We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.
“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”
(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)
Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.
Because in the background of my current sequence of posts lurks the thinking of William James, it seemed a good idea to republish this post and then my sequence on The Eclipse of Certainty from last Autumn.
My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.
I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.
I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.
This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.
The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.
The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, depends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.
Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.
James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism
It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):
[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.
This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’
Lamberth explains (page 184):
. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .
James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):
Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.
Lamberth goes on (ibid.):
(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .
The Nature of the Transcendent
This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):
. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?
James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’
Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.
It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):
Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.
The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):
Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.
From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):
Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?
The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.
James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).
This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):
. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.
Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):
On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.
Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):
“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”
He continued (page 220):
. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”
Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):
On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.
A Two Way Street
Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):
. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.
Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard.
Lamberth explains (page 227):
James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.
Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):
I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.
A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):
Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.
If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:
1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and
2. the development of new insights.
The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.
For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.
Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.
It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.
It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):
Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.
For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.
Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.
It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.
 A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.
 Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.
 There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.