Towards the end of The will to believe, James says:
When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities which both practically and theoretically it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait – acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true [footnote] till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough, – this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.
The footnote text is:
Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defence of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.
The footnote is extraordinary, and that it is a footnote is extraordinary. The whole issue is about ethics. Clifford says that unjustified belief is unethical. James, by formulating the two affirmations as he does, casts the ‘religious hypothesis’ as fundamentally about ethics; but it is also a hypothesis about what is the case. The first sentence of the footnote glues the two together in what seems a quite unwarranted way.
Since belief is measured by action…: Is this saying we happen to attribute beliefs to people on the basis of their actions, to the extent that we may for example deny that people really believe what they say they believe because of the way we see them act? We can grant this, but this is a long way from saying that action is the only criterion of belief, such that a person who does not reveal his or her belief by acting in a certain way, literally does not have that belief. That latter claim is just false. I can be virtually static, and read and believe a statement I have never read before, without giving any sign of my belief. Yes my belief may predispose me to act in certain ways, but there is no necessary connection. And it is that necessary connection which James needs:
…he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true.
Not only is it possible to believe something and not reveal it by action but, even more importantly, it is possible to behave in a particular way while believing something and to behave in the same way while believing the exact opposite. The belief and the behaviour could be completely unrelated. Or we could (rightly or wrongly) behave in such a way that our beliefs stay hidden.
Before continuing in this vein, we need to ask if Clifford was then too strong in his condemnation of private unjustified belief? His words were:
…if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards 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 it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery. [William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877]
I think we are being consistent. Clifford is saying the correct principle to follow is never to believe anything on insufficient evidence, even though in a particular instance ‘there may be no great harm done by the mere belief’ or ‘it may be true after all’. In view of ‘it may be true after all’ we could assume ‘no great harm done by the mere belief’ includes ‘no harm done at all by the mere belief’. He is not saying it is impossible to behave in such a way as to conceal one’s beliefs. But he is saying that unless his principle is adopted 100% both the individual and the community will become more credulous, and that is a bad thing.
James however is saying there is something very special about the religious hypothesis such that it is literally impossible to behave in the same way without believing it as one would behave while believing it:
If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away… [T]he religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.
Key words here are ‘required’, ‘inspired’, ‘dictated’, ‘determines’.
Let us ignore for the moment whether or not it is desirable to believe the religious hypothesis itself, but accept that the kind of behaviour typically required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is thoroughly desirable, such that there is no ‘better’ behaviour. James is claiming that that behaviour will only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis. It is impossible to behave as if you believe the religious hypothesis, without actually believing it.
That is a huge claim. It is effectively that ethics and morality are necessarily linked to a belief about something that exists: from the perspective of the individual believer, ethics and morality are what they are because that something exists. So are we back to Plato – and his Form of the Good?
Maybe. But we actually need to look at a whole pot of possible claims.
© Chris Lawrence 2008