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Are many EAs philosophical pragmatists?

by rorty1 min read30th Aug 20217 comments


EA Philosophy

As my username suggests, I'm a fan of the philosophical pragmatism of Richard Rorty as well as William James and others. Are there many EAs who share that view?

Pragmatism demands some things that might seem at odds with EA: it rejects the notion that we can reason our way toward capital-T Truth. The idea of true belief as correspondence to Reality is discarded. 

But it also has features that seem to me very compatible with EA. It reorients truth toward usefulness and in so doing centers moral goals, which are central to the EA project as well. In effect, pragmatists make no distinction between epistemology and "applied epistemology"; for them all epistemology is applied. 

Pragmatism asks that reasons, arguments, and philosophies make a practical difference -- that they help us achieve goals. That should be a way of thinking that's amenable to a movement that focuses on doing the most good possible and then asks how to do that.

So, are many EAs philosophical pragmatists?

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I am a big fan of Peirce but less keen on James and subsequent pragmatists who took the movement in a direction closer to James's views. Peirce, for instance, does hold a correspondence theory of truth. He just also cashes it out in a "third level" of clarity, in which truth is what we would all agree upon a hypothetical "end of inquiry" in which there is no longer any uncertainty. I prefer Peirce's views because he is a realist about just about everything and sought to make philosophy more scientific (but not scientistic). For instance, he believes we can obtain capital-T truth but that our evidence is always fallible. What makes it a "pragmatic" view is that concepts are defined by their empirical consequences under particular circumstances, and that invalid/poorly-thought-out concepts do not well-specified empirical consequences.  In my view this is more compatible with EA than Rorty- or James-type views because on the Peircean view there is a fact of the matter about, say, a given species' sentience or lack thereof that we can at least get fallible evidence about. For James, and especially Rorty, the question of whether a given species is sentient would be more like a sociological phenomena-- we "understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation."  I think part of what EA is about is that we want to actually make a difference, merely appearing well-justified about whether we are making a big difference is not of interest. Indeed, a distinctive aspect of the EA community seems to be an obsession with figuring out whether the entire community might collectively be wrong about something; I'm not sure how to reconcile this practice with "defending against all comers" if your conversation peers are already on the same page as you.

However, I would be very interested to hear what attracted you to Rorty or papers by him you think would be good to check out that could be particularly relevant to EA. When I took a class in pragmatism my professor was a big critic of Rorty so it is possible that I have unfairly dismissed him. It's also been several years since I studied the movement closely. 

James does some have interesting speculations about the origins of morality (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/intejethi.1.3.2375309). Explicit discussions of morality are pretty absent from Peirce to my knowledge, so he would be more likely relevant to EA for his contributions to philosophy of science.

I like your description here a lot. I am no expert but I agree with your characterization that Peirce's pragmatic maxim offers something really valuable even for those committed to correspondence and, more generally, to analytic philosophy. 

On Rorty, his last book was just published posthumously and it offers an intriguing and somewhat different take on his thinking. The basics haven't changed, but he frames his version of pragmatism in terms of the Enlightenment and anti-authoritarianism. I won't try to summarize; your mileage might vary but I've fou... (read more)

1Will M3moThanks for your thoughtful response. Your post piqued my interest enough that I am finally getting around to reading Susan Haack's Evidence and Inquiry, which is a theory of justification that builds on Peirce and has an entire chapter devoted to Rorty. She is very unsympathetic to Rorty, but I suspect that other commentators on pragmatism, such as Cornel West and Louis Menand, are more sympathetic. It may not be a coincidence that the latter folks have more applied, political interests, which would jibe with EA as you say.

Could you clarify if you have in mind any other characteristics that determine whether someone is or isn't a philosophical pragmatist aside from "[believing] that we can reason our way toward capital-T Truth"? Although I've encountered discussions of philosophical pragmatism before, it's definitely not my area of expertise. Additionally, I've not had this conversation about philosophical pragmatism with many EAs. 

That being said, I think it's reasonable to say that many if not most EAs probably believe "objectively verifiable 'Truth' is not attainable (but that doesn't mean nothing matters or nothing is actually True)." It's possible I'm slightly biased by my own beliefs, but in my experience such a point seems fairly non-controversial among thoughtful people: there are a lot of wrong ways to interpret the claim (e.g., "Truth is subjective")—including bad assumptions regarding the implications for action and thought (e.g., "it's impossible to reason about anything")—but once you peel away the poor interpretations and highlight basic examples like "we can't verify whether there is a demon tricking us all into thinking 2+2=4; we can't verify that we don't exist in a simulated reality with fake laws of logic", most (thoughtful/non-offended) people will admit "okay, maybe we can't be 100% certain about anything, but it's still pretty close to 100% and those hypotheticals shouldn't really influence our actions."

Thanks for this. Here's Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's first paragraph:

"Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it. This general idea has attracted a remarkably rich and at times contrary range of interpretations, including: that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a claim is true if and only if it is useful (relatedly: if a philosophical theory does not contribute directly to social progress then it is not worth much), ... (read more)

There are also like 3 different ways 2+2!=4.

Outer universe with different math - We're a simulation inside a different universe that runs on different math where 2+2!=4, but the math inside our universe is consistent. This is the same as 2+2=4 for most purposes. This is imaginable, I think...

Active demon - there's a demon that controls all your inputs, in a way that's inconsistent with any reasonable mathematics, but you can't tell. This is the least likely, and if it were true I wouldn't even consider myself a person.

Math is flawed - the whole concept of ... (read more)

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Well, I'd say we're all pragmatists whether we acknowledge it or not due to the problem of the criterion.