March 31, 2016

William James

William James (1842-1910)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, March 31, 2016

William James

In “The Will to Believe” psychologist-philosopher William James (1842-1910) famously argues that under certain conditions (which James specifies) religious belief can be reasonable in the absence of evidence.

Let’s clarify James’s view (in part by contrasting it with the views of others) and then assess.

For contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga, if God exists, belief can be rational even if not supported by evidence or argument because we have some “properly basic beliefs” (which are part of our properly functioning faculty for knowing). If God exists, we have a sensus divinitatus, i.e., a sense or knowledge of the divine given to us by God. No argument needed. In contrast, James doesn’t assume God’s existence, but we can still be rational in choosing or willing to believe.

According philosopher William Clifford (1845-1879), it’s always irrational to believe anything without sufficient evidence (though Clifford apparently didn't notice he was believing this without evidence), and because there isn’t sufficient evidence for God, we ought not believe. In contrast, James doesn’t argue that there is sufficient evidence for God (he thinks there isn't), but James still holds one can be reasonable believing without evidence (and without Plantinga's basic belief).

How so? According to James, to be reasonable in willing or choosing religious belief without evidence one must be facing what James calls a “genuine option” for belief. A genuine option is a religious belief that satisfies three conditions.

(a) It must be a live hypothesis—it’s a real possibility for you. A present-day world religion may be a real possibility for you, depending on where you live. The gods of Olympus would not be a live option for you.

(b) It must be a forced option—there’s no avoiding it. You must choose for or against it. Postponing, say, a marriage proposal until you are 100% sure is in effect to say No.

(c) It must be a momentous option. The implications of risking a false belief are better than having no belief or remaining agnostic. There is an underlying gamble for “the best things.”

Think of a mountain climber stranded in a storm. He hears a voice telling him to jump to safety. He can stay put (and freeze to death) or jump (and possibly live). Better to jump.

According to James, willing to believe is reasonable if the option is live, forced, and momentous.

Okay, so is it reasonable for us to choose or will to agree with James?

I have concerns.

I think the momentousness of the gamble may also be a reason for resisting the will/urge to believe. If the stakes are high—really high—perhaps I should be more careful in my gamble. And especially if there is a plurality of live options.

If I am a stranded mountain climber and there are competing voices—some from climbing experts, some from novices, perhaps some from persons who wish me dead—telling me to do different things to get off the mountain, I should pause (at least briefly) to assess.

Moreover, the plurality of live religious options also works against the forced aspect of the option. It’s not just yes to one or the other; it’s yes to one or the other or the other or the other, etc.  If I’m deciding which one woman I should marry and I have several “live options,” I should take time to get counseling!

Also, what if the “live option” is a religion that uses cult techniques (misinformation and emotional manipulation) to make it live for you?

Surely, as contemporary philosopher Patrick Quinn points out, such considerations suggest “the need for a more reasonable approach to religious faith and not one that is based on the will alone but rather the ‘informed’ will.”

To arbitrate between competing religious options, then, we need to test the spirits and “spiritualities” for truth. Enter careful investigation of evidence and the humble use of good reasoning.

That's why I take Easter seriously.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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