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Nov 9, 2011      `

Comments 35-66 on William James: "The Will to Believe"

   'A wise man proportions his belief to
   the evidence.'
   -- David Hume.

Continued from yesterday: Same introduction; start of notes; endnote.


On my site there is since years William Clifford's essay

- The Ethics of Belief

with my extensive notes, and there is also William James's

- The Principles of Psychology

because I think it - still - is the best introduction to psychology and because it contains a lot of ideas and evidence relevant to philosophy.

In September 2011 I put on line in Nederlog the text of

- William James: "The will to believe"

that in fact is an attempt to refute Clifford's contentions in The Ethics of Belief that Clifford himself summed up as

" it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone,
  to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"

What James is argueing is that, on the contrary, it is quite right to believe something upon insufficient evidence, if the something is relgious (at least).

I outlined in my introduction to "The will to believe" why I quite disagree. The following is the first version of my disagreements in detail, as notes to the original text. The underlined "Back" at the end of my notes leads to the beginning of the text the note comments on in the original, provided you are on line.

The present file contains the first version of approximately the first third of my notes.

The end is to produce first versions of all of my notes in Nederlog, and then redo it all for the William James section on my site.

If you are not convinced James's  "The will to believe"  is an important text that is mostly correct in what it is trying to say or if you are not convinced close argument may be good philosophy, what follows may not be for you.

Then again, if you are really interested in believing things for rational reasons, and in not believing things merely because you wish they were so, it should be interesting for you.

There is an endnote, for those who want to skip the logical philosophy.

Notes by Maarten Maartensz to
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3
William James "The will to believe"

[M35] As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.

Only in the sense of "disbelieve" that corresponds to not having a belief either way in things one has no personal interest or concern in.

So at the very least this is expressed in a misleading way, and indeed it is important to see that people may neither believe nor disbelieve a proposition for various reasons, such as (i) having no interest in the truth of the proposition or (ii) having a positive belief they have not sufficient evidence for a positive belief or disbelief in the proposition.     Back.

[M36] Why do so few 'scientists' even look at the evidence for telepathy, so called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now dead, once said to me, that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed. It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits.

This is slanted. James took what was then called "psychic research" serious, and believed some of it, unlike Houdini, for example, who knew how much of "telepathy" could be faked and tricked, as a professional stage magician, and who showed many miracle workers to be tricksters.

The fact is that there is still nothing like proof or indeed good evidence for the existence of telepathy, and the fact is also that one cannot prove an unrestricted negative, as a rule:

That there is no telepathy, no God, and no devil, are practically impossible to prove from the observable facts, since this requires searching through all of the universe, which asks for the practically or logically impossible. (One can, of course, establish negatives quite easily in restricted cases: There is no cookie in that jar.)

Furthermore, on the general logic of the situation, since this is often not seen clearly, and also relevant to James's argument:

If one wants to assume or assert that there is telepathy, a God or a devil, one assumes or asserts that there is more than one who does not assume so, and indeed also assumes or asserts more than someone who assumes or asserts there is nothing of the kind, for the latter says there is the universe plus otherwise nothing of the kind, and the former says there is the universe plus also a God or a devil or telepathy - plus otherwise nothing, or perhaps a few elves, werewolves, mermaids and dragons, if one is so keen to embrace imaginary entities as presumptively real.

Therefore the burden of proof or at least a proof of good evidence lays  with those who assume something that is not nothing.     Back.

[M37] This very law which the logicians would impose upon us—if I may give the name of logicians to those who would rule out our willing nature here—is based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all elements for which they, in their professional quality of logicians, can find no use.

This is again quite slanted. W.K. Clifford was very well aware of the power of wishful thinking.     Back.

[M38] 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.

Of course - but that is not at issue. What is at issue is whether one should let the strength of one's beliefs depend on things that are not in the rational evidence for one's beliefs. (And see under [M2])

And while James means to establish or make plausible this is quite excusable in matters of religion, one may ask this extends to witch-trials, live burnings, and religious wars and persecutions, or indeed extend the question of what beliefs one is entitled to if these are beliefs about race or politics: What if an anti-semite or member of the KKK attempts to argue anti-semitism and slavery are quite justified, and he is entitled to believe they are, for the reasons William James held one may will to believe in some religion?     Back.

[M39] Pascal's argument, instead of being powerless, then seems a regular clincher, and is the last stroke needed to make our faith in masses and holy water complete. The state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds. 

All this "proves", if anything, is that men easily indulge in wishful thinking. Then again, James presents a slanted version, for he does again fail to mention that scientific methods - logical reasoning, public reporting, empirical objective testing of predictions - are precisely designed to tame this human all too human tendency to appeal to wishful thinking.     Back.

[M40] 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.

First, consider this analogy: Are Jews and Blacks inferior races that ought to be exterminated, or should we not answer the question before we have more evidence? Or is it, perhaps, as prejudiced and biased, but conforming to our "passional nature" as the denial these are inferior races that ought to be exterminated?

Second, consider the analogy of the court: Your honor! Do not - I beseech you, in the name of William James - investigate the evidence for the allegations; do not decide to leave this question open till there is more evidence: By all means judge now and convict! That is living, thinking and deciding by your human "passional nature"!      Back.

[M41] It will be observed that for the purposes of this discussion we are on 'dogmatic' ground,—ground, I mean, which leaves systematic philosophical scepticism altogether out of account. The postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to make, though the sceptic will not make it. We part company with him, therefore, absolutely, at this point.  

That's nice - but then the skeptic, at least as presented by James, is clearly mistaken anyway, since he presumes his knowledge of language and logic to argue there is no such thing as knowledge.

Then again, assuming ''there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it" it does not follow that it is our destiny to arrive at it, without fail, and in any case: In fact, truth comes with qualifications and evidence, and often the truth is that we do not know a certain kind of truth, except uncertainly and hesitantly, as the best guess we have at present.      Back.

[M42] But the faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.

As it happens, there are some logical problems with "the absolutist way of believing truth" that relate to consistency, provability and modality, and are probably best explained by Raymond Smullyan in "Forever Undecided!".

But these are rather technical and subtle logical considerations, so I only remark this in passing.      Back.

[M43] If we look at the history of opinions, we see that the empiricist tendency has largely prevailed in science, while in philosophy the absolutist tendency has had everything its own way. 

Ummm... no! The skeptic's existence, since Antiquity also, and in various forms and guises, some decidedly more reasonable than others, shows this is not quite true for philosophy, although indeed James is correct that most philosophy tends to be dogmatic, like religion.      Back.

[M44] The characteristic sort of happiness, indeed, which philosophies yield has mainly consisted in the conviction felt by each successive school or system that by it bottom-certitude had been attained. "Other philosophies are collections of opinions, mostly false; my philosophy gives standing-ground forever,"—who does not recognize in this the key-note of every system worthy of the name?  

Yes and no.

Firstly yes, as regards most people who do adopt a philosophy: This tends to be adopted dogmatically rather than rationally, and absolutely rather than as probably-true-so-far-as-I-know.

Secondly no, for most real philosophers, that is, those who considered philosophy seriously and at length, know that there is little absolute certainty to be found in philosophical systems, and that philosophies, if rational, like scientific theories, are guesses at the best explanation on the basis of limited evidence and great ignorance of most things in the universe.      Back.

[M45] A system, to be a system at all, must come as a closed system, reversible in this or that detail, perchance, but in its essential features never!  

Nego. Clearly, as with science, one can take philosophy as consisting in a set of theses for which there are various degrees of evidence, and various justifications next to evidence, such as methodological rules, that counsel how to best establish or find something.     Back.

[M46] Scholastic orthodoxy, to which one must always go when one wishes to find perfectly clear statement, has beautifully elaborated this absolutist conviction in a doctrine which it calls that of 'objective evidence.' If, for example, I am unable to doubt that I now exist before you, that two is less than three, or that if all men are mortal then I am mortal too, it is because these things illumine my intellect irresistibly. The final ground of this objective evidence possessed by certain propositions is the adaequatio intellectûs nostri cum rê. The certitude it  brings involves an aptitudinem ad extorquendum certum assensum on the part of the truth envisaged, and on the side of the subject a quietem in cognitione, when once the object is mentally received, that leaves no possibility of doubt behind; and in the whole transaction nothing operates but the entitas ipsa of the object and the entitas ipsa of the mind. We slouchy modern thinkers dislike to talk in Latin,—indeed, we dislike to talk in set terms at all; but at bottom our own state of mind is very much like this whenever we uncritically abandon ourselves: You believe in objective evidence, and I do.

This is mostly rather purplish prose, but I agree with the conclusion - and indeed, one can hardly function in human society without, at least in practice, conceding some objective evidence.

Next, the Scholastic position sketched is a fairly extreme one, also not stated precisely, and not at all necessary to the argument, so I shall leave it, except for noting that truth, in so far as we know it, does consist in an "adaequatio intellectûs nostri cum rê" - that is, things being so in reality as they are in our conceptions of it. (Which may be quite trivial, as when having adequate ideas about the contents of the bread-box.)     Back.

[M47] Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know. There is something that gives a click inside of us, a bell that strikes twelve, when the hands of our mental clock have swept the dial and meet over the meridian hour. The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes. 

Here things are confused and conflated again, though James seems mostly right.

My problems here are that (1) one's theories, to be useful and testable at all, must go beyond the known facts, if only to be tested in the next experiment and (2) one's theories tend to be framed in terms of universal hypotheses ("all X if Y are Z"), whereas one can only test particular statements ("this X, that is an Y, happens to be no Z") or indeed  ("this X, that is an Y, also is a Z"). Moreover what one can test must be phrased in observable terms.

In any case, both points make it a lot clearer than James makes it, that empirical scientific theories are general hypotheses, that go beyond the known evidence, and can only be tested by particulars.      Back.

[M48] 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.

I don't think that is fair to Clifford or me - and James is not going to pretend that there is sufficient evidence for Christianity. Therefore, Clifford is quite right in saying such there is not. Besides, there may well be sincere people for whom Christianity is a living option, but the evidence does not prop it up - indeed a state of mind quite a few who are falling from their faith will pass through, or indeed may stay at.

Then again, it seems to me that the evidence for Christianity is hardly better than the evidence for Santa Claus, and indeed I do believe adults should not positively believe what they positively know they have good reasons not to believe, and no good reasons to believe, other than their wishful thinking that it would be o so very nice if they were right, so therefore, by William James's principles of believing and/or weakness of the will or the intellect, they are right.     Back.


[M49] But now, since we are all such absolutists by instinct, what in our quality of students of philosophy ought we to do about the fact? Shall we espouse and indorse it? Or shall we treat it as a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can?

This is again slanted: I grant that most people are absolutists in many respects, if not by instinct, than on the basis of lack of intelligence and lack of knowledge, but most people - all but a crazy few, one would assume - are also non-absolutists about quite a few things, like tomorrow's weather or the date of their own deaths or the number of leaves on the oaks in London, on July 1, 1700.     Back.

[M50] I sincerely believe that the latter course is the only one we can follow as reflective men. Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found? I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes. I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them—I absolutely do not care which—as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out.

This is confused. First, most men are not only non-absolutists about many propositions, and in particular general ones, as explained under  [M47]; they are also absolutists about a great many particular empirical propositions, simply because that is both the sanest course and the only way to test theories: One can definitely say whether a given substance burns read in a flame, has a granular structure, smells sweet a.s.o. (while it is far less certain usually that the substance will keep having its present properties in the future, or had them also in the past).

So the answer to "where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?" is at least twofold:

In particular statements that can be tested by our senses, and decided to be so or not so by ordinary sense experience, and in the statements of mathematics, that are necessarily and provably so (if perhaps dependent on axioms that are not).

Second, there is a bit of a pose about James's "to hold any one of them—I absolutely do not care which—as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude" - as can be seen from e.g. deniers of the Holocaust: For some facts, there simply is so much evidence, that it must be scarcely sane to deny them.

This includes many of the ordinary facts one relies on in one's social life: That one's salary is such and such; one's address so and so; one's name thus and so, and so on. (Indeed, if one doesn't know them anymore, others will.)

Third "the whole history of philosophy" does not support James's contention, at least not if, as is proper, science is taken to fall within the province of realistic philosophy, for that proceeds by accepting empirical facts, and indeed listing very many of these, such as about chemical elements, in scientific treatises. (One can "doubt" them, and perhaps may be right in some cases, but then again there tends to be technology and human artefacts that involve human knowledge of chemical elements that cannot be explained except by reference to this knowledge corresponding to natural truth - for else the technology and artefacts must be miracles rather than feats of human intelligence).     Back.

[M51] There is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that pyrrhonistic scepticism itself leaves  standing,—the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.

Nonsense: There is quite a lot of truth established by real science and embodied in the technology one uses daily and all one's life, and quite a lot of truth in knowing the meanings of words, and mathematical facts, such as 2+2=4 and 2 < log 1000, that is at least as certain.     Back.

[M52] That, however, is the bare starting-point of knowledge, the mere admission of a stuff to be philosophized about. The various philosophies are but so many attempts at expressing what this stuff really is. And if we repair to our libraries what disagreement do we discover! Where is a certainly true answer found? Apart from abstract propositions of comparison (such as two and two are the same as four), propositions which tell us nothing by themselves about concrete reality, we find no proposition ever regarded by any one as evidently certain that has not either been called a falsehood, or at least had its truth sincerely questioned by some one else. 

This is again a purplish passage, since there are many empirical facts taken as indutitable truths, such as that it rains if it does; that the ambient temperature is such and such; that there is no hippopotamus in the room a.s.o.

Indeed, these and many other indubitable truths tend to be intersubjectively true: You and I and others can agree quite easily and quite certainly that here and now the sun shines, if it does.     Back.

[M53] The transcending of the axioms of geometry, not in play but in earnest, by certain of our contemporaries (as Zöllner and Charles H. Hinton), and the rejection of the whole Aristotelian logic by the Hegelians, are striking instances in point.

I don't know about James's contemporaries, but non-Euclidean geometry was established in the 19th C and is provably consistent if Euclidean geometry is. Then again, many will say, with me, that the Hegelians are plainly mistaken about Aristotelian logic.      Back.

[M54] No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon.

That's just plainly false: Chemical and physical laboratories, for example, can exist only because there are concrete tests of what really is true, in particular cases.

Also, if James were right, the existence of technology - man-made artefacts that would not exist without empirical and scientific knowledge - cannot be rationally explained. ("Boys and girls! Trust uncle James: Michael Faraday's experiments with electricity established absolutely nothing! That's why lamps, radio, TV and computers are miraculous!")

And there is another fallacy to be kept in mind: What James says can only be kept standing if he had added something to the effect of "agreed upon" in all logic and all philosophy: Then it is true, but indeed there are rather crazy systems of philosophy, theology and logic.

However, one should ask oneself, before considering all possible objections to a thesis - "How do you know, for certain, 2+2=4 if you don't even know, for certain, you are not a brain in a vat?! Tell me that, you skeptic!" - this question: When and why is one rationally justified, philosopher or not as one may be, to insist on more certainty than are necessary in the practice of one's own live and in the practice of scientific laboratories? And see: Natural Realism.     Back.

[M55] Some make the criterion external to the moment of perception, putting it either in revelation, the consensus gentium, the instincts of the heart, or the systematized experience of the race. Others make the perceptive moment its own test,—Descartes, for instance, with his clear and distinct ideas guaranteed by the veracity of God; Reid with his 'common-sense;' and Kant with his forms of synthetic judgment a priori. The inconceivability of the opposite; the capacity to be verified by sense; the possession of complete organic unity or self-relation, realized when a thing is its own other,—are standards which, in turn, have been used. The much lauded objective evidence is never triumphantly there, it is a mere aspiration or Grenzbegriff, marking the infinitely remote ideal of our thinking life.

More purplish prose. While James is mostly right that many criterions for certain knowledge have been proposed and found lacking in some respects, that doesn't mean the criterions were totally useless, and also - as the saying is - "a burned child fears the fire", and bases that fear on a single instance: James is quite mistaken in suggesting we cannot establish some empirical propositions with sufficient certainty to build whole industries, cities and indeed civilizations with ("the Bronze age", "the Iron age").     Back.

[M56] To claim that certain truths now possess it, is simply to say that when you think them true and they are true, then their evidence is objective, otherwise it is not. But practically one's conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot.

"It ain't necessarily so", as the saying is, and James is again exaggerating, although it also is true many believe many things upon insufficient evidence. Then again, it is rather strange James does not consider the experiments of physics and chemistry, for example, as conclusively establishing quite a number of empirical facts.

Even so, James has a point, as follows from the next quotation:     Back.

[M57] For what a contradictory array of opinions have objective evidence and absolute certitude been claimed! The world is rational through and through,—its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,—a personal God is inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,—the mind can only know its own ideas; a moral imperative exists,—obligation is only the resultant of desires; a permanent spiritual principle is in every one,—there are only shifting states of mind; there is an endless chain of causes,—there is an absolute first cause; an eternal necessity,—a freedom; a purpose,—no purpose; a primal One,—a primal Many; a universal continuity,—an essential discontinuity in things; an infinity,—no infinity. There is this,—there is that; there is indeed nothing which some one has not thought absolutely true, while his neighbor deemed it absolutely false; and not an absolutist among them seems ever to have considered that the trouble may all the time be essential, and that the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be truth or no.

Up to a point, restricted mostly to philosophy and theology, this is mostly so - but it seems to me that the human intellect is sufficiently equipped to infer with certitude that fire burns, that rice nourishes, and that Pythagoras' Theorem holds in plane geometry.

Indeed, one who holds these things are not certain must be willing to bet on their being false and/or be willing to put his hands in the fire to show why he disbelieve fire burns. (In other words: There is a point where philosophical skepticism becomes practically incredible and ludicrous.)     Back.

[M58] When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.

I think this gives too much credit to the beliefs on which the Inquisition was founded, and too little to the experiments on which physics and chemistry are founded, but that's mostly an aside.     Back.

[M59] But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.

This was indeed also Charles Peirce's opinion - which is difficult to reconcile with what James says in the rest of his essay, for the position stated does involve approximating the truth more and more.     Back.

[M60] Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true.

This - "if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true" - is also Peircean in origin, I think, but is not what Peirce thought later, nor is it what I think: If a statement is true, this means that the real facts are as the statement states - and this does not necessarily mean that all possible experiments or thinking must confirm it.      Back.

[M61] There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion,—ways entirely different, and yet ways about whose difference the theory of knowledge seems hitherto to have shown very little concern. We must know the truth; and we must avoid error,—these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws.

These are a bit tricky, and it seems to me that James at this place should rather have spoken about the desirability of knowing truth and avoiding error, if we desire to realize our ends, since that we can only do by having some true - sometimes: sufficiently true - knowledge about means that leads to our ends, and he should have insisted that for either end we need both logic and evidence.     Back.

[M62] Believe truth! Shun error!—these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently 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.

In fact, James has not proven his point that these are materially different, especially not when formulated with a bit more care than he does: "A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence", as Hume put it. If this is done sufficiently well, one will avoid believing something is true for which there is no good evidence that it is, and also avoid believing what is false, namely by following the evidence that it is not likely to be true.     Back.

[M63] 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.

What Clifford wrote and James quoted is "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".

In fact, James has given no argument to show why this is wrong other than that it prevents him in embracing religious propositions he wants to believe, as he himself admitted at the start.

Specifically, also having read Clifford, Clifford does not tell people to "Believe nothing" nor to "keep your mind in suspense forever" - he just insists that one should not believe things on insufficient evidence.

Furthermore, James's languages - "the blessings of real knowledge", "the chance of guessing true" - carefully avoids mentioning that if one does not have sufficient evidence, one cannot know one has real knowledge, nor can one know one guessed true.

Then again, it is quite conceivable that James is right in believing that it is a matter of temperament - character, education, needs, fears, intelligence - whether one can "go with Clifford".

My problem with James's position is not with the probable fact that there may be many men, including James, who are temperamentally unable to "go with Clifford".

My problem with James's position is that he tries to make it appear plausible that this is a rational thing to do, and that one has a rational right to believe what one knows one has not sufficient evidence to believe is probably so.

It seems to me to be more honest, or less "falsche Spitzfindigkeit" (misguided cleverness), to simply honestly admit: "Well, hang it all! Where my place in heaven is concerned, I'll bet with the Reverend, cause I fear the pains of hell, but outside of religion, I am with Clifford."

Or indeed whatever one's personal grounds may be to believe far beyond the evidence, and counter to such evidence as one does have.

This is the more a real problem for me, because (1) it seems to me that many religions, and many religious believers, including the Inquisitionists James mentioned, who had their Protestant counterparts, e.g. in Elizabethan England, are plainly wrong and plainly immoral and (2) it seems to me difficult to restrict this manner of argument, if one allows it for religion, to religion and nothing else, and not admit it also should apply to politics, for example.

Furthermore, following both points: (3) it seems also that James is mistaken in not discussing the fact that religions, like politics, are social institutions, that touch many men. It is not as if believing beyond the evidence that Protestantism is true, and that there are witches in Salem, who are quite fit for public burning also, is merely a matter of one's own private chances of ending up in hell, heaven, or completely dead.     Back.

[M64] We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, "Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!" merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe.

No. The first statement confuses again personal interest and rational  probability: Beliefs represent something true, if they do, apart from whatever interest we take in these matters, or fail to take. (This also means someone else may take an interest in what does not interest one.)

Second, it would seem to me that our minds are meant to be - by evolution or by fiat of the benevolent Protestant divinity of James's beliefs - more often right than wrong about the things that matter to our survival, at least, and are disposed towards finding truths rather than falsehoods. (Indeed, it would seem that the principles of Boolean logic are embedded in the working of one's neurons - as Peirce may have been the first to realize.)

Third, what Clifford counseled was the following rather than what James makes of it:

Better not believe if your evidence suggests you should not believe, since what you wish to believe is, by the evidence you have, quite unlikely - which is the case with all religions, except - of course -  that unique most excellent one that the reader believes in.     Back.

[M65] For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound.

That's not a valid argument: That there are worse things than being duped in this world is no sufficient ground to conclude what James concludes from it, nor that what Clifford counseled is impracticable, in principle, though indeed it probably is not in a religious dictatorship.

Also, the analogy James offers is false, for various reasons, one of which is that Clifford does nowhere say one should not take chances, should not run risks, or should never act on incomplete evidence. (Doctors, for example, may have to decide to operate now if they want to prevent a cancer they are not quite certain is there, for example because if is there, operating later would be of no help).

Indeed, if James may offer his lame analogy, here is mine:

James position is like a general informing his soldiers that the bullets of the enemy will swerve around them, since they are protected by the Lord, who is - of course! - On Our Side. (Thus I will to believe.)     Back.

[M66] Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

No, this is again in various respects grossly misleading, both about errors (note James does not mention religion here, nor the Inquisition, nor could he have mentioned Stalin, Hitler or Mao, or not without divine disclosure of foreknowledge to him); about lighnes of heart (don't fear: support the Inquisition!); and about "the empiricist philosopher".

But there is a relevant point in the first statement of the quotation: It is true that strong belief - apart from whatever evidence one has - is likely to help one realize some of one's aims (if it is not too irrealistic about matters one will meet with while trying to do so!), especially as regards battles.

Generals will promise their men victory, and will downplay the strength of the opposition. But that is a truth about how motives relate to success, not a truth about the nature of things.

Consider it this way. James effectively says: There being 3500 religions, at least, none of them rationally credible on such evidence as there is (that seems to contradict all of them), by all means be a faithful Protestant or Hindu or Muslim or any other faith that you may fancy, just to make you feel better, and not to loose your option on an eternal life in bliss, rather than torment.

Also, he completely fails to mention that this adoption of a faith will have consequences for others, and also tends to embody social, political and moral choices, that come with the faith and its social exercise and institutions.     Back.

Previous part.
To be continued.


There is one more part to follow, since I have 95 notes to the text, but indeed I do not believe you can't live without having read, understood and indeed grokked all of it.

Then again, there may be a few who like it, and as I said above, the end result is meant to be part of the William James section on my site, where you also find his "The Principles of Psychology", that is much better than anything James wrote as philosophy.

Have fun!


P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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