William James

The Will to Believe (1897)


1.      (1) Passions

         a.      Will, heart, volition (Pascal)

         b.      Fear, hope, prejudice, pragmatic considerations (Pascal's Wagers)

2.      (2) Intellect

         a.      Reason, evidence (Clifford)

         b.      Science


3.      Two different questions

         a.      How we do arrive at beliefs (psychology)

         b.      How we should arrive at beliefs (epistemology)


4.      Argument for intellect

         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"

         c.      “Right to believe depends on a standing invitation to everyone to refute one’s views”

         d.      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


5.      Considerations suggesting passion, willing often impotent (can’t influence belief)

         a.      We don’t have free choice over what we believe; can’t modify one’s beliefs at will

                   i.       False things and unknown things

                                                      (1)             Believe McCain president? Believe raining in Chicago?

                                                      (2)             I'll give you $10, if you can get yourself to believe that you are now surfing off the coast of Hawaii–raise your hand (wouldn't raise hand if believed it)

         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


8.      Does James agree with Clifford?

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”


10.    Non-rational determinants of belief

         a.      James: We believe most of our beliefs because they are popular

         b.      Authority

         c.      Intellectual climate, community

         d.      Family upbringing

                   i.       Conservative or liberal

                   ii.      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

                   i.       Problem if knowledge is justified true belief

                   ii.      Often argued one does not have knowledge unless one’s belief is 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?


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.    *Choice between being a believer or a skeptic is also non-rational


15.    When not sufficient intellectual evidence for either choice

16.    And, it’s a genuine option


17.    Genuine option: Living, forced, momentous

18.    Living:

         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

19.    Forced:

         a.      Not avoidable

         b.      Complete logical disjunctions

         c.      Forced:

                   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

20.    Momentous:

         a.      Not trivial

         b.      Unique

         c.      Not reversible

         d.      Momentous:

                   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.    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


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”


26.    Pascal’s quote:

         a.      “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”

                   i.       Reason/rationality is not the only kind of rationality

                   ii.      Intuitions? have rational warrant?

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?