William James* “The Will to Believe” Text, pp. 425-434 *1842-1910 Revised, 4/12/07
Overview Background & context W.K. Clifford (1845-1879), “The Ethics of Belief” (1877) : “[I]t is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” James’s essay on “The Will to Believe” (1897) is an attempt to refute Clifford’s viewpoint. J wants to show that it is sometimes justifiable to hold beliefs that are not supported by sufficient evidence. “The Will to believe” contains 10 sections, but the essay is really divided into 2 main parts: (1) a long discussion of “preliminaries,” in which J sets up a conceptual framework upon which he seeks to support his overall argument (sections I-VII) and (2) J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence (sections VIII-X).
Overview, cont’d J’s framework: distinctions & definitions (425-430) Hypotheses – alive & dead Options – living, forced, & momentous (genuine) vs. dead, avoidable, & trivial (not genuine) The role of volition (will) & passion in human belief “Empiricism” vs. “absolutism” Pursuing truth vs. avoiding error J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence (430-434) in the scientific search for the truth about nature (430-31); in the pursuit of moral truth (431-2); in the realm of interpersonal relations (432); in social action (432); and with regard to “the religious hypothesis” (432-434).
J’s distinctions & definitions Hypotheses (425) Propositions proposed to our belief Either alive or dead What is a “live hypothesis”? What is a “dead” one? Is it possible for an hypothesis to be alive for one person and dead for another? What does J say? Explain. Can you give some examples of your own of “live” hypotheses and of “dead” ones? Post them on the course bulletin board in the discussion thread on James. A live hypothesis “appeals as a real possibility”; a dead one doesn’t.
J’s distinctions & definitions, cont’d Options (425-6) An “option” is a choice between two hypotheses Kinds of options: Is the option living or dead? To be living, both hypotheses must be live ones. Is the choice between the hypotheses forced or avoidable? Is the issue involved momentous or trivial? A “genuine” option is one that is (1) living, (2) forced, & (3) momentous Again, can you give some examples of genuine options and options that are not genuine? Post them to the bulletin board for discussion with the rest of us.
J’s distinctions & definitions, cont’d The role of volition (will) & passion (desire) in human belief & opinion (426-8) Beliefs based on volition & passion vs. beliefs based on intellectual judgment Beliefs based on intellectual judgment: (1) matters of fact and (2) relations between ideas (Hume) Beliefs based on volition & passion Beliefs based on the “authority” of the intellectual & cultural climate in which we live The “use” basis of belief & disbelief: “As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use”. Is this true? How does J employ “Pascal’s Wager” in this discussion of intellectual & volitional-passional believing? J’s thesis: see next slide….
J’s thesis: “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision — just like deciding yes or no — and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” This claim needs careful examination (see next slide).... (p. 428)
“Our passional nature” = The emotional side of human nature Desires, hopes, fears, attractions, repulsions, etc. Not the intellect (the part of human nature that operates on the basis of factual evidence and logic) If we are faced with a genuine option between two hypotheses, i.e., a forced (unavoidable) choice between two live hypotheses (A and not-A) where the consequences of our choice are momentous for us; AND if our decision cannot be determined on the basis of either factual evidence or logical analysis (i.e., neither A nor not-A can be proved or disproved on either factual or logical [intellectual] grounds); THEN we “lawfully may” make our decision on “passional” grounds, i.e, we are rationally justified in accepting the hypothesis (either A or not-A) that best accords with our desires, hopes, fears, etc.; INDEED we MUST decide the issue this way because we are faced with a FORCED (unavoidable) choice.
an example Is there life beyond death or not? Suppose that this question represents a genuine option for me. Both the “is” and the “is not” propositions are possibly true. I feel that I must choose between the two hypotheses, that I am faced with a forced choice. I must either believe or disbelieve in the reality of life beyond death. The consequences of believing one way or the other on this issue will be momentous for me (e.g., I will be much happier if I believe than if I disbelieve in life beyond death). Suppose also that there is no factual or logical proof either way. According to J, I am justified in believing that there is life beyond death if so believing is more satisfying to me, accords more with my hopes and desires, gives me more happiness than if I were to disbelieve in trans-mortal survival. But what if I say....
“Do not decide, but leave the question open”? To this, James says: This is itself a passional (not intellectually-required) decision. It is just like deciding for one or the other of the two hypotheses. It is a decision to remain in doubt on the issue and is “attended with the same risk of losing the truth”. In this case, remaining in doubt will not make me as unhappy as I would be if I positively disbelieved in life beyond death; but also, it will not make me as happy as I would be if I were to believe in trans- mortal survival. See also....
Jean-Paul Sartre’s story about a student of his during the World War II era who was faced with a serious “existential decision” between family obligations and patriotic duty. See Text, pp. 484-5 How does Sartre analyze that situation? How would James analyze it? Are Sartre's and James’s approaches similar or different? How?
J’s distinctions & definitions, cont’d “Empiricism” vs. “Absolutism” (428-430) How does J define these points of view? What are the basic differences between them? Why does he call himself an “empiricist”? What are his criticisms of “absolutism”? Why does he think that “objective certitude” is impossible?
Both the empiricists and the absolutists disagree with the skeptics. Skepticism holds either that truth does not exist or, if it does, our minds cannot attain or grasp it. The empiricists and the absolutists both believe that truth exists and that the human mind can comprehend it.
The basic difference: For the absolutist, we can know the truth, and we can know that we know it. We can be absolutely certain that we know the truth on the basis of the “objective evidence” for it. For the empiricist, our beliefs can be true [i.e., correspond to reality], but we can never know for sure [with certainty] that they are true. The empiricist believes that we can get closer and closer to the truth through scientific inquiry into the facts of experience and through logical thinking. However, the empiricist doubts that we can ever be certain that our beliefs are true (even if they are, as a matter of fact, true). The empiricist does not accept the absolutist doctrine of certainty based on “objective evidence.” Why not? See next slide
If certainty is based on “objective evidence,” then the question is, is there any such thing as “objective [absolutely reliable] evidence” for our beliefs? James evidently thinks not. Again, why not? He mentions many examples of conflicting certainties, i.e., claims put forward by one person as certainly true that are then held to be certainly false by someone else. This suggests that certainty is more subjective than objective. My own take on this is as follows: Consider beliefs based on observation of & thinking about evidence. Can we be certain that the evidence before us is all the relevant evidence there is? No, we can’t. Can we be certain that our observational methods & our ways of thinking are infallible? No, we can’t. Thus, we can’t be certain that our beliefs based on observation of & thinking about evidence are true.
Another of J’s distinctions & definitions J notes a distinction between pursuing truth and avoiding error. “Pursue truth” and “avoid error” are two philosophical commandments that we ought to follow. However, the pursuit of truth may lead us into error; and the avoidance of error may cause us to miss the truth. For example, if I believe X on the basis of insufficient evidence, and if X is in fact false, then seeking the truth has led me into error; and if, seeking to avoid error, I refuse to believe Y until the evidence for Y is sufficient to prove its truth, but if Y is in fact true, then my desire to avoid error has caused me to miss the truth (for now, at least). See pp. 430
How shall we proceed? James argues that, in situations where the option between gaining and losing the truth is not genuine (i.e., not living, not forced, not momentous), we ought to follow the “avoid error” strategy. But when the option between gaining and losing the truth is genuine (i.e., living, forced, and momentous), we should then pursue the truth even at the risk of falling into error.
J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence (430-34) J begins by restating his general position: “…not only as a matter of fact do we find our passional nature influencing us in our opinions, but…there are some options between opinions in which this influence must be regarded both as an inevitable and as a lawful [i.e., rationally justifiable] determinant of our choice” (430). Avoiding error & pursuing truth in science: J holds that the options that arise in science are not usually genuine (at least in the sense that choices between different scientific hypotheses are not forced). Therefore, he concludes that, generally speaking, scientific questions should be resolved only on the basis of sufficient evidence. In science, the correct strategy is that of guarding against error until truth has been established via scientific methods of verification. However, even in science (J argues), in the process of scientific discovery, progress is sometimes the result of an individual scientist’s belief in a certain hypothesis even before it has been confirmed on the basis of “coercive evidence” (see 430-31). It seems to me that....
…J’s discussion of the scientific project is not completely clear. Why is “the will to believe” generally out of place in science? Because scientific questions are, by nature, answerable (at least in principle) “on intellectual grounds,” i.e., on the basis of factual evidence and logical analysis. “Faith” in the truth of an unverified scientific hypothesis is inappropriate according to J’s own basic principle, which says that “the will to believe” can be employed only with respect to “a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds [italics added].” J’s discussion here depends too much on his attempt to show that scientific options are usually not genuine (to which, I am sure, many scientists would object); he should have concentrated on the “intellectual grounds” aspect of his basic thesis.
In Section IX of his essay, J discusses the need to believe without sufficient evidence in three areas: Moral questions: Moral beliefs exist. Which moral beliefs shall I adopt? Is there a real difference between good and evil? Are some actions right and others wrong? For example, is it right or wrong to harm another person without good cause? According to J, questions like these cannot be be decided on intellectual grounds. So we must decide them on “passional” grounds. Personal relations: “Do you like me or not?” My own actions and attitudes toward another can create the other’s liking or disliking of me. If I desire another to like me, then I must act toward and relate to him or her in certain ways. My desire brings into existence the fact that I desire, i.e., the fact that the other likes me. In cases like this, desire actually creates truth. Organized social action: Faith and trust in others makes organized social action and progress possible. Here, again, faith (the will to believe) is a creator of fact. J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence, continued
In Section X of his essay, J turns to the question of religious faith. J states “the religious hypothesis” as follows: First affirmation: “…[T]he best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone so to speak, and say the final word. ‘Perfection is eternal,’ this phrase of Charles Secretan seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all” (432). Second affirmation: “…[W]e are better off even now if we believe…[the] first affirmation to be true” (432). J’s statement of the 1 st affirmation of the religious hypothesis is not very clear. We can revise J this way: Generally speaking, the religions of the world claim that the universe is meaningful and ultimately friendly to us; that there is a grand design within which everything falls into its rightful place; that there is a path that leads us above and beyond all the problems and pains of existence (a path to “salvation,” to infinite fulfillment); that there is life beyond death; that, ultimately, good will prevail over evil, right over wrong, justice over injustice; that, in the final analysis, everything is really OK. Many religions also affirm that there is a Supreme Being (“God”) who is the guarantor of all the promises listed above and with whom we can have a personal I-Thou relationship. J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence, continued Should I accept the religious hypothesis or not? How shall I decide?
The logic of the situation: First, the religious option is a genuine option (for J and for many others, but not necessarily for all). Second, there are three ways of responding to the religious hypothesis: accept it, reject it, or remain neutral (which is a form of non-acceptance). Whichever decision I make, I have a chance of gaining the truth, and I also run the risk of losing the truth. Third, all three responses are rationally justifiable on the basis of J’s basic principle. On p. 433, J states another basic principle: “…[W]e have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.” So if I accept (“will to believe”) the religious hypothesis because doing so makes me more happy than I would otherwise be, then I am rationally justified in my decision. Of course, anti-religionists and agnostics are also rationally justified in their non-acceptance of the religious hypothesis. If they prefer to live without religion, they are philosophically free to do so. J’s defense of believing without sufficient evidence, continued What are the possible gains and losses involved in this situation? See next slide….
If the religious hypothesis is true: The religionist gains, not only the temporal (here-and-now) satisfactions of the religious life, but also the transcendental benefits of faith (salvation, life beyond death, heaven, everlasting life in the presence of God, etc.). The anti-religionist and the agnostic lose the temporal satisfactions of the religious life. However, they may be sufficiently satisfied with a life without religion. They may consider the loss of the temporal satisfactions of the religious life no great loss. Some religionists claim that failure to accept the religious hypothesis also cuts the unbeliever off from from the transcendental benefits of faith (salvation, heaven, life with God, etc.). Do the anti-religionist and the agnostic cease existing when they die? Or do they survive death only to “go to hell”? J does not spell any of this out in any detail. He says that if we do not accept the religious hypothesis, we do so “at our peril”; but he never states specifically what the peril might be. But it is a possibility that unbelievers lose out “in the long run” through annihilation at death or through “damnation.” Damnation would be a real and dreadful loss; annihilation would also be a loss but one less dreadful than damnation. Of course, some religions claim that believers, too, may be damned (as a result of sin, because of inconstant faith, etc.). From that point of view, even if you accept the religious hypothesis, you might miss out on the transcendental benefits promised by religion.
If the religious hypothesis is false: The religionist still gains the temporal (here-and-now) satisfactions of the religious life, and she will never know that there are no transcendental benefits (salvation, life beyond death, heaven, everlasting life in the presence of God, etc.). She will die expecting to continue her life on a higher plane. The anti-religionist and the agnostic still miss out on the temporal satisfactions of the religious life. However, as stated in the previous slide, they may be content with their non-religious lives and consider the loss of the temporal satisfactions of the religious life no real loss at all. The issue here is whether a life based on religious belief is or is not a happier one than a life without religion. (What do you think about this?) There will be no “damnation” of unbelievers (or believers, for that matter). Most likely, both believers and unbelievers will be annihilated at death. * * There is, for example, research that indicates that religious believers face death more peacefully than do unbelievers.
the religious hypothesis cannot be proved or disproved. Shall we accept it, reject it, or suspend judgment? Shall we place our bets? Are we back to Pascal’s Wager? James’s own view seems to be as follows:
I don’t know whether the religious hypothesis is true or false. It may be true, or it may be false; there is no coercive proof one way or the other. I hope that the religious hypothesis is true; I want it to be true. Why? Because it promises ultimate, infinite, and unending satisfaction and happiness. Also, I will be happier, even here and now, believing it to be true than if I were to believe it to be false. Therefore, for my present peace of mind, and for the “hope of salvation” that religion gives me, I will to believe that the religious hypothesis is true, and I also will to live as though it is true. In this way, I increase my contentment and happiness in this life and, if the religious hypothesis is in fact true, I gain Absolute and Unlimited Happiness in the life to come. To those who, for their own reasons, are not willing to make this “leap of faith” (Kierkegaard), I say, “live and let live” and “go in peace.”
Does J’s analysis apply to all religions? The background of his thinking is Christianity – specifically, late 19 th century Protestantism. Is his overall approach tied to Christianity, or does it also apply to other religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)? What do you think? State your views on the course bulletin board.
“... In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.... If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.... If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” James concludes his essay with a quotation from the 19 th century author, Fitz James Stephen: What are your thoughts on this passage? How well does it summarize James’s own position? Interpret. Explain.