Notes on James, “The Will to Believe”


§        Important Terms


In order to really understand James, we need to understand the terms that he defines or introduces.


A hypothesis is a proposition, or idea, that’s presented to us as a possible belief. A live hypothesis is a proposition which it is, in fact, possible for us to believe, whereas a dead hypothesis is a proposition which it’s impossible for us to believe.


An option is a decision between two hypotheses. A live option is  a decision between two live hypotheses; a dead option is a decision between two options at least one of which is dead. A forced option is a decision between two options which we can’t avoid making; an avoidable option is a decision between two options which we can avoid making. A momentous option is an irrevocable option for significant stakes; a trivial option is an option which is not irrevocable or for significant stakes. And finally, and most importantly of all, a genuine option is an option which is simultaneously living, forced, and momentous.


§        The Psychological Necessity of Willing to Believe


James maintains that pure reason is never the final determinant of what we believe. The non-intellectual components of our mind (for example, our emotions and desires) partially determine what beliefs we have. We can, through will, conjure up belief in any live hypothesis and hypotheses which are dead for us are dead for us because we have previously exercised our will in a certain way (say, by being influenced by the opinions of those around us).


§        The Philosophical Appropriateness of Willing to Believe


Of course, given that our beliefs are partially determined by factors other than reason, it remains to be asked whether this should be the case.  Given that our will does plays a role in determining our belief, should we embrace this as a fact of psychological life, or should we struggle against it?


In addressing this question, James notes that we have two epistemic duties: 1) the duty to believe the truth, 2) the duty to not believe the false.  These duties sometimes conflict. In order to believe the truth, we must have beliefs and so we risk having false beliefs.  In order to avoid having false beliefs, we may avoid believing things and so we may risk losing true beliefs.


Clifford thinks that believing falsehoods is worse than failing to believe truths and so he recommends believing only things which are well-justified. Someone else might think that failing to believe truths is worse than believing falsehoods and so would recommend believing things which aren’t so well-justified.  James thinks that this decision is, itself, a “passional” one, motivated by non-rational factors.


Because some beliefs, like the belief that avoiding falsehood is more important than attaining truth, cannot be adopted on the basis of logic alone, and because such beliefs are central to the entire enterprise of believing anything at all, it must be okay, sometimes, to believe things for non-rational reasons.


§        When Willing to Believe Is, and Is Not, an Acceptable Practice


Of course, to say that it’s sometimes okay to believe things for non-rational reasons doesn’t mean that it’s always okay to do this.


James says that we shouldn’t will to believe something where the option is avoidable and trivial. If the risks attached to believing a falsehood are greater than the benefits incurred by believing the truth, either because the risk is very great or because the benefit is very small, then it’s worth losing the truth in order to increase our chances of avoiding falsehoods.  Here, we should suspend belief until the evidence comes in.


In two kinds of cases, however, we should (or at least we may) will to believe in the absence of rational justification. The first type of case is an option between self-fulfilling hypotheses. Some beliefs, like the belief a particular person likes you, or that a committee you’re on will work properly, actually help to create the fact believed. In such cases, it would be self-defeating to refuse to adopt the belief until you have sufficient evidence for the fact.


The second type of case is belief involving a genuine option, or an option which is simultaneously living, forced, and momentous. “Are there moral truths or not?” may be such an option for us. It’s forced, insofar as there’s no place to stand outside the option. It’s momentous, insofar as it might matter very much to us, even now, which hypothesis we adopt. And it may be living for us as well, if both the existence and the non-existence of moral truths present themselves to us as possible things to believe. In such a case, if the risks attached to failing to believe the truth are greater than the benefits incurred by avoiding falsehood, either because the risks are very great or because the benefit is very small, then it’s worth believing falsehoods in order increase our chances of believing the truth, and so we may will to believe one hypothesis, even in the absence of strong evidence in its support.


It’s important to remember that James does not argue that we are permitted to will to believe something if the evidence against it is sufficiently strong. Presumably, if the evidence against a certain hypothesis is especially compelling, that hypothesis will no longer be live for us and so will not be part of a genuine option.


§        Willing to Believe and Religious Belief


James defines the Religious Hypothesis as the belief that the best things are the eternal things, and that we will be better off right now if we believe that the best things are the eternal things. We might define the Religious Option as “either believe the religious hypothesis or don’t believe the religious hypothesis.”


James assumes that there is insufficient justification for either hypothesis in the religious option, and that (partly as a result of this) the religious option is a living one for us. James notes that the religious option is momentous: if the religious hypothesis is true then there is substantial gain to believing it and a substantial risk attached to failing to believe it (since part of the religious hypothesis just is that we will win by adopting the religious hypothesis and lose by failing to adopt it). The option is also forced, because there is no third alternative to believing or failing to believe. Accordingly, the Religious Option is a genuine option and, as such, it’s fair game for us to will to believe in the Religious Hypothesis. We needn’t wait around for sufficient evidence to ground this belief; we may allow our “passional nature” full sway.


(James also advances another argument in support of the same conclusion, an argument based on the assumption that since we tend to think of God as a person, belief in the Religious Hypothesis may be self-fulfilling insofar as God may be waiting upon our belief as a sign “good faith” before entering into a meaningful relationship with us and, in so doing, providing us with evidence for his existence. I think that this argument is undermined by its anthropomorphism.)


Questions about James


Now that we have a solid understanding of James’s views in “The Will to Believe,” what should we think of them? I have three questions:


First, James writes “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.” Do you think that James believes that our “non-intellectual nature” influences all of our beliefs, or only some of them? How would James respond to the observation that some beliefs, such as those acquired through the immediate evidence of our senses, rationally compel our assent, with no room to be played by our will or emotions?


Second, competing religious traditions can be live for us. “Be a Buddhist” and “Be a Christian,” may both be live for you, for example. Can James’s theory accommodate this? If so, how?


Finally, do we have an obligation to keep certain hypotheses alive, or to resurrect certain dead hypotheses? At one time, for example, the idea that germs cause disease was probably not a live hypothesis for people. At some later time, didn’t people have an obligation, in the face of experimental evidence, to make that hypothesis alive for them? If so, can James accommodate this fact? What would he say to missionaries who maintain that they have a duty to make a previously dead or unknown religious hypotheses alive for people, and to convince them adopt it?