Lecture Notes, UC Davis Philosophy 102, Theory of Knowledge

Religious Belief

G. J. Mattey, Senior Lecturer

William James

Text: "The Will to Believe" (1896)

There is a vast amount of disagreement concerning issues in religion. If one were to adopt the method of the ancient skeptics, the sheer force of disagreement should lead us to withhold judgment regard questions of the existence and nature of God, of an afterlife, etc. The fideistic strand in Christianity in fact uses the weakeness of human reason as an argument for its abandonment in favor of faith where religious matters are concerned.

Descartes's response was to try to show how human beings can have a priori knowledge of God's nature and existence. Most philosophers have concluded that his effort failed, and few have attempted to revive it. By the end of the nineteenth century, most philosophers would have agreed that religious belief cannot be justified a priori. Even probabilisitic justification was considered highly questionable. It seemed to most that religious belief cannot be placed on a rational footing. A natural conclusion is that religious knowledge is impossible.

It can be argued that if there is no rational justification for religious belief, then one ought not to hold religious belief. The ancient skeptics did not take this line, deciding instead, on practical grounds, that religious belief is acceptable in the context of a believing community. Descartes's contemporary Pascal had argued that even if the truth of God's existence is highly improbable, belief is nonetheless permitted because of the infinitely bad consequences of a wrong decision.

In 1896, the American philosopher and psychologist William James confronted theses issues in an address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities. His "The Will to Believe" is "a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced." At the beginning of the address he noted that once students have learned to reason logically, they come to think that it is not "lawful" to hold religious beliefs, "even though in point of act they were personally all the time chock-full of some faith or other themselves."


James begins with some definitions. A hypothesis is a proposition which is a candidate for belief. That God exists and that God does not exist are both hypotheses. A live hypothesis is one which a person takes to be a "real possibility." Take, for example, the hypothesis that I will grow wings and be able to fly. I do not regard this as a live hypothesis. Whether a hypothesis is live or dead is relative to the individual. James illustrates this by reference to "the Mahdi," the messiah of the Muslim religion. The Mahdi is not a live hypothesis for him, but he is for an Arab.

Whether a hypothesis is live can be measured by the extent to which a person is willing to act on the assumption of its truth. At the limit, there is belief, which is willingness to "act irrevocably." If there is any willingness to act at all, then "there is some believing tendency." For example, the fact that I have earthquake insurance might indicate that an earthquake in Davis is a live hypothesis.

The choice between two hypotheses is called an option. There are three pairs of types of options:

  1. Living vs. dead. If one or both hypotheses is dead, then the option is dead. The choice between being a Christian or an agnostic may be live for a student in 1896, while the choice between being a Muslim or an agnostic is not.
  2. Forced vs. avoidable. An option is forced when a choice between the two hypotheses cannot be avoided. It avoidable when one may fail to take an action which triggers the option. A dilemma is a special case of a forced option, in which it is impossible to avoid a choice.
  3. Momentous vs. trivial. A choice is momentous when it presents a unique opportunity, there is a significant stake in the choice, or the decision is irreversible once it is made.
Finally, an option is genuine if it is living, forced and momentous.

The Psychology of Belief

The human being has two side, according to James. One is "passional and volitional," the other intellectual. There is evidence that our passional nature entirely controls our belief as well as evidence that all belief is controlled by our intellectual nature.

James first takes up the view that will plays no role in belief. This is a theme that has been championed in recent philosophy by William Alston and which enjoys considerable poplularity in current theory of knowledge. James poses a number of propositions that it seems we simply cannot will to believe: that Abraham Lincoln did not exist, that we are well when we are painfully ill, that two one-dollar bills in our pocket adds up to one hundred dollars.

An example of the absurdity of belief based on volition is "Pascal's Wager." Weighing the prospect of whether or not to believe in God's existence, we consider probability and expected value. (This kind of calculation is the basis of modern decision theory.) We find that the infinite loss involved in rejecting God's existence and being wrong makes it rational to believe that God exists, however low the probability. If accept God's existence and are wrong, there is at most a finite loss and there may even be again. But "any finite loss is reasonable, even a certain one is reasonable, if there is but the possibility of infinite gain." James questions whether, after having deliberated this way, one can simply switch on a belief. The source must be found elsewhere.

So, according to James, it seems "simply silly" to talk of willing to believe. Believing is not a live option unless it has some underpinning in "some pre-existing tendency to believe." This is illustrated by the fact that if someone representing himself the Mahdi were to offer an Islamic equivalent to Pascal's wager, it would be utterly dismissed by a Christian.

Another consideration against willing to believe lies in the charge that to do so is "vile." James cites various contemporary authors who extol the integrity of science and hold that to violate its standards of evidence is inacceptable. William K. Clifford in particular had claimed in "The Ethics of Belief" that believing in this way (even if the belief is true) is a violation of one's duty to mankind. "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to belive anything upon insufficient evidence."

The Role of Volition in Belief

James rejects Clifford's uncompromising intellectualism, however. He points out that the vast bulk of our beliefs are not the result of the possession of sufficient evidence, but rather of a kind of authority of a few arguments we could use to back them up if challenged. As the Pyrrhoninsts note, we do not even have good intellectual grounds to believe that our thoughts correspond to the truth. "It is just one volition among another," so that we are willing to accept a life based on trust and the Pyrrhonists are not.

In fact, James contends, whether we belive or not depends on the usefulness of so doing. Even scientists who reject paranormal phenomena do so only because they are irrelevant to their professinal activities. So the "silliness" which seems to accrue to willing to believe arises only after a belief has settled in. Pascal's Wager then can be seen as "the clincher" for someone whose volition has brought him already to the brink of belief.

The thesis James will defend is that it is necessary for volition to dictate belief when the intellect is unable to come to a decision regarding a genuine option. Even the decision to leave the question open is passional.

Dogmatism vs. Empiricism

A pre-condition for holding this thesis is that one not be a skeptic. That is, one must embrace "faith" in truth and that "it is the destiny of our minds to attain it." So, James is "dogmatic" in his approach.

Dogmatism can take two forms. It can be absolutist, in which case it is held that when one has attained the truth, one is able to know with certainty that it has been obtained. It can also be empiricist, in which case it is denied that one knows with certainty when one knows.

Scientific belief tends to be empiricist in character, while philosophical belief is almost always dogmatic. James mockingly recounts the medieval ("scholastic") doctrine of "objective evidence" as a model of dogmatism. And he accuses Clifford of being dogmatically anti-religious, so that religious belief is a dead hypothesis for him. In general, he says that self-professed empiricists are instinctively dogmatic.

James asserts that in the face of natural dogmatism, we should "treat it as a weakeness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can," rather than "espouse and endorse it." The hoped-for certitude and objective evidence simply are nowhere to be found "on this moonlit and dream-visited planet." He fully embraces empiricism in his account of human knowledge. The history of philosophy shows that none of our opinions cannot be re-intrepreted or corrected.

The only inescapable truth is the Cartesian cogito, "the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists." But this gets us nowhere beyond itself. And as the Pyrrhonians point out, there is disagreement everywhere, including the realms of mathematics (with alternative geometries) and logic (with alternative logics). All that remains are propositions that tell us nothing about reality, such at that twice two make four.

Aside from substantive disagreement, there is disagreement over a criterion of truth. Some make it external, whether in revelation, the consent of all, the dicatates of conscience, or "the systematized experience of the race." Others make it internal: the Cartesian clear and distinct perception, or some faculty of "common sense," as postulated by Thomas Reid. Other standards are trotted out. The bottom line is that each standard is imiply claimed to be objective on the basis of subjective opinion.

James then generates, easily, a long list of opposed points of view, concluding that "there is indeed nothing which some one has not thought absolutely true, while his neighobor deemed it absolutely false."

The empiricist does not give up the faith in the truth. His core belief is that "we can gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think." The prize is at the end of inquiry. This is in contrast to the views of the scholastics, who thought that it is at the beginning. The empiricist does not care what is the origin of a hypothesis: "if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true."

Epistemic Duty

Clifford had claimed that it is always our duty not to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. James counters that this addresses only half of our duty in matters of belief. Not only must we avoid error, but we must know the truth. These two are not equivalent. We may avoid believing the false, but this does not require that we believe what is true.

Because there are two distinct goals, they can be weighted quite differently. Clifford weights error-avoidance absolutely. A credulous person might reverse the order. James rejects Clifford's extreme. He also claims that the weighting itself has a passional basis. It all depends on how much fear one has of "being duped." Clifford's policy is too conservative, in that they keep the battle from being fought, thus depriving us of a chance for victory. James counts a "lightness of heart" as healthier than "excessive nervousness." Finally, he claims that the the liberal strategy is best for the empiricist philosopher.

At this point, James anticipates an objection to his favoring of the continued role for passion in belief. It is that avoiding passion in belief-formation is the best way to satisfy the epistemic goal. He allows that by sticking to the purely intellectual, we can always avoid being duped. We should do so in scientific questions and in points of law (because judicial decisions make the law). Science does not contain forced options (though one might disagree with James on the point of the hypothesis of global warming).

This endorsement of scientific scruples holds only for deciding among hypotheses, not for the generation of hypotheses themselves. Here, passion has been a great aid in the history of science. The best course here is a balanced one between zeal and fear of error. Science even has adopted a technique, the "method of verification," which has trumped even the love of truth.

Moral Questions

Moral questions do not allow us to wait for scientific investigation. These are questions of values, which are beyond the scope of science. (Except insofar as scientific investigation is itself counted as a supreme good--something that cannot be verified). There are moral skeptics whom the passions do not lead to belief. The debate between him and the moral dogmatist is once again not capable of being settled objectively.

In practical affairs, one's beliefs can play a role in the outcome. Telling a woman that she must love one frequently wins her over. At times, belief, or faith, "creates its own verification." Social entities depend on mutual faith as a prerequisite for undertaking any actions at all. James cites an eerie example of how a train robbery can be deterred if people on the train believed that everyone else would stand with them. In cases where faith can create a fact, it would be "insane" to declare it immoral to let epistemic conservatism stand in the way. "Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives."

Religious Faith

Are the examples just given too trivially human to be applied to "the religious hypothesis?" That hypothesis has two parts: the best things are the moral eternal things: this is a moral claim that cannot be verified scientifically. The second is that we are better off believing this now even despite lack of verification.

A person for whom the religious hypothesis is live can go on from here. It is also momentous: we gain by belief and we loses by non-belief. It is also forced, at least with respect to the good in question. To hesitate skeptically is to lose the present good of belief. So skepticism entails a risk: "better risk the loss of truth than chance of error." It is a moral judgment that trumps the moral judgment in the religious hypothesis.

A benefit of religious belief is that it personalizes the universe. The religious empiricist thus risks cutting off the opportunity to know the deity personally.

James concludes that it would be irrational to adopt a rule that would require his absolutely from acquiring certain kinds of truth (even if they were there).

If any of the students he is addressing still shrinks from embracing James's view "that we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will," it may be because they reject specific religious hypotheses.

Empiricism itself seems to support James's thesis. The reason is that it has no absolute hallmark of truth. So it must cut off the believer if it is taken absolutely. And James repeats that the religious hypothesis is a forced option. He preaches tolerance.

We ought . . . 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 empricism's glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as practical things.

The essay ends with an extended quotation containing a metaphor about the necessity of choice in matters of ultimate interest.

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