J. Wesley Robbins
Indiana University South Bend
Lecture notes from P358 American Philosophy

William James, "The Will to Believe"

-An address that James delievered to the Philosophy Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities. First published in 1896.

-A fine writer: "Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream visited planet are they to be found?"

1. "The lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith" (p.26)

-not talking about the laws of the U.S.: it's a free country, you can believe what you want.

-talking about the laws that a reasonable person might be expected to obey, regardless of what country they live in - the laws governing what reasonable people believe.

-James's contention in this regard: under certain circumstances, it is perfectly "legal" for a person to go ahead and believe something for which scientific evidence is lacking. To do so is not unreasonable.

2. Case in point: the religious hypothesis that God exists.

-"in our religions. . . The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou." (p.28, middle of column 2)

-James himself apparently believed that there is a higher consciousness than that of human beings that pervades the universe, to which we are connected more or less as the consciousness of our pet animals is connected to our own consciousness.

-Among other things, this cosmic (God) consciousness cares about and preserves many of the things that we hold dear (love, justice, truth), so that things values persist in the world rather than perishing with us when we die.

-James's contention in this regard: it is perfectly "legal" for him or someone else to believe this even though there is currently no scientific evidence for the existence of such a thing as this cosmic consciousness.

3. James was a psychologist, who took very seriously the finitude (limitedness) of our minds.

-We are not omniscient beings. We cannot take in everything at once.

-We can only pay attention to and comprehend so many things at a time.

-What things we focus on at any given time will depend on our interests.

-For us, no such thing as a disinterested view of things.

"If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes. . ." (p.29, middle of column 2), then going ahead and believing something without scientific (objective) evidence would not be "legal."

-But, we don't

4. What about science, the scientific method?

-Isn't that the way for us to obtain a disinterested view of the way things really are?

-So that it is our intellectual duty to regulate what we believe by the method of science?

-For instance, to the extent that the existence of God is not a matter of scientific fact, isn't it our intellectual duty to suspend belief in God?

5. James's view of science.

-The various tests that we put theories through before we allow that they are well proven scientifically (the scientific method): these serve one sort of human interest - our fear of being mistaken, of being taken by surprise by the course of events.

-Modern science: is a kind of organized nervousness on our part.

6. We also have other, different, interests than that of avoiding errors.

-For instance, hoping to discover new and unexpected things.

7. Given these different sets of interests,

-we are under no absolute intellectual obligation to suspend belief in God just because, to date, God's existence has not been certified by any of the sciences.

-it is a matter of which set of interests we choose to take priority regarding the hypothesis that there is a God: (a) our fear of being mistaken or (b) our hope of being right.

-"It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion [interest] laying down its law." (p. 28, bottom of column 1)

-The person who gives in to his/her hope that there is a God is just as reasonable as the person who gives in to their fear that there may not be a God after all.

8. James held out some hope that the "hypothesis" that there is a greater cosmic consciousness might someday be a matter of scientific investigation and "proof."

-the discovery of the unconscious (Freud)

-perhaps the link between us (human consciousness) and God (the cosmic consciousness).

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