Will to believe doctrine

Will to believe doctrine

"The Will to Believe" is the title of William James's classic lecture (published in 1897) defending the adoption of beliefs as hypotheses and self-fulfilling prophecies even without prior evidence of their truth. James' idea that people have a right to do so is an uncontroversial part of his doctrine since many philosophers would agree with him that we have a right to hypothesize and adopt self-fulfilling beliefs without evidence. However, James extends this idea to argue that, using this doctrine, adopting beliefs like God, freewill, possibility, and morality would cause evidence to come, thus verifying beliefs that could not have been verified otherwise. James' rationale for this more controversial idea is in combining it with his pragmatic theory of truth, the idea that a belief is verified if it causes better interaction with the world. For example, while no evidence can justify the initial adoption of a belief in God, the adoption of such a belief as a hypothesis without evidence would cause one to succeed better in the world, thus verifying the belief. This does not entail that it will be verified for everyone, but rather, for many, that it would cause their lives to be better, thus making it true "for them" (see James' pluralism regarding truth).

The doctrine

James is defending the violation of evidentialism in cases of hypothesis venturing (hypothetico-deductivism) and self-fulfilling prophecies. The work is controversial because James attempts to use these allowed violations of evidentialism to justify beliefs generally only adopted on faith: freewill, God, immortality, and so on. James' doctrine is sometimes mocked as the "wish to believe doctrine." James himself changed the name of the doctrine several times. First appearing as "the duty to believe," then "the subjective method," then "the will to believe" and finally being recast by James as "the right to believe." The reason James' hypothetico-deductivism is able to justify positions often not believed to be verifiable under any method, is that James' pragmatism allows him to use the consequences of the hypothesis (emotional consequences in addition to empirical consequences) as evidence for that hypothesis' truth. Therefore, James justifies adopting God as a hypothesis without evidence and then verifying that hypothesis by what fruits the belief brings them in their life.

Throughout James’ career, he would offer descriptions of what sort of empirical evidence would verify a metaphysical claim. Ultimately, James had never been very concerned with proving the existence of God. His main concern was justifying beliefs in freewill, possibility, pluralism, and in particular, in the possibility of morality. In the following passage, James utilizes his will to believe doctrine to justify a belief that "this is a moral world":

It cannot then be said that the question, Is this a moral world? Is a meaningless and unverifiable question because it deals with something non-phenomenal. Any question is full of meaning to which, as here, contrary answers lead to contrary behavior. And it seems as if in answering such a question as this we might proceed exactly as does the physical philosopher in testing an hypothesis. [….] So here: the verification of the theory which you may hold as to the objectively moral character of the world can consist only in this,--that if you proceed to act upon your theory it will be reversed by nothing that later turns up as your action’s fruits; it will harmonize so well with the entire drift of experience that the latter will, as it were, adopt it. [….] If this be an objectively moral universe, all acts that I make on that assumption, all expectations that I ground on it, will tend more and more completely to interdigitate with the phenomena already existing. [….] While if it be not such a moral universe, and I mistakenly assume that it is, the course of experience will throw ever new impediments in the way of my belief, and become more and more difficult to express in its language. Epicycle upon epicycle of subsidiary hypothesis will have to be invoked to give to the discrepant terms a temporary appearance of squaring with each other; but at last even this resource will fail. (William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality")

The hypothetico-deductivism James developed in his "Will to Believe" lecture was later extended by his protégé F.C.S. Schiller in his lengthy essay "Axioms as Postulates." In this work, Schiller downplays the connection between James' doctrine and semi-religious positions like God and immortality. Instead, Schiller stresses the doctrine's ability to justify our beliefs in the uniformity of nature, causality, space, time, and other philosophic doctrines that have generally been considered to be empirically unverifiable.

Today, James' "The Will to Believe" continues to be widely read and debated. It, and William K. Clifford's essay "The Ethics of Belief" are touchstones for many contemporary debates over evidentialism, faith, and overbelief. James' doctrine is today standardly referred to as either the will to believe doctrine or the right to believe doctrine. Fact|date=October 2007


James’ doctrine has taken a lot of criticism. For example, in his essay, "The Ancestry of Fascism" Bertrand Russell writes:

The Inquisition rejected Galileo's doctrine because it considered it untrue; but Hitler accepts or rejects doctrines on political grounds, without bringing in the notion of truth or falsehood. Poor William James, who invented this point of view, would be horrified at the use which is made of it; but when once the conception of objective truth is abandoned, it is clear that the question, 'what shall I believe?' is one to be settled, as I wrote in 1907, by 'the appeal to force and the arbitrament of the big battalions,' not by the methods of either theology or science. [Bertrand Russell, "The Ancestry of Fascism", in "The Will to Doubt", 1958, p102]

Walter Kaufmann wrote:

Instead of admitting that some traditional beliefs are comforting, James argued that "the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge," and implied that those who did not accept religious beliefs were cowards, afraid of risking anything: "It is like a general informing soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound (Section VII). James' appeal depends entirely on blurring the distinction between those who hold out for 100 per cent proof in a matter in which any reasonable person rests content with, let us say, 90 per cent, and those who refuse to indulge in a belief which is supported only by the argument that after all it could conceivably be true. [Walter Kaufmann, "Critique of Religion and Philosophy", 1958, p83]

Some specific objections to James’ doctrine include:

# the necessity of positing a hypothesis without personally adopting it as a beliefFact|date=October 2007
# the epistemological problems of belief volunteerismFact|date=October 2007
# success in the world verifies a belief, rather than restricting verification to predictive successFact|date=October 2007
# the separation of belief adoption from truth and epistemic justificationFact|date=October 2007

James only addresses objection (1) in a footnote of his “The Will to Believe” essay. In it, James argues that for a chemist to devote years of his life to verifying a hypothesis, the chemist must also believe his hypothesis. However, the chemist adopting a hypothesis to guide years of study is certainly only a special case of hypothesis adoption. A more general defense of (1) could also be constructed from James’ behaviorist theory of belief. James takes believing a proposition to consist in acting as if it were true, so if James considers testing a proposition as acting as if it were true to see if it leads to successful action, then James would be committed to seeing an act of hypothesis adoption as necessarily an act of belief adoption as well.

Objection (2) makes the claim that James’ doctrine relies on the incorrect presumption that beliefs are under the power of our will. For example, I cannot will myself into believing that the Earth is flat. To be brought into a state of believing that the Earth is flat I require evidence that the Earth is flat, therefore James’ argument that we have the right to believe things without prior evidence fails because we simply do not have the physical ability to believe things without prior evidence.

Objections (3) strikes at James’ theory of truth, which his will to believe doctrine presumes. James' main defense of his theory of truth is his claim that no other account of "truth" or "correspondence" or "agreement with reality" can be given except for the pragmatist account. James sees traditional accounts of truth as explaining one mysterious term ("truth") with nothing more than equally mysterious terms (e.g. "correspondence"). The only sense James believes we can make of the concept of "truth" is if we count as true the beliefs that lead us to perform actions that "agree" with the world. Those that fit with the world will lead us to successful action, those that do not agree with the world will entail actions that lead to failure (e.g. if I believe I can fly, I'll jump off a building). With truth analyzed in this way, James sees no reason to restrict success to predictive success (objection (2)) and is fully comfortable with the fact that certain beliefs will lead one person to success in the world while failing someone else (objection (3)).

See also

* Pragmatism
* Pascal's Wager
* Prudentialism


External links

* [http://falcon.jmu.edu/~omearawm/ph101willtobelieve.html The Will to Believe] by William James; URL accessed 25 November 2006
* [http://www.amherst.edu/~npshah/Shah/papers/james.pdf Expressivist analysis] of James' essay {PDF file}, URL accessed 12 August 2006
* [http://www.utexas.edu/courses/hilde/Philhandouts/willtobelieve.html Notes] on The Will to Believe, URL accessed 3 December 2006

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