Is Truth Useful?

“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
    Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
    he makes idols that cannot speak.
Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
    Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
    It is covered with gold and silver;
    there is no breath in it.”
The Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.

  • Habakkuk 2:18-20

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
    and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
    or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
    and have given us over to our sins.

  • Isaiah 64:6-7

“Central to Peirce’s pragmatism was the theory that we do not acquire knowledge simply by observing, but by doing, and that we rely on that knowledge only so long as it is useful, in the sense that it adequately explains things for us. When it no longer fulfils that function, or better explanations make it redundant, we replace it. For example, we can see by looking back in history how our ideas about the world have changed constantly, from thinking that Earth is flat to knowing it to be round; from assuming that Earth is the center of the universe, to realizing that it is just one planet in a vast cosmos. The older assumptions worked perfectly adequately as explanations in their time, yet they are not true, and the universe itself has not changed.  This demonstrates how knowledge as an explanatory tool is different from facts. Peirce examined the nature of knowledge in this way, but James was to apply this reasoning to the notion of truth.
“For James, the truth of an idea depends on how useful it is; that is to say, whether or not it does what is required of it. If an idea does not contradict the known facts—such as laws of science – and it does provide a means of predicting things accurately enough for our purposes, he says there can be no reason not to consider it true, in the same way that Peirce considered knowledge as a useful tool irrespective of the facts. This interpretation of truth not only distinguishes it from fact, but also leads James to propose that ‘the truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.  Any idea, if acted upon, is found to be true by the action we take; putting the idea into practice is the process by which it becomes true.  James also thinks that belief in an idea is an important factor in choosing to act upon it, and in this way belief is a part of the process that makes an idea true. If I am faced with a difficult decision, my belief in a particular idea will lead to a particular course of action and so contribute to its success. It is because of this that James defines ‘true beliefs’ as those that prove useful to the believer.  Again, he is careful to distinguish these from facts, which he says ‘are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.’”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

William James (1842-1910) was a contemporary of Charles Sanders Pierce, the father of pragmatism, but James took Pierce’s pragmatism much further.

With James’ belief that “belief” is important, you might think that he had a “belief” in a god or God.  No, he stated the religious belief was very powerful in that going to a faith healing pilgrimage could indeed result in a healing of your body.  In his view, the “belief” healed you, whether there was a god that exists or not.

There is much of James’ philosophy that ties into other aspects of his life.  He independently (of Carl Lange) developed a theory of emotions that states that our internal emotions are a physiological response to external stimuli.  Since the two researchers developed the theory independently.  It is known as the James-Lange Theory of Emotion.

He felt that belief and emotion both drove our physiological being.  The book gives the following example:  You are lost in the woods.  You see a trail.  If you believe that the trail leads to nowhere, you will stay where you are, starve, and die.  But if you believe that the trail leads to food and shelter, you will find both and be saved.  In James’ view, your belief “created” the salvation.  Yet, if I believed that the trail led to nowhere, I might follow it because it was easier hiking than dodging branches all day.  I would not simply sit down and die due to disbelief.  The argument falls apart at every point.  But in James’ view, the facts make no difference.  The fact that the trail led to food and shelter, for anyone not having his philosophy, would be true of both hikers in the woods.  One took the trail; the other gave up and starved to death.  The “belief” of the one did not create the food and shelter.  Those were already there, but as we began discussing last year with George Berkeley, if Berkeley did not physically sense it at that moment, it did not exist.  Berkeley felt that God was a guarantor who reassembled his office so that it was as Berkeley had left it.

James takes that a step further in basically saying that we are indeed gods because if we can believe it, then it is so, having created it ourselves with our belief.  And if it is so in our belief and we actually benefit from that belief, then we are creators of our own universe.  It is quite similar to the modern idea of “Name it and Claim it” in the prosperity gospel world, yet at least in naming it and claiming it, we give God a little of the credit.  In the James philosophy, it is all within our physiological response that what we named was created due to our naming it.

While one could skim over the surface of William James’ philosophy and find a “belief system,” we cannot find Christianity there, although the philosophy process of realizing Truth as useful could lead people to a belief in Christ Jesus.  The pragmatism of James, at least the structure of his thought process, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance could strengthen someone’s Christian beliefs by applying deep thought in systematically considering each truth of the Christian faith and finding that truth useful and pointing to the Truth, Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  This could be an application of Paul’s admonishment to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12).

Yet, William James, as the “truth” really emerges, may have been a brilliant man, but in seeking his own truth, ignoring God in the process, sought truth in seances and mysticism, fads of his era.  He claimed that he could only understand Georg Hegel’s philosophy while under the influence of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).  He experimented with all the hallucinogenic crystals of his time and peyote.

Thus, we have a highly educated man who is a noted psychologist and philosopher, yet much of the time, he had difficulty seeing reality, in a fog of drug use trying to find a thought or an emotion that does not exist while ignoring God who stands at the door and knocks.  James may not have created an idol of stone or wood, but in creating himself as a god and teaching in his philosophy that we can follow in that manner, he led much of society in the long run down that path of self-indulgence.

May we keep our eyes on Jesus.  Our belief does not “create” Jesus; our belief opens the door for Jesus to transform us from within.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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