Lecture Supplement on James’ “The Will To Believe”[1] [1896]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


In his “Pragmatism and Humanism” James maintains that this article is unhappily titled.  He would prefer (at least later he said so) that it be titled: “The Right To Believe (when evidence is not available).”  James claims that this essay is about “the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith.”  James contends that there is a conflict between the maxims believe truth and avoid error, and he contrasts his view with that of William K. Clifford—who maintains that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  According to James, there are some truths where belief comes before the truth may come to be (e.g., his train robbing example).  Thus, he claims,


141 our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” 


            While James says that this essay is concerned with defending the legitimacy of religious faith,[2] I think it is most fruitful to say that he is actually concerned with the legitimacy of moral belief.  William Earle maintains that:


James’s own religious belief, expressed without dogmatism in the last chapter and the Postscript of The Varieties [of Religious Experience] and again in the last chapter of Pragmatism, consists essentially in the affirmation that the world is richer in realities than conventional science is willing to recognize.  Religious experience at least suggests that there is what James called a “higher part of the universe “...which, though beyond the immediate deliverance of the senses, is nevertheless effective in the world in a way that makes a noticeable difference.[3] 


This comment, and James’ examples, suggests that the “religious” experiences are only part of this “higher part,” and James is open to moral (and aesthetic) aspects also. 


The Text:


I will divide the text into seven parts:


Types of Hypotheses,

James on Pascal’s Wager,

James and Clifford on the Ethics of Belief,

James on Believing in the Possibility of Attaining Truth,

Avoid Error vs. Know Truth,

Some Truths Are Made Possible By Our Believing,

The Importance of Freedom of Belief. 


2. Types of Hypotheses:


136 Hypotheses may be living or dead.


-“a live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed.” 


-“...deadness and liveness in hypotheses are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.  They are measured by his willingness to act.” 


136-137 Options amongst hypotheses may be: forced or avoidable. 


Options amongst hypotheses may be momentous or trivial.


Genuine options are forced, living, and momentous.


3. James On Pascal’s Wager:


137-140 James asks whether we should not take Pascal’s wager (posthumously 1670) seriously:


Pascal’s “wager argument” is not intended as a substitute for proofs of Christianity but, rather, as a preparation for faith for those who are in a state of suspended belief—those who were neither atheists nor Christians. 



God Exists

God Doesn’t Exist

You Believe

You win very very, big! 

You lose the effort of believing and sacrifice whatever effort you made. 

You Don’t Believe 

You lose very, very, big!  

You win a little (you save the effort of believing). 


Pascal: “Let us now speak according to natural lights.” 


“...God is, or is not.  But towards which side will we lean?  Reason cannot decide anything.  There is an infinite chaos separating us.  At the far end of this infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down heads or tails.  How will you wager?  Reason cannot make you choose one way or the other, reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices. 

  So do not accuse those who have made a choice of being wrong.... 

  Yes, but you have to wager.  It is not up to you, you are already committed.  Which then will you choose....You have two things to lose: the truth and the good, and two things to stake: your reason and will, your knowledge and beatitude; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness....Let us weigh up the gain and the loss by calling heads that God exists....if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing....”[4] 


“‘...I am made in such a way that I cannot believe.  So what do you want me to do?’  ‘That is true.  But at least you realize that your inability to believe, since reason urges you to do so and yet you cannot, arises from your passions.  You want to find faith and you do not know the way?  You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for remedies?  Learn from those who have been bound like you, and who now wager all they have.  They are people who know the road....take holy water, having masses said, etc.”[5]  


-138 James: “We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully 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.” 


-139 We can’t will ourselves to believe in dead hypotheses! 


4. James and Clifford on the Ethics of Belief:


140 William Clifford: “If [a] belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence [even though the belief be true...] the pleasure is a stolen one....It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind....It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[6]  


-Contra Clifford: we believe many things without sufficient evidence (that there are molecules, that democracy is good, etc.). 


-“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 criticized by someone else.  Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.  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?” 


-140-141 To the Pyrrhonistic sceptic[7] who asks us “how do we know,” we must reply that doubt and knowledge here are competing volitions. 


-141 “As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.” 


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


“Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” 


5. James on Believing in the Possibility of Attaining Truth:


142 We can have our “faiththat truth exists in an absolutistic way or in an empiricistic way.  “To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.  One may hold to the first being possible without the second.” 


Material which is not included in our selection includes the following which is relevant to our discussion:


-“I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them—I absolutely do not care which—as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out.  There is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that pyrrhonistic scepticism itself leaves standing—the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.  That, however, is the bare starting point of knowledge, the main admission of a stuff to be philosophized about.” 


--Note: Here James says, in effect, that he has a “faith” (a) that truth exists, (b) that this faith is best held in an “empiricistic” manner, and (c) that the way to ensure that our opinions will grow “more true” if we pursue the methodology which he recommends.  As we saw, Peirce also seems to have a “faith” in his methodology (though he would, certainly, not phrase it in this manner)—he claims his method of “fixing belief” is better than the other methods because it yields truth and reality, but he is not clear as to what substantiates this claim.  Are we simply being presented with an item we must take on faith here? 


There is no concrete test of truth.  James discusses traditional philosophical criteria of truth (perception, agreement of ideas, intuitions of the heart, and Cartesian reason, Reid and common sense, Kant and a priori reason) and contends they are all wanting.  While his discussion is too brief, his claim is that none of these give us a guarantee of truth. 


James’ pragmatism (as did Peirce’s) would reorient us.  Instead of looking for certainty, foundations, and guarantees (or truth), he counsels that we look to the consequences: “...when as empiricists[8] we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself.  We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position toward it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.  Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face.  The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo [starting point] of his thought; for us the strength is in the upshot, the terminus ad quem [ending point].” 


-“It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul [note play on Clifford]; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true.” 


--Note: there is a tremendous difference between emphasizing the origins, foundations, and “guarantors” of our beliefs, claims, and theories, on the one hand, and emphasizing the “consequences” of our beliefs, claims, and theories, on the other. 


--Question: Is this subjectivistic?  Is his appeal to (or faith in) experience one which provides a “merely” subjective criterion of truth? 


6. Avoid Error vs. Know Truth:


“...these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life.” 


-“...I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world; so Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound....Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things.  In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.  At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.” 


-Where the issue is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away and adopt the strategy of avoiding error. 


Here our editor picks up again with his selection:


-143 With moral questions, for example, we can not wait until the evidence is all in. 


--“The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by our will.  Are our moral preferences true or false, or are they only odd biological phenomena, making things good or bad for us, but in themselves indifferent?  How can your pure intellect decide?....Moral scepticism can no more be refuted or proved by logic than intellectual scepticism can.  When we stick to it that there is truth (be it of either kind), we do so with our whole nature, and resolve to stand or fall by the results.  The sceptic, with his whole nature adopts the doubting attitude; but which of us is the wiser, Omniscience only knows.” 


7. Some Truths are Made Possible Only by Our Believing:


144 “The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases.... 


-“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.  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.” 


--Question: his example cuts both ways—if the passengers “believe,” a “truth” can come about, but if the robbers “believe,” it may also happen that a “truth” can come about.  But this seems to clearly violate the “moral core” of his example.  Now it is clear that he wants to offer a theory which allows for moral truth.  If his theory entails a subjectivistic theory, however, he does not seem to have arrived at the point he wants.  The claim he makes above [in the material omitted from our selection] that we have no concrete test of truth, and that we have to reorient ourselves from origins to consequences here seems to, at best, leave us with an article of “faith” here: both the passengers and the robbers can appeal to the “consequences” and maintain that their orientations are “lawful and proper.”  This would mean, however, that “anything goes.”  James might try, in both science and morals, to appeal (as Peirce does) to some “larger community of inquirers, but this does not seem to guarantee that the recommended method will yield the same “truths” for all participants.  As we continue to look at his articles, we need to keep this concern in mind.  


145 “In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.” 


-Religious beliefs belong to this class.  According to James, religion says (1) eternal things are the best things; and (2) we are better off, according to religion, if we believe (1).  If religious belief is a living option, it is also a momentous and a forced one. 


-146 “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.” 


-147 The difference between the skeptical and the “hopeful” attitudes: “...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.” 


--Reminder: the freedom to believe which James recommends is only supposed to cover living options (which are momentous). 


--(Footnote): “Since belief is measured by action.....The whole defense of religious faith hinges upon action.  If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity....I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.” 


8. The Importance of Freedom of Belief:


147-148 “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.  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 the 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 practical things.” 


-Criticism: there is a tension between his contention regarding “freedom of belief,” and his ultimate appeal to the consequences of our beliefs.  If the beliefs are to guide action, and this surely seems what he recommends, then the competing “truths” to be created by the “beliefs” of the passengers and the robbers seem to be equally lawful and appropriate.  Here James seems to be in need of some “standard” which would discriminate between the consequences.  This problem seems to apply not only to his view of morals, but to his view of inquiry generally.  


In his final paragraph, which is not included in our selection, James quotes Fitz-James Stephen: “In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark....Each must act as he thinks best....” 


-Such passages encourage us to distinguish between an “individualistic” and a “social” (or “collectivistic”) pragmatism (James vs. Peirce and Dewey). 




9. Overall Comment on James and Pascal:


As William Earle notes that we must be careful as we discuss James and Pascal lest we confuse the two here:


the doctrine of the will to believe with all its genial encouragement of risking belief, is balanced, in James, by an unremitting fallibilism.  Belief, however, justified originally, is always conditional.  Belief must continue to justify itself; there is no possibility of a definitive, once and for all certification.  Both the options of practical life and the tenets of religion may be justified as peculiar kinds of scientific hypotheses, the first sort peculiar because of their limitation to some particular matter or situation, the second because of their elusive generality.[9] 


That is, James is concerned with consequences in action in this life, whereas Pascal is concerned with consequences given an eternal verity.  Of course, this contrast adds zest to the concerns regarding the apparent “flexibility” of his moral view.  


10. Paul Henle’s Plausible Response to My Critique Above:


In his “Introduction” to our James readings, Paul Henle contends that the epistemological version of the critique I offered above is unfair:


James’s critics took full advantage of this possibility of misrepresentation [regarding what he means by ‘truth’].  Suppose, for example, I am invited to dinner by an utter bore and invent a previous engagement even though I have no plans for the evening in question.  The man is satisfied, arranges dinner without me, and I am spared a tedious evening.  In a sense, this works, and in a sense, if I dislike the man sufficiently, this is a good guide for conduct.  Thus pragmatists were accused of saying what they pleased and calling it the truth. 

  But this is not the sense of working or being a good guide to conduct that James intended, and he was careful to make the point entirely explicit.  Before one can say that a theory works, one must recall what work it is supposed to do.  We have seen that the function of beliefs is to anticipate experience and, in the sense of a deliberate lie such as we have been considering, there is no accurate clue to what is coming…. 

  In order to work, and be a good guide to conduct, then, a belief must not be arbitrary but must take account of the realities with which it deals.  There are other limitations as well.  A belief which came in conflict with most of our other beliefs would lead only to confusion.[10]  


Thus the charges of “relativism” or “subjectivism” are to be silenced by reference to the “purposes” of believing noted above in his discussions of our inquiry process.  While I am tempted by this sort of response, I would point out that in this essay James seems to indicate we have moral and religious purposes, and here “working” and “being a good guide to conduct” could, plausibly, have different characters.  


To try and deal with this we need to turn to James’ metaphysics.  Once we have done so, we will return to the religious and moral concerns.  


Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] The essay was first read by James to the philosophy clubs at Yale and Brown Universities in April and May of 1896.  The selection this supplement refers to is in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch, op. cit., pp. 136-148.  The full essay may be found in The Will to Believe and Other Essays In Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality (bound as one) [1897], (N.Y.: Dover, 1956), pp. 1-31. 

[2] Cf., William James, “Preface” to his The Will to Believe and Other Essays In Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality (bound as one), op. cit., p. x. 

[3] William Earle, “William James,” op. cit., p. 245. 

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1995), section 680, p. 153. 

[5] Ibid., pp. 155-156. 

[6] James is discussing William K. Clifford’s [1845-1879] “The Ethics of Belief,” Contemporary Review (1877).  The essay can be found online at:

http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html , cf., Andrew Chignell, “The Ethics of Belief,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/ethics-belief/ . 

[7] Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365-275 B.C.E) is the classical example of the skeptical philosopher.  He held that it was impossible to know the “true nature of things” and that we should abstain from believing anything beyond what we are compelled to hold because of our senses, conditioning, or culture.  Only by avoiding such beliefs, he held, could we be happy.  In effect, he and the skeptics hold that human beings know nothing. 

[8] It must be noted, of course, that his “empiricism” is going to be different from that of the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), since he doesn’t believe that we can achieve knowledge by comparing and contrasting our phenomenal experiences. 

[9] William Earle, “William James,” op. cit., pp. 245.

[10] Paul Henle, “Introduction” to the James Chapter in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch, op. cit., pp. 115-127, p. 118. 

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