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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Pragmatism v. Determinism

The story of Romeo and Juliet is a longstanding example of two things that will never mix. Like oil and water, The Montagues and Capulets, if ever they try to mingle the only result is death. So why is it that Romeo and Juliet even attempted to carry on their tabooed love affair? It is because they had feelings that defied the past belief system. They were not looking at a history of violence and hatred between their families, but that of the light that shined from the thought of a future filled with love. However, despite their feelings and hopefulness the star-crossed lovers ended like all stories of the Montagues and Capulets. Some might say that they were doomed before they started and that the effort was in vain. Others will say that the love they felt and experienced was worth the wait and effort. I can only assume which side philosopher William James would choose. James was different from most philosophers that preceded him. He did not look for what was correct. Instead, he decided what was correct based on trial and error and that is what finds truth.

Just like these two warring houses, Pragmatism and Determinism are two things that will never be able to mix. Determinism is the idea that all events are predetermined and end exactly the way they are supposed to. There is no cause that one can do that will change the effect of their life, year, day or even that minute. Pragmatism stands at the exact opposite to this form of philosophy. Pragmatism promotes free will while determinism takes it away. The idea of pragmatism is that our thoughts define ourselves because it is by our thoughts that we are lead to make decisions. James’ view that we control our lives through our thoughts directly conflicts with determinism because determinism says that our thoughts that dictate our actions were caused by previous events. Determinism leaves no room for free thinking, personal impact on the world or value to be added by any individual. This takes away all value of our personal selves and actions. James said that value is built upon our thoughts that lead to the practice and repetition of actions that eventually lead to a reality that one has molded.

Another way to understand James’s idea of ​​Pragmatism is to think the word practical. If it is useful, it is true and if it is true, one must practice it (class notes, Handout 15). When contemplating this idea it is clear that it is not possible to know what is more practical without having two or more options from which to choose. “Because life demands a response, demands action, we have no choice but to believe something. Life presents us with what James calls forced options. We must make decisions whether we want to or not (Soccio, p. 434). By having two options we have to execute what we call free will. Maybe the correct question would be: What makes one option more practical than the other? How do we choose what to believe? James believes that a belief should “pay” and have “cash value”. Continuing with the example of Romeo and Juliet, they decided to believe in their love story because they believed that at the end of their efforts to be together, they would find happiness. To them, it was more practical (or in other words it would give greater payment) to pursue a life filled with love than to continue their lives without one another but safe from the family strife. Many philosophers had ponder the meaning of life; however no many philosophers taught how to live life; meanwhile, “for James, philosophy’s true purpose is to help us live by showing us how to discover and adopt beliefs that fit our individual needs—and temperaments” (Soccio, p. 423). Now we see that our power to decide our actions gives us the power to determine what is valuable to each one as an individual or what is not valuable. Each individual determines what to believe and what is to be “pay”. Thus, we could conclude that a decisions have real “cash value” if “its presence or absence makes a clearly observable, practical, and concrete difference in our lives (Soccio, p. 442).

How can we decide what is valuable to us or not? The simple answer is our capacity to think. Once we have something in our minds of a desired future is will lead us to action. For example, in my own life I want to be a surgeon. I have explored other ideas, but to me the future that will “pay me” the most is one where I am able to work as a surgeon. Now that I have this goal in mind it motivates me to take actions to accomplish this goal. I have to master many things in order to accomplish it. I must practice getting good grades, learning the medical field, understanding the human body and becoming a medical professional. Therefore, my thoughts have launched me into action. If I didn’t have these thoughts propelling me forward and I felt confined to whatever the universe had in store for me then I would not be taking the same action. James’ point is that it is because we can reason out what it best for us it allows us to take one step forward, ever changing what the world looks like.

I have a good friend named Cody. As I sat having a conversation with him our topic turned to religion and our plans for continuing in our faith or not. Cody told me that he was contemplating the choice of whether to believe in God or not. This took me aback because I always viewed him as a very faithful person. He further explained to me that he chooses to believe in God because he has looked at the alternative. If he will choose to believe in God then he will choose to believe in the principles of which religion teaches. If he believes in the principles like love and charity then this will motivate him to become something that is a positive impact on society and those around him. After this consideration I thought of the opposite. Someone who fears no punishment from a higher being or is not motivated by a celestial reward has much less to give society. This brought my mind my brother-in-law Matthew. Matthew has recently decided that he will no longer believe in God. He has severed all ties to his previous religious life. He explains that he has contemplated the probability and the arguments of the existence of God and he feels like the reality of it is dubious. He amounts the experiences and stories of religious people to children’s stories. Matthew’s choice was not based on results of a decision, or pragmatism. Rather his thought process lead him to make decisions that will no longer further his aim. Without religion in his life Matthew has closed the door on an opportunity to interact socially with people, to feel the love of many others and to have a reason to push himself spiritually. These two very different points of view have direct applications to James’ position of religion. James says that a religious belief will allow us to hypothesize and then lead us to either prove or disprove this theory. Without theories then the world stands still. Imagine that we did not believe in a world with anti-biotic. There would be no anti-biotic because no one would venture tests. When we close the door to religion we close the door to progress in our lives.James had deep respect for a religion that enriches our lives, that has “cash value.” He noted that people in all cultures turn to a god (or gods) who gets things done, an active god, a god of the “strenuous mood,” not a passive, ineffective god(Soccio, p. 442). These two very different points of view have direct applications to James’ position of religion.

The way that we can figure out what is true to us is based on our ability to think, reason and act. We have many options in this life and we are only limited by the beliefs we choose not to pursue. You determine your own reality. Our society’s reality is determined by the ever evolving temporary truths that have been proven and disproven. The world was flat but then was round. Man could not walk on the moon until he did. One of the largest keys to unlocking the future and the next truth is looking beyond ourselves and turning to the mythical and godly as it sets the boundaries to reality past our understanding; “there are…cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” ( James 1896, 25).

Works Cited

Class notes, Handout 15

Jordan, Jeff. “Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 16 Aug. 2004,

Soccio, D.J. (2010). Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (7ed.).

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