Instrumentalism

Like most creative people, I explored philosophy and metaphysical ideas to much delight as a teenager and young adult. Fairly quickly, I gravitated towards the more practical areas in applied philosophy. In particular, epistemology and philosophy of science.

We all have an implicit worldview or collection of assumptions we use to reason about the world. I always found it somewhat comforting to stumble upon philosophies and perspectives that "made sense to me", which is to say were aligned with my worldview.

I'm only a student of philosophy in as much as it helps me better understand myself and how to better interact with the world. Especially with the nature of reality and our relationship to it, I think it's useful to identify what popular philosophical camp we find ourselves in. I primarily identified with pragmatism until I discovered the more specific instrumentalism.

Here is a concise description of instrumentalism. It's similar to what I first read about it, which resonated with me deeply, to an almost eerie degree. It articulated the core of my entire worldview perfectly:

Instrumentalism is a view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, and their worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false, or whether they correctly depict reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. It maintains that the truth of an idea is determined by its success in the active solution of a problem, and that the value of an idea is determined by its function in human experience.

Everything we know–every model, theory, and truth–exists as an abstraction of reality (see General Semantics). We are only capable of perceiving and making inferences from lower resolution pictures of an infinitely high resolution objective reality. What we know are representations of reality, not reality. Since we like to conflate truth and reality, one could even say everything we know is a lie! However, all of them are at the very least useful in some way. Otherwise we would not keep them around.

The closer our models match objective reality, the more effective they should make us. That isn't always the case, though. The existence of God or an afterlife may not be a property of objective reality, but believing it to be true can make life easier by easing "existential dread" and other symptoms of knowing or not knowing certain realities.

Then again, you may not find it useful to have inconsistencies in your model of the universe. Perhaps believing in God or an afterlife, as great as it sounds, may conflict with other models you hold true and find useful. Or perhaps you're okay with contradiction because you know that humans are imperfect modeling machines with limited time to live and relatively low resolution reality sensors.

The relativism, perspectivism, and fallibilism baked into instrumentalism definitely makes our operating model of the world more complex by an order of magnitude. The upside is the tolerance and inclusiveness it can encourage. It also presents you with a significantly larger toolbox for solving problems and understanding systems.

Instrumentalism also supports and is supported by other favorite paradigms of mine, such as systems thinking, general semantics, and many others that I've been trying to integrate into my Ultimate Model. This is my persuit to reify and expand my worldview. The model may not answer the unsolved mysteries of the universe, but it should help me be more effective during the time I am alive. As long as I'm not crushed by the sometimes crippling complexity it introduces.

Although I've jokingly referred to myself as a philosopher in the past, I only partake in the Hard Work of being an actual philosopher when it serves my needs. For example, understanding the subtle differences between various forms of instrumentalism, or technical differences between instrumentalism and pragmatism, isn't terribly useful to me. That level of deliberation is what I'd say is for the philosophers.