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This article follows Getting pragmatic in a series on The ethics of belief. After a brief Introduction the series begins in earnest with Clifford’s razor.

Paradiso (illustration by Gustave Doré)

Dante: Paradiso (illustration by Gustave Doré)

Religion, according to James,

says essentially two things.

First, …that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word. “Perfection is eternal” – this phrase of Charles Secretan seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all.

The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.

These two affirmations taken together constitute the ‘religious hypothesis’. There is something frustratingly (but perhaps understandably) incomplete about the first affirmation, because it does not state explicitly (but could be taken to imply) that these ‘eternal … overlapping things’ actually exist, and if they do, what those eternal and overlapping things might be. For now we will take it that the first affirmation does include existence.

Going back to James’s three options, we can agree that whether or not the religious hypothesis is really true will only matter for someone for whom it is a living rather than dead option.

We can agree that the religious hypothesis represents a momentous option:

We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our nonbelief, a certain vital good.

We can also agree that it is a forced option:

We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.

But then he introduces an analogy:

It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married some one else?

There is something uncomfortable about this analogy, as if it is begging the question in some way. A better one might perhaps be that of an arranged marriage where the man remains sceptical whether the bride who has been chosen for him actually exists. And for the context to match he would have to have no evidence that she exists, and no evidence that she does not.

James goes on:

Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error – that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true.

Here we could ask, ‘which religious hypothesis?’ Many flavours are on offer, many gods. Even though James’s formulation of it is deliberately generic, even that is not everyone’s ‘religious hypothesis’. But for the sake of argument we will stick to James’s formulation.

It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk. If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side – that chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.

We are getting near the crux, and James is missing what I think is one of Clifford’s big points – perhaps the biggest: that unjustified belief insidiously corrupts human society. Talk of ‘the right to choose my own form of risk’ and ‘my willingness to run the risk’ implies it is a private matter. Clifford argues that it is not.

There is also a suspicious circularity in the rhetoric. Why is it so obvious that ‘dupery through hope’ and ‘dupery through fear’ apply as James has applied them? They could apply the other way round: I could hope there is no god and fear there is one. This is certainly the case with some of the religious hypotheses on offer. James could of course counter that his religious hypothesis purely consists of the two quoted affirmations. The first says the best things are the eternal things and the second says we are better off by believing the first affirmation. It may not be quite a contradiction but it would be a bizarre stretch of meaning to say ‘I hope the best will not be and fear that it might be’.

But if we turn to the substantive part of the metaphysical assertion:

…the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, …and say the final word.

It is still not obvious that it would be impossible to fear rather than hope there might be eternal things and overlapping things.

Which is a convenient point to go back to the first affirmation and our working assumption that it included something about the existence of eternal and overlapping things:

All this is on the supposition that it really may be prophetic and right, and that, even to us who are discussing the matter, religion is a live hypothesis which may be true. Now, to most of us religion comes in a still further way that makes a veto on our active faith even more illogical. The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.

Remove this ‘personal form’ for a moment. Without it we have a ‘more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe’ but without ‘personal form’. If this ‘more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe’ could have a personal form, then it is something we can say something substantive about. A universe which has a ‘more perfect and more eternal aspect’ – which could take on personal form – is different from a universe which does not have such an aspect. James is now suggesting we do add in that personal form because that ‘more perfect and more eternal aspect’ is ‘represented in our religions’. But if you will excuse a momentary reductio ad absurdum: what about a religion which represents the perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe as a pair of dogs? The relationship between ‘us’ & the universe would then be that between a person and two dogs…?

For instance, although in one sense we are passive portions of the universe, in another we show a curious autonomy, as if we were small active centres on our own account. We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way.

We feel… as if. Remember we are talking about a hypothesis about the way things are, not about how we feel.

To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn, – so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance.

We assume these are gentlemen who actually exist? So do these gods actually exist? If the gentlemen exist but the gods do not, does the analogy still apply? Or does the analogy itself make the gods pop into existence?

This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis.

Remember Clifford’s point about insidious corruption. We may feel ‘we are doing the universe the deepest service’ but actually doing our community a deep disservice. And would it make a difference if we did know where this feeling came from – the feeling which right now may be ‘forced on us we know not whence’? We may stay ignorant for all time, but not necessarily. James writing in 1896 could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that religious experiences were for some reason necessarily inexplicable. But the same assumption would be less forgivable today. And to expand the reductio ad absurdum : Can we obstinately believe, all at the same time, that: (a) there is only one god, like a human; AND (b) there are two gods – like humans; AND (c) there is one god, who is a dog; AND (d) there two gods, who are horses; …etc etc? We cannot believe all these things at the same time – so which do we believe?

If the hypothesis were true in all its parts, including this one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required. I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain 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. That for me is the long and short of the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds of truth might materially be.

This is not just Pascal’s wager. It also smacks of the ontological argument – asserting the existence of something purely as a result of describing it in a particular way.

Peter Pan playing the pipes, 1911It is all too Peter Pan: Every time you say you don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies. There could be all manner of propositions, formatted as necessary and presented for acknowledgement – is it rational to adopt a principle which implies one should believe them all? It is difficult to see how James can escape Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot argument (effectively my reductio ad absurdum, and discussed further in Tempest in a teapot below). If you deny a rule of thinking like Clifford’s, then which particular set of beliefs do you choose? This is how religion gets political: who controls the stories?

There is more of the same, and finally:

No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.

Again, completely missing Clifford’s point that an unjustified belief is not just a matter of mental freedom and inner and outer tolerance. Remember the ship-owner trusted in Providence.

But before we celebrate, James could claim we have glossed over an important point of his too. He would be right, and it is one we need to address.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


Written by Chris Lawrence

14 September 2008 at 9:27 am

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