James, William The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.
New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

This essay give us a good idea of his style of thinking in terms of his philosophy (radical empiricism, pragmaticism), his psychological outlook (introspection) and his religious views (pro).

To James radical empiricism means the following: empiricism is a regard to matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future investigation. Radical empiricism implies treating the doctrine of monism as a hypothesis, and, unlike much of the "half-way empiricism that is current under the name of positivism or agnosticism or scientific naturalism", it does not dogmatically affirm monism as something with which all experience has to abide. The difference between monism and pluralism is perhaps one of the largest problems in philosophy. Yet James notes that "Primâ facie the world is a pluralism; as we find it, its unity seems to be that of any collection; and our higher thinking consists chiefly of an effort to redeem it from that first crude form."


James begins The Will to Believe by outlining several definitions and presuppositions that will be necessary for the argument. Thus we will follow in this endeavor. The first notions he defines is that of hypothesis. A hypothesis if anything that may be proposed to our belief. He then distinguishes between live and dead hypotheses. A live hypothesis is one that appeals as a real possibility to those to whom it is proposed. For a hypothesis to be alive it must excite the associations of the individual, it must represent a real possibility to the individual. "The maximum of liveness in a hypothesis," James writes, "means a willingness to act irrevocably." In practical terms it means belief.

The next distinction that James makes deals with the decision between two hypotheses: option. There may be several kinds of options: living or dead, forced or avoidable, momentous or trivial. For our purposes, James says, we may call an option genuine when it is forced, living, and momentous.

I want to bring to your attention that much of the language and examples that James employs is Eurocentric. Even though some of his examples no longer may hold water in our ethnically pluralistic society (it was written in 19th century Protestant America), his intent of the definitions are none the less powerful and important. What I am saying, is that we don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Thus in the following I will attempt to substitute examples, where I can, that avoid any ethnocentric biases.


The next point that James brings up is what he calls "the actual psychology of human opinion." What he is trying to distinguish is the roles of our passionate and volitional natures opposed to the intellect in terms of our convictions. That is, the role of the emotions versus the intellect in our beliefs. The point of this discussion is to bring to light that our beliefs are not made against the facts, yet what we do believe in is made up of relation of ideas which are either there or not for us to see, and which if not there cannot be put there by any action of our own.

James refers to Pascal's wager as an example. In this wager, Pascal tries to force us into Christianity by reasoning as if our concern with truth resembled our concern with the stake in a game of chance. He says you must either believe or not believe that god is. Your human reason cannot say. There is a game at hand and the result will be found out at the day of judgment. If you chose god then you will win eternal beatitude, if not then you gain nothing. Pascal is convinced that even if there were an infinity of chances, and only one for god, we should still chose god--to not do so is to risk a infinite loss. He thus claims that we should take to holy water in order to purify our soul's and win the game.

To James Pascal's wager is obviously not a living option. For instance, it is certain that no member of any religion other than Christianity will feel compelled to take to holy water to find a Christian salvation---something which is unimportant if at all a feature in their lives. James also notes that Protestants hardly feel moved to run out an do the holy water thing--it is a catholic sacrament. Thus the hypothesis that Pascal offers us is dead. "No tendency to act on it exists in us to any degree."

Thus the notion of belief by volition, form this example, seems rather silly. From another point of view it is coercive and thus contemptuous. It is a completely subjective position that seeks to coerce people to its point of view and damns each who does not agree.

The other extreme, objective belief, is no less inadequate. This is where the scientific method is said to go astray. Scientific methodology's insistence on sufficient evidence is at time fanatical. Clifford, James points out, has the opinion that to hold a belief based on insufficient evidence is "wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone..." The problem with this position is what, if anything can, constitutes sufficient evidence. One could spend years collecting evidence for any hypothesis and never attain the elusive "sufficient evidence." At what point, then is it permissible to believe in anything at all? Or in James' terms: When does a hypothesis become a living one?


One answer to this question is found in the notion of authority. That is, it is the prestige of the opinions that makes the us find the life in an idea and thus gives us faith. (The authority that is the Bible?) Thus our faith becomes faith in someone else's faith. Our belief in truth, for instance, that there is even a truth is merely a passionate (emotional) affirmation of the desire for a truth that our social systems and traditions conditions us to expect and accept. We want to have truth, we want to believe that our experiments and studies, etc., must put us in a better position to find it. But a skeptic would ask us how we know such and such is the truth, can our logic explain it? The obvious answer is certainly not. Our beliefs are but one volition against another.

As a rule, James notes, we tend to disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use. The existentialist's rationalistic notions of existence find no appreciation in the religious person's feelings; the humanist approach to life finds scarce acceptance from the theist. James gives and example of telepathy which is just as valid today as in his time. He notes that no scientist would give any credence to the notion of telepathy because they think that no such thing is true. James also suggests that even if such a thing as telepathy were true, scientists would probably band together and suppress it because it would undo the uniformity of nature as they understand it and would unravel many of the beliefs that they hold and depend upon dearly.

From this we can conclude, with James, that evidently our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. That there are emotional tendencies and volitions that appear before and after belief. From this James finally concludes that the state of things in terms of belief is hardly simple and that the pure insight of logic is not the only thing that influences and produces our creeds.


The next point that James brings up, in light of the above, is whether it is the pathological or normal emotional functioning that influences our beliefs. His thesis is as follows:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between presuppositions, 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 no,--and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.

Before clarifying this thesis, James first turns to more preliminary work.


James points out that the faith that the truth exists can be viewed from two standpoints: that of the empiricists and that of the absolutists. The absolutists say that not only can we know truth, but we can know when we have attained it; the empiricists say that we may attain truth, but we cannot infallibly know when. That is, to know one thing and to know for certain that we know is another thing. (This all reminds me of the German definitions of knowing: wissen, kennen, können. Each has a different connotation: wissen implies knowing as a fact; kennen implies knowing in the sense of being acqainted with; and, können suggests knowing inthe sense of being able to do something.) One may hold the first to be possible without the second. Thus as James points out, the absolutists and the empiricists follow two different dogmatic positions.

In the history of ideas we find that empiricism has prevailed in science, and the absolutist position in philosophy. James goes on to criticize the absolutist tendency in philosophy as characteristic of those who make such statements as "'Other philosophies are collections of opinions, mostly false; my philosophy gives standing ground forever." He also notes that such systems, in order to be a system, must become a closed one, one that is reversible in its details, but never in its essential features.

Absolutist positions also includes a doctrine that calls for "objective evidence." The criterion of this doctrine is that once the object is mentally received, it must leave no possible grounds for doubt. It is the case of "knowing" something; the click inside of us that tells us that this must be true. But there is a problem with this: what `clicks' for one person does not necessarily do so for another. To James, the greatest empiricists are only so upon reflection and when left to their instincts they dogmatize like infallible popes. Thus anti-religionists who insist that belief in a God or whatever is based on insufficient evidence, show us that insufficiency is the last thing on their minds. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only the other way around. They believe so completely that there could be no god that they find no living option in the hypothesis of a god.


Since, according to James, we are all absolutists by instinct, how should we approach this problem? James would have us treat it as a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves. Objective evidence and certainitude are but ideals that we cannot ever find. Thus James claims that he is a complete empiricist, as far as the theory of human knowledge goes. That is, he is of the opinion that we must go on experiencing and reflecting upon our experience in order for our opinions to become true. But, he notes, to hold on to any one of them as if it was infallible and never could be reinterpreted is a mistaken attitude--one that the whole history of philosophy will bear out.

There has never been a concrete test of what is really true that has ever been agreed upon. Some make the criterion the moment of perception--revelation--others make the perceptive moment the test (Kant's a prioris allowed for the realization when a thing is its own other). But the objective evidence is never truly there! To claim that certain truths contain objectivity is really to say that when you think they are true and when they are true, then the evidence is objective. Otherwise it is not. Again the evidence that one takes to make something objective is really subjective. How many opinions have been claimed to be true and objective when there are contradictions of all sorts. For example, there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known--the mind knows only its own ideas; there is a personal god--a personal god is inconceivable; a purpose--no purpose; and infinity--no infinity. That is, there is nothing which someone has not thought absolutely true, while someone else deemed it absolutely false. A real striking example is the certainitude of the Spanish inquisition that witches existed as ugly hags who stole people's souls.

At any rate, we must note that when we, as empiricists, give up on the doctrine of objective certainitude, we do not give up the hope or quest for truth. We still have faith in its existence, and still believe that we can gain an even better position towards it by continuing to collect experiences and reflect upon them. Thus the criterion of truth for the empiricist, as James would have it, is when the "total drift of [her or his] thinking continues to confirm it [a belief], that is what he [or she] means by its being true."


One final point to be considered before James enters into the discussion of his thesis. It is as follows: there are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion. These two way are: we must know the truth; and we must avoid error. James elevates these criterion to the status of commandments--as two separable laws. For example:

although we believe A, we , as an consequence of A, are kept from believing the falsehood B, but it hardly ever happens that by disbelieving B we believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, including A.

James claims that the quest for truth is paramount and that the avoidance of error can be seen as secondary. Or we may consider these two criterion form the other way around. James reminds us that the feelings of our duty to truth and avoidance of error are passional in nature, and to claim that truth is less important than not being in error reflects our emotional response--fear--of being in error. Even though, a fear of being duped is justifiable there are other things that can happen in this life that are worse.


Now we enter into James's question: not only do we find our passional nature influencing us in our opinions, but there are some options between opinions in which this influence must be regarded both as inevitable and a lawful determinant of our choice. That is, not only do our emotions effect our thoughts but there are some options to our opinions where this emotional influence is to be seen as unavoidable and a determining factor in our choices. If you have doubts as to this point, as James suspected you might, we need only remember that we have already accepted two criterion of our passional nature which influence our opinions--the drive to avoid dupery (being in error) and the quest to find the truth.

The ability to sacrifice one for the other is OK--since the option between gaining and losing truth is not momentous. This is the kind of thing that happens daily in science and in human affairs in general. For, as James points out, the need of acting is seldom so urgent that a false belief to act on is better than no belief at all. Here decisions are made for practical reasons allowing one to get onto the next order of business. In situations in which a hypothesis os trivial and hardly ever living, the choice between believing a truth rather than a falsehood is seldom forced. The attitude of skeptical balance is therefore the wisest course, if we would avoid making mistakes.

This works fine in terms of the pure judgment of situations. But in terms of discovery, such indifference is less highly recommended. In terms of science this is an important point. James notes that the best investigator for scientific endeavors is one that is keenly interested in truth, but has a great deal of concern over being duped. Science, unfortunately, has made this concern over dupery into an technique--the method of verification. Science, James says, has fallen in love the method that one can even say that science has ceased to seek for truth itself. It is only the truth that is technically verifiable which interests science. "The truth of truths might come in merely affirmative form," writes James, "and she [science] would decline to touch it." Still the passions are the most influential aspect of our opinions, and the liklihood is that anybody who claims to be an abstract intellect has some pet live hypothesis of her or his own. Thus, concludes James, wherever there is no forced option, the dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet hypothesis ought to be our ideal.

The next question is whether there are not somewhere forced opinions that can wait until the evidence has arrived? James, sarcastically replies: "It seems a priori improbable that the truth should be so nicely adjusted to our needs and powers as that."


We now turn to questions of morality. These are situations which immediately present themselves as being unable to wait for sensible proof. "A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist." Science can tell us what exists but it cannot approach the question of worths. Thus we cannot consult science, but must turn to what Pascal calls our heart. Science itself consults the heart when it determines that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for humanity, for these ideals are close to science's heart.

James notes that the question of having moral beliefs or not is decided by our will. If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, he says, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one. Some people are so cool-hearted that the moralistic hypothesis will never have any life for them. For these people the appearance of knowingness is on their side, and for the moralist there is the feelings of gullibility and naďveté in the presence of the cool-hearted individuals. Yet the moralist, in her or his heart clings to the belief that they are not duped. To James moral skepticism can no more be proved or refuted than intellectual skepticism. It is a matter of our passional volition--when we decide there is a truth, we stick to it with our whole nature. The skeptic, with her or his whole nature, clings to the doubting attitude.

James then takes us into questions dealing with personal relations, which he calls questions of fact. The answer whether someone like another or not is said to depend upon whether one individual is willing the meet the other half-way. That is, is willing to assume that the other likes him or her, to show trust and expectation. That is, does the one have the faith the other likes them. The other path one may take is to stand aloof and refuse to budge an inch until he or she has objective evidence, until the other does something to warrant this belief. In such situation the odds are that the second person will never come to like the first.

Here we find the seeds of James's pragmatic theory of truth. "The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth's existence;" James notes that this is so in a myriad of cases, but the person who sees them as live hypotheses and discounts them or sacrifices other things on their account before they come is the one who is likely to gain from the belief in them. James writes: "His faith acts in the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification." I don't know about the powers above, but I do know that those people that approach something with confidence more often than not achieve their goals.

James then takes this point to the level of social organizations. In groups which hold such moral beliefs, each member of the band has faith in the other doing her or his duty. Thus the desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent people, its existence thus become a consequence of the faith in one another of those immediately concerned. (James use an example of train passengers being robbed: if they believed they would/must all act together to prevent the robbery, then they would act together and the robbers could not get away with their crime). Thus James believes he has uncovered a axiom that there exist cases in which a fact cannot come to be without a preliminary faith in its coming. Where we find faith creating a fact is a truly absurd position, but, as James points out, this is the logic by which scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives.


He concludes from the above with the statement "In truths dependent upon our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing." But he now wants to take up options that are momentous--i.e. dealing with cosmological issues like the question of religious faith. To James science says what things are, morality says that some things are better than others, and religion says essentially two things:

  1. religion says that the best things are the more eternal ones.
  2. the second affirmation of religion is that we are better off if we believe the first affirmation to be true.

Let's look at the logical elements of the religious hypothesis in the case where both of these affirmations are true.

  1. If we are to discuss the question at all, it must involve a living option.
  2. To proceed, we see that religion offers a momentous option--we are supposed to gain even now, by our belief, and to lose by our disbelief, a certain vital good.
  3. Religion is a forced option, insofar as that good goes. We can't escape the issue by remaining skeptical and waiting (suspend judgment) for more information because even if we attempt to avoid error in that way if religion is untrue, we lose the good, if it is true, just as certainly if we chose to disbelieve.

Thus skepticism is not the avoidance of an option, it is an option of a certain particular kind of risk--i.e., it's better to risk loss of truth than the chance of error. Thus the skeptic is playing a wager as much as the believer--he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. Thus to suspend judgment is the same as saying, in terms of the religious hypothesis, that to give into the our fear of it being in error is wiser and better that to yield to our hope that it be true. The dichotomy between skepticism and faith is not one of intellect, rather it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. This is something that James scorns as "dupery by dupery." And his argument comes to resemble more Pascal's wager: "If religion be true and the evidence for it be insufficient, I do not forfeit my sole chance in life of getting on the winning side...."

James provides an analogy of the consequences of not going for the religious hypothesis:

if a person in the company of others made no advances, asked reasons for every concession, and believed no one's word without proof, would cut herself or himself off from all social rewards that a more trusting spirit would receive.

Thus the person who would cut herself or himself off from the religious hypothesis for logic, and so might cut herself or himself off forever from making god's acquaintance. If, continues James, this hypothesis were correct in all its aspects, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making advances, would be an absurdity and some participation of our sympathetic nature would become a necessity. From this point James goes on to state that he cannot accept the agnostic rules of truth seeking for the 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.

James concludes the essay by stating that he cannot see any way to escape this logic, and that if any one still thinks, in abstracted terms, that we have a right to believe any hypothesis at our own risk--this person has removed himself from the logic of his point of view, and is perhaps thinking of some kind of religious hypothesis that is dead for them. James writes thsi: "the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him [or her] who has them to consider." To suspend judgment for further evidence is to deprive oneself of that relationship that he thinks is so important. He does not deny us that option but he reminds us that it is carried out only at our own peril. (He never tells us, in any concrete terms, of what we endanger ourselves.)

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