5 Oct. 2013
Analysis of James: The Will to Believe
In this article by William James, it is clear that he criticizes the views of William Kingdon Clifford, who argued in The Ethics of Belief, that it is always wrong to believe anything for which the evidence is insufficient. James on the other hand thinks that occasionally despite what evidence points to, that if true beliefs are more important, then believing without strong evidence may be sufficient. James then goes on to describe that a hypothesis is anything that may be proposed to our belief. First he distinguishes between a live and dead hypothesis. A live hypothesis according to James “is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed…It refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead…the hypothesis is among the mind's possibilities: it is alive.” James states that “this shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.” James then states that there is a decision between two hypotheses and options. The three options are, living or dead, forced or avoidable, and momentous or trivial. Living is personally meaningful, forced is mutually exclusive, and momentous is involving potentially important consequences.
The next matter to consider according to James is the actual psychology of human opinion. James argues how one comes to have beliefs as well as how one chooses to believe something simply by an effort of will. For example, James claims in his article, “Can we, by just willing it, believe that Abraham Lincoln's existence is a myth, and that the portraits of him in McClure's Magazine are all of someone else?...or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?”. As much as one would try so hard to believe that it is true, can one prove it to be with factual evidence? Pascal’s wager on the other hand argues that the belief in God is based on the idea that one can chose whether or not to believe in God simply of the basis of one’s self-interest. For people that may believe strongly in the scientific aspect of life, they could only believe something if it were supported with strong evidence. For instance, Clifford says that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” III
Although it is unclear what it is that settles what one believes, the evidence only plays a small part in determining it. Considering there is little reason for the beliefs in which we hold onto, it is hard to say what determines them. So why do people hold onto them so confidently? James states that it is the prestige of opinions that makes one believe. He also says that “at other times our faith is faith in someone else's faith”. James is saying that people sometimes only believe in something because someone else believes in it. Justifying the belief is almost nearly impossible if a Pyrrhonistic skeptic asks one how they know all this. According to James, “It is just one volition against another”. A Pyrrhonistic skeptic would doubt every belief one would have until they cannot strongly support their claim anymore. With this being said, it would be hard to have any beliefs if one had to justify them. IV
William James argues that, “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an o 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.” When James says “passional” he is talking about something passionate or emotional. What he is saying is that one must sometimes use a non-intellectual way to decide what to believe. V
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