Critical Essay on 'The Will to Believe' by William James

Published: 2023-05-01
Critical Essay on 'The Will to Believe' by William James
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  American literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1866 words
16 min read

'The Will to Believe' is an 1896 lecture by William James which primarily focuses on belief and faith, without necessarily including empirical evidence as a valid way of perceiving the world. In the lecture, James treats belief from a religious point of view. He argues that belief in God and belief in the doctrinal dogmas associated with the religion such as Christianity, Islam, etc., is an essential step in pursuit for the truth. James's arguments are distinct and creates controversy about what should be adopted as a normative standard, especially on matters about belief. He argues that in some certain phenomena, it is okay to believe in issues, even though there could be no evidence to support such beliefs. Rather than using intellectual means to understand such beliefs, James suggests the use of 'passional considerations' (James, W. 1896, 9). Passional considerations, according to James, includes "fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship and the circumpressure of our caste and set" (James, W. 1896, 9). In general, James argues that belief can, in some cases be rational and responsible, especially when the reasons for the belief are practical. James's arguments, however, extends beyond the issue of rationality in matters of belief. His arguments continue to philosophical problems such as whether to accept determinism and reject indeterminism and vice versa. His arguments also incorporate issues related to practical life. This paper will primarily seek to further explain and evaluate James's arguments in 'The Will to Believe' and will also take into account the various objections to James's arguments.

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The 1896 lecture by James was a reaction to the long-held belief of evidentialism, which states that it is irrational for one to hold an opinion about something without first acquiring evidence that supports the belief. James offers a counter-argument to the evidentialism belief, arguing that "a rule of thinking which would prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were there, would be an irrational rule" (James, W. 1896, 28). To an extent, one of the main concerns in James's 1986 lecture is to counter the evidentialism belief, which was primarily steered by Kingdon Clifford. Clifford In his argument states " if I let myself believe in anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by a mere belief; it may be right after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards the man that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that is should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery" (Clifford, W. 1879, 185). Clifford argues that it is morally wrong always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything in the exception of sufficient evidence (Clifford, W. 1879, 185). Clifford's argument is thus from a moral, pragmatic perspective which is contrary to James's case.

The other main concern in 'The Will to Believe' is on theistic commitment. James argues that it is permissible to have a theistic responsibility. While he agrees that Clifford's rule is a valid line of thought that is open to people, he contends that it is not the only strategy. James suggests that the truth should be so sorted by all means available, even if one runs the risk of committing an error and losing credit. Clifford, on the other hand, believes that one should avoid committing errors at all cost, even though it would mean running the risk of missing out on some truths. To better understand his arguments, James defines specific terms from his perspective and understanding. He describes a hypothesis as something that may be believed, option as a decision between two hypotheses, living option as a decision between two live hypotheses, live hypothesis as something that is a real candidate for belief, momentous option as a decision that is irreversible, forced option as an unavoidable decision, genuine option as a decision that is forced, momentous and living, and intellectually open as a situation in which neither the evidence or arguments are sufficient to decide on an issue(James, W. 1896, 3).

The first main argument of James in his lecture is that broadly, there are two main strategies towards intellectual thoughts. The first strategy is to risk losing truth and other crucial benefits in pursuit of avoidance of errors. The second strategy is to risk encountering errors in the quest of authenticity and other vital interests. James argues that the second strategy of risking errors to acquire the truth is more preferred to him compared to the first strategy of losing authenticity and avoiding errors, which is aligned to Clifford. His argument is because according to him, the pursuit to prevent errors would deny individuals the opportunity to access certain types of truths which can only be acquired through making the risk of errors and that any intellectual strategy that significantly denies individuals the opportunity to access and learn the truth is inadequate and undesirable. As such, James argues that Clifford's argument which could potentially deny people the access of fact is insufficient and therefore unacceptable.

James argues that in some instances, facts and evidence only emerge as a product of a pre-existing faith among individuals. He states that "there are cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming" (James, W. 1896, 25). For instance, James gives an analogy of a social corporation, where people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs meet to achieve a common goal. In the corporation, each individual is assigned a role, and there is no guarantee or certainty that individuals will adequately fulfil their roles. Instead, such corporations only work by trusting each other and believing that each member would be faithful to accomplish their assigned responsibilities. The success of such corporations is therefore based primarily on the trust and belief that members have on each other. When such corporations achieve their common goal, then its existence becomes a fact, and their success is evident by itself. James then explains that the presence of such a corporation as a fact is entirely based on preceding faith on each member (James, W. 1896, 24). From this analogy, James supports the proposition that the intellectual strategy that risks committing errors for a chance at acquiring truth and achieving vital good rather than the proposition that denies individuals access to certain kind of facts while avoiding the risk of errors. While it would be expected that James would suggest that Clifford's rule of risking the loss of truth for the certainty of preventing errors would automatically be unacceptable, he points out that there are restrictions to the acceptance or unacceptance of the rule. James explains that not every option is subject to his passional considerations, and only those options that are intellectually open are subject to the passional considerations.

In his argument, James is primarily arguing against Clifford's rule of entirely prohibiting belief, mainly when the evidence to support that belief is not apparent. He is, however, not arguing against an individual aligning their faith towards proof, neither is he discrediting the importance of evidence in belief. Even though James gives the condition that an option must be intellectually open to be subjected to passional considerations, his definition of intellectually open options is not clear. According to James's view, insufficient evidence to an option automatically renders the option intellectually open. If additional evidence to that option is however acquired, then an individual is forced to abide by that evidence.

In correlating his argument to the theistic belief, James states that religion has two fundamental affirmations. One of the statements that "the best things are more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone..." (James, W. 1896, 25). The second affirmation is that "we are better off of even now if it is believed that the religion's first affirmation is true... the more perfect and more eternal aspects of the universe is represented in our religious as having form" (James, W. 1896, 25). While James gives an assertion that there are two affirmations in religion, he fails to assert whether the best things are the eternal ones in the first affirmation and instead, he states that the best ideas are the more eternal. He further uses the phrase that "perfection is eternal", which then creates the idea of perfection and sovereignty (James, W. 1896, 25). By the statement "the universe is no longer a mere It to us, but Thou", James alludes that the religion presents the 'more perfect' and 'more eternal' aspects of the universe as having a personal form (James, W. 1896, 27). James then associates the supreme good in the world to the personal kind, which is sovereign and perfect.

According to James, if an individual only seeks to have acquaintance with the personal being who is perfect and sovereign only when they have gathered sufficient evidence, then they are not likely to develop the acquaintance with the perfect and sovereign person, if at all they exist. In this case, James claims that Clifford's rule might not be unacceptable because it would deny individuals the truth about the perfect being due to lack of evidence. An acquaintance with the perfect being is primarily based n belief and faith and not evidence. However, the argument of James on the perfect person is momentous and is only valid only if the perfect being and the good of eternity exists. But even though theism is intellectually open and a part of a genuine option, James applies the second affirmation of religion as an assurance that it is better to believe, even if the perfect being and vital good are not true. He claims that the hope that the existence of the perfect person and essential good is real is sufficient enough to believe (James, W. 1896, 30).

The second argument by James is that the decision on whether or not to accept theism is a genuine option. He also argues that theism is intellectually open that there are vital goods at stake in accepting theism. Also, James argues that no person is irrational or immoral for risking to make errors for an opportunity to acquire the truth and vital good and thus, he argues that one might accept theism. Through his second argument, James affirms his second concern of commitment to religion being permissible. Numerous objections have faced James's second argument, one of them from Hick, who argues that James's argument can be viewed as a green light to wishful thinking for anyone who believes in his arguments (Hick, J. 1990, 60). According to Hick, the permissiveness of religion as argued by James is not helpful to individuals, if the primary goal is to believe that the existence of a perfect being and vital good is true instead of believing that what we like is true (Hick, J. 1990, 60). Even though the condition of the intellectually open option protects James's arguments, Hick still believes that the hope that a perfect being and vital good exists, which James advocates is not valid. According to him, "hoping that a proposition is true is not a reason enough to think that it is true" (Hick, J. 1990, 61).

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