In this article by William James, it is clear that he criticizes the views of William Kingdon Clifford, who argued in The Ethics of Belief, that it is always wrong to believe anything for which the evidence is insufficient. James on the other hand thinks that occasionally despite what evidence points to, that if true beliefs are more important, then believing without strong evidence may be sufficient. James then goes on to describe that a hypothesis is anything that may be proposed to our belief. First he distinguishes between a live and dead hypothesis.
A live hypothesis according to James “is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed…It refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead…the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive.” James states that “this shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.” James then states that there is a decision between two hypotheses and options. The three options are, living or dead, forced or avoidable, and momentous or trivial. Living is personally meaningful, forced is mutually exclusive, and momentous is involving potentially important consequences.
The next matter to consider according to James is the actual psychology of human opinion. James argues how one comes to have beliefs as well as how one chooses to believe something simply by an effort of will. For example, James claims in his article, “Can we, by just willing it, believe that Abraham Lincoln’s existence is a myth, and that the portraits of him in McClure’s Magazine are all of someone else?…or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?”. As much as one would try so hard to believe that it is true, can one prove it to be with factual evidence?
Pascal’s wager on the other hand argues that the belief in God is based on the idea that one can chose whether or not to believe in God simply of the basis of one’s self-interest. For people that may believe strongly in the scientific aspect of life, they could only believe something if it were supported with strong evidence. For instance, Clifford says that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” III
Although it is unclear what it is that settles what one believes, the evidence only plays a small part in determining it. Considering there is little reason for the beliefs in which we hold onto, it is hard to say what determines them. So why do people hold onto them so confidently? James states that it is the prestige of opinions that makes one believe. He also says that “at other times our faith is faith in someone else’s faith”. James is saying that people sometimes only believe in something because someone else believes in it.
Justifying the belief is almost nearly impossible if a Pyrrhonistic skeptic asks one how they know all this. According to James, “It is just one volition against another”. A Pyrrhonistic skeptic would doubt every belief one would have until they cannot strongly support their claim anymore. With this being said, it would be hard to have any beliefs if one had to justify them. IV
William James argues that, “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an o option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision-just like deciding yes or no-and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” When James says “passional” he is talking about something passionate or emotional. What he is saying is that one must sometimes use a non-intellectual way to decide what to believe. V
James also distinguishes between skepticism, empiricist, and absolutist ways of thinking. Skepticism is where one would doubt or question an idea or knowledge of something. An empiricist states that ordinary knowledge does not require certainty.
This means that one can know something and yet be unsure whether their beliefs are right, and be ready to admit that it may be wrong. An absolutist states that one must have certainty in their knowledge, which means not just that they know a fact, but that they know they know it. James says that we are all absolutists by instinct and only by reflection can we achieve empiricist moderation. VI
James stated before that one is an absolutist by instinct, and says that to be an absolutist about one’s beliefs, and to feel more secure with certainty, that it is more rational to be empiricists and give up on certainty. There is no one thing that is true according to James, but to be closer to the truth one must reflect on their beliefs in hope to find the truth. James gives some examples of some contrasting views that have been held to be certain such as the disagreement between Aristotle’s and Hegel’s logic.
He goes on to explain that in the past, people’s certainty in religious belief have led them to persecute and tortures others. He says that this gives us even more reason to be suspicious of absolutism. He then makes a point that we should keep with our quest for truth, but give up our need for certain truth. VII
William James says that requiring certainty requires us to shun error, but searching for truth does not require us to completely avoid the possibility of being wrong. This being said, once one accepts that in searching for truth they risk error and see that aiming to believe truth and aiming to shun error can take them into two different directions.
For one whom wants to avoid error, one could simply stop believing anything at all. James thinks someone who was afraid of error is simply showing their own personal emotional character, rather than showing what is rational for everyone. James then proceeds to use a military analogy which suggests that he thinks this is being shy. VIII
James makes an argument that in the case of science, it is better to hold back from judgment then to believe something without evidence. It is crucial as humans to come up with a decision about controversies and unanswered questions in science with more than enough evidence to decide. This being said, James quotes Pascal who wrote, “The heart has its reasons that Reason doesn’t understand.” Although he does agree with Clifford that at least in cases where the need to come to a decision is not urgent, it would be best to wait until there is enough evidence to decide the issue. IX
However, there are many parts of life where one cannot wait for there to be enough evidence. One case of this is moral questions. James says that he is doubtful that we will ever be able to come up with what is morally right and wrong. James gives an example when he talks about ,whether you like me or not can depend upon my beliefs about you and whether I believe you like me, and show you trust and expectation. If I stand aloof, then it is likely you will never like me. Here the desire for the truth of something can bring it about. James then continues to say that cooperation is needed between members of a society, and if everyone waited for proof that others were going to reciprocate, nothing would ever get done.
He gives another example when he says “A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he make a movement of resistance, he will be shot before anyone else backs him up. If we believe that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never be attempted.” James was saying that sometimes people trust each other when they don’t have proof that they are trustworthy. X
James states that religion has two elements. These elements are that the best things are eternal, and that one is better off if one believes the first element than if one does not. James states that that religion is a momentous option because it could make a big difference if it were true and one believed it. It is a live option for some people. It is also a forced option as well because if one waits and remains uncertain, one will not get the good that true believers do.
There are different risks involved in belief, disbelief, and agnosticism. Being churlish with belief in God as James puts it, might cut one off from the benefits of living a religious life. The agnostic approach could very the possibility of acknowledging some kind of truth that one is concerned to find out about. James finally concludes that adopting a rule of evidence would force one to be agnostic, as Clifford does, and would be irrational.