According to pragmatism, a “true belief” is just a tool that organizes and guides our experiences.1 As we live and experience the world, we create beliefs that can explain our interactions.
Because pragmatism suggests that beliefs are just interpretations of our experiences, it doesn’t support the idea of an “absolute truth”.2 Rather, it suggests that we all strive to eliminate doubt from our lives. When our beliefs no longer reflect our experiences, we doubt those beliefs and we find a new way to explain our experiences.
This way of thinking about “truth” is always open to change and refinement. It involves letting go of an objective notion of truth and understanding truth as a process.3
Defining Our World
When we talk about truth, the only thing that we can actually appeal to is our own experience. Any belief that we have, it doesn’t matter if we call it science, religion, politics, or morals, is a belief that necessarily explains part of our world.
When we argue with other people about values and beliefs, it can be difficult to see how their beliefs are “real” and “valid” because we can’t escape our own world. But we can know that their beliefs are developed in the same way_ as ours… pragmatically. While their beliefs may be “subjectively different”, they are “objectively” identical.4
A New Way to Argue
To be honest, I used to be downright aggressive when assuming my own experience. If I thought that someone made a silly mistake where they ought to have known better, I would give them an annoyed look and make a “humph”. I’d make them feel awful because they did something that I thought was silly.
But we know from On Sonder that almost everyone is living a radically different life.5 They will have different experiences and different interpretations of those experiences. I’ve learned to be careful about judging people from my own perspective… maybe they don’t have the same experiences that I do.
This model of using our own experiences to justify beliefs is critical to understanding any type of dynamic relationship between two people.6 Our beliefs are just how we experience the world and how the world makes sense to us. Truth is a process!
If we are to really argue, we need to be prepared to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience.7 If we can stop using this idea that our beliefs are somehow more right than someone else’s beliefs, … we may be able to have conversations where we thought none existed.
In 1832, Charles Peirce described a process where we formulate our beliefs through experience. We question the world, we then answer that question through experience, and we now have a new belief about the world. There are two relevant texts: How we formulate beliefs & How to make our ideas clear.
Theoretically, and as outlined by Peirce, an absolute truth could be achieved if everyone in the world had no doubts about anything. However, for our purposes, the idea of a dynamic truth is what we are after.
Many people presume that the “scientific method” is objectively true, that it is infallible. That when we appeal to it, we are somehow tapping into something beyond ourselves. However, “objective truth” isn’t something that we can access. We can only appeal to our experiences and history in the world as our source of truth. As individuals and as communities, this truth is always changing as we formulate new beliefs.
I call experience objective because there is nothing more real that we can access besides our very being in the world. It’s the most fundamental type of evidence that we can appeal to. There is no “truth” “out there” that we access… besides what we bring with us (our history). In this sense, our beliefs are our world, and they are all that we know.
My last post “On sonder” argued that experiences and beliefs are all equally real even if we can’t understand them. I argued that we are so used to listening to ourselves and assuming that our world is *the world and that in order to really understand our role in someone else’s world, we need to listen! We need to believe them. And from here, we can grow in ways that weren’t possible before. Pragmatism, combined with radically different beliefs can explain why we have such trouble communicating with people who have different beliefs.
We can’t “escape our beliefs” to evaluate something, so in a way, we are forced to assume our own beliefs as a starting point. But what we can know… is that the other person’s beliefs were formed in the exact same way as our own, through their experience. We all create our unique worlds in the exact same way.
Traditionally, one of the “solutions” for incommensurable beliefs is to “just keep trying”. This typically means searching for evidence that will convince the other party by “trying to get into their shoes” or other methods of persuasion. In my opinion, this seems to misunderstand how people actually form beliefs. Further, this method stops working when both parties try and “force” the other to accept their beliefs.