Archive for May 5th, 2017

WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the second in the sequence: the first was posted yesterday, the will be tomorrow.

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.


Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.


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