Pragmatism and the Ethics of Belief

Nordic Pragmatism Workshop

Jyväskylä, Finland
15-17 December 2008

Focus Questions

Religion is one of the cultural forces today whose importance seems to be growing. In particular, conflicts between different religious ways of thinking, as well as between religious and scientific world-views, seem to be with us to stay. A balanced perspective on the significance of religion in human life is vitally needed.

While virtually absent from most discussions on pragmatism for several decades, questions of the philosophy of religion have made a forceful return to pragmatist philosophy. Neo-pragmatists like Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty have contributed to contemporary debates on the philosophy of religion, and a number of studies in pragmatists’ religious views have appeared during recent years. It has become increasingly clear that pragmatism can offer novel ways of critically examining the relation between religion and other human ways of viewing the world, especially science.

Of the classics of pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce famously placed ethics (and aesthetics) before logic, the science of good reasoning, in his triad of normative sciences. In his last published paper, ”A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” (1909) Peirce argued for the naturality of the hypothesis of the reality of God. Instead of breaching against the canons of science, Peirce held that the hypothesis is testable, on pragmatic grounds, by reference to ”its value in the self-controlled growth of man’s conduct of life.”

William James’s most famous essay, ”The Will to Believe” (1897) defended an individual’s right to stake (religious) belief in a situation when sufficient evidence is not and cannot be available. Indeed, James’s whole essay can be considered an objection to the view proposed by W.K. Clifford in his ”The Ethics of Belief” (1877), according to which ”it is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence.”

The religious belief advocated by Peirce and James has often been described as being ethical in nature. In John Dewey’s work, the intimate connection between ethics and religious belief is even more pronounced. In his A Common Faith (1934) Dewey advocated religious ”moral faith,” or faith in ideal ends, instead of institutionalized religion. Dewey’s position brings to the fore related questions of the relationship between communal and institutionalized religion and (individual) religious belief and experience.

Questions to be discussed in the workshop include the following:

  • Do we have the right to believe without sufficient evidence?
  • Is there a pragmatist ethics of belief?
  • What is the relationship between science and religion, especially religious belief and the scientific world-view?
  • Is religious belief by its nature ethical?
  • What is religious experience? Can religious belief be justified with reference to such experience?
  • Is pragmatist philosophy of religion individualistic? What is the place of communal and institutionalized religion in pragmatism?


The workshop is arranged at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, 15-17 December 2008. The organizers have received financial support from the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NOS-HS), and the Ethical Grounds of Metaphysics research project at the University of Jyväskylä.

The first workshop day, afternoon of Monday 15 December, consists of a largely Finnish programme (in English) supported by the Ethical Grounds of Metaphysics project. If possible, all participants are encouraged to attend the programme already on the first day. The following days, 16-17 December, are reserved for the international programme.

All workshop sessions take place at the Mattilanniemi campus, A-building, room 211. For the participants, rooms at Hotel Alba very near the conference location have been reserved.

The organizing committee includes:


Please note some recent changes to the programme (due to a cancellation).

Monday, 15 December

12.00-13.00 Arto Laitinen (University of Jyväskylä)
On the Ethics of Belief: Rights, Responsibilities, Reasons and Warrants

Henna Seinälä (University of Jyväskylä)
The Idea of Eternal Return and The Question of Belief

13.00-14.30 Lunch
14.30-15.30 Lauri Järvilehto (University of Jyväskylä)
The Pragmatic A Priori

Toni Kannisto (University of Tampere)
The Intertwining of Religious Belief and Science – Kant on Physico-Theology

15.30-16.00 Coffee break
16.00-16.30 Olli-Pekka Moisio (University of Jyväskylä)
Metaphysical Experience without Metaphysics: The Case of Theodor W. Adorno

Tuesday, 16 December

10.00-11.30 Charlene Haddock Seigfried (Purdue University)
James’s Anti-dogmatism in the Defense of Religious Belief
11.30-12.00 Coffee break
12.00-13.30 Henrik Rydenfelt (University of Helsinki)
Pragmatism as a Guard Against Make-Believe (pdf)

Ulf Zackariasson (University of Oslo)
Ethics and a Religious Ethics of Belief (pdf)

13.30-15.00 Lunch
15.00-16.30 Eberhard Herrmann (University of Uppsala)
On Religion, Truth, Morality and Meaning (pdf)

Sami Pihlström (University of Jyväskylä)
Dewey and Pragmatic Religious Naturalism

19.00 Dinner
Restaurant Figaro (Asemakatu 4

Wednesday, 17 December

10.00-11.30 Wayne Proudfoot (Columbia University)
Description and Critical Reflection in James on Religion (pdf)
11.30-12.00 Coffee break
12.00-13.30 Heikki A. Kovalainen (University of Tampere)
Culture of God: Emerson’s Pragmatistic Philosophy of Religion

Niek Brunsveld (University of Utrecht)
Hilary Putnam’s Pragmatic Pluralism and Science, Ethics, and Religion

13.30-15.00 Lunch
15.00-15.45 Tommi Lehtonen (University of Vaasa)
Implicaturism: A New View of the Pragmatics of Religious Language (pdf)
15.45-16.00 Coffee break
16.00-17.30 Dirk-Martin Grube (University of Utrecht)
The Ethics of Belief in William James’ ‘The Will to Believe’


Monday, 15 December

Kosti Joensuu (University of Jyväskylä)
Ethics as First Philosophy: Heidegger and Levinas

Martin Heidegger’s originary “ethics” and Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical metaphysics have gained interest in contemporary moral philosophy. On that research field this presentation introduces a dissertation plan concerning the possibility of moral ontology (for the degree of Ph.D). From the ontological and hermeneutical point of view ethics is seen as an analysis of the beginning conditions of human existence. The presentation asks the question of how moral ontology is possible, and also examines the ethical dimensions of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Levinas’ ontology of the Other. Some of their ontological and existential differences on constitution of morality will be contrasted. What can be said about the initial state and the initial conditions of morals? This presentation proposes that despite the harsh critique of Heidegger, Levinas’ ethical metaphysics is based on the idea of fundamental ontology, in which ethics and ontology are seen intertwined. The focus of this presentation is to search for theoretical perspectives to the constitution of morality not only within morally meaningful experiences, but also in the broad area of moral phenomena.

Lauri Järvilehto (University of Jyväskylä)
The Pragmatic A Priori

I will argue that the rationalistic idea of absolutely indisputable truths that can be adopted as axioms in a system of inference is untenable. This follows from the plurality of mutually exclusive logics, geometries and other categorial systems. Nonetheless, there are truths that for all things considered appear to be hold under all circumstances. While many have argued forcibly against a priori truth, I believe it is not very pragmatic to do away with such a useful concept. Thus, a pragmatic view of the a priori is called for.

I will argue that a priori truth are indisputable only in respect to a categorial system. A priori truths are the necessary truths that such a system to consists of, while the choice of system is dictated by pragmatic criteria. A priori truth is also metaphysically necessary in regards to a particular point of view – point of view fixated by the choice of categorial system. It is the categories the experiencing subject faces experience with that are a priori – the categories that are taken for granted.

Toni Kannisto (University of Tampere)
The Intertwining of Religious Belief and Science – Kant on Physico-Theology

While many philosophers have tried to show religion and science as compatible, Kant is remarkably radical in claiming that scientific process is impossible without religious belief. In my presentation I will delve into the meaning and grounds of Kant’s position. I will show through an analysis of Kant’s philosophy of action that for Kant any search for systematic lawfulness in nature presupposes a belief (or hope) that nature in fact is lawful and systematic. Furthermore, it is impossible to prove such lawfulness, which therefore remains a subjective belief. This belief is of religious nature due to Kant’s insistence that we can only presuppose the systematicity of nature if we also presuppose its creation for a purpose or that it at least serves a purpose. Thus scientists can only engage in scientific study of nature with the assumption of some supernatural purposiveness of nature.

Arto Laitinen (University of Jyväskylä)
On the Ethics of Belief: Rights, Responsibilities, Reasons and Warrants

In this paper I will tentatively explore the ethics of belief (whether empirical, moral or religious). I will try to combine several points. The first is a liberal view concerning rights to adopt beliefs without reasons or warrants – analogously to a right a person has to destroy his own property even when there’s no reason to do so. The second is a quite stringent view about the extra responsibilities and commitments one takes on when one communicates one’s beliefs – by and large it is impermissible to give an impression that the views have a better justification than they do. The third point is a kind of pluralism concerning epistemic reasons for beliefs, non–epistemic reasons to have the belief states, and reliabilist warrants. I illustrate this in the case of beliefs about moral principles and judgements about particular situations, with reference to Shafer–Landau’s views. The fourth point is that there is a relevant difference in the role that “inarticulable warrant” (in distinction to communicable reasons for belief) has in private and public contexts – by and large it plays a lesser role in the public context. Given the relevant liberal rights, one has a right to hold even unwarranted views, so warrant does not add anything to that. If one is known to be a reliable detector of something (say, of moral or religious truths), then of course public deliberation should give serious weight to this person’s views. An argument is given that we are likely to lack such knowledge even though such reliable detectors would be among us.

Olli-Pekka Moisio (University of Jyväskylä)
Metaphysical Experience without Metaphysics: The Case of Theodor W. Adorno

“It is what is possible, never what is immediately actual that blocks off utopia: thus in the midst of existence what is possible appears to be abstract. The inextinguishable color comes from non-being. Thought serves it, a bit of existence which, negative as always, reaches over to non-existence. Only the utmost distance would be nearness; philosophy is the prism which captures its color.” (Thedor W. Adorno: Negative Dialectics, 66)

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) asked whether and how philosophy is possible after the disastrous history of western world. This question is obviously set against the background of the famous formulation of Karl Marx in his notes on Feuerbach from 1844. Marx’s famous answer was that philosophy’s task was on the other hand to interpret the world but after that to change it. This answer is understandable in the context of Marx’s concept of human as productive and political organisms whose relations between each other are not merely interpersonal but social and historical. Marx’s emphasis on production, politics, society, and history takes his epistemology in a direction of pragmatism. Truth in his mind does not indicate the abstract correspondence between thought and reality, between proposition and fact. Instead, truth refers to the economic, political, social, and historical fruitfulness of thought in practice.

Adorno shared many anthropological ideas of Marx but he saw that the equation of truth with practical fruitfulness was something that had had very unproductive, even horrible consequences, in east and west. In Negative Dialektik Adorno starts from the argument that philosophy remains necessary, not because it works, but because it is apparently obsolete, and capitalism was not overthrown after all. Philosophy missed its moment of realization, and after this moment was lost, its task in Adorno’s mind is to criticize itself. Adorno thinks that while still pretending to grasp the whole, philosophy fails to recognize how thoroughly it depends upon society as a whole.

This self-critique of the relation between theory and practice in philosophy is one of the crucial sources to Adorno’s reflections on ethics and metaphysics as negative theology. Another source is the catastrophic impact of twentieth-century history on the prospects for imagining and achieving a more humane world. To formulate metaphysically what Adorno is pointing out is to say that philosophers must find historically appropriate ways to speak about meaning and truth and suffering that neither deny nor affirm the existence of a world transcendent to the one we know. But to deny it would suppress the suffering that calls out for fundamental change and straightforwardly affirming the existence of utopia would incapacitate the critique of contemporary society and the struggle to change it.

In this presentation it is argued that the basis for Adorno’s double strategy is not a hidden ontology. It is formulated as a metaphysical experience without metaphysics where it is possible to experience that thought which “does not decapitate itself” flows into the idea of a world where “not only extant suffering would be abolished but also suffering that is irrevocably past would be revoked” (ND 403).

Henna Seinälä (University of Jyväskylä)
The Idea of Eternal Return and The Question of Belief

Nietzsche imposed the idea of eternal return as his most important thought. To him, the acceptance of eternal return can be deeply meaningful for the ethics of an individual. In short, the question of eternal return is about how one would answer to the possibility of one’s life returning and happening again and again in the same manner as already lived: whether one would be able to say yes to one’s life as a whole.

However, does such an ethical impact require belief in the reality of eternal recurrence? According to some commentators Nietzsche gave up a cosmological interpretation but still did not give up on the ethics of eternal return. But is the idea, then, about belief at all? I will inquire whether the ethical answer requires that one actually believes that one’s life returns, and whether we need a cosmological interpretation of eternal return, according to which the universe actually repeats itself.


Tuesday-Wednesday, 16-17 December

Niek Brunsveld (University of Utrecht)
Hilary Putnam’s Pragmatic Pluralism and Science, Ethics, and Religion (work in progress)

In this paper, I tentatively explore one particular aspect of Hilary Putnam’s pragmatic pluralism, and what its implications are for the relationship of religion with science and ethics. I explore what Putnam means when he says that he is a “naturalistic philosopher, not a reductionist” (in his Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life, p. 5), and analyse what the considerations fundamental to that view could imply for the way science, ethics and religion relate. I intend to argue, against some of Putnam’s own views on religion, that the three domains are not as disconnected as they are often thought to be. According to Putnam, reality makes demands on us, to which we respond in different ways. If religious views are, as one could argue, as much answers to the demands that reality makes as, in Putnam’s view, scientific and ethical views are, there is no real dichotomy between the three domains.

Dirk-Martin Grube (University of Utrecht)
The Ethics of Belief in William James’ ‘The Will to Believe’

In this presentation, I will provide a ‘close reading’ of William James’ famous article ‘The Will to Believe’. I will argue that the point of this article consists in providing an answer to a question pertaining into the realm of decision-theory rather than into the realm of the theory of truth. That is to say, when James argues that we are justified in relying on the will in matters of religious belief, he suggests not that we are justified to hold our religious beliefs to be true but, rather that we are justified in our decision to believe. Reconstructing James’ arguments as contributing to the realm of decision theory rather than to the realm of truth has a number of consequences which will be explored: First, all those criticisms of James’ article which presuppose that his contribution pertains to the realm of the theory of truth are mistaken. Second, his contribution has interesting and unorthodox consequences for the question concerning the proper ethics of belief. Third, it provides interesting possibilities for the pursuit of the philosophy of religion, i.e. for developing an unorthodox apologetic strategy.

Eberhard Herrmann (University of Uppsala)
On Religion, Truth, Morality and Meaning

What is religion about? The answer varies depending on who is asked. There are people who cannot help being religious and to whom religion is a prerequisite for everything; and there are people who cannot help not being religious and to whom religion scarcely adds anything to their lives. When people from different groups justify their beliefs, they do so mostly with the help of arguments that convince only themselves. However, religious or ideological beliefs can have practical implications that are not acceptable to people with other views of life. A way of reasoning has to be found which does not presuppose the acceptance of those particular beliefs. I will develop a philosophical view of religion according to which religion is neither true nor false en bloc. I will do this by questioning certain religious claims according to which there is no truth, morality or meaning without religion.

Heikki A. Kovalainen (University of Tampere)
Culture of God: Emerson’s Pragmatistic Philosophy of Religion

Amidst the recent philosophical Emerson renaissance, virtually no attention has been given to his philosophy of religion. While it is difficult to deny that Emerson was in important ways a religious or a spiritual thinker throughout his life, even embracing certain elements from mysticism, his interpretation of spirituality is significantly this-worldly and in so far proto-pragmatist. Even the quasi-mystical notions in the background of his religious philosophy are interpreted by Emerson so as to give them some practical bearing for the everyday lives of human beings. I shall argue that one of the central problems in Emersonian philosophy of religion is the dilemma of Faith versus Works, and that his reconciliatory solution to the problem amounts to an original understanding of our relation to God, naturally to be seen as a precursor to the Jamesian tradition of pragmatistic philosophy of religion, articulating and striving for living faith.

Tommi Lehtonen (University of Vaasa)
Implicaturism: A New View of the Pragmatics of Religious Language

In this paper, I will introduce and argue for a new view on religious faith and language, a view that focuses on the use and context of religious expressions. I call this view implicaturism (cf. Grice’s ‘Implicature’). According to implicaturism, the claims of the existence of God or other supernatural beings are pragmatic conclusions of the expressions used in religious practice, not the grounds or presupposition of religious practice.

Thus, according to implicaturism, religious practice does not necessarily require the belief in the existence of God. Rather, belief in God’s existence may or may not follow from religious practice. Implicaturism is supported, among other things, by the fact that atheistic (e.g. various Buddhist as well as Jaina) and non-theistic (e.g. Confucian, Taoist, Shinto) prayer and worship can also include god-talk, god-talk that does not convey the belief in the existence of God.

Sami Pihlström (University of Jyväskylä)
Dewey and Pragmatic Religious Naturalism

John Dewey is often regarded as a purely secular thinker, a “naturalist” and “humanist”. In most commentaries, Dewey’s pragmatism, including his moral, social, and educational thought, is barely, if at all, connected with his views on religion, in contrast to another classical pragmatist, William James, whose explorations of religious themes, emphasizing the value of individual believers’ experiential perspectives, continuously attract scholars’ attention. This paper, however, deals with the socially oriented, pragmatically naturalist conception of religious faith Dewey developed in A Common Faith (1934, LW9:1-58) and elsewhere. In particular, Dewey’s distinction between “the religious”, on the one side, and actual religions, on the other, is emphasized.

According to Dewey, the religious aspects of experience can be appreciated without metaphysical commitments to anything supernatural. Here a problem arises: can the religious qualities of experience be fully naturalized by understanding them in a Deweyan manner as imaginative relations to human ideals, or will such naturalization inevitably reduce religious experience to something else? Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism thus leads us to consider the ontological status of religious “reality” (religious values, ideals, and other “entities”, whatever they are). Hence, the issue of realism regarding religious experience and its objects (as well as scientific and/or philosophical studies of such experience and its objects) can be taken up as an analogy to Dewey’s conceptions of science and inquiry. This issue has potential applications not only for religious life but for theology and religious studies as well, that is, for any academic study of religion. From a Deweyan perspective, we may ask whether religious “reality” is “really there” independently of us or constructed by us (our active pursuit of ideals). Finally, some comparisons to Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion and related currents will be made in order to situate the Deweyan approach in the field of recent philosophy of religion. One may examine the relation between Deweyan pragmatic naturalism and the radically anti-metaphysical interpretations of religion offered not only by Wittgensteinians but also by neopragmatists like Richard Rorty.

Wayne Proudfoot (Columbia University)
Description and Critical Reflection in James on Religion

I want to look at the extent to which some of James’s writings on religion are meant to be descriptive accounts of religious belief and inquiry and the extent to which they are proposals. I’ll focus chiefly on some passages from “The will to believe,” Varieties, and Pragmatism.

Henrik Rydenfelt (University of Helsinki)
Pragmatism as a Guard Against Make-Believe

Peirce once wrote that the definition of pragmatism could be vaguely stated in one simple maxim: “Dismiss make-believe.” Following Peirce’s suggestion, I will argue that pragmatism provides a guard against (religious) make believe in two ways. Firstly, with its emphasis on the connection between belief and action, pragmatism is able to distinguish genuine belief from false profession. Secondly, elucidating the meaning of a concept or belief by a consideration of the expectations of practical consequences it involves, pragmatism is able to discern between the genuine maintaining of religious beliefs and the mere acting as if one believes.

Especially due to its latter capacity, pragmatism is useful in countering suggestions of adopting religious belief based on, e.g., calculations of the believer’s utilities – such proposals that often may seem at once compelling but counterintuitive. I will suggest that pragmatism may challenge Blaise Pascal’s famous wager – despite its apparent similarities with James’s “will to believe” – by pointing out that the belief suggested by Pascal might not conventionally be considered religious at all.

Charlene Haddock Seigfried (Purdue University)
James’s Anti-dogmatism in the Defense of Religious Belief

William James asserts that philosophy and science will only have something positive to contribute to determining the objective truth of religious claims when they cease to be dogmatic and become experimental. In this paper, I focus on how James’s anti-dogmatic approach affects his defense of religious belief and psychical research. I conclude that in his efforts to undermine the dogmatic rejection of the very possibility of genuine religious phenomena by positivistic scientists and naturalist non-believers, James appeals to the pragmatic experimental method but is unable to produce convincing evidence.

Ulf Zackariasson (University of Oslo)
Ethics and a Religious Ethics of Belief

I raise the question of which difference it makes for religious practices if we adopt the pragmatic view that although we do not need reasons for belief (as long as we lack reasons for doubt), we need some confidence in the ways in which practices deal with challenges and problematic situations. Against this background, I show why attempts to use religious experience as an epistemic foundation for religious belief fails, and I argue that this failure should motivate us to take a closer look at the relation between ethics and religion.