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William James' "Will to Believe"

Updated: May 22, 2022

William James argues that under certain circumstances the evidence that God exists is insufficient to justify belief on strictly rational grounds, but there may be other grounds, namely faith, on which one may justifiably profess belief in the existence of God. Essentially, the fundamental concern of the argument is a right to believe, even in the absence of ordinary empirical evidence. James claims his essay is “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” (James [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, pp. 125-126). What James tries to do is prove the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith.

His essay begins with a few remarks about hypotheses and options between hypotheses. Hypotheses include anything that can be proposed to our belief, and they can be either living or dead. To be living or dead is not an intrinsic feature of the hypothesis but relative to an individual. If the hypothesis is a real possibility for the individual, then it is a live hypothesis. Otherwise, the hypothesis is dead. In the case of two rival hypotheses, the individual has an option. An option may be living or dead, forced or avoidable, and momentous or trivial. According to James, a genuine option is one that is living, forced, and momentous.

These opening observations lead to the fundamental concern of James’s article. According to James, when we have a genuine option to choose between two rival hypotheses, neither of which is supported by sufficient evidence, we are justified to follow our instinct or passional nature. James says, “Our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before and others which come after belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the fair; and they are not too late when the previous passional work has been already in their own direction” (James 2002, p. 128). In this passage, what James seems to be saying is that our beliefs need not be restricted to those that can be supported by empirical evidence. In essence, our passional nature has the ability to decide between rival hypotheses despite the fact that either one or both is supported by an insufficient amount of evidence.

Let us look at an example to clarify what James is proposing. It may be either true or false that God exists. There seems to be no empirical evidence that supports the claim that either God exists or God does not exist. This is an example of what James terms an option between two rival hypotheses. The option is both forced and momentous. It is forced in the sense that there seems to be no place outside of the two alternatives, and it is momentous because believing or not believing in God presents a unique opportunity for the believer. In this case, we face a decision that meets the criteria and we cannot have objective certainty due to the absence of empirical evidence. Therefore, we have the right to believe whatever is subjectively appealing.

When we have the right to believe whatever is subjectively appealing, there seems to be two ways of looking at the obligation to decide between rival hypotheses. Either (1) we must know the truth or (2) we must avoid error. For James, (1) precedes (2) because no matter how carefully we evaluate each hypothesis it is still a possibility that our investigation includes some errors. Even the most ardent skeptic will have to dismiss avoiding error in favor of seeking truth. Otherwise, “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 2002, p. 132). James, therefore, does not accept the agnostic rules for truth-seeking.

The conclusion of James’s article seems to show that we have a right to believe certain things even if there is little or no empirical evidence supporting our belief. I say certain things because, as James points out, we cannot believe that “the round square is round and square” or “Abraham Lincoln’s existence is a myth” because they are either true or false. Since these two claims are false, no one can will them into existence merely by believing in them. While our rational intellect can only take us so far, our faith or “passional nature” can take us the rest of the way. Wittgenstein said something along a similar line, “He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it” (Wittgenstein 1922/1994, §6.54). The ladder in Wittgenstein’s statement represents reason. So, when we come to the top of the ladder of reason, we must throw it away.

Two outstanding issues deserve further consideration than James affords them in the article. First, is religious belief a genuine option? Although a believer in God may see religious belief as live, forced, and momentous, the atheist may never let James pass the first criteria. To an atheist, religious belief is not a live option, i.e. a real possibility. Belief for the atheist is founded upon principles of evidence and rationality that, while the theist accepts, is insufficient for amounting to a matter of faithful belief in the existence of a supernatural personal God. If religious belief is not a live option, then it can be neither forced nor momentous. In fact, the belief in God may be forced but not for the reasons that James cites. It would be forced upon the atheist by an overzealous believer. That's not the kind of forcefulness that James has in mind here. Still, it seems that James has not provided an adequate justification of religious belief being a genuine option.

Second, I could believe, on the one hand, that I am capable of winning the U.S. Open Championship, and I could even increase my chances of winning the U.S. Open Championship by practicing everyday, by playing golf everyday, and by entering competitive tournaments. Doing these things may increase the likelihood that my playing ability will improve and I become capable of winning the U.S. Open Championship. I can do certain things that make my belief in winning the championship more likely. On the other hand, my belief that God exists does not increase the chances that God does exist because either God exists or God does not exist independently of my beliefs. Nothing that I do or believe will matter for whether God exists. In fact, my belief in God may be fruitless. What seems to result for James is a confusion between self-creating beliefs and wishful thinking.

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