Will to Believe

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In his essay, “The Will to Believe”, William James aims to provide a justification of faith. James wants to show that it is sometimes justifiable to hold beliefs that are not supported by sufficient evidence. Therefore, he presents various ideas which can influence a person’s beliefs. He believes that these influences are caused by our passion or our will. In the first portion of the essay, James states several definitions of hypothesis that may be proposed to our belief. He describes the hypothesis as being alive or dead. According to James, a live hypothesis is one that we have at least a slight tendency to believe. On the contrary, a dead hypothesis is one that does not appear to be a real possibility to the person it is presented to. He then attempts to define the options we have when confronted with a choice - a hypothesis. A hypothesis can be either “alive or dead”, “forced or avoidable”, or “momentous or trivial”. A valid hypothesis can be thought of as one that is alive, forced, and momentous. In the second portion of James’ essay, James brings up differences in how a person renders a hypothesis due to “the actual psychology of human opinion.” He implicates that we usually use our own “passional and volitional nature” to make our judgment or belief. However, a valid hypothesis for one person may not be equally valid in the eyes of another. Hence, James argues that our belief is composed of relation of ideas that we can see and cannot see. If the idea does not exist, we cannot assume that it is given based on our belief. To illustrate his point, James gives an example of Pascal’s wager, which conveys that we have a choice to either believe in God or to disbelieve in God. According to Pascal’s wager, if we choose to believe in God, we will be blessed eternally. In contrast, if we choose not to believe in God, we will lose. James, therefore, states that this example is not a living option. In other words, the hypothesis that Pascal has offered to us is...
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