The Will to Believe by William James


William James (1842–1910) was a loyal supporter of pragmatism and helped spread it at the end of the 19th. and beginning of the 20th. centuries. 

Pragmatism confirms the truth of an idea through experimentation and practical results. Pragmatists believe that truth is modifiable, not absolute, that humanist values must accompany academic research, that meaning is linked to action and that ideas need to be evaluated on outcomes of predictability and consistency. 

Pragmatism was the idea that the value of thinking was in its practicality. This linked James to Aristotle and Socrates who applied experience to test their theories. James himself contributed to pragmatist studies through religion. If truth is to be evaluated on its impact on human behaviour, then religious faith can be justified if it makes a clear difference in your life.

In James' time it was Darwinism and science which most influenced philosophers and this suggested that humans were controlled by the laws of Nature. In this approach there was little room for free will. James was influenced by Emerson's trancendentalism and supported individual choice and free inquiry. He agreed with Renouvier's argument that the ability to believe in something despite the availability of other interpretations, is the proof of free will. James declared that the first act of free will is belief in free will.

In his lecture, "What Pragmatism Means," the author considers how pragmatism enables practical ways of addressing apparently impenetrable ideas since it can synthesise empirical thinking with religious thought:

"The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. ... Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right."

James states that the principles of pragmatism were first put forward by Pierce. He insisted that clarity of thought about an object could be obtained through considering the practical effects it involved. He maintained that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to the individual if one theory or another is true. He emphasises that in this way ideas turn into instruments instead of being answers to puzzles.

Two other proponents of pragmatism were Schiller and Dewey. Dewey's vision was systematic and he argued using the scientific method. However, James concerns himself principally with religion and morality. He tends to encourage any doctrine which will lead to virtuous behaviour and happiness. This is how he evaluates truth. He applied it to religious belief:

"If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily, in the widest sense of the word it is true. We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own."

However, James' interest in religion is psychological and he shows no concern for the objects religion contemplates. He tries to build belief on a basis of scepticism, but this leads him to ignore any facts external to humans.


The Will to Believe was originally a lecture and James later published it in 1896. It is composed of introductory remarks and ten sections. In 1907 he published an amplified work on the same themes which he called Pragmatism, a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.

He introduces his work stating that it is:

"... an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced."

In section I the author defines some of his terms:

Hypotheses can be alive or dead, depending on the thinkers' willingness to act. The maximum liveliness of a theory entails a decided readiness to act.

An option is the decision between two hypotheses. A living option means that both hypotheses are lively. A forced option means that there is no choice.

A trivial option exists when the choice is not unique, is insignificant, or reversible after trial. 

It is genuine when it is forced, living or trivial. 

Belief is exemplified by a chemist who spends a year verifying a live hypothesis. This is a measure of his belief.

In section 2 James expresses his disagreement with Pascal's Wager, if interpreted as supporting belief in any religion promising an afterlife.

In section 3 he adds that inability to believe at will only applies to things which we already disbelieve.

In section 4 the philosopher outlines his principal thesis. The passionate side of human nature must make a decision on options when a choice based on reason alone is not possible. Leaving the question open is not an option.

In section 5 he distinguishes between scepticism about truth and dogmatism by which means that truth exists and humans can find it. For the author dogmatism has two formats: absolute and empirical. Absolutists believe they can attain truth and know when they reach it. Empiricists believe that although we may attain truth we cannot be certain of when. He explains that science us largely empirical and philosophy mostly dogmatic. However, James thinks that empiricists are no more tentative in their conclusions than absolutists:

"The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatise like infallible popes."

Section VI begins with the consideration that humans are all instintively absolutists. He then asks what our actitudes should be to this fact. He replies by affirming that he is an empiricist as regards human knowledge. This implies that he adopted a sceptical approach to learning about truth.

He believes that the empirical attitude is meritorious when compared to absolutism: the empiricist bases evaluation on the confirmation of the drift of thinking, not the outcome, thus remaining open-minded.

In section VII addresses our duty to know truth and avoid error. 

In section VIII begins to outline his main arguments. His first proposition is that we must not believe without evidence. 

"Wherever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come."

According to James the ideal approach is to judge with dispassionate reason, rejecting pet hypotheses.

In section IX the author considers cases where believing without evidence would be acceptable. Self-fulfilling beliefs would be one case. For example, living another person depends on whether you hit it off with them. If you do then you could imagine that person likes you, but with only intuitive evidence:

"There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact."

In section X he proposes the thesis that he thinks he has proven:

"In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.

From this he argues that religious faith depends on our personal action and so can be accepted because it is based on a personal desire. 

In a later lecture James put forward the possibility that the existence of God may actually depend on our belief in his existence.


Deciding about Beliefs

James admits that beliefs are open to discussion because they can claim anything. He bases his rational on Pascal's Wager: believe in God because if he exists you will reap the reward, if not it doesn’t matter. For the author faith springs not from rewards but from desire.

In James' view the nature of creed lies in the human links between logic and intuition. He describes the decision-making process as follows:

“Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds..."

He maintains a comparison between absolutism and empiricism since beliefs can determine their link to living.


The author establishes a correlation between consciousness and contemplation. He describes consciousness as certainty because deciding what to philosophising about is only the starting point of knowledge. He decides to forgo all belief until objective knowledge can shield him from false conclusions. His method is to use a calm and doubtful approach.


James coined the terms 'soft' and 'hard' determinists. He considered that pure determinism ended in pessimism or a debased individualistic morality. He proposed that this dilemma was avoidable if we allowed for chance. However, he insisted that this was not his argument for free will.

Determinists counter argued that the future is unknown and that individuals' actions have a role in that future and the forces that shape it. 

Ethics and religion 

James holds that in certain circumstances it is justifiable to hold beliefs unaccompanied by sufficient evidence, even if they are important to our existence. He applies this particularly to metaphysical and religious credence, including an objective morality. He goes further to assert that making a decision based on faith may be the only way to ascertain whether our beliefs are true or false. For example to postpone on deciding whether or not an objective moral order exists means concluding in favour of unbelief and living life as if a dispassionate moral order did not exist. In this case we would live according to our passions with no exterior reference to judge these decisions. 

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