“The Will To Believe” by William James
William James’ lecture “The Will to Believe” was published in 1896. In his lecture, James is in defense of the possibility of adopting a belief without any previous evidence ascertain the truth of the belief. He is particularly concerned with trying to defend the rationality of having religious faith even when evidence to support the religious hypothesis is lacking. His belief is that through their will people find evidence for beliefs. Their ability to find the evidence relies heavily on first accepting the beliefs without prior evidence. A good example is having an unfounded belief in one’s ability to do things that need confidence. The same applies to religious beliefs as well as scientific inquiry.
In the first, second, and third sections of the lecture, James tries to define some terms that are important to his argument. A live hypothesis is regarded as the one which is believable while a dead hypothesis is a proposition for which is not possible for people to believe. This then brings the issue of an option. James defines an option as any decision that has to be made regarding two sets of hypotheses. He also identifies live, dead, forced, avoidable, momentous, trivial, and genuine options. A live option has to be a decision to choose between a set of several live hypotheses. A dead option, on the other hand, involves a dead hypothesis. Forced and avoidable options are distinguished by the ability to avoid making the decision the latter being those we can avoid and the former being the ones we cannot avoid. Momentous options are irrevocable, and their stakes are significant while trivial options are the reverse of the momentous options. As a result, a genuine option needs to living, forced, and at the same time momentous.
In James’ argument, the reason is not the sole determinant of beliefs. Our beliefs are determined, partially, by our mind’s non-intellectual components such as desires and emotions. James, therefore, believes that through our own will, we can choose a belief or agree to accept in any set of live hypotheses. Those hypotheses that are seen as dead are so because previously we have exercised our individual will in some other specific way. For instance, they could be dead to us because we were influenced to see them as dead by the opinions of other people who are around us.
In continuing analysis, James expounds on the question of whether people should embrace the fact that will does control our beliefs or resist it. He points out that humans are limited to two duties: that is not to believe or accept falsehood and to believe in the plain truth. This breeds some conflicts because first, for use to believe in the truth, it is necessary that we have some set of beliefs. As a result, we face the risk of using false beliefs to gauge the truth. On the other hand, we may try to avoid false beliefs by avoiding altogether to believe in things. For this, we are at the risk of failing to get the true or the correct beliefs.
It should be understood that James does not advocate for irrational beliefs. In his argument, people should not just choose to believe in things when the options for the belief are trivial and avoidable. However, when it is important that we hold a belief about something, it would be irrational to fail to make a decision about the belief. At the same time if the evidence against a belief is strong enough, then it is also not our will to continue holding such a belief. We have to believe in a genuine option (momentous, live, and forced) as long as we “will” to believe it and there is sufficient evidence to support the belief as truth.
James also meditates about religious beliefs. According to him, a religious hypothesis is the idea that the eternal is the best thing for the humans. It is also the belief that people are better off holding the belief that the eternal things are best for them. The religious option, in this case, comes in choosing to believe or not to believe the hypothesis. According to James, none of the two hypotheses has enough justification, and this makes it a living option. It is also momentous because there is a lot to gain if it turns out to be a true hypothesis and a greater risk of failing to believe. The fact that there is no third alternative makes it a forced option for humans. In this sense, people should believe in the religious hypothesis rather than wait for the evidence to support their belief. In short, they should have the will to believe in the religious hypothesis.