It is often said that the world has become disenchanted – the world was once alive with Gods and spirits and now the number of blind forces can be counted on one hand. Over the last 500 years at least, the numbers of materialists, agnostics, and anti-religious people have been rising in proportion to the rest.1 Religious beliefs are still widespread, but the same trend is found among them: the authoritative texts are increasingly seen to have metaphorical truth and not literal truth. In fact, as far back as the fourth century AD, Saint Augustine himself recommended against literal readings of scripture as natural philosophy because it was already seen as antiquated and could negatively affect the authority of the Catholic church.
Considering this general disenchantment, if your heart sinks even a little, then I am speaking to you soulful ones who see that this disenchantment is not necessary. I present to you here an attempt to aid the re-enchantment: pragmagism. PragmaGism is a combination of American pragmaTism and magic. Magic is an active, engaging, and non-dogmatic conception of causality to rival the blind, mechanical, and determined causality that has been a dominating force in philosophy and science since at least Newton and Descartes. Magic is an irreducible and willed creative act. Stage magic works as an analogy, but I am not talking about stage magic.
American pragmatism, on the other hand, is a broad philosophical perspective that begins by acknowledging our modest position in nature and limited cognitive powers – we never encounter certainty in nature, and we can almost always be wrong.2 Pragmatism is equipped for this uncertainty. Pragmatism doesn’t grope through metaphysical possibilities and certainties from the safety of the armchair; pragmatism is an agile philosophy that was bred in the uncertainty of the practical world. So, pragmaGism = pragmatism + magic. This essay is a claim to the name 'pragmaGism,' a statement of the position and a recommendation.
Prior to Darwin, philosophers could still assume humans were equipped with a special intellectual insight or faculty into the nature of things. The originary pragmatists were some of the first thinkers to see that evolution demands that this assumption be updated. In addition to being inspired by Darwin, the first pragmatists were heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant who argued that our experience is enabled by a mental vocabulary of “categories” and our experience is ultimately limited by these categories – we can only think in the terms we have, and we can’t get beyond our thoughts to a nature independent of our conception of it. The pragmaGism I discuss here features the pragmaTism of William James’ early essay “The Will to Believe” (1896). But before discussing “The Will to Believe” (WTB), I will first provide a broad sketch of the “center of... [the] vision”3 of pragmatism.
We are an evolved and evolving species and the human brain is an evolved and evolving organ. There is no reason to believe that our conceptual faculties have evolved to a breakthrough form that can conceive the true nature of things and there is overwhelming reason to the contrary. As the brain evolves and our powers of conception, memory, and association increase, so our picture/conception4 of nature also increases in resolution. As we once had no clear conception of logic and number, so we will one day conceive things we can’t now. The pragmatist says that our conceptional scheme/picture is ever provisional.5
This paragraph is a detour to present a distinction that is useful for illustrating pragmatism: concepts and conceptions. A concept is the one true meaning of a word — what the word actually means. Conceptions, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic and particular to an individual mind – e.g. I use the word ‘art’ slightly differently from you. In other words, everyone could have a different conception of X, but everyone must have the same concept of X, if anybody has it. Pragmatism would say that we only ever have conceptions, not concepts.6 If our conceptions largely overlap with each other’s, we are able to communicate without having to stretch our imagination too far, but it is not hard to find cases where two conceptions do not line up.
From an evolutionary perspective, we must admit the provisional status of our present biological form. Our experience and understanding of nature are allowed by these evolved resources, as well as limited by them. Kant’s picture mirrors this evolved position. Kant said that the content of experience is allowed by this conceptual vocabulary and our experience is also limited to this vocabulary. In this picture, there is a fundamental divide between what we can experience and what we cannot experience, phenomena and noumena, in Kant’s terms. As we learn and evolve, so our new conceptions allow new experience and understanding, albeit provisional. As minded organisms, the reality beyond our experience is imperfectly reflected in our provisional conceptions of it. We are fundamentally alienated from the truth beyond our conception of it and we can only try to aim in the right direction.7 I claim that this is the starting position of the originary pragmatists.
For a final example of this fundamental division between experience and beyond: we never encounter certainty in the natural world. In other words, we can always be surprised by worldly outcomes. It is possible that a different outcome may occur until the crux of the moment when the rubber hits the road. Before the batter swings, it is still possible that the batter may hit the ball, or not. There is an apparent contingency to nature. Likewise, indeterminacy can be found in all empirical data. With sensitive enough equipment we find unpredictability/indeterminacy in any motion. Additionally, empirical evidence is always particular: the data is always particular readings or particular cases, never more. Together, our empirical/experienced picture is always particular, contingent, and probabilistic.8 The punchline is that we can effortlessly conceive of certainty and frequently deceive ourselves into possessing it.9 Pragmatism forces us to keep the provisional status of this picture in the foreground at all times.
The founder of American pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, took the name ‘pragmatic’ from a passage in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where Kant discusses a type of belief that he compares to “betting.” A “pragmatic belief” is one where the believer also acknowledges that they could be wrong and someone else could have a better belief (A284/B852). As Louis Menand puts it in The Metaphysical Club, “Kant thought of ‘pragmatic belief’ as one of several kinds of belief; Peirce thought it was the only kind of belief” (227). Peirce himself said, “[Kant] is nothing but a somewhat confused pragmatist” (CP, 5.525).
Peirce identified Kant’s “pragmatic beliefs” with a theory of belief proposed by Peirce’s friend Nicholas St. John Green: “what a man really believes is what he would be ready to act upon, and to risk much upon” (226). The language of “risk” and “betting” is a hallmark of pragmatism. This language is also inspired by probability theory because Peirce was very familiar with probability theory and statistical science.10 Probability theory began from an analysis of games of chance and betting. The stronger your belief, the more you are willing to risk — and you must play a card.
Considering again that most-to-all of our best scientific theories have been wrong in significant details and our conceptions are imperfect and limiting, pragmatism says we must be fallibilists about everything (except perhaps arithmetic, logic and geometry). This is the starting position for pragmatism. Beyond this, instead of chasing imponderables, pragmatism says we should do what “works,” which can be spelled out in different ways. Here is my slogan for pragmatism: it’s working hypotheses all the way down – you will never find the bottom – better move on.
The pragmaGism I present here is a combination of the pragmaTism of William James' "The Will to Believe" (1896) and magic. James (WJ) describes “The Will to Believe” (WTB) as “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters.” This description sounds agnostic; this statement allows that both belief and disbelief can be justified – it is within our right because it does not break any laws. In fact, WTB is not so agnostic on this matter; WJ positively recommends and impels us to religious faith. This section will focus on WTB, and the following section is concerned with magic.
WJ does not use the word ‘pragmatism’ in WTB, and the word had not yet occurred in print,11 but WTB begins from the same pragmatic starting position described above. WJ asks, “[o]bjective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” Our conceptual powers are limited, and we do not seem to have access to a noumenal/ideal realm of certainty. Other than perhaps basic arithmetic and logic, everything in our understanding is revisable. WJ says “no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp.”
Beyond this starting position, WJ says we have two “natures”: an “intellectual” nature and a “passional” or “willing” nature. Our intellectual nature is concerned with belief, evidence, and reason, including abstract thought and number. Our intellectual nature is able to decide in most worldly situations, e.g. which car to buy. The passional nature includes willing, yearning, struggling, loving, etc. Your passional nature moves you and is exceptionally active in contrast with your intellectual nature.
WTB is concerned with a particular type of question that “cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” (ital. WJ’s). Elsewhere, WJ describes them as "options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve" and I will call them intellectually irresolvable options. WJ’s paradigmatic case of an intellectually irresolvable option is choosing between faith and skepticism/agnosticism.12 There is no physical evidence that has any unambiguous bearing on the question, so to settle the question, we must rely on pure reason, intellectual insight, or our will and desire. WJ dismisses the first two options and hence WTB focuses on the role of our willing/passional nature in settling the faith/skepticism question.
WTB also contains a counterargument to the skeptic, who insists on “pure intellectualism.” According to WJ, pure intellectualism says that we should never believe anything without sufficient positive evidence, and “never” means not ever. WJ argues that pure intellectualism is irrational and leads to absurdity in the case of intellectually irresolvable options. His argument is simple. Consider a conception of God that is completely hands-off and lets nature take its course. Next, assume that such a purely hidden God exists. Pure intellectualism would prevent you from faith in this God. But faith in God is one of the most crucial options you have in this life, so it should not be taken lightly. WJ says that “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule” (ital. WJ’s). For WJ, blocking belief in such ultimate things, if they are true, is an absurdity and is damning for such an intellectualism.
After dispatching pure intellectualism, we are freed and that leaves us with recourse to the willing nature to settle the religious question: to believe or not to believe. WJ is not so agnostic here; WJ offers a positive case (of sorts) for faith.13 I simplify this case to two ideas. One, I summarize: the will can create truth. WJ says: “faith in a fact can help create the fact” (ital. WJ’s). I will discuss this in more detail in a later section. The second idea is that “[w]e are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief [in God]” (26, ital. mine). This second idea is an existential imperative: act now because the benefits are slipping through your fingers as you deliberate.
Finally, I would like to compare WJ’s case for faith with Pascal’s wager, which WJ also discusses. Blaise Pascal was one of the founders of probability theory and Pascal’s wager is an argument for religious faith informed by probability theory. As I mentioned above, the originary pragmatists were very knowledgeable about probability theory. WJ translates Pascal’s French: “If there were an infinity of chances, and only one for God in this wager, still you ought to stake your all on God; for though you surely risk a finite loss by this procedure, any finite loss is reasonable, even a certain one is reasonable, if there is but the possibility of infinite gain." In short, Pascal says: you don’t have much to lose, so you might as well. WJ says: you are losing out right now as you delay.
According to WJ, beliefs based on such “mechanical calculation” are hollow, “lack the inner soul of faith’s reality”, and will likely not fool Heaven's gatekeepers. WJ says that the intellectual nature alone is impotent on questions like these. Our intellect may be convinced but "unless there be some pre-existing tendency to believe... the option offered to the will by Pascal is not a living option" – no "spark shoot[s] from them and light[s] up our sleeping magazines of faith." There must be at least a vestige of a will or passion or there can be no belief.
In summary, WJ states that intellectually irresolvable options such as faith vs skepticism are free from the “snarling logicality” of our intellectual nature. The religious option is immediate and upon you and you are losing out as you delay. WJ also discusses examples where “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” You don’t create the Gods, but your will/passions create the opportunity for a relationship with the Gods. With intellectually irresolvable options, we should not “put a stopper on our heart” and we should embrace the option that is most appealing.14 My pragmaGism starts from the same point as WTB but recommends magic.
Pragmatism says that it is working hypotheses all the way down and my working definition (hypothesis) of ‘magic’ is: an irreducible and supernatural causal force that is willed/intended. In the rest of this article, I hope to show that I am not introducing an idiosyncratic use of the word ‘magic’ – my discussion of magic acts fits ordinary definitions of 'magic.’ First I will discuss common definitions of 'magic' and after that I will show that magic is both common and fruitful.
In dictionary definitions, words often have multiple distinct senses – e.g. 'break' can mean “time off” and it can also mean “disruption.” Common definitions of ‘magic’ also have multiple senses. My discussion here is concerned with one particular sense of 'magic' that I summarize: magic is a supernatural means of achieving results. A survey of common dictionary definitions of ‘magic’ will hopefully convince the reader that my summary of this sense is representative. This survey will also show that “supernatural” is the most frequently occurring attribute15 across senses and definitions. Next, I will turn to ‘supernatural’ because it appears to be the magic bearer.
So far, my statements of ‘magic’ and ‘supernatural’ are agnostic and do not assume that anything falls under these descriptions. Likewise, we must discard definitions that presume that nothing falls under the description. In the next four sections I will discuss two very commonplace types of acts that I argue can be categorized as !natural (or having a !natural origin) and thereby satisfy the criteria for magic. Both types of acts result in what I will call created truths. The first type is based on the ancient Greek distinction between technê and phusis. In contemporary English, this translates to nature as distinct from skill or artifice. The second type of created truth (which may be a subtype) is willed truths and inspiration for this type comes from section IX of WJ’s WTB where “faith in a fact can help create the fact.”
Our use of the word ‘nature’ comes from the Latin natura and the Greek phusis before that. In this and the next section I will focus on two words that were contrasted with phusis in ancient Greece: technê and nomos. Aristotle famously contrasted phusis with technê and the Sophists contrasted phusis with nomos. In English, technê and nomos roughly correspond to skill/craft and law/convention, respectively. As these two are both contrasted with phusis, they are distinctly not phusis— not natural, or !natural.17
Phusis, in ancient Greek, means “to grow” or “to appear” or “becoming.” In Homer, phusis is the productive power within a seed that makes it grow. A dandelion seed and a shamrock seed have a different phusis– a disposition or potential to develop into a particular type of thing. More broadly, phusis (and nature) is the self-activity of things – how things behave on their own, without intentional influence (human or otherwise). Consider the motion of a pebble as it tumbles down a hill. The wind blew some dirt out from under it and gravity did the rest. It tumbles as a natural/physical object and interacts with other naturally behaving things. Waves crash on distant shores all night where nobody can see or hear it — this is natural motion. A pebble has a phusis, but it does not have the phusis required for it to sprout like a seed.
For technê, first consider an example. Cabinets do not occur in nature; the materials require a force outside themselves for cabinets to come about. Previously there was wood, which the craftsman did not create, and the final product contains this same wood, but something new is created by the rearrangement of this wood: these cabinets. The wood has to be cut and planed and fastened, but most importantly the craftsman must know what to do, and do it. The body of the maker is not just interacting with the materials as physical bodies, like the pebble tumbling down the mountain. The origin of the cabinets is outside the materials, in the craftsperson.
In Aristotle’s words:
All art [technê] is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and whose origin [archê] is in the maker [poiesis] and not in the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity [e.g. epistêmê, below], nor with things that do so in accordance with nature [phusis] (since these have their origin in themselves).” (1140a14).
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) rephrases this: “The principle (archê) of these things [technê] is in the one who makes them, whereas the principle of those things that exist [by nature/phusis]… is in the things themselves (1140a1-20).”18 Technê and phusis are distinguished by their source of action, their archê — the origin of the act. For phusis, the archê is in the things themselves. The archê moving the freely-falling pebble is in the pebble. For technê, the origin is in the maker. In the example above, the archê of the cabinets is in the craftsperson.
My favorite examples of technê are works of art. For now, consider relatively static physical works of art like sculpture and painting. According to the physical description, a work of art is just a rearrangement of some materials. As natural objects, these materials have their own source of motion and will persist or seek an equilibrium as such. The source of motion upon these raw materials originates in the artist. An intrinsic physical change is not even required to create an artwork. Consider Chinese rock sculpture, or Gongshi (供石, scholar’s rocks). These are large rocks found in the wild that are presented in a rock garden as objects of aesthetic and contemplative appreciation. Likewise, Marcel Duchamp appropriated an ordinary urinal, creating an artwork where there was once just an ordinary object. An object can be physically unchanged, but it is now an artwork, and our experience of it is transformed.
Technê was also contrasted with epistêmê in ancient Greek. Here is an intuitive analogy between the two: a person with a BA in computer science might be able to tell you about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and topological space, but he might not be able to slap together a quick solution to a real-world bug in a pinch. Likewise, one can be an expert at massage without knowledge of anatomy and cell structures. Epitomized, technê is skilled muscle-memory compared to epistêmê, which is systematic and principled.
Epistêmê is very often and erroneously translated as “science,” because what we in the 21st century mean by ‘science’ is only partially related to what ancient Greeks meant by epistêmê. SEP says “translating epistêmê as scientific knowledge is a way of emphasizing its certainty.” Epistêmê deals with “things which could not be otherwise… e.g., the necessary truths of mathematics.” Aristotle discusses geometry as an example of epistêmê. To reiterate: epistêmê deals with things that can’t be otherwise, like math and geometry. In other words, epistêmê is concerned with self-evident and logical pursuits and there are no self-evident and necessary truths in science. Science builds models connected with math and logic, but ‘science’ is not in the same category as [arithmetic, geometry, logic] and the ancient Greeks did not have anything like our science today. So, it is wrong to translate epistêmê as “science.”
In contrast to epistêmê, technê is concerned with “things which could be otherwise… e.g., the contingencies of everyday life."19 We are all intimately familiar with this: worldly events and empirical outcomes are always contingent, particular, and probabilistic. Consider again a batter in a baseball game. The results of the at-bat are not decided until the ball passes through the path of the bat. It could have gone either way until the last second and the opportunity passes. So, Aristotle says, “All art [technê] is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being.” (1140a13, ital. mine). If something is “capable of either being or not being," then it does not have to be and could be otherwise. Technê is the creation of things that didn’t have to exist and the archê is in the maker.
The sense of ‘techne’ I have in mind is roughly: intentional and willed action, and the disposition for this. Techne is skill/craft and these are involved in almost everything we do – every turn of thought or action is a honed act of creation. Phusis is behavior without intentional influence and techne is the intentional influence. If the wind and rain happen to hollow out a log, that does not make it a boat. For it to be a boat, there must be an intention to produce a functional result, and a will, and action. I present a thoroughgoing techne.
For the rest of this article, I will use this broader sense of ‘techne’ that is informed by pragmatism. Pragmatism is skeptical of grand systems and self-evident principles. I think pragmatism would say that epistêmê is high-falutin techne; there is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. Epistêmê is know-how just like techne is know-how. (Magic is also know-how.) I am including all willed and intentional actions as techne, whether they result in a relatively static artifact or not. People exercise a techne when they make functional things like cabinets and sculptures but also when they perform functional actions like dancing, singing, or massage. Additionally, we exercise a techne when we even talk or think about these things. The archê of the cabinets is in the maker and is particularly the will and intention of the maker. Function and intention are distinctly not natural, or !natural, because phusis is defined by its freedom from intentional influence.
My second category of !natural truth is inspired by a distinction that is associated with the ancient Greek Sophists, between phusis and nomos. 'Nomos' translates to law/custom/convention. 'Law’ has the connotation of being timeless and eternal, such as natural law and laws of nature, but the Sophists saw nomos as something like “social constructs” today. In contrast to social constructs and conventions, phusis is something closer to “the state of nature," humans without custom or code. The Sophists saw law, legislating and state authority as a noble lie that may serve to keep the peace, but any basis in nature or a transcendental realm is suspect at best. Nomos is similar to technê – both are not phusis, !natural. Lastly, I will discuss how techne and nomos are not the kind of thing that the physicist can investigate.
The Greek city states of ancient times were very cosmopolitan. Major trade routes passed through Greece and goods and ideas from across continents flowed through the area. These ancient people were confronted with cultures and civilizations with starkly different customs and beliefs. This produced an ethical crisis: are our religious, moral, and legal systems actually local conventions and not a divine order, as we previously assumed? The Sophists leveled the playing field by questioning the unique authority of any particular system of belief. If this once divine and necessary law is now seen as convention, then what is all this convention doing and how did it get here? This is the threat of relativism and the Sophists were acclimated to these conditions.20
As I discussed above, in contrast with techne, phusis is action free from intentional influence. In contrast with nomos, phusis is something like “the state of nature" – the hypothetical time before there was anything resembling an organized society. Freud called the reigning drive in this state “das Es” (the It) — the Id. The ring of Gyges illustrates this well: what would you do if you had an invisibility ring? If you had a ring that allowed you to get away with any crime, then laws would effectively disappear for you. Take whatever you want. Do whatever you want. No one can stop you. Likewise, if everybody had a ring like this, society and civilization would disappear.21 Nomos has no effect in this picture; phusis reigns, as it does for most other terrestrial animals. Some Sophists thought nomos was a good thing (or at least inexorable). Protagoras said that nomos is natural (phusis) and “necessary for human survival and the growth of civilization” (SEP).22 Some Sophists thought nomos was a stifling human weakness. Callicles said that nomos and morality are a “contrivance devised by the weak and unintelligent to inhibit the strong and intelligent from doing what they are entitled by nature to do, viz. exploit their inferiors for their own advantage” (SEP). For the Sophists, nomos may be good for regulating our behavior, but it does not have the authority it is purported to have, and it does not always serve our needs.
Consider a few examples. We are all familiar with personal property like this mobile phone I am using to write this sentence. This phone is just a phone, all but identical to the others that came out of the phone factory. But this particular one is mine. It is mine because I was allowed to leave the store with it. My condo is also mine because if someone pushes me out and starts living in it, I can call someone and the authorities will come and punish the squatters and the squatters can’t do the same thing if I live in it. These laws that uphold personal property are not the books that they are written in. The books can be copied or destroyed and the laws are unaffected.23 I have a right to own things and this is upheld by the state and the laws that bind it, yet these laws are conventions and are not natural – there is nothing physically detectable about my phone or my condo that makes it mine. Physicists can’t point a sensor at it and detect whether it belongs to someone. The structure that holds personal property together is an example of nomos.
For a final example of nomos: a baseball team comprises the players but a team is not merely these hominid organisms. DNA analysis can determine that they are homo sapiens, and an fMRI can perhaps show that the cerebellum is very developed and active, but physicists cannot detect team-memberness, let alone this-particular-team-memberness. Similar points can be made for other examples of techne and nomos. The intention and function of Chinese rock sculpture are not found in the physical properties of the rock. Laws do not reside in law books. Nomos and techne are created by intending minds and do not reside in physical things. My examples are distinctly !natural and irreducibly so – they are a different order of thing from biological and physical processes.
Recall that WTB is a “defence of our right” to religious faith and that WJ recommends a passional faith in the case of intellectually irresolvable options. In section IX of WTB, WJ discusses truths that are created as an act of will – where “faith in a fact can help create the fact” (ital. WJ’s). WJ uses the example of the pursuit of a romantic relationship with another human: the one you adore became your partner at least partially because of your will and effort. That is true. And sometimes the resulting truth is entirely dependent on your antecedent will and intention. In this section, I will discuss a category of truths that I call willed truths. In addition to techne, willed truths are the second category of !natural act/thing I present in this essay.
The will can create truth. As I have already mentioned, WJ’s first example is wooing a potential love interest. WJ says “if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence [of your interest]... ten to one your liking never comes.” (24) In other words: your charm and persistence can create the opportunity for and even inspire someone to love you, which then becomes true. WJ says, “[t]he previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come.” (24). You can help create this love in that person. It is true that they love you and it is true that this partnership did not exist previously. Sure, you can’t inspire anyone to love you, but within the realm of realistic possibilities, you can bring about desired results.
WJ’s other example is thwarting a train robbery. The passengers certainly outnumber the robbers, so if we could trust each other that we will all act together, then we could easily thwart train robbers (and train robberies would not occur). Likewise, a team of players is much more than the sum of the individual players. Each effort is reciprocated by the other members. This is called synergy. This synergetic reciprocity results when the participants are all aligned. If you don’t make a move, there may never be an opportunity for it to be reciprocated and for that synergetic creation to occur — for this truth to be created.
I include the above as examples of willed truths. There are also ordinary and everyday cases. We create truth, daily, all-the-time and this is literal and not poetic at all. Often, we create very unobtrusive stuff. Sitting at home watching movies is an act of creation – you are creating experiences for yourself by putting on these movies and allowing yourself to be swept away with the characters, etc. Creating an entertaining evening does not require much effort and it is not likely to be met with much resistance. It also does not require much effort to extend this example to the conclusion that we have an active and creative role in the outcome of most-to-all events in our sphere of influence.
Consider a final example of techne that is ever-present in our experience: information. 'Information' has many senses, but the sense I am using can be summarized: an intentional representation of the signified by the signifier, the sign.24 For example, a group of pebbles can be encoded to represent the number of sheep I have. As I let each sheep back into the pen at the end of the day, I add one pebble to a pile. A pebble in the wild does not represent anything and is not information. Additionally, random noise is not information — there is no intention. I claim that information is techne. Information is an intentional representation between the sign and what the sign is representing.
As I said, the pebbles are encoded. Here, “to encode” means to create information, roughly. The documents on your computer are saved in physical memory that is composed of discrete “memory” locations which each hold a magnetic charge and there are two settings for this charge that we colloquially call ‘0’ and ‘1.' They certainly can represent 0 and 1, but one bit can also represent: True or False, Yes or No, “for here” or “to go," etc. These binary bits can represent any number of things. With five bits you can represent sixty-four different things, so this is enough for upper and lower-case English alphabets and extra for punctuation, space, carriage-return, etc. Now I can encode a language like English into binary bits. These blocks of bits are no different than writing on paper; you can train yourself to read squares of binary dots like braille. You need special equipment to read magnetic charges on discs, but it is no different. The meaning and words are encoded into the magnetic charges, but the charges are not what they represent – the markings represent and correspond to this meaning. Wild pebbles are not encoded and discarded binary bits are not information — they don’t encode anything. There is a christening or appropriation that must occur for a pebble or bit to represent something, and someone has to remember how it is encoded.
The absence of a stone or a pile of pebbles or a single magnetic charged spot can communicate enormously valuable information. These pebbles are much more valuable to me now that I know they match the number of sheep I have. In the stone ages, there were tribes who had a sacred stone that was venerated and always sat in the same place and was the source of great power. If you returned to the village and the stone was gone, you would know there was an emergency. Let the physicists have a look at the stone. It is very powerful. It is also a rock. Nothing intrinsic to the stone has changed, but the extrinsic circumstances have changed — the stone has been carried to another location. This information or significance is not physical. It is convention and as I have discussed above, convention is !natural.
I include information with nomos as examples of techne – the product of intentional willed action and thereby also !natural. For a sign to represent, there must be an intention and will, like other examples of techne. There is an intuitive gap between Duchamp’s “ Fountain” and an ordinary urinal. They are different. One is not art. All 120-odd balls used in a baseball game look almost identical, but one particular ball was the game-winning homerun ball. It holds special value. It was the product of some willed and intentional acts of significance. The others are not special like this one. Likewise, there is an intuitive gap between the wild pebble and the intentionally placed pebble. One is not encoded. This is !natural.
Now I would like to tie the previous sections back together again. We weren’t placed here fully-formed with a perfectly clear view of the Truth. Pragmatism reminds us of our modest position as the current biological effort of a species that is still here because we are survivors of survivors of survivors. And our cognitive capacities are – at best – incremental improvements on what came before and not an apotheosis. So it seems highly likely that there are some built-in conceptual and cognitive limitations, and we must forget about absolutes and capital ‘T’ Truth. My pragmaGism begins from a general pragmaTism and WJ’s presentation of intellectually irresolvable options in WTB in particular. Recall that WTB starts from the position that theism and skepticism are intellectually irresolvable options – there is no evidence or reason that can settle the option. I accept this starting point and I am instead recommending magic as the prime mover. Magic is an irreducible and active conception of causality to rival the blind, mechanical and determined causality of Newton and Descartes. Magic is an irreducibly intentional and !natural creative act. I have provided many examples of created truths: technê, nomos, WJ's willed truths, and information. Finally, I don’t want to put words in the Greeks mouth, so I am using a more generalized sense of ‘techne’ that includes all these examples.
There is a final optional add-on to my picture of pragmaGism that has a very esoteric sounding name but is a very simple idea: occasionalism. Briefly, occasionalism says that God is an intermediating cause in some-to-all causal relationships — between antecedent events and consequent events. Occasionalism comes in different strengths: some want an exception for only a small handful of important events (like a virgin birth), and others extend this to include all events in the universe.
At least as far back as the first millennium AD, occasionalism emerged as a conservative response to the encroachment of Aristotelianism25 which said that God was not responsible for much except setting it all in motion — phusis manages after that. This directly contradicts every canonical miracle where God intervenes in otherwise worldly events. To maintain the status of these miracles, occasionalism carves out an exception for miracles by saying that God is their proximal cause.
Miracles are usually a rarefied set of events, but there is also a generalized form of occasionalism: God intervenes at each and every causal instant. It may appear that your finger tapped the screen and that you willed your finger to move, but God mediated these and all causal relations. There are no accidents; there is a reason and intention for everything. If you have experienced the “blooming, buzzing confusion," where each acting moment is miraculous and meaningful, then magical occasionalism should not sound foreign. It might be ineffable, but it is magic. So, at least on occasion, your senses can be heightened to see the flux of becoming as miraculous. Opposite this all-inclusive picture, there are ever more limited occasionalisms: some acts are mundane and some are not. Together, there is a spectrum of occasionalisms from the exclusive to the all-inclusive.
I found occasionalism counterintuitive at first. Across the universe, there are astronomical orders of events going on at every instant. God appears very busy in this picture. I did not understand how this picture could be intuitive to anyone. But now I realize that occasionalism appeared this way because I grew up taking contingency, arbitrariness, and randomness for granted. I venture that the following is a very common cultural belief in the technological world of the early 21st century: stuff just happens, the particulars aren’t important, and it could have happened to anybody or anything. This is never explicitly instilled, but it happens. Occasionalism restores certainty and necessity to a picture that has been looking increasingly particular, contingent, and accidental for at least a thousand years. My intention is not to replace God with magic, because my conception of magic is not inconsistent with God/Gods. Magical occasionalism need only highlight magic.
The minds of the originary pragmatists, WJ and C.S. Peirce, were on fire with Kant and Darwin. We are evolved and evolving animals with evolving mental capacities. We cannot get beyond our perceptions and conceptions to universal, necessary, and certain knowledge of the world. We seem to have such knowledge in the purely abstract cases of math, geometry, and logic, but we do not have knowledge of the world beyond our conceptions of it. We are local and limited — ever provincial. We are always engaged in particular human activities in the particular worldly circumstances we are engaged in. Pragmatism says that we should keep this in mind at all times and we should favor actions that are conducive to the affairs of living over those that are not. Both Peirce and WJ were outsiders to academic philosophy and saw pragmatism as antagonistic to the academy. In the minds of Peirce and WJ, pragmatism was a new and agile philosophy that was better able to incorporate the new evolutionary worldview with a historical picture of human understanding.26 Magic, likewise, is focused on the affairs of living and not on abstract ultimates beyond. Magic is alive and open and interactive and creative, and it is far superior to blind causal determinism.
Here again is my formula for pragmaGism:
The pragmaTism of WTB
+ Created truths as !natural
+ A dash of occasionalism (optional)
Finally, I would like to float a few ideas out there (which can probably be rigorously demonstrated) and see if any ring true to you:
And if it doesn’t work, it’s not magic.
Thanks to Eri, Chris, Jeffrey, Xiao En, James, and David
1 There are perhaps local or temporary increases, but globally, over the last millennium or two, the proportion of religious people has steadily decreased. There is evidence to support this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_of_religion
2 Pragmatists tend to also be suspicious of established dogma and “professional” consensus and often claim to have an innovative method of inquiry and action.
3 William James said of Hegel, “Any author is easy if you can catch the centre of his vision.” https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11984/pg11984.html
4 The conception/picture analogy is apt for a few reasons. A photo is very clearly distinct from what it represents. The data is not the reality.
5 W. V. O. Quine’s holism also fits nicely here.
6 The history of philosophy is lined with exchanges where one person offers a definition and another person points out a counterexample, and repeat. Even philosophers, who excel at distinctions and definitions, can’t nail down definitions for common stuff like ‘art,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘truth.' Numbers and extremely precise operational definitions of scientific objects are the best examples of such a “one true meaning," but there are irreducible ambiguities, always.
7 Empirical evidence must always be ambiguous – there are always multiple empirically irresolvable theories for any evidence. This is sometimes called the “underdetermination of theory by data” or “radical underdetermination." Theories can be objectively better/worse in relation to each other, but not in relation to an absolute standard like Truth.
8 Even the simplest life is exquisitely evolved to cope with this seemingly fundamental uncertainty. This is likely the ultimate source of life’s staying power.
9 Certainty may also be at least temporally prior to uncertainty.
10 Quantum physics’ use of “probability clouds” would have made perfect sense to Peirce.
11 ‘Pragmatism’ was first used in print by William James two years later in his essay "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” (1898).
12 The question here is “should you have religious faith or not?” and not “does God exist or not?”
13 I hedge because we have already accepted that this is an intellectually irresolvable question, yet he makes a case of some kind.
14 Although he says the question is intellectually irresolvable, his thinking can be read as reasoning, but we can charitably assume it is more than that.
15 It may sound trite to point to common dictionary definitions, but they should fit your intuition.
16 Something can presently appear supernatural and later discovered to be natural. We thought it was supernatural, but we were wrong.
17 “The two terms nomos… and physis… came to be commonly regarded as opposed and mutually exclusive: what existed ‘by nomos’ was not ‘by physis’ and vice versa.” (Guthrie, W. K. C., The Sophists)
20 Relativism says we can’t have absolute coordinates, only relative coordinates. WJ in WTB says, “The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another” (WTB, ital. WJ’s).
21 This also lines up with Freud’s picture of animalistic drives held in check by the ego and superego.
23 Laws are beliefs comprising conceptions which are particulars in the heads of those who possess them.
24 C.S. Pierce is also famous for his semiotics – theory of signs – but I am not using Pierce’s system because I am not versed in it yet. I’m using a simpler and more intuitive system.
25 In exceedingly broad strokes, Aristotelianism opposes Platonism which is more other-worldly and ideal while Aristotelianism is more this-worldly and nominalistic (there are no universals, only particulars).
26 Pragmatists don’t fall into ditches, like Thales did.