Eric Mayer

Byzantine Blog

Get Email Updates
Cruel Music
Diana Rowland
Martin Edwards
Electric Grandmother
Jane Finnis
Keith Snyder
My Incredibly Unremarkable Life
Mysterious Musings
Mystery of a Shrinking Violet
The Rap Sheet
reenie's reach
Thoughts from Crow Cottage
This Writing Life
Woodstock's Blog
Email Me

Admin Password

Remember Me

1481450 Curiosities served
Share on Facebook

The Will To Believe
Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Read/Post Comments (0)

In the course of researching a novel I read an 1896 lecture by the psychologist/philosopher William James which might be of interest during the holiday season, particularly if, like me, you are not very religious or even, frankly, puzzled by the capacity of so many to believe so much on so little evidence. Mind you, The Will to Believe does not make for easy reading, since, it is, as James puts it:
“ 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.”
My first reaction was that the last thing we need these days is a justification for believing what there is no evidence for. However, James’ reasoning is compelling, to me at least, even if disturbing.

The essay is succinct and it isn’t possible to summarize the complex argument without getting it wrong. Nevertheless, very roughly, James agues that when a person feels he or she can believe in a thing that cannot be proven by intellectual means, and the decision to believe or not is momentous, and to refuse to make the decision would be tantamount to disbelief, then a person may let his or her non-rational nature make the choice. In fact, under such circumstanes, it may be irrational not to do so.

Belief in religion, in God, is such a choice. If one believes one’s eternal salvation is at stake to believe or not is certainly a momentous decision and a decision that cannot simply be put off until all the evidence is in. The evidence is not likely to be in during an individual’s lifetime, if ever, and if one dies, without embracing religion, then it is too late.

I find no comfort in James' essay because he does not argue that a person can force belief, can choose to believe anything that does not appear to him or her, personally, to be believable. In fact, most of the essay James devotes to delineating the narrow circumstances under which he sees the "non-rational" choice to be rational. He is far from arguing that someone may reasonably believe anything he or she finds attractive or convenient.

Ironically, more than a century ago, in an age of modern enlightment, James was arguing for tolerance of those who choose to believe:

"If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes, we might feel ourselves disloyal to such a perfect organ of knowledge in not trusting to it exclusively, in not waiting for its releasing word. But if we are empiricists [pragmatists], if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will, --I hope you do not think that I am denying that, --but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case we act, taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism's glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things."
Would James have guessed back then that at the beginning of the 21st century it would be the skeptics who would be in need of tolerance?

Read/Post Comments (0)

Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Back to Top

Powered by JournalScape © 2001-2010 All rights reserved.
All content rights reserved by the author.