Pragmatism? Reviewing Mittelberg's "Confident Christianity" Part 5

I'm reviewing Mark Mittelberg's book Confident Faith: Building a Firm Foundation for Your Belief (2013)—which won the Outreach Magazine's 2014 apologetics book of the year award. So far his book has been flying under the atheist radar. I aim to rectify that with a few posts offering my thoughts and criticisms of it. [See the "Mark Mittelberg" tag below for others]

In Part One of his book the author discusses Six Paths of Faith, which represent the "criteria" readers are using to base their beliefs on, the goal of which is to get readers to reassess their faith. Hopefully though, readers don't do as Mittelberg did, since when he decided to reassess his faith due to the questioning of a college professor, he decided not to truly reassess it. In his words: "My Christian conclusions were, I'm convinced, correct, so I needed to go back and shore up the foundations underlying my faith." (p. 21) If that's what reassessing one's faith is about, Muslims would end up shoring up their faith as would Hindus, and almost everyone else. That's because, as Warren Buffett tells us, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” [Quoted in Confirmation Bias: Why You Should Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence.] In fact, it's worse than that. The brain treats questions about beliefs just exactly like they're physical threats to its host. This means you must really want to know the truth in order to find it. You must force your brain to go against what it tells you to do. The only way to properly reassess one's childhood indoctrinated faith is to treat it as an outsider would, a non-believer, by requiring--no demanding--nothing less than sufficient objective publicly verifiable evidence for your faith, the same kind of evidence you would require of any ancient Chinese religion that made a claim about a virgin giving birth to an incarnate god. Think about this. What would it require? I've said agnosticism is the default outsider perspective, but one could also say if you're a Christian, treat your faith as if you're non-Christian, if you're a Muslim, treat your faith as if you're a non-Muslim, and so forth.

The Six Paths of Faith are as follows, of which I'll deal with the first one below:

1) The Relativistic Path: "Truth is Whatever Works for You"
2) The Traditional Faith Path: "Truth is What You've Always Been Taught"
3) The Authoritarian Faith Path: "Truth Is What You've Always Been Told You Must Believe"
4) The Intuitive Faith Path" "Truth Is What You Feel In Your Heart"
5) The Mystical Faith Path" "Truth Is What You Think God Told You"
6) The Evidential Faith Path: "Truth Is What Logic and Evidence Point To"

Path one is the "pragmatic, or relativistic, approach". Pragmatic truth, according to Mittelberg, "is what fits each person's own particular perspective and set of beliefs. As long as something coheres with the rest of your personal understanding of things--your worldview--then it's true for you but not necessarily for anyone else." (p. 26) [Mittelberg fails to bother readers with the technical differences between the pragmatic test for knowing what is true (which is an epistemological issue) and relativism, which is a particular conclusion supposedly following from it.]

Pragmatism "is an approach that assesses the meaning and truth of beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application." --from the Google Dictionary.

Relativism is the view that "there are no absolute truths; that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture." --from the Google Dictionary.

Mittelberg objects to this path of faith by arguing "some truth is true for everyone." "Truth is what is--what exists really exists, and what doesn't exist really doesn't exist--whether we like it or not, whether we can prove it or not, whether we have different perceptions about it, or whether we think about it or believe in it at all." (p. 29) "Trucks really do exist and can run you over--so you'd be wise not to step out in front of one. Orange juice is good to drink, but gasoline can kill you--so choose your beverages carefully." (p. 32) The same things said about the physical realm can be said about the spiritual realm, he tells us. "In both areas what is really is. Whatever is real in the spiritual realm was already real before we arrived. And it will remain that way, whether or not we think about it, believe or disbelieve it, or ignore it altogether." (p.34) "Reality is just what is. Truth, even truth about spiritual realities, is not produced by what we decide to believe in. What's really real already exists, with or without our belief in it; we just need to discover what it is and then conform our beliefs to it." (p.34)

I'm no expert in pragmatism, but it's an intriguing and tempting philosophy. For all I know this fits what we know the best, if properly understood. I wanted to find an way to communicate it, and I found one in this series of lectures by Dr. Stephen Hicks, which I use a bit in what follows. If nothing else look at clips 2-4, 7, and 10 (only 5-7 minutes each).

Pragmatism stresses the probabilistic, tentative and variable aspects to knowing. Just consider three cases (real possibilities, forget the Matrix). 1) Quantum Mechanics. It's been said no one understands quantum mechanics. Is there really another person typing these very words on this same computer in a parallel room right now, except the person is a woman? That's an implication of quantum mechanics. Which world is real at that point? Can they both be real? Are there a thousand similar worlds like that, yet with tiny differences to them? A million worlds? 2) A Holographic Universe. There are a few physicists who think the universe is nothing but hologram. What would THAT do to everything we consider to be true? 3) A Theory of Everything. Consider what it would do if a scientist worked out the elusive Theory of Everything? The results would depend on the equation(s).

Given the probabilistic, tentative and variable aspects to knowledge, pragmatists stress we are not primarily knowers but actors, or doers or agents. Since we're probably never going to have absolute knowledge, pragmatists argue we shouldn't get hung up on it but focus on actions instead. Acting on ignorance through trial and error is a matter of process, but it's the best we've got, since absolute truth with a capital "T" is probably forever elusive to us. We should embrace the process, and enjoy the journey by finding that which is useful to us.

Truth is always partial, always subject to change, so it's main function is workability by helping us achieve our goals. Truth is always functional truth. Its conclusions are modest and it fosters tolerance.

My friend Dr. John R. Shook is a leading contemporary expert on pragmatism, having co-edited the Blackwell Companion to Pragmatism and The Cambridge School of Pragmatism (4 volumes), along with some monographs on John Dewey and William James. When talking with him he doesn't say something is true. Instead he'll say "that's useful." For truth must be useful to be true.

One important justification for pragmatism is that it offers a satisfying justification for scientific knowledge. How can we justify the scientific enterprise? Why does science help us know the truth about the universe and our existence? We made up the three laws of motion, four laws of thermodynamics, differential equations and E=MC2. Why does that math say anything about the universe? Pragmatism just says it's fruitful, it works, and that's good enough. It works, really really well, so much so that there isn't another competitor.

In Mittelberg's view pragmatism leads to the relativistic conclusion. They do seem to go hand in hand as sisters of a sort. But with pragmatism there can be cross-cultural truths, even if they're not absolute truths. Remember, there are real probabilities to knowledge according to a pragmatist. Evolution has a very high probability to it. So it is true. Its truth can be seen in it's usefulness for explaining so much. No one can deny it and be an educated person. Pragmatists can and do also reject religion as not being useful, as John Shook does. In fact, I would think most all pragmatists and relativists reject religion (William James was an exception, and even then he was far away from an evangelical Christian). For typically religionists make wildly improbable astounding claims with a certainty no one should have about such things.

About relativism, Mittelberg argues in typical fashion that it entails a "serious, self-defeating contradiction" in that if "all truth is perspectival"--according to each person's perspectives--then it ends up "being the exception that proves all truth is non-perspectival" (pp. 26-27). I knew an ethics professor who taught in a masters level program for a Michigan University. He told me relativism cannot be refuted. I didn't agree then but I think he's right after all. For a relativist can simply state, "All knowledge is perspectival even this statement", without saying anything inconsistent or self-defeating. He can even try to persuade someone that all knowledge is perspectival without saying anything inconsistent or self-defeating. For in trying to persuade someone that all knowledge is perspectival, the relativist is merely trying to share her or his perspective in hopes it will be accepted. The relativist may even say, "It's highly probable that all knowledge is perspectival", which doesn't allow an opening for absolutist claims to knowledge since possibilities don't count. In morality it may depend on how large the cultural grouping is, as to the truth being accepted. For if every culture accepts a particular moral as true then that's about as good of an absolute moral truth for today's world as we can get for human beings.

The upshot of all this is that Mittelberg has a superficial understanding of pragmatism and relativism. If he had a better view he wouldn't say some of the things he does so glibly. It's one thing to say, as he did, that there is either a spiritual realm or there is not. It's quite another thing entirely to say what kind of spiritual realm exists, if one does at all. It's one thing to say, as he did, that "truth is what is--what exists really exists, and what doesn't exist really doesn't exist--whether we like it or not, whether we can prove it or not, whether we have different perceptions about it, or whether we think about it or believe in it at all." It's quite another thing entirely to say what that truth is, if we can ever attain to it. It's the justification part of claiming to know a truth that renders such statements of his as platitudes, and empty rhetoric. For until he can show us what is true, he cannot merely say there is truth whether we believe it or not.

Mittelberg warns readers not to accept pragmatism or the relativistic conclusion. But I don't see how they can avoid it. Believers are somewhat pragmatic in orientation and don't know it. For them Christianity works to help them through life in a largely Christian culture. It gives them a placebo type of peace and calmness, joy and forgiveness, community and sharing. No wonder he felt compelled to address this problem, because it's indeed a problem for Christianity. There are millions and millions of Christians who could not tell anyone why they believe, other than to say faith gives them hope and love, or that they had some strange warming of the bosom, or an unexplained experience or dream, things almost all religionists claim about their mutually exclusive religions.

Mittelberg says it's "wonderful" if readers came to the Christian faith through the relativistic faith path, but bids them to move off it. (p. 37). What? That itself is a pragmatic (or relativistic) approach to truth. You see, he doesn't care whether readers became Christians for less than the best of reasons, so long as they became Christians! This alone makes all of his talk about moving away from the relativistic faith path disingenuous and hypocritical. At the least it's a thorny conundrum for him.

Regardless, I doubt very much that true pragmatists and relativists embrace Mittelberg's evangelical Christianity in the first place. For according to pragmatists, truth is always partial, always subject to change, probabilistic and tentative, while according to relativists, all knowledge is perspectival. So they would both reject the non-perspectival absolutist exclusivist claims of Christianity, and if not, the Christianity embraced would not be Mittelberg's type of Christianity but something else.

What Mittelberg is actually arguing against is not pragmatism (and/or relativism), but faith. He doesn't understand pragmatism enough to reject it. In fact he tacitly embraces it when it comes to new converts. Faith is the real problem. He's unwittingly discovered this on his own.