The Will to Believe: James

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The Will to Believe: James

Prelude: Are We Responsible for Our Beliefs?

You have a lot of control and moral responsibility for what you do.  But how much control and responsibility do you have for what you believe?  And if you do have control, how do you become better at tending to your beliefs?

Meet William James

William James

William James (1842-1910) was a renowned American philosopher and psychologist – he is thought of both as one of the most influential American philosophers, as well as the ‘Father of American psychology’. His friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger and Sigmund Freud. And during his time as a professor at Harvard his students included Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, George Santayana, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mary Whiton Calkins.

Why did he write this?

James originally delivered the The Will to Believe as a lecture in 1896, and published it soon afterwards. He explains that The Will to Believe is an essay on the “justification of faith, a defense 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.” Many understand James as defending a kind of fideism – the idea that faith is in some sense independent from (and sometimes perhaps even opposed to) reason. James argues that we may be justified in adopting a belief even if we don’t have enough prior evidence in support of it, and in some cases, 1) we may only have access to supporting evidence only after we have adopted the belief, or 2) our adoption of the belief may make the belief true. For James, religious beliefs are paradigm examples of such beliefs. James also discusses and refers to this idea as ‘the duty to believe’ and ‘the right to believe’ in other writings. You read the entire text here.

Key Principle

Conditions for Leaping (Sections I-IV)

James opens the essay by drawing some distinctions about questions we entertain.  According to James, if a hypothesis appeals to you as a real possibility (however slight that possibility), it is a live hypothesis (ex: that God exists). And because we often tend to act on things we believe, a hypothesis is maximally live for you if you are willing to act irrevocably based on it (ex: the hypothesis ‘that God exists’ is maximally live for a religious martyr who acts irrevocably in sacrificing their life). If a hypothesis is not appealing to you as a real possibility, it is a dead hypothesis (ex: that the flying spaghetti monster exists). We then have an option whenever we are faced with a decision between two hypotheses.

Living or Dead

  • Living option: all the hypotheses you’re choosing from are live (ex: either choose to be an agnostic or be a Christian)
  • Dead option: all the hypotheses you’re choosing from are dead (ex: either choose to believe that the flying spaghetti monster exists or that pigs can fly)

Forced or Avoidable

  • Forced option: the hypotheses exhaust the available options, the choice is unavoidable (ex: either choose to believe that God exists, or live your life without this belief – if you attempt to avoid choosing, you end up choosing the latter hypothesis)
  • Avoidable option: the hypotheses do not exhaust the available option, the choice is avoidable (ex: either choose to believe that God exists, or choose to believe that God doesn’t exist – rather than choosing you may remain agnostic)

Momentous or Trivial

  • Momentous option: your choice is unique, has significant stakes, or is irreversible (ex: choose whether or not to travel to the North Pole)
  • Trivial option: your choice is not unique, has insignificant stakes, and is reversible (ex: choose whether or not to take a nap)

If an option is living, forced, and momentous it is genuine. 


James and Clifford Debate

James and Clifford Debate

William Clifford (1845-1879) was an English philosopher and mathematician.

In the Will to Believe, James is partly responding to Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief (1877) in which Clifford defends an evidentialist theory: which holds that you can only rationally hold a belief if there is enough evidence to support it, and you should only be as confident in the belief as your evidence warrants. In defending this theory, Clifford assumes that doxastic voluntarism – that we have a certain degree of control over what they believe, they may choose whether or not to believe something – is true. He thinks that it is morally wrong if we choose to believe something that we have insufficient evidence for, and he is very serious about this.  Clifford argued:

Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away…if a belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence [even if it is true!] the pleasure is a stolen one…it is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town…it is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

James disagrees with Clifford and defends a non-evidentialist theory: which holds that we may be rational in holding a belief even if we don’t have sufficient evidence for it. He also maintains that our non-intellectual nature (including our passions and emotions) influence our choices in the face of options, in other words they influence our beliefs and convictions. In doing this, he makes room for (but doesn’t commit himself to) doxastic involuntarism – that we don’t have control over our beliefs, that they are involuntary to a certain extent. See the video below for more on doxastic voluntarism and involuntarism:

In section III he writes, “Our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before and others which come after belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the fair; and they are not too late when the previous passional work has been already in their own direction…The state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.”

In section IV he continues, “Our next duty, having recognized this mixed-up state of affairs, is to ask whether it be simply reprehensible and pathological, or whether, on the contrary, we must treat it as a normal element in making up our minds. The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: 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; 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.”

For more on the debate between James and Clifford concerning belief and evidence go here. Also check out Antonio Damasio speaking about the importance of emotions in our beliefs, decisions, and actions:

Virtue and Burden of Proof (Section V)

Now we are ready to dive into James’s text. Beginning his response to Clifford he writes:

Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know. There is something that gives a click inside of us, a bell that strikes twelve, when the hands of our mental clock have swept the dial and meet over the meridian hour. The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes. When the Cliffords tell us how sinful it is to be Christians on such ‘insufficient evidence,’ insufficiency is really the last thing they have in mind. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other way. They believe so completely in an anti-christian order of the universe that there is no living option: Christianity is a dead hypothesis from the start.

Virtue and Intellectual Risk (Section VI)

Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found? I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes. I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them–I absolutely do not care which–as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out. 

  • There is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that pyrrhonistic scepticism itself leaves standing,–the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists. That, however, is the bare starting-point of knowledge, the mere admission of a stuff to be philosophized about. The various philosophies are but so many attempts at expressing what this stuff really is.

And if we repair to our libraries what disagreement do we discover! Where is a certainly true answer found? Apart from abstract propositions of comparison (such as two and two are the same as four), propositions which tell us nothing by themselves about concrete reality, we find no proposition ever regarded by any one as evidently certain that has not either been called a falsehood, or at least had its truth sincerely questioned by some one else. 

No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon. Some make the criterion external to the moment of perception, putting it either in revelation, the consensus gentium (the agreement of all nations], the instincts of the heart, or the systematized experience of the race. Others make the perceptive moment its own test,–Descartes, for instance, with his clear and distinct ideas guaranteed by the veracity of God; Reid  with his ‘common-sense;’ and Kant with his forms of synthetic judgment a priori.The inconceivability of the opposite; the capacity to be verified by sense; the possession of complete organic unity or self-relation, realized when a thing is its own other,–are standards which, in turn, have been used. The much lauded objective evidence is never triumphantly there; it is a mere aspiration or Grenzbegriff [limit or ideal notion] marking the infinitely remote ideal of our thinking life. To claim that certain truths now possess it, is simply to say that when you think them true and they are true, then their evidence is objective, otherwise it is not. But practically one’s conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot.

For what a contradictory array of opinions have objective evidence and absolute certitude been claimed! The world is rational through and through,–its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,–a personal God is inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,–the mind can only know its own ideas; a moral imperative exists,–obligation is only the resultant of desires; a permanent spiritual principle is in every one,–there are only shifting states of mind;–there is an endless chain of causes,–there is an absolute first cause; –an eternal necessity,–a freedom; –a purpose,–no purpose;–a primal One,–a primal Many; a universal continuity, –an essential discontinuity in things, an infinity,–no infinity.

There is this,-there is that; there is indeed nothing which some one has not thought absolutely true, while his neighbor deemed it absolutely false; and not an absolutist among them seems ever to have considered that the trouble may all the time be essential, and that the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be truth or no. When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.

But please observe, now, that 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.

Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo [the beginning point] of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem [the end result]. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true.


The Goal of Belief

The Goal of Belief

One more point, small but important, and our preliminaries are done. There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion. Believe truth! Shun error! These, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, ” Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

Here James is continuing his main debate with Clifford. Above, we talked about how Clifford defends an evidentialist theory in claiming that we should only hold a belief when we have enough evidence to support it, and we ought to withhold belief (or remain agnostic) when we lack or have insufficient evidence. James focuses on arguing against the second half of this claim, what is sometimes called the Agnostic Imperative: that we should remain agnostic when we have insufficient evidence, that it would be irrational not to. Recall that James defends a non-evidentialist theory in claiming that we can sometimes rationally hold a belief even when we don’t have sufficient evidence to support it. James argues against Clifford here by highlighting the fact that Clifford’s approach embodies a kind of approach or ‘stance’ towards beliefs that has some troublesome implications. Here’s an outline of James’ argument:

(1) There are two ‘stances’ we can adopt towards beliefs: 

  • Stance #1: avoid error at all costs, even if it means sometimes missing out on the truth
  • Analogy: a general tells keeps his soldiers out of battle forever so they don’t risk getting wounded – but in doing so, the soldiers miss out on actually fighting the battle; Sam never asks Alex out for fear of rejection – but in doing so, Sam misses out on the fact that Alex might say yes.
  • Stance #2: seek the truth, even if it means sometimes risking error
  • Analogy: the goal of winning the battle is so important that the general sends his soldiers into battle, even though that means they risk getting wounded; its important enough to Sam to figure out if Alex is interested, so Sam asks Alex out even though it means risking rejection.

(2) Clifford’s Agnostic Imperative embodies stance #1, while James’ approach embodies stance #2

  • Remaining agnostic in the face of insufficient evidence helps us avoid error, while holding a belief without sufficient evidence may sometimes lead us to the truth (but may also sometimes lead us to error).

(3) Adopting stance #1 may restrict our access to certain kinds of truths, and intellectual stances that do this are inadequate

Examples: social cooperation – believing that we live in a democracy and acting on that belief (voting to elect officials, etc.) may be necessary for it to be true that we live in a democracy; religious truths – believing in God and acting on that belief (praying, going to worship services, etc.) may be necessary to access certain religious truths (about God’s character, the power of religious rituals or sacraments, etc.)

(Conclusion) Clifford’s Agnostic Imperative restricts our access to truth and is therefore inadequate

It’s important to note that James’ argument here does not claim any of the following things:

a) that error is desirable or unproblematic

James still thinks error is undesirable and problematic, he just doesn’t think it is so undesirable and problematic that it should dissuade us from seeking the truth

b) that we should disregard the evidence when forming our beliefs

James still thinks we should form many of our beliefs on the basis of evidence, here he specifically addresses cases where we don’t have enough evidence to do that

c) that we are always rational in forming beliefs without sufficient evidence

James still acknowledges that there are situations in which we should withhold belief in the face of insufficient evidence, he just doesn’t think all situations are like this

d) that ‘anything goes’ in situations where we can rationally form beliefs without sufficient evidence 

James still thinks there are important criteria and restrictions about what we can believe in these situations, which he addresses in the following sections.

After arguing against Clifford’s proposal, James goes on to explain why and how we prioritize ‘seeking the truth’ in the following sections. He specifically focuses on how his proposal is important in the realm of religious belief.

Key Principle


This video further explains the differences between Clifford and James’ approaches.

Pragmatism and Religious Faith (Section X)

In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing. But now, it will be said, these are all childish human cases, and have nothing to do with great cosmic matters, like the question of religious faith. Let us then pass on to that. Religions differ so much in their accidents that in discussing the religious question we must make it very generic and broad. What then do we now mean by the religious hypothesis?

Now, let us consider what the logical elements of this situation are in case the religious hypothesis in both its branches be really true. (Of course, we must admit that possibility at the outset. If we are to discuss the question at all, it must involve a living option. If for any of you religion be a hypothesis that cannot, by any living possibility be true, then you need go no farther. I speak to the ‘saving remnant’ alone.) So proceeding, we see, first that religion offers itself as a momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our nonbelief, a certain vital good. Secondly, religion is a forced option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve. It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married some one else? Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,-that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk. If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side,–that chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.

All this is on the supposition that it really may be prophetic and right, and that, even to us who are discussing the matter, religion is a live hypothesis which may be true. Now, to most of us religion comes in a still further way that makes a veto on our active faith even more illogical. The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here. For instance, although in one sense we are passive portions of the universe, in another we show a curious autonomy, as if we were small active centres on our own account. We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way. To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn,–so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance. This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis. If the hypothesis were true in all its parts, including this one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required.

  • I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule. That for me is the long and short of the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds of truth might materially be.

I confess I do not see how this logic can be escaped. But sad experience makes me fear that some of you may still shrink from radically saying with me, in abstracto, that we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will. I suspect, however, that if this is so, it is because you have got away from the abstract logical point of view altogether, and are thinking (perhaps without realizing it) of some particular religious hypothesis which for you is dead. The freedom to ‘ believe what we will ‘ you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, ” Faith is when you believe something that you know ain’t true.” I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider. When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities which both practically and theoretically it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait-acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true [Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defence of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.] till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough, –this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. Were we scholastic absolutists, there might be more excuse. 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.

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen ; let me end by a quotation from him. “What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark…. If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”



James is an interesting counterpoint to philosophers advocating more skeptical approaches to rational belief (like Socrates and Descartes).  But an interesting feature of his argument is he (like Socrates and Descartes) believes that having true beliefs about even very theoretical questions is an important part of the good life.  For instance, James thinks religious faith can be deeply valuable not just for the practical benefits it offers your life but because the beliefs that constitute your faith might be deep truths.  He disagrees about the approach of Clifford and the skeptics — holding back belief until the evidence has come in.  Some kinds of belief — the kind that are forced, live and momentous — might require a different sensitivity to evidence.  How do you think James would answer Socrates and Descartes skeptical puzzles?