been thinking about pragmatism, the school of philosophy which says that beliefs and concepts are justified based on their usefulness. In LessWrong jargon, it’s the idea that “rationality is systematized winning” taken to its logical conclusion— we should only pursue “true beliefs” insofar as these truths help us “win” at the endeavors we’ve set for ourselves.

I’m inclined to identify as some sort of pragmatist, but there are a lot of different varieties of pragmatism, so I’ve been trying to piece together a “Belrosian pragmatism” that makes the most sense to me.

In particular, some pragmatisms are a lot more “postmodernist-sounding” (see e.g. Richard Rorty) than others (e.g. Susan Haack). Pragmatism leads you to say relativist-sounding things because usefulness seems to be relative to a particular person, so stuff like “truth is relative” often comes out as a logical entailment of pragmatist theories.

A lot of people think relativism about truth is just a reductio of any philosophical theory, but I don’t think so. Respectable non-relativists, like Robert Nozick in Invariances, have pointed out that relativism can be a perfectly coherent position. Furthermore, I think much of the initial implausibility of relativism is due to confusing it with skepticism about the external world. But relativism doesn’t imply there’s no mind-independent reality: there can be one objective world, but many valid descriptions of that world, with each description useful for a different purpose. Once you make this distinction, relativism seems a lot more plausible. It’s not totally clear to me that every pragmatist has made this distinction historically, but I’m going to make it.

There’s one other hurdle that any pragmatist theory needs to overcome. Pragmatism says that we should believe things that are useful, but to determine if a belief is useful we need some background world model where we can imagine the counterfactual consequences of different beliefs. Is this world model a totally separate mental module that’s justified on non-pragmatist grounds? Most pragmatists would say no, and adopt some form of coherentism: we assess the utility of a belief or concept with respect to background beliefs that we aren’t questioning at the moment. Those background beliefs can come into the foreground and be questioned later. The hope is that this procedure will lead to an approximate fixed point, at least for a little while until new evidence comes in. Notably, this basic view is pretty popular in non-pragmatist circles and was popularized by Quine in the 1960s. I think something like this is right, although I want to say something more on this issue (see point 3 below).

Here are some possibly-distinctive aspects of my personal variety of pragmatism, as it stands right now:

  1. Objective reality exists, but objective truth does not.
    This is because truth presupposes a language for describing reality, and different languages are useful for different purposes.
  2. Values are utterly subjective.
    This is a pretty important issue for pragmatists. We reduce truth to utility, so if utility is objective, then truth would be objective, and the whole position becomes a lot more “realist.” Historically, there’s some evidence that C.S. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, shifted to a moral realist position in reaction to the more “relativist” pragmatists like William James, who he vehemently disagreed with. But for reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t think values could possibly be objective— the phrase “objective morality” is like “square circle.” See some of Lance Bush’s YouTube videos (e.g. this one) to get a taste of my view on this.
  3. Not all beliefs are means to an end.
    There does seem to be a clear distinction between beliefs about ordinary objects and direct sensory experiences— stuff like “this chair exists” or “I’m happy right now”— and beliefs about scientific or philosophical theories. I don’t consciously think of my beliefs about ordinary objects in terms of their utility, I just take them for granted. It’s also hard for me to imagine a scenario in which I would start to question the utility of these beliefs. Importantly, I do question the metaphysical nature of ordinary objects and experiences; I often wonder if I’m in a simulation, for example. But I take that to be a secondary question, since even if I’m in a simulation, these objects and experiences are “real” for my purposes. On the other hand, I do consciously think about the practical utility of scientific and philosophical theories. I still feel a bit confused as to why this distinction exists, but my best guess is that my values latch onto ordinary objects and direct experiences, so I can’t question those without throwing out my values, whereas other stuff is more “instrumental.”

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