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William James and Belief In Belief
William James and Belief In Belief
In the American philosopher William James’ essay, “The Will to Believe,” first delivered as a lecture and published shortly thereafter in 1896, an argument is put forth in which religious faith is said to be justified on the grounds that it may benefit the believer regardless of whether or not the belief is actually true.  While the underlying rationale bears resemblance to the wager formulated by Pascal roughly 250 years earlier, James’ more or less concedes that, for most scientifically inclined individuals -- and here I use the term “science” in a broad sense to encompass rational and empirical approaches which, in general, are skeptical and rigorous -- Pascal’s cherished dogmas, as all propositions of alike nature, will be dead upon arrival; that is to say, there is no genuine option for one who finds the idea that a god interacts with humanity in the ways described by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and many other religions, patently silly from the outset.  In effect it would be no different than if I were to ask each of you to wager on the proposition that there really is a sea god named Poseidon, and, to encourage you to take a leap of faith into his moistened arms lest he drown you for eternity as punishment for your human frailty.  Not only would you likely think me stupid for suggesting such a claim but perhaps you might question my sanity.  Of course, this is the position in which non-believers are placed with regards to the fantastical narratives, and the moral imperatives often alleged to follow, that remain sacrosanct in modern societies.  James deserves credit for conceding the absurdity of Pascal’s wager, not to mention the cynicism and pettiness entailed in the latter’s gambit; as well, I applaud James’ recognition that whatever supposed benefits religious faith may bestow, the content of one’s belief -- whether one’s trust is placed in men who wandered throughout Palestine or Arabia or the Western frontier of the United States as in the case of Mormonism’s beloved prophet -- does not, in any case, much seem to matter.  As a psychologist, James was concerned with the mental states that religious experience can foster, and the comforts or pleasures derived from these.  As a philosopher, he was keenly aware of humankind’s existential plight; our longing for eternal relevance amidst the sea of emptiness from whence all seems to emerge for a moment before a cold, lonely plunge back into obscurity.  Hence, it doesn’t matter for James that one believes in the reality of virgin births or a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, but that a person, at the very least, believes in something -- both good and eternal, and moreover, germane to the individual’s future in some intimate, if not ultimately important, manner.  What James advocates for is belief in belief.

Before I proceed to critique this notion of belief in belief, I should like to remark on why I think that James is a writer whom students of philosophy ought to read even today.  Whether or not you count yourself among the faithful, as James did, central to his worldview are the critical ideals that believers and nonbelievers alike should appreciate: pluralism and secularism.  By pluralism I simply mean the view that diversity, in this instance, opinions about God, religious dogmas, etc., ought to peacefully co-exist within the confines of civilized society.  Likewise, secularism is the principle that religious dogmas have no role in government, education, or other public functions of society.  There are no blasphemy laws.  One is free to believe as they wish, but in a democratic system which aims at equality and freedom of speech, no authority has the right to dictate how others should think or behave -- solely on the basis of one of the many self-proclaimed revelations that lie at the core of all major religious faiths.  The advantages of secularism extend to believers no less than to the godless; heaps of corpses, countless “heretics” and other victims of sectarian violence, essentially religious in nature, bear this claim out; theists who appreciate this -- again, as James did -- are the moderate religious voices that deserve the full encouragement and support of civilization.

But what precisely is this something, both good and eternal, which James believes one can or should fully embrace on the basis of mere faith, while yet retaining their intellectual integrity?  It is the following affirmations of religion, which are, in his own words, “that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word”; and “that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.” James does not mean any particular religious faith, but apparently any set of beliefs which involve the preceding assumptions and is also a genuine option for the individual.  Most important to James’ empiricism is that he is not “absolutely [prevented] from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there.” (emphasis in original).  A reading of our philosopher’s much overlooked (as far as I can tell) masterpiece The Varieties of Religious Experience would seem to suggest that the “kinds of truth” James is interested in are those of the irrational, mystical, or psychological sort, and can involve just about any proposition so long as one is predisposed towards it in a fashion that excites their consciousness, such as might be comparable to so-called breakthroughs in meditation, or for others, a weekend spent at Burning Man.  One can readily understand, then, why the very pursuit of philosophy or science, although meeting James’ two self-styled religious affirmations, must, at least probabilistically, exclude the religious frameworks in which the experiences he seeks are said to occur; philosophy, and it's handmaiden, science, requires a degree of skepticism and rigor that is incompatible with the metaphysical or historical claims -- and the uncritical methods that typically serve as justification-- that form the basis in which a certain ecstasy or calm becomes associated with a given religious belief. It is these that James apparently wants us to believe in -- peculiar mental states -- and not the religious beliefs themselves; for, James’ own observations, which involve many juxtaposed accounts of blissfulness -- supposedly achieved through practice, in the context that the gods of Islam, Christianity, or their many diverse counterparts, are intimately involved (so it is presupposed) -- demonstrate that it matters not that any single belief is more or less representative of the truth than any other; how can it when two mutually exclusive beliefs produce the same effect?

As the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett points out in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, “It is entirely possible to be an atheist and believe in belief in God.  Such a person doesn’t believe in God but nevertheless thinks that believing in God would be a wonderful state of mind to be in, if only that could be arranged.”  The problem with belief in belief is that it essentially amounts to Plato’s noble lie, wherein the ancient Greek philosopher voiced through Socrates “a Phoenician story which describes something that has happened in many places,” or, “at least, that’s what the poets say, and they’ve persuaded many to believe it too.”  He has Socrates go on to give a legendary account of the origins of his ideal republic, and then concludes by arguing that such a tale “would help to make them care more for the city and each other.”  This is James’ pragmatism in a nutshell, and, though the question of whether or not it might be wise to perpetuate genuinely useful delusions is one that I find intriguing and worth discussion, it is problematic when applied to the “kinds of truths” that James longs to preserve, for a simple reason: it fails to survive any cost-benefit analysis.

Whatever benefits religious belief may entail, insofar as our concern is with those “eternal things” that “throw the last stone,” James must concede that it is the consequence of those beliefs upon our mental states, rather than the content itself, that is vitally important.  But why should we presume that “eternal things” must, by definition, be related to anything intrinsically “religious”, where religion is understood to include superhuman ruling powers, such as a God or gods?  The evidence would suggest that the types of transcendent experiences at the center of James’ belief in belief are just as open to non-believers as they are to the religious.  And this applies to any other claim that could be made in favor of religion.  “Religion inspires people to perform acts of kindness,” one frequently hears.  I agree, but surely people who are truly good can find sufficient reasons to treat others as they would like to be treated without making appeal to God or otherworldly concerns.  “Religion serves to unite cultures together,” others will say, “it creates societal bonds, gives human beings a sense of purpose and dignity, etc.”  And yet again, if these institutions are beneficial, it would seem to say everything about the consequences of certain actions and nothing about the truth or falsity of related belief content, much less that these specific beliefs are necessary for the promotion of the desired action.  Of course, to do good for bad reasons is still to do good, but to do good for good reasons is to do even better.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote these words which have never ceased to move me:

Quote:“The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; — and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place round them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling. For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.”

His eloquence strikes at the core of our condition, the underlying neurosis which has plagued humankind ever since our forebears ate the metaphorical fruit from the so-called tree of knowledge.  But is the alternative to promises of a future amidst Heaven’s blessed spheres really as bleak as the sensation of “curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning” while “knowing that little by little the ice is melting,” that our demise is drawing nigh, and that nothing is free of the taint of inevitable and complete destruction?  Even if we ultimately settle upon the view that “the Phoenician tale” as told by Socrates is one of many examples where an obvious delusion may have consequential value, thus, granting with James that certain experiences are themselves worthwhile no matter how far from the truth they may or may not lead us astray, must we not ask ourselves, “At what cost?”
 If one looks at the content of these religious experiences, often derived from traditions of men or patriarchal cultures that were, for the most, either isolated or hackneyed, and, at best, primitive in their knowledge of the universe or the human mind, it is painfully obvious that we can do better as a species.  It would take five seconds to improve upon the Bible or the Qur’an.  Furthermore, the costs of religion are clear; aside from sheer body count, which continues to rise, how many children are psychologically terrorized by a fear of the gruesome scenes that are promised to non-believers, blasphemers, apostates, and heretics, not to mention offenders of piety, which, for some religions can include the grave sins of eating pork or drinking wine?  How much of humankind’s energy and resources have been squandered on debates over questions such as “How was Jesus both fully God and fully man?” or “What did Muhammad really mandate about one punishing their wives for disobedience?”  How much xenophobia and bigotry has been tolerated or encouraged in the guise of religious belief, when the texts that every believer considers sacred or authoritative plainly spells out the fundamental differences in both the characters and fates that separate sinner from saved?  How much moral progress, on issues such as women’s rights or gay rights, has been impeded because of religious belief?  Too much, I say.

In closing, I shall you leave you with these additional words that Plato also placed in the mouth of Socrates, and which I believe leave us on firmer ground, epistemologically speaking, as well as challenges us to be better as individuals -- in our treatment of one another, ourselves, and the respect that we claim to possess for truth -- for that something consistent of goodness and eternality that James so desperately wants to retain; it is a truth that we can live by, and in which I place my hopes, however futile they ultimately prove:  

Quote:“I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it.”
He who loves God cannot endeavour that God should love him in return - Baruch Spinoza

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