Pragmatism is the name of a philosophical approach for judging between competing truth claims. It essentially says that if you are presented with two ideas and there is no clear way to determine which is superior to the other, you should consider the difference it would make to you if you decided to accept one or the other as the true one. For instance, one of philosophy’s long-standing discussions is about whether or not human beings have free will or if they are fully determined. Since there are good arguments and evidences on both sides, the pragmatic method suggests we should turn to the practical effects it would have in our lives if we were to live as if one position or the other were true. William James, one of pragmatism’s key champions, broadens this “difference” to include which idea would “work” better in moving us to positive action, increased zest—what he calls living the “strenuous mood.” Ideas have a “cash value” of sorts, with the value being how much they contribute to greater vitality and richer experience. If an idea “works” in this way, it can be considered “true”—but then pragmatism says that truth still needs to continue to prove itself in struggle with other ideas; these things we hold as “true” should always remain open to further refinement as they interact with other truths. It’s a philosophical method of experimentation and engaged action in the face of possible paralysis and stagnated action caused by the fear of perhaps being wrong. The pragmatic processes of continued engagement will help sort out the truth of any claim or system of thought.
In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Jared Anderson, Charles Randall Paul, and Chris Naegle introduce key aspects of pragmatism, especially focusing on the flavors given to it by William James. They then engage several of its shared sensibilities with Mormon theology and its optimistic temperament, as well as directions it points regarding why religion is such a powerful force—for good or ill—and reasons for not closing ourselves off to the areas of inquiry and subconscious realms religion focuses on. The discussion also includes a look at a fun section in William James’s book, Pragmatism, that proposes a thought experiment that matches in striking ways the LDS notion of a “council in heaven” and competing choices about whether to take part in earth life. Finally, the panelists tackle how pragmatism intersects with ethical decision making and the best ways to influence others who are engaging in what you consider to be harmful practices, and they also discuss some of the motivations and forces at play in the 9/11 tragedy and in the practice of circumcision—both male and female.
We are excited to have you listen and share your comments below!