Can we say, “because it works, then it must be true?”

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Pragmatism has been a popular view of the time. Though many don’t know the term, we are nonetheless very familiar with its slogan – “Because it works, then it must be true” – and accepted it by vox populi.

This is the view that maintains truth is whatever works. In other words, the criteria for determining truth has been its usefulness or the good it produces to the person. If a person finds it useful to believe such and such, then such a belief must be then true.

What then is the meaning of decrying “Love wins!” if love doesn’t win, right? What then is the meaning of truth if not its usefulness?

Philosophers such as Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey introduced this view academically. Though considered as postmodernist by many, Richard Rorty is nonetheless an heir to the same category.[1] According to James, what will only count is the belief’s “cash value in experiential terms.”[2] So, if a person finds his beliefs working (at least for him), then that makes it true. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s important to notice what is and is not the being said here. The concern is not how you know something is true. Rather, on what makes something true. The former is epistemological, while the latter is metaphysical. And pragmatism deals with the latter. (Yes, this paragraph is hard to understand by one reading only, but that doesn’t matter. The next one is much more important.)

Implications

What then are the implications of such a view? Among those will be “All views (religious or otherwise) are equally valid”. Another one would be to say, “No one view is (objectively) right.” That is, as long as the view works for the person – that settles it. Period.

For instance, the New Age religion (advocated by Oprah) tells us that the problem with the world is not sin. Rather, it’s the reality that we have forgotten that we are divine. That is, everybody is divine. It’s just that we’re having this spiritual amnesia, and we need to be reminded about it to transcend our unfortunate condition. And once you come into terms with that, you are in a much more stronger and smarter position than where you were. Because you are now more wiser as an individual. And according to pragmatist criteria, that New Age belief is true.

For some culture, the belief in the existence of a transcendent being – a being who will account the deeds of the people – helps them behave morally and peacefully. The pragmatist will claim: if that belief produces civility (which is much desired), then than settles it. It is true for them. But if other culture doesn’t need to have the same belief (say a communist society), and it works for them, then that makes it also true for them.

So why then think abandoning such a belief as false when it produces a desirable effect?

And since different views may work to different people, this could also imply that it is wrong to think that you have the only right view.

For instance, it would be wrong for Christians to think that Christianity is the truth and Jesus is the only way. That would be a denial of the usefulness of contrary beliefs, say Islam or Buddhism. And that would be a very intolerant position to hold and should not be subject for appraisal.

Now, what can we say about this?

Evaluation

Pragmatism (though helpful on some cases) on its own faces a lot of problems. Bertrand Russell provides us with few reflections.

First, since we are talking about usefulness or what works here, there are two things that must be kept in mind – (1) what is good and (2) the effects of that belief. And “it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it ‘true.’”[3]

But here we immediately see the problem. Because in many cases we don’t know what the effects of the belief might be. For instance, the belief that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity. Here, the pragmatist will claim that we need not to go and open history books. Rather we only need to ask what is the usefulness of the belief will have on us, and that will then make the belief true. But how can we know that the belief that Newton discovered the law gravity is useful than the belief that another scientist, say Pascal, discovered it? That seems to be a problem to answer.

Second, according to Russell, if James defines truth as usefulness, the common meaning of truth will then be ignored. For instance, the statements (1) Other people exists; and (2) It is useful to believe that other people exists – would bear the same meaning. They would be synonymous and share the same proposition, since both are equally useful.[4]

However, that is just absurd. Both statements don’t seem to share the same meaning or proposition. Because the former talks about other people, while the latter talks about the former.

Third, according to Arthur Lovejoy[5], James seems to confuse two senses of what works mean. Namely, (1) the view is true if it makes true prediction about future events; and (2) the view is true if the effects of believing such a view are considered valuable by the individual.

According to Lovejoy, there’s no problem with the former. The belief that George W. Bush will win the 2000 presidential election was verified when he won that election. The problem however only comes with the latter. For instance, optimism may lift the soul of the person who believes that Bush will win that election, and that makes the belief true because optimism is always helpful. However, we know that optimism cannot verify that belief and guarantee Bush’s victory. Because truth is independent upon ones feeling. That is, one’s belief will be true or false regardless of what the person feels.

Fourth, two people can actually accept contradictory statements even though it works for both of them individually. Person A can say that “God exists” and deems it useful, say to live a meaningful life. While Person B can say the opposite, that “God does not exit” and deems it useful also, say to live a libertine lifestyle. However, logic tells us that both statements cannot be true at the same time. Either God exists or not, and not both. The same principle can also run for different beliefs.

Lastly, a belief may work but nonetheless false. A common example would be a woman who believed she had lost her money because of failing to be organized. In retrospect, she learned from it and later became a successful entrepreneur. However, as she traces back the event, she discovers that the money was actually stolen by her roommate before. In that case, her former belief was actually false, but nonetheless helpful.[6]

Conclusion

Though pragmatism may be helpful in some cases (for instance, the belief that “studying for exams is good” produces a desirable outcome, that is, passing the class), it is entirely inadequate. Usefulness or what works is never sufficient for truth.[7]

Rather, what makes a belief true is when it matches with reality. That is, if the belief corresponds to how the world actually is. For instance, we can know that Jesus claimed to be God and died by Roman crucifixion because of the historical accounts that we have. Same is also true for our belief that Newton discovered the law of gravity and that Calvin had a long beard.


[1] See Philip Kenneson, “There Is No Such Thing as Objective Truth and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 155-70.

[2] William James, The Moral Philosophy of William James, ed. John K. Roth (New York: Thomas

Crowell, 1969), p. 295.

[3] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Touchstone, 1967), p. 817.

[4] Russell, Philosophical Essays, p. 135.

[5] Arthur Lovejoy, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms, II,” Journal of Philosophy 5 (1908): 29-39, cited

in Ezorsky, “Pragmatic Theories of Truth,” p. 428.

[6] Original example comes from Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), pp. 60-61.

[7] Note that we should not confuse usefulness as a sufficient condition as from a necessary condition. Pragmatism holds the former. While the correspondence theory holds the latter – it’s not true because it works, rather it works because it’s true.

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