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The Universal Notebook: William James can take Ayn Rand any day

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: William James can take Ayn Rand any day

While vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan was reading Ayn Rand, I was reading William James.

Well, not at the same time, but just as Ryan’s young mind was receptive to and formed by Rand’s absolutist philosophy of self-interest, James’ New England philosophy of radical empiricism made more sense to me than anything else I read as a college student and it informs my thinking to this day.

I read Ayn Rand when I was a student and found her black-and-white thinking simplistic. What attracted me to the writings of William James was the way he was able to handle the shades of gray that color most of experience.

The fundamental philosophical dilemma that James helped me work my way through was how, in all intellectual honesty, I could profess a belief in Christianity given that my most profound perception of life is that no one is in possession of the truth. Anyone who claims to know the meaning of life or the mind of the Creator, be she a theoretical physicist or a metaphysical preacher, is deluded, a charlatan, or both.

So my starting point is always this: we are all ultimately clueless. Given this one simple truth, how then do we live a meaningful life?

Some folks seem to believe that God is necessary for a moral universe, that it is only our fear of God and eternal damnation that keeps us from living like barbarians. I don’t believe that at all. It seems to me that a code of human compassion and moral behavior would be even more necessary in a godless universe. We’re all in the same boat (or whirling through space on the same mysterious planet) without any clue where we are going or why, so let’s do what we can to take care of one another.

Before I read William James, I read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. "The Stranger" is still my all-time favorite novel and I certainly understood the existentialists’ sense of the absurd, the meaninglessness of existence. But I still wanted to believe in the loving God of my Congregational upbringing and William James’ pragmatic philosophy helped me do so.

“Grant an idea to be true, what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s life?” James asks. “How will the truth be realized? ... What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms?”

If I believe in God and the teachings of Jesus Christ will my life be better than if I do not? I believe so. That’s why I fight through my doubts and try to live into the Christ story, a story of forgiveness and selflessness.

“Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish,” writes James. “The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage.”

James proposed that “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”

Truth then is relative. There is no objective reality, no absolute truth. We all know this in our bones, but we have a hard time accepting it in our minds. True ideas are just those that get us into better relationships with experience and with one another. My old philosophy professor Bill Gavin, a James scholar and a philosopher in the American process tradition, would probably shudder at my corrupted interpretation of the great man’s thought, but, hey, it works for me.

Scientists, of course, would like us to believe that there are immutable and discoverable laws of nature, that only verifiable, replicable truths are valid, but science only describes the “how” of life, not the “why.” No matter how far out into the cosmos or how deep down into the microcosm you push the known, it is always dwarfed by the unknown. You can’t reduce life to a set of empirical facts. Science is every bit a belief system as religion. By the time a science major graduates from college, half the things he’s learned have been proved wrong.

The idea that we create our own truths, that we transform reality by virtue of our beliefs has a distinctly Buddhist flavor to it, but it is central to my practice of Christianity. We are working for the transformation of this world into the kingdom of God. It is a very liberating and, I would argue, a very liberal way to live one’s life.

And if you’re not trying to make the world a better place for all living things, what in heaven’s name are you doing here?