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Getting pragmatic

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This article follows Which Will to believe? in a series on The ethics of belief. After a brief Introduction the series begins in earnest with Clifford’s razor.

James writes:

As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use. Clifford‘s cosmic emotions find no use for Christian feelings. Huxley belabors the bishops because there is no use for sacerdotalism in his scheme of life. Newman, on the contrary, goes over to Romanism, and finds all sorts of reasons good for staying there, because a priestly system is for him an organic need and delight. Why do so few ‘scientists’ even look at the evidence for telepathy, so called? Because they think … that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed. It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits. But if this very man had been shown something which as a scientist he might do with telepathy, he might not only have examined the evidence, but even have found it good enough. This very law which the logicians would impose upon us … is based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all elements for which they, in their professional quality of logicians, can find no use.

There are a number of problems with this passage. It is fairly easy to see where he is taking it – towards the foundation of pragmatism – but the first sentence seems to rely on a particularly generic understanding of ‘we’ and of the continuous present of ‘disbelieve’. Otherwise it’s just false. There are plenty of facts and theories I have no personal use for but which I still believe. Then the examples from Clifford, Huxley and Newman refer to ‘feelings’, leanings, affiliations: not necessarily beliefs about the world. And it is hard to see the telepathy point as other than rhetoric – especially considering the multiple uses telepathy could be put to, once dispassionate investigation established its principles as a reliable communication technology. It is more likely to be the other way round: we use what we justifiably believe to be true, because our successful usage is part of our supporting evidence.

It may however be true that

…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.

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

James then returns to an earlier discussion of ‘Pascal’s wager’. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) offered, in his Pensées (first published 1670), an argument for belief in the Christian god, which could be summarised like this: You can either believe in god or not. Fast forward to the Day of Judgment. If god exists and you believed, you win eternal beatitude. If god exists and you did not believe, you get eternal damnation. If god does not exist then whether you believed or not you win nothing but lose nothing. Ergo it is rational to believe in god.

James originally seems to scoff:

You probably feel that when religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps. Surely Pascal’s own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart. We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted wilfully after such a mechanical calculation lack the inner soul of faith’s reality; and if we were of the Deity, we should probably take pleasure in cutting off believers from their infinite reward. It is evident that unless there be some pre-existing tendency to believe in masses and holy water, the option offered to the will by Pascal is not a living option.

But now we see what those other springs and pre-existing tendencies are. If our prior ‘passional tendencies and volitions’ have already done their work, Pascal’s wager serves as ‘a regular clincher… the last stroke needed to make our faith in masses and holy water complete’.

Well, hardly. It appears as logic only to those whose beliefs have already been created by volition. But it is powerless in practice, as it would only convince those already convinced.

James is making two assertions, which are linked but not identical. The one about pragmatism and utility we have already watered down to something more like as a rule we believe facts and theories for which we have a use, but even this is only because the supporting evidence – and lack of counter-evidence – make them useful.

We can also grant the second point about believing what we want to believe – but only as a general observation. Yes it might be true that (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln) some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, might believe what they want to believe, but so what? The issue is whether they are right to do so. James thinks there are some circumstances, crucially relating to religious belief, where the answer is yes.

His argument is long and meandering, but by the end it is difficult to see it as anything other than a rehash of Pascal’s wager.

First he considers two apparent counter-examples to Clifford’s principle, which he caricatures as Believe nothing, …keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies.

The first concerns moral questions, which

…immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. Science can tell us what exists; but to compare the worths, both of what exists and of what does not exist, we must consult not science, but what Pascal calls our heart. …The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by our will. Are our moral preferences true or false, or are they only odd biological phenomena, making things good or bad for us, but in themselves indifferent? How can your pure intellect decide? If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.

But Clifford himself does not advocate perpetual moral scepticism:

Shall we steal and tell lies because we have had no personal experience wide enough to justify the belief that it is wrong to do so? There is no practical danger that such consequences will ever follow from scrupulous care and self-control in the matter of belief. Those men who have most nearly done their duty in this respect have found that certain great principles, and these most fitted for the guidance of life, have stood out more and more clearly in proportion to the care and honesty with which they were tested, and have acquired in this way a practical certainty. The beliefs about right and wrong which guide our actions in dealing with men in society, and the beliefs about physical nature which guide our actions in dealing with animate and inanimate bodies, these never suffer from investigation; they can take care of themselves, without being propped up by “acts of faith”, the clamour of paid advocates, or the suppression of contrary evidence.

Moreover there are many cases in which it is our duty to act upon probabilities, although the evidence is not such as to justify present belief; because it is precisely by such action, and by observation of its fruits, that evidence is got which may justify future belief. So that we have no reason to fear lest a habit of conscientious inquiry should paralyse the actions of our daily life. [William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877]

It is clear from this that Clifford includes beliefs about right and wrong among those certain great principles which have stood out more and more clearly in proportion to the care and honesty with which they were tested, and have acquired in this way a practical certainty.

Clifford distinguishes between such tradition as is handed on without testing by successive generations and that which is truly built up out of the common experience of mankind. In the moral world it is the latter which

…gives us the conceptions of right in general, of justice, of truth, of beneficence, and the like. These are given as conceptions, not as statements or propositions; they answer to certain definite instincts which are certainly within us, however they came there. [William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877]

Key words here are ‘tested’ and ‘testing’. To repeat his principle (without caricature):

…it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

So I can say I believe in the truth or value or applicability of a certain moral principle because all the evidence I am aware of testifies to its soundness, and I am aware of no counter-evidence as to its soundness.

Clifford even gives an example from the moral sphere where appreciation of the evidence can and did lead to a rethink:

Until recently, the moral tradition of our own country – and indeed of all Europe – taught that it was beneficent to give money indiscriminately to beggars. But the questioning of this rule, and investigation into it, led men to see that true beneficence is that which helps a man to do the work which he is most fitted for, not that which keeps and encourages him in idleness; and that to neglect this distinction in the present is to prepare pauperism and misery for the future. By this testing and discussion not only has practice been purified and made more beneficent, but the very conception of beneficence has been made wider and wiser. Now here the great social heirloom consists of two parts: the instinct of beneficence, which makes a certain side of our nature, when predominant, wish to do good to men; and the intellectual conception of beneficence, which we can compare with any proposed course of conduct and ask, “Is this beneficent or not?” [William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877]

James’s second apparent counter argument concerns what would now be called ‘positive thinking’:

Turn now … to a certain class of questions of fact, questions concerning personal relations, states of mind between one man and another. Do you like me or not? – for example. Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt, as the absolutists say, ad extorquendum assensum meum, ten to one your liking never comes. How many women’s hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him! He will not consent to the hypothesis that they cannot. The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts. Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.

This is an important observation, not because it refutes Clifford’s principle, but because it clarifies it. It might be churlish to object that these examples are not really ‘questions of fact’ but they are certainly facts – or rather beliefs – of a special kind. Significantly they are beliefs about the future. I have no evidence either way as to whether or not you like me, because we have never met. But that is no reason why I should not act as if you will like me, particularly if I have reason to think that you are more likely to like me if I act as if I think you will. And what reason would I have for thinking that? Because the evidence of human behaviour generally supports that assumption. Far from it being a case where it is right to believe something on insufficient evidence, we are actually correctly believing something on sufficient evidence – hence ‘…and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts’.

Let us take the example to an extreme. Imagine a community of people where our generalisation of social psychology did not apply, but the opposite did. Within this community people did not get to like people who acted as if they believed they would be liked. Instead they got to like people who acted as if they believed they would not be liked – and the evidence was there for all to see. Now imagine entering that community from the outside, in full knowledge of the evidence, and wanting to be liked. If you sincerely believed, despite the evidence, that you would be liked (and behaved accordingly), you would not make that happen. If you sincerely believed however that you would not be liked (and behaved accordingly), you would probably end up being liked – but that was not what you believed. And then if instead both your belief and your behaviour matched the evidence, you would behave as if you believed you were not liked, but you would believe that you would eventually be liked because of the way you behaved. You would not however believe that you were liked from the very first moment.

A tortuous thought experiment perhaps, but enough to establish that what might first appear as a counter-argument about unjustified beliefs (about the way things are) leading to true beliefs (about the way things are) is really about human behaviour, and is completely in line with Clifford’s principle. We need to keep this distinction in mind when we finally get to consider James’s treatment of religious belief.

© Chris Lawrence 2008

Written by Chris Lawrence

13 September 2008 at 4:04 pm

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