May 10

Existentialism and Pragmatism in Defense of Faith

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” – Soren Kierkegaard

“The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.” – William James

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 7

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries two philosophical perspectives emerged to challenge the supremacy of rationalism. One of these was the philosophy of Existentialism developed in Continental Europe, the other was Pragmatism developed in America. In this lesson we will look at each of these philosophies and what they were responding to.
William Barrett introduced the philosophy of Existentialism to American academia with the publication of his book Irrational Man. In the book he is clear to state that Existentialism is strictly a Continental European philosophical movement. Although he adds that “of all non-European philosophers William James probably best deserves to be labeled an Existentialist.” In fact Barrett goes so far as to claim that it would be more accurate to call James an Existentialist than a Pragmatist.

As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth the Existentialists began to realize that the modern world was heading toward an impending tragedy. The Enlightenment and the subsequent triumph of science and rationalism had eroded the stronghold of faith that had held humanity together for centuries. The dogma of the Christian church simply could not survive the challenge presented by the new understanding of the universe that science had brought. “God is dead.” Nietzsche announced.

The Romantics had realized that in our rush to rid ourselves of superstition we had lost something essential to human life. We had left a void in the human heart where faith and hope had once dwelt. The Romantics looked nostalgically back to the middle ages and longed for the sense of awe and wonder that the Christian world had contained. Through their poetry, prose and music they attempted to re-enchant the world with spirit.

A century later the Existentialists realized that human consciousness had become increasingly dominated by rationalism and materialism and that humankind was rapidly loosing the ability to have faith in anything that could not be seen. Humanity appeared to be heading down the road to nihilism. Some Existentialist thinkers, most notably Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Buber searched for a new footing for faith in the modern world.

Kierkegaard taught that we must find a mature faith to replace the simplistic blind faith of the past. The maturing of faith did not come from proof; it came from consciously taking the risk to believe without proof. He felt that any attempt to use reason and rationality to prove the existence of God did a disservice to the power of faith. Belief in God is powerful because it involves risk and demands that we make a leap of faith. If we were to prove that God exists then believing in him or her would not involve faith, and faith is the source of all spiritual power.

Other Existentialists felt that human maturity involved giving up the beliefs that gave us a false sense of security in an uncertain reality. Humanity had outgrown faith and was maturing into the realization that our fate was terrifyingly unknown. Human beings did not need to update the spirituality of the middle ages; we had to find a new way to bring meaning, truth and goodness into the vast mysterious universe that we had found ourselves in. We must find a new source of faith, but not one that rests on mythical beliefs about a creator God or a heavenly realm in the clouds. The Existentialists were calling for a stark confrontation with the fact that humanity had grown beyond the old sources of security and must now face the emptiness that lie at the heart of human existence. Human beings needed to find an alternative to faith that could fuel the human spirit and propel it forward into an unknown future.

William James was one of the American founders of the philosophy called Pragmatism. That philosophy rested on a different conception of truth. Rather than the truth of an idea being seen as a characteristic of the idea, a pragmatist believes that ideas reveal themselves to be true only when acted upon. Those ideas that are true will improve life when acted upon; those that are false will be shown to degrade life in some way. James was a scientist and an academic philosopher who used Pragmatic arguments to take on a scientific world and risked his reputation by defending the right to believe in things without evidence.

Essentially James was challenging the philosophical position known as Logical Positivism, the theory of truth that insists that something is only true if there is conclusive evidence that demonstrates it to be true. Truth has to prove itself before we believe it. James questioned the position of Logical Positivism and wondered if it is it even possible to wait for conclusive evidence before we believe in something?

In “The Will to Believe” James explains that some beliefs cannot possibly be proven conclusively through evidence even though we are in a position where we have to either believe in them or not. We cannot prove that it is going to rain later on and yet we have to leave the house either with or without an umbrella. We have to chose either to take the umbrella or not and we have to do it without the benefit of conclusive evidence before hand. Beliefs that we have no choice but to believe in James called forced beliefs. These forced beliefs must be decided upon, one way or another, on faith.

James recognized that there are always some beliefs that are so fundamental that they have to be believed and acted upon without evidence. As he saw it, whatever we choose to believe in, or choose not to believe in, will affect the way we act and live and so how we exercise our “will to believe” is of the utmost importance. Belief and non-belief carry equal risk because human life and human activity rests on a foundation of belief. We stand on our beliefs and from there we push off into an uncertain future where the results of our actions will either strengthen our confidence in our beliefs or force us to reconsider them.

The belief in God is an example of a forced belief. The existence of God has been debated throughout history and it is yet to be resolved. We have no conclusive evidence either way and yet we are forced to believe in God or not. Either way we are choosing to believe without the benefit of evidence, and either choice will affect the way we live. Both the believer and the nonbeliever are ultimately standing on faith.

Some people adopt a stance of skepticism in relationship to all beliefs. They refuse to believe what is not proven for fear of believing in a lie. The activity of science rests in this stance and most often has served humanity well. When we talk about issues of a spiritual and moral nature we often find that conclusive evidence cannot be found. The skeptic decides to believe in nothing. James points out that a belief in nothing is still a belief and it still has consequences.

In opposition to the skeptical attitude James offers a stand that he calls Radical Empiricism. Rather than holding back and waiting for proof James prefers to lean forward into life, accepting that many of our decisions must be made on faith, and doing our best choose to believe rightly and then acting whole-heartedly as if the truth of our beliefs is assured. The process of human life is a relentless affair of jumping consciously yet somewhat blindly into the future and then continually adjusting and readjusting our beliefs based on the results of our actions. This is stand in life is exactly aligned with the Pragmatic notion that the truth of an idea only reveals itself in action.