“I have brought with me tonight 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.” (William James, The Will To Believe.)
The American Pragmatist Philosopher, William James (1842-1910), brother of the author Henry James, is known today mainly for his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, and for his seminal 1896 paper The Will To Believe. The latter is concerned with non-evidential reasons for belief. A non-evidential argument is is an argument for believing something rather than an argument for believing something to be true. For example, if I urged you to believe me when I say that I have seen a pig fly, because we’d never get anywhere if we always doubted people’s testimony, that would be a non-evidential argument for believing that what I said was true. The argument gives you a reason for believing what I said without attempting to give any evidence to show that what I said is true. In particular, it is concerned with non-evidential reasons for Christian religious belief, although the analysis of decision-making proposed by James is universally applicable. However, James’ essay is essentially an exercise in Christian Apologetics and can be used to demonstrate the importance of the question of God’s existence.
James begins by giving the name hypothesis “to anything that may be proposed to our belief”, and says that:
“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.”
Whatever the hypothesis, it is live if you are willing to consider that it might be true. No one can decide to believe something that they believe to be untrue. If I believe that pigs cannot fly, the proposition that pigs can fly will not appeal “as a real possibility” to me. It will not be a live hypothesis. On the other hand, I may be sceptical about the existence of extra-terrestrial life, but if I am willing to consider the hypothesis that aliens exist, admitting that aliens might exist, then the hypothesis that there are extra-terrestrials is a live one for me. Similarly, I might be sceptical about the existence of God, but unless believing that God exists is such a silly idea to me that I can’t imagine ever believing it, placing God’s existence in the same category as flying pigs or even square circles, God’s existence is a live hypothesis for me.
Next James points out that we face decisions between hypotheses. This, says James, is to face an Option:
“[Options] 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. […] A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones.”
If someone is wondering whether or not God exists, then believing in His existence is clearly a live hypothesis for them and they face a live option. As J.L. Mackie says, “A living option is one where the agent sees both the alternatives as serious possibilities.” (The Miracle of Theism, p204.)
A Forced option is one where you must choose one of the two hypotheses presented to you:
“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. 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. […] 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.” Believing in God’s existence is a forced option because you either believe that God exists, or you do not believe that God exists.
A Momentous option is one involving a unique, significant, or irreversible decision:
“If I were [an explorer] and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed. [On the other hand] the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stakes are insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later proved unwise.”
Thus the decision to believe in the existence of God (though one cannot believe merely by an act of will) is a momentous decision, because significant consequences follow from God’s existence or non-existence. For example, believing that God exists is linked to the decision whether or not to believe in God, a decision that could as Pascal’s Wager shows have serious moral and pragmatic consequences.
For anyone prepared to admit that God might exist, the hypothesis that God exists is therefore a Genuine Option. To believe or disbelieve in the existence of God is a choice we all have to make, and it is a forced option. Our choice between these rival hypotheses is momentous in that significant consequences follow from whichever option we believe, consequences that will effect our entire world-view. Clearly then, the question “Does God exist?” is among the most important questions we must seek to answer.
James goes on to argue that, in facing the genuine option of belief or disbelief in the existence of God, it is not irrational to allow our “passional nature” to move us towards one belief or the other. By “passional nature” James means our inclinations and hunches that cannot be set out as formal reasons for belief or disbelief, but which nevertheless draw us towards this or that belief. James says this is a legitimate use of the passions for several reasons.
Firstly, because a genuine option is a choice we cannot escape making, it is a forced option, and so we have no alternative. Secondly, unlike the choice between believing in the existence of extra-terrestrials or not, the choice between believing in the existence of God or not is a momentous one, and so we cannot afford to put off a decision. Lastly, it is because a genuine option is a choice between two rival live hypotheses. Neither option falls under that category of hypotheses which so repel your belief that you call them “daft” or “preposterous”. To neither suggestion are you tempted to reply with scornful derision, “Yes, and pigs can fly!” You are not decided, but you must decide. Yet you either have no evidence either way, or are not convinced by the evidence either way. The decision is urgent. Much hangs on it. You must act. It is highly unlikely that each hypothesis is equally “live” to you. One will appeal more than the other. One may strike you with a force of one hundred metaphorical volts, and the other with one hundred and two. What you should do in such a circumstance, argues James, is to follow your heart. Allow your “passional nature” to decide for you. Take the plunge and, since you must dive one way or the other but cannot decide upon evidential grounds which way to go, dive in the direction you feel most happy about: “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.” Or as Wittgenstein said, “Go on, believe! It does no harm.” (Lecture on Ethics, Culture and Value).
What James is basically saying is that, if you are inclined to believe in God, then there is nothing unreasonable in following your inclination so long as there is an absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, even if you have no convincing evidence in favour of the belief towards which you are inclined. Of course, this cuts both ways in that someone might be inclined to believe that there is no God, and, being unconvinced by the evidence to the contrary, may follow their inclination without doing reason an injustice. However, such an Atheist would be placing themselves in a pragmatically and morally difficult position, as Pascal’s Wager shows. James argues this point against a Philosopher called Clifford who thought that: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (quoted by James in The Will To Believe.) In other words, Clifford said that we should have an intellectual reason for, or evidential argument in favour of, everything we believe. James counters Clifford by pointing out that we cannot provide a reason for believing in reason without arguing in a circle and begging-the-question. If Clifford held his view consistently he would end up with the self contradictory belief that it is wrong to believe his own belief. Our belief in the power of reason is an act of faith, and if that faith is well placed, then Clifford must be wrong. On the other hand, if our faith in reason is not well placed, reason is unreasonable and Clifford cannot be right. It’s heads William James wins, tails Clifford loses. Pascal makes this very point in his Penses:
“We can be in no way sure of the truths of these [first] principles, apart from faith and revelation, except that we feel them to be natural to us. Now this natural feeling is not a convincing proof of their truth since, having no certainty, apart from faith, about whether we were created by a benevolent God, an evil demon, or by chance, it is open to doubt whether the principles given to us are true, false, or uncertain, depending on our origin.” (Penses 164.)
Pascal stands in the tradition of “faith seeking understanding”, a tradition partly to be found in the work of Descartes. William James, in arguing thus against Clifford, places himself in this same tradition, and there are shades of Descartes in The Will To Believe: “If, for example, I am unable to doubt that I now exist before you, that two is less than three, or that all men are mortal then I am mortal too, it is because these things illumine my intellect irresistibly. […] Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know.”
This does not mean that we simply decide what to believe on the basis of our “passional nature” and thereafter ignore any evidence or argument relevant to our belief. In the interest of intellectual honesty we must always be prepared, if necessary, to revise our beliefs in the light of new information, or even to change one belief for another.
While it is clear that someone who leans towards belief in God’s existence has no duty to seek to alter their belief in the absence of convincing evidential reasons for disbelief, it is equally clear that someone with a leaning towards disbelief who lacks evidential justification for their disbelief does have a duty to seek to alter their belief. It is always right to seek to minimise the risk of wrongdoing where such minimisation does not preclude the doing of some positive right. This must be so because it is always right to minimise the amount of wrong-doing where this does not negate some compensating good, and a good way to minimise wrong-doing is to minimise the risk of wrong-doing. What possible good does the Atheist risk not doing by seeking to minimise the risk that they are doing the very great wrong of refusing to seek their maker without even the excuse of a genuinely, albeit mistakenly held evidential justification for their disbelief? Such a wrong would be a wrong both against God and against their own nature:
“This why parents who are themselves agnostic but who choose to give their children a religious upbringing are right, despite the apparent contradiction of their position. For openness to the possibility of a wise and loving power behind life keeps both the option of belief and unbelief open. A settled scepticism from the outset precludes the possibility of belief.” (Richard Harries Bishop of Oxford, The Real God p17.)
James’ argument seems to me to be of great use in demonstrating the importance of the question “Does God exist?” James emphasises that the decision to believe or disbelieve in the existence of God or in the truth of a religion is an unavoidable decision. It is a “forced option”: “You must choose”, wrote Pascal, “you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”. James echoes this point: “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.” (The Will To Believe.) Thus James highlights the significant nature of the decision to believe or disbelieve.
Secondly, James takes particular note of the role played by the heart, as well as by the mind, in belief. James demonstrates that it is not irrational to allow non-evidential reasons to motivate belief when faced with a “Genuine Option”:
James does not, however, take this to the extreme of thinking that we can believe just anything we like. The Will To Believe, is addressed to those who already have a disposition favourable to religious belief, but who hold back due to concerns about the legitimacy of believing anything in the absence of rational justification. It is an unambitious but highly effective piece of Christian Apologetics.