Pragmatism – The Western Law of Karma

It occurred to me that now would be as good a time as any to talk a little bit about truth and inquiry. I am reading Charles Sanders Peirce right now so that has given me a lot to think about. Peirce (pronounced “purse”) was the originator of the conception of Pragmatism although it was popularized later by William James. Peirce’s first love was logic and his conception of Pragmatism came out of his deep inquiry into the nature of truth.

Peirce was very struck by something he read from the Scottish thinker Alexander Bain. Bain had described how human beings inquire to find truth because doubt is irritating to us and belief is satisfying. When we doubt we feel uncomfortable, but when we believe that we have discovered the truth we feel an immediate sense of relief. So we are conditioned to find beliefs.

What Peirce recognized is that in our search for truth what we are actually looking for is a truth to believe in so that the discomfort of doubt will vanish. We often aren’t interested whether the truth we have latched on to is actually true or not. For Charles Peirce this wasn’t good enough. He felt that there must be an objective rather than a subjective validation of truth and so he came up with his original conception of Pragmatism. Peirce conceived that the absolute truth of any line of inquiry would be the truth that an unlimited community of inquirers would ultimately agree upon given sufficient time to follow that line of inquiry to its ultimate end. This allowed Peirce to retain some Idealism in his version of Pragmatism (which he eventually called Pragmatacism to differentiate it from the Pragmatism that was popularized by William James.) because there was ultimate “ideal” truth that existed outside of anyone’s opinion or experience of it.

At the same time he also held that the ultimate truth which the unlimited community of inquirers was converging upon would always be infinitively far away. The ultimate truth that you are approaching is moving away from you as fast as you are approaching.

In this way Peirce conceives of a universe that is converging on “something” and retains the essence of Idealist philosophers like Kant and Hegel and even Idealist Evolutionary Philosophers like the French Henri Bergson. At the same time by always tossing the ultimate truth out into the infinite future he leaves the universe open-ended and undetermined in a way that satisfied the evolutionary sensibilities of Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey.

This conception did leave Peirce with a problem yet to be solved. If the ultimate Truth was always cast into the infinite future there still needed to be a way to pragmatically determining the truth of any given moment. Since we can’t know the ultimate truth then Peirce prescribed the Pragmatic Maxim as an objective measure of truth to be used in the infinite meantime that we actually exist in. In 1905 Peirce articulated his Pragmatic Maxim as follows.

“… all reasonings turn upon the idea that if one exerts certain kinds of volition, one will undergo in return certain compulsory perceptions. Now this sort of consideration, namely, that certain lines of conduct will entail certain kinds of inevitable experiences is what is called a “practical consideration”. Hence is justified the maxim, belief in which constitutes pragmatism; namely:

In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”

Essentially he is asserting that an idea is identical to the sum total of the consequences that can be imagined if that idea were acted upon. In order to determine the objective truth of any moment, Peirce is suggesting that we need only look at the results of acting on a given idea. If an idea proves itself to be true in action then that is as true as we can know it to be. And any idea must continually prove itself to be true to be considered true, because its absolute truth can never be ultimately determined.

One of the key words that I notice in the Pragmatic Maxim as stated above if the use of the word compulsory. Peirce is articulating the law of action and consequence. He is describing the foundations of what I am beginning to believe is the essential Pragmatic world view – namely that certain ideas have to lead to certain actions which have to lead to specific consequences. As I imagine it an idea grows into a consequence the way a seed grows into a tree. The Pragmatic Maxim is in this sense a Western law of Karma.