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Comments 0-34 on William James: "The Will to Believe"

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

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"

[M0] From ESSAYS IN POPULAR PHILOSOPHY,  dedicated to Charles Sanders Peirce. See also W.K. Clifford: The Ethics of Belief, with notes by Maarten Maartensz.

You should read the last item - at least the original: The last link links to the original text - for this is in fact James's target: He wants to destroy or at least undermine that, and in particular he wants to contradict Clifford's dictum

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

as far as religious beliefs are concerned. 

In the following, I will be defending two theses very close to Clifford's dictum:

A1. Wherever one's beliefs may be fairly known, if acted upon, to be relevant for others's material well-being, one must take care that one's beliefs are based on good or sufficient evidence.

A2. It is possible for most beliefs human beings have to compile, from books or the internet, what is the rational evidence for and against these beliefs. (In many cases, there is strong rational evidence for beliefs - the earth is not flat, copper conducts electricity, arsenic is poisonous - and little rational evidence these beliefs are false or improbable.)

The main reason for A1 is that if one acts on false beliefs this may cause others harm. (Interestingly, an eventuality James did not consider at al, in spite of knowing about the crusades, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, the inquisition etc.)

The main reason for A2 is that this is one of the main things real science is for: To arrive at fair estimates what the real facts are like. These exist for many beliefs, including many religious beliefs.    Back.

[M1] In the recently published Life by Leslie Stephen of his brother, Fitz-James, there is an account of a school to which the latter went when he was a boy. The teacher, a certain Mr. Guest, used to converse with his pupils in this wise: "Gurney, what is the difference between justification and sanctification?—Stephen, prove the omnipotence of God!" etc.

I'd say I believe that it is probable that Mr. Guest was testing whether the lessons in the cathechism had been learned by rote. And indeed James is going to make an argument in favour of religious belief, and sandwich his argument between quotations by Leslie Stephen.   Back.

[M2] (..) I have brought with me to-night something like a sermon on justification by faith to read to you,—I mean an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced. 'The Will to Believe,' accordingly, is the title of my paper.

One had and has the legal right in the US, by the way, that is - e.g. - the right to adopt very irrational beliefs as a matter of religious faith, but that's not quite at issue here.

What is at issue, is whether one - as a rational person, I will assume - does have a  "right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced."

If one is not a rational person, the matter of whether one has a some rational right and justification to believe something with a strength that is disproportional to the evidence or probability is hardly relevant for one, and one will believe as one pleases, by wishful thinking or sloth, irrespective of evidence if that is what pleases one - so I will not consider irrational persons.

More specifically and precisely, by reference to Clifford's dictum that James also quotes in his text, what is at issue is

whether there is a rational argument to the effect that it is sometimes right, somewhere, for someone, to believe something upon insufficient evidence, at least if the something is a religious belief.

It makes sense to put forward some definitions:

A person is rational if he (or she, but I'll follow pre-postmodern grammar) reasons following logical inferences. Logical inferences are conclusions which cannot fail to be true if certain assumptions are true. Statements may have degrees of belief and degrees of probability, both between 0 and 1. A degree of belief refers to the strength of a person's conviction in the truth of a statement; a degree of probability refers to the strength of the evidence for the truth of a statement.  A degree of belief relates to a person's willingness to act; a degree of probability relates to theories that logically imply empirical frequencies, and to the evidence about them, which consists of verified and falsified empirical predictions of theories. Also, while a degree of belief is obviously always personal, if perhaps shared with others, a degree of probability may be personal in relating to such evidence as a person believes he has, that may be quite different from such evidence as other persons have, or as can be found in relevant literature.

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

To which it may be added that a wise man seeks evidence in proportion to the importance he assigns to beliefs: The theories one holds to be important one should do one's best to know as much as possible about. (Hence mere faith in a belief or religion is not rational, nor is wide knowledge of arguments for the belief or religion, without corresponding knowledge of arguments against the belief or religion.)

It does not matter for the present argument in what precise form probability theory is presumed: What matters is that degrees of belief and degrees of probability may but need not be independent, and may indeed opposed: One may strongly believe something one has no good evidence for, or one may strongly disbelieve what one has good evidence for.

It is in fact with this possibility, where one's strength of belief in some proposition is not the same as nor similar to the probability one entertains for the proposition, that James is concerned.

Furthermore, it makes sense to assume straightaway that

A3. The probability that is conferred by or depends on the evidence, and may appropriately be said to express a rational degree of belief, as the best one can rationally do in such circumstances as one is in, with such evidence as one has or believes oneself to have, specifically also in the sense that others, if they have the same evidence, will on that ground arrive at a similar probability, if they are rational.

I make this an assumption not because it cannot be argued rationally, but because doing so here is not well feasible, and because in any case James must be concerned with this kind of situation: Where such  evidence as there is, for anyone who has it and is rational points in one way, and the degree of belief of a person in the other way.

It does allow us to use "degree of belief" to refer to strength of belief, and "degree of rational belief" here also named "degree of probability" for the strength of belief if measured in terms of known evidence and rational measures for strengths of belief, as articulated by the axioms and theorems of the calculus of probabilities.

Indeed, one may well set out four basic kinds of possibilities in a tabular manner:

degree of belief high, degree of probability high
degree of belief high, degree of probability low
degree of belief low, degree of probability high
degree of belief low, degree of probability low

Since one can obtain the latter two from the former two by using the denial of the proposition, we shall consider only the former two.

And then it should be obvious that one who insists on the second alternative for any belief (religious or not) one knows to be against the evidence believes irrationally, in proportion to the difference between one's degree of belief and one's degree of probability.

This only is somewhat limited in the cases (1) the person knows that in fact his degree of probability is not well-informed (which means that the person should do some more research into the evidence, before committing himself to believing anything except "I believe I do not know enough of the evidence to ascertain a rational probability"), and (2) the person knows the belief is such that when acts on it only he himself is endangered if the belief is false, and no others.

Given certain theories and certain evidence, it is true that a certain theory has a certain probability, that follows from the evidence known and the earlier probabilities reached; and given certain assumptions about a person who has a certain theory, it will follow he has a certain degree of belief, at least approximately : If one is a wise man, or at least a rational one, then one "'proportions his belief to the evidence'", provided one knows that one knows about most of the relevant evidence.

How can it be rational to believe something is so to a degree different from one's best rational estimate for the probability it is so?

There are four cases, it seems to me - and "knows" in the following is best understood on the lines of "has a rational probability greater than 1/2".

(1) The person knows that in fact his degree of probability is not well-informed:

In which case the rational position is to try to do some more research into such evidence as there is, rather than believing against the - admittedly not well-informed - probability.
(2) The person knows the belief is such that when acts on it only he himself is endangered or affected:

In which case there may be good reasons for the belief, such as one's willingness to take part in a medical experiment. But this much depends on the belief and the evidence: To set fire to oneself on the belief that one is by divine command not inflammable is insane rather than anything else. (Besides, if one survives, it may be others have to pick up the medical bills.)

This case also comprises some of one's personal strong feelings and interests, such as that one is a good human being and one's beloved is a great human being.

(3) The person knows that the probability that believing to a greater degree than the evidence warrants provides a better chance to get the things one desires, then is the probability of not believing so. Example: Going to battle.

Again, there may be good reasons for the belief, but confusing one's mere degree of belief with one's probability, also in case (3), will probably lead to more mistakes - if indeed the theory is right, or more probably so than not.

Also, this is a pragmatic sort of justification - "increases one's chances on successfully acting to realize some of one's desires" - that ought to be based on rational probabilities, and also may be easily abused, without proper care, e.g. as in advertisements: Lying about the qualities of one's commodities may well increase sales, pragmatically speaking, for example.

In brief, degree of belief may well differ from degree of rational belief. And it may be rational to make the former larger than the latter, but then with reference to getting what one wants - applying one's theories to increase one's well-being, as a way of motivating oneself.

(4) The person knows that he has not sufficient evidence to come to a justified rational belief, but also knows that in the circumstances one is in, one must make a decision.

This is a case - say: operating a patient now and maybe saving him, if one is right about the causes of the problems of the patient, and will not save him if one does nothing or is wrong - that rather often occurs in real life, often because of time pressure, and regularly because of lack of sufficient preparation.

So this is again a pragmatic sort of justification - "increases one's chances on successfully acting to realize some of one's desires" - that ought to be based, again, on such rational probabilities as one believes, and again this case also may be easily abused, without proper care, namely by falsely insisting one must make a decision now.      Back.

[M3] I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically, even though in point of fact they were personally all the time chock-full of some faith or other themselves.

Then I would say that James's "own students" did quite well, as I think they were quite right, wholly apart from whatever frailty they had in the way of being "chock-full of some faith or other": At least they were quite right about James being quite wrong on the matter of the right to believe what one has no or very little rational evidence for it. (Indeed, irrelevant of whether what one believes is religious or not. The point is and remains that believing things that are probably not so, to the best of one's knowledge of the evidence, is to risk acting on beliefs that are probably false, that is likely to be harmful to oneself or to others in case of very many beliefs one may adopt because they suit one's wishful thinking's propensities rather than what one could know the real facts probably are like.)

And indeed, as pointed out earlier: It's not about the civil or legal right to believe nonsense, for that one has; it's about the question of whether one can be rationally justified to believe what one knows has no evidence for.

Also, it should be mentioned here that James does not at all discuss in his essay that to believe what one knows has no (good) evidence for may cause one to do things that are quite dangerous to others and to one's self: If one acts on the basis of false beliefs, chances are one will cause someone some harm.

In fact, the whole drift of James's argument is that, if one wishes, e.g. for religious reasons, one may be justified in believing something by wishful thinking, and the whole drift of my argument is that if one does so one is willfully irrational, and risks to harm oneself or others in case of many beliefs men have justified in this way i.e. effectively by wishful thinking.   Back.

[M4] I am all the while, however, so profoundly convinced that my own position is correct, that your invitation has seemed to me a good occasion to make my statements more clear. Perhaps your minds will be more open than those with which I have hitherto had to deal.

James is flattering his audience, but he remains mistaken, as I will explain, and indeed did explain in [M2] amd [M3].    Back.

[M5] I will be as little technical as I can, though I must begin by setting up some technical distinctions that will help us in the end.

I don't think this is quite fair.

First, as I explained in [M2] James should have been a bit more "technical" (he isn't: he should have said "precise", which he also isn't, as I shall show) about what is involved in using theories rationally, and what is a degree of belief, and whether there is not a degree of (emotional) belief as a disposition or desire to believe something to a certain degree, and a degree of (rational) belief in proportion to a degree depending on known evidence, according to the calculus of probabilities and earlier rational probabilities.

Second, the distinctions James is going to draw will in fact serve to obscure the real issue, and do so by shifting it from the start to the beliefs people have, rather than the evidence that would make the beliefs rational if they had it.

Third, James's distinctions aren't precise, as I will explain.    Back.

[M6] Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed.

This is quite ambiguous in quite a few ways, apart from the fact that a scientific hypothesis requires generally a bit more than being capable of being believed, namely (1) not contradicting scientific facts and (2)  being capable of being tested empirically or provable mathematically or logically.

These are quite important, and it makes sense here to briefly say why:

A hypothesis, to be scientific, must not be known to contradict known facts, for it if does it is false, in some way.

A hypothesis, to be scientific, must logically imply statements that can be verified or falsified in experience or experiment, for if it doesn't it cannot be - as yet - about observable facts, and may well be wholly imaginary only.

Now to James's text:

First then, some "hypothesis" may appear "as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed", but James has not excluded the ignorant, the fanatic, the moronic, nor the mere pretenders, and it seems to me these groups, at least, should not be taken serious from a rational point of view when discussing hypotheses.

Second, what James clearly confuses are the interesting and the credible beliefs. Thus, the creation of the world at October 16, 4004 years before Christ's Birth, surely is bound to be interesting to a certain kind of narrow religious mind, but it is scarcely credible for anyone not having such a mind.

Third, one main reason James does this is that he - in effect: he is not as blunt as I am - wants to insist one may adopt (religious) hypothesis that are quite incredible provided one finds them interesting:

James is in fact argueing that in cases of religious beliefs wishful thinking is allowed and indeed may be desirable. I say that is opening the doors wide to justifying all manner of fanaticism, falsehoods, and bullshit, simply because these kinds of fanaticism, falsehoods, and bullshit are such as one likes to believe by wishful thinking and indeed well may have acquired that way.  Back.

[M7] This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the  individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in an hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably.

That positive interest and positive belief are "relations to the  individual thinker" is obvious anyway, since it is persons who take interests and have beliefs.

That the strengths of ones beliefs are measured by one's "willingness to act" is a central thesis of the pragmatism of Peirce and James. Yet it does not cover such beliefs as can not - now - or ever acted upon, themselves, and merely believed.

Besides, it seems to me, and indeed it seems so to the law in e.g. the US, at least in good part a matter of evidence and rationality:

One may - after the consumption of a stiff dosis of  tequila wit mescalin - strongly believe that one's little daughter will fly like an angel if she is thrown out of the window, and one may have a most lively interest to see what happens if one does, and one may very strongly believe that the holy ghost will and should protect her, but even so one should not throw one's little daughter of the window (and be locked up if one keeps desiring to do so, and believing one has the right to one's believes doing so will not harm her).

And similarly for other things one might believe and act upon because one's current belief in them is strong:

To act on a belief - in a socially responsible way, as may indeed also be legally required, e.g. of people exercising certain jobs, such as medical doctors - one must have some rational evidence that acting will, at least, not harm others, or that if it does, as with medical operations, this is in their best interest and happens with their freely given consent.     Back.

[M8] Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The last seems to depend on what definitions one assumes, but it seems sensible to presume that a willingness to act involves a belief that one can act, and namely towards some situation that one desires as end, and that acting involves a certain probability of success, and a certain corresponding probability of failure, and that either outcome normally comes with some benefits and risks upon its truth, possibly for oneself, but possibly also for others.      Back.

[M9] Next, let us call the decision between two hypotheses an option. Options may be of several kinds. They may be—1, living or dead; 2, forced or avoidable; 3, momentous or trivial; and for our purposes we may call an option a genuine option when it is of the forced, living, and momentous kind.

These terms will be explained by James, and I will come to them in the notes that follow, but I may here give a version of James's line of argument:

If one has a hypothesis that "is of the forced, living, and momentous kind" - for one is not, in general, and is not necessarily rationally in any sense - then one is in possession of something that entitles one, perhaps on the additional ground that the hypothesis is religious, to discard all rational evidence, and believe the hypothesis because it is a "forced, living, and momentous", also if it has no rational evidence whatsoever.

Clearly, that happens all the time, but apart from Tertullian - credo quia absurdum - and perhaps Kierkegaard, and a whole host of religious fanatics of many kinds, there are few rational minded persons who have seen any rational merit in it. It is called wishful thinking, and has caused much misery, and also such happiness as comes from imagining oneself to be right.

Also, it should be noted at this point - see uder [M2] in comments - there are some conceivable cases of "forced, living, and momentous" hypotheses that may be fairly to very harmless, such as "my beloved is an angel". Then again, few will claim that is a rational belief, even though all may admit to having had such a belief (that usually had to be qualified somewhat, often by learning more of the beloved's real properties).     Back.

[M10] 1. A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: "Be an agnostic or be a Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.

Again, there is the ambiguity of some positive interest and some positive belief. (One may presume there is belief only if there is interest: One doesn't have beliefs at all about things without any interest for one. It also seems as if such cases - where one doesn't know or care what to believe - will tend to be settled by reference to analogies with what one does believe.)

Then again there is or is not good evidence for beliefs. And one may or one may not let the strength of one's belief depend on the strength of one's evidence (as Hume required of wise men).

Finally, a rational person should be aware of evidence for or against socially important beliefs, including religious, scientific and political beliefs, that he does not himself take much interest in, and namely because many others do:

Your neighbour's religious or political beliefs, that he may defend on the grounds William James supplied, may cause him to exterminate you and your family, for what he ignorantly and stupidly insists are perfectly good reasons: He feels very strongly he is right, and that he will live in paradise for ever if he is right, whereas you and yours are perfectly fit to be in hell.    Back.

[M11] 2. Next, if I say to you: "Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it," I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, "Either love me or hate me," "Either call my theory true or call it false," your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, "Either accept this truth or go without it," I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

This is quite vague. First, it seems to me that one may refuse to choose in any case, and say e.g. to "Either accept this truth or go without it": Thank you kindly, but I wait a little longer to see which way the evidence points to; and secondly, it seems to me that what matters is one's own - mistaken or correct - take of some alternative as an exclusive disjunction where one must choose.

In any case, the first point holds: One can choose for either alternative or choose not to choose for the one nor the other on the ground that one needs more evidence to do so, or indeed on any ground that convinces one ("Thank you kindly, not today: I have a bad toothache").

That is: I do not believe in "forced" options such as James presents - one is always free to choose not to choose, except perhaps at gunpoint or under torture, and there one chooses, if one does, not for any alternative, but to escape from a physical threat or danger.     Back.

[M12] He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed. Per contra, the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise.

This is sensible but doesn't mention the possibilities that "the opportunity" may be rare but not unique; "the decision" possibly but not certainly "reversible", etc.

Also, in more general terms, James again does neither consider the evidence one has and the possibility of waiting for more evidence before arriving at a decision which of the alternatives one considers fit to be believed (and acted upon: "Let's blow up the Twin Towers and go to Paradise".).     Back.

[M13] Such trivial options abound in the scientific life. A chemist finds an hypothesis live enough to spend a year in its verification: he believes in it to that extent. But if his experiments prove inconclusive either way, he is quit for his loss of time, no vital harm being done.

Possibly so, but the scientist who spend the year may not consider it "trivial", and besides, it does seem to me a bit trivializing, indeed, to present "the scientific life" as if "trivial options abound" there.

In what sense, for example, is one's strong urge to convert to Catholicism, say, that one could also continue to research for a decade instead, in one's spare time, if one wanted, not a "trivial" option?

It seems only, as far as James is concerned, because the eager convert to be feels his choice is forced and momentous and live - which are all no good reasons to believe something, but at most only to be interested in something, rationally speaking.     Back.

[M14] It will facilitate our discussion if we keep all these distinctions well in mind.

These "distinctions" very well "facilitate" James's argument, but they do so in part by being unclear and avoiding the issues about rational evidence.

So let me outline the distinctions as I see them.

First, there is the distinction between a person's degree of belief in some proposition, that may depend on many things, and the same person's degree of rational belief aka probability, that depend on the evidence, general scientific knowledge, and principles of logical or mathematical reasoning, and the extent to which relevant evidence for and against the proposition, and general knowledge relating to it, are known to a person.

Second, there is the consideration that for there to be any rational argument at all about believing something upon insufficient evidence, we must presume that degrees of rational belief depend only on factual and general scientific knowledge, while degrees of personal belief may be rational or may depend on personal desires, ends, or feelings, that may have very little or nothing at all to do with what the real facts are, or what the person could have known if he had tried seriously to know.

Third, there is the presumption for the present sort of argument that a rational degree of belief is, in general, the best one can do, intellectually speaking, and is more likely to be true than a degree of belief that does not derive from rational knowledge alone, while it remains true that specific persons may vary much in their knowledge and understanding of whatever evidence and knowledge there is for a proposition they consider.

Fourth, there are James's qualifications of hypotheses that may or may not be believed: These may be "interesting" or not, "momentous" or not, and "forced"  or not, and there is James's insistence that such hypotheses as are or appear to be interesting, momentous and forced, for those reasons - at least if they also are religious - may very well be worthy of belief, to one with James's type of mind, even if or especially if these hypotheses are known to have insufficient evidence to be rationally believed.

As I made clear, I think, I completely disagree with James, as it seems to me that he argues that one may believe what one knows to be very unlikely, on the mere ground that one would personally be pleased if the hypothesis were true. ("I go to Heaven if I believe and do what the Reverend says I should believe and do. Hallelujah!")

To me that is not a rational ground to believe a proposition, but a form of "credo quia absurdum", and it seems to me to be more honest, and indeed more rational, not to pretend that one can give a rational argument to the effect that one has a right to believe what one knows to have insufficient evidence to believe, for that is an irrational argument and not a rational one.

Indeed, at least in the US, Canada and Europe, instead one may hold that one reserves one's civil right to damn well believe what one wishes, even if doesn't stand to reason.

Indeed, that is honest, and is also quite like what the majority of the religious believers do. And I also have no fight with it, as long as the believers do not pretend their emotionally based beliefs have some rational warrant that holds or should hold for those who lack their emotions, and as long as the believers do not help persecute those who do not have their beliefs.      Back.

[M15] The next matter to consider is the actual psychology of human opinion. When we look at certain facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional nature lay at the root of all our convictions. When we look at others, it seems as if they could do nothing when the intellect had once said its say.

Clearly both kinds of convictions exist, and apart from "the intellect" there also are sensation and feeling, that are very hard to deny by merely willing it to be otherwise than it is sensed or felt.

Unfortunately, James is again far from clear on what sorts of facts these are, though it is not difficult to give a rough outline:

The human beliefs that will depend, largely or wholly, on "our passional and volitional nature" will be those one feels strongly about, and either has little rational knowledge about, or chooses to disregard whatever knowledge one may have, e.g. on the ground that this contradicts one's own dearest faith, or one's own personal interests.

The human beliefs that will not depend, largely or wholly, on "our passional and volitional nature" will be those one does not feel strongly about, or has a lot of rational knowledge about, or that one chooses to consider apart from one's own feelings or interests, e.g. on the ground that it is in one's own and others interests to believe only in and act on such theories as one knows to be the most probable, given such evidence as one knows.     Back.

[M16] Can we, by any effort of our will, or by any strength of wish that it were true, believe ourselves well and about when we are roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars? We can say any of these things, but we are absolutely impotent to believe them; and of just such things is the whole fabric of the truths that we do believe in made up,—matters of fact, immediate or remote, as Hume said, and relations between ideas, which are either there or not there for us if we see them so, and which if not there cannot be put there by any action of our own.

"The great Wessely", an English pseudoscientific psychiatrist, believes or pretends one can think oneself ill, by means of what he calls "dysfunctional belief systems, as the Dominican fathers of the Inquisition and many Soviet psychiatrists also claimed.

Apart from those servants of authorities, I agree with James that there are beliefs that correspond to fact, and beliefs that don't, and where the fact or absence is independent of our own desires or indeed our own existence. (Water has the capacity freeze whether or not you are alive or not, and regardless of your desires and your beliefs.)    Back.

[M17] In Pascal's Thoughts there is a celebrated passage known in literature as Pascal's wager. In it he tries to force us into Christianity by reasoning as if our concern with truth resembled our concern with the stakes in a game of chance. Translated freely his words are these: You must either believe or not believe that God is—which will you do? Your human reason cannot say. A game is going on between you and the nature of things which at the day of judgment will bring out either heads or tails. Weigh what your gains and your losses would be if you should stake all you have on heads, or God's existence: if you win in such case, you gain eternal beatitude; if you lose, you lose nothing at all. If there were an infinity of chances, and only one for God in this wager, still you ought to stake your all on God; for though you surely risk a finite loss by this procedure, any finite loss is reasonable, even a certain one is reasonable, if there is but the possibility of infinite gain. Go, then, and take holy water, and have masses said; belief will come and stupefy your scruples,—Cela vous fera croire et vous abêtira. Why should you not? At bottom, what have you to lose?

See my Philosophical Dictionary: Pascal's Wager.     Back.

[M18] You probably feel that when religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps. Surely Pascal's own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart.

I do feel and believe so - but so what? It doesn't really matter what Pascal believed, or what I or someone else believes about what language is or isn't appropriate to express religious faith, but whether the argument is valid.

And it isn't valid, at all, simply because it is based on pure arbiitrary presumption, that may be met by pure presumption of the completely opposite arbitrary kind: That there are other Gods, who take a very cynical view of thus argueing for Christianity, and who impose hell on those who do, while rewarding honest atheists. (In brief, any payout table Pascal dreams up for his God may be matched by any alternative payout table for other Gods.)     Back.

[M19] We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted wilfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith's reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward.

Perhaps so, but again hardly relevant. Also, it isn't as if faith acquired due to a psychotic enthusiastic ecstatic experience - with James's marks of excellence: lively, momentous and forced, if you like - is any better rational evidence or constitutes any better rational ground than settling what one believes by throwing dice.     Back.

[M20] It is evident that unless there be some pre-existing tendency to believe in masses and holy water, the option offered to the will by Pascal is not a living option. Certainly no Turk ever took to masses and holy water on its account; and even to us Protestants these means of salvation seem such foregone impossibilities that Pascal's logic, invoked for them specifically, leaves us unmoved. As well might the Mahdi write to us, saying, "I am the Expected One whom God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!" His logic would be that of Pascal; but he would vainly use it on us, for the hypothesis he offers us is dead. No tendency to act on it exists in us to any degree.

I made a similar argument against Pascal's Wager, but it did not depend on Pascal's hypothesis being dead, which is a mere accident of a person's psychology, but on the logical fact that there are many alternative possible Gods with many alternative possible schemes of rewarding and punishment, that may be quite the opposite of Pascal's.    Back.

[M21] The talk of believing by our volition seems, then, from one point of view, simply silly. From another point of view it is worse than silly, it is vile. When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness,—then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!

Here James is setting up a straw man, it seems to me. And in any case, what James does not consider is that beliefs come or fail to come with evidence, methods of rational testing etc. and that scientific beliefs have a far more rational, precise and better worked out set of methods for testing beliefs that are part of science than non-scientific beliefs have.     Back.

[M22] Can we wonder if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of their mouths? The whole system of loyalties which grow up in the schools of science go dead against its toleration; so that it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptableness to the heart in its cup.

More strawmanning it seems to me, though James has a point: Real scientists also have their mythology about real men of science.

Then again, as before: That is mostly beside the point, which is that in real science theories are adopted or rejected because of careful logical reasoning and careful empirical testing of predictions of theories that were established by careful reasoning and made subject to public criticism by those who know most of such things as the theories are about.     Back.

[M23] (..) Huxley exclaims: "My only consolation lies in the reflection that, however bad our posterity may become, so far as they hold by the plain rule of not pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe, because it may be to their advantage so to pretend [the word 'pretend' is surely here redundant], they will not have reached the lowest depth of immorality."

As it happens, there are few men who live, think and act by "the plain rule of not pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe" - and the main reason for this is, as Huxley suggested, that it tends to be - in nearly all human societies and groups - quite disadvantageous to say what one really thinks.

It may be concluded, especially with regards to politics and religion, that the leaders of these social institutions will be "pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe" - and compare the doings and sayings of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, for example, under whose regimes saying what one really thought or felt could be lethal, not only to oneself, but to one's whole family, and one's friends, colleagues and associates as well.     Back.

[M24] And that delicious enfant terrible Clifford writes; "Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer,... Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.... If [a] belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence [even though the belief be true, as Clifford on the same page explains] the pleasure is a stolen one.... It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town.... It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

First, see this link to Clifford's full essay with my extensive notes:

Second, it seems to me that James is not a little condescending or patronizing to "that delicious enfant terrible Clifford", who in fact was the only genius to have foreseen something like Einstein's theory of general relativity, and who possessed a very strong and original mind, and indeed also  quite unfortunately died quite young. (What might have been gained in human knowledge, if - say - Galois, Abel, Clifford and Ramsey had lived to be 60!)

Third, note that Clifford ends with this: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence": It is this that William James wishes to oppose, at least as regards religious beliefs.

But then Clifford's original is a lot more rational and less concerned with "sin" than is apparent from James's very brief and partial selections.     Back.

[M25] All this strikes one as healthy, even when expressed, as by Clifford, with somewhat too much of robustious pathos in the voice. Free-will and simple wishing do seem, in the matter of our credences, to be only fifth wheels to the coach.

The issue is not whether this is "healthy" in any sense, or seems a bit overly pathetic to Henry James's brother.

Also, it is quite clear if one has read Clifford that he was quite willing to concede the influence of wishful thinking on human believing: That's just a major problem with ordinary beliefs by ordinary men - that they all too often are produced by wishful thinking rather than rational evidence.     Back.

[M26] Yet if any one should thereupon assume that intellectual insight is what remains after wish and will and sentimental preference have taken wing, or that pure reason is what then settles our opinions, he would fly quite as directly in the teeth of the facts.

But then that is a straw man: Clearly, what humans believe depends on many things, varying from good evidence and good logic, to no evidence, fallacious logic, appeals to authority, wishful thinking or force, while it is also obvious that most political and religious beliefs that men outside science have are in fact far from rationally based.

Furthermore, James is far too prone to conflate and confuse alll manner of beliefs, and should at the very least have distinguished these kinds:

- scientific beliefs, in real sciences like physic and chemistry: Based on careful logical reasoning, empirical testing, refined methods, objective reporting, and a lot of specialist knowledge of the subject, with the added great benefit of technology based on the real sciences.

- common sensical beliefs about common sensical natural and social facts: Based on the experience of many generations and regularities of nature, but less carefully tested, quite possibly habitual rather than conscious, and not requiring specialist knowledge.

- ordinary beliefs about religion and politics: Based on a biased education or propaganda in the media, for ordinary men, who rarely have much specialist knowledge of religion, science or politics.

- scientific beliefs about religion and politics: Based on the scientifically founded beliefs of scientists about the subjects religion and politics state things aboutin these, also as contrasted with:

- proponents' beliefs about religion and politics: Based on personal interest, and strongly infused with propaganda, fallacies, and myths, without strong or any empirical evidence, often inconsistent with real science.

Furthermore, he should have been clear about the fact that only in real science do men try to establish, as honestly and impartially as they can, if they are good and honest real scientists, what is the truth about some (kind of) matters of fact.

Of course, this also happens in courts of law, if these are fair and rational, and in ordinary life and business, but there the finding of the truth about something, is secondary to other ends, such as doing justice, maintaining the law, leading a pleasant life, or making something that can be sold for profit. 

Science - real science, not pseudoscience, of which there also is a lot - is the only kind of human belief that is based on the desire to find the truth about parts or all of reality by logical reasoning and experimental testing of hypotheses.    Back.

[M27] It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say 'willing nature,' I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,—I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set. As a matter of fact we find ourselves believing, we hardly know how or why.

Here enters the problems mentioned in the previous note: James conflates and confuses all beliefs of all kinds, and does not draw clear distinctions between various classes and kinds of beliefs.

Moreover, he is again strawmanning: Clearly, what one is interested in and believes does depend on one's values, interests, hopes, fears, character, state of inebriation, career and much more - but the point is again that in the real sciences we do not "find ourselves believing, we hardly know how or why": we believe or disbelieve for empirical or logical reasons, given the evidence, as listed in reliable journals, written by persons known to be qualified scientists.

Again, this is not so in politics or religion, where one believes or disbelieves on grounds of personal interest and propaganda in the media that is not restricted to careful logical reasoning and precise empirical testing of explicit hypotheses, but rather moved by wishful thinking and fallacies related to strongly held faiths, that indeed may be quite fanatical, also in insisting one does have the right to believe - what supports the faith and its supporters.

Indeed, it is quite clear that in politics and religion generally beliefs are held or rejected because they belong to or do not belong to the ideology or religion - the dogma decides what the empirical facts are supposed to be.     Back.

[M28] Mr. Balfour gives the name of 'authority' to all those influences, born of the intellectual climate, that make hypotheses possible or impossible for us, alive or dead. Here in this room, we all of us believe in molecules and the conservation of energy, in democracy and necessary progress, in Protestant Christianity and the duty of fighting for 'the doctrine of the immortal Monroe,' all for no reasons worthy of the name.

Again, James conflates and confuses what he should have kept apart, and omits to mention that the hypotheses of "molecules and the conservation of energy", that is,  the hypotheses of real science are based on a great amount of careful reasoning and testing, through quite a few generations of men trying to establish the empirical truth about natural facts, whereas for beliefs in religion and politics this is not so: There what the facts are is derived from the religion or ideology.     Back. 

[M29] We see into these matters with no more inner clearness, and probably with much less, than any disbeliever in them might possess. His unconventionality would probably have some grounds to show for its conclusions; but for us, not insight, but the prestige of the opinions, is what makes the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith.

The conclusion and the rest hold for political and religious beliefs, but not for scientific beliefs, and the reason is that scientific beliefs are produced by rational methods of proof and testing, and political and religious beliefs rarely are, and rarely can be (with political beliefs as in ideologies - there also is a science of politics: Machiavelli, Mosca, Weber, Aron, Mills).     Back.

[M30] Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else.

True, but not very relevant: What matters is not what most people can or cannot do in matters of belief, but what rational evidence there is for or against the belief.      Back.

[M31] Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.

Again true and not very relevant: The problem is not that one must follow authorities, but what rational evidence there is that these authorities are rightly trusted.

As said before, only in real science are beliefs logically and empirically  tested in a systematic way, and in no other field. Back.

[M32] Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other,—what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?

Nonsense: The reason ordinary people have a belief in truth is that they have learned to speak and explain in terms of truth, and know from their own experiences that their beliefs may be factually mistaken, and that they may suffer if their beliefs are factually mistaken and they act on such beliefs.

That is also - so to speak - the pragmatic empirical proof of external reality: One may find one is mistaken, one may fail realizing one's ends. One falls from the stairs because one's beliefs about it were mistaken; one bumps into the door because one's beliefs about it were mistaken and so on. (This is no logical proof there is an external reality, but it is a proof that one cannot will one's sensations to be as one likes to be one's sensations - which is a good reason to suppose they depend on other things than one's mind.)     Back.

[M33] We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight out our thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot.

Nonsense: Pyrrhonic skeptics as well must accept that they know the meaning of the terms they use, e.g. to attack - inconsistently - the notion that anything can be known. And any real science has a fairly precise methodology on the basis of which its theories are tested and proposed.

Again, there are the fields of philosophy of science and general methodology.     Back.

[M34] It is just one volition against another,—we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.

This - carefully, one must assume - leaves out mentioning that beliefs may be based on independent objective evidence, that is, on evidence that can be established by wellknown methods, and that hold for anyone who is sane.

Also, somethimes - quite often, if one considers anything capable of being (dis)believed - it is not possible to provide independent objective evidence, or such as there is, is not enough to support any strong rational conviction, but that then is provably so, again, in principle.     Back.

To be continued.


There is more 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!


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