04 October 2007

A Pluralistic Universe

The title of this entry is also the title of William James' most metaphysical, most speculative, most free-ranging work.

I'll limit myself today to some observations about its structure. James defines his own position through a series of dichotomies, of either/ors if you please. The first two of them are set out clearly in the first lecture, the third appears more gradually.

There is first the question of materialism versuis some sort of supernaturalism. Philosophies of the former sort define the world "so as to leave man's soul upon it as a sort of outside passenger or alien" while supernaturalism of any variety "insists that the intimate and human must surround and underlie the brutal."
James opts for the latter. "Not to demand intimate relations with the universe, and not to wish them satisfactory, should be accounted signs of something wrong."

The second dichotomy takes place AFTER we have crossed the threshold of supernaturalism. Shall we worship a Being who transcends this world, or shall we worship the world itself as supernatural enough?

Dualistic theism or pantheism? Given the former, "Man being an outsider and a mere subject to God, not his intimate partner, a character of externality invades the field. God is not heart of our heart and reason of our reason, but our magistrate, rather; and mechanically to obey his commands, however strange they may be,
remains our only moral duty. Conceptions of criminal law have in fact played a great part in defining our relations with him."

With such a God as that, James will have nothing to do. So he will be a pantheistic supernaturalist. A critic might think this an oxymoron, since if we reduce God to identity with nature, then God has ceased to be supernatural. But what James really means by supernatural, remember, is intimate, vital, non-mechanical, and what
he means by God is that something intimate, vital, etc. that infuses or surrounds all that seems external, material, mechanical, etc.

That is what it means to say that nature is itself supernatural.

Still, we can understand this God/nature in one of two ways -- monistically or pluralistically, and filling out THAT distinction, the third in the series, constitutes the heart of the book. We have to give at least our provisional, for-the-sake-of-discussion consent to the first two steps he takes even in order to understand what he is on about thereafter.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.