From wonderism to pragmatism

Wonder is a desire to know. It pushes us to seek answers to our questions. But how do we know when we've found real answers? How can we know anything at all? The best answer to this question that I've found is that we can know things by pragmatism (specifically, epistemological pragmatism).

What is pragmatism?

There are many different theories and formulations of pragmatism, by many different philosophers (e.g. Peirce, James, Dewey, Putnam, Rorty, Haack, et al.). It can seem complex and contradictory and hard-to-wrap-your-head-around. But actually, pragmatism is very simple, very easy, very powerful, and will change the way you look at life, the universe, and everything. At least, that's my prediction.

But does it work? Is it useful? Is it true?

Despite all the different variations, formulations, theories, and opinions of pragmatism, it always comes down to a single, simple concept: Use what works. This is the concept that beliefs or ideas are good to the extent that they work. When we put an idea into practice, what are its practical consequences? Does it work for us?

The word 'work' is itself kind of vague. A rock works to crack a nut, so should we give up using nutcrackers? Or are they both the same because they both work? Perhaps a more accurate word would be 'useful', with the idea that some ideas are more useful than others. Even though the rock is useful, the nutcracker is even more useful for the purpose of cracking nuts.

The idea of usefulness is itself a useful idea, but what does it really mean? So an idea is useful. So what? We want to know if it's actually true. At its simplest, most basic level, pragmatism is the idea that what works, what is useful, is what is true. In other words, the measure of the truth of an idea is how useful it is. This kind of throws the idea of truth on its head. Most people think that, of course, if an idea is true you can probably find some use in it, but then again, maybe not. And they also think that some ideas may be useful, but not actually true.

This is where the philosophers of pragmatism usually start spinning their mental wheels trying to devise more precise, more cleverly worded, and more thorough explanations of what it really means to be useful and/or true. At this level, pragmatism is a bit counter-intuitive. Some people get it right away and say, "Well, of course!" But others may sit back, doubtful, thinking, "I'm not so sure." If they are philosophers, they might have their own alternative views of truth and knowledge, such as the correspondence theory of truth, or coherentism. The discussion gets really complicated, really quickly.

But we don't have to go down that road (unless you really want to), because there is a much more intuitive way of thinking about usefulness and truth that cuts through much of the confusion. With this way of thinking about it, pragmatism will seem obvious and inevitable.

Truth is prediction

Work, usefulness, and truth are all unified by the single idea of prediction. An idea works for you if it can get you what you want, i.e. it fulfills a desire. In other words, you have some future goal in mind, and if the idea helps you achieve that future state, i.e. if it fulfills your prediction, then it 'worked'. But two different ideas may be able to achieve the same future goal. In this case, the idea which achieves the goal faster, more accurately, or more reliably, i.e. the one that makes better predictions, is the more 'useful' of the two. When one idea makes better predictions than another idea, it does so because it more correctly accounts for the relevant entities that exist in reality. In other words, the idea which points more closely to reality, i.e. the one that makes better predictions, is the most 'true' of the two. So, work, usefulness, and truth are all fundamentally aspects of the same thing, namely prediction.

Truth is like an arrow

There is an obscure usage of a common word that is sometimes used to describe arrows (as in archery), which helps to make this view more clear. When an arrow is well-made, and flies well, and hits what you aim at, we call the arrow 'true'. Alternatively, when an arrow is poorly made and flies off-target, missing what you aim at, we might call the arrow 'untrue'.

This closely matches what truth is in pragmatism. If the idea is the arrow, and the prediction is the target, then the test of whether the idea is true (like an arrow) is whether the prediction is realized, accurately, reliably, and promptly. Some ideas will make better predictions, and so they can be considered 'more true'. Some will make worse predictions, and so are 'less true'. Those ideas that fail to make any reliable, accurate, or prompt predictions can be fairly called 'untrue', or simply 'false'.

So, a pragmatist uses ideas like an archer uses arrows. If an idea consistently makes good predictions, we keep the idea in our quiver of useful ideas. If it consistently makes bad predictions, we throw the idea away. It's really that simple.

From this basis of measuring the truth of ideas based on the predictions they make, we can begin searching for more and more ideas, and building a collection of good ones, while eliminating ideas we've tried already that have proved to be bad ones. This is what pragmatists do, and it's why even though they may have many disagreements at a higher level, at a core, foundational level, they are all pragmatists. They all seek true ideas, and avoid false ideas, based on how those ideas predict the future, i.e. based on their usefulness and truth.

(Note that in this model, the notion of Absolute Truth is rejected. Small-t pragmatic truth is more like probability than certainty. It is important to understand this difference. Many truths point to a single reality, not the other way around. There is no one single capital-T Truth.)

We are all pragmatists, whether we know it or not

Many people -- most people, in my experience -- do not appreciate the incredible fact that we are able to predict anything at all. Sure, we can remember the past, and experience the present, but can we really predict the future? Many people will instinctively reply, "It's not possible to predict the future. You're arrogant if you think you can." And yet, in this very rejection of prediction, they are making a prediction of their own. They are attempting to reject the idea of perfect, god-like prediction, but mistakenly also reject imperfect, pretty-good prediction. They are so deeply immersed in the world of ubiquitous predictions, so accustomed to their natural ability to predict the future, that they do not see the irony of their claim. It is like spending so much time inhaling and exhaling that you forget that you're breathing. (Now that I just mentioned breathing, did you suddenly notice that you're doing it?) Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to remind you.

To prove that the future can be predicted, I'm going to tell you a word. In fact, I'm not really going to tell you the word, you're going to know what the word is, without me telling you. You will guess the word, and you will be correct. You will instinctively predict the word. You will be able to predict this word because you have a natural ability to predict future events, based on past events. In this case, the events are words. They are the words you are reading right now. As you are reading this right now, each word that you read follows the others in a linear sequence. Based on the words you've just read, you are currently predicting the words coming ahead in this sequence. Because you know English, and because you understand grammar, and because we share common concepts and words, you are able to predict which words are likely to follow the previous words in the sequence. There is a structure to the sequence. Some words are more likely to follow other words. When you read the word 'Happy', you are more likely to predict the next word to be 'Birthday' or 'Holidays' or 'Anniversary' than you are to predict 'Monkey' or 'tricycle' or 'prisoner'. Words combine into phrases, and phrases combine into longer sequences which end in punctuation marks. These longer sequences are strung together to make up a paragraph. You are reading one of these sequences right now, and it is easy to predict which word will come at the end of it. Did you think of the word 'it' before you got to the end of the last sequence? If so, you're ready to predict the word. I'm going to tell it to you the same way. You know the word. Ready? The word I'm telling you is the word that would correctly fit in the blank at the end of this ________. Did you get it?

I bet you got it. In fact, you're not the only one who predicted the word. I also predicted which word you would guess. And I've written this long before you read it. This is not just short-term prediction I'm talking about, like predicting a single word as you're reading along. We are also capable of long-term predictions, like the one I just made about what word you would guess. Human language crucially depends on the receiver's ability to predict the sender's meaning, as well as the sender's ability to predict what the receiver will understand. When you read this, and when I write it, there is a constant stream of predictions being made, sequentially and in parallel, in both your brain and mine.

This is a natural, in-born ability that all humans have. This is intuition. I define intuition simply as the brain's natural ability to make pretty-good guesses. In other words, it's our natural, innate ability to make predictions. We use our intuition all the time, for pretty much everything. For language, for perception, for action, for learning, for teaching, for our basic survival. In fact, we're not the only animal capable of intuitive prediction, although we are perhaps the most adept at it, especially when we are able to use the cultural tools and knowledge that humanity has built up over the millennia.

So, we are all pragmatists at our most basic level. We all make predictions, and we all strive to use what good ideas we've learned to make better predictions, and to avoid using bad ideas which make worse predictions. It's just that most people don't recognize this fact, let alone appreciate it.

The wonder of prediction

Did you get a little sense of surprise when you were able to predict the word I 'told' you? That was a pretty basic prediction. The greater, and more difficult the prediction, the greater that sense of surprise will be. This is a certain kind of wonder, a "Wow!" feeling. "Oh look! The prediction really came true!" Like when a magician tells you he's going to saw a woman in half, and you don't believe it, but you watch in fascination. And sure enough, if he presents the illusion with skill, his amazing prediction comes true; the woman appears to be cut in half. Maybe you've seen this trick before, and maybe you even know how it's done, but you can't tell me you're not at least a little surprised and impressed at the illusion. The bigger the illusion, the bigger the "Wow!" This is how magicians earn a living, by making incredible predictions and invoking wonder in their audience when the predictions come 'true'. The more incredible the predictions, the greater the wonder, and the greater the fame of the magician. People love amazing predictions!

When the prediction is more than just an illusion, when it's real, the wow feeling is even bigger. Did you know that the Voyager space craft was sent to Neptune with an accuracy of within 100 km of the predicted trajectory? That's like sinking a golf putt over 2000 miles away. Think about that for a second. Imagine the vast distances between the planets, and the relatively tiny distance of only 100 km (about 60 miles). That's pretty amazing! All the moreso because it's real, and not just an illusion. If people could start to think about and appreciate the amazing feats of prediction humanity is able to accomplish with the real knowledge of science, perhaps they would begin to feel inspired about the future again, as they were when they were children and everything seemed to inspire a "Wow!"

Pragmatism is unbeatable

Still have doubts about pragmatism? Maybe you're thinking, "Yeah, sure. Pragmatism is okay. So we can use ideas to make predictions, but how do we really know they represent reality? A clever lie could also make good predictions. My way of knowing is better than pragmatism."

Well, I'm sorry to tell you, but as far as I can tell, pragmatism is an unbeatable way of knowing. If someone thinks they have a better idea than pragmatism, then I ask them to show me. What knowledge does their way of knowing produce that my pragmatism doesn't? If they can actually demonstrate to me that they can generate better knowledge, this will inevitably require them to make a better prediction than I can. If they succeed, then their method of knowing becomes justified by pragmatism, i.e. it makes better predictions, and so is pragmatically 'more true'. Being justified by pragmatism, it is subsumed by pragmatism, becoming just one more arrow in pragmatism's quiver. Pragmatism remains unbeaten. If they cannot demonstrate better knowledge by making a better prediction, then they have failed to beat pragmatism, and pragmatism again remains unbeaten. The only way to really justify claims of knowledge is to test their predictions. Without that test, the claims are susceptible to a wonderist's question, "Well, how do you really know that?"

People can lie, people can be deceived, but predictions are hard to fake. Especially if they are accurate, reliable, and prompt. The pragmatic principle of Occam's Razor tells us that if an idea is unnecessary (because it doesn't make any predictions), then we are better off not believing it. Occam's Razor is pragmatically justified by its accurate and reliable prediction that belief systems which are pruned of useless ideas are more likely to make accurate and reliable predictions than ones that aren't so cleanly pruned. So, challenging pragmatism with useless ideas like faith, gods, etc. is easily defended against with Occam's Razor. Pragmatism is truly unbeatable.

Pragmatism is itself pragmatic

Pragmatism is very simple in principle, but it generates vast and complex theories as it accumulates truths and rejects falsehoods. It learns as you learn. And this is no accident, because the brain itself is a compact pragmatic theory generator. Intuition itself is the brain's natural ability to make pretty-good (i.e. pragmatic) guesses. No wonder pragmatism fits so well with the way we think. It's actually how the brain works!

While all humans are natural pragmatists, the human intuition is by no means perfect, and while our guesses/predictions are pretty-good, they are by no means perfect, and they can also be seriously and systematically flawed. This is a side-effect of our evolutionary heritage; evolution is itself a pragmatic process of 'using what works', not of 'perfect design'. Understanding the philosophy and principles of pragmatism can help you notice these flaws in yourself and in others, and work to find ways of correcting them. This is the role of the development of education, reason, and science. Understanding how pragmatism works by prediction can itself be a very useful, pragmatic truth.

By the way, I hereby predict that the word you guessed was "sentence". Cool, eh?

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