Going Beyond the Evidence: James’ “Will to Believe”

This essay was written for my Intro to Philosophy course. For a PDF version, click here.

In his essay “The Will to Believe,” William James argues that in special cases, a person is justified in believing a hypothesis which has positive implications for the believer but is not necessarily supported by sufficient evidence.

James begins by describing what he calls a genuine option—that is, a situation in which he holds that it is acceptable for us to believe a hypothesis without sufficient evidence. The criteria of a genuine option that he describes are thus:

1)      The choice presented must be “living.” That is, this must be a situation in which the would-be believer could conceivably believe one of a number of different propositions. If a certain proposition is completely unbelievable (in a very literal sense) to the would-be believer, there is no reason to consider it (James 102).

2)      The choice presented must be “momentous.” That is, it must have great repercussions for the would-be believer, be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or be wholly irreversible. As James says, “He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed” (James 102).

3)      A decision regarding the presented choice must be “forced.” That is, it must not be possible to abstain from belief until more evidence comes in; to do so would be as concrete a choice as deciding against the proposition (James 102).

After a discussion on the nature of living and dead options, James goes on to make the dubious claim that every decision that one can make is to some degree a product of non-rational feelings or desires (James 105). These he refers to as “passions.” He insists that even in cases where one’s decision is based wholly on evidence, it still has a passional component because, fundamentally, one must choose to either A) abstain from believing falsehood, or B) attempt to believe the truth.

To demonstrate that these aims conflict, James says that, regardless of our certainty (gained through evidence), whenever we choose to attempt true belief, there is the possibility that we are mistaken. By the same token, then, it seems that the only way to be certain of not falling into false belief is by believing nothing. Thus, to attain one of these values is to risk losing the other (James 105).

What James utterly neglects here is the possibility that one could value one of those possibilities over the other on logical, non-passional grounds. For instance, one may reason that, in a given situation, it better serves one’s interests to abstain from belief, that the cost of being wrong, even if the evidence makes one almost completely sure, is too high. By the same token, there is no reason that one could not make the rational decision that, with a given probability of a belief being true, one’s interests are best served by taking the chance of being right. Thus, I do not argue that people never make decisions on non-rational grounds, only that, contrary to James’ assertion, they do not do so always or of necessity.

To this, the champion of James’ position might say that even a value judgment based on one’s goals is governed by passion, that choosing an interest to serve in itself may, at its most basic level, be a decision without rational grounds. In this case, one need only look at the implications of such a judgment to find absurdity. If this were true—that one cannot have a rationally-chosen end, which could be fulfilled by rational means—then nothing that one does could ever be said to bear the mark of reason. This certainly does not appear to be the case. If humanity is indeed incapable of rational thought and action, considering the rest of this (or any) argument is an exercise in futility, as the very decision to pursue truth would necessarily be based in irrationality.

Remarkably, it isn’t clear whether James would reject this conclusion; he takes a rather low view the human mind and epistemology in general, saying, “Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by some one else” (James 104). It may well be that James is only using a rhetorical device here, but he makes no effort to remove the doubt from the reader’s mind.

After these preliminaries, James moves to his argument proper. He concedes that in dealing with non-genuine options, one may be wise in valuing most the abstention from falsehood. James’ exception to this, though, comes in the form of the genuine option, wherein our decision is forced.

James notes that in some cases, believing a certain proposition may incite one to act in a way that brings about the reality of that proposition (James 107)—for instance, by believing that another person is attracted to oneself, one may act in a way that causes that person’s approval to actually exist. This James cites as a practical reason for believing a proposition without evidence.

What James fails to recognize, though, is that in cases such as this, one could believe a strictly evidentially supported proposition and get the same outcome. For example, if I were to believe that it is possible that a woman to whom I am attracted has fallen in love with me (based on the evidence that she seems to seek out my company, respect my opinions, and so on), I would be just as likely—if not more likely— to act in a manner that brings about her positive love for me as if I already believed (without evidence) that she were positively in love with me. That is to say, the propositions A) “she loves me,” and B) “she may love me” would be acted upon similarly. Thus, belief in either proposition gives proposition A) a high likelihood of being true in the end. If this is correct, then James’ statement that “in truths dependent on our personal action . . . faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing” (James 107) simply reflects a failure to consider all the options.

With the argument thus laid out—that in cases of a genuine option which cannot be decided on intellectual grounds alone, one is justified in believing a hypothesis not thoroughly grounded in evidence—James turns our gaze to the specific example of religion, which purportedly offers practical reason for belief in the form of a better life both here and in the hereafter (James 107). James claims that religion satisfies all the criteria of a genuine option, which may be true, but is not necessarily so. For instance, one may argue that many religions claim to offer infinite, eternal happiness, so the offer of any given faith would not be any more unique or enticing to the would-be believer than another (and, of course, the exclusivity of many of these same religions precludes giving belief to all of them).

The most promising reason, though, that James presents (borrowing from Pascal) in support of considering religion as a genuine option to be decided in favor of without evidential grounds is this: “any finite loss is reasonable, even a certain one is reasonable, if there is but the possibility of infinite gain” (James 103). At first glance, it seems that only the worst gambler would resist chancing belief on such stakes. For though there may be a very real price to being wrong, whether in the form of wasted time, wasted effort, wasted resources, or diminished competency in future decision-making, given the possibility of infinite reward, the risk is truly negligible, regardless of the probability of gaining the reward.

The key here is that, in considering a given religion, by the definition of the genuine option, one considers only the “living” options—those propositions that one could conceivably choose to believe. When it comes to religion, however, the “real” god—the one from whom the infinite rewards are gained—could be Allah, or YHWH, or Zeus, or Odin, or Brahma. It could be any combination of those, or it could be none of them. The infinite reward-granting god is infinitely more likely to lie outside the living options than within them, as we can easily imagine an infinite number of different gods, all of whom demand sole allegiance and all of whom are currently unknown to any human. If this is the case—that there be an infinite number of possible gods, only a finite number of whom we could believe in—then chancing our belief on one of our living-possibility gods does absolutely nothing to raise the probability of “scoring” the infinite reward.

In summary, James’ argument, though valid, has rather glaring problems in its most important premises; namely, that all decisions have some basis in irrationality, and that it may be better for practical reasons for a person to believe a certain proposition without evidence rather than only an evidentially supported hypothesis. If these premises cannot be demonstrated to be true, then James’ fundamental claim, that we are sometimes justified in believing things without sufficient evidence, fails, and belief apart from evidence is in fact not justified.

Works Cited

James, William. “The Will to Believe.” Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. 12th ed. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005. 101-109. Print.

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