The Pluralistic Universe of William James

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 3 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Diana Spiegel
Diana Spiegel
13 years ago

Aren’t leading edge thinkers creating an edge that pulls others who are open? People like James, Emerson, Wilber, and Cohen open up awarenesses that become available to us when we engage with them. It seems they have created a wider view that I can now see but I can’t take credit for. I haven’t created that reality but stepped into a greater Truth that they have revealed.

Arthur Telling
13 years ago

I have introduced a idea that all created things are dogma, even created image like ‘man.’ I have the idea outlined on the front page of my web site I also have a blog where fictitious character ‘Ryan’ suggests that gravity is merely accelleration (because they both behave exactly the same way). The ‘universe’ not really being a bunch of objects in motion, but rather a stran of consciousness. I don’t know of any philosopher who has suggested any such ideas, but I suppose there probably is one or some. Comments are appreciated.

8 years ago

Ignorance in the physical concerning Truth and Reality are brought along with them in the
discarnate state. Cosmology attempts to analyze this connection between what we know to be true and what we believe in. It is wise to become the observer as the Buddha suggests.