Which pragmatism as a guide to life?

Much debate on practical matters ends up in distracting metaphysics. If only we could all agree on what was ‘pragmatic’. My blog is mostly negative, in so far as it rubbishes various suggestions, but ‘the best is trhe enemy of the good’, and we do need to do something.

Unfortunately, different ‘schools’ start from a huge variety of different places, so it is difficult to compare and contrast approaches. But it is about time I had a go. (In part inspired by a recent public engagement talk on mathematics).

Suppose you have a method Π that you regard as pragmatic, in the sense that you can always act on it. To justify this, I think (like Popper) that you should have criteria , Γ, which if falsified would lead you to reconsider ∏ . So your pragmatic process is actually

If Γ then ∏ else reconsider.

But this is hardly reasonable if we try to arrange things so that Γ will never appear to be falsified. So an improvement is:

Spend some effort in monitoring Γ. If it is not falsified then ∏.

In practice if one thinks that Γ can be relied on, one may not think it worth spending much effort on checking it, but surely one should at least be open to suggestions that it could be wrong. The proper balance between monitoring Γ and acting on ∏ seems  impossible to establish with any confidence, but ignoring all evidence against Γ seems risky, to say the least.

Some argue that if you have no alternative to ∏  then it is pointless considering Γ. This may be a  reasonable argument when applied to concepts, but not to actions in the real world. Whatever evidence we may have for ∏ it will never uniquely prove it. It may be that it rules out all the alternatives that we have thought of, or which we consider credible or otherwise acceptable, but we should think again. Logically, there are always alternatives.

The above clearly applies to science. No theory is ever regarded as asolute and for ever. Scientists make their careers by identifying alternative theories to explain the experimental results and then devising new experiments to try to falsify the current theory. This process could only ever end when we were all sure that we had performed every possible experiment using every possible means in every possible circumstance, which implies the end of evolution and inventiveness. We aren’t there yet.

My proposal, then, is that very generally (not just in science) we ought to expect any ‘pragmatic’ ∏  to include a specific ‘caveat’, Γ(∏). If it doesn’t, we ought to develop one. This caveat will include its own rules for falsifying, tests, and we ought to regard more severe tests (in some sense) to be better. We then seek to develop alternatives that might be less precise (and hence less ‘useful’) than ∏ but which might survive falsification of ∏.

Much of my blog has some ideas on how tom do this in particular cases: a work in progress. But an example may appeal:

Faced with what looks like a coin being tossed we might act ‘as if’ we believe it to be fair and to correspond to the axioms of mathematical probability theory, but keep an eye out for evidence to the contrary. Perhaps we inspect it and toss it a few times. Perhaps we watch whoever tosses it carefully. We do what we can, but still if someone tosses it and over a very large runs gets an excess of ‘Heads’ that our statistical friends tell us is hugely significant, we may be suspicious and reconsider

In this case we may decline from gambling on coin tosses even if we lack a specific ‘theory of the coin’, but it might be better if we had an alternative theory. Perhaps it is an ingenious fake coin? Perhaps the person tossing it has a cunning technique to bias it? Perhaps the person tossing it is a magician, and is actually faking the results?

This seems to me a like a good approach, surely better than acting ‘pragmatically’ but without such falsifying criteria. Can it be improved upon? (Suggestions please!)

Dave Marsay

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About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

One Response to Which pragmatism as a guide to life?

  1. Pingback: The limits of pragmatism | djmarsay

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