In his essay, “The Will to Believe”, William James aims to provide a justification of faith. James wants to show that it is sometimes justifiable to hold beliefs that are not supported by sufficient evidence. Therefore, he presents various ideas which can influence a person’s beliefs. He believes that these influences are caused by our passion or our will. In the first portion of the essay, James states several definitions of hypothesis that may be proposed to our belief. He describes the hypothesis as being alive or dead. According to James, a live hypothesis is one that we have at least a slight tendency to believe.
On the contrary, a dead hypothesis is one that does not appear to be a real possibility to the person it is presented to. He then attempts to define the options we have when confronted with a choice – a hypothesis. A hypothesis can be either “alive or dead”, “forced or avoidable”, or “momentous or trivial”. A valid hypothesis can be thought of as one that is alive, forced, and momentous. In the second portion of James’ essay, James brings up differences in how a person renders a hypothesis due to “the actual psychology of human opinion. He implicates that we usually use our own “passional and volitional nature” to make our judgment or belief. However, a valid hypothesis for one person may not be equally valid in the eyes of another. Hence, James argues that our belief is composed of relation of ideas that we can see and cannot see. If the idea does not exist, we cannot assume that it is given based on our belief. To illustrate his point, James gives an example of Pascal’s wager, which conveys that we have a choice to either believe in God or to disbelieve in God.
According to Pascal’s wager, if we choose to believe in God, we will be blessed eternally. In contrast, if we choose not to believe in God, we will lose. James, therefore, states that this example is not a living option. In other words, the hypothesis that Pascal has offered to us is dead. Sometimes, it is hard to force ourselves to believe in something that we have no passion in believing for. Pascal’s wager typically conveys that we can choose whether or not to believe in God based on the basis of our self-interest.
The people who believe in this argument would consider it as an important feature of their lives, whereas others who have no interest in this argument would consider it as meaningless. However, if people use scientific data to prove a belief, and the evidence is insufficient, then they could never obtain sufficient evidence for years. In his third portion of the essay, James emphasizes that our emotions can affect our beliefs more than our intellectual ideas can. For many of our beliefs, evidence plays a small part in determining what we will believe.
The hypothesis becomes a living one when “authority” exists. Authority derives from faith and becomes someone else’s faith. If one believes in the truth, which is described as objective and not subjective, then one would expect, accept, and follow this truth. However, if one comes to question the truth, can that person logically reason it? The answer is probably not. Thus, one’s beliefs are skeptical of others. James’ rules, therefore, disbelieve all facts and theories that are not relevant. James gives an example of telepathy.
If something was true like telepathy, scientists wouldn’t accept it because it would undo the uniformity of nature as they know it, and it would disturb many of their old beliefs. Therefore, James concludes that the state of things in term of belief is rarely simple and pure logic is not the only thing that influences our beliefs. In the last portion of James’ essay, he portrays a distinction between “empiricist” and “absolutist” ways of thinking. An empiricist states that for whichever knowledge we’ve gained, we may think that we possess it; however, we may not be sure that we have it.
An absolutist insists that we must know and have certainty in our knowledge. According to James, we are all absolutists about our beliefs by instinct. It is much more rational to be empiricists by continuing to collect experiences and reflecting upon them in hope of getting closer to the truth. However, in many parts of our life, we cannot wait for there to be enough evidence. Moral opinions are based on a personal proof of what we want to believe, and not necessarily willed. Furthermore, we need to extend beyond evidence for our lives to go well. James notes that the question of having moral beliefs or not is decided by our will.
We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will. That is the reason that we tend to find the truth from what interests us. If we’ve discovered a hypothesis that is alive, then it is a plausible to contain some truth. In conclusion, James argues that truth is something that can be hardly defined. Every one of us has a unique interest in belief based on our emotions and intellectual thinking. James also concludes that whether we choose to believe or not to believe, or wait to believe, we choose our own peril, our own fate.