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Posted by on Apr 9, 2007 in god, religion, Will to believe | 11 comments

James and “The Will to Believe”

Another section – feedback please…

Many people believe in God believe while acknowledging that their belief lacks strong grounds. They believe anyway, despite the insufficient evidence. They have faith.

Not everyone is impressed by this sort of faith. The 19th Century mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford argues that it is actually morally wrong to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. Clifford says, “it is wrong, always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. As Clifford supposes that those who believe in God believe on the basis of insufficient evidence, he considers their belief immoral.

William James attacks Clifford’s view, insisting that we are sometimes right to believe, even when the evidence is inconclusive. In The Will to Believe, he argues that this is precisely the situation regarding belief in God.

Though James is a scientist, he thinks that science has its limitations. There are circumstances, he thinks, when a scientific approach to deciding what to believe can be harmful. Below is one of James favourite illustrations of this point.

The mountaineer example

Suppose that you are a mountaineer. To return safely home you must leap a chasm. The chasm is wide, and the evidence you will make it not particularly strong. In order to succeed, you need to feel confident. Hesitate and all will be lost.

So, despite the fact you are not entirely justified in believing you will make it safely across the chasm, it is nevertheless a sensible thing for you to believe, particularly as the belief will make it more likely that you will succeed.

James concludes that Clifford is mistaken. It is sometimes sensible to allow what James calls our “passional nature” – our interests, hopes, desires and fears – to influence what we believe, even though there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.

Live, forced and momentous

When is it legitimate to allow our passional natures to rule our beliefs in this way? James says the following three conditions must be satisfied:

First, we must be faced with a choice between options that are live. A live option is one that is genuinely a possibility for us – it is one we can at least take seriously. Believing in Zeus or Santa Claus are not live options for most contemporary adults. On the other hand, believing in the Judeo-Christian God, or in the existence of life on other planets, are genuine possibilities.

Second, the choice must be forced. A forced choice is one where you have to choose one way or the other. For example, I cannot help but choose between having an ice cream today or not having an ice cream today (though of course I might put the choice off for a while). I have no option but to do one or the other of these things. The choice between travelling to Africa or India, on the other hand, is not one I am forced to make.

Third, the choice must be momentous. A momentous choice is one that will have a major impact on your life. The choice to have children is a momentous one, obviously. As is the choice of an ex-alcoholic to have a drink.

All three of these conditions are satisfied in the mountaineer example. The choice is between live options. It is also forced: either you believe or you fail to believe. And the consequences are momentous. To leap without belief may be fatal. Under these circumstances, thinks James, there is nothing wrong with allowing your passional nature to lead you to belief.

According to James, we face a similar choice when it comes to religious belief. The choice between believing and not believing is forced. It is also momentous: depending on which choice you make, your life will no doubt go very differently. And, in the case of Christianity, both choices are live for many of us.

So, under these circumstances, says James, it is legitimate to allow our passional natures to lead us to belief.

An objection to James’ defence of religious belief

I think we should concede that there are circumstances in which allowing our “passional natures” to determine what we believe is indeed the right thing to do. However, it is debatable whether this is the case when it comes to many religious beliefs.

Consider a rather different religious belief – the belief that the entire universe is about six thousand years old. Approximately one hundred million Americans currently hold this belief. The fact is (though few of them would accept this) that there is little evidence to support their belief and overwhelming evidence against it. Is it, nevertheless, entirely legitimate for them to hold it?

It seems the three conditions James says are necessary if we are to allow our “passional natures” to determine belief are satisfied. The choice between believing and not believing in a six-thousand-year-old universe is forced. It is also, for many, momentous. Given the option is also live, is it, then, acceptable for people to allow their hopes and desires to lead them to believe that the universe is six thousand years old?

Surely not. Given the weight of evidence, these people really shouldn’t believe what they do. Indeed, isn’t there something rather irresponsible about anyone who would allow their beliefs to be shaped in this way, given the evidence available to them?
James would probably agree. He says

“…the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve.” [my italics]

That the universe is more than a few thousand years old is, presumably, something most of us are now able to figure out intellectually. At least beyond reasonable doubt.

The moral carries over to belief in God. If the evidence for and against the existence of God is more or less evenly balanced, then perhaps it is acceptable for us to allow our “passional natures” to lead us to religious belief.

But, if, as most atheists maintain, the evidence is actually stacked heavily against belief in God, then James’ “will to believe” does not extend to belief in God.


  1. What a coincidence! Timmo and I have posted on this very subject! (I’ll post the links if that’s ok.)

  2. A mountain climber slips over a precipice and clings to a rope over a thousand-foot drop. In fear and despair, he looks to the heavens and cries, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?” A voice from above booms, “You will be saved if you show your faith by letting go of the rope.” The man looks down, then up, and shouts, “Is there anyone else up there who can help me?”(Lifted unashamedly from Steven Pinker’s “How The Mind Works”…)

  3. Thanks for the interesting post!I’m not sure that James needs his (rather odd) criteria (live, forced and momentous). It seems to me that you can make a case for believing that you will jump over the chasm purely on the basis that this belief will be more beneficial than any other related one at that moment. This is, of course, what James is doing. But then why the criteria? Ditch them, and the question of religious beliefs becomes a little more soluble: Should you believe in a six thousand year old earth? No – not if the facts are against it AND there’s no emotional payoff (naturally, one could still retain one’s belief in God). If one really did get some emotional benefit from the belief though, then a rational case could once again be made for believing in it (as opposed to its being true). However, it would require a careful weighing up of the pros and cons. So, I don’t think James needs the criteria, and I think they land him in trouble through indiscriminate application.BUT, I’m really not sure that you can just decide to engage the “passional nature” so arbitrarily. No matter how much I felt that ‘believing I could’ would help me cross the chasm, I simply don’t think that I could actually delude myself into forgetting about my earlier evaluation of the chances. I have no difficulty with the benefits of such a belief. It just seems to me that either I believe it anyway (without realising the poor grounds for my belief) and reap the benefits, or else the best I can do is realise that it would have been better for me to be deluded!

  4. I think Law misses an important flaw in James’ argument. James gives the example of a lost mountaineer faced with having to leap a chasm in order to reach safety, and then builds a set of criteria or when it’s OK to have faith, which seem to be based on this example, the assumption being that in order to make the leap the mountaineer has had to have faith in his or her ability to survive that leap. The criteria themselves are worth looking at in more detail, but first I would question the validity of the example. In the case of the mountaineer, the decision about whether leaping the chasm is the right thing to do is based on a sober weighing up of the options. He / she decides that the best option is to make the leap. This does not mean, nor does it require, that they have faith that their leap will be successful. James assumes that they do – that crucial decisions (one of his criteria) are made on the basis that having faith in an outcome is somehow part of the decision making process: that having decided that attempting the leap is the better course, the person has somehow decided to “have faith” that the leap will be successful. I doubt even believers approach mountaineering in this way, but James assumes that they do, and in their approach to other areas of life I have no doubt he is right. Of course we never hear from the mountaineers at the bottom of the chasm, any more than we hear from those believers who have died. Leaving that (with its obvious echoes of Pascal’s Wager) aside for now, James seems to be describing for us something that I have noticed about believers in arguments over the years, which is their extra-lexical use of the word Faith. What James is saying is that once a believer has chosen a given path (based on his three criteria which make it reasonable to so do), they then have faith that the thing they have chosen is true. That having decided to “believe” that the world is six thousand years old, or that some poorly-described God exists, they then have faith that it is true. This is the arrogance of belief: not the arrogance to decide that this thing is true as compared to that thing (which after all involves weighing up the evidence), but the attitude that says that, once I have decided to believe this thing, it becomes true. Of course, once I have made something true in my world by electing to believe it, there is no longer any point in my continuing to weigh up the evidence either way. Something which is true cannot become untrue, after all I have made it true by believing it. This I think is the wrinkle that lies at the heart of all modern belief systems. I say modern because, in the days when for instance the Christian scriptures were written, it was reasonable to believe in God given the evidence, and arguably unreasonable to believe otherwise (the Apostle Paul makes a clear case for this, and in his day I think he was right). The focus of religion in those days was not on whether or not you believed but on whether or not you obeyed or submitted to the God of the day. The focus on belief rather than obedience is as modern as humanity’s ownership of the evidence that, whether or not it disproves God, disproves almost everything that has been claimed on his behalf, thereby making it reasonable to weigh up the evidence either way before accepting his claims on us. It is not a sin to disbelieve in something that you genuinely think is not there. I would go further and concur with W K Clifford that to believe under these circumstances is immoral. Perhaps by exposing the true nature of the thing that believers call Faith, James has helped give us an insight into exactly why this sort of arrogance towards the vagaries of life, an arrogance which makes believers into little gods commanding reality to bend to their will and worship them, is immoral. If God were alive today I think he would have agreed.

  5. In one sense, James criteria are vacuous, and his “leap of faith” becomes indistinguishable from existentialism.Quine (and others, especially contra Popper) have shown that we can hold any statement “come what may” as a standing truth; i.e. every statement is “live”. As Hardcastle notes, this observation is magnificently illustrated by the Dead Parrot sketch.Given that we have to hold something as standing truth to make any sort of sense of the world, every statement is live, forced and momentous. James is (or might be) correct that we must make some sort of “leap of faith” in some sense, but his criteria get us no closer to figuring out which statements we should choose.

  6. Let me start, like Vicky Pollard, with a yes but no but yes. James’s leap can have as much to do with adrenalin as it has with faith. Personally I’d prefer to have my belief system in place further down the mountain, say at the luxuriating over a hot chocolate stage. And I’d have to argue that science can’t be taken as an absolute either, as recently proven by Stephen Hawking. The eminent physicist publicly admitted that his Big Bang/ Black Hole theory was wrong. The only lasting truth in that case was the millions of books which Hawking sold on his original theory… and I’ll aspire to that faith any time.

  7. I think the idea that this is a forced yes-no choice begs the question. For any proposition, such as that god exists, one can believe, disbelieve or stay neutral. To get a forced two-way choice out of this, we need to either make neutrality intellectually untenable or else bracket it with one of the other two options.I take it for granted that neutrality is tenable. And ‘will to believe’-type arguments, whether from James or Pascal, do bracket neutrality with positive disbelief. If god exists, and he punishes agnosticism as surely as he punishes atheism, then this is justifiable. But, of course, the existence of god is what’s at issue. Do we first have to will ourselves to believe that doubt is as bad as denial?James gives the analogy: “It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married some one else?”Putting it that way is neat, but one-sided. What about a man who hesitates to rule out marrying a certain woman because he’s not perfectly sure that she’s a serial husband-murderer? Why should the angel possibility command our attention?

  8. “Insufficient evidence” is, in a lot of cases, a judgement made on the basis of insufficient evidence. Perhaps “faith in myself” is not the best example. Self-confidence is normally unrelated to any evidence!I have found it helpful to talk about faith in the reliability of others, in spite of strong apparent evidence that they have betrayed that trust. Your wife is found naked in bed with another man: should you have faith in her fidelity? It’s not a question with a right answer. As such, it’s futile to discuss the “scientific approach” to the problem. What you have to decide is whether your future will be better if you trust, or whether trust is already destroyed, even if it could be proved that she has been sexually faithful.What is “wrong” is to fail to distinguish between decisions taken on grounds of faith, and decisions taken about matters that can’t be assessed that way. You can’t decide whether a drink is poisoned by “having faith” that it isn’t. Nor can you decide “scientifically” whether you’ll be happy married to your current love. As for having faith in deities, that’s another matter, and confusing it by pretending it is in any way similar to “trust” faith or to forensic discovery, is (in my view) a sign of wishful thinking, or other varieties of intellectual dishonesty. Science is a good guide to whether your religious belief is spiritual, or superstitious. If you believe that God made the world in six days, and have to ignore scientific knowledge to maintain that belief, then it seems likely that you’re confused about the difference between spirituality and superstition.As to whether spirituality is of the slightest value to a human being, well… that’s a matter of faith.:-)

  9. ‘Belief’ is being used in a few ways here, I think, without the necessary distinctions. The simplest and easiest one to profile is the simple case of belief in a provable fact, like the boiling point of water, or a logical necessity. Belief is easily substantiated with such cases. But now that same word is turned over to a case of future performance with high stakes; the mountain climber. Actually, the event of making it successfully hasn’t occurred yet, it’s only a potential. So real belief can’t exist by definition. Self-directed motivational speeches don’t count as the same thing, even if they do help.The first use of ‘belief’ indicates a conclusion based on experience, and the second is only referring to confidence. Though the same word is generally used here, as well.This tendency to use a word in two different contexts, and borrow terms from one context to the next, is probably as old as philosophy. Now since I said ‘a few’ definitions, I’ll offer a third version of belief: a tradition of thought which I’m not allowed to subject to personal critical re-evaluation. Obviously I’m portraying religious conviction here. Again, the word belief comes up, and refers to something unlike the first two versions. Finally, I’ll offer my own preferred use of the term. Really, a belief should indicate a hypothesis that remains unproven. “I believe that the universe is at least 14 billion years old, but I remain open to new evidence, and will always have to remain so, since I didn’t actually see it come into being.” (correct me if Im wrong here, but isn’t this the case with all historical studies? I’d like a philosopher of history to respond to that, perhaps they’re ready for that question.)There’s a word for validated knowledge: facts.I do enjoy William James, I consider him one of the great minds of the 19th century, but he got this one wrong by a long shot. In an earlier post I referred to integrity in knowledge issues. The mess instigated with this topic shows the trouble one can get into when one’s standards are set to low.

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