Pragmatism

This is the second essay in a series introducing the Euthoria approach to living. If you haven’t yet read the prelude, read it here.

If you’re walking toward some destination, concerned only with your estimated time of arrival, your method only matters insofar as it affects your rate of travel. There is a whole plethora of literature (in a very loose use of the word) on the subject–ten steps to overnight success, six steps to genuine closeness with God, easy enlightenment for $19.95 plus tax.

If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in the journey itself–the Good Path–you have more opportunity to relax, to explore, to expand. Your entire existence then becomes concerned with the act of living; and make no mistake, living is indeed a skill, and one worth cultivating.

The pragmatic approach to life stems from this focus on living as a conscious, practiced act, with your eyes on the road and your immediate surroundings rather than on the distant horizon.

Pragmatism means, simply, doing what works, and thinking in ways that are useful.

This automatically discards a number of philosophical issues which might otherwise arise. We don’t need to consider the possibility of predetermination of events, or fate, for the simple reason that consideration of these things is pointless. If the universe is already written, and free will is an illusion, then our choice of pragmatism is likewise predetermined. Without free will, all philosophy is useless (though inevitable), for what is philosophy but the question of how to live?

We can also discard the infamous matter of whether or not we exist, or whether other people exist, or whether the universe and things we see exist. The fact is, this reality is the only one we can experience, and the only one we can affect, and thus, this universe is the only one which it is useful to contemplate. If we do exist in some giant computer simulation in a hyperintelligent being’s laboratory, it changes nothing–for us, that simulation is reality, and is just as important.

Likewise, if we ourselves are constructing our reality, we still have to operate according to the patterns of that reality, which we have no control over. If you walk in front of a freight train, you will die. If you step off of a thirty story building, you will die. If a tree you don’t see, don’t hear, and have no prior knowledge of falls on you, you will die. If you choose not to eat, you will starve regardless of the strength of your faith or the complexity of your own personal metanarrative.

So, we exist in a shared external universe, with other thinking, speaking, acting beings. We can ignore those theories which negate the existence of causal relationships, because without the ability to act with tangible results, philosophy is again useless, for the simple fact that “use” cannot exist without cause and effect.

We can also avoid spending time on certain questions of metaphysics; the number of angels that can dance on the head of the proverbial pin is insignificant until they ask us to cut in. We must be careful, however, to consider some questions carefully before so dismissing them — questions that may seem pointless now may have some hidden value of which we are not yet aware.

Inherent in the concept of pragmatism is the concept of freedom of action, and, more importantly, the power of creation. This is the one thing that distinguishes we humans from our simian cousins and the other lower life forms, and is a thing which is rare even among our own species.

Creation is the making of the New Thing — a pattern in the universe that exists because of and only because of our choices. Not all human acts are acts of creation — the choice to continue eating, for example, is part of the natural functioning of the system, as is the choice to mate or even to build a home or work at a job.

An act of creation can be thought of as that which is injected into the system, and changes its future. Without such acts, the future could be perfectly determined given sufficient access to and comprehension of the current universal state. Creation, though, changes the system. The teachings of Confucius, for example, were acts of creation that changed an entire section of our species for over two thousand years. Similar acts were the words of Christ, the poetry of Homer, and the music of Brahms. Beneath these visible, large-pattern acts, are scores of little acts, freely chosen–the choice to give a cold stranger hospitality when it is not expected, or to give mercy to a fallen enemy, or to build a home with more beauty than is needed.

The “future” may only exist within human perception. This, too, is another key element of pragmatism. We are human, and cannot escape our limitations (though we can seek to reduce them through discipline or technology). As such, we should treat the universe as we see it according to those limitations. The Universal Something may not see things according to space and time, but we do, and so we will act under the premise that things like space and “the future” exist and are relevant to us.

So creation is the ability to shape the future, by choice. These acts are rarely easy, and require a strength of will. Those figures of our history with the greatest wills have also had the greatest effect, with consequences not always favorable to the welfare of our species. Good action, Euthoria, requires both wisdom and will, and will be discussed in the upcoming essay regarding the ethics of creation.

Creation requires freedom, and freedom is far from universal. Freedom, in this sense, is not defined negatively. Political freedom, in distinction, is: political freedom means you are not imprisoned, and are not restricted in certain ways by the government.

Freedom of creation is internal, not external, and is defined by what you can do. If we take the metaphor of the path again, freedom of creation determines the number of branching paths you can take from any given point. Poverty in this sense limits creative freedom because the majority of your time will be spent in the simple day-to-day necessities of survival, which do not involve creation or true free action. Local governments can also limit creative freedom, by suppressing acts of creation or, in extreme cases, by executing a potential creator.

Once these external limitations are removed, however, the positive internal freedom can be cultivated. Internal resources can be built up in the form of knowledge, experience, and skill. As an example, take the case of a man broken down on the side of a desert road, fifty miles from the nearest town, with no water and no means of communicating with those in the town. Different skills open up different paths of action. Mechanical ability opens up the path of repairing the car. Physical ability opens the path of waiting until night and striking out for the town. Survival ability decreases the need for extreme physical ability by allowing gathering of water from the desert.

Of course, humans have always been tool users, and tools can open up paths of freedom as well. A plastic bottle containing water, a satellite phone, or a book about car repair would all be useful in the above scenario.

There is a balance to be struck there, however. Too many possessions begin to act like an anchor, limiting power of freedom. Some possessions have no real use short of entertainment or status. A three story house with a four-car-garage, for example, isn’t particularly useful unless you happen to have a dozen kids. A 46-inch television may be nice too look at, but should you feel a sudden urge to, say, visit Timbuktu, it’s only going to weigh you down.

We often acquire possessions without much real thought at all beyond a sort of primitive instinct that having X will increase our survival odds. In the modern world, that doesn’t always work well. A long history of our species’ struggle against starvation causes us to desire things like fatty foods or sugar, because they’re efficient sources of food energy. Giving in to that desire in a state of excess, like any modern first-world country, has some rather unsightly results. Likewise, in our dim prehistory, having the biggest cave meant getting the healthiest mates and thus ensuring the highest likelihood of gene survival through offspring. Today, buying a Porsche as a status symbol might be fun and make you feel good, but might not help you all that much in the long run (though, it must be said, it might indeed help you acquire a mate — most other humans are no more adapted to the modern era than you are.).

Instead, we should consciously consider each acquisition. A common and useful thought along this line is, “will that make me happy?” A better question is, “how will this item affect my ability to live?” taking into consideration factors such as that item’s effect on your social resources (how you are seen by others) as well as the costs (in terms of money, time, or again, how you will be seen by others).

With some experimentation and research, you should be able to arrive at a physical set of tools–a residence, mode of transportation, and smaller possessions–that maximise your freedom of action and of creation.

Skills and knowledge also include costs of acquisition, though they tend to last longer and be more useful than material tools. In the pragmatic approach, “knowledge” or “skill” or only good insofar as they are useful. Memorizing a book of historical dates, for example, will be useless without also learning the context which makes those dates meaningful. In turn, that historical knowledge will be useless without some application–in government, for example, or in acts of creation like the writing of a book. There is, of course, always the simple reason that it’s worth learning because it’s good–if you truly get joy out of something, you need no further justification, as long as the costs are reasonable. That’s not to say that you’re justified in buying, say, a solid gold toilet if you can afford it. That’s an issue of the ethics of ownership, which will be covered in a future essay.

This brings up an interesting point: the why of it all. Why seek personal or creative power? Why strive for effectiveness? Why bother trying to act consciously and deliberately? Why seek, as the Buddhists say, mindfulness?

Pragmatism is only useful to a point. It is a strategy for acting, but it needs a pattern to act in accordance with, goals to strive for. It is the Path in the Good Path; the Good is something else entirely. I’ll cover these issues in the next installment.

Walk well.

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