The Will to Believe (1897)
TWO WAYS TO ARRIVE AT BELIEF
1. (1) Passions
a. Will, heart, volition (Pascal)
b. Fear, hope, prejudice, pragmatic considerations
2. (2) Intellect
a. Reason, evidence (Clifford)
3. Two different questions
a. How we do arrive at beliefs (psychology)
b. How we should arrive at beliefs (epistemology = “theory of knowledge”, a branch of philosophy)
EPISTEMOLOGY OF BELIEF (WHAT SHOULD LEAD TO BELIEF)
4. Arguments for intellect as the only legitimate way to arrive at belief
a. Wrong to base belief on anything but the evidence
b. Clifford: "It is wrong, always, everywhere, for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence"
i. “Right to believe depends on a standing invitation to everyone to refute one’s views”
c. Progress in science based on the disinterested scientific method for which only evidence counts and for which passion is irrelevant
i. That a scientist wants something to be true should not affect whether or not they believe it true
PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEF
5. Considerations suggesting passion and willing are often impotent (can’t influence belief)
a. We don’t have free choice over what we believe;
i. Can’t modify one’s beliefs at will
ii. Examples of false things and unknown things
(1) Example of known falsehoods and unknown thing
(2) Raise your hand if you can get yourself to believe sword fighting to the death in a Roman arena and I’ll give you $10
b. When we do believe, it just happens, not a conscious decision
c. Suggests belief not under control of passions or will, but intellect
6. Considerations suggesting passions do have a role
a. James: “Our reason is quite satisfied, in 999 cases out of 1000 if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by someone else”
i. Just looking for rationalizations of what we already believe on other grounds
b. James: Only if we have already made up our minds can the passions play no role
i. Phrase “make up your mind” suggests will does play a role
(1) Make up mind about our decisions or our beliefs?
c. FritzJames Stephen: “In all important transactions in life we have to take a leap in the dark”
7. Is it true that once intellect has decided, passions will have no say?
a. No: Could train oneself to believe something one does not now believe
i. Talk to religious people, join religious order and practice a religion, and come to believe
ii. A prejudice person might train himself to stop being prejudice
JAMES’ POSITION ON EPISTEMIC AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUE
8. Does James agree with Clifford that only intellect should decide?
9. James: We do and sometimes should let passions decide
a. Paper “a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters even when logically intellect not compelled”
EXAMPLES WERE WE DO LET OUR PASSIONS DECIDE (OR LET SOMETHING OTHER THAN INTELLECT DECIDE)
10. Non-rational determinants of belief
a. James: We believe most of our beliefs because they are popular
i. On authority
ii. Based on intellectual climate, community
iii. Depending on family upbringing
(1) Conservative or liberal
iv. Religious belief: Christian, Buddhist
11. Two kinds of people or intellectual tendencies
a. Believer: Person who wants to believe in truth
b. Skeptic/agnostic: Person who wants to avoid error
12. Believer (James)
a. Truth most important, avoiding error is secondary
b. Better to be mistaken than postpone chance of getting truth
c. Risk of being in error small, compared to blessings of knowledge
d. Assumption here seems to be that if one’s belief turns out to be true, one knows–but this is problematic on one account of knowledge
i. Problem if knowledge is justified true belief
ii. Often argued one does not have knowledge unless one’s belief (though true) is also justified
iii. One does not know X just by believing X and X being true; one must also be justified in believing X
(1) Know President Obama visit class today?
iv. Believing true things is only worthwhile if one’s belief’s are justified?
13. Skeptic/Agnostic (Clifford)
a. Avoiding error most important
b. Truth will have to wait
c. Believes nothing w/o sufficient evidence
d. Keep mind in suspense forever rather than believe a falsehood
e. Acts out of fear (according to James)
i. Private horror of being duped
ii. Fear he slavishly obeys
iii. Usually intellectual, but obey’s this emotion totally
14. *Note: James suggests that choice between being a believer or a skeptic is also non-rational
JAMES ON WHEN WE SHOULD LET PASSIONS DECIDE
15. When not sufficient intellectual evidence for either choice
16. And, it’s a genuine option
17. Genuine option: Living, forced, momentous
a. Not dead (open possibilities)
b. Where both hypotheses are live ones
c. Each makes at least a small appeal to belief
d. E.g., For most people in America-- Be a Christian or not is a live option; Be a Muslim or not is dead option
e. Dead options (for most of us): Be a Nazi or not; Be a racist or not; Believe (with Native Americans) that rocks and wind are alive
a. Not avoidable
b. Complete logical disjunctions
i. Either accept this truth or go without
ii. Train is leaving, get on or not
d. Not forced:
i. Either love me or hate me
ii. Do the reading for class or go to a party
a. Not trivial
c. Not reversible
i. You won a lottery and now you have the chance to go into outer space
ii. Come raft the grand canyon with me this October
e. Not momentous: friend ask you to have coffee with him after class
21. James: When genuine option and intellectual evidence insufficient, may let our passional nature decide
a. Because to say here “wait until intellect gets the evidence” is itself to make a passional decision
22. Religious belief is a genuine option
a. Living: If it is a dead option for you, James not talking to you
b. Momentous: Gain even now and great loss if don’t believe
c. Forced: To remain skeptical or agnostic is as surely to lose God as to disbelieve
i. Agnostic and atheist in the same boat
JAMES’ ARGUMENTS THAT IN SOME SITUATIONS IRRATIONAL TO WAIT FOR SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE
23. James: “If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side–that chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right”
24. Desire for the truth can bring about that truth’s existence
a. Faith in a fact can help create it
b. E.g., Believing that someone is your friend and acting like she is can help make it true that she is
c. Religion is like that
i. “By believing there are gods we are doing the universe deepest service we can”
d. Truth of religion depends in part on our beliefs about it?
25. Evidence withheld unless meet it halfway
a. God won’t reveal himself/herself to us unless we begin to believe
i. “Just as a man who in 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”
ii. “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”
Questions on William James’, The Will to Believe
1. What are the two ways that James suggests we can arrive at beliefs?
2. Are we free to choose to believe in something or not believe in it? What reasons are there for thinking that belief is not under control of the will? Give examples to explain this point.
3. Does James think that our passionate nature ever does decide our beliefs? If so, give examples. If not, explain why not.
4. James argues that Clifford lets his passionate decide something of great importance and hence makes a choice that is not based on sufficient evidence. What is this choice?
5. Does James think that it is ever appropriate for the passions to decide our beliefs? If so when? If not, why not?
6. What does James mean by a genuine option? Explain each of its three components using examples. Do you think religion is a genuine option? Why or why not?
7. Explain the difference between a forced option and one that is not forced? Give examples of each. Is belief in God a forced option? Why or why not? Would God treat agnostics and atheists the same?
8. Explain the difference between a live and dead option. Between a momentous and trivial option.
9. James provides a couple of reasons for thinking under certain conditions it is irrational to wait for sufficient evidence before one believes something. What are those two reasons.
10. Why does James think it is irrational to wait until one has conclusive proof for God's existence before one believes in God?
11. Can the desire for something being true ever help bring about that truth? Give an example. Could this be the case with God's existence?
12. How might refusal to believe shut one off from evidence crucial to confirming the belief?