Aquinas said moral language is meaningless if it does not exist.
William James gave Aquinas’ argument a pragmatic twist. He divided beliefs into live options and dead options. James criticized both kinds of religionist philosophers (atheist and theist) for being obsessed with dead options–issues that made no practical difference. James was an agnostic about God and free will, and also an agnostic about free will: he claims to have found good reasons for both free will and determinism.
He expresses his own indecision in a clever parable about a philosopher from Boston, where there were many philosophical clubs many years ago on a certain street. He couldn’t decide whether to believe in free will or not. So he didn’t know whether to join the Freewillers Association on one side of the street or the Determinist Society on the other side of the street. He decided to join the Determinist Society, so he knocked on the door for admission. The doorman said, “Why have you come here?” He replied, “I came of my own free will.” The doorman, of course, slammed the door in his face. So he went across the street to the Freewillers Association and knocked on the door. The doorman asked the same question, and the philosopher replied, “They kicked me out across the street so I had no choice…” The doorman then slammed the door in his face and he found himself out in the street.
James said our ignorance leaves us free to choose to believe in either answer. And he advised us to choose belief in free will because that will make the best difference in our lives. It will make morality meaningful, and will make us personally responsible for our choices.
This strikes me as completely absurd. James’ pragmatism is an appeasement to Aquinas’ natural law theism and everything else about the past, God especially. Nothing makes any difference in our lives; it makes no real difference to us whether there is free will or not, James should have recognized this. Beliefs and desires themselves are objects of the will that make no sense to speak out neuro-psychologically. Propositional attitudes belong in the pantheon of useless, speechless, and quaint idols.
But no one had yet affirmed the kind of freedom that Sartre talked about, which is called metaphysical freedom. It’s the freedom inherent in our radically unique mode of being, which Sartre calls “being for itself” as opposed to “being in itself”. Being for itself–or human reality–he also calls “existence” as opposed to “essence.”
Freedom is essentially Sartre’s most crucial idea. His notion of freedom, which has no essential ethical consequences, is said by religionists to flows directly from his metaphysics. Putnam hadn’t yet told us that ethics and metaphysics were not necessarily connected. Sartre assumed this was true as well.
The key idea in Sartrean metaphysics is that distinction between being in itself and being for itself. This is also the distinction between objects and subjects. Things and ideas on the one hand, and persons on the other. Things have essences and natures, which we can express in concepts. Persons do not. There is no such thing as a human nature or a human essence. Sartre says there is no human nature because there is no God to conceive it. Man creates his own values.
Nothing fundamentally justifies one set of values as opposed to another. Or one act over another. Our existence–our life–precedes our essence. Our mode of existence as subjects, not objects. Life is improvisation, and ethics is too. There are no objective values. Ethics does not give man dignity. Man is not an object, designed by God. So Sartre’s metaphysical freedom gives man the kind of dignity which is rightfully his.
Theologians talk about freewill as if it comes from God, and that because God planned our their freedoms (contradictory) then man must be free. Sartre says man has freedom from the opposite perspective. Because there is no God, man is absolutely free. Humans are free, not just freedom from determination, but free from metaphysics and free from meaning.
Receiving anything is incompatible with being free. Whether that is nature, values, gifts or even love. There is no use talking about such a thing as a meaning of life. So this brings me to what I originally wanted to say about all this.
We generally fall back on pragmatism because it is useful in orienting ourselves in some socially-correct way that will get us to where we apparently want to go. Logicians like Quine fall back on pragmatism because language wouldn’t make any sense without it. Others “use” it because it makes doing ethics much easier. But none of this makes any objective sense. There are no ends, truly. No ends that are justifiable against metaphysical freedom, that is. In other words, there is no reason, objectively, as to why “happiness” or anything else should be the proper end to any action or rule. We are, as Sartre said, ultimately free to choose our entire makeups, and these ends which pragmatism ultimately relies upon are basically absurd.
So pragmatism is ultimately not useful because it fails to justify the leap between uncertainty and certainty, between ignorance and knowledge, which cannot be justified anyway, if there are not objective standards by which to judge them. There are no shortcuts which pragmatism can provide since the “ends” to which it aims are metaphysically stupid and revolve ultimately around power and domination and ideology.