Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Virtue Of Pragmatism

Recent articles by Russell Blackford and Michael Shermer have gotten me thinking about pragmatism, and the importance of evangelizing not a particular software ideology (Marxism, Christianity, conservatism, etc.), but the proper use of hardware thinking (skepticism & pragmatism).

Not too long ago, I wrote an essay on the importance of teaching your kids how to think, not what to think, in which I estolled the virtue of skepticism. There’s another piece I would like to add to my list of thinking hardware: Pragmatism.

I count pragmatism among the list of thinking hardware rather than thinking software because it is not proscriptive. It’s a framework within which a person can further their software thinking by dribs and drabs or all at once (if lucky). It allows for compromise, and coupled with the hardware skill of skepticism, allows for a change in one’s own opinion upon the introduction of better ideas. Skepticism and Pragmatism are virtues, because they allow for progress, and they lessen the chance for conflict better than any other idea. They sharpen the minds of everyone who employs them, and sidesteps our reductionist impulse to view every conflict as one between good and evil.

For instance, I am an epicurean, but I am not an epicurean above all else. I will forward the notions of Epicureanism in conversation, and I will practice them personally, but that software ideology is not my ultimate identity. It is subject to deletion, or revision. I am, above my ideological self, a thinking human, who is capable of many things. By putting my ideological identity second, I allow my humanity—and the humanity of others—to become evident to me. Interestingly, by putting my ideology second, I seem to be even more effective at spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite quotations, from Saul Alinsky:

"One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."

The software ideologue puts their ideology above their humanity, and because this is the case, they feel they’ll lose their identity by compromising on it. They don’t realize that software ideologies are not inherently rational. They believe they are carved in stone commandments, sent down from whatever authority they depend on for guidance. A person doesn’t have to look any farther than the creation museum in Kentucky, or pre-healthcare flip Dennis Kucinich for evidence of this, just to stick with my own area of the world.

Blackford’s essay reminds us that we are human beings with genetic proclivities, but it also points out that even though this is the case, we are also thinking creatures with relatively free wills:


“Generally speaking, it is rational for us to act in ways that accord with our reflectively-endorsed desires or values, rather than in ways that maximise our reproductive chances or in whatever ways we tend to respond without thinking. If we value the benefits of social living, this may require that we support and conform to socially-developed norms of conduct that constrain individuals from acting in ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Admittedly, our evolved nature may affect this, in the sense that any workable system of moral norms must be practical for the needs of beings like us, who are, it seems, naturally inclined to be neither angelically selfless nor utterly uncaring about others. Thus, our evolved psychology may impose limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings, perhaps defeating some of the more extreme ambitions of both conservatives and liberals. It may not be realistic to expect each other to be either as self-denying as moral conservatives seem to want or as altruistic as some liberals seem to want.”

Much as we have been programmed by evolution to crave the fatty, high calorie foods that are now killing so many of us, so too have we been programmed to enjoy sex, which leads to greater reproduction rates, which is now counter-productive to our continued survival as a species.

Blackford also has this to say:

“On this picture, realistic moral systems will allow considerable scope for individuals to act in accordance with whatever they actually value. However, they will also impose constraints, since truly ruthless competition among individuals would lead to widespread insecurity, suffering, and disorder. Allowing it would be inconsistent with many values that most of us adhere to, on reflection, such as the values of loving and trusting relationships, social survival, and the amelioration of suffering in the world. If, however, we are social animals that already have an evolved sympathetic responsiveness to each other, the yoke of a realistic moral system may be relatively light for most of us most of the time.”

Giving our rational selves over to our pet software ideologies and natural impulses is a recipe for disaster. But, in Michael Shermer’s recent essay close to this subject, he puts forward the idea that some genetic ideological impulses are only subject to so much revision:

“Over the years (Jonathon) Haidt and his University of Virginia colleague Jesse Graham have surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from dozens of countries and have found this consistent difference: self-reported liberals are high (on the Haidt Scale) on 1 and 2 (harm/ care and fairness/reciprocity) but are low on 3, 4 and 5 (in-group loyalty,authority/respect and purity/sanctity), whereas self-reported conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 than liberals do. (Take the survey yourself at
Instead of viewing the left and the right as either inherently correct or wrong, a more scientific approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values…”

This may be the case, but with the right tools (pragmatism and skepticism), we can—if we are brave—understand exactly what inclines us towards our respective software beliefs, and put parameters on how far we will allow these inclinations and biases to take us. It takes a certain humility to admit that we may not possess ‘the lord’s truth’, but doing so frees us to hear the software ideas of others, to compromise, to change our own opinions, and to live in a pluralistic society.

Everything In the Medicine Cabinet Has Expired


Willie Y said...

Interesting post. I did take the test, "Moral Foundations Questionnaire. On the fairness I was staying close to the liberal and Conservative points of fairness, closer to the liberals of course. When it was the opinions of personal liberty, liberal,Conservative and myself where on the same page. But when it came to freedom from government and national sovereignty, myself and the liberal point of view, there became quite a gap from the conservatives. This is very interesting test of how you think about lot of things in your life. And also how the other side is thinking as well.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks, Willie. I haven't taken the questionnaire yet. I'll have to give it a spin tonight. I always enjoy that kind of thing.

GbiZ said...

Interesting idea (software & hardware thinking) & thanks for turning me onto Blackford. Hes a smart dude.

Spencer Troxell said...

Hey, G. Haven't heard from you in awhile. Yeah, Blackford is cool. I'm still developing the hardware/software thing, so any thoughts are welcome. Most people develop ideas privately. I'd like to try a more democratic approach.

Kevin K. said...

Good writing Spencer. It is funny that you should say 'the lord's truth', because it is available. It is called the Holy Bible, and instead of tying yourself up in knots trying to weigh out everybodies different opinions and always looking at your own, you can just look to the bible, which is much easier, plus it has the stamp of approval of God on it, so you know it is legit.

God Bless!

Kevin K.

Kevin K. said...

again, nice blog.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kevin.

Because I have no evidence to suggest to me that the holy bible is God's book, or that there even is a God, I will pass.

The values portrayed in the holy bible aren't always good, and the ones that are good are vindicated through secular means. The good values portrayed in bible stories are only useful as colorful metaphors for the rational values they exalt, not because they come from a divine source.

Regarding the effort that has to be put into deciding what is good and bad: I'll take hard work that leads to a right answer over blindly swallowing questionable doctrine that have been handed to me with the expectation that I don't question the self-proclaimed authority that is handing it to me. Besides, the work that has to be done by the obscurantist, apophatic sophists, and the true-believer that has to find some way to justify the ugly doctrines of hell, homophobia, blind faith, original sin, the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac, God's cruelty towards Job, slavery, sexism, the flood, the punishing of inquiry and curiosity(adam & eve), The terrible treatment of the Canaanites (just to name a few), has to be much more difficult than simply applying reason to the way we approach ideas.

Thanks again for taking time to read my post, and to comment.

Kevin K. said...

I don't want to get into an arguement with you about technical matters, I just wanted to share the good news that the truth is available to you, as is eternal salvation. Pray in sincerity to God to give you faith, and then you'll know, if you are open. You will have all the evidence you need.

God bless you!

Kevin K.

Spencer Troxell said...

You sound like a good person, Kevin K.

How about this: I will read the bible again with an open heart if you read a book by Daniel Dennet called 'Breaking The Spell' with an open mind. Drop by the blog again in a month, and we'll have a discussion about what we've read so far.


GbiZ said...

ha ha spencer. he's never going to respond.

Spencer Troxell said...

I don't know G. Kevin seems like a pretty straight character. Besides, he's confident that he has the right answer, so I'm pretty sure he's brave enough to look at other opinions.

Kevin K. said...

okay Spencer I will see if it is at the library. May I also say that CS Lewis wrote a book called Mere Christianity that might be good for you to look at, just so you can enter into the bible with the right frame of mind.

Thank you for being open to reading the bible with an open heart. You won't regret it.

Kevin K.

Spencer Troxell said...

No problem, Kevin. I'm always open to having my mind changed.

It's funny that you mention C.S. Lewis. I was a big fan of his when I was a Christian, and still appreciate him, and have a soft spot in my heart for his writing. Mere Christianity is good, but 'The Screwtape Letters' and 'The Great Divorce' are still my favorites.

I think you'll like Dennett. He's very smart and methodical about his arguments, and isn't really inflammatory at all. He's also kind of funny from time to time.

Spencer Troxell said...

Oh, and Kevin: I forgot to tell you in the last post that I was such a big fan of C.S. Lewis a few years ago that I named my son, Jack Lewis Troxell, after him. My wife has never been into religion, but she humored me because she liked the name Jack Lewis.

Lodo Grdzak said...

I like the guy who said "that if we are truly social animals, already sympathetic to each other, then there's no problem."

Something like that, I'll have to go back and read again--but they sound like words to live by to me!

Spencer Troxell said...

Yeah, that's good stuff. Except for some reason it doesn't always seem to turn out that way.

Thanks for dropping by.

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