Beyond Dulaism/Beyond Polarization: Lessons from Science, Religion, and William James

A century ago, James maintained an interest in different disciplinary fields even as they had begun their historical swing toward the specialization that our current transdisciplinary initiatives are designed to remedy. As I have followed William James through his inspirations from many fields, including the natural sciences, religion, psychology, and the humanities, I suggest that his insights can serve as a guide to contemporary theoretical and cultural dilemmas: first, his non-dualistic view of nature anticipates contemporary projects for the unification of knowledge, and second, his conciliations of inquiry and conviction are resources for coping with cultural polarization.

William James in His Own Contexts

James began his career as a scientist, first as a student of chemistry, then with specialized knowledge of physiology on the way toward earning his only degree (in medicine) before pioneering in the new science of psychology. He searched for spiritual meaning while he scrutinized natural facts, and he used the power of the will and the insights of direct experience to develop mediating paths between the advocates of natural scientific inquiry and the adherents of religious conviction. And he absorbed humanistic insights from travel, museum visits, discussions, philosophical reflection, and wide avocational reading on his path to honing his flair for a creative and accessible writing style; his humanistic impulses culminated in his application of psychology along with his other inquiries and convictions into philosophies of pragmatic use and experiential concreteness (see my Science and Religion in the Era of William James).

For all his coverage of diverse fields throughout his life, the connecting thread of his work was his impulse to go beneath the dualism that was lately manifesting itself in the tension between science and religion. That dualism rested in deep-seated assumptions, and modern times witnessed its reinforcement with an increasing pride in specialized knowledge. Especially in the West, religion has offered its greatest hope in transcendence of the natural world, and science has scrupulously attended to the material facts of this world. James honored both sides while defying each with his urge to find evidence for the operation of immaterial and spiritual elements within the natural. From this unified cosmic understanding of the potency of nature, he celebrated the diversity of religious forms built on these psychological and spiritual roots, and he enthused over the rigorous methods and ever-greater knowledge that emerged from modern scientific investigation. It was this core understanding of the intertwined material and nonmaterial elements of nature that gave him the humility to chide any specialized camp when it showed the human, all too human, pride in expecting that its corner of the world could explain the whole.

James’s diverse education exposed him to a host of spheres where he was persuaded by the power of modern scientific methods and where he also found evidence for the life of immaterial elements embedded within the natural. Although he was encouraged to enter scientific study by a father who hoped he would pursue spiritual understandings of nature, he absorbed the professional demands for rigorous empirical facts. Still, his idiosyncratic and spiritually committed father established in him an appetite for looking to find more than material facts in nature. In his youth, however, he found his own ways to satisfy this hunger. Young James developed his non-mainstream cultural and theoretical views in a variety of avocational disciplines right alongside his professional training and rigorous expertise in physiology, psychology, and philosophy.

Ambivalent about the horrible Civil War which also achieved the moral goal of abolishing slavery, William James gradually fashioned an alternative to war based on attention to both soaring ideals and basic animal drives. While studying mainstream scientific medicine, he also practiced alternative healing techniques which integrated mind and body. He frequently stepped away from his scientific studies to muse on the example of the ancients who gained their moral and spiritual motivations within this natural world. He experienced a series of discouragements including vocational indecision, tension within his family, awkwardness with women, and chronic poor health. In response, he did not so much solve his problems as gradually learn to manage them with the power of his will, and he constructed a philosophy to match his experiences. While studying and teaching psychology, he worked up a philosophical integration of idealism and empiricism which would form the basis of his mature philosophy. And he took his first steps into professional discourse by distinguishing his vision from the growing hubris for positive scientific knowledge. He did not so much reject positivism as challenge it to apply its own scrupulous demand for genuine experience not only to things metaphysical and religious, but also to science itself. This placed him within scientific culture, attuned to its knowledge and methods, but not of it; and he had a similar relation with religious convictions. James therefore stood in a virtually unique position to build bridges between science and religion, while also challenging orthodoxy on each side.

Science and Religion in the Spirit of William James

The bridges that William James built have become even more significant in our own time. He did not just seek to reconcile science and religion by keeping them separate or by pointing to parallels in their methods; and he did not simply notice that religious worldviews and experiences can influence naturalistic proceedings or that scientific methods can be used by the religious. These are important aspects of the reconciliation enterprise, and ones that James endorsed. But he went further, or really deeper, in his path of reconciliation. He proposed that the materials which the sciences analyze are the very seat of spiritual expression, that the immaterial factors of idealistic philosophy and religious tradition are fully embedded in their physical vehicles within this world. He never doubted the vital importance of the material evaluation of nature—such physical and chemical analysis was a vital first step of inquiry—but he did not want to stop there because nature is also shot through with the things that have no material name.

The fruit of these reflections in James was the development of theories that support a transdisciplinary perspective because of his insight that the disciplines and their subject matter are not essentially separate in the first place. Early in his career, he set the stage for his life work by mapping out the “psychology of philosophizing” in which he proposed that the theories and commitments that people endorse are based on their “Sentiment[s] of Rationality” (1879), which trained his attention to both the rational or reasonable qualities of religious convictions and the sentimental or personal commitments beyond empirical justification of even scientific commitments. He continued to transcend these tensions in at least two ways, as he pointed to the significance of the other side to the supporters of both science and religion First in his “Will to Believe” (1895), he spoke to scientifically trained intellectuals about the importance of thinking based on “our passional nature” and from this he posited the plausibility of a right (not duty) to believe in hopes and ideals that transcend the empirical world; and second in The Varieties of Religious Experience, he used a “science of religion” to describe and assess the psychological processes that circulate in the lives of believers, and he proposed that the complex depths of human nature are the uncountably deep settings for experiences of transcendence. In addition, he constructed philosophies in a non-dualistic vein. In his radical empiricism, James proposed that the conventional distinction between subjectivity and objectivity is actually a rendering of different relationships within experience but that they are each sliced off of a more primal pure experience that is indivisible. And his pragmatism is a method for settling disputes, which arise from privileging one side or another of the dualism of empiricism and idealism, by looking to the consequences of each philosophy and their use in helping us steer through the world. Each of these theories grew from James’s vision of nature as a setting where mind and body intertwine.

James’s detection of spiritual elements in the natural was part of a tradition in American culture and a philosophical movement of modern times. For example, Henry David Thoreau not only wrote about nature in a loving way, but also based his nature writing on the proposition that matter contains the spirit; he wrote that “we need pray for no higher heaven than pure sense can furnish” (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers). Similarly, Walt Whitman promoted his reader’s spiritual development through noticing that “the soul is not more than the body, and … the body is not more than the soul” (Leaves of Grass). Much of James’s work is in the romantic tradition, but he also anticipates the thinking of modern environmentalists. The environmental problems of our times have spurred urgent and practical drives for promoting these philosophical propositions: there is a growing realization that the view of nature as commodified material or even as the inert recipient of supernatural action has been complicit in environmental destruction. Most grandly, advocates of ecospirituality such as Thomas Berry call for a “biocentric” spirituality which would reawaken us to our intimate relation with all parts of divine creation (The Dream of the Earth). Other environmentalists such as David Orr and Donald Worster inject their otherwise secular accounts of resource exploitation and hopes for efficiencies with complaints that the conventional wisdom assumes that “nature is dead matter;” Worster calls for an “antimaterialistic materialism,” which will be “a less reductive … less grasping kind of materialism” (Nature By Design and The Wealth of Nature) Religious historian Catherine Albanese detects a response to that call embedded within mainstream religions themselves; churches have included “nature religion” elements with expectations for spiritual fulfillment within nature, and when the churches would not satisfy those impulses, new religious forms emerged (Nature Religion in America).

A range of philosophers, theologians, scientists, and science-watchers are also responding to the call to find deeper meaning in the physical world. The process tradition in philosophy and religion builds on the interaction of subject and object in our fields of experience to propose emergent qualities of our experience, which provide an analogy and theoretical contexts for viewing nature as a continuing creation. Theologians such as Sallie McFague (The Body of God) and Arthur Peacocke (Theology for a Scientific Age and Creation and the World of Science) have drawn on this approach to support panentheist views of divine immanence and embodiment in the world, although without complete identification of God with the world; in this tradition, the Christian incarnation is a theological resource for thinking of the cosmos as God’s habitat. Similarly, John Haught uses the insights of Alfred North Whitehead and Teilhard deChardin to understand Darwinism as an opening to spirituality, and Nancey Murphy argues for a “non-reductive physicalism” that defies the dualism of both traditional religion and mainstream science (Whatever Happened to the Soul? and God After Darwin and Deeper Than Darwin). Antonio Damasio is one of many neuroscientists who are challenging the dualism of mind and body; much of this work points to the embodied nature of mind (Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens). As neuroscience sketches finer pictures of bodily anatomy and maps genes with more precision, James’s philosophical assumptions are gaining scientific standing: “Brute and Human Intellect” (1878) to use James’s own words, are not so distant, and there is even work showing the “thoughtful” qualities of plants, as Barbara McClintock proposed (see Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism). Scientists and theologians in the science-and-religion dialogue itself, such as Ursula Goodenough and Philip Clayton, have used these ideas to understand the sacred in relation to the natural world (The Sacred Depths of Nature; God and Contemporary Science and The Problem of God in Modern Thought). These diverse voices come from many disciplines and contain many differences, but they share a leaning toward the view that the immaterial parts of nature blend with the material in creative ways—in fact this is what we experience as “nature,” even as we have only named it piecemeal as the symbols of religion or the empirical facts of science.

People from multiple fields of study—many with Templeton encouragement—have been looking beyond the polarization of supernaturalism and materialism, beyond the views that depict the world as either material stuff waiting on other-worldly power or else as just passively inert. Instead, a consensus is building for viewing nature as the site of spiritual and humanist meanings embedded in the physical. Religious propositions, scientific research programs, and policy proposals are emerging that coincide with James’s insight about the immaterial elements of nature. He is not only a precursor to these trends; he is also an articulate and wise guide to our continuing task. As he had already realized, religion provides important attention to broad meaning, and science’s focus on physical facts has been a “temporarily useful excentricity” (The Varieties); similarly, religion has presented itself (with many sterling successes) as a paragon of truth, while the constant inquiry of science has created a regime of perpetual progress. The two have often been at odds, but the insights of both in their interrelation will be needed to understand ourselves and our world, and to cope with our problems. The challenge is enormous, but the alternative is worse: if the reconciliations do not work, then “we must admit that there is no truth anywhere” (James papers). This was a future James was already stating a commitment to avoiding in the 1870s, and this was his dramatic and philosophical way of expressing his sense of urgency for the importance of both fidelity to inquiry and the lived methods of conviction. In seeking to find the interconnections of body and mind, to reconcile empirical and idealistic philosophies, and to balance science and religion, he joined a dedicated band of mediators, and pioneered in an urgent project of our time.

Cultural Polarization as Viewed Through Issues in Science and Religion

William James has yet another importance for our own times, namely in the use of his example and his insights for managing cultural and political polarization. Journalists and politicians have recently referred to “Values Voters” to identify ideological clusters of citizens who circulate in polarized constituencies. Although the phrase has been used more often to refer to the right wing, clearly liberals and conservatives each have their values, and they feel them strongly. The divides are deep, and they seem non-negotiable. Cultural warriors line up against each other over values questions of lifestyle and morality, most notably in sexual and marriage practices, school prayer, terrorism and warfare, and public displays of patriotism and religious belief. Diverse human temperaments fueled by democratic freedoms have dealt us these differences. Differences are fine, but problems arise when those differences inhibit constructive engagement with our most pressing social problems? Direct encounters do not get very far. No amount of evidence, proof, persuasion, or confrontation will generally turn people from their values commitments. The ideas and example of William James provide a model for managing a citizenry full of such differences.

James’s spiritual and humanistic yet scientific approaches suggest ways of thinking about our contemporary cultural problems in deep yet indirect ways, and his method of pragmatism provides a stage for hearing about the uses of divergent points of view. The terrain of James’s interests, on the relation of science and religion, points to a way to look beneath and around the polarization, to get at the reasons for the heated charges leveled by each side upon the other. In general, science and religion offer the guideposts that most people use to establish what is most real in their lives. The cultural divisions of our times are not just based on policy disagreement, but also on deep values differences that grow from people’s sense of reality as they see it. Without comprehending the divisions on the level of science and religion, attempts at reconciliation will not go far—in fact, we cannot begin to hear each other’s most vital concerns because we absorb even the most basic facts on different terms. Far from a turn to abstraction, inquiry into the origins, character, and broad impacts of science and religion will take us to the heart of our cultural tensions, and James’s ability to take the reality of each field seriously and to see their common spiritual root may even provide some paths out of our most paralyzing cultural dilemmas by expanding our story lines. As James’s approaches suggest, there is no hope in attempts to conquer opposing sides, or even much chance of direct persuasion, but talk that begins with a respectful hearing of the perceptions of reality shaping the divergent views offers the most possibilities for reconciliation, by avoiding sacrilege and by hearing the values beneath the policy differences. The dialogue of science and religion in general may have as an indirect benefit the mediation of elements of our culture beyond specialized work in science or religion. William James’s particular transit through the issues of science and religion, by looking beyond dualism, also suggests ways to mediate polarization through respect for the significance of both inquiry and conviction.

Approaching our cultural frustrations through science and religion and with the insights of William James suggests a way to understand the polarization based on deep values. The Left says the Right is too certain; the Right says the Left lacks standards. However, a close look at this familiar ground can challenge some other familiar stereotypes. The Left is more likely to draw on the authority of science rather than traditional religion, and often includes religious views chastened by scientific inquiry. The conventional wisdom going back to the fact/value contrast implies that science is full of certainty, while religion is vague and fuzzy. However, with the advent of probabilistic thinking, it was the scientists who were content with the elusiveness of uncertainty, while many religious believers insisted on certainty. In addition, tracing these familiar antagonists down to their science-and-religion values roots also gives a chance to hear from each camp about the virtues it values most.

Where do the values of each camp come from? While the outlooks that people have in religion and science each depict views of reality, they differ in their routes into those perceived realities. The very words used in the polarized disputes provide clues about those valued paths. Religion (especially in the western world) relies on conviction to shape the approach to new information, motivate the will, and provide hope for the viability of ideals. Science operates with inquiry: to learn information, test hypotheses, and correct improbable theories. These are not only well-known methods of religion and science, but also deep-seated values that lie at the root of much else that people in these camps do and support. And the etymology of these words further helps to illustrate the respective values: Conviction derives from the Latin word convincere: “to convince, to prove;” and this in turn comes from the words con-vincere: “with conquest,” as in a belief taking conquest of one’s mind. Inquiry derives from the Latin word quaerere: to ask, to seek; to ask about, to seek to know by asking or questioning (Webster’s Third International Dictionary). When traditionalists express a longing for certainty, a desire for a steadfast will, and an eagerness for comfort and security, they are reflecting the values of conviction. When scientists and progressives express a satisfaction with uncertainty, a desire for greater learning, and an eagerness for openness, tolerance, and diversity, they are reflecting the values of inquiry. Conviction and inquiry each provide valuable aspects of human life.

Everyone has and needs at least some of each, with convictions serving as powerful motivators for action, and inquiry allowing us to increase our understanding of the world. Below the radar of robust values differences, people emphasize inquiry and conviction based on their personal style and temperament. In addition, the two values can even be valuable to each other: Convictions are akin to the assumptions that begin inquiry; convictions can be resting spots between sessions of inquiry; inquiry can refresh traditional beliefs or correct problem convictions; and inquiry and conviction can be well suited to different parts of people’s life, no matter their views of science and religion. So, there is no absolute wall between these two cultural camps: a scientist can begin an inquiry with an unquestioned assumption and end it with a firm conviction about the truth of the conclusions; a religious believer can incorporate a spirit of inquiry to learn religious facts and seek out deeper spiritual depths within one’s convictions.

Even with these blurrings in mind, I propose the prevalence of distinct root values within the culture of conviction and the culture of inquiry. On this level, beneath the policy disagreements, these values are not so much in opposition as complements to each other. Different people may actually be gifted with more of one than the other, and for each of them, there is a distinct job to do. If I am a policy maker or police officer evaluating the causes of highway fatalities, I will enlist more inquiry than conviction; if I am on my deathbed myself, I would hope the Hospice worker would bring more conviction than inquiry. At Love Canal, preliminary inquiries into the toxic pollution dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company provided evaluations in terms of parts per billion, but Lois Gibbs really made headway in the case against the company when she tapped people’s convictions to feel outrage expressed in simpler terms. Also, within any one person, there is also a place for both conviction and inquiry; they are each significant for different moods and for different parts of life. A teacher may be an inquirer by day in the classroom and in research, but may need to enlist conviction in family life—or in department meetings. So even as we disagree with each other over policies, we can also value the values embedded in the cultural values of conviction and inquiry.

Can a science-and-religion perspective, with an awareness and appreciation of conviction and inquiry, do any more than provide understanding? Can it offer ways to cope with the polarization? Cope is the word, not solve or reconcile the differences. How then to cope? Wherever science and religion remain in stark conflict, it will be difficult for one side to overcome or conquer the other side; as Peter Seeger sings in the song My Rainbow Race: “you can’t kill all the unbelievers (there’s no shortcut to freedom),” and that goes for both sides. Alternatively, regarding each side separately and in contrast with each other, the clusters could go to their respective corners, where they could reinforce their own sense of reality, and even pray to their own divinity. (In case of a shortage, I have a modest proposal. (Image: God Copy Shop, photograph taken in Freiburg, Germany, June 2000: The Germans use many English words in everyday life, and the proprietor of a particular copy shop, one Herr God, felt comfortable with this borrowing to name his “copy shop;” one wonders if he also felt aware of the challenge to monotheism implicit in the English expression….) More seriously, we could realize that those differences in values and in views of reality run deep and that each has its reasons for being within the human frame. Those values are all valuable even when the particular policy positions seem reprehensible. Our contemporary political culture has a lot of seething hatred, and some of that may grow destructive if not leavened with awareness of the human and democratic worth of the values underlying the despised positions.

William James as Mentor For Our Times

The struggles that James had with science and religion are still the ones that bother us today. Their epistemologies are so different, even though there are significant parallels between theory and belief, what they are and how we form them; and their styles contrast so sharply in ritual behavior, claims to legitimacy, and breadth of appeal, although some parallels hold there too. I elaborate more on James, science, and religion in my cultural biography, and I summarized his theoretical contribution to the transcendence of dualism above, but here I would like to focus on the potential cultural uses of his theories. How can James serve as a cultural mentor to our times?

James lived at a time (1842-1910) when our current cultural polarization was coming into recognizable focus. Modernists and traditionalists disagreed not only on science and religion, but also on a host of lifestyle and policy questions. The supporters of each side were the Values Voters of a century ago. James not only lived through these times, but also felt the tug of both modernist and traditionalist leanings. He appreciated the modernist side and developed sterling credentials in its culture of inquiry, however he was distinctive among intellectuals, in not dwelling exclusively in that camp, since he also developed deep sympathy for the culture of conviction. His writings show attention to the positions of both science and religion, and to the values of both inquiry and conviction.

James was one of the pioneers in the psychology of selective attention. This theory emerged as a way to describe simple sensations: our perceptions are not simply a recording of the objective world, but a connection to a slice of that rich abundant world selected on the basis of our interests, which are constantly shaping attention. He vividly described our sensations when they are experienced without the shaping force of attention, or prior to the cultivation of understanding and interests (the world perceived by babies) as a “blooming buzzing confusion” (Principles of Psychology). James also took steps in applying this analysis of simple sensations more broadly, into the formation of people’s identities and cultural values. When choosing vocations, as each individual gropes toward one field, countless possibilities are surveyed and eventually rejected; these potential futures are “murdered … sel[ves],” as he said dramatically (“Great Men and Their Environment”). There is inquiry in the search and conviction when making the decision. Cultural values are like society’s habits, held with enough conviction to serve as the “fly wheel of society,” but when too rigid—in other words, when they stifle inquiry—they become oppressive (Principles).

James wrote his psychology in order to pursue and clarify his philosophical concerns. In the psychology of philosophizing that he sketched out before he had published his major work in psychology, he identified how people came to adopt the philosophies they did. His theme was that different positions provided different satisfactions to different people. People brought their own “sentiments of rationality” as motives for the adoption of those different theories. We gravitate toward positions based on deep-seated convictions, and from these starting points, inquiries ensue. This application of psychology to philosophy has direct relevance to cultural polarization because considerations of the sentiments associated with rational thought provides a way to think about the merits of each outlook by stepping back from the contest between them and by thinking about the motivation that attracted the adherents to each position in the first place and through on-going commitment.

After completing his psychology text, James turned increasingly toward philosophical questions. “The Will to Believe” emphasized the need for empirical inquiry when dealing with factual matter, and the need to enlist the will for what he called “genuine options” that require conviction unconnected to evidence. Although the essay is better known as a justification of belief (to bridge tensions in science and religion), it also presents a way to cope with the contest between the culture of inquiry and the culture of conviction. First delivered as a talk to scientific enthusiasts among the intellectual elite, he turned the lecture hall into an ivy-covered camp revival meeting urging his congregation to use inquiry, on the model of science, as far as it can go effectively, in factual investigations; then he counseled the enlistment of convictions when confronting genuine options, which are factually ambiguous because they are of the “forced, living and momentous kind.” James’s other commentaries on religion carry this same mediation of inquiry and conviction into his evaluations of religious experience itself. Moving beyond the earlier essay’s recognition of a place for belief beyond the domain of science, he took the tools of inquiry directly into religion itself. Despite his science of religion to describe faith states in The Varieties, James showed a rare trait among intellectuals: his openness to religion was beyond tolerance or sympathy; he treated it as an important ingredient in the total human frame. He felt its importance and wrote with intimate respect for its significance, and so his ideas can appeal to those who put a supreme value on convictions in life. His psychological inquiries opened the door, and in place of frequent condescension and dismissive judgments about religion from many intellectuals, he found and respected a variety of convictions lying within human nature. This posture provides the possibility for advocates of inquiry and conviction by noticing the intellectual legitimacy of each side, at least in theory.

These theories about psychological attention, the motives for philosophizing, the adoption of willing attitudes, and the life of personal religion provide theoretical background about James’s sympathy for both inquiry and conviction. His philosophy of pragmatism makes an even more direct contribution to the task of sorting out the contemporary dilemmas about cultural polarization. In Pragmatism, James asks: what are the practical consequences for the adoption of particular theories or beliefs? He turns the attention of inquiry away from theory toward practice, to the action that will ensue from particular ideas or convictions. Here is where pragmatism can be applied to polarization: equipped with a pragmatist perspective, we can enter into a polarized debate and change the terms of the discussion. A typical question, posed with our polarizing assumptions, would be, “what is your position,” which of course invites those with opposite convictions to lash out in response with their contrasting position; to a pragmatist, this is a question with little practical consequence. Pragmatism suggests asking, “what is needed to be done [for this person, with this landscape, in relation to this foreign land].” Then those people of different convictions can be enlisted to adopt different tasks from the long checklist of work to be done. Instead of stalling at the point of differences felt so deeply that they embody different convictions (and no doubt they are abundant, robust, and often incommensurable), pragmatism puts those convictions to work, in tasks suited to those convictions themselves. Critics may charge that these pragmatic openings in dispute are overly optimisitic; but of course the alternative, the polarized rejection of the opposition, leads to angry distraction from public problems.

The polarization is still all around us, but James’s theories can help. He suggests ways to cope, some ways to circulate within a polarized culture. James wrote popular philosophy, so he might actually have endorsed some popularizations of his own philosophy. If I were a newspaper reporter instead of an academic, I might have called this portion of my presentation “Study of Science and Religion Suggests Ground Rules for Getting Along.” Here are my top five ground rules (I am more modest than David Letterman with his lists of ten, and an analysis of science, religion, and polarization, has even less than half the claim to humor):

  1. Learn from the other side; we all have a tendency to learn what we already know; but try to learn what the world looks like to those who disagree with you profoundly; what assumptions do they have; what facts do they select as most important?;
  2. When disagreeing, say it out, but try to avoid wording that overtly sacrileges the views of the other side; it is especially important to avoid gratuitous insults just for spite;
  3. Pay more attention to the things that need to be done rather that the reasons for doing so: remarkably, two people of polarized views can plant a tree or help a child without ever debating why one would be motivated to do such work (in fact, debating the motivation will likely interfere with the work). If the differences do come up, apply those differences to the parts of the task at hand: for example, inquiry may help in the planning stage while conviction can sustain after the initial enthusiasms wear thin. Meanwhile, no matter the reasons for doing, the doing will result in some action done, and that brings the very non-ideological reward of accomplishment (the tree and the child will be better off for your actions);
  4. Especially when working or living alongside someone with “views from hell,” keep a sense of humor, after all we humans can do and say some remarkable and humorous (and even absurd) things—often righteously, in the name of conviction or inquiry; and
  5. Realize that anyone’s truth is still a human truth, having traveled through the vehicle of some human communication, and it is therefore fallible. Beyond us is a mystery that none of us can grasp, at least on this side of the veil. This may sound mystical (and had such roots in James himself), but it is also part of political acumen. In another era of even greater polarization, during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln reminded that both sides “pray to the same God,” and he urged that those on each side act in the right, as “God gives us to see the right” (“2nd Inaugural,” March 4, 1865).

That divinity may go by different names, or the view of reality may be identified without any God, but there is no doubt only one world, and we are in it together. Getting along is a fine ideal. Understanding how we have gotten to our positions and learning from those paths is a first step toward action on that goal. Values Voters of various stripes will likely always have their differences on policy, but an investigation of the values beneath those policy positions can reveal ways to turn this polarization into an opportunity to learn about varieties of the human condition. This values orientation is not in itself an endorsement or critique of either set of policies; that is a vitally important task, but one for another setting. If we can all get along a little better, even when critiquing each others’ policies, then we can start applying our values less to verbal charges against our adversaries than to the work of solving real-life problems.

Conclusion: Coping With the Values Embedded in the Views That Look Like They’re From Hell

So while polarization is intense, we are not condemned to shouting at each other and fuming through repeatedly stalled inaction. We can understand the roots of each pole as suggested by people’s views of reality within their scientific and religious commitments. These stances suggest that the polarization is not just a matter of the righteous and the correct versus the idiots on the other side. Before any one of us goes too far in condemning the ideologies we love to hate, choose a mirror opposite rendition, and plug in your favorite policy positions. Of course, there is still room for criticizing policies, but the polarization also involves a contest between a culture of conviction and a culture of inquiry. Beneath those policies that seem totally crazy, there are real values on each side. The reference to the contexts in science and religion is not an attempt to return to the fact/value debate, with objective inquiry set against subjective values; it is instead a recognition of the values of each side: This context shows that it is really a value/value divide, and this context shows that the theoretical work of James overcoming dualism can also be a way to cope with the cultural dualism of our time, namely the tensions of polarization. If we can’t be saved by objectivity, a serenely above the fray, we also don’t have to be stuck with the shouting matches. James theorized on a terrain that assumed no duality between mind and body and armed with those ideas, he provides suggestions about ways to go beneath and around the polarization. His theories in psychology, philosophy, and religion point to an understanding of the non-dualistic values beneath the polarization (which may defuse it), and his pragmatism suggests a way around it (which may allow going beyond it). This will not answer the polarization in the sense of reconciling the differences or achieving consensus. Those differences will remain, and in fact that may be just as well, since we need reservoirs of inquiry and of conviction to get by in this world; moreover, even unifications of knowledge will not eliminate those differences. With ideas like James’s to mentor us, however, there is the possibility for turning polarized differences into opportunities rather than obstacles, and hope that can be built on the realization that many of those differences rely on dualisms of science and religion and of body and mind that have little theoretical justification and even less cultural usefulness.


Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!