The Boston Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board › Realists vs. Pragmatists and a note on Post-humanism

Realists vs. Pragmatists and a note on Post-humanism

John B.
user 5930786
Southborough, MA
Post #: 8
I sent this via email to a few members and was encouraged to post it. In answer to a question I received, I noted that the "post-humanist" views are not any established view, merely my own.

Contrasting views of Realism vs. Pragmatism
(with a closing note on “Post-humanism”)

Realism and Pragmatism contrast sharply in the way they answer the question,
“What is human knowledge?”

Realists believe that the best answers to this question involve talking about “reality”. Realists often make statements such as “Knowledge represents, or mirrors, reality.” (although non-representational realism is possible). On the other hand, realists generally do not find it necessary, when talking about human knowledge to talk about human action. Therefore realists can avoid invoking time’s passage in their answer. Although they typically do not assert that it is possible to attain empirical knowledge that is immune to the risk of future change, since realist knowledge is intrinsically atemporal all knowledge glimpses eternity in the now. Truth, for realists, is the name given to that correspondence of knowledge and reality that is intrinsically atemporal, even if not everlasting. Realists think that “truth” is a concept of key importance to an explication of knowledge because it characterizes the relationship between knowledge and reality.

Pragmatists believe that the best answers to the question “What is knowledge” involve talking about action. On the other hand they think a good answer does not need to deploy the concept of “Reality”. For pragmatists knowledge is that set of beliefs that is best to act upon. For example, knowledge is the set of all the background beliefs plus a new hypothesis that the scientist brings into play as an experiment commences. (If, following action, a different set of beliefs recommends itself for subsequent action, then that new set of beliefs supplants the former set as “knowledge”.) James linked Pragmatist epistemology and ethics by summing up with the maxim: “Knowledge is the good with respect to belief.” Pragmatist knowledge, since it is tied to action, is intrinsically situated in time. Without the passage of time there can be no action, without action there is no knowledge. Action proceeds only upon the hope that the knowledge that is its basis will prove reliable in the making of a better, more predictable, less alien, world. For pragmatists, therefore, the concepts of “hope” and the “better future” tend to displace talk about “truth” and “reality” in the speech of realists. To say that knowledge is “true” is merely to say something very nice about it right now. If pragmatists ever wax transcendent, their metaphors find transcendence in the contrast between the imperfect state of things now and the aspirational ideal future. Hope for pragmatists can be defined as action based on a set of beliefs that aspire to predictable results. Hope, not truth, is pragmatism’s central concept.

Speaking for my own “post-humanist” views, although I generally accept pragmatism’s disposing of the twin idols of “reality” and “truth”, I think that pragmatism’s transcendent optimism is, at this point in earth’s history, unwarranted when viewed on a rational time scale. “Pragmatist Humanism” tends to believe that, if freed of false dogmas, humans and their growing knowledge will be the good. “Post-humanism” believes that the growth of knowledge and power is, at best, value neutral. Further the “post-humanist” standpoint asserts that all prior philosophy has implicitly accepted a delusional and human time scale. If we step out of the human time scale and into the bio-geological time scale, we can observe only that information tends to irregularly grow with time. It is at best premature to identify this with “the good”, as pragmatists do, instead of what merely “is”. Is technological progress “good” if it results in a great extinction of species? (It’s good in the way that an asteroid hitting earth is “good”, maybe.) Post-humanism regards human “progress of knowledge” in the pragmatist sense as no more aiming toward the “good” than “progress of species” through evolution. Each phrase misses the essential undirectedness of the underlying change. Only post-humanism is thus fully atheistic. Post-humanism leaves one at the ethical position of the existentialists, but with the problematic of the human species as a whole instead of merely the individual. We ask with our enlarged existentialist perspective: “How, in the midst of this meaningless change, can we synthesize good as a ‘species project’?” Is that even possible and what would it be? If we knew what it was, could we effect it?


A former member
Post #: 41
I fall in the realist camp. I wouldn't agree that my conception of knowledge is atemporal. As an example there was a recent Boston Atheist meetup, “Disproofs of God from the Doctrine of Free Will" for which some of the background material was "DIVINE OMNISCIENCE AND
VOLUNTARY ACTION" by Nelson Pike (don't bother reading it all that is not my point):

http://commonsenseath...­

In it he wrote:

A. Many philosophers have held that if a statement of the form
"A knows X" is true, then "A believes X" is true and "X" is
true. As a first assumption, I shall take this partial analysis of
"A knows X" to be correct. And I shall suppose that since this
analysis holds for all knowledge claims, it will hold when speaking
of God's knowledge. "God knows X" entails "God believes X"
and " 'X' is true."
I disagree with this definition of knowledge. The reason I do is because this definition would categorize lucky guesses as knowledge. For example, suppose I were to play the lottery on Monday and truly believe I was going to win with my "lucky numbers". Suppose I then did win on Friday. This would be a situation where I had a belief on Monday that was true. Yet that true belief does not count as knowledge as I understand it, and would according to this definition. The reason it is not knowledge is temporal in nature. To me knowledge is not mere "true belief" but is more akin to "tested belief". So on monday my guess is not knowledge. I didn't know the winning lottery numbers. By Friday when the winning lottery numbers came out and I won, then I knew the winning lottery numbers, and I also knew that merely I happened to guess them correctly. Thus my conception of truth is inherently temporal, and inherently contains action. Any pramatist claims to the contrary would be false and in fact a straw man of my views.

What about the pragmatist view you have outlined here. Can one dispose of the concept of reality and correspondence to reality as they claim (according to you). I don't know if it is possible, but surely what you have described has not accomplished that feat.

You state:
"For example, knowledge is the set of all the background beliefs plus a new hypothesis that the scientist brings into play as an experiment commences. (If, following action, a different set of beliefs recommends itself for subsequent action, then that new set of beliefs supplants the former set as “knowledge”.)"
This statement is inherently describing someone testing his beliefs for correspondence with reality. That's the whole point of the experiment. Just because the pragmatist avoids explicitly mentioning "reality" and "correspondence" does not mean his conception does not depend on it. Without these concepts there is no point to the "action" of experimentation.

To me a short definition of "knowledge" would be "[Well] tested belief". This inherently has the conception of action, time, reality, and correspondence to reality.

The rest of your description of pragmatism doesn't at all sound pragmatic.
A former member
Post #: 42
Further the “post-humanist” standpoint asserts that all prior philosophy has implicitly accepted a delusional and human time scale. If we step out of the human time scale and into the bio-geological time scale, we can observe only that information tends to irregularly grow with time. It is at best premature to identify this with “the good”, as pragmatists do, instead of what merely “is”.
Seems like they are abandoning a perspective and context under which the word "good" has meaning. Humans can't even operate on the time scale they propose, so perhaps it is they who are delusional (if we are to use derogatory terms).

Is technological progress “good” if it results in a great extinction of species? (It’s good in the way that an asteroid hitting earth is “good”, maybe.)
Seems like this packs quite a few fallacies. It is collective in its thinking for example. Some technological progress can be good and some bad, which this sentence ignores. It also ignores the fact of tradeoffs, and thus sets an unrealistic standard. Is something to be considered good only if there are no "bad" side effects. Eating my cake means I no longer have cake. The former is good and the later bad. Overall the action may or may not be good depending on circumstances. Instead of eating it now I might have kept it and enjoyed sharing the cake later with a friend (with the benefit of not gaining all that weight).

Post-humanism regards human “progress of knowledge” in the pragmatist sense as no more aiming toward the “good” than “progress of species” through evolution.
The pragmatists view of knowledge is already faulty so there is really no need to examine this. There are realists views of knowledge which view it as a evolutionary process too. Their position would be that knowledge is good in that it allows future actions to more in line with our goals.

Each phrase misses the essential undirectedness of the underlying change.
Again abandoning what pragmatists have to say, I think post-humanists are confused on this issue. Our attempts at expanding our knowledge are not "undirected" and nor is biological evolution. Natural selection tends to weed out those organisms that are not robust to changes in the environment. Natural selection reduces errors made in the ability to survive. Likewise as our knowledge [well tested belief] expands it is more robust to new situations, and is less error prone. Being "directed" does not always imply a director (an agent who has goals), and I am not using it in that sense. There is a difference between the two however. In the case of evolution their is no overall goal, and no directing agent. In the case of knowledge however there are in fact many agents and many goals.

Only post-humanism is thus fully atheistic.
Huh? You never mentioned God once. How did you arrive at this?

Post-humanism leaves one at the ethical position of the existentialists, but with the problematic of the human species as a whole instead of merely the individual. We ask with our enlarged existentialist perspective: “How, in the midst of this meaningless change, can we synthesize good as a ‘species project’?” Is that even possible and what would it be? If we knew what it was, could we effect it?
No it is not possible given your assumptions (if I understand them correctly). The claim is that there is no good to be found at the higher perspective you take but now you want to artificially manufacture that good at the "species level". However, you must use your knowledge to do so, but you've already assumed that knowledge unfolds willy-nilly with no "good" about it. I'm afraid that you've sawn off the branch you are standing on.

BTW, from your description it seems that both pragmatist and post-humanists beleive they have a more inclusive perspective. I say that because you say "with our enlarged existentialist perspective" and claim that realists don't take time and action into account. This is obviously false, as I have in part already demonstrated with regard to time and action. Let me cover this supposed higher level perspective. Obviously it would be a bad thing to a human realist if some technology was used that wiped out the human race, or destroyed most species. However the realist understands that is only true from the human perspective. Other species might be just fine with human extinction. In fact, frankly I don't have a problem with extinguishing certains species like the small pox virus.

Your problem is that in fact the perspective you wish to attain may not in fact exist. You may not be able to step outside your human perspective to find "good". Good may be a term that is always relative to both actor, time, and circumstance. Good for whom? When? Where? Etc. Which is ironic since it was the pragmatist the post-humanists who are accusing the realist of dropping contexts (like time and action). Yet, here the post-humanist is trying to drop the actor from the process of valuation of what is good. You can't have "good" without an actor which has interests. There is no "good" without self-interested perspective.

One side point: Knowledge and belief are not exhaustive concepts. I can also have ideas that are neither beliefs nor knowledge. For example some untested hypothesis about how the world works. I see belief and knowledge as subsets of ideas. In fact, it is possible for something to be knowledge and for me not to believe in it. I may know the theory of natural selection and not believe in it, yet it is still knowledge (in the objective not subjective sense), because I can be mistaken about it.
John B.
user 5930786
Southborough, MA
Post #: 9
Brian,
I'm glad you read this and found it worth responding to.
It might be easier to discuss this at a meeting sometime, either Skype or over dinner, but if you would prefer using this forum I will try to write something that is responsive. Let me know what works for you.
John
A former member
Post #: 43
I'm kinda busy right now. My wife has me setting up some sculptures at the Hodedale Day in the Park tomorrow (Sat 7th). I'm trying to line up some contractors this week, and I'm scheduled to donate platelets at the Red Cross too. If we get together it would have to be in a couple weeks. I live about 15 minutes from Southborough, and work about 5 minutes away, so I shouldn't be that hard to arrange a face to face.
Derek B.
user 42965542
Del Mar, CA
Post #: 52
Whatever camp you fall into, it doesn't change the fact that an action is predicated on a motive, which is, in turn, predicated on a passion. Consider the seven deadly sins of pride as character and disposition by the score of prevalence and predominance, or will, free or otherwise, in your calculus.

Derek B.
user 42965542
Del Mar, CA
Post #: 65
I think pragmatism has its application in, well, pragmatic theory (e.g., political science) where the aim is to convene and the subjects are unlikely to become perfect overnight (cf. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics). As an aim with regard to character and disposition, I think it misses the mark. Consider Hume's take on good:

"Those who resolve the sense of morals into original instincts of the human mind, may defend the cause of virtue with sufficient authority; but want the advantage, which those possess, who account for that sense by an extensive sympathy with mankind. According to the latter system, not only virtue must be approv'd of, but also the sense of virtue: And not only the sense, but also the principles, from whence it is deriv'd. So that nothing is presented on any side, but what is laudable and good."

I would only add to this that we pity and envy out of a sympathy with our fellow creatures; however, we share joy and sorrow out of a compassion for them. The distinction I think is the difference between projecting the feelings of another in oneself and the sublimating of oneself through the feelings of another.

Derek B.
user 42965542
Del Mar, CA
Post #: 72
I can only deem it a feather in the cap of crit theory, that it would allow my the last word, on the balance of discussion topics, for this long. <gd&r>


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