On how I became a Pragmatist

It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.  Karl Popper

I was at my late grandma’s, shortly after I decided to go to Mayfield Senior, an all girls’ Catholic college prep school. We were there for our weekly Friday take out dinner when Baba asked me how I felt about going there. Up until that point, I’d been going to a very liberal private “hippie” school my whole life where you called teachers by their first names, camped as part of the curriculum, and had no desks, no tests, and no grades. It was tiny, free thinking, and I was sick of it. All I wanted was to finally have new classmates, wear a uniform, study for tests, and immerse myself into what I imagined school was really supposed to be. So I responded, “Yea I’m excited. Hanami seems to like it. I just want something really different.

My dad then said, “Oh it’s a really great school. I think it should be an interesting experience for her to be around Catholics.”

At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. Interesting experience? What the hell is that supposed to mean?

~

Mayfield was a small school built into an old mansion in my hometown of Pasadena. My classes were held in bedrooms, living rooms, whatever rooms, adorned with carved wooden motifs and giant floor-to-ceiling windows each with its own little balcony. I liked my teachers for the most part, figured out the whole memorizing/testing thing, and was crazy about my Art and Dance Conservatories that kept me at school til 5:30 every day painting, drawing, or dancing after regular classes. But there was Religious Studies. Required for all four years, the religion courses for each term were divided into themes: Christ History & Revelation, Old and New Scripture, Morality and Social Justice, and World Religions and Philosophy our final year.

Soon after I started my first year with Christ History & Revelation, I declared myself an Atheist. None of it seemed to make sense to me, and the more I learned about it, the more convoluted the mess of contradiction seemed to become. Out of the many things that made no sense, the thing that weirded me out the most was Original Sin. The all-knowing God created us with the trait of curiosity, but punishes us for eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. We are therefore stuck in an eternal perpetual cycle of guilt and hell doom for disobeying Him and desiring truth. What I never understood was if God was all-knowing, why didn’t He have the foresight to create obedient idiots that never would have disappointed him in the first place?

Out of boredom and teenage disdain, I asked my Religious Studies teachers questions that I felt would expose their contradictions and make them as uncomfortable as possible. To my surprise, they enjoyed it because everyone else was completely checked out. I constantly ranted to my friends who’d gone to Catholic school their whole lives and pretended to hate my classes, but I found myself becoming closest to my religious studies teachers. They took my questions seriously and answered as best as they could, so I learned to be more deliberate and respect them in return.

By the time I got to my senior year, the World Religions and Philosophy classes began to help me articulate the things that made me uncomfortable about Catholicism and religion more broadly. I’d believed that religiosity reflected human weakness and submissiveness, but it was much more complicated than that. These institutions were effective in shaping our values and choices in a way that diverted our fears and feelings of meaninglessness. I became in awe of the way religion inspires as much beauty as it does violence. The way it has always been so closely tied to power and political control. And most importantly, how they each have its own world of logic based upon ancient stories and traditions. It seemed to me that the major religions passed down a way of living and structuring society that was more or less functional at one time in the past, but that we continued to force the adaptation of these old traditions and moral ideologies onto contemporary situations that just don’t make sense anymore.

Given how adamantly people identify with a certain branch of faith, I felt that people used religious tradition and faith to justify actions and ideologies out of the convenience of not having to be rational. How do you argue with someone who claims that their politics is based upon the Almighty Word of God? When someone’s position is based upon an authority that is tied to the single most powerful thing in the universe, there’s really no where you can go from there. There can be no rational debate.

~

When I got to high school, I was a self-proclaimed “Atheist committed to skepticism and scientific thinking”. By the time I left, I was an ardent Agnostic. What made me uncomfortable about Atheism is that it’s belief is completely reactionary to theistic tradition. All the doctrine holds for Atheists is that it’s about believing there is no God. The problem is that 1) there is no way of verifying if this is ultimately true (unless you think that human perception is end all be all: A questionable claim given the wackiness of many new scientific discoveries) and 2) how does that provide anyone with a model for living well? It doesn’t tell us anything about what is wrong or right. But I was comfortable not knowing what I believed, and I didn’t want to align myself with people whose belief system was based solely upon negating someone’s else.

I went to UC Santa Cruz for college. I began as a History of Art and Visual Culture (aka Art History) major, where all the undergraduate pre-requisite classes involved African, Asian, or Micronesian art and culture. It was then that I realized more than ever that religion was not only inextricably tied to society and politics, but to people’s feelings of life’s meaning and purpose. In all corners of the earth, humans organized themselves and their institutions based upon the mysteries of the universe and the unexplainable origins of the things that surrounded us. What’s so appealing and valuable about religion is that they’re full of stories to guide us, holding authority and structure to organize life’s chaos into a comforting order. Back when there was no way of explaining how anything worked, what else could you do but find such a way of making sense of it?

Though for more and more people now, we have science to do this for us. We can explain where we came from and why things are the way they are. Our understanding of the way our biology and psychology works has advanced to the point that we’re able to train ourselves out of certain behaviors and ignore some of our instinctive desires. From science, we can learn how to achieve the best outcome. If that doesn’t work, we can continue to hone our analytical and investigative methodologies to constantly re-evaluate the best possible way to solve a problem. It’s not that science holds the answers, it leads us to answers.

~

After college, I moved back in with my parents to work at our family’s law office: My dad the lawyer, my mom the bookkeeper, and I, the paralegal. My high school friends who hadn’t leaped into grad school nor have the financial flexibility to move to a new city without a job, moved back into their parents’ places too. While it was great to be able to be see each other again, there was an underlying anxiety, frustration, and shamefulness that we all felt about living back home with our parents. We had lost all certainty about our lives, about the guarantees that seemed to be promised to us for pursuing higher education.

The way I personally dealt with my restlessness was to go to the gym all the time, drink, and barter my web designing skills for dance classes. Most of all, I constantly wanted to get lost on the Internet, and read any essay and article that got my attention. I was finally free from any reading assignments and had the time to read anything I wanted.

Then one day, I read a piece about William James and pragmatism by Jonathan Rée. And that was when it all fell into place. I dove into the work of William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience, A Pluralistic Universe, and Essays in Radical Empiricism. For the first time, I felt that I’d found a method of living that would be consistent with scientific thought, a respect for the unknowable, and an understanding of human limits. Pragmatism was about being a “radical empiricist”: paying attention to causes and outcomes, while understanding the power of emotionality and connection. He distrusted any kind of metaphysical dogmatism, no matter what religious background, but saw the value of faith to make people devoted, trusting, brave, and less self-centered. Most of all, his writing lay in tune with my belief in active and mindful flexibility. He said, “The wisest of critics is an altering being,” always “subject to the better insight of the morrow.”

Pragmatism, as a practice, forces me to rationalize all of my actions. When I can’t say that something I do or believe isn’t logical, I have to be aware that I’m being illogical and be okay with that. It binds together skepticism, rationalism, mindful action, and respect for subjective feelings. I love that it can be applied to everything from a mundane decision about my diet, to relationships, to my broader political and social belief system. It saves me from the stress of not knowing why I’m doing something, and places a higher meaning to it, even if it’s just for the purpose of making myself feel good (though using that rationale too much would just make me a hedonist). It’s about a constant effort towards striking a balance, and being aware and critical of the things I’m balancing between.

So far, Pragmatism works for me. I have an incredible but demanding job, while I try to be healthy, social, maintained, spontaneous, and creative. It’s a tiring way of doing things, but I like my head clear. It gives me a good method for keeping my values and motivations in check, in a way that feels sustainable. And that’s all I need right now.