Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



William James is well-known for arguing that different words which describe the same practical state of affairs are, in fact, equivalent in meaning. This theory of meaning is one important strain of American pragmatism, the movement which remains America’s primary philosophical contribution to intellectual history, and it invites us to consider a unique perspective on the contemporary dialogue between science and religion. Specifically, it raises the question of the necessity of philosophical foundations when there is practical agreement.

This paper argues that when practical agreement can be reached there are certain purposes for which philosophical foundations can be strategically ignored. For certain purposes, our concern should be to explore whether an imperative to other-regarding behavior can be grounded on both naturalistic and metaphysical premises. It is therefore at times prudent to abstract from divisive questions of philosophical foundations and focus on the practical consensus that can potentially be forged regarding the desirability of other-regarding behavior. Put bluntly, if a case for traditionally ethical, otherregarding, behavior can be made with or without traditional metaphysical underpinnings, then there are contexts in which it is best to make do without addressing the metaphysical question.

As a deliberately challenging “test case” the paper examines the work of biologist David Sloan Wilson and philosopher Eliot Sober in juxtaposition with a traditional account of Christian love. This paper attempts to provide a realistic assessment of the extent to which these two perspectives on altruism can provide similar accounts of desirable behavior, arguing finally that much practical agreement exists. To the extent that practical agreement can be negotiated, in this case and others, the paper argues that the divisive issue of philosophical foundations should be de-emphasized.


This paper was prepared for “Science and Religion: Global Perspectives,” January 4-8, 2005, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute (