George Bernard Shaw once wrote that the fact the believer might be happier than the sceptic is no more relevant than the fact the drunkard is happier than the sober man. The relevance he had I mind, I suspect, was relevance to the truth of the matter. Just because believing something is so might make you happy, he suggested, is no good reason for thinking that thing is true. The pragmatist would be inclined to disagree.

I have a certain sympathy for pragmatism, and it’s probably the defence of belief (both theistic and atheistic) that I find hardest to dismiss. In this post I want to briefly outline how the pragmatic defence of belief works, and then explain why I’m not entirely convinced with it. Or rather, I think there’s an alternative way of looking at belief that sits much more comfortably with me. But first the defence itself.

The pragmatic theist’s line might go something like this: Yes, we understand that there is no slam dunk argument available to tell us whether it is more or less reasonable to believe in God. We would even go so far as to say this type of belief doesn’t yield to calculations of probability. We don’t know if it’s more or less likely that God exists. But, unlike the agnostic, we do not treat this profound uncertainty as cause to withhold belief. Rather, we would argue, that in the absence of any defeating arguments or evidence, it makes perfectly good sense to believe that thing that we know through experience makes our lives all the richer. To refuse to do this, on the grounds that in the absence of verifiable knowledge, one should withhold belief, is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The principle of withholding knowledge itself relies upon a belief of sorts, and one that is equally impossible to establish, so if it just comes down to a choice between impossible to establish beliefs, then what could better justify this choice than the likely outcome for the believer?

This is sometimes framed as a doctrine of hopeful belief. In the absence of defeaters, one is warranted to believe in that which one hopes to be true. Atheists often employ a similar line of reasoning when they suggests, in the absence of a compelling case either way, believing in absence is the better path. Scratch beneath the surface and their notion of what is better often has a whiff of pragmatism about it too (if we refrain from believing in that we wish were true, we safeguard ourselves against wilful delusion).

So, isn’t the pragmatic case entirely reasonable? If we can’t rule an option out, and we find that believing in it improves our lives, isn’t belief the sane way to go? At this point many are tempted to rush in and construct the case against the opposition’s pragmatic virtue. No, claim some atheists, religion doesn’t make you feel better at all, look at all the harm it’s caused. Nonsense, returns the believer. Look at the progress our particular religion has laid the foundation for, your reading of history is mighty selective. And that, clearly, is not the sort of argument one could reasonably expect to be resolved. But, unless one accepts the premise, that usefulness is a reasonable guide to truth, then the argument is on some level a pointless one.

So, is there any way of equating usefulness to truthfulness? My instinct is to say no. I can think of any number of situations where a person might derive great pleasure from believing things where that pleasure is a lousy guide to truth. The person who misreads their lottery ticket and believes they have won might have a tremendously exciting time planning their spending spree and perhaps even indulging in some pre-claim celebrations, but the joy it brings them does not appear to be able to affect the truth of the outcome. The way I want the world to be, and the way it actually is, don’t appear to be related in the way that pragmatism seems to imply. Consider the person who hears a rumour their partner is being unfaithful. Sure, it might make them feel much better to believe this isn’t so, but that in itself can’t change the past. Isn’t belief about something other than trying to put the best spin on things? Isn’t belief, by definition, about trying to figure out what’s actually going on?

Perhaps in this case, definition is the whole thing. Consider this statement: ‘I have no idea whether that coin is going to be heads or tails, but I’ve bet on heads, and so I believe that’s what it will be. I’m an optimist.’ And ‘I don’t know whether it will be heads or tails, but based on past experience, I do believe it won’t land exactly on its side.’ I’m not convinced belief in these two cases is referring to the same thing at all. One refers to how we hope the world will turn out, and the other to how we genuinely expect the world to turn out. I understand the person who says ‘I hope this is true, and will behave as if it is’. That, I would suggest, is a stance more about hope than it is about belief. But, when the person says ‘I hope this is true, and so I believe it is’ some fine line of discomfort has been crossed for me. I want to say, fine, but that’s not what I mean when I speak of belief. Or rather I want to ask, how is belief any different from hope, in your case. In which case, why not use the word hope instead? Wouldn’t that be more honest?

In other words, I appear to be psychologically incapable of believing something is true just because I want it to be. At the point where I realise hope is the primary reason for my belief, my belief withers. I can not personally sustain belief in the face of the knowledge that this is just a position I have arrived at simply because it makes me feel good. I want belief to somehow be about more than that.

Of course, there is one pesky counter example to this line of reasoning, and that is the regularity of the universe. Isn’t it true that I expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow for entirely pragmatic reasons? Don’t I understand that there is no compelling argument in favour of this expectation, beyond its tremendous usefulness? Give up on regularity, and we are lost. And doesn’t that make my dismissal of pragmatic belief inconsistent?

I think there might be a way around this problem, to do with what I think of as a theory of best guesses. I’ll try to lay that out next time.


16 thoughts on “Pragmatism

  1. David Yerle says:

    There is a way out of your last problem, I think, precisely based on what you suggest. The fact that a theory that states that the Sun always raises in the east except for tomorrow is much more complex than the one that asserts it always raises in the east, period. Of course, that leaves another question open: why should we prefer simpler theories at all?

  2. Burk says:


    The only aspect that seems a little off is the six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other approach to belief or non-belief. Is that how you approach Leprechauns and mermaids? Is this how you approach your social knowledge of who is friend or foe, or any other type of knowledge?

    Why should religious imagination be specially treated to such a low bar, for beliefs that are held so incredibly tenaciously and have such momentous effects? It is truly baffling.

    If one took religion as a comforting form of psychotherapy, like watching the latest animated film, or listening to an aboriginal story, then it wouldn’t be a problem to make pragmatism the criterion of preference. But the noxious need of religion to peddle truths, and in many cases the claim of being the only significant truth, makes a mockery of the neutral observer’s pragmatic indulgence.

  3. Hi David

    Yes, I think there is a vein that can be mined through here, particularly if complexity is considered in relation to workability. This stills relies on pragmatism to some extent. I’m going to try to outline it next time round.


  4. Hi Burk

    You’re right. One does have to create some way of differentiating between belief in the transcendent, and belief in say mermaids. I think there are ways of constructing this difference (I’m agnostic with regard to God, but not with regard to mermaids). I’d suggest the difference has something to do with the orbiting teapot, again. Where we propose a concept as a hypothetical solution to an unsolved problem (say consciousness) then I think a wait and see, agnostic approach makes sense. When there are aspects of this hypothesis not required to provide such a solution, so mermaids, or most of the details of actual religious beliefs, then I think we have good grounds to be sceptical. So I’d treat mermaids and virgin births as the same category of belief, and I’d dismiss them both for the same reasons.


  5. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    First of all, I agree with you that pragmatism fails as a foundation for one’s beliefs. It may have some sort of secondary value far down the line, but I think it is fraught with inherent problems as to any sort of a primary philosophy or world-view.

    However, I was wondering if you could square or unpack these two statements you make, one from this post and the other from your post on morality:

    “In other words, I appear to be psychologically incapable of believing something is true just because I want it to be. At the point where I realise hope is the primary reason for my belief, my belief withers. I can not personally sustain belief in the face of the knowledge that this is just a position I have arrived at simply because it makes me feel good. I want belief to somehow be about more than that.”

    “For this reason, I don’t much like the non-theist’s attempt to establish an objective morality. So, what’s the alternative. Well, I’m almost loathe to type this, because I can sense the ‘what, you think it’s okay to torture children?’ response-guns, locked and loaded, ready to take aim. But, here it is, the option is to let go of the sense of objective morality altogether. What if the very notions of right and wrong make no sense, divorced from the context of the human being making the judgement? What if the best any of us can ever say about any moral issue is that we, personally, don’t want to live in a world where such is sanctioned?”

  6. Hi Darrell

    I think the way these statements square is to attend to the ‘what if’ element of the second. I don’t believe there are no objectively true moral statements. I’m not even entirely sure what type of thing they would be if they did exist. So on the existence of such things I’m somewhere between agnostic and confused. The purpose of the second statement is to set up an alternative possibility, to simply point out that if one doesn’t see one’s moral beliefs as referring to objectively true things (and even if one did beleive in objective moral truths, a further belief that these line up with one’s own moral ituitions is then required) then one can still have a coherent moral framework by thinking in terms of personal desire.

    None of this implies a belief about what is true in the world (beyond the demonstrably true statement that I am uncertain about this notion of objective moral truth) and as such there’s no pragmatic link being made between desirability and truth, which is perhaps what you were getting at?


  7. Darrell says:


    Thanks for that clarification. I guess the “what if” question sounds suspiciously close to “hoping” that something, the way one “feels” about living in one world as opposed to another, is indeed to be “hoped” for—to be desired. So then I wonder why this personal desire, this personal hope, doesn’t “wither” away as it does in the other case you describe. In the one case it would appear you don’t want to believe something just because it feels good (pragmatism), but on the other (morality) such seems to be your only justification.

    It just seems contradictory to me.

  8. Hi Darrell

    The thing that withers, so to speak, is the confidence that this is something one could believe in, that it represents something that is true about the world.

    I’m not sure, with regard to morality, what the truth claim you think I’m making is. Perhaps if you clarify this, I can try to explain.


  9. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “The thing that withers, so to speak, is the confidence that this is something one could believe in, that it represents something that is true about the world.”

    I guess it appears to me that this desire or “hope” you have regarding what type of world you wish to live in represents something “true” about the world to you, at least personally. And I wonder why this desire or hope doesn’t wither as well given the same reasons you gave us regarding pragmatism.

  10. Hi Darrell

    I think you’re right, in that to desire something to be so must represent some sort of truth statement about the world. So, for example, should I say I desire to live in a world where education is available to our children, I am expressing a belief. Specifically, I believe that considering such a world makes me feel a certain way, that there is a link between this concept and the positive feelings I have when considering it. This is not, as best as I can see, a belief grounded in pragmatism. I believe I have these feelings, because, well, I experience them, and know of no other more reliable guide to my own feelings than introspection.

    What the desire model doesn’t do, is make any truth claims about the moral landscape. To say the idea of a world where education is available makes me happier than one without it is not to claim, for instance, that we should educate, in any moral sense.


  11. Darrell says:

    Thanks for the further unpacking. I guess when I read this: “This is not, as best as I can see, a belief grounded in pragmatism. I believe I have these feelings, because, well, I experience them, and know of no other more reliable guide to my own feelings than introspection”, I see that as the very idea of pragmatism. That seems to be exactly what the pragmatist is telling us. The pragmatist isn’t making “truth” claims either. He is making, “This works for me” claims, based upon introspection and, I’m sure, what seems to him common sense. I just am having a hard time seeing the difference.

  12. Thanks Darrell

    I see what you mean now. And yes, to be clear, I’ve no problem with the pragmatist who makes no claim beyond the ‘I like this point of view.’ So, the pragmatic theist who says ‘I don’t believe there really is a God, but I enjoy acting as if there is one’ is not making any claim I would want to question, or at least not in terms of its logic.

    I think there are other kinds of pragmatic defences however, where the pragmatic value is taken as a legitimate grounds for believing, and that’s the argument I don’t buy.


  13. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    So it would appear then that you may be saying something like, “I’m fine feeling the way I do about something, as long as I know it isn’t true in any objective universal sense—as long as I know it is only true for me.”

    Does that capture it?

  14. Hi Darrell

    I think, if we reject the pragmatic premise, that the way we feel about a thing might be a guide to its ultimate truth, then we are obliged to go further than your summary suggests. So, I’m fine feeling the way I do about things, and acknowledge the statement ‘I feel X’ is itself the best approximation we have of my feelings. But I wouldn’t, without some further reason, attribute any truth value to the thing I have feelings about, neither truth in a universal objective sense, nor even true for me. (I’m not sure what it would mean to say something is true for me, but isn’t really true in an objective sense).

    So, if I say the concert I attended last night was excellent (and it was, Paul Kelly’s latest album is lovely) I refer only to the way I felt as I enjoyed it. This doesn’t imply that the music is excellent in any other sense (although if a group of people were to agree in advance on some criteria for an excellent concert, it could reasonably be measured against them, which in a way is what critics do).


  15. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “Without some further reason…” And what might those reasons be or what would qualifiy in your opinion?

  16. Hi Darrell

    Yes indeed, this is the question. What are one’s criteria for belief, if we reject pragmatism? And as that’s exactly the theme of my next post, I’ll reply via that over the next couple of days. Thanks for your interest.


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