In our last article, we explored William Kingdon Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief,” in which he argued that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence.” Thus Clifford is not just an evidentialist (i.e., someone who takes the position in epistemology, that all beliefs must be grounded on sufficient evidence), but an evidentialist who holds that there is a moral aspect to belief. To get our beliefs in the wrong way is not just mistaken, but immoral. Clifford’s thesis provides William James (and us) with a point of departure for exploring the opposite side of the question.
James begins by observing that his students, once they have learned a little philosophy, generally proceed straight away to some such position as Clifford’s, that we must not believe in the absence of evidence, and that, for this reason, faith (in the sense of believing that for which we have no evidence, especially in a religious context) is inadmissible. Notwithstanding, James argues, these same students typically believe in all sorts of other things for which they have no evidence, and see no problem doing it. So there’s a problem of selective skepticism here.
Does that mean we can believe just anything? Certainly not! James goes on to draw several distinctions on which his argument will be based. In the first place, there is the distinction between “living” and “dead” hypotheses. A living hypothesis is one that is a real possibility for us, one that we can seriously entertain and might come to believe. A dead hypothesis, on the other hand, is one that does not resonate with us at all. A second distinction is between a forced and an unforced belief. A forced belief is one that we cannot help but take a position on, where an unforced belief is one where we can avoid making any choice by simply not taking a position. Then there is the distinction between beliefs that are momentous, and those that are trivial. When a belief is live, forced, and momentous—that is, when it is a real option for us, when we cannot avoid wondering whether it is true, and when there are high stakes—then James calls such a belief “genuine.”
We have finally to consider the type of believing creatures we are, i.e., the kind that find themselves in the possession of some beliefs and not others, preferring that some things be true and others false, and with only a limited ability to acquire or discard beliefs at will. The skeptic may say to the believer that the believer has all sorts of nonrational reasons for their belief, and that is true enough. But is the skeptic entirely candid with themselves, and with others, if they claim that their reasons are strictly and solely rational? The skeptic and the believer alike come to their position through a mix of reason and passion, and often passion is the more influential, insomuch as our passions direct our reason to consider certain kinds of arguments at all, and make them more or less attractive to our reason insomuch as they tell us, or fail to tell us, what we want to hear. So passion as the antithesis of reason is not quite right. It would be more accurate to say, according to James, that the two are inextricably caught up together. For this reason, the idea that we have to use our reason and leave our passion out of things does not capture the complexity of the situation, certainly not when it comes to religious questions. Thus, according to James,
Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option [i.e., live, forced, and momentous, per above] 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.
Put differently, James thinks Clifford’s argument is itself so saturated by passion that he undermines his own case by insisting that reason alone ought to decide each and every question.
Not only does Clifford have the relation between reason and passion wrong, he also assumes without argument that our priority ought to be to avoid error, rather than to get at the truth. Of course, these tendencies are not totally opposed: we further our quest for truth by learning to avoid error, and vice versa. But we still have to decide how much risk of error we are willing to countenance in our pursuit of truth. If we answer, with Clifford, “the absolute minimum,” then we are going to take a very conservative posture toward inquiry, and, in consequence, miss the opportunity to discover truths that a more aggressive stance might have discovered. The person with the more aggressive stance will acquire more false beliefs as a result, but they may also acquire more true ones, simply because they are willing to take a risk when the case isn’t absolutely certain. Put differently, the question is whether we ought to begin with the assumption that a belief is guilty until proven innocent, or that it is innocent until proven guilty. Why, James wants to know, is it worse to risk believing a falsehood than to let fear keep us from learning a truth?
James anticipates the objection that this is not the scientific procedure. On the contrary, science begins from a position of skepticism, and works from there to an evidence-based conclusion. Science is a very successful means of investigation, so why should its methods not be applied in other areas as well? Isn’t the view that scientific methods are inapplicable to questions of faith really just a kind of special pleading? No, James answers, because scientific questions are usually neither forced nor momentous—not for most of us non-specialists, at any rate. Consider, for example, the contemporary dispute between Leonard Susskind and Stephen Hawking over the black hole information paradox. What is the black hole information paradox? Most of us don’t know, and don’t need to know—and that’s James’s point. Neither Susskind’s nor Hawking’s position is forced in the sense that we need to choose, nor are they momentous in the sense that it makes a great deal of difference to us, or to anyone else, which we choose to believe (if we make a choice at all.) Of course, it may matter a great deal to Hawking and to Susskind, or to the astrophysics community more generally, but that’s because they’re astrophysicists, and it’s their job to take these questions seriously. For them, a cautious, moderate skepticism is entirely justified. But when we turn to the question of whether there is a God, it makes an enormous difference to the way in which we live our lives, and we cannot help but give some kind of answer. (The agnostic, who remains suspended between the propositions, effectively answers it “no,” albeit with less certainty than the committed atheist.) Different inquiries demand different procedures, so it’s not special pleading to say our procedure is different than that of science in the case of the religious question, any more than it is to say that our procedure is different than that of science in the case of history, literature, medicine, or mathematics.
Further, science itself does not always adopt such a cautious, skeptical procedure as Clifford advocates. On the contrary, it is full of daring hypotheses—speculations, even, which people believed for all sorts of reasons that had as much to do with their ethics, politics, or metaphysics as with the evidence itself. To take just one example (mine, not James’s), Darwin’s Origin of Species was rejected by most of his contemporaries, as speculative and not supported by sufficient evidence. Many declared flatly that it was outside the bounds of proper science, because science is based on experiment and observation, but no experiment or observation has shown the transformation of one species into another. (Breeds can change, it’s true, and as Darwin pointed out, but there is a world of difference between breeding a lighter or a heavier sheep on the one hand, and going from a Tyrannosaurus rex to a chicken on the other.) It was really the younger generation that rallied to Darwin’s cause, nearly proving Max Planck’s dictum, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” So there’s a legitimate question here, whether this kind of cautious skepticism really is the epitome of scientific inquiry. At any rate, it is surely appropriate for most scientists most of the time (they can’t all be Darwin), and perhaps that’s all Clifford needs.
James also contends that there are certain kinds of truth that become true in virtue of their being believed in. Consider (again, my example) the case of a person who has been diagnosed with cancer. They have read up on the medical literature and (let’s suppose) discovered that a person who believes they will recover is significantly more likely, in fact, to recover. Let’s suppose that the chances of recovery in the former case, given the specific kind of cancer and all other relevant medical facts, is 10 percent, but in the former case, that of the more hopeful patient, 40 percent. Now, in either case the odds are against recovery, so it seems we may be forbidden (indeed, on Clifford’s principle, it would be positively immoral) for this patient to believe that they will recover. Yet it is surely rational for them to believe it, odds notwithstanding, for how can it be rational to believe that which is more likely to result in the believer’s unnecessary demise? It is not so simple as saying that there is truth on the one hand, and our beliefs about it on the other—as if there were an ironclad separation between us, the observers, on the one hand, and that which we observe on the other. Quite the contrary, by participating in the world, we can make certain things true, or fail to do so. So as a general position there must be at least some exceptions to Clifford’s principle, despite the pathos of his “always, everywhere, and for everyone.”
When it comes to the religious question, James contends that for at least some people it is a “genuine option.” Recall that by “genuine” he means that it is living (a real possibility), forced (we cannot avoid the question), and momentous (it is important to answer it.) Now, there may be plenty of people for whom some kind of religious faith is not a living option. They just can’t be people of faith, and there’s nothing else to be said about it. For them it may be very well to simply decline to consider the question further, but for others it is the most pressing of questions, and there is no possibility of declining to consider it. James is only addressing his argument to this second group, leaving aside the first as, in the nature of the case, beyond possibility of persuasion. But for the rest, this notion that we must be, in effect if not in principle, atheists until we encounter some absolutely compelling, knock-down argument, would really be to just knuckle under to the fear of being wrong—a possibility, it is true, no matter what we believe, but a possibility that the mature mind accepts as a part of our human condition, and is not unduly troubled by. It is, indeed, not the possibility, but the likelihood that one is wrong that troubles the mature mind, and for that we require not the mere absence of evidence but positive evidence against. James wrote,
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—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.
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: