Previous IndexNL Next

Nov 10, 2011      `

Comments 67-95 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"


[M67] And now, after all this introduction, let us go straight at our question. I have said, and now repeat it, that not only as a matter of fact do we find our passional nature influencing us in our opinions, but that there are some options between opinions in which this influence must be regarded both as an inevitable and as a lawful determinant of our choice.

The introduction, I think I have shown, is so long and winding, because it does not address the problem in a straight and honest manner.

The problem may and indeed should be stated with more clarity than James does:

Is it justified to believe something (religious) on insufficient evidence?

As I've already said "our passional nature influencing us in our opinions" is hardly relevant, since it holds for any opinion we have, and what matters intellectually is not our bias nor our passions but such evidence as we do have.

Finally, if taste or bias or prejudice or self-interest is or are valid grounds to base conclusions and actions on, than surely only in such cases as these conclusions and actions are only relevant to ourselves (see [M2])- which is NOT the case with choices for or against an established religion, for that is also and indeed usually mostly a choice for an institution, that effects the interests of many.     Back.

[M68] Well, of course, I agree as far as the facts will allow. Wherever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come. In scientific questions, this is almost always the case; and even in human affairs in general, the need of acting is seldom so urgent that a false belief to act on is better than no belief at all.

Actually, James opening statement here is false - or at least, he does not allow nor discuss the fact that any religion - that I know of, including James's (sort of) Protestantism - can NOT be allowed by rational science and is NOT a matter of rational belief.

Passing that, James is mistaken in suggesting that what one does is "not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come": In fact, what one does is to make up one's mind that such evidence as one has does, or does not, merit such and such a conclusion.

Finally, as I indicated - the example of the doctor, under [M65] - there are quite a few "human affairs" where there is a considerable need of acting, and what one should do, in such cases, is consider the evidence and the risks.

Thus, one may have inconclusive evidence there is a plague arising, but one may know that it can be prevented if attacked straight away. And note that this is an example along James's line of argument - except that it does not consider the personal religious concerns one may oneself have, but the social risks to many of allowing a plague to arise.     Back.

[M69] But in our dealings with objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers, of the truth; and decisions for the mere sake of deciding promptly and getting on to the next business would be wholly out of place.  Throughout the breadth of physical nature facts are what they are quite independently of us, and seldom is there any such hurry about them that the risks of being duped by believing a premature theory need be faced.

This depends what "dealings with objective nature" we are concerned with, especially if the facts are of social importance, as in the last note.

And again, what I said before applies: Clifford does not counsel not to judge the evidence, nor does he counsel not to make a choice, and indeed there are cases where one must - morally speaking - act on what one knows is insufficient evidence, because of the risks involved in not acting: See under [M68] and [M2].

But none of this justifies that one appraises the evidence or probabilities for more or less than one's best rational estimate for them: It only justifies that one may need to act without being fairly certain, namely in such cases where not acting may cause great harm to some or many.     Back.

[M70] The questions here are always trivial options, the hypotheses are hardly living (at any rate not living for us spectators), the choice between believing truth or falsehood is seldom forced. The attitude of sceptical balance is therefore the absolutely wise one if we would escape mistakes. What difference, indeed, does it make to most of us whether we have or have not a theory of the Röntgen rays, whether we believe or not in mind-stuff, or have a conviction about the causality of conscious states? It makes no difference. Such options are not forced on us. On every account it is better not to make them, but still keep weighing reasons pro et contra with an indifferent hand.

I disagree. For example, "the theory of the Röntgen rays" led to the atom bomb, and in general, one may have strong feelings or interests for or against a theory one knows one has not sufficient evidence for to esteem as more than probable, or that is not probable at all on such evidence as one has. In such cases, what one will do, depends also on one's feelings of interests, without necessarily or logically changing one's best estimates of the probabilities involved.     Back.

[M71]  Science has organized this nervousness into a regular technique, her so-called method of verification; and she has fallen so deeply in love with the method that one may even say she has ceased to care for truth by itself at all. It is only truth as technically verified that interests her.  

No. One does the tests - that will be verifications or falsifications of empirical predictions - nearly always to test a theory. Some scientists - with tenure, say - may feel differently, but then they are only nominal scientists.

And the whole scientific project, in spite of all the insanities and inanities of postmodernism, is very firmly based on the presumption that there is an independently existing real fact of the matter one theorizes about, that can be found and established, in many cases at least, with sufficient human ingenuity and efforts, in due time, and that indeed in many cases is believed to be important for human welfare.     Back.

[M72] "Le coeur a ses raisons," as Pascal says, "que la raison ne connaît pas;" and however indifferent to all but the bare rules of the game the umpire, the abstract intellect, may be, the concrete players who furnish him the materials to judge of are usually, each one of them, in love with some pet 'live hypothesis' of his own. Let us agree, however, that wherever there is no forced option, the  dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet hypothesis, saving us, as it does, from dupery at any rate, ought to be our ideal.

Unfortunately, Pascal's saying is obscurantistic - how does he know this if that is so? - and has no place in science or rational decision making. (At best, it is a diagnosis, not a permission to be irrational or unreasonable.)

The rest James says here may pass, except for his repeated suggestion that one who says there is not sufficient evidence for a conclusion refrains from judgement: Not so. Clearly, to say there is not sufficient evidence for a conclusion is a judgment.      Back.

[M73] Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. Science can tell us what exists; but to compare the worths, both of what exists and of what does not exist, we must consult not science, but what Pascal calls our heart.

This seems to me seriously misleading: That a question is moral does not mean that it can be settled without empirical evidence. (See my discussions in "On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"".) Indeed, most moralists deal in many purported "facts", that often are hidden value judgements.     Back.

[M74] Science herself consults her heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other goods which man's heart in turn declares.

But Science is not a woman, nor has it a heart, except metaphorically and none too clearly, and science does not lay "it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man": Science is the search for knowledge, or positive belief with positive evidence, and is practised for many reasons, two important ones of which are that (1) knowledge is deemed important in itself, and (2) knowledge is important to help bring it about that human ends get realized.     Back.

[M75] How many women's hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him! he will not consent to the hypothesis that they cannot. The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth's existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.

Really now?! Isn't this very close to saying "How much money can be made by clever fraud! You should tell people what they wish to believe, so as to make the most possible money from them! It works - William James has shown it does, just as with religion! Believe what you want, not just what you have evidence for: It'll make you feel a lot better! The hell with consequences of your religious beliefs and practises to others! You don't have their feelings!"     Back.

[M76] Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.

This strikes me as another example of the same fallacy: Pretend, and if people believe you, you will be able to take them in!     Back.

[M77] A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. 

Not quite, but it is true and important that social cooperation is only possible if the parties that enter into it can be fairly confident that the others follow certain rules and agreements all know - as with partaking in traffic.

In fact, the greatest part of these agreements are maintained by punishing those who don't keep them. This is important for the next quotation:      Back.

[M78] A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.

All of this is more or less so, except for the conclusion it seeks to establish at its end: "a preliminary faith" has nothing to do with it - what matters is only that the participants have learned the rules, and will play by them, mostly in order to avoid punishments.

Consequently, the following quotation is false and misleading:     Back.

[M79] And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the 'lowest kind of immorality' into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!

Again, faith of any kind hardly enters into the facts James presents: What enters into them is knowledge of the rules, and sanctions for not playing by them. It is not faith nor fraud that created the facts James mentioned: It is knowledge of the social rules and the social sanctions for not playing according to them.     Back.


[M80] In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.

I think, then, that I have shown James has shown no such thing, except - perhaps - where the faith one has only concerns those one loves and who agree to one's beliefs and are capable of rational judgment. (If you doubt this, concerning the faith of yonder pair of parents who faithfully decided to have their daughters genitalia cut because they faithfully believe this is is in their daughters' best interests.)

 Consider the next quote:     Back.

[M81] Now, let us consider what the logical elements of this situation are in case the religious hypothesis in both its branches be really true. (Of course, we must admit that possibility at the outset. If we are to discuss the question at all, it must involve a living option. If for any of you religion be a hypothesis that cannot, by any living possibility be true, then you need go no farther. I speak to the 'saving remnant' alone.)

At this point, then, I think James would have said I should bow out, not belonging to that 'saving remnant', being an atheist. But I can still reason logically, so I will consider "the logical elements of this situation".

What James insists upon, in my terms, are the two branches (1) the promise of heaven is important and (2) to believe in that promise is important.

First, his saying that we are concerned with the case that these are true is false: At the very best, all that can be claimed is that someone believes these are true. (If this is what he meant, he should have said so more clearly.)

Second, the problem with (1) is that few who are not of the faith that promises that particular heaven will believe there is much evidence for that faith. If it is true, then it is important - but as James himself argued well, for non-believers in the faith, this is no more enticing than the Mahdi's promises are to sincere Christians or atheists.

Third, for those who are religious believers, and those who are satirists, irrespective of religious belief, it should be a somewhat of a dampening warning that, for all I know, James may currently be burning in a Catholic or Muslim or Hindu hell, having displeased the real godhead by his beliefs.

Fourth, James held that being religious in this earthly life, apart from the promises of heaven, is helpful to one. This may be true, but (a) is no warrant to be religious in a full sense required by the diverse churches, and (b) is not at all really a valid rational motive to adopt a belief: That "it makes you feel better if it were true, or mostly so" - OK: Then why not believe in Santa Claus or any of the competing religions? No good evidence for these? Well, what about your fond religious belief?      Back.

[M82] So proceeding, we see, first, that religion offers itself as a momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good. Secondly, religion is a forced option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve. 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?

Here James is applying the terms he earlier defined, more or less, to be sure. Here are some skeptical concerns of mine:

A momentous option: James does not really discuss the quite realistic possibility (for other beliefs than The True Protestant one, of course) that one may be deluding oneself about momentousness.

A forced option: Surely, James must have had a direct connection to the Lord, for apart from this it doesn't follow: What if the dear Lord holds one must judge by the evidence, or is most moved by death-bed conversions? (Isn't it as with the woman: Only one besotted by love will believe she will prove to be "an angel"? Apart from that: Why couldn't another woman have equal or better opportunities for being "an angel"?)

I turn to the next quote:     Back.

[M83] Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,—that is your faith-vetoer's exact position.

No, James is, intentionally or not, confusing twice two things:

First, he confuses not judging a conclusion and judging that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conclusion.

Speaking for myself, I am not skeptical about religion: I am quite certain I know of no good evidence in favour of believing any religion.

Second, he confuses interests and evidence: That one may be quite interested in a Heaven according to someone's religious faith is something quite different from having evidence for it.

It is not as if there is an evidence-based choice between operating now and preventing a possible cancer and not operating now and allowing the possibility of cancer while avoiding the risks of an operation: It's all a game of promises, hopes, tales without evidence.

The possibilities involved in operating or not what may be a cancer, is not at all of the same sort as the possibilities involved in believing and going to heaven if one is right, and not believing and going to hell if one is wrong, for the evidence for having cancer and the risks of the operation can be rationally estimated with evidence, while the heavenly chances are mere wishful thinking without any decent rational evidence.     Back.

[M84] He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until 'sufficient evidence' for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.

This seems to me all nonsense.

First sentence: No he is not, nor am I. He - presumably Clifford - is not doing what the religious believer is doing: He is saying the religious believer has not sufficient evidence for his beliefs. (And it is seems not honest on James' part not to acknowledge that the business of science is quite different from that of religion, in quite a few ways.)

For my part, most honest religious believers do not seek to show there is good evidence for his belief: He is convinced some irrational tale is true, and important, and willing to back it against rational odds. Most religious believers I know of, regardless of the actual religion, seem mostly moved by prejudice, ignorance, emotion and groupthinking, rather than by rationality, relevant knowledge, unbiasedness and independent careful judgment.

Second sentence: Neither I nor Clifford "preach scepticism": We say there is no good rational evidence for religion - not James's religion, and not any other religion.

Consequently, neither I nor Clifford are assuring anyone there is, with religion, a relevant difference between being in error and being right: Instead, what is said is clearly that the evidence is such that religious believers are in error. (As indeed all believe themselves about any religious belief unlike their own!)

Third sentence: Totally false, indeed in the way that argueing Santa Claus's existence in James's way also would be false: It surely would be very nice if Santa Clause existed - presents for all, once a year! - but all the evidence (of adults) is that he doesn't. So if you choose to believe in him nevertheless, on the ground this will make you happier now and later, you are being irrational, and not worthy of being believed.     Back.

[M85] And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist's command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk.

As I explained, James uses a false opposition: It is not that one should believe in Santa Claus because of what one hopes or fears from him - it is that one should not believe in Santa Claus because of such evidence as there is.

Now as I have said before: James has the legal and moral right to choose as he pleases in religious and other matters, and there is no legal reason why he should proportion his belief to the evidence - but then, it doesn't seem wise to me, or to Hume (whose "Dialogues on Natural Religion" James doesn't mention, though they are quite relevant).     Back.

[M86] If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side,—that chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.

That's just wishful thinking wrapped in purple prose.

Indeed, by my lights, I would be doing James a considerable favour by pointing out to him, as a medical man might do, that his belief far outruns his evidence - as indeed it does, for religious people, who therefore must be very prone to be quite mistaken, unless by chance they have The True Faith.

Next, the "sole chance" James sees, he sees by his mistakes only: I'd say there is much better evidence that by taking that chance he risks being on the loosing side than on the winning side. What if the Dear Lord is a Muslim, a Catholic, a Hindu, or a located on Mars, with a strong distaste for faulty reasoners?

Finally, James's "willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right" comes from the same religious cloth the Inquisition and religious fanatics of many other faiths cut their religious beliefs: It is fanaticism; it is a refusal to follow such rational evidence as one has to settle what one believes; and it is a wilful confusion of wishful irrational thinking with reasoned evidence-based judgments.     Back.

[M87] To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one's word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn,—so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods' acquaintance.

Fallacy: Whereas what James says is evidentially so amongst men, he has no evidence whatsoever it is so amongst divinities. And besides, he is engaging in some wild speculations, about whatever gods there conceivably might be might have for preferences.

Besides: Why not leave it to the divinities themselves? Let them reveal themselves if they seek to be courted, admired, prayed to, praised and thanked - and they didn't, neither to me, nor to James.     Back.

[M88] This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis. If the hypothesis were true in all its parts, including this one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required.

The first sentence seems to me just quite stupidly flattering oneself as a believer: O, by believing the Good God Mummery, "we are doing the universe the deepest service we can"?! Doesn't Mummery want you to help people in need, rather than lie flat on your face praising your own excellence in services to Him?

The second sentence seems to me more wishful thinking, of the grossest kind also: The problem is precisely that one has no evidence whatsoever for the hypothesis, let alone its being true in all its parts, so reasoning on that supposition is like saying: If I, as an adult, as a professor also, believe in Santa Claus, and He exists, He must love me so much, that He will give me am divine tickle for infinity!

And again, as under [M87]: Why do the divinities, and especially a Protestant one after James's liking, not reveal themselves, other than in very old books clearly written for a good part by very disturbed or wacky minds?     Back.

[M89] I, therefore, for one cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule. That for me is the long and short of the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds of truth might materially be.

The first sentence says plainly that James is wilfully irrational as regards religion, and is a wishful thinker in religious matters because that pleases him.

The second sentence is false: There is no reason why James should only follow rational rules of thinking, and indeed he doesn't, and admits himself he doesn't because he doesn't want to.

What James says amounts to: I want to believe in Santa Claus, dwarfs and leprechauns, and so I am against rational reasoning, with one's beliefs in real things proportionate to the evidence one has for their existence - that is, as far as Santa Claus, dwarfs and leprechauns are concerned, to be sure, for otherwise I am quite rational, thank you very much.

The third sentence is totally false: The formal logic of the situation is not at all what James says it is, and indeed this is so because a particular kind of supposed truth, that he knows there is no good rational evidence for, is dear to his heart. (But that is no sufficient reason for falsifying the logic of the case, to be sure.)     Back.

[M90] The freedom to 'believe what we will' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, "Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.

This is James trying to answer possible opponents:

The schoolboy seems to me quite right, though if he had been Clifford he would have said - I think - "Faith is when you believe something that you know (or ought to know and could know) you lack the evidence for."

Also, that "living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider" is not relevant, or conceded by me: What matters is not what they seem to believers in these absurdities, but the evidence that they are absurdities.     Back.

[M91] When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities which both practically and theoretically it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait—acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true[4]—till  doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough,—this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.

This quite disingenuous and not really honest.

As James puts it the will to believe is the will to believe upon insufficient evidence.

He carefully avoids discussing that this involves belief in probable falsehoods, that may be harmful to act on, and that avoiding acting on beliefs that are improbable or have no good evidence is necesary to remain healthy and sane, as it is necessary to avoid fanaticism.

And what James carefully does not consider is that religious beliefs may involve all sorts of practises that may be immoral, including the desirability of cliterodectomy, burning heretics alive, and torturing those of mistaken faiths. Back.

[M92] Were we scholastic absolutists, there might be more excuse. If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes, we might feel ourselves disloyal to such a perfect organ of knowledge in not trusting to it exclusively, in not waiting for its releasing word. But if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will,—I hope you do not think that I am denying that,—but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed.

Disingenuous and dishonest, like suggesting we may, imperfect as we undeniably are, live by theft and deception until a "bell in us tolls to let us know for certain" that doing so is not fair, since this way of life by theft and deception until then has the enormous advantage of helping us tremendously, and sweetening our days by taking away the needs for honest toil.    Back.

[M93] In either case we act, taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism's glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.

No, this is baloney. I grant both the believers and the non-believers in a religion acted, and indeed may be assumed to have made up their minds, for their own reasons - but the two fundamental problems with religious beliefs are that (1) they are without good rational evidence and (2) their practitioners use them to harm, abuse, or deceive people.

It is not as if it merely concerned the belief in some obscure proposed theorem in the theory of numbers, that one can debate over tea, without their being any chance of people being burned alive for (not) believing it.

It is also not what religious believers disagree with concerning many believers of many other religious beliefs: That these have insufficient evidence, or are outright false, besides immoral in several respects.

Also, it is a fallacy, and not an honest one, in my estimate, to suggest that one is not engaged in the practice of "delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom" if one points out to the other that the other's strength of belief goes far beyond what his evidence can justify.

Furthermore, it is a fallacy, and not an honest one either, in my estimate, to suggest that "then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic": By respecting and promulgating what we know to be irrational or without sufficient evidence?!

And it is a fallacy, and not an honest one either, in my estimate, to suggest that "then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance" - as if it is a good thing to tolerate beliefs that one believes do not have sufficient rational evidence to merit belief. (One may tolerate them, quite rationally also, but then because such toleration helps to prevent civil peace, and not because one believes there is much to be said for what one tolerates.)

One may decide that people have the right to such beliefs, provided their actions remain within the civic laws, and that is real religious tolerance, rather than the mere "inner" claim to it.

Finally, it is disingenuous to say that "then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things" in defense of irrational beliefs that have helped to harm millions of people - if not of one's own religion than at least of believers in some other religions.

James ends his essay as he started: Quoting Fitz-James Stephen. This is more purple prose, and I'll make some comments:      Back.

[M94] "In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.... If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril."

At least an exaggeration: We can judge by the evidence we have, and for quite a few "important transactions of life", notably in religion and politics, we know - or can know - that in these subjects there is far less rational evidence that favours them than there is in really scientific subjects.

This one may take as one pleases, but one should not pretend or suggest that there is no evidence; that all religions are on a par as regards evidence; or that religious and political beliefs are just as well supported as beliefs in physics and chemistry.      Back.

[M95] "If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him."

No, that's again not honest: First, many religious people of many faiths have done their utmost to prevent people from turning their "back altogether on" their "God", including burning the - apparently - faithless or heretical alive. Second, I hold that "one can show beyond reasonable doubt that" the standardly believed versions of standard religions are without good evidence. Third, it sounds fair and honourable to say that "Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him", but it is not if this gives tormentors for the inquisition their right to torment others, nor is it right to suggest that all are in equal difficulties here: There is something like a duty to be rationally informed and honest when one tries to convince others, especially of a belief in an eternally frying God.

James will to believe is the explicit invitation to believe on insufficient evidence, if it is for some religious cause, and it seems that the same applies to political and other "good causes": There suddenly you may, indeed, you are urged by James, to give up rational belief, to give up practical wisdom, to give up proper care, to give up rational seeking for evidence, and to open oneself to all manner of deception, falsehood, fanaticism, and irrational faith, because this ... somehow feels important to oneself.

That seems to me false philosophy and false wisdom: "The wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence." David Hume.

Wisdom: The exercise of right judgment, where the latter may be provisionally characterized as being rational and reasonable; being more probably true than not, if not true outright; and tending to the decrease of especially human suffering where appropriate.

Indeed the wise man should proportion his beliefs to the evidence, if he does not want to be a danger to others, and the man who is not wise should not pretend he is wiser, more rational or more reasonable by freely indulging in his human-all-too-human proclivity for wishful thinking.      Back.

Previous part.
END of comments.


This was the last part of three files of my notes to William James's - pretty horrible, not at all honest or fair - essay "The Will To Believe", 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.

And I have done with uploading the first version of my notes. The plan is to revise it once more and make it part of the William James section on my site, if only to show others they shouldn't take him too serious as a philosopher, and to show what "The Will To Believe" comes down to: An excuse for religious fanatics presented as a right to be irrational, if the cause happens to be religious.

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.

        home - index - top - mail