Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction

Consider what I call the Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction:

(1) If both Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true, then metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible.

(2) If metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

(3) If both the Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

You could posit the consequent of (2) with other fideistic options, but in the end that’s the only real plausible argument to make about God’s existence since metaphysics is very limited–if possible at all. If we opt for Kant, then there is no speculative metaphysics. However, a Jamesian might defend further speculation about beliefs from the initial leap of faith into both aspects of nature and the divine. In this argument, faith is its own form of justification given that there are no other types of justification for metaphysical beliefs (apart from their conceivable effect on our experience). This also embraces the fact that scientific beliefs rest on pragmatic assumptions but that those assumptions can never be taken to be metaphysically conclusive.

However, let’s think from the other side. This restriction would also hold in some interesting ways from the naturalistic side of things. A fideism about naturalism? I imagine that we might posit the regular likelihood of future congruent beliefs cohering about our interactions and beliefs we discover about the natural world. Let me explain since I think this holds for both sides of how religious and metaphysical beliefs might work given that neither religion nor metaphysics can be definitively proven.

Naturalism, like James’s WtB argument, makes it such that there are clear cases of belief (namely options and genuine options when put together) that do not map onto reality independently of how we experience it. One could call this the pragmatic restriction of belief formation since again, all beliefs are really dispositions to respond habitually because of how belief (B) coheres and facilitates the set of future experiences (F1- Fn). So there are two cases that cut along naturalism and religion:

1. Epistemic Agent E accepts naturalistic beliefs (B) such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F1-Fn)

In case of 1., E represents the world as if one can conceive of nature independently of one’s experience and that helps conceive of likely consequences of action. Moreover, these consequential benefits might not come back for some time because it might not be that clear how naturalistic beliefs foster future consequences to our practices. I would readily admit, however, that naturalistic beliefs probably return with greater occasion than speculation merely because scientific beliefs often engender technological innovation.

2. Epistemic Agent E accepts speculative metaphysics B such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F’ to F’n).

In the case of 2., E’s speculation may be either concrete or removed from afield than naturalistic beliefs though it’s very possible that the set of F’ to F’n and F1-Fn may concern the same objects of concrete experience. Speculation serves to connect disparate threads and gaps of our more mundane knowledge, and a great deal of speculation serves to connect various pieces of the natural world together with the unseen order. In the same way, someone might have faith in science, a type of scientism that combines naturalism and belief in science such that they act as if science is their religion.

Habits embody the practices of the relationality between beliefs and action. This is the heart of the proposal such that 2. means that we can accept arguments for God’s existence on pragmatic grounds, and what that might mean. However, these same arguments can only be regarded as 2, but never independent truths that map onto a world without practice.


Jamesian Pluralism and Some Good News

Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively. Monism thinks that the all-form orcollective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows of no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated. In the each-form, on the contrary, a thing may be connected by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion. It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment. They depend on which actual path of intermediation it may functionally strike into: the word ‘or’ names a genuine reality. (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture 1: Types of Philosophical Thinking)

William James uses the expression all-form. By this term, he describes those that believe they have access to the all-form, to an idea or series of ideas that can explain what is fundamentally real. Of course, James is skeptical. The universe is filled with many each-forms. The bits and pieces of experience do not always add up just as much as not every part can be made so simple into a unity with other things. Our experience is of snippets, pieces, and fragments that we are trying to assemble, and our efforts are revisable as we learn from time to time the parts and piece of the universe do not fit together so easily. Something is always missed as we incorporate new information, but make no mistake a great deal of our experience of ourselves in relation to the world is part construction of ourselves. In James’s words, experience is “additive” in this very way.

In addition, James is ontologically neutral about what the ontology of these various parts and contents of experience are. The room may be a perception of it as physical object, or the same room may manifest as thought-content. I believe it was Bertrand Russell that coined this as neutral monism. Either way, I have loved this term since I first heard it, but it also puts some ontological concerns out of play for the Jamesian. The materialist and the idealist are certainly not candidates for James in the strictest sense from my reading of A Pluralistic Universe. Instead, only a pluralism that combines the fact that experience consists of conjunctive and disjunctive relations can really do justice to James’s radical empiricism.

Beyond that, I have been thinking a long time that these theses of James’s radical empiricism and the general openness to what can be experienced embodies reasons for why persons should be tolerant of other people’s religious views. If this is how experience truly operates, then we have both a philosophical account for reasons why we should be tolerant of others.

Thinking this way has many consequences for other parts of life. Consider a narrative of a fictional Methodist minister driving around Cleveland. He walks down the street on Cleveland’s Eastside. He passes a woman who has just moved to the city. The anxious young woman is attending a sangha for the first time and her heart flutters at the anticipation of finding a group with similar if not identical synergy from her last sangha. She’s circling nervously outside the Zendo as he passes her. Later that day, the pastor passes a young man shopping with his mother who will have his barmitzvah in a week’s time. He’s excited at the prospect of being recognized before the Jewish community as a man while his mother talks to an African-American friend on the phone from work. The African-American woman on the phone runs a charity with her non-denominational church and wondered if the mother knew of similar charities her church could work with to donate school supplies to local elementary schools in Warrensville Heights. When the pastor gets into his car, he promised he’d run some flowers to an ex-parishioner who moved to the Westside of Cleveland, but to get there he must drive past the Mosque in Parma. As he’s driving, he stops to let several Muslims cross the street apparently late for some function. In one day in Cleveland, the Minister could come into contact with a variety of perspectives without ever really coming to know those parts that each try to decipher the all-form of reality, but to which are multiple expressions of it.

To this end, I am happy to announce that I will be blogging here more about my research for a monograph I am writing entitled, William James, Pluralism, and the Religious Multiverse. It’s due in December 2018. I will continue to put more of this together and in putting this together, some of the ideas and writing will appear here.

Feminist Philosopher Encouraging the Production of Memes?

Over at, Jenny Saul has encouraged the internet community to make a meme from this photo after seeing it at a Berlin museum.

In this photo, Jenny Saul says, “In the same exhibit I saw a much less famous picture.  I don’t know who this woman is.  But someone needs to make a meme.  Surely the expression on her face gives one plenty to work with.”

Personally, I tend to think that the work that blog does is superior than asking others to make a meme. With that said, acknowledging who this defiant woman is can be seen as rightly recognizing her along feminist lines.

I just found it odd, and even pedagogically at ends with what philosophy does, to recommend that someone “make a meme.” Memes are pictures with text that occur in social media. They are shared uncritically. They are liked, regurgitated, and cycle between likeminded people, and occasionally disagreeing parties encounter them in a newsfeed only to brush past them as quickly as they’ve been seen.

Every meme asserts the conclusion that likeminded people share already as a commitment. This is why they are sarcastic, snarky, and they pale in comparison to a good solid philosophical argument. They are never effective in changing someone’s mind.

Now, let’s assume a group of memes can uncritically endorse true moral propositions like the ones that find their way onto the Feminist Philosophers blog–just as much as they can be a source of hate-filled, bigoted, and sexist ones circulated at places like 4chan and Reddit. For this reason, Saul is offering prudent advice. It might be prudent for someone to produce memes to battle those images, yet as a philosopher, however, that still means we are dealing only in images. In a Platonic sense, the images are generated by the people who walk with the silhouettes of those images by torchlight, and if we participate in that type of discourse, we perpetuate the very images we oppose precisely because we do not get above and beyond them to true moral knowledge. Showing people what a good critique or argument about bad memes is more productive. There’s something more productive when we show why conclusions should be presented with supporting premises rather than just merely asserted. To call for memes to be produced is to lower the conversation in general philosophically–no matter how prudent it is.

If we can agree that one (certainly not the only one) goal of philosophical education is imparting self-reflective habits of intellectual autonomy to others, then encouraging someone to advance a conclusion without those habits goes against the goal of philosophy.

Brennan’s Error About Pluralism

KIEFER_1According to Jason Brennan, countless political theorists have formulated a problem/puzzle of pluralism, but these formulations are misguided. He understands the problem of pluralism to thus be,

Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

For Brennan, then worries “that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.” His main contention is that empirical research on voting behavior indicates that the average voter has no unified comprehensive worldview. Instead, their political commitments are all over the place, and as such, there are no comprehensive worldviews held by people at all to which the problem of pluralism feels it must answer. Instead, the problem of pluralism is generated out of philosophical confusion about what is the case, and if we can show what is the case empirically, then we should abandon the pseudo-problem and move on.*

Brennan does concede that this is more than likely a problem for a small percentage of people—perhaps the very philosophically-inclined class of people that generated it. Some small percentage of the population may think that it’s their epistemic project to form comprehensive worldviews and consistent beliefs about what they ought to believe concerning voting issues, yet on a whole we can’t say that the majority of voting Americans are remotely like this enough to justify again the absurdity of the puzzle of pluralism.

In this short response, I’ll concede the truth that most Americans do not have anything resembling comprehensive beliefs about voting commitments. Indeed, I find it very plausible that many Americans are not self-reflective about what they ought to believe about many topics. In the absence of self-reflection of most people, does that mean that the problem of pluralism should be abandoned philosophically? I would argue no because the historical complexity of these thinkers means that the problem of pluralism is not just a philosophical problem as Brennan is responding to it (and expressive of a bad ahistoric mode of analytic philosophy itself), but the problem of pluralism expresses the existential realities of lived-experience these authors confronted. Let me explain with the example of Arendt.

Hannah Arendt’s commitment to pluralism comes at the crossroads of a life being Jewish, German, and escaping the Holocaust. In the shortest of terms, Arendt escaped a society that did not seek to tolerate difference at all. In her opening words of The Human Condition, she notes that not man as one encompassing species, but individual men live on the Earth. Through our action, we disclose who we are and that plurality is the condition of action. These words reveal an effort to try and figure out how it is that political action can tolerate difference in the very disclosure of the who each person is. For Arendt, the public realm is necessary for this existential disclosure of the who, and the more this space of appearances can tolerate variety, the better off we are. Arendt is, then, very concerned about any society that seeks to eradicate this public space that disclosure takes place. It’s a hallmark of totalitarian society to eradicate the public realm completely. The rise of mass culture, mass man, and a society of unreflective and banal people are threats to the stability of a healthy state of affairs that can tolerate the public realm.

Of course, this is a very rough sketch of Arendt, but I think if we pay attention to the context of Arendt’s thought rather than overgeneralizing the historical complexity as a pseudo-problem (and absurdly overgeneralizing the complexity of Habermas alongside Arendt), we can see why Arendt is thinking in pluralistic terms. On an existential level (and not solely epistemic terms), Arendt would agree that many—if not most—people have no comprehensive worldviews normally. The normal position is the banal person who after Milgram can sit in the same position of Adolf Eichmann reading train schedules and sending Jews to die in Office IVAB.

Now, what’s the point of this trajectory? How is this a response to Brennan? Well, think about it. What happens if we start to think about what Arendt is responding to? We start to see that, perhaps, there’s wisdom in framing the philosophical problem as she has. The upshot comes from thinking in terms of pluralism itself, in the very framing of it and refusing to let that insight go away. To put the same insight another way: Arendt reveals the dangers of unreflective people incapable of moral judgment in Adolf Eichmann: A Report on the Banality of Evil and one could connect that to the reasons she opens The Human Condition with the fact of pluralism is the very condition of men inhabiting the Earth. She already saw what happens when people choose to ignore the fact that people ought to start there and recognize pluralism at the outset, even if the large majority of people aren’t yet even capable of recognizing pluralism as such (which is perhaps a general way of summarizing the thematic whole of her Origins of Totalitarianism). That’s what Brennan’s very typical ahistoric analytic problem-solving method of identifying something called the puzzle of pluralism ignores when you oversimplify the historical realities of a group of philosophers.** For this reason, it’s a mistake to think that what Arendt is doing is in any way connected to a folk theory of democracy, but employing philosophy to respond to the circumstances she endured. The problem of pluralism is existential, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and pragmatic. It is not only about beliefs representing reality, and only when the problem of pluralism is distorted as solely only about beliefs representing reality does Brennan’s criticism make sense. Instead, beliefs are rules of action, and encompass a great deal more than how I think Brennan’s appeal to empirical research allows.

*There’s also the curious fact about uncritically assuming the metaphysical views of what the social science may be assuming about persons that becomes uncritically reproduced as a background assumption when making these comments. I’m just wondering if Brennan might think that the existential and phenomenological character of Arendt’s work, while not scientific, is seen as folk theory?

**Notice also the very curious dearth of textual citation of what pluralism amounts to any text of Habermas or Arendt for that matter. I find it curious that someone would try to make generalizations about various philosophers without at least trying to find textual support for those claims…even in the sporty arena of informal blog writing.