I’m a Theological Instrumentalist

November 6, 2009

My econ math class is hard, and I’m sometimes tempted to say it’s a waste of time, but last night I received further proof that it’s not. Namely, last night was the first time I was formally introduced to the belief known as instrumentalism, which led to my realization that the philosophical belief system I had developed to deal with theology had already been fully developed 120 years ago by William James, and is called pragmatism.

On the one hand, it’s disappointing to learn that what I considered my original ideas are, in fact, 120 years old. Further proof that I’m not a genius.

On the other hand, knowing that my beliefs are a well-established philosophical prediction gives me a lot more confidence that they are respectable enough that I can espouse them. Now I can precede my thoughts with, “As William James said…” and get some automatic credibility.

On the blog last week we were dealing with questions about free will and mental illness, to which I was applying the rubric of pragmatism without knowing it. There was a lot of talk of ghosts and belief in gravity. But the purpose of all that was to argue that the important question to ask of a theological model is not “Is it true?” but rather “Is it useful?” In economics and apparently in pragmatism, a model is constructed with a goal in mind, and so the test of the model is whether it achieves its goal.

The economist looks at the theological problem with these stylized facts:

1. I want to feel happy

2. One major obstacle to my happiness is a time-inconsistency problem. That is, I will set standards of behavior for myself that correspond to my long-term happiness, and then, later, will fail to observe my own standards. There is a part of me (my conscience) which feels unhappy when I do this.

Not the most rigorous statements of those facts, but you get the idea. Overcoming the problem in point two is the purpose of theology, and it’s why we build theological models. So what we want to know about any particular theological model is, “Does it help me overcome the problem in point two, thus helping me to achieve my goal (point 1.).

I wrote about “mental illness” last week, but I definitely don’t want to say that no one should mention mental illness, ever. Actually, I think that it is a very useful model, but you have to recognize that in using it, you are walking a fine line between empowerment and fatalism.

Khan or somebody said “Know thy enemy,” and that’s roughly the idea of mental illness. You know, in general, that you have this time-inconsistency problem, but it helps to give it a more exact form. If you are, say, “an alcoholic,” you will use that description to say to yourself, “Okay, I still want to achieve my goal of right behavior, and one thing I should be watching out for is alcohol, because that’s particularly likely to cause problems for me.”

Compare that with saying, “Well, I’m an alcoholic, so there’s nothing I can do to stop drinking and so it’s stupid to even try.” That’s fatalism, and whether or not fatalism is “true,” when we start saying these models are “true” or “false” we’re getting confused about what they are made for in the first place.

Mental illness, then, is better than the naive, perhaps Kantian, view that since I have free will, it doesn’t matter what I do or what situations I put myself in, because I’ll always be able to choose the right thing if I want to. A person who believes that will find himself making the same mistakes over and over again, with his strong belief in “free will” preventing him from doing anything to achieve better results. From a pragmatic point of view, that’s a model that’s failing, regardless of whether free will is true.

You definitely get my point by now, so I’ll just close with a reading suggestion. These kinds of themes come up a lot throughout The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Pavlovich doesn’t know whether to believe in hell because he isn’t sure whether the devil can really have sharp hooks. The Grand Inquisitor’s attack on Jesus focuses on the fact that free will is too difficult for people to use, but Jesus made us use it anyway. When Ivan himself encounters the devil, a huge portion of their debate is over whether the devil is real or not. So, check out that book again.

Update: One more thing. Check out this TED talk.


One Response to “I’m a Theological Instrumentalist”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    What’s more, you can use different theological models to relate to different goals in your life, resulting in a composite theological construct that is inconsistent but extremely useful and satisfying. It’s only when you (I would suggest arrogantly) demand consistency from your theology that you end up with either an unsatisfying set of beliefs or a massive case of cognitive dissonance.

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