The Will to Believe

The Will to Believe‘ is a lecture by American philosopher and psychologist William James, first published in 1896, which defends, in certain cases, the adoption of a belief without prior evidence of its truth. In particular, James is concerned in this lecture about defending the rationality of religious faith even lacking sufficient evidence of religious truth.

James’ argument hinges on the idea that access to the evidence for whether or not certain beliefs are true depends crucially upon first adopting those beliefs without evidence. For example, it can be rational to have unsupported faith in one’s own ability to accomplish tasks that require confidence. Importantly, James points out that this is the case even for pursuing scientific inquiry. James then argues that like belief in one’s own ability to accomplish a difficult task, religious faith can also be rational even if one at the time lacks evidence for the truth of one’s religious belief.

James’ ‘The Will to Believe’ and English mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford’s essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877) are touchstones for many contemporary debates over evidentialism, faith, and overbelief. James’ In his introductory remarks, James characterizes his lecture by stating that he had ‘brought with me tonight […] an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.’

James opens by defining a number of important terms: Live and dead hypotheses (‘deadness and liveness […] are measured by [a thinker’s] willingness to act – the maximum of liveness in an hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably’); Option (‘the decision between two hypotheses’); Living and dead option (‘a living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones’); Forced and avoidable option (an option for which there is ‘no possibility of not choosing’); Momentous and trivial option (an ‘option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise’); Genuine option (‘of the forced, living, and momentous kind’); Belief (‘A chemist finds a hypothesis live enough to spend a year in its verification: he believes in it to that extent’).

He starts his argument in full with a discussion of, ‘the actual psychology of human opinion.’ Here James considers and largely agrees with the criticism of Pascal’s Wager that we either should not or are unable to believe or disbelieve at will. That is, James here seems to reject doxastic voluntarism, ‘the philosophical doctrine according to which people have voluntary control over their beliefs.’ James qualifies his endorsement of this criticism of Pascal’s Wager by arguing that ‘it is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again.’ By which James means that it is only things we already disbelieve that we are unable to believe at will.

James then briefly introduces the main thesis of the work: ‘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 not—and is attended with the same risk of losing truth.’

James makes a distinction between a skepticism about truth and its attainment and what he calls ‘dogmatism’: ‘that truth exists, and that our minds can find it.’ Concerning dogmatism, James states that it has two forms; that there is an ‘absolutist way’ and an ’empiricist way’ of believing in truth. James states: ‘The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it, while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when.’ James then goes on to state that ‘the empiricist tendency has largely prevailed in science, while in philosophy the absolutist tendency has had everything its own way.’

He argues that empiricists are really no more tentative about their beliefs and conclusions than the absolutists: ‘The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes. When the Cliffords tell us how sinful it is to be Christians on such ‘insufficient evidence,’ insufficiency is really the last thing they have in mind. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other way. They believe so completely in an anti-Christian order of the universe that there is no living option: Christianity is a dead hypothesis from the start.’

James identifies areas of belief where he holds that to believe without evidence would be unjustified: ‘Wherever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come. In scientific questions, this is almost always the case […] The questions here are always trivial options, the hypotheses are hardly living (at any rate not living for us spectators), the choice between believing truth or falsehood is seldom forced.’ James concludes this section by asking us to agree ‘that wherever there is no forced option, the dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet hypothesis, saving us, as it does from dupery at any rate, ought to be our ideal.’

James moves to investigate whether there are areas of belief where belief without evidence would be justified. He offers self-fulfilling beliefs as one example: ‘Do you like me or not?—for example. Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt […] ten to one your liking never comes. […] The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.’ From examples like these, James concludes: ‘There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the ‘lowest kind of immorality’ into which a thinking being can fall.’

James begins the finals section with the thesis that he takes himself to have already proven: ‘In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.’ He argues that religious belief is also the sort of belief that depends on our personal action and therefore can also justifiably be believed through a faith based on desire: ‘We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way. To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn—so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance. This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis. If the hypothesis were true in all its parts, including this one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required. I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule. That for me is the long and short of the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds of truth might materially be.’

James’ doctrine has taken a lot of criticism. In 1907, University of Michigan Professor Alfred Henry Lloyd published ‘The Will to Doubt’ in response, claiming that doubt was essential to true belief. American philosopher C.S. Peirce ends his 1908 paper ‘A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God’ complaining generally about what other philosophers had done with pragmatism, and ends with a criticism specifically of James’ will to believe: ‘It seems to me a pity they [pragmatists like James, Schiller] should allow a philosophy so instinct with life to become infected with seeds of death in such notions as that of the unreality of all ideas of infinity and that of the mutability of truth, and in such confusions of thought as that of active willing (willing to control thought, to doubt, and to weigh reasons) with willing not to exert the will (willing to believe).’

German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote: ‘Instead of admitting that some traditional beliefs are comforting, James argued that ‘the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge,’ and implied that those who did not accept religious beliefs were cowards, afraid of risking anything: ‘It is like a general informing soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound.’ James’ appeal depends entirely on blurring the distinction between those who hold out for 100 percent proof in a matter in which any reasonable person rests content with, let us say, 90 percent, and those who refuse to indulge in a belief which is supported only by the argument that after all it could conceivably be true.’

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