The Will to Believe


William James


Clifford's "Ethics"

The principle that we have called the requirement of rationality, and which might also be called "intellectualism" or "evidentialism" received its most famous formulation in an essay by W K. Clifford — an otherwise minor figure — entitled "The Ethics of Belief". Clifford asks a moral question: Is it ever morally permissible to believe a proposition on insufficient evidence? The question may seem to answer itself. What is insufficient evidence, after all, if not evidence that does not license believing that which it is evidence for? Still, it is clear what Clifford has in mind. He is asking whether it is ever morally permissible to let factors other than evidence and rational argument influence our opinions. His conclusion is that it is not. As he famously puts it: "It is wrong, everywhere and for every one, to believe anything on insufficient evidence".

Clifford’s argument is a sublime example of high Victorian moralism, delivered, as James says, with somewhat too much robustious pathos in the voice. Clifford invites us to imagine a ship owner who is about to sense an emigrant ship off to sea. It’s an old ship, and reasonable doubts have arisen in his mind as to its seaworthiness. These doubts gnaw at him and make him unhappy. But he manages to push them out of his mind, placing his trust in Providence and the wisdom of the ship builders and concluding in the end that the ship will certainly make it through safely. He waves as it departs, with a firm conviction that everything will turn out well.

In the first version of the case, the ship goes down and Clifford asks us what we are to make of this captain. Obviously, says Clifford, he is verily responsible for the deaths of these people. His final conviction may have been sincere, and his conscious motives may have been impeccable. Nonetheless, he had no right to a sincere conviction of this sort given the evidence that was available to him. So he is at fault.

Alter the case now so that the ship makes it through. Clifford once again insists that the owner is just as guilty of a great wrong as in the previous case. He has not been found out, but he is not innocent. He is like the drunk driver who through dumb luck manages not to hit anyone on his way home. For Clifford, the moral crime lies in the negligence and in the creation of risk, not in the bad consequences themselves. In the law we may punish negligence with no harm done less severely than negligence that leads to damages. But from a moral point of view they are on a par.

Clifford considers another sort of case. Word gets around that certain powerful people — university professors, perhaps — are spreading dangerous doctrines by unscrupulous means. An association is formed to agitate against this, and its members find themselves making loud and damning public accusations against these professors. When a commission is formed to investigate the matter, it emerges that that the accusations were based on insufficient evidence and that this insufficiency would have been clear if anyone had bothered to check. Again Clifford concludes that the participants in the agitation however sincere and well-meaning, are morally reprehensible for believing as they did on insufficient evidence.

Clifford’s essay is a denunciation of credulousness. His general line is that someone who is careless or uncritical in the formation of his opinions places others at risk, since false beliefs can be dangerous. The examples concern people with direct authority -- people whose opinions directly affect the lives others. But even the most ordinary person is in a position to affect what others do. He sets an example by his habits of mind, and a bad example is a pernicious one. Society is a collaboration. No one is in it alone. So we have a firm and overriding moral responsibility not to let our passions our prejudices or our wishes interfere with the rational assessment of evidence.


James's Framework

This is the background for James’s famous essay. "The Will to Believe" is a defense of religious faith in particular, although James gives examples to suggest that his views have somewhat broader scope. In the end James concludes that in certain cases it is not only permissible but inevitable that one’s passional, non-rational nature will determine what one believes. Unlike Pascal, James does not directly appeal to our concern for future happiness, although the arguments do have a number of affinities. Let’s begin by outlining some of the technical distinctions James introduces.

We call anything that is proposed for our belief an hypothesis, and any question about which of two hypotheses to accept an option.

Options can be classified under three heads:

An option is living if both of its constituent hypothesis are live, where a live hypothesis is one that you might seriously wind up believing as a result of an inquiry. Suppose I propose to you to believe in the Greek gods, or to believe that there is an elephant in the hallway now. You can entertain the hypothesis. But you’re so sure that it’s false that you cannot take it seriously. These hypotheses are dead for you. And in these cases our passional nature, like our intellectual nature, is powerless to effect belief.

An option is forced if you must choose one or the other of its hypotheses. If I offer you the option of whether to jump around like a rabbit or quack like a duck, you can easily decline the offer. So the option is avoidable in James’s sense. On the other hand, if I offer you the choice to jump around like a rabbit or not, then whatever you do you will have chosen one of the alternatives. In general, an option of the form "DO X NOW OR DON’T DO X NOW" will always be forced, since to decline is in effect to choose not to do X.

Finally, an option is momentous if a great deal hangs on how you choose, and especially if the opportunity is fleeting. If someone call you up and says that he’s going on a year long tour of Europe and Asia and that you can come along all expenses paid as long as you say yes right now, that would be a momentous option. To hesitate is to loose.


James's Anti-Cliffordian Principle

James’s central thesis is that when an option is live, forced and momentous and cannot be settled by intellectual means, one may and must let one’s non-rational nature make the choice. One may believe what one hopes to be true, or what makes one happiest; and here we seem to have a sharp disagreement with Clifford. Clifford’s view appears to be that in such cases one is morally obliged to suspend judgment — to follow the course of not believing, since to do otherwise would be to believe on intellectually insufficient evidence.

James is careful to exempt cases in which the question can be decided on intellectual grounds. In science, James says, our options are for the most part not momentous, and even in engineering and technology where they are, we should do everything in our power to let evidence guide our choice. So James does not really disagree with Clifford about the cases Clifford discusses, but only on cases where the intellect is silent.

James discusses three cases of this sort, of which the religious case is the third. One of these is a very special case — the sort of case in which, as James says, faith in the fact can help create the fact. Where the fact in question is something to be wished for, in these cases, James believes, faith is obviously reasonable.

So suppose that you are involved in an important political struggle like the civil rights movement and you know from hard experience that struggles of this sort succeed only if people have faith that they can and will succeed, no matter what the objective evidence says. In this sort of case, James holds that it is morally permissible for you to believe that the struggle will succeed, because this belief makes it more likely that you will achieve some great good. This is in an important sense the flip side of Clifford’s case of the ship captain. In that case, an ignoble desire to be free from worry generates the comforting thought that everything will be ok. In this case, the noble desire for racial equality generates a faith that the movement will succeed. In Clifford’s case, credulous, passional belief involves great risk but promises no great benefit. In this case, it is agnosticism rather than belief that carries the great risk, and belief promises a great benefit.

In this connection it might be interesting to consider an intermediate case. You are the leader of a revolution against a tyrannical government, and you know that you must believe that you will succeed in order to succeed, but also that if you fail the consequences will be dreadful not just for you, but for your followers. The evidence is -- let’s suppose -- inconclusive: Should you believe that you will succeed? If you believe, you will launch the revolution which promises great benefits but risks great costs. If you don’t, you will acquiesce in the status quo. Clifford gives a clear verdict in favor of unbelief, and hence inaction. James gives no clear verdict, but there is a case for permission in his words. It is interesting that James never really considers the sort of case that is most important for Clifford, a case in which the well being of other people depends on what you choose to believe.

These cases of effective wishful thinking are relatively rare, and James attaches no great importance to them. The second sort of case is much more interesting. James holds that when it comes to morality, and more generally to questions about what is most important or most worth pursuing in life, we find ourselves with options that are live, forced, and momentous and which cannot be settled on intellectual grounds. The charge here is that Clifford’s position is self-refuting: He maintains an ethical view — it is wrong, everywhere and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence. But it looks as is if this must be reckoned an article of faith. And if that is so, anyone who holds this position fails to comply with it.

You should ask yourself how Clifford might respond to this challenge.


James's Case for Theism

So far the discussion has been a warm-up for the religious question. The question of God’s existence cannot be settled by intellectual means. The option to believe or not to believe is live, forced, and momentous. And James thinks that under these circumstances, each of us is free to follow our passional natures and to believe whatever we would like to believe.

But James says a bit more than this. He has a diagnosis of the sort of character type that resists belief in God. Intellectual activity is governed by two compelling imperatives on James's view: Believe Truth and Shun Error. These are in some ways competing goals. If you were concerned only to believe the truth you would believe everything: that it is raining and that it is not raining, that God exists and that God does not exist. That way you would be sure to believe every truth. On the other hand, if you were concerned only to shun error, you would believe nothing. That way you would be certain never to believe anything false.

Normal human beings strike some sort of balance between the concern for truth and the avoidance of error. And yet how one strikes the balance is not settled by reason but rather by what might be called temperament or character. Clifford and his ilk are cowards on James’s view— petrified by the prospect of believing something false and concerned to avoid this sort of embarrassment at any cost. For his own part, he says, there are worse things in the world than being a dupe. He is willing to go out on a limb, to risk being wrong, when this is the only way to place oneself in a position to know the truth. The reasoning in this section is reminiscent of Pascal, though James has no time for Pascal’s crude assumptions about posthumous rewards and punishments. James assumes that if God exists then the knowledge that God exists is an immensely valuable sort of knowledge in itself, whereas the knowledge that God does not exist, if God does not exist, is worth much less. The Cliffordian suspends judgment because he would rather miss out on the truth than risk being wrong. James himself regards the value of being right about God’s existence as worth any risks that belief might bring with it. And so he believes: not on the strength of evidence, but rather simply on the strength of a wish to believe that God exists if God does in fact exist.