When is something real? LO23399

John Gunkler (jgunkler@sprintmail.com)
Fri, 26 Nov 1999 14:56:50 -0600

Replying to LO23352 --


You've done an excellent job setting up the premise for which William
James supplied the conclusion. It was just this kind of thinking that led
him to what has been labeled "pragmatism."

One of his examples:

When you or I look at a stick that is partially submerged in water, we see
(perceive) an apparent bend in the stick right at the water line. But if
we feel along the stick we feel (perceive) no bend. How do we reconcile
our differing perceptions? James' answer: by accepting the one that
"works out" best in use (in the long run.) In this case, the one that
works out best in use in the long run is to believe that the stick does
not bend when partially immersed in water but light (the source of our
visual perception of the bend) does bend when it traverses water.

As you say in your message, such principles have created a lot of
objectively verifiable progress over many years.

However, James would be the first to say that if a new theory comes along
that works out better in the long run, we should act on its basis
thenceforward. James was no fonder of "absolute scientific truth" than
any modern scientific thinker is. His notions, like those you propose,
are based on something one might call "conditional acceptance" founded on
"the pragmatic test" I have simplified above, and subject to change with
subsequent experiences.

Frankly, I have never found a better set of principles. As to why these
principles haven't reconciled "spiritualists,philosophers, scientists, and
public thinkers troubled by the tension between (1) and (2)" I have
several speculations:

A. Some prominent members of these groups do not, fundamentally, want
reconciliation. They derive their sense of worth from continuing the

B. Many people choose to misunderstand William James -- making absurd
claims for pragmatism that he would never have recognized. These
misunderstandings have come, in part, from people like those described in
paragraph A., above, and in part from those who wish to make a name for
themselves by offering something different and "better."

C. There are still those who choose not to accept your basic premise
that we cannot contact objective reality (in useful or infallible ways.)
It is uncomfortable for many (especially those who are unsophisticated in
science) to accept that, somehow, the best we can do is create concepts
that work (for awhile) until something better can be created. Their
search for infallible truths leads them, ironically, to make more errors
-- to be more fallible (not to mention gullible) -- than if they followed
scientific method, but they don't see the "cure" as acceptable so they
persist in their errors in the hope that, some day, the truth will
magically appear.

John W. Gunkler


"John Gunkler" <jgunkler@sprintmail.com>

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