On PragmatismsteemCreated with Sketch.

in #life4 years ago

Fritz Bielmeier

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.

Christopher Beddies

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.


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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

A joke for the pragmatists

Saori Oya


One of the biggest concerns with this perspective is that it can be used to argue that there is no truth and that everyone's beliefs are in fact equivalent. While beliefs and experiences are clearly real and personal, there is a long history in cognitive psychology of showing just how subjective they can be. Early humans thought it was obvious that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects and that all creatures were created by some higher being (the history of creation myths and their adoption and modification by more modern religions is particularly fascinating). This is why we have science and math--these fields use the best methods possible to get at the "truth." I put scare quotes around that, because scientific theories, unlike mathematical proofs, are often only better and better approximations, not completely ground truth. Unlike math, our scientific theories continue to be refined, but instead of saying the old one was not true and the new one is, we instead look at their utility. Isaac Asimov, in his Relativity of Wrong essay eloquently explains how a flat earth theory is quite useful for many situations and that error over a few miles of flat vs. round earth is not all that great. Of course, if you want to go to the moon or put up satellites, the flat earth theory is not going to help much.

Interesting that you bring up Peirce, as he also coined the term "abduction", meaning "inference to the best explanation" in contrast to deduction and induction. Much of science and diagnostic reasoning is abductive. But abduction must depend on facts. This is where science and religion separates. As Feynman said, "Science is a culture of doubt. Religion is a culture of faith." Faith, by definition, is belief without evidence. Any abductive or inductive conclusion is only as good as the evidence. Taking evidence as true by faith is the religious approach, not the scientific approach. So to think that all beliefs and experiences are equally valid, might be very kind, but it is not very useful.

In fact, we are now at a dangerous time in the US and around the world where we have people (and in the US a president and large percentage of the population) making up "alternative facts" and denying other facts (such as the science of climate change). We have large groups pushing their religious views on others, even though there is no real evidence for the various creation myths and life-after-death promises of any religion. Telling people that all beliefs are somehow equal gives justification to the kinds of dangerous attitudes and behaviors that we now see. Senator Moynihan is widely quoted as saying "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts." These days it seems that everyone feels they are also entitled to their own (often alternative) facts.

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Another spot on post! Wow, that definitely hits home as I know I am guilty of thinking I am "more right" than someone else. I tend not to be confrontational anyway, so I generally avoid arguments if I can. But it can be easy to get drawn in on occasion when I feel my own beliefs are being attacked or belittled. I think I can work on doing a better job of not always taking such affronts personally and be more deliberate in my own replies in such situations.

If only everyone in the world thinks this way, we cannot go through life judging others by their beliefs, or fighting each other because the reason and the truth is simply ours, everyone has free will and is able to think for himself, in this way what may mean a truth to me may not be for the other person and vice versa. If we accept that everyone is an individual with different thoughts that can lead to different beliefs and therefore different truths, I believe that tolerance would reign and we would have a better environment!

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But surely there's an experience that is beyond all the beliefs... perhaps it is called knowing...

Upvoted just in time.

"While their beliefs may be “subjectively different”, they are “objectively” identical." you say, which is interesting because I would label it the other way around, in that objectively a belief may be different from those of other people, in an external sense that the ideas differ. But internally, on a subjective level, they are the same to the believer, they mean as much to one person as some other belief means to another person. Maybe it's just a matter of semantics.

I like your idea that we are at our best when remaining open to a state of change in an evolving awareness of whatever our belief is. I have been through years of fundamentalist identification with certain dogma or belief, only to grow out of it with age, and see it in a different light at a later point of insight.

The struggle to be right is the struggle of each individual's ego. The most important thing is to silence the mind and not to exercise any position. Thus the true being that we carry within would be the victor!

So well laid out here for all to hopefully read!
The truth that I have in my own view and my own experience is that people are as different as their fingerprints.
Therefore my own perceived truths might not be their truths and therefore a great respect is required for another's truth.
There's always three sides to a story, my truth, their truth and the real truth.

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