When I talk about a pragmatic epistemology, I do not necessarily intend pragmatism in its most traditional sense. In some ways I am very much a realist. For example, when I say that I think something is true, I mean that I think it is objectively the case, not just that the idea works. It seems to me that anytime we say anything, we are positing the existence of an objective reality to which our statement is applied. That being said, however, I am not aware of any means by which we can try to ascertain the nature of objective reality other than through what works. We believe in science because science works really well—the scientific method produces ideas about the world that are able to function with a great deal of precision in the world. Were science to produce results that constantly failed to operate in the world, we would stop believing in it rather quickly. Similarly, we appeal to logic and rational argument because they produce results that function in the world. If every time we worked something out on a truth table our conclusions failed to operate in the world, we would abandon this means of doing things. Or consider, the reason we assume that the future will resemble the past is because this idea is functional. If we assume continuity, we can operate in the world. If we do not assume continuity, any decision we made to act would be random. We do not have direct access to objective reality, so we do what works.
That does not mean that there is no reason to distinguish ideas that are merely useful from ideas that we think are true. If one method of ascertaining the nature of reality produces results that are consistently operational and coherent with one another, and another method produces results that are inconsistent with one another and each of which are tied to more specific circumstances for their operation, this seems a good reason to expect the former to be a method that leads to a more accurate interpretation of reality than the latter. But why would we be at all interested in objective reality, except that knowledge of such serves our functioning? We fear that otherwise we may be threatened. We want to commune with the other forces in existence in accordance with our desire for homonomy. It comes back to functionality.
Dogmatism, confusing values for being the same as facts, means both that you think values are objective (subject independent, non-relational) in the same way that facts are and that you regard your wanting something to be true to be a reason to think that it actually is true. A dogmatic worldview is fundamentally antagonistic and views beliefs as being primarily a matter of choice—a willingness to either fall in line or not. Whereas a pragmatic worldview is fundamentally cooperative and views beliefs as attempts to accurately interpret and effectively work with reality—an engaging with what’s so.
Nihilism, confusing facts for being the same as values, means both that you think values are derived from the world in the way that facts are (and thus that values are something other than what you want them to be in the way that facts are) and that, as a result of this, you come to disparage life and the processes of living. A nihilistic worldview is fundamentally reactive and views desire as being the result of lack—an emptiness that seeks to be filled. Whereas an idealistic worldview is fundamentally creative and views desire as a productive, positive force—an overflowing of being. Facts and values are fundamentally different. Not separate, but distinct. Facts are derived from the way the world is, regardless of what you want. Values are derived from what you want, regardless of the way the world is.
And yet this is not to deny that epistemology and ethics can both be subdivided into homonomous and autonomous considerations. When epistemology concerns itself with understanding the external environment, its inquiry is one into the nature of truth—what are the cold, hard, objective facts of reality? When it concerns itself with understanding the internal relations of an organism, its inquiry is one into the nature of beauty—what harmonious relationships speak to the successful functioning of the organism?1 When ethics concerns itself with the relationship of the organism seeking to integrate with its environment, the ideal it posits is that of love—how can I unify in a win-win, mutually beneficial and thus continually reinforcing relationship with the other forces in my environment? When it concerns itself with the relationship of the organism seeking to empower itself, the ideal it posits is that of freedom—how can I maintain and actualize my own internal principles against potential threats and opposition to their operation? Of course, I am compartmentalizing each of these four ideals, and so am referring to them here in their most narrow rather than their broadest senses. In reality, all of these ideals are intimately interconnected with one another and cannot be strictly separated. The goals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love roughly approximate the ideals of the institutions of science, art, politics, and religion, respectively.
Furthermore, homonomy is itself an ideal posited by the organism, and the autonomous individual is itself a product of its environment. Without homonomy there can be no successful autonomy, and without autonomy there can be no successful homonomy. Life involves the interaction of things. Without homonomy there is no interaction, and without autonomy there are no things.
When faith concerns empirical reality, what Paul Tillich referred to as idolatrous faith, it is an example of values being confused for facts. The individual feels that because it likes something that is reason in itself to believe that it is true. But objective reality is not entirely predicated upon the desires of the individual. This type of faith is an error. Either beliefs about the objective world are predicated upon good empirical evidence, or they are not. And if they are not, there is no reason to think that they are true that is relevant to their actual truth.2 Faith is used in another sense by believers, however, and this is what Tillich called absolute faith. Absolute faith makes no claim about objective reality. Rather it is a categorical value assertion. “I affirm life, I affirm myself, I affirm my power to succeed, regardless of circumstances.” Insofar as this makes no claim about external reality but merely posits desired goals and throws the subject into the attainment of those goals, this is idealism in the sense that I mean above. It is the proper3 use of phantasy—the organism positing goals. The way things are is irrelevant to a value. Only what you want is relevant to a value.
If you are going after what you really want in life, it almost doesn’t matter what happens. You might as well try, because if you don’t, you will never really be happy anyway. But if you do try and you give it your all, the process itself is joyous. This is the foundational value of tragedy as an aesthetic venture—ideals are glorified as being more important than the reality of the situation. Thus one is able to face anything. Thus one is a hero even in the process of being destroyed. In phantasy, nothing is true and everything is permitted. Art transcends the true/false divide in that it neither accurately describes reality, in the strictest sense, (and thus is not true), nor does it claim to (and thus is not false). As they say in V for Vendetta, artists use lies in order to tell the truth (the truth of phantasy, the truth of what we want), whereas politicians use lies in order to cover the truth up.
We use different senses of the word belief in a similar manner as we do with the word faith. We may talk about our belief that something is true (I believe that the earth revolves around the sun) or our belief that something is good (I believe everyone should have access to health care). The former is a factual claim (homonomy) and the latter is a value assertion (autonomy). People use the word opinion in weird ways. They talk about values being true or false, when in reality they seem more similar to opinions (what given individuals or groups want), and also talk about factual claims being opinions when, true or false, they are factual claims not necessarily dependent on what given individuals or groups wants. It does not matter how you were raised or what you want to believe—if you are making factual claims about the way the world actually is, your interpretations of reality are up for critique in a way that opinions are not.
As Nietzsche says, “Art is not merely an imitation of nature but a metaphysical supplement to it, placed alongside thereof for its conquest.” And as William James observed, our belief in our ability to achieve some goal acts as some percentage of our actual ability to do so. If you are trying to jump from one cliff ledge to another, your belief as to whether you can or not may be a crucial piece as to whether you actually succeed.4 Values set by an organism are not properly predicated upon the circumstances of the world. They are predicated upon the desires and constitution of the organism. The organism wants something, and so it sets out for it. This is the origin of value. The objective world, the purely descriptive world, is moraline-free.
If someone is trying to do something, I can tell them that they are going about it the right or the wrong way—and by that, I mean the way that is effective for obtaining the goals the individual has posited. Or if someone says something and it is untrue, I can say that it is wrong, in the sense of being not factually the case. Or if I say that someone should do something, I may be either saying that I want the person to do that or that I think it is in line with some goal I think the person has. But wrong in terms of values, objectively? Categorically wrong? That does not make any sense. All things that exist are fundamentally positive. Something can only be negative in relation to something else—and can never be negative in relation to any objective standard, which would necessarily have to include it. Thus I can understand a hypothetical imperative easily enough—it describes an empirical reality. If you want A, then you should do B. “Should” in this sense merely describes a state of affairs—B is expedient to gaining A, or no A without B. But what does “should” mean in the categorical sense? Does it contain any logical content whatsoever? It can be convenient to use words like good, bad, evil, right, wrong, and should as shorthand for describing what you think a group would like or not like, as long as everyone understands what is meant and that the values are subjective (subject dependent, relational) in nature. Often times this is not the case, however, and “should” is used as a trick to manipulate others. You are trying to make people think that they have to do a certain thing, when of course they do not. It is intellectually dishonest to do this. Where I use moral language, keep in mind that I mean, “because I think that you want or would like this or what I think will result from it.” Anywhere that I issue an imperative I mean “do this, unless you do not feel like it.”5 Some will tell you that certain things are wrong for reasons, but other things are just wrong. But whether they are aware of it or not, these individuals really do have a reason for calling those things wrong, and usually that reason is: They are trying to control you.
1 Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but things that are considered beautiful are always thought so because they symbolize power to the organism (either something that commands or something that one would like to command), and this has a structural character. The approximation of the golden mean is so universal a principle of beauty because it is a mathematically unique relationship that is effective in producing a sort of structural soundness (the same reason a soap bubble is round or a honeycomb is hexagonal)—which in an organism is an expression of health and strength. Beauty is knowledge of the inner workings of phantasy—what will please the organism in question? What arrangement of tastes, textures, sounds, shapes, colors, ideas, etc, will lead to the type of particular experience I wish to invoke? But aesthetics involve so much math, that I wonder if it would not be appropriate to include all a priori considerations under this heading. We would thus subdivide this category into sensory pleasure / wish fulfillment (homonomy) and a priori relations of ideas (autonomy). Truth would then refer to empirical reality and thus refer to the world, and beauty would refer to the relation of ideas/experiences and thus refer to the internal cognitive processes of an organism. Of course, in order to talk about something being true we have to place the raw data of reality into our created categories through which we organize it.
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