Outline of William James’s Will to Believe

How much evidence do we need before we decide? Will we always dawdle and delay before stepping out in faith?

I. Hypothesis

A. Proposed to our belief

B. Live

1.. Real possibility

2. Maximum liveness means willingness to act irrevocably

3. For example, join Mahdi (Muslim messianic figure) movement for an Arab

C. Dead hypothesis

1.. No real possibility

a. For example, join Mahdi movement in Sudan for an American

D. Decision between two hypotheses is an option

1.. Living or dead

a. Living: both hypotheses are live ones

b. For example, be a Muslim or Theosophist (dead); be an agnostic or Christian (live)

2. Forced or avoidable

a. For example, take an umbrella or not (not forced)

b. For example, love me or hate me (not forced)

c. For example, accept this truth or go without it (forced).

3. Momentous or trivial

a. Momentous: join expedition to North Pole (momentous)

b. Trivial: opportunity is not unique; stake is insignificant; decision is reversible

4. Living, forced, and momentous add up to genuine option

II. Psychology of Human Opinion

A. Matters of Fact (e.g. cause and effect, scientific fact), Relations of Ideas (e.g. math and logic rules):

1.. Will has no say

a. We cannot, by willing, believe Abraham Lincoln did not live, or we are well when we’re sick

B. James summarizes Blaise Pascal’s Wager

1.. Pascal adds to his Wager a suggestion that doubter should act religious for a while until he finally believes

2. Wager means religion is on its last breath

3. Mass and holy water—not a living option for a Muslim or a Protestant

C. Healthy to be skeptical

1.. But when wishing is gone, intellectual insight is not what remains

2. Maybe our prejudices and antagonistic will, not intellect, makes a hypothesis dead

3. Maybe prestige, not intellect, makes hypothesis alive

4. So non-intellectual nature—passions and volitions—influences our convictions

D. We’re mixed up

1.. Our passional nature must decide an option, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds

2. Not deciding is a passional decision

E. We must know truth, and avoid error

1.. Two separate things

2. Which is more important:

a. Know truth (go for it!)

b. Or avoid error (hold back!)

c. Skeptics who can’t decide, like W. K. Clifford, say (b)

d. James says (a)

3. Clifford only shows horror (emotion) at being a dupe (gullible, easily fooled)

4. Lightness of heart (emotion) is better than caution and excessive nervousness

III. Passional Nature Must Influence

A. Not a momentous option, but trivial?

1.. We don’t have to decide, so our passions don’t engage

B. Not a live option, but dead?

1.. Skepticism is fine, if we wish to avoid error

C. By the way, most useful investigator is the eager one, balanced by fear of error

D. Are there not forced options in our speculative questions?

1.. For example, moral questions: What is good?

2. For example, personal relations: lovers must sometimes take a leap of faith

IV. Religious Faith

A. It says two things

1.. Best things are eternal

2. Life is better now if we believe (1)

B. Religious faith is a living option (if you don’t think so, go no further)

1.. Momentous option

2. Forced option

a. You avoid error, if you’re skeptical

b. But you lose the good, if you’re skeptical

C. Skepticism

1.. Not an avoidance of option

2. But an option of not risking

3. It’s better to risk loss of truth than believe an error; better to lose truth than believe error

4. Waiting for sufficient evidence (cf. W. K. Clifford) is this:

a. Yielding to fear of error is better than

b. Yielding to hope that religion is true

D. Crux:

1.. James speaks:

A rule that would prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those truths were really there would be an irrational rule

E. In abstraction (e.g. in classroom),

1. . You can withhold assent

F. In concrete (real life),

1.. Freedom to believe covers living options that intellect can’t resolve

2. You can’t wait for every shred of evidence

3. Not deciding is acting, and we take our lives in our hand


Outline of Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

ARTICLES IN SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Meditations I and II

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Ethics

Nietzsche’s Madman and the Death of God

Paley’s Watchmaker and Design Argument

Plato the Soul Man

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”


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