William James

The Will to Believe (1897)


1.      Paper is a “A defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters , in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced


2.      (1) “Passions” “Willing Nature” (ways other than intellect/rational argument)

         a.      Will, heart, volition (Pascal)

         b.      Fear, hope, prejudice

         c.      Authority, desire to fit in

         d.      Pragmatic considerations

                  i.      Pascal’s Wager

3.      (2) Intellect

         a.      Reason, evidence (e.g., science, logic) (Clifford)

4.      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)

         c.      James addresses both


5.      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"

         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


6.      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 things and things now believe are true

                           (2)    If you can get yourself to believe sword fighting to the death in a Roman arena, raise your hand 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

7.      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.      Reasoning is just rationalization of ideas 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”

         d.      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.      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”


9.      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)    Politics: Conservative or liberal

                           (2)    Religious belief: Christian, Buddhist


10.    Choice between two kinds of intellectual tendencies is also non-rational

         a.      Believer (James): Person who wants to believe in truth

                  i.      Truth most important, avoiding error is secondary

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

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

         b.      Skeptic/Agnostic (Clifford) Person who wants to avoid error

                  i.      Avoiding error most important

                  ii.     Truth will have to wait

                  iii.    Believes nothing w/o sufficient evidence

                  iv.    Keep mind in suspense forever rather than believe a falsehood

                  v.      Sceptic/Agnostic acts out of fear (according to James)

                           (1)    Private horror of being duped

                           (2)    Fear he slavishly obeys

                           (3)    Usually intellectual, but obey’s this emotion totally


11.    When not sufficient intellectual evidence for either choice

12.    And, it’s a genuine option


13.    Genuine option: Living, forced, momentous

14.    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

15.    Forced:

         a.      Not avoidable as a complete logical disjunctions

         b.      Forced:

                  i.      Either accept this truth or go without

                  ii.     Train is leaving, get on or not

         c.      Not forced:

                  i.      Either love me or hate me

                  ii.     Do the reading for class or go to a party

16.    Momentous:

         a.      Not trivial, unique, not reversible

         b.      Example: Come raft the grand canyon with me this October

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


17.    James: When confronted with a genuine option and intellectual evidence insufficient, may let our passional nature decide

         a.      Note, saying “wait until intellect gets the evidence” is itself to make a passional decision


18.    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


19.    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

20.    Desire for the truth can bring about that truth’s existence

         a.      Faith in a fact can help create it

         b.      Examples:

                  i.       Believing that someone is your friend and acting like she is can help make it true that she is

                  ii.     Believing you’ll get a job and acting with confidence like you will get it, can help make it true

         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?

21.    Evidence withheld unless meet it halfway

         a.      God won’t reveal himself/herself to us unless we begin to believe (or are open to the possibility)

                  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?