THE WILL TO BELIEVE. WILLIAM JAMES
This text can be found in many anthologies. It is a widely re-printed and circulated essay.
Introductory comments. James indicates the situation in his university --namely, that free-thinking students do not believe one should have religious faith since it cannot be rationally demonstrated. James believes differently, namely that faith is sensible, though not rationally demanded.
He indicates his hope that the Brown and Yale students will be more open than his Harvard students.Introductory comments.
- Definitions. James will talk about a "genuine" choice. Any choice which merits this name for James must meet three criteria:
- be live
- be forced
- be momentuous
- He defines a live choice in opposition to a dead choice.
- A live choice has some emotive appeal to the chooser. This is an internal and subjective appeal, not a rational or forced appeal.
- A dead option or choice is one which has no appeal to the chooser in question.
- He defines an option as forced or non-forced.
- An option is forced when there is an either or situation. Nearly all such options are of the sort:
Either do this or do not do this.
- An avoidable option is when we ask you to choose A or B. You can evade the issue by not
choosing at all, or choosing C or D.
- He defines an option as momentuous or trivial.
- An option is momentuous when it is a matter of some import, life and death, or an important
once in a life time situation.
- Opposed to this are trivial options--options which don't really make much difference in the
world, or ones where you have the option all over again in the near future.
- Note that there is great ambiguity here as to who and hope one defines what is momentuous and what is trivial.
- Can one choose to believe some claim? James argues that one does not choose one's beliefs, but
one just has them.
He defends this claim with a series of examples, focussing on how we could not choose to believe things which we know to be false, such as that Abraham Lincoln did not live or that you are not sick when you are.
- James claims that we look to leaders and authority figures, and model our beliefs after theirs. We believe and don't know why; we accept what we've been told.
He discusses the value of free will, but he isn't too clear on this point.
The thesis of this section is that pure logic doesn't dictate our beliefs. There are passional tendencies and volitions which can come before and or after belief.
- Thesis: When we have a genuine option that cannot be decided solely on intellectual grounds, our passional nature must be allowed to rule.
- Empiricists don't know when they have found truth while the absolutist do.
- Although we're born with absolutist attitudes, we should overcome this weakness and strive for the empiricist attitude of continually searching for the truth.
- You have more to lose by fearing error in the matter of genuine option than you have to gain.
- Our will is bound to play a part in the formation of our opinions.
- Moral opinions are based on a personal proof of what one wants to believe, and not necessarily
- James is asking what we mean by religious hypotheses. He supports one choosing religious
hypotheses and gives reasons.
- Scepticism, he argues, is not an avoidance of an option. It is an option of a certain particular kind of option.
- James does not believe that agnosticism works either. He says they would not be able to consider
other truths, which would make the position irrational.
- James proposes an abstract and concrete manner of thinking.
- Abstract: We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to
tempt our will.
- Concrete: The freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect cannot by
itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
James concludes that whether we choose to believe or not to believe, or wait to believe, we choose our own peril, our own fate.