What is pragmatism?Question: "What is pragmatism?"
Answer: Pragmatism is a philosophy most easily summarized by the phrase whatever works. The central idea of pragmatism is that truth is proved by whether or not the idea in question “works,” meaning it produces the expected or desired results. As it turns out, however, pragmatism itself “does not work,” and so it needs to be viewed with considerable skepticism. Technically, pragmatism is not the same thing as utilitarianism, which specifically focuses on defining morality in terms of outcomes, but the two are closely related.
Pragmatism suffers from three major flaws. First and foremost, pragmatism as a test for truth is obviously false—philosophically speaking, it’s easily debunked and has been subject to widespread criticism for that reason. Second, pragmatism can lead to false conclusions as a result of limited human knowledge; this is true both in a physical and a spiritual sense. Third, pragmatism not only lacks moral power, but it actually erodes it.
The first and second flaws of pragmatism are closely related. Logically, these provide immediate reasons to reject pragmatism, at least in its simplest forms. Just because some idea, theory, or claim generates acceptable results does not necessarily mean it is true. We can tell a child there are invisible gremlins living in the electrical outlets who will bite if they are touched. This “works” by keeping the child from touching the outlets. And, if the child touches one and is shocked, that experience follows the theory of invisible gremlins.
The problem, of course, is that there are no invisible gremlins living in the circuits. Yet the theory “works,” in that it gives us the desired results and even predicts outcomes. This is where the second flaw of pragmatism comes in: the only reason the gremlin theory appears to “work” is that the child has limited knowledge. There is nothing wrong with noting that the gremlin idea “gets results”; that’s a far cry from saying that there really are gremlins—that the gremlin idea is true.
This version of pragmatism is the major philosophical flaw of scientism: the claim that empirical science, and only empirical science, can determine truth. Once all is said and done, this amounts to a claim that whatever “works,” per our current understanding, must be true, even if our understanding is limited. In some cases, this limitation is deliberate—scientism often ignores potentially non-scientific truths in an effort to protect itself.
The third, more dangerous flaw in pragmatism involves ethics and morality. Most people immediately recognize that pragmatism completely implodes when applied to empirical issues. However, with morality, this collapse is not so easy to see. The major reason for this is that defining “what works” becomes incredibly subjective when the outcomes are defined by morals instead of physical measurements. When applied to ethics and morality, pragmatism is just relativism with a less-polished appearance.
For instance, the proposition “Africans are not people the same way Europeans are people” certainly “worked” for the slave owners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It did not “work” so well for the slaves themselves. A pragmatic approach to morality, in the end, becomes a means to excuse one’s own moral preferences to the detriment of others.
Christians cannot follow both pragmatism and the Bible. Scripture indicates that truth is not defined by our experiences or our opinions (Proverbs 14:12). In fact, the Bible teaches that our fallible perspective can lead us to make mistakes (1 Corinthians 2:14). Particularly when it comes to moral issues, Christianity and pragmatism are entirely incompatible. Whether or not we like the outcome (Matthew 6:9–13), and whether or not we personally benefit (Philippians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 12:8–9), right and wrong are defined in relationship to God (Job 38:1–5; Romans 2:4). What “works” for us in our limited human minds, in the end, is not necessarily what’s true or what “works” from an eternal perspective (Romans 8:17–19; Matthew 7:21–23).
Recommended Resources: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis Beckwith
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