As the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, William James (1842-1910) has been labeled by many as the “father of American psychology.” However, as one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century, James’ philosophical mind stretched well beyond the reaches of psychology. The brother of author Henry James is considered, along with figures like C.S. Pierce and John Dewey, to be one of the major figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism. James touted an epistemology that considers the meaning of ideas and the truth of beliefs in terms of the practical difference they make in one’s life. Thus his brand of psychology was also a functional one. The professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard University also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. This was the worldview holding that the only proper subject matter of philosophy is that which can be defined in terms of experience, and that this experience includes relationality. James wrote The Principles of Psychology shortly after graduating from medical school, but his most well-known work is unquestionably The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, published in 1897. His other works include The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), and A Pluralistic Universe (1909).
Published in 1897, The Will To Believe is a lecture given by William James at Harvard just one year earlier. In this work James defends the rationality of religious faith, even when lacking sufficient evidence of religious truth. For James, access to the evidence for whether or not certain beliefs are true depends crucially upon first adopting those beliefs without evidence. The Will to Believe is a response to the empiricism of W.K. Clifford who said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (8) Where intellect can make a judgment, James and Clifford are in agreement. However, as the title suggests, James is interested in the will itself. For Clifford, one is morally obliged to suspend judgment where there is not sufficient evidence. For James on the other hand, for a live, forced, momentous option, faith is reasonable – especially when faith in the fact can help create the fact. James contends that when confronted with a genuine option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds (i.e., decided by an appeal to the objective evidence), one has the right to believe the hypothesis on non-intellectual grounds (i.e., our “passional” natures). Contrary to the skeptic, James postulates that there is truth and it is the destiny of our minds to attain it. And contrary to the idealist, James posits that “in our dealings with objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers, of the truth.” (20) In this way, James proves very much the scientific empiricist. However, James goes beyond stark empiricism in the quest for objectivity: “when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.” (17)
James begins by asking a question: is our intellect willfully modifiable? This initial question leads him to examine Pascal’s wager, a concept that James believes “leaves us unmoved.” (6) This wager, while powerless before faith, does serve as a sort of “regular clincher” after it, needed to make faith complete. According to the author, sentimentalism cannot engineer faith. Therefore, with Clifford, he affirms that belief is not solely by the volition. Although, unlike Clifford, he concludes that the non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” (11) The quest for truth is endemic in humanity, and both intellect and volition have roles to play in that search. The “bare starting-point for knowledge,” according to James, is “the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.” (15) Skepticism ceases to look for truth for fear of error, but James rejects this option. The Harvard philosopher wants instead “the right to choose my own form of risk.” (27) For James, “religion is a live hypothesis which may be true,” and the quest for truth is more valuable than the quest to avoid error.
In The Ethics of Belief (1877), W.K. Clifford poses a moral question: is it ever morally permissible to believe a proposition on insufficient evidence? The author answers in the negative. However, for William James, such belief is sometimes not only permissible but inevitable. The Will To Believe is not an assault on Clifford’s principle per se; only in regard to the latter’s paradigm when intellect is silent. For Clifford, judgment should be suspended without objective evidence. He is, after all, a committed empiricist. James’ epistemology, one the other hand, is one that acknowledges the obvious limitations of intellect. Most options are non-momentous and should be left to the examination of empirical evidence. However, in special cases, especially religious cases, faith is reasonable because the fact in question is something to be wished for.
It is not the aim of James’ work to refute the grounds for skepticism itself. After all, James says that “moral skepticism can no more be refuted or proved by logic than intellectual skepticism can.” (23) Instead James’ simple task is an important one: proving the rationality of belief…not its veracity. The Will To Believe is not a work of apologetics per se, so much as a psychological and philosophical defense of faith itself. After all, “a moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good.” (22) In the end, The Will To Believe is a moral treatise with an anti-Cliffordian optimism. Perhaps why James is so adamant in his defense of faith, besides his obvious religious background, is his pragmatic approach to faith itself. According to James, “there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.” (3) James isn’t simply defending faith. He’s defending the reason people do what they do. He’s a pragmatist. Unlike Clifford, James sees the idea of suspending judgment in the face of insufficient evidence as not only un-human but impractical. Thus The Will To Believe is a defense of the reasonableness of “voluntarily adopted faith.” (2)
While James acknowledges the presence of “passional nature” before and after decision-making, he is still found guilty of placing intellect and volition in separate corners when perhaps they should not be. James concedes that “our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions.” (11) However, his central thesis is built upon the idea that there is some kind of psychological boundary where intellect ends and “passion” begins. Where is this boundary? When is evidence deemed “insufficient”? As an empiricist, his presuppositions are somewhat obvious. But the two categories are not so sanitized as perhaps James paints them. “I have said, and now repeat it, that not only as a matter of fact do we find our passional nature influencing us in our opinions, but that there are some options between opinions in which this influence must be regarded both as an inevitable and as a lawful determinant of our choice.” (19) James’ language occasionally presents the intellect-passion relation almost as a breaker-switch ready to shift channels when one turns off. While James attempts to circumvent this problem by distinguishing between momentous and non-momentous options, the problem remains nonetheless. Humans exercise “passion” in everyday decisions, momentous and non-momentous. Attempting to neatly place each inside a framework of faculty psychology is a task that dates all the way back to Puritans like William Ames and William Perkins. However, a generation later another Puritan named Jonathan Edwards repudiated the notion of a sanitized conversion morphology in his Religious Affections (1746). In so doing, he challenged traditional Puritan faculty psychology unwilling to blend volition and intellect in “momentous” decisions (Edwards himself was influenced by John Locke). James’ generation represents the emergence of psychology as an offshoot of philosophy and theology. In the end, however, Christians should see the clear benefit of James’ work in the realm of faith and in the arena of Christian apologetics. At one point or another, the believer must leave the safety blanket of “evidence” and step out in faith – a faith that William James says is more than reasonable.
James, William. The Will To Believe and other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1956.