Monday, August 22, 2011

Support, of a sort, from an Unexpected Quarter

Michael Dummett, who has penned several essays of an anti-Realist cast, yet confides in the Preface to a major collection of his works (Truth and other enigmas (1978), p. xxxix):

I once read a paper, which I have not included in this collection, arguing for the existence of God, on the ground, among others, that anti-realism is ultimately incoherent, but that realism is tenable  only on a theistic basis.

This is a brave statement.  We do not disagree.  We might indeed go further, and suggest that the Pathos of Penguins, and the Wonder of Ducks, is comprehensible on that basis only; but that would be wide of our brief.   The stated aim of the essays on this site, is to support Cantorian Realism; the yoking of this to theism  could quite justifiably strike many readers as gratuitous, a long shot.   So it is nice to have such distinguished company as that of Professor Dummett.


William James is an ally of a different sort.  The unexpectedness stems simply from his role as a laboratory psychologist;  these tend to be more agnostic than mathematicians (though not perhaps more agnostic than Unitarians, or contemporary Anglican divines).
He argues, not for Realism per se, but for theism:  yet not in the positive way of the Ontological Argument, the Cosmological Argument, or any preacher on TV ;  his approach is not Realist, but pragmatist.  His celebrated predecessor in this approach, is Pascal’s Wager; and James -- ever a man of honor -- has the honesty to cite this explicitly, and to decry it. 

When religious faith  expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trump. … If we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern  from their infinite reward.

(Sidenote:  Are readers generally aware how witty is William James?   Particularly in comparison with his overrated dull brother -- what's his name -- HenryHank.  Something like that.)

Basically:  If it works at all, it works too well, applying  as it does, without alteration, to belief in the Great Pumpkin.  Whose claims, on that tack, are if anything even stronger:  for the Great Pumpkin offers whatever Yahweh offers plus French fries and unlimited cable;  whereas his wrath towards unbelievers is terrifying to imagine -- you do not want to be in his bad books.

Anyhow.   In The Will to Believe, James offers, not proofs or even probabilities for the existence of God,  but a (well-reasoned) defence of whoso should believe

in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect  may not have been coerced.

His strategy is, not to prove His existence, but to undermine fallacious arguments against it.   (This is the strategy I took in the chapter “Tumbnail Sketches of Arabic”, in Semantics of Form.)

In the much shorter lecture, Human Immortality:  two supposed objections to the doctrine, he likewise attempts to deflect scientific scorn:  yet, I regret to report, with little success.  His exposition rings, not of the self-delusion or excess of a religious true-believer, but of the plain wackiness characteristic of many a worldview put forth by English-speaking scientists in that period:  e.g. the statistician Karl Pearson, with his “ether squirts”  (see Theodore Porter’s fine biography).

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