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Pragmatism:

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

Truth:

Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality. In everyday language, truth is typically ascribed to things that aim to represent reality or otherwise correspond to it, such as beliefs, propositions, and declarative sentences.

According to the definitions above, there are views that might be deemed to work "satisfactorily, [in] that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it", such as the belief in free will, or the belief that solipsism is false, even if those beliefs happen to be mistaken.

Evolution:

"change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations."

Evolution (if I am right), selects for those traits (including beliefs, which lead to behaviours) which will optimise an organism's or specie's chances of survival/generational procreation.

Are there any theories/enquiries which contrast pragmatism vs truth orientations (in those instances where they conflict) in relation to inconclusive theories such as free will and solipsism; which arrive at conclusions as to whether pragmatism or truth serve us better in relation to our evolutionary desire (impulse) to thrive?

Note: If I have misrepresented evolution, please advise as to how I could more accurately formulate this question.

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    Lot of questions, kind of open ended. Also, your explanation of evolution is incomplete in context. It favors relative advantage so it may not optimize absolutely. Think leg number in different species. Also, you need to carefully explain where "pragmatism" is not "truth."
    – BillOnne
    Jan 7, 2023 at 17:04
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    Not sure why evolution is brought up in the title, since it doesn't seem to be part of the question in the last paragraph?
    – Frank
    Jan 7, 2023 at 18:47
  • @Frank. Good spot. I have edited. Jan 7, 2023 at 23:22
  • @BillOnne. Good points. I have added a minor edit to address your last one. Jan 7, 2023 at 23:26
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    IEP is not very clear on the distinction between the original pragmatic theory of meaning (Peirce) and pragmatic theory of truth (James), which you seem to have in mind and which has been widely excoriated by most, including most pragmatists. Under the first, there wouldn't be a contrast, but the idea that evolution does not necessarily select for truth-producing traits is prominently used in Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism.
    – Conifold
    Jan 8, 2023 at 9:05

2 Answers 2

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First, you are right that a false belief might, on occasion, result in behaviours that are successful in promoting the survival and reproduction of the believer. Nonetheless one would be justified in expecting that true beliefs would be more successful in the long run.

Second, along with survival of the fittest, evolution depends on DNA to transmit traits from one generation to the next. Transmission by sexual reproduction also promotes variability (by mixing the DNA of two individuals), and this provides opportunities for selection.

However, all that we are, including our beliefs and behaviours, is the result of interaction between our DNA and its environment. So the process, though clear enough in outline, is extremely hard to disentangle in detail. I think it is unlikely that specific beliefs or behaviours can be traced through it. However, tendencies and strategies may well be and they have the further advantage that they can enable greater and quicker adaptability.

So it is more likely that the ability to learn and to respond to stimuli in the way most likely to be rewarded or the tendency to seek out and remember patterns in the information coming through our senses might well be traceable (though most likely not to a single gene).

Third, there are plenty of discussions of pragmatism vs truth. But they do not usually directly consider other philosophical theories in relation to that issue. However, you are right that there are pragmatic arguments in favour of free will and against solipsism. How much weight they are given varies.

Fourth, your basic question is whether pragmatism or truth serves us better in relation to our desire (impulse) to thrive. It often helps to ask whether an opposition like this one is really a choice, or what the choice really is.

The only truths available to us within our limitations are always more or less accurate, more or less comprehensive in scope, more or less well established. What’s more, if there is some absolute and final truth, it is far from clear how we could distinguish it from the variously partial truths that we actually live with.

On the other hand, one would have thought that what would work best for us, what would be pragmatically most satisfactory to us, would be truth that is accessible to us, whether it happens to be absolute or not. I’ve already pointed out that beliefs that are false, even if they have some use, are unlikely to be useful in the long run.

Pragmatism and truth aren’t necessarily opposed to each other. It depends on how you define them.

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Your question is an area of incomplete evaluation in contemporary philosophy, and appears in both evolution and empiricism

There is an often unrecognized tension between empiricism and reasoning, which the problem of the “truth” of science and evolution drives to light. Classical logic, which is what most of us think of a reasoning, uses only two categories, true or false. It has a law that excludes any other state, the Law of the Excluded Middle, LEM. True can only be arrived at using certainty arguments, and there is no subjectivity or judgment involved.

In contrast, empiricism is based on four categories: Supported, counter-supported, currently indeterminate, and incoherent/unevaluable. All four categories violate the LEM, three involve explicit judgment calls, and the evidence that one uses to do empiricism is both subjective in nature (observations) and is generally treated as more reliable only if it is confirmed by a consensus of experts (expert is another subjective category). Intersubjective consensus of experts relative to data, analysis, and conclusions is how all science is done (peer review).

Empiricsm has a LOT of conflicts with classical reasoning. Verisimilitude is the particular conflict you are asking about

Analytically oriented critiques of empiricism point out that consensus of experts is difficult to distinguish from the bandwagon fallacy. And for outsiders accepting a consensus of experts, the justification of accepting science is an Argument from Authority. Also, the credibility arguments for accepting science PRESUME the empirical metric of utility, and are therefore circular. And finally, even the “accept as supported” is FAR short of the “true” that science claims as its goal.
The first formal attempt to demonstrate that science approaches truth that I know of was by Karl Popper, who tried to show that successive replacement of imperfect science theories thru the falsification process have increased Versimilitude. Popper’s proof was shown to be analytically incorrect, and that a falsification process cannot be shown to converge on the truth.

Popper is not the only one to fail. Repeated failures are implied in the sections 3.3-4 of this SEP entry on scientific progress: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-progress/#TruInf The belief in scientific progress is widespread, but the entry does not cite any demonstrations that support this belief.

Evolution faces the same problems

There is a very close analogy between the evolution of science beliefs, and the evolution of species. Both are based on a pragmatic mechanism. And biological evolution faces the same problem as science.

A widely cited attack on naturalism and the trustworthiness of human reasoning, by Alvin Plantinga is based on the inability of evolutionary processes to generate truth, or a reliable mechanism within us to evaluate truth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism The wiki article is dominated by critics of Plantinga, so for balance here is a supporter: https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2015/plantinga-s-evolutionary-argument-against-naturalism

It is not just theists who note this failing of our evolutionarily based reasoning process. A very similar claim to Plantinga’s is made by Donald Hoffman, an atheist neuroscienctist, based algorithms he derived through evolutionary fitness modeling: https://social-epistemology.com/2019/12/05/do-we-see-icons-or-reality-a-review-of-donald-hoffmans-the-case-against-reality-brian-martin/

Draw an inference from these multiple demonstrations

Each of these separate failings can be and are often dismissed by science advocates who want to think science (and evolution) approach truth. But there is a common theme here, independently discovered by multiple thinkers. Synthetic (empirical) processes do not conform to the criteria of classical reasoning. They use a different methodology, where there are four logic states, and “true” is never achieved, only “useful”. Empiricism uses pragmatic “truth” not analytics/classical TRUTH, and is in Classical terms both illogical and fallacious.

My takeaway: pragmatic “truth” is the only truth available to us. Hence pragmatic utility (supported well enough to accept as a working hypothesis, for instance), with its subjectivity, and consensus of experts, etc should be taken as our best measure of goodness, not any absolutist “truth”. And yes, we HAVE no "certainty" that science, human reasoning faculties, or any empirical or evolutionary process will converge on "true", or even converge at all. But they generally converge, and do so to the benefit of those that rely upon them, so we can trust them despite the "logic" insufficiency.

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  • Not sure why this was downvoted. I found it to contain a lot of useful, relevant and interesting info. Jan 8, 2023 at 3:56
  • @Futilitarian Some downvotes are against the conclusion not the answer quality. And analytics is the dominant school of philosophy today, and this site is dominated by people with math/programming background due to stack exchange’s history. The takeaway from my answer is uncomfortable for people with those perspectives. You could check mark it to counter.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:47
  • Mine was the initial upvote. Thanks. Jan 9, 2023 at 0:39

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