17 May 2009

Henry William* James: The Will to Believe

The next section of Pragmatism: A Reader was a selection of writings by William James. I found myself nodding agreement to the vast majority of his paragraphs, but then he'd suddenly go off the deep end and I had no idea what connection there was supposed to be between one idea and the next. For the moment, I'll just focus on the first essay (I'd planned on looking at all of them, but looking at just this one got rather long).
*For some reason I keep wanting to call him "Henry" instead of "William". Not really sure why.

The Will to Believe was a fascinating read, honestly. Flawed, but fascinating. Essentially, James is acknowledging that there is little to no empirical evidence of any sort of deity (and evidence against certain specific formulations of deities), but wants to argue that belief is still the better choice. It might be more convincing did he not resort to an artificial limitation of the field (or two), and a false dichotomy.

First, James is only interested in people for whom belief is what he terms a "living possibility," meaning that it exists as a genuine possibility for a person. A "dead possibility" would be something that has already been rejected, even before the question is asked. For example, belief in Zeus would be a dead possibility for most modern people. So James is limiting his argument to doubters, agnostics, and people who already believe.

Then he pulls an interesting narrative trick. He discusses Pascal's wager, and denigrates it as an insult to any self-respecting deity. What he's trying to do, it becomes clear later, is eliminate the possibility that anyone is believing solely out of fear they may be wrong (and then condemned to hellfire, etc.). Instead, he's going to argue that people who don't believe do so out of fear, so he has to make sure he's cleared away the opposing possibility.

James also limits his discussion to something on the order of the deist god, or maybe the Divine Providence of the Founding Fathers. Again, this has a clear purpose: to avoid any specific truth-claims that could be falsified. As if in justification, he denigrates "superstitious" formulations of god. Now, if James just stopped there, with his unfalsifiable deity, and said "believe or don't," I'd be okay with it. But he still wants to argue that belief is better.

This is where the false dichotomy comes in. Since it is a choice, and there is no evidence either way, James argues that the only reason not to believe is out of fear that one would be wrong. Now, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. If this was mentioned as a single possibility among many, it might be more palatable, but even then I'd find it strange. Why would someone be afraid of being wrong when choosing to believe in a deity? It only makes sense in a Pascalian sort of way, if said person is afraid he's chosen the wrong deity. It makes no sense at all from an epistemic point of view, which is what James is trying to use. It's much more likely to go the other way: where someone believes in a deity out of fear of the supposed hellfire that awaits nonbelievers...which is why James tries to eliminate Pascal's wager as a reasonable option. It doesn't work, but it's still worth reading through.

One other interesting argument. James thinks that if a belief, whether true or not, produces positive effects in a person, then that person is justified in that belief. This is a precursor to his later "verification" theory of truth (which was likely a precursor to the verification theory of meaning), but it's a bit too utilitarian for my tastes. James does acknowledge that the belief must not conflict with other strongly held beliefs, but it still seems a bit of a stretch to call "positive personal effects" a "justification" for a belief. If I behave better because I think some invisible shadow is watching me and reporting on me, and arrange it so that this belief is unfalsifiable, it may produce positive observable effects on my behavior, but it is in no ways justified.

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