William James and ‘The Will to Believe’

When analysing the origins of belief behind truth claims, matters of faith often seem to be reduced to pure blind faith on the part of candid believers or sceptical doubt when expressed by rational thinkers such as Hume. In his lecture ‘The Will to Believe’, published in 1896, William James offered six different options open to the ‘believer’ which can equally apply to a non-believer in his quest of epistemological truth:

  1. An hypothesis is anything that might be offered for us to believe: that it will rain tomorrow; that quarks are the ultimate particles; that Madonna is the reincarnation of Jane Austen.
  2. A live hypothesis is one that we take seriously to some degree: that we have at least some slight tendency to believe. The hypothesis that the next president will be an inexperienced politician may be unlikely, for example, but it probably has some plausibility for you. On the other hand, the hypothesis that Madonna is the reincarnation of Jane Austen is one that most likely exerts no pull on you whatsoever. The first hypothesis is live, though perhaps barely. The second is dead.
  3. An option is a choice between two hypotheses.
  4. A living option is one in which both hypothesis are live and can be considered as valid for their own separate reasons.
  5. A forced option is one in which we have no other live options, that is where the choice between these two options is unavoidable if we are to choose at all. For example, James says, “Either accept this truth or go without it” is a forced option. I either believe the claim or I don’t. And saying that I don’t disbelieve, that I suspend judgement, is still to choose the second option. On the other hand, “Believe that Smith is perfectly honest or that he is an incurable liar” is not a forced choice. I could suspect that the truth lies in between.
  6. An option is momentous if the opportunity is unique, or the stakes are significant or the decision irreversible. The choice between marrying one of two people might be such an option, for example. The choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream wouldn’t.

James’s thesis is that it is appropriate for our will – more generally, our passions – to influence us in certain situations. But he notes that this may seem to be plain confusion. Typically, our will can’t influence our beliefs. No matter how much I might like to believe it, I can’t, as suggested by Kant himself, make myself believe that there is a million dollars in my bank account.

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