The Pluralistic Universe of William James

William James, the great American philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century, was pushing into some fascinating intellectual territory with his ideas about reality. What he was pushing into was a truly post-metaphysical view of reality – a view that popular contemporary thinkers like Integral theorist Ken Wilber and spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen also ascribe to.

A metaphysical world view is one in which it is assumed that some objective reality exists already independent of us. This reality is what we assume to live in and philosophy has been occupied throughout history largely in an endeavor to find and verify the nature of this reality.  James held a mistrust of any metaphysical absolutisms about what is real. He did acknowledge that as long as we are considering only lower forms of reality – inanimate objects and life that has not achieved self-conscious awareness – then metaphysical assumptions about reality are adequate. But at the level of human life the problem with metaphysical worldviews in James’ opinion is that they separate human experience and human action from reality.

Let’s use an example, silly though it may be, to illustrate my understanding of James’ idea. Imagine that you have lost a book and then you walk into a room and see it lying on a table. You immediately feel relief because you have found your book. If you then walk up to the book and look inside it and see that your name is not printed inside the front cover you realize that it is not your book.

To James the universe is created moment by moment in an additive process. So when you first saw your book on the table you existed in a universe in which you had found your book. Then when you realized your name was not in it you found yourself in a different universe in which the book was still lost.

Most of us would say James was daft. There is obviously only one universe and in that universe the book was never found. You had only mistakenly thought it was. James would say no, because your experience of reality will be the basis for your decisions and actions and so it is real. The fact that later you realize you have made a mistake is not going to change the very real consequences of your previous actions. If we are only talking about a book on a table it is hard to imagine why this would matter, but if we are talking about a metaphysical believe in the fact that only my God is the true God then James knew that the consequences of actions based on beliefs like this could be devastating.

Our example of a book on a table might be silly, but it is illustrative enough to give us a sense of the experience of reality that was driving James’ philosophical ideas. To him reality was not a static thing that we exist in, it is an ever created process that emerges before us in the experience of each moment. In James’ view human life is the edge of a new universe where all of our ideas, beliefs, perceptions, motivations and attitudes merge with the objective fact of our environment and create the experience of the next moment. In this way realty squeezes into existence through our moment to moment experience. And our response in action to every moment creates the effects on the next moment that then mix again with our ideas, beliefs, perceptions, motivations and attitudes to create the next experiential moment of the universe.

To James we are at the very  edge of an ever creative universe. Our experience is an inseparable part of the emerging reality of that universe. Our actions are a driving conscious influence on the creation of the universe. There is no metaphysical reality that already exists that our life is unfolding in, we are creating reality as we go along. This was the relentlessly creative universe – or as he preferred multiverse – that James believed we all lived in.