Pragmatism, re-thought

It seems to me that people often act as if they thought that what they were doing was ‘rational’, ‘logical’, ‘mathematical’ or ‘scientific’ when perhaps they ought to know that it wasn’t, and that some of our common or important ills are a consequence of these mistakes. This note is an attempt to explicate some of the issues.

First, I suppose that what people think are logical, for example, are mostly simply heuristics. That is, they are rules of thumb or habits that have proved effective in the past for which they have no specific reason to doubt. One common form of pragmatism is to regard or treat such heuristics as ‘great truths’ and not to hedge against the possibility that they are wrong, and even to close one’s mind to such a possibility. But this practice seems to me to be behind many errors. It may be, of course, that in the long run we are often better off accepting these errors rather than waste effort being more cautious. For example, it may be better for society as a whole to accept the following, from time to time, rather than attempt to avoid them:

  • miscarriages of justice,
  • ill-founded foreign interventions,
  • natural disasters,
  • financial collapse.

But even if this was true in the past, it seems to me prudent to question this from time to time, and not have such assumptions ‘baked in’ to discourse. I would also not accept the view that such questions should be left to those ‘elites’ who are best placed to avoid the worst consequences of such problems.

As an example, consider probability theories. (There are many.) Informally, for a given context, C, one supposes that one has a probability function, P( | : ) that assigns numbers P(A|B:C) to conditional statements A|B, such as the probability that the bus is full when it is raining. This depends on the context, C, such as the frequency of buses, the local population and various economic factors. Yet the dependence on C is normally suppressed. Why? Typically, we have some recent experience and we suppose that whatever factors are relevant will have stayed roughly the same, so that it is reasonable to treat the context as fixed.  Hence normal pragmatism. But suppose that a large local employer has just closed? We know that the context has changed, and the probability of the buses being full will have reduced. Or at least, we should realise that our estimate is unusually unreliable.

A variation on pragmatism is to apply the same heuristics but then to consider the stability of the context. If there is no reason to think that the context may have changed then one can proceed as before, so that one has an ‘estimate’, ‘expectation’ or ‘prediction’. But if the context may have changed, or has changed, or is more likely to change, one does not take the ‘estimate’ of the heuristic as one’s own. One needs to hedge in a way that differs from taking account of probability distributions. For example, one might seek information on the various factors.

A common variation is to consider what new contexts might be possible, and to make estimates relative to these possible contexts.  One might then try to identify some actions that will be satisfactory across contexts.

Finally, one can consider situations as having multiple factors, some or all of which may be stable at any one time, and tries to anticipate which will be stable and to base one’s actions on those. For example, if one expects some economic instability then one might look for relatively stable sectors (utilities?) to invest in.

It seems to me that these variations are quite common, and that some important social problems have arisen because the wrong kind of ‘pragmatism’ has been employed.

Dave Marsay

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