Saturday, March 22, 2014

glimmers of pragmatism in faith

I've mentioned the process many times. As pragmatism spread through my thinking, it thoroughly hollowed out my faith-beliefs. But my experience doesn't imply that the same outcome will happen to everyone else. To the contrary, followers of faith can tolerate or even adopt glimmers of pragmatic-like ideas. As usual, by "pragmatism" I specifically refer to my own somewhat informal variation on pragmatist philosophy, which I've described in previous entries.

The first manifestation of pragmatism in followers of faith is also the most familiar. Generally, they may act with admirable pragmatism whenever they wish to certainly accomplish something. This rule of thumb is especially active if they don't isolate themselves from the methods of contemporary culture. In response to serious illnesses or injuries, they turn to modern medicine. In response to financial risks, they buy insurance policies. In response to the loss of the ability to work due to age, they invest in long-term retirement plans. In response to the labor market, they pursue education in non-religious knowledge. They may quote the peculiar folk saying, "God helps those who help themselves." The lesson is clear, although it's seldom stated plainly: in practice, pure reliance on the supernatural is a secondary tactic, a back-up plan, a last resort, a fail-safe that might fail after all.

However, the lack of grand gestures by something supernatural isn't necessarily an obstacle to a faith. Its followers may compensate by incorporating pragmatism in a second and ingenious way. They may propose a calculated pragmatic definition of "supernatural intervention". After fortunate events, they officially designate small well-verified bits of natural realities as camouflaged specimens of covert supernatural adjustments. Previously I characterized this watertight theory as The God Of Loaded Dice. It miraculously transforms a temporary coincidence of several beneficial events into more than rolling a yahtzee; instead those individually unimpressive events are pieces in a single supernatural feat. Of course, part of its appeal depends on the well-known human craving to impose patterns onto shapeless data, and their related lack of intuition for the combined probability of numerous outcomes.

A top candidate for pragmatically defined "supernatural intervention" is the tangible aid provided by a follower's supportive community of faith. Human behavior is complex, unpredictable, spontaneous, reactive, etc. Therefore it doesn't appear obviously far-fetched to speculate that the supernatural is somehow contributing to the unknown mixture of factors driving anyone's specific actions and thoughts. And presumably the degree of supernatural influence on a follower is proportional to their degree of faith. Indeed, a third case of relative pragmatism is the tradition of measuring a follower's degree of private faith by verifying their public actions. "By their fruit you will recognize them." Followers are proven through demonstrated conformance. They must swear allegiance, obey the rituals, reply to the formal prearranged questions with prearranged answers, and recite the dogmas. When they refuse, then they're no longer acknowledged as followers. Like anyone else, their brains cannot be directly read by their peers, so these pragmatic definitions of their commitments are simply unavoidable.

Furthermore, some followers of faith may employ this approach on a larger scale to deflect tiresome doctrinal in-fighting. If any follower's degree of faith is identified by their actions anyway, then perhaps minutiae of doctrine don't matter much at all. This mindset has the motto "orthopraxy over orthodoxy". It's a fourth form of pragmatic thinking in faith: followers resolve to care very little about the total accuracy of their elaborate concepts of the supernatural domain, except for the meaningful impact of those concepts on their present experiences and actions. They ignore "deep" questions in their faith, which are under eternal debate among countless sects. They may reject most of their faith's complicated and debatable taboos altogether. Essentially, they admit that many of their faith's fine-grained distinctions are neither certain nor relevant—hence not applicable to doing the faith. They categorize the minor details of their faith according to a scale of pragmatism. The end result varies depending on how strictly they apply their scale. For some, the outermost margins of their faith are the sole parts that are unimportant and/or "open to interpretation". For others, only a select handful of their faith's most central beliefs are indispensable to proper compliance.

Nevertheless, thanks to human creativity, the meaningfulness of faith-beliefs could still be more loosely defined. Followers may suggest that their own entire faith isn't a more accurate reflection of realities than any other...except as judged on some pragmatic basis. This is a fifth application of pragmatism to faith, and it's the most thorough yet. Such followers no longer assert that any part of their faith is the closest representation of supernatural realities. Rather, their faith's solitary claim of greater worth is its better effect on humanity. They may summarize their viewpoint as, "The symbolic content of my faith is almost completely irrelevant, so long as it inspires happiness/hope/love/peace/clarity/etc." At this stage, faith is fairly characterized as a means for its followers, not an end in itself. If the faith they follow fulfills its purpose(s), and doesn't interfere with anything else, then they blatantly don't mind whether its statements are uncorrelated with discovered realities.

Ultimately, pragmatic judgment of faiths enables yet another progression. When faiths are treated as metaphorical tools, followers (tool users?) may reckon that the most sensible strategy is to place all faiths into a unified metaphorical toolset. Unfortunately but predictably, this yields a supernatural domain which is stunningly incoherent. It's incapable of producing singular logical answers to the most basic of questions. How many beings are there and what unearthly powers does each one have? What's responsible for evil? What happens in the afterlife? How did the universe begin, and how will it end? For followers of faith fusion, such straightforward questions must be dodged somehow. Like me, perhaps they unimaginatively respond, "These stories are fanciful human creations, which are sometimes useful for illustration or inspiration, but none are useful for directly representing realities. As fictional works, it's neither necessary nor feasible to expect the group to be reconcilable."

On the other hand, perhaps some followers may try to save their incoherent faith fusion through the unconventional retort, "The supernatural Something is real but also wholly ineffable. All faiths are incomplete attempts to reduce and control it. Any human idea about it can never be more 'correct' than the alternatives." Although their retort sounds intriguing and indisputable, it suffers from the fatal flaw of overreach. Its defeat of analysis is self-defeating. If every mental model of the Something cannot be checked for even partial accuracy, then the Something is literally unthinkable, indescribable, and alien. It admittedly succeeds in dodging every further question, but only by disqualifying every possible answer. It declares an uncertain amount of uncertainty, which sets it apart from pragmatic items of precisely limited uncertainty such as physics' Uncertainty Principle. Worse, under the presumption that all human ideas really achieve zero information about the Something, the most sensible course of action is to always disregard the pattern-less Something. Attempts to ponder it or base plans on it are futile and therefore wasteful.

Or, maybe they themselves don't follow their claim consistently, so it shouldn't be interpreted too seriously. Despite what they say, maybe some of them follow a faith that contains ideas, no matter how hazy, unsettled, or implicit. It could resemble an indistinct "Ietsism-plus", where Ietsism strictly-defined is the minimalist faith that "Something supernatural exists but we know nothing else about it." I once praised Ietsism for its unassuming humility about its knowledge, in comparison to many other supernatural beliefs. Accordingly, forms of Ietsism-plus are less praiseworthy. As soon as a follower begins to state Truths about their Something, they're back to admitting that it's disingenuous to call all faiths equivalent, because the faiths now have differing levels of accuracy depending on compatibility with their Something-Truths. To take one example of many, I imagine that a typical follower of Ietsism-plus may opt to preach a Truth that the Something is strongly in favor of life (don't bother asking them how they acquired this Truth). Then the controversy immediately begins. Doesn't this Truth imply that the faiths that don't outlaw war are less correct approximations about the Something than the faiths that do? What about veganism? What about executing wrongdoers? When pivotal practical details aren't brushed aside, followers of forms of Ietsism-plus probably aren't as sincerely committed to the notion that it's both possible and valuable to fuse all diverse faiths into a unique hypothetical crowd-pleasing Something.

Notwithstanding the purposeful vagueness of their Something, it shares at least one characteristic with the gods of other faiths: for whatever reason it "coincidentally" reaches most of the same ethical conclusions as its follower(s). This is why debates between much different faiths cannot be won through all participants invoking the common justification, "Because my god thinks so." Instead of that, they likely switch into a more persuasive and objective mode of which is (drumroll please) pragmatic. They try to identify concrete measurements and effects of their ethics' superiority: who will be helped or hurt, whose rights take priority, what rules are feasible, etc. Pragmatism acts as a neutral territory for everyone to meet. For this reason and others, I'm thankful that it isn't exclusive to my point of view, and that it can be of use to followers of faith in many ways.

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