“The Will to Believe” Revisited

Laura Nelson
24 min readJan 7, 2020
Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64566 )

(Part 1: a Reading)


Historians of American Pragmatism, as well as neo-pragmatists such as Richard Rorty and their critics, have tended to oppose William James and John Dewey to Charles Sanders Peirce. According to this interpretation, the most prominent advocates of which are Cheryl Misak and Howard Mounce, Peirce viewed pragmatism as a theory of conceptual meaning and a guide for disciplined practices of inquiry. In contrast James and Dewey extended Peirce’s pragmatism from a method of investigation to both a full-blown theory of truth and an all-purpose means of fixing all kinds of beliefs. Thus Peircean pragmatism was committed to a kind of scientific realism, with a dash of “end-of-inquiry” objective idealism to ensure that truth is “fated” to win, whereas James and Dewey were nominalists and anti-realists who rooted truth in a kind of voluntaristic “will to believe.”

The Misak-Mounce story of pragmatism’s history casts Peirce as a heroic defender of rigor and objectivity, while deprecating James and Dewey as wooly-minded crypto-positivists and proto-postmodernists, clearing the pathway to a pernicious relativism. They echo, in a scholarly voice, the novelist John Barth’s observation, in The End of the Road, that the difference between existentialism and pragmatism is merely a matter of optimism and energy: “[W]here the hell else but in America could you have a cheerful nihilism, for God’s sake?” (p. 47)

I have long thought that this “James & Dewey vs. Peirce” account was deeply flawed, in two ways. First, in many if not most respects, Dewey was closer in temperament and thought to Peirce than he was to James. While James was a nominalist, Dewey explicitly was not. Dewey held that the objects of inquiry, though they are approachable only through the humanly constructed habits we call concepts and theories (a very Peircean viewpoint), are real where they are real, in the situations where they are encountered. As Ralph Sleeper put it in The Necessity of Pragmatism, Dewey was a “piecemeal Realist.” While metaphysical realists are committed to an absolute understanding of reality — a “view from nowhere” that establishes the ontic structure of the world — Dewey viewed natural kinds as emergent realities, arising within a situated environment wherein both subject and object are ontologically constituted through interaction.

Second, like Peirce and unlike James, the context in which inquiry is conducted for Dewey is ineluctably communal. Just as in Peirce, it is the community of inquirers that elicits understanding and knowledge from nature. There is little in either Dewey or Peirce that aligns with James’s chief concern with providing individuals, mired in doubt and other forms of personal suffering, with the wherewithal to resolve and transcend these personal, existential crises. While Dewey wished, like James, to move institutionalized philosophy from obsession with “the problems of philosophers” to “the problems of men [sic]”, the problems for Dewey were essentially public — cultural, political, social — rather than private. This is not so with James.

It is also wrong to tag James as a radical, rather than a qualified, relativist. Those who do often cite James’s conception of truth as “whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.” The second half of this off-the-cuff quasi-definition is often not cited: “. . . and good, too, for definite assignable reasons” (emphasis mine; Pragmatism p. 42). James is making an important qualification to the “truth is what works” view of truth with which he is usually associated. He is not giving unlimited free-rein to subjectivity gone wild. For James, one must be able to defend what one takes to be “good” to oneself and others by justifying that belief. The “will to believe” is not a will to make-believe. It is a wild misunderstanding of James to think that our estimate of what is good to believe is arbitrary, a reduction of truth to “truthiness”, of what we like or prefer to believe. James is not Nietzsche. (Frankly, neither is Nietzsche if one takes his views to license a kind of sophomoric relativism as opposed to the perspectivism he explicitly endorses.)

To properly revisit what is perhaps James’s most important essay, “The Will to Believe”, we need to disabuse ourselves of several preconceptions about both his pragmatism and his radical empiricism. First: “pragmatism” does not name a single, simple property which all pragmatists share. James’s agenda was very different from those of Peirce and Dewey, and we should not assimilate them under a single umbrella term. Second: we must drop the idea that the kind of nominalistic relativism that James does endorse entails a rejection of objectivity. The “blooming, buzzing confusion” that is radical empiricism’s world of “pure experience” is organized by us in accordance with our interests, but those interests are not arbitrary or unconstrained by reasoning: they are not preferences. James’s account of truth does rest on a kind of nominalism and moderate antirealism, but it is not reductionistic: we must be responsible in making claims to truth, bow to public evidence when it is available and compelling, and take the demand to justify one’s conclusions with good reasons. James is not a prophet of the “post-truth” era, any more than Derrida or Foucault or Kuhn or Rorty are.


James’s pragmatism is quite unique to himself. Unlike Dewey or Peirce, James’s project, from “The Dilemma of Determinism” to “Is Life worth Living?”, is centered on bolstering the will of the individual to slog through cognitive uncertainties toward beliefs that assist in living a full, flourishing life. He tries to impart philosophical skills that are primarily geared to help the individual cope with the vicissitudes of living in the modern era. “The Will to Believe” needs to be read with the particulars of this therapeutic project in mind.

While it would be ludicrous to assimilate James into the present day, shallow self-help cults of, say Deepak Chopra or Joel Osteen, he at least shares with them the desire to provide practical advice that will help individual selves deal with the precariousness of the lived human condition, although for James the practical techniques are fundamentally rational. His own biography recounts his own struggles with major depression and a recurrent sense that life is meaningless, and how a pragmatic view of reason helped him overcome these crises. It is in view of this and other contexts that “The Will to Believe” should be revisited today.

Some of these “other contexts” include:

The challenge that Darwin’s theory of natural selection posed to Christianity (and theism in general). Since the beginnings of the 18th century, the predominant argument to establish the existence of God was a teleological argument, similar but hardly identical to St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Fifth Way”, which is an adaptation of Aristotle’s “final causality”, the idea that all substances are aligned toward a final telos or goal proper to their kind. The 18th century argument, best expressed by the Anglican theologian William Paley, is better understood as an argument from design, or more precisely an analogy with human design. Just as a complex object that is designed for a goal-directed task, like a watch, implies a designer, like a watchmaker, so too the presence of species, each well-fitted to its own natural-ecological niche, implies a “cosmic watchmaker”, i.e., God.

This “design argument” had been vigorously attacked in philosophy by Hume and Kant, but Darwin challenged it from the standpoint of natural science, a more powerful platform becuse closer to the empirical ground of its subject-matter. If species themselves evolve, and evolve by the chance mutation of traits coupled with changing environments and the reproductive inclusiveness of individuals, then “design” is only apparent, a by-product of chance and natural necessity. So neither design nor teleology are required as first principles for understanding the natural biological world. God drops out as a cognitive necessity for doing biology. For many Christians, especially those whose understanding of the Bible was more-or-less literally historical, this was a severe blow to their conviction that revelation-based faith was nevertheless rational, or at least not contrary to reason. Biology thus joined physics and cosmology as disciplines that could work very well without “the God hypothesis”, as astronomer Pierre Laplace once put it.

The cultural fallout of the “battle” between Science and Religion. For the educated English-speaking Protestant bourgeoisie, the scientific plausibility of Darwin’s theories were a major shock. They had long maintained that science, as an understanding of God’s book of nature, was entirely compatible with Christian faith, and might even rely upon it for explanatory consistency. Even deists like the American Founding Fathers, who advocated a rational belief in God apart from scriptural revelation, not only had no difficulty in acknowledging the competence of Science and Religion within their own spheres, but saw the latter as a necessary condition of the former — that is, God functions as as first cause of the order of nature. But if nature’s taxonomies are the product of arbitrary natural selection, and the design argument goes by the boards, faith, whether Christian or Deistic, is either held blindly and irrationally, or relinquished because it is scientifically unnecessary. Many lapsed Christians believed that confidence in scientific rationality had nullified theism, but were in agony over what seemed to be the consequences of their honest loss of faith. They felt adrift in a meaningless, mechanical cosmos indifferent to human fate. Thomas Hardy’s poem “Hap” (as in “hap-penstance” or mere randomness) expresses this predicament starkly:

We should notice how James’s “The Will to Believe” fits into and tries to overcome this predicament. James always acknowledged the authority of experimental science to determine how the physical, natural world works; he was a committed empiricist who believed in the tribunal of experience to justify any of our cognitive claims. But he was also concerned, as was Immanuel Kant, to make a place for religious faith in a knowable and law-bound nature, to make room for freedom in a law-governed universe, and to affirm value in a world of brute fact. In short, he wanted philosophy to make room for the sort of things wistfully lamented by Hardy and championed by Kant: God, Freedom, and Immortality. But he wanted to accomplish these Kantian goals by decidedly un-Kantian means.

Empiricist faith vs. German Idealism. James explicitly placed his work with the tradition of British Empiricism; he dedicated his book Pragmatism to John Stuart Mill. As one might expect, his bête noire was German Idealism as it flowed from Kant and Hegel. He thought German philosophy to be wildly speculative, wrapping human experience in a single, oversimplified system that undermines science and glosses over the plurality and complexities of life.

Yet the outcome of his meditations in “The Will to Believe” exhibits odd parallels to Kant’s idealistic conclusions in “The Dialectic of Pure Reason.” Kant’s claim is that the objects of pre-critical, “dogmatic” metaphysics — God, freedom, immortality, creation — are not properly objects of theoretical knowledge since they transcend the limits of possible experience. One can prove and disprove hypotheses on either side of the issue, the proof of one hypothesis being the disproof of the other. This signifies that neither option can be justified through the employment of pure theoretical reason, limited as it is by the categories of theoretical reason and forms of sensibility (e.g., space and time, causal regularity, persisting substance, etc.), to spatio-temporal objects of possible experience ordered and validated by those forms and categories. So one cannot experience God as an object like an apple or a kangaroo, so strictly speaking we cannot know God exist or God’s properties. There can be no theoretical proof of God, but there can be no theoretical disproof of God either.

But Kant goes on to insist that what theoretical reason prohibits, practical reason permits, as something reasonable to believe given the weight of our experience as agents. Thus religious faith is not the kind of thing that can be demonstrated, as in Descartes’s and Leibniz’s ontological proofs for the existence of God, or Paley’s design argument. It can, however, be believed by a reasonable person as something that practical experience points toward or suggests. Belief in God is a regulative principle, a postulate of reason that directs our cognitions to a greater comprehensiveness and coherence outside the parameters of what is, strictly, knowledge. Belief in God, freedom, and immortality makes a kind of sense without being provable.

This sounds a lot like James’s conclusion in “The Will to Believe”. James maintains, as did Kant, that belief and disbelief in “the Theistic hypothesis” are both valid and reasonable positions for a human being to take; it would be wrong for atheists to dismiss believers as irrational as it would be for theists to condemn atheists as irrational. James lamented that he did not name his essay “The Right to Believe”: both theists and atheists are within their rational rights to adhere to their convictions. So far, so Kantian — and so uncharacteristic of James’s Germanophobia.

There is, however, one important difference that makes all the difference, and places James within the orbit of British Empiricism and outside that of Transcendental and Absolute German Idealism. For Kant, the structure of both theoretical and practical reason is universal. Practical reason as such inclines toward theism. It is here that James’s pluralistic, radical empiricism makes itself felt: for James, there is no such thing as “practical reason as such”. There is only the practical reason of particular agents, particular empirical subjects, particular individuals. When people opt for “the Theistic hypothesis”, they do so because it helps them organize their lives and act in an optimal, satisfactory way. Kant wishes to assign the atheist to the status of being rational (because neither his stance nor his opponents can be demonstrated), but unreasonable, because the atheist cannot make sense of his or her own rational agency without the postulates of practical reason (God, freedom, immortality). James’s empiricist pluralism does not come down as hard on the atheist or agnostic as does Kant’s transcendental account of both theoretical and practical reason. James’s problem with his antagonist and foil, William Clifford, is not that his agnosticism is unreasonable: it is that his moralistic empirical absolutism, his empiricist puritanism, is.

Protestant Theology and New England Transcendentalism. James was a “Boston Brahmin” (part of Boston’s educated upper middle class), if an uncharacteristic one. His father was a theological disciple of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian and mystic who believed he was in direct contact with God. He rejected both the orthodox Catholic and Protestant doctrine of the Trinity, and challenged the Calvinist/Lutheran doctrine of salvation “by faith alone.” While James, by the time he wrote “The Will to Believe”, was no longer a Swedenborgian Christian theist, he exemplified the “anything goes” theological pluralism that characterized New England in the early 19th Century. In the New England religious milieu Calvinist stalwarts who believed in Original Sin and the “total depravity” of fallen nature contended with Unitarians who rejected Original Sin along with the Trinity and the pre-existent divinity of Jesus Christ; Quakers who believed in direct contact with the Holy Spirit in meditation vied with Deists who viewed God as a cosmic designer who left nature and its laws to itself; and so on, with sects splintering off hyper-sects like fractals.

A key moment in New England’s theological history was the dawn of Transcendentalism — a quasi-religious philosophical and socio-political movement influenced by German Idealism and British Romanticism. It was spearheaded by Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, and others. Its most notable exponent and popularizer was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, in a famous (or, better, infamous) speech to the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838, explicitly denounced the Calvinist doctrine of fallen nature, the Unitarian belief in a transcendent divinity and miracles as the basis of faith, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the special “real presence” of God in the sacraments, the idea of God as a person, and many other aspects of Christian dogma. If one would aim to know God, one must look within to the spark of Divinity in oneself, and look without to the beauty and sublimity of nature. Emerson’s God was immanent in Nature, indwelling in the human spirit, and expressed by and in each individual’s thinking and spirituality. (Emerson might be viewed as anticipating all those who nowadays describe themselves as “Spiritual, not religious.”) James was fond of Emerson’s individualist view of the religious, and James’s own conception of God is, like Emerson’s, explicitly post-Protestant and indeed post-Christian, panentheistic (God is found only in nature) if not pantheistic (God is nature, and nature God). Keep this in mind when trying to unpack the meaning of “The Will to Believe.”


James’s line of argument in “The Will to Believe” has two parts. The first part sets up the second by defining terms and context and identifying opponents. The second applies his pragmatist account of belief and truth to this field of contention.

James begins by reiterating the account of belief that he shares with Peirce: beliefs are hypotheses, conditional claims that can be tested against experience by establishing their consequences for action.

Peirce argued, in his essay “The Fixation of Belief”, that beliefs are a kind of habit: we anticipate how something will behave and the effects that will follow, and adjust that belief in accordance with how those effects actually pan out. To use Peirce’s example: we call a material “hard” if we habitually expect it to scratch other materials, and if those expectations are generally met. Diamonds are hard because we habitually anticipate diamonds to scratch, say, lead or gold, while the latter do not scratch diamonds. This illustrates the hypothetical nature of belief: we hypothesize that if X is hard, and Y is not, X will scratch Y, and if this does not occur we adjust our hardness-hypothesis about X.

The “Theistic hypothesis”, therefore, is a cognitive habit that God, a perfect and eternal reality that creates and sustains the transient natural world, is real. Do we have a right to believe in it?

It is here that James connects the idea of beliefs-as-testable-hypotheses with the idea of competing hypotheses as options. An option for belief can be either a) live or dead, b) forced or avoidable, and c) momentous or trivial.

· A live option is one where both options are equally plausible to be lived-out. An option between becoming either a medieval Japanese samurai or a devotee of the Eleusinian Greek mystery cult of Dionysus is a dead option. Neither choice is a plausible one given my place and time. On the other hand, the option between converting to Protestant Christianity or else converting to Catholicism is very much a live one: either option is available and livable for most 21st Century Americans. (The option might not be a live one for everybody. Whether the option “Convert to Christianity” or “Convert to Islam” is living might depend on my background, interests, and settled personality; “Become an observant, orthodox Jew” or “remain a secular, ‘cultural’ Jew” would be a live option for me if and only if I already was Jewish. And so on. The “liveness” of options is indexed to the situation of individuals.)

· A forced option is one where I have to choose between options and cannot evade the choice. The option to “take an umbrella when you go out” and “leave your umbrella at home” is avoidable: I can simply refuse to go out and just stay home. But choice between “get involved in the anti-Nazi French resistance and leave your sick mother” and “do not get involved in the resistance and stay home to care for your mother” (an actual dilemma in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”) is forced. To refuse to choose is, in effect, to stay home with mother. There is no third option.

· A momentous option is one which seriously affects the direction and prospects of one’s life. The option between “Wear the red dress” and “Wear the blue dress” is a trivial option: while real and genuine, it ultimately makes little difference how I choose. On the other hand, “become an expatriate” vs. “stay an American citizen” is momentous because its effects upon my life are predictably vast. (And, as with “liveness”, whether an option is momentous or not depends on the individual.)

Given this, the optional choice to affirm or deny “the Theistic hypothesis” can clearly be live, forced, and momentous, depending on one’s individual knowledge-situation and prior convictions. Believing in God is, unlike the Greek mystery cults or Samurai ethos, available and livable; to refrain from choosing is tantamount to denying it, and whether one affirms or denies it makes a massive different in the contours of one’s life. So, according to James, it qualifies as the sort of hypothesis amenable to a pragmatic analysis of whether one has a right to believe in it or not.

There is one more caveat in James’s preliminary analyses, one that is often skipped-over but decidedly should not be. Many live, momentous, and forced options can be settled by appeal to common and public evidence, and are not genuine candidates for believing on pragmatic or individual “passional” grounds. They are not really live options whatever one might think.

Suppose I am a disciple of a conspiracy theory: that the 1969 moon landing was faked. The option I choose is momentous insofar as it colors my entire viewpoint of the US Government and its legitimacy. It is forced insofar as you either think the moon landing was genuine or not. And I take it to be live because there are lots of fellow conspiratorialists who think as I do, unlike believers in the Samurai code or the Dionysian mysteries. However, from James’s perspective, there is a profound difference between my conspiracy theory and accepting or rejecting “the Theistic hypothesis.” The evidence for a genuine moon landing (archived audiotapes in NASA, moon rocks brought back, the absurd preparations that would had to have been undertaking for faking the landing and deceiving the public, etc.) is overwhelming, and any counter-evidence either nonexistent or vanishingly weak.

This caveat is critically important. It places an empirical constraint on invoking our affective or passional needs in affirming a hypothesis. The will, or right to believe, is only operative when the objective, public evidence for or against a hypothesis is nonexistent or inconclusive. Thus questions about Kant’s trio of “God, freedom, and immortality”, where evidence neither decisively supports not decisively refutes the hypotheses, are valid candidates for deciding on the basis of personal needs or convictions — but only such hypotheses are candidates. James anticipates the objections of those who conflate the will to believe as mere “wishful thinking” by explicitly making the distinction between those hypotheses on which evidence has some bearing, and those open hypotheses left in suspense by the evidence.


James considers some false steps taken in evaluating live, forced, momentous, and empirically open hypotheses. The first is “Pascal’s Wager.” The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, and devout Jansenist Catholic Blaise Pascal, proposed a “pragmatic” defense of Christian faith along the following lines. Consider “the Theistic hypothesis” as a kind of bet. There are two ways in which one can bet: “God exists” and “God does not exist.” There are two possibilities that can affect winning or losing the bet: “God exists in reality” or “God does not exist in reality.” This results in the following “payoff matrix”:

· You bet “God exists” and God does exist: eternal life and bliss. Ahh! Nice!

· You bet “God exists” and God does not exist: you miss out on some good times, but you won’t regret it because you’re dead, and while you are alive you do not anxiously anticipate the fires of hell. Oh well…..

· You bet “God does not exist” and God does exist: the eternal fires of hell. Ouch!

· You bet “God does not exist” and God does not exist: no eternal fires of hell, so nothing eternally lost, but you’ll forever be second-guessing yourself in life. Anxiety!

One can assign quantitative values to the segments of the matrix: only the first guarantees an infinitely positive payoff. The second and fourth have finitely positive or negative payoffs, and the third an infinitely negative payoff. Therefore it “works” to opt for God’s existence whether God exists or not.

James utterly rejects Pascal’s line of reasoning — rightly, in my opinion. First of all “the language of the gaming table” is completely out of line when contemplating the existence of God and one’s eternal destiny. Second, Pascal is ignoring other factors he values when he counsels “stupefying oneself” with holy water and Catholic ritual. Pascal is speaking as a Catholic Christian when he makes the bet: he is not considering other options, e.g., embracing Judaism or Islam or Hinduism. Is it so clear that there aren’t conceptions of God or the sacred other than either Christian belief or bald atheism that would muddy Pascal’s argument? Pascal’s option thus may be live and momentous (for him), but it is not genuinely forced, and he bypasses that possibility. Finally, there is something artificial about Pascal’s view that one could “voluntarily” believe in something by self-force. It is, in turns, according to James, silly and “vile”.

Another false step is exemplified by James’s chief antagonist, the English mathematician and scientific agnostic William Clifford. Clifford raises empiricist evidentialism to an exceptionless moral imperative: “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” While Pascal makes the will/right to believe far too easy, Clifford makes it far too difficult. In fact, Clifford’s empiricist puritanism flies in the face of how all inquiry, including empirical inquiry, actually proceeds.

Clifford does not take stock of how actual human beings take inventory of their beliefs and decide upon them. James argues thus:

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind . . . 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 . . . Evidently, then, 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. (Section III)

What one takes to be relevant evidence is not itself warranted by evidence: it is warranted, instead, by our pre-existent needs and desires. The scientist like Huxley needs to understand nature as law governed and regular; the theologian like Newman needs to understand nature as purposeful and good. What counts as evidence is not context-free. And the relevant contexts are practical contexts — which are various and variable.

In light of this, James explicitly formulates the thesis he is defending:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision, — just like deciding yes or no, — and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth. (Section IV, emphasis James’s)

Clifford, Huxley, and like-minded scientific empiricists fancy themselves to be dispassionate, impartial weighers of the given, or pure evidence. But a quick glance at their actual, practical dispositions shows this to be a self-deception:

The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes. When the Cliffords tell us how sinful it is to be Christians on such ‘insufficient evidence,’ insufficiency is really the last thing they have in mind. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other way. They believe so completely in an anti-christian order of the universe that there is no living option: Christianity is a dead hypothesis from the start. (Section V)

Remember: whether an option is “live, momentous, and forced” is not absolute: it varies from individual to individual and context to context. The problem with Clifford, as well as his religiously dogmatic antagonists, is that they assume that what holds for them holds for all. Thus Clifford assumes that his agnosticism is a foregone conclusion rather than the hidden premise that it actually is.


Clifford assumes that the injunctions to “Believe Truth!” and “Shun error!” as constituting one law, and that one cannot attain truth without a prior commitment to shunning error. James counters by noting that they are “materially different” imperatives, and that the choice of one over the other will color “our whole intellectual life”:

We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. (Section VII)

Clifford is guilty of the precise fault he accuses others of exhibiting: they confuse a passionate adherence to a conviction with the dispassionate consideration of the evidence. But in effect Clifford is prioritizing error-avoidance over truth-seeking, and doing so not because it is true and/or reasonable to do so, but because of a prior commitment to scientific empiricism. This is an exercise of will, or sentiment, which undergirds his right to believe in the sort of naturalism he shares with Huxley. James is not arguing that they are not entitled to disbelieve On the contrary they are. He is, however, exhorting them to grant the same right to those who accept “the Theistic hypothesis.”

As far as the facts allow, James contends,

[W]herever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come. In scientific questions, this is almost always the case . . . (Section VIII, emphasis mine)

. . . Because if one is honest, options in natural science are not live, forced, and momentous in the way that the “believe or disbelieve” option is.

Throughout the breadth of physical nature facts are what they are quite independently of us, and seldom is there any such hurry about them that the risks of being duped by believing a premature theory need be faced. The questions here are always trivial options, the hypotheses are hardly living (at any rate not living for us spectators), and the choice between believing truth or falsehood is seldom forced. The attitude of sceptical balance is therefore the absolutely wise one if we would escape mistakes. What difference, indeed, does it make to most of us whether we have or have not a theory of the Röntgen rays, whether we believe or not in mind-stuff, or have a conviction about the causality of conscious states? It makes no difference. Such options are not forced on us. On every account it is better not to make them, but still keep weighing reasons pro et contra with an indifferent hand. (Section VIII)

Clifford’s empiricism fails to be adequately pluralistic, or cognizant of the many, irreducible ways in which we engage in the world as human agents. And for James, this is also a failure to actually be an empiricist. James makes an uncharacteristically cryptic reply to Clifford when he opines that

There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the ‘lowest kind of immorality’ into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives! (Section IX)

What James means by this reply seems to be that the “facts” of religious conviction, quite unlike those of natural science, are not independent of our willingness to admit, and conceive of, their possibility. If you refuse to even countenance that possibility, as do Clifford and other “scientific absolutists”, you fail to risk the possibility that there might be something to religious belief, and close off the search for truth to which you claim allegiance. It is “okay” to disbelieve: just do not deny that it’s “okay” for others to think otherwise.

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 . . . [Thus in] truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing. (Sections IX — X)

Those who affirm “the Theistic hypothesis” affirm two things: first, that “the best things are the more eternal things . . . [that] “Perfection is eternal,” — a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all.” The second is “that we are better off even now if we believe [the] first affirmation to be true.” (Section X) Religious believers are within their rights to believe insofar as the option of belief is live, momentous, forces, and empirically an open question; they can justify their belief because, given the conditions of their right to believe, it makes for a better life. It remains a risk — the religious may be wrong to believe as they do — but it is within their cognitive and moral rights to take that risk. One does not win through to such beliefs without a measure of courage. But courage is, after all, an excellent thing.

One final note: James insists that certain matters “become true” only if one decides to believe they are true. A mountaineer may not know if she can successfully scale the Matterhorn, but if she believes she has the capacity to do so — and only if she believes she has the capacity to do so — she will bring it about that she actually can scale the Matterhorn. If I believe that I can be lovable to a person for whom I have affection, and act in accordance with that belief, then I will far more likely win that person’s love — and without that belief I will fail before I start. Thus is it with religious belief. If I seek meaning in life and the motivation to do good and be good, which James takes to be central to theistic and indeed Christian belief, then it makes sense to believe, on personal, passional grounds that go beyond the evidence, since that and that alone can itself give me the secure confidence that I can secure a meaningful and valuable existence. We may not be able to “will” God into existence, but we can bolster our wills to believe in God, which makes all the difference in the world to us.



Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.