How can we explain the difference between one person’s perception of Truth and another’s? Humanity seems like it’s constantly making progress and getting “smarter”, and yet, we also seem to be getting dumber at the same time. Our perception of what is dumb or smart seems to depend on our innate mental and emotional orientation in combination with our unique experiences.
Lately I've been revisiting William James and I'm finding his ideas still compelling and explanatory in this era of cultural Schizophrenia and fragmentation.
“A social organism of any sort is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs…. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.”
Today it feels like we all live in silos, safe places online and in communities where we surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves where argument and discovery become anathema to our way of life. We struggle to maintain our status while signaling desperate, almost religiously motivated beliefs in ideological anchors without which we would disintegrate or be reduced to vain solipsism.
Polarization is a phenomenon often observed in nature. It’s also an easy mental construct, hence the plethora of logical fallacies illustrating our tendencies to “exclude the middle”, or drastically simplify complex systems.
If we are so easily frustrated by attitudes differing from our own, what is the point of even trying to make ourselves understood or of advocating certain beliefs or positions?
(“People are idiots, I give up.”)
At the end of his article “Will to Believe,” James quotes Fitz James-Stephens:
"We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better."
Conservative and Liberal, surely these concepts change over time. Are you optimistic or pessimistic or a little bit of both depending on the circumstances of any given moment?
ONCE BORN - James’ example of this is Walt Whitman, and he quotes R.M. Bucke’s description of him:
"He never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of men, or time in the world’s history, or against any trades or occupations–not even against any animals, insects, or inanimate things, nor any of the laws of nature, nor any of the results of those laws, such as illness, deformity, and death. He never complained or grumbled either at the weather, pain, illness, or anything else. He never swore. He could not very well, since he never spoke in anger and apparently never was angry. He never exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt it."
On the other side we have the TWICE BORN and pessimism:
"There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes."
But are Twice Born types doomed to paralysis and unhappiness? Not necessarily.
The twice-born reach a new and higher plane:
"The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before."
James treatment of truths is particularly explanatory. Truths are convenient and practical ideas that move us forward for a time and ultimately change over time. Truth as an adjective, as a subjective value, a phenomenon that derives its value from our feelings and experiences.
One of the most interesting conceptual dualisms of James’ thought is his idea of there being two types of people, the Tender Minded and the Tough Minded.
- Rationalistic (informed by principles)
- Empiricist (fact based, “reality” based, evidence based
If one feels that one’s experience leads one to believe that something is true, and this belief is beneficial, and one can act on this truth, and if one’s behavior continually validates this truth over a sustained period of time, then one is secure in his belief.
Criteria needed to believe something to be true:
1. there is enough good evidence to make the idea seem true within the current context...
2. the idea can stand up to counter arguments...
3. the idea has to keep consistently predicting future results...
This works for both types of people in any context throughout history. The Earth was flat and now it’s a sphere. Our explanations of how things work changes over time. Our tools of observation have evolved (technology). Our knowledge base has grown (science). Our narratives have evolved according to our human experience (culture).
Some people believed in angels in the 19th century, while today we have people who believe in ancient aliens. Many put their “faith” in science, reason, evidence based principles, and technology, while others are of a more absolutist orientation maintaining certain attitudes with a kind of religious fervor.
Ideas must continue to predict future outcomes to remain useful and prescient. The utility of beliefs is ultimately important. If your beliefs don’t hold up to scrutiny they are no longer useful, living truths.
William James saw almost all “truths” as akin to religious beliefs. His understanding of “the divine” was broad and inclusive. Religious belief could include things like one’s fervent reverence for The Constitution, Prince, David Duke, Sexism, Nationalism, Racism, Writing on a Scroll, or even one’s fanatic support of one’s local sports club.
In this sense the Russian hooligans in France are engaging in a kind of religious crusade by traveling across Europe to attack opposing teams fans. This behavior has the same emotional quality as a religious belief. When people in the USA join militia groups to defend THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA they are displaying a kind of religious zeal. When people engage in tirades about the intentions of THE FOUNDING FATHERS they are defending their SAINTS.
This kind of religious fundamentalism extends to the Donald J. Trump phenomenon. In a broad sense, Donald Trump’s brand of “benign” racism, sexism and nationalism is a form of religious fundamentalism. (“Gays love me... Mexicans love me... My black man loves me... I’m the best to women... I’m building a wall, he’s Mexican, he can’t be objective...”)
When I shake my head in disbelief at how any intelligent person could support a man like Donald J. Trump I find satisfying explanations in the works of William James, and I’m sure it works both ways. If you’re a Trump fan and you want to know the difference between you and me William James will have something for you too.
In the end it’s down to a “...man’s total reaction upon life”. What’s Godlike for you may seem like the devil to me. And so it goes in 2016 as it was in 1907. We get better and better at certain things but we all remain simply human.
Revisit him here: