William James

The Will to Believe (1897)


1.       (1) Passions

          a.       Will, heart, volition (Pascal)

          b.       Fear, hope, prejudice, pragmatic considerations

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 that only evidence counts and that passion is irrelevant

                    i.        That a scientist wants something to be true does not come into whether or not they believe it (qua scientist).


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

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

                    i.        Examples of false things (McCain won) or unknown things (there is 50 cents in my pocket)

                    ii.       Raise your hand and I'll give you $10,000, if you can get yourself to believe that you are now surfing off the coast of Hawaii (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.       James: "Passions which come before and others which come after belief, only the latter are too late; and they aren't too late if the earlier passions have already been in their direction"

          d.       Fritz-James 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 and 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: most of our beliefs; we believe them because they are popular

          b.       Authority

          c.       Intellectual climate, community

          d.       Family upbringing

                    i.        Conservative or liberal

                    ii.       Religious belief: Christian, Buddhist?

11.     *Choice between being one of two kinds of people (intellectual tendencies) is also non-rational

          a.       Believer: Person who wants to believe in truth

          b.       Skeptic/agnostic: Person who wants to avoid error

12.     Believer (James)

          a.       Important to have the truth

          b.       Truth and our minds made for each other

          c.       Truth most important, avoiding error is secondary

          d.       Risk of being in error small, compared to blessings of knowledge

                    i.        Often argued one does not have knowledge unless one’s belief is justified

          e.       Better to be mistaken than postpone chance of getting truth

          f.       Acts our of hope

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

                    i.        Private horror of being duped

                    ii.       Fear he slavishly obeys

                    iii.      Usually intellectual, but obey’s this emotion totally


14.     When not sufficient intellectual evidence for either choice

15.     And, it’s a genuine option


16.     Genuine option: Living, forced, momentous

17.     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 live, Be a Muslim or not is dead

          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

18.     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.       Vote for McCain or for Obama

19.     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 next October

          e.       Not momentous: friend ask you to have coffee with him after class


20.     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


21.     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


22.     “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 acing as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right”

23.     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?

24.     Evidence withheld unless meet it halfway

          a.       God won’t reveal himself/herself to us unless we begin to believe

          b.       “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”

          c.       “One who whould 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”


25.     Pascal’s quote:

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

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

          c.       Intuitions? have rational warrant?