These two articles begin an argument that is still pertinent to epistemology today!
In his paper, “The Will To Believe”, William James potently responds to William Kingdon Clifford’s famous statement that, “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence.” Clifford’s piece, called “The Ethics of Belief,” was written in the 1876, and although Clifford does not explicitly direct his arguments to religion, the tone of the paper suggests that his target was religion and believers. Clifford was a Christian-turned-mathematician and adopted strict scientific protocols to ensure hygiene of his beliefs. James took heart in Christianity and it was an integral part of his mental life, having saved him from feelings of despair that overtook him during his study of psychology, especially after witnessing the suffering of an epileptic.
Regarding the question of whether to believe in religious hypotheses especially, James wants to show that it is sometimes rational to believe in the absence of conclusive evidence. James draws attention to the point that Clifford and skeptics are all guilty of using their passions to assist in their decision to withhold assent. James forces the concession that all human beings are empiricists about evidence – the only absolute truth anyone knows and can claim access to is “that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists. That, however, is the bare starting-point of knowledge, the mere admission of a stuff to be philosophized about. (James, 15). Therefore, it seems that “will” must already be involved in the formation of Clifford’s strict evidential-based set of beliefs. Thereby, James undermines Clifford’s commitment to strict objectivity and Clifford now must defend the criteria that he uses to choose to risk being in error and under what circumstances he uses passions to form beliefs.
According to James, it can be rational to believe in spite of lack of evidence under certain conditions. We are sometimes faced with a live hypothesis, which is a statement that compels us emotionally to believe or not (there is also no third option). In this case of a genuine option, the dilemma must be momentous, as in suitably one-of-a-kind, irreversible, urgent, or of vital importance. In “momentous” cases in which we do not have suitable rational evidence for or against the proposition, it can be rational to will to believe on insufficient evidence. This is because withholding assent on the basis that there is not enough evidence to require belief amounts to a loss of a great prize, since truth can never be gained from withholding assent – we fail 100% of the risks we do not take. Moreover, it seems that in some cases, our beliefs can change outcomes and actually make things go better for us. For example, if I was mountain climbing and came to a cavern that I needed to get a across, especially in the case that it is a life-or-death situation it seems that having a belief that I can jump across a cavern might help me actually achieve it and, additionally, does not seem to be categorically wrong even though it might not be true yet. Moreover, James notes that the human condition seems to be one of “being duped” all the time, and therefore, the fear of error is misunderstood and overemphasized in the mind of someone who avoids belief.
A Comment Against James
If you read the argument in depth, you might wonder if the decision to believe in God is actually as momentous as James portrays it. I think, rather, one’s will to believe seems endlessly revocable as long as a person is still alive to think. A person might will to believe in God at any moment and will to lose belief the next. For James, it would not be irrational to define that behaviour as rational behaviour, but simple exercise of will. Kierkegaard addresses the issue and seems to come to the conclusion that religious faith must be a series of acts of will. James’ premise about the dilemma as live, forced, and momentous is relied upon heavily for the rest of his argument. Although I think he successfully responds to Clifford and others regarding their reliance on the will for their scientific beliefs, and he is able to reframe the debate about ir/rationality of religious belief. However, the avenue that James takes to make it into a special question is, in my view, unsuccessful.
Questions for critical thinking about the ethics of belief:
Do you think that it can be rational to believe, even when you don’t have enough evidence?
Is religion a special category, for which it’s ok not to have reasons to ground your belief? If it is a special category of knowledge, what makes it special (for you)?
I’d love to hear your comments!