February 13th, 2016
AS a pragmatist, I live by the following rule: when the nature of a belief is such that it cannot be corroborated or falsified by observable facts, such belief should be evaluated by the practical consequences it carries if one was to hold it as true. This is the simplest account I can offer to describe what pragmatism means. From this perspective, pragmatism is a rather modest method that offers us a way for evaluating certain kinds of beliefs; it does not prescribe that we ought to use it, it just offers itself as an alternative for dealing with a specific problem.
It is important to notice that this definition of pragmatism narrows its scope dramatically: one should not be pragmatic about beliefs that can be corroborated or falsified by facts e.g. the belief that it is raining outside should not be evaluated on the basis of the practical consequences that its truthfulness carries over me. If the fact that it is raining ruins my day this does not mean that one should be “pragmatic” about it and choose to believe the weather is rather gorgeous. Instead, where pragmatism earns its keep is in dealing with beliefs that go beyond the scope of what can be factually tested. Those beliefs are what philosophers call metaphysical beliefs i.e. beliefs that go beyond the physical world.
Now, it is true that in many cases it is very difficult to know for sure if a certain belief is truly beyond the scope of the physical as there might be evidence that we have not come across yet–or that we do not possess the technology yet to assess—that could prove or disprove the belief in question. That said there are certainly strong candidates for what one could classify as metaphysical beliefs. Moral beliefs, when held as universally valid statements, are certainly metaphysical (or aspire to be metaphysical). For instance, a moral universalist would argue that there is nothing in the world of facts that would prove or disprove the badness of killing babies. Killing babies is bad categorically. Theism, and in particular what we commonly call “faith”, are also strong candidates for metaphysical beliefs. Faith is by definition a type of belief that cannot (and does not aspire to) be established as true through the usual epistemological channels. The strongest characteristic of faith is that it fashions itself as un-falsifiable; this aspiration separates it starkly from common belief: no matter how strongly corroborated a common belief is we all accept that it could always be falsified by the occurrence of a novel fact. In contrast, faith is “epistemologically asymmetric”: the faithful can indeed consider factual evidence as corroborating their faith but cannot consider factual evidence as disproving it. If they could do so, then it would not be faith, it would be plain and simple belief.
That faith is by its own nature un-falsifiable is what makes it an interesting topic for a pragmatic discussion. What pragmatism wants to get out of the engagement with the faithful is not to examine the truthfulness or falseness of their beliefs, but to illuminate the potentially perilous consequences that having un-falsifiable beliefs has in an interconnected and plural world like ours. For us pragmatists, the interminable discussion between atheists and believers around the existence or non-existence of god is certainly interesting but by nature probably unsettable. The more pressing discussion should be around the consequences of taking certain beliefs to be un-unfalsifiable in a world in which our formerly private worldviews are being interlaced and exposed beyond reverse. The rise of fundamentalism calls for a pragmatic reassessment of the way in which we hold certain beliefs and faith should not be excluded from this healthy reexamination. The age of keeping a tightly controlled Chinese wall between our private beliefs and our public engagements is coming to an end either we like it or not. It is inevitable that going forward, those cherished beliefs that we all kept privately will find themselves suddenly in stark confrontation with those of other fellow netizens in this intertwined global village. That faith is by its own epistemic nature problematic in such a globalized and interconnected setting is something that we all need to recognize.
If faith is to flourish in our new set of conditions it needs to take note from the pragmatic recommendation to open itself to conversation and learn to justify itself based on its consequences, like any other metaphysical belief should. And if its consequences are such that it jeopardizes our ability to successfully cope with our current set of conditions, then, it should be righteous enough to consider itself falsified.