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Which Will to believe?

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

William James

William James

William James intended his essay The will to believe (1896) as ‘a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters’. It started life as a lecture addressed to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities.

James defines ‘hypothesis’ as anything we may or may not believe, and ‘option’ as a decision between two hypotheses. There are different kinds of options, of which three are relevant to his argument. An option may be:

1 Living or dead

2 Forced or avoidable

3 Momentous or trivial

Some at least of these are not just features of the option itself, but of the option in relation to the person making the decision. So the same option could be living for one person but dead for another. For example his lecture audience might have found Christianity versus agnosticism a living option, but not Theosophy versus Islam. A living option is one which appeals as a real possibility to the person it is proposed to.

‘Forced or avoidable’ on the other hand is a feature of the option itself. A forced option is based on a complete logical disjunction (either p is true or p is not true), whereas an avoidable option allows other possibilities. ‘Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it’ can be avoided by not going out.

As for the third dichotomy, an option may be trivial if, say, the decision is reversible or the stake is insignificant. But deciding whether or not to accept a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like a trip to the North Pole is likely to be a momentous one.

For James, a ‘genuine option’ is forced, living and momentous.

He then explores the relationship between will and belief, and initially seems to go along with Clifford. To hold an unjustified belief purely by volition is, in general, at best ‘silly’ and at worst ‘vile’.

Then he backtracks. It is only ‘already dead hypotheses’ which our volition cannot influence.

Not only that, but

what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind.

Volition has been in there all along. In ‘our willing nature’ he includes

…deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from, …all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set. …all those influences, born of the intellectual climate, that make hypotheses possible or impossible for us, alive or dead.

In fact we do not know why we believe what we believe:

Here in this room, we all of us believe in molecules and the conservation of energy, in democracy and necessary progress, in Protestant Christianity and the duty of fighting for ‘the doctrine of the immortal Monroe’ all for no reasons worthy of the name…

[N]ot insight, but the prestige of the opinions, is what makes the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith. Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by someone else. Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.

The rhetoric soars, but its sweep seems a little broad. It is clear from Clifford’s argument and illustrations that he was talking about believing something to be the case, which is not always the same as ‘believing in’ something. To believe in molecules and the conservation of energy is to believe something about the world. But to believe in democracy or progress or Protestantism or the Monroe doctrine: is that believing these things do exist or believing they should exist – perhaps even believing we should behave as if they exist or are achievable?

This matters because we might grant that some or most or even all of the time that is how our beliefs originate, but still ask whether those beliefs are justified, and their origins sound. For questions like these we need to be clear what sort of beliefs we are talking about.

For example there is the key issue of our ‘belief in truth itself’:

…that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other – what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up? We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight out our thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot. It is just one volition against another – we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.

At risk of understatement, there is a huge metaphysical puzzle here, and it would be unwise to make the possibility of progress depend on resolving it. We will leave Pilate’s question ‘what is truth?’ open for now. Is it a dimension of being, or a relationship between representations and reality? Is it, like the Holy Grail, something we create by desiring it? Are we hard-wired to desire it? If so, is our wiring sometimes or always faulty?

One aspect of the puzzle which we do need to explore however is whether ‘believing in truth’ is like believing in molecules (believing molecules do exist) or like believing in democracy (believing democracy should exist) – or perhaps a bit of both.

We need to acknowledge the fundamental difference between ‘believing in truth’ and, say, believing in molecules or Thor the god of thunder, or believing there are fairies or wild strawberries at the bottom of the garden.

Part of that difference is to do with attributes and alternatives. Molecules have attributes, both generically and specifically. A molecule consists of one or more atoms, and is the smallest unit of a substance which can exist and still remain that substance. If a molecule has more than one atom of different elements, and it is split into those elements, then it no longer exists as that original substance. Because molecules have attributes like this, the ‘molecular theory of matter’ can be compared with alternative explanations – for example that substances are infinitely indivisible without ever ceasing to be what they are.

Thor is the god of thunder and not of microwaves. He is shaped like a human, not a dog; and male not female. Someone who ‘believes in Thor’ and has a visitation by Thor might however wonder if ‘Thor’ was really Loki the fraudster who had taken on Thor’s appearance. Fairies can fly and make themselves invisible. They are also human-shaped (plus a bit of insect) and they look fetching in pastel and silver. There could be fairies at the bottom of the garden, or dwarves or leprechauns or wild strawberries – or all of the above.

It is not that ‘truth’ has no attributes, but they are attributes of a fundamentally different kind. Truth, like meaning, is a ‘concept’, perhaps a ‘logical category’; and could also be described as ‘foundational’. Again there are possible alternatives – like falsehood or uncertainty – but concepts like these are part of what ‘truth’ means, and vice versa.

Truth is the sort of concept which Clifford’s dictum rests on, whether you agree with it or not. It is unclear whether the dictum can be applied to truth. If not, does that qualify as a counter-argument, or just a misapplication, a ‘category mistake’?

Consider the following statements:

(i) It is wrong to believe in molecules (ie accept the molecular theory of matter) without sufficient evidence.

(ii) It is wrong to believe in Thor (ie believe that Thor exists) without sufficient evidence.

(iii) It is wrong to believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden without sufficient evidence.

(iv) It is wrong to believe in truth (ie believe that truth exists, or believe that truth is possible) without sufficient evidence.

It is possible to imagine what can count as evidence for or against the beliefs in statements (i)-(iii). But what could count as evidence for or against ‘belief in truth’? You have to assume that something may or may not be true in order to know whether or not there is any evidence to support it. Statements (i)-(iii) can all be reformatted to mention ‘truth’ explicitly without changing their meaning:

(ia) It is wrong to believe the molecular theory of matter is true without sufficient evidence.

(iia) It is wrong to believe it is true that Thor exists without sufficient evidence.

(iiia) It is wrong to believe it is true that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden without sufficient evidence.

It is not that an equivalent reformulation of (iv) is false or nonsensical or ungrammatical:

(iva) It is wrong to believe it is true that truth exists (or believe it is true that truth is possible) without sufficient evidence.

It simply demonstrates that the existence or possibility of truth is presupposed by the concept of evidence, so no evidence could possibly count for or against it.

So to return to James’s argument, we may well ‘want to have a truth’ and want to believe that ‘our minds and it are made for each other’, but this is far from establishing that our belief in truth is ‘just one volition against another’, and nothing ‘but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up’. It may be these things, but it is also a presupposition that all our other beliefs are founded on.

What I have called the ‘broad sweep’ of James’s rhetoric is perhaps not surprising given his promotion of Pragmatism, but it leaves an impression of things stuck together which cry out to be dismantled. Considering the extent to which contestants in the debate between religion and atheism see it as self-evident that truth and ethical value belong on whatever side they themselves are on, it is at least possible that something like this could be one of the reasons why.

So in the spirit of Pragmatism we will continue using The will to believe as an object lesson – and dig a little deeper.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


Written by Chris Lawrence

7 September 2008 at 2:50 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks again Terry – in particular for clarifying what I should have said!

    I agree 100%. I wasn’t trying to argue that a scientist can’t be dogmatic. I was musing on what ‘being dogmatic about the scientific method‘ might be like. My expression ‘dogmatic scientist’ was careless shorthand for ‘someone who was being dogmatic about the scientific method’.

    Yes I have also met dogmatic scientists, and I would probably have been one myself if I hadn’t changed course & become a dogmatic something else!

    Chris Lawrence

    26 March 2009 at 6:16 pm

  2. Chris – Thank you for your thoughtful response. Despite my agreement with much of what you say, however, I’m still inclined to think you underestimate the fear of uncertainty. Yes, I know in theory that the scientific method proceeds on the principle of falsifiability. I am a scientist and have great regard for one of the best methods mankind has figured out so far for advancing knowledge.

    But suggesting that being a “dogmatic scientist” is a contradiction in terms doesn’t change the reality. Science has not turned all scientists into tolerant doubters. Just as Christianity may be a religion of love, but it hardly has turned all Christians into beacons of charity.

    I know. I not only know the history of centuries of some scientific arguments among eminent scientists and it was not always marked by high levels of intelligent cut and thrust. It was far bloodier and vicious.

    I have also seen it first hand. In universities from Harvard to Oxford, from Columbia to Cambridge, departments have been riveted by bigots who claim that the particular scientific theory they espouse is absolutely, non-negotiably right. People who disagreed were often denied tenure or promotion.

    I used to think this kind of intolerance of dissent was a function of IQ. But I don’t any more. Intelligence is no guarantee that a person can tolerate being contradicted.



    26 March 2009 at 5:54 pm

  3. Thanks again Terry.

    I agree with much of what you say. I don’t think though that I’m contrasting doubt against certainty as such but against faith &/or belief. You’re right though to point out the significance of faith/belief held so strongly the believer is certain. (I’m aware of the line which sees faith & belief as 2 separate things. But I don’t yet have a view on that, so for now I’m treating them as identical.)

    Also as you point out in your blog, there’s nothing wrong with certainty per se. You can be certain about things which are necessarily true, like 2+2=4. Also about empirical things where the evidence is overwhelming & there’s no counter-evidence. (I know these are different to your examples.) The issue is where faith/belief occurs in conditions where certainty is unjustified. What I’m trying to explore is whether, in situations like that, when push comes to shove, doubt is morally/ethically superior to faith/belief.

    You are right yet again that the fundamental schism I’m trying to get at is not science against religion or atheism against belief. It is literally doubt against belief, when the evidence is insufficient to justify belief. Religion is however a major player in this debate, because religion does typically (if not necessarily or universally) promote the idea that faith/belief – particularly about the particular religion’s fundamental tenets – is admirable while doubt is not. Which is what I’m questioning.

    The Nazism/Stalinism counter-example cuts both ways. Yes it shows that on the historical/sociopolitical level religion certainly doesn’t hold the monopoly on atrocity. Yet while both totalitarian regimes had atheistic features (explicit and undeniable in the case of Stalinism; rather less clearly so in the swamp of Nazism), neither could be described as a beacon of scepticism. To doubt the state creed under Stalinism or Nazism was as suicidal as to doubt what passed for Christianity in the time of the Inquisition.

    ‘Dogmatists are no less dogmatic for being secular’ is an interesting one. Yes I’m sure it’s possible to be dogmatic about just about anything. And I guess that must include the scientific method – even though, with its worship of falsifiability & repeatable & double-blind testing etc, being a ‘dogmatic scientist’ could be close to being ‘dogmatic about doubt’.


    Chris Lawrence

    25 March 2009 at 8:11 pm

  4. Inspired by this blog I’ve just posted on my own blog (22 March, 09) some thoughts on the value of doubt over certainty. (With a great deal less philosophical depth than you, but we share the same fundamental appreciation of the value of doubt.)

    As I’m reading your own exploration, I am asking two things at this point: 1) are you creating an unrealistic dichotomy between certainty and doubt, between what we can prove and what we can’t? In actual decisions in real life, it seems to me we rarely have the luxury of total certainty. Even when the odds are heavily weighted, it is possible to be disastrously wrong. I myself think the human condition is to live with the terrible inescapable possibility that we wrong.

    And that relates to my second thought. I do not think the fundamental problem you are discussing is between religion and science, or between atheism and belief, but between the ability to tolerate uncertainty and the need to be certain. Dogmatists are no less dogmatic for being secular.

    Terry Sissons

    25 March 2009 at 12:09 am

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