Infomotions, Inc.The Will To Believe / James, William

Author: James, William
Title: The Will To Believe
Publisher: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Tag(s): option; hypothesis; belief; intellect; religious; faith; religion; truth; western philosophy
Contributor(s): Eric Lease Morgan (Infomotions, Inc.)
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Identifier: james-will-751
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                       William James
                    The Will To Believe.

Copyright 1995, James Fieser ( See end note
for details on copyright and editing conventions. This e-
text is based on the 1897 edition of <The Will to Believe>
published by Longmans, Green & Co. This is a working draft;
please report errors.[1]

                          * * * *

                  The Will To Believe.[2]

     In the recently published Life by Leslie Stephen of I
his brother, Fitz-James, there is an account of a school to
which the latter went when he was a boy. The teacher, a
certain Mr. Guest, used to converse with his pupils in this
wise: "Gurney, what is the difference between justification
and sanctification? Stephen, prove the omnipotence of God!"
etc. In the midst of our Harvard freethinking and
indifference we are prone to imagine that here at your good
old orthodox College conversation continues to be somewhat
upon this order; and to show you that we at Harvard have not
lost all interest in these vital subjects, I have brought
with me to-night something like a sermon on justification by
faith to read to you, -- I mean an essay in justification of
faith, a defense 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. I The Will to
Believe,' accordingly, is the title of my paper.

     I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness
of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got
well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule
refused to admit my contention I to be lawful
philosophically, even though in point of fact they were
personally all the time chock-full of some faith or other
themselves. I am all the while, however, so profoundly
convinced that my own position is correct, that your
invitation has seemed to me a good occasion to make my
statements more clear. Perhaps your minds will be more open
than those with which I have hitherto had to deal, I will be
as little technical as I can, though I must begin by setting
up some technical distinctions that will help us in the end.

     1. Hypotheses and Options. Let us give the name of
<hypothesis> to anything that
may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians
speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis
as either <live> or <dead>. A live hypothesis is one which
appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed.
If I asked you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no
electric connection with your nature, -- it refuses to
scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it
is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not
one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is among the
mind's possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness
and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties,
but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured
by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in an
hypothesis , means willingness to act irrevocably.
Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing
tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

     Next, let us call the decision between two hypotheses
an <option>. Options may be of several kinds. They may be --
1. <living> or <dead>; 2. <forced> or <avoidable>; 3,
<momentous> or <trivial>; and for our purposes we may call
an option a genuine option when it is of the forced, living,
and momentous kind.

     1. A living option is one in which both hypotheses are
live ones. If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a
Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you
neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: " Be
an agnostic or be a Christian," it is otherwise: trained as
you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small,
to your belief.

     2. Next, if I say to you: "Choose between going out
with your umbrella or without it," I do not offer you a
genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid
it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, "Either
love me or hate me," "Either call my theory true or call it
false," your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent
to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to
offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, "Either
accept this truth or go without it," I put on you a forced
option, for there is no standing place outside of the
alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical
disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an
option of this forced kind.

     3. Finally, if I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to you to
join my North Pole expedition, your option would be
momentous; for this would probably be your only similar
opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you
from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at
least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to
embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if
he tried and failed. <Per contra>, the option is trivial
when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is
insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it
later prove unwise. Such trivial options abound in the
scientific life. A chemist finds an hypothesis live enough
to spend a year in its verification: he believes in it to
that extent. But if his experiments prove inconclusive
either way, he is quit for his loss of time, no vital harm
being done.

     It will facilitate our discussion if we keep all these
distinctions well in mind.

     2. Pascal's Wager. The next matter to consider is the
actual psychology of human opinion. When we look at certain
facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional nature
lay at the root of all our convictions. When we look at
others, it seems as if they could do nothing when the
intellect had once said its say. Let us take the latter
facts up first

     Does it not seem preposterous on the very face of it to
talk of our opinions being modifiable at will? Can our will
either help or hinder our 'intellect in its perceptions of
truth? Can we, by just willing it, believe that Abraham
Lincoln's existence is a myth, and that the portraits of him
in McClure's Magazine are all of some one else? Can we, by
any effort of our will, or by any strength of wish that it
were true, believe ourselves well and about when we are
roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that the sum
of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred
dollars? We can <say> any of these things, but we are
absolutely impotent to believe them; and of just such things
is the whole fabric of the truths that we do believe in made
up, -- matters of fact, immediate or remote, as Hume said,
and relations between ideas, which are either there or not
there for us if we see them so, and which if not there
cannot be put there by any action of our own.

     In Pascal's Thoughts there is a celebrated passage
known in literature as Pascal's wager. In it he tries to
force us into Christianity by reasoning as if our concern
with truth resembled our concern with the stakes in a game
of chance. Translated freely his words are these: You must
either believe or not believe that God is -- which will you
do? Your human reason cannot say. A game is going on between
you and the nature of 'things which at the day of judgment
will bring out either heads or tails. Weigh what your gains
and your losses would be if you should stake all you have on
heads, or God's existence: if you win in such case, you gain
eternal beatitude; if you lose, you lose nothing at all. If
there were an infinity of chances, and only one for God in
this wager, still you ought to stake your all. on God; for
though you surely risk a finite loss by this procedure, any
finite loss is reasonable, even a certain one is reasonable,
if there is but the possibility of infinite gain. Go, then,
and take holy water, and have masses said; belief will come
and stupefy your scruples, -- <Cela vous fera croire et vous
abltira>. Why should you not? At bottom, what have you to

     You probably feel that when religious faith expresses
itself thus, in the language of the gamingtable, it is put
to its last trumps. Surely Pascal's own personal belief in
masses and holy water had far other springs; and this
celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last
desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the
unbelieving heart. We feel that a faith in masses and holy
water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation
-- would lack the inner soul of faith's reality; and if we
were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably
take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this
pattern from their infinite reward. It is evident that
unless there be some pre-existing tendency to believe in
masses and holy water, the option offered to 'the will by
Pascal is not a living option. Certainly no Turk ever took
to masses and holy water on its account; and even to us
Protestants these means of salvation seem such foregone
impossibilities that Pascal's logic, invoked for them
specifically, leaves us unmoved. As well might the Mahdi
write to us, saying, "I am the Expected One whom God has
created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if
you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the
light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am
genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not! " His
logic would be that of Pascal; but he would vainly use it on
us, for the hypothesis he offers us is dead. No tendency to
act on it exists in us to any degree.

     The talk of believing by our volition seems, then, from
one point of view, simply silly. From another point of view
it is worse than silly, it is vile. When one turns to the
magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how
it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives
of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and
postponement, what choking down of preference, what
submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into
its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it
stands in its vast augustness, -- then how besotted and
contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes
blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to
decide things from out of his private dream! Can we wonder
if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science
should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of their
mouths? The whole system of loyalties which grow up in the
schools of science go dead against its toleration; so that
it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific
fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write
sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought
positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptableness to the
heart in its cup.

     It fortifies my soul to know
     That, though I perish, Truth is so --

sings Clough, while Huxley exclaims: "My only consolation
lies in the reflection that, however bad our posterity may
become, so far as they hold by the plain rule of not
pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe,
because it may be to their advantage so to pretend [the word
' pretend' is surely here redundant], they will not have
reached the lowest depth of immorality." And that delicious
<enfant terrible> Clifford writes: " Belief is desecrated
when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the
solace and private pleasure of the believer. . . . Whoso
would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard
the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous
care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object,
and catch a stain which can never be wiped away. . . . If
[a] belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence [even
though the belief be true, as Clifford on the same page
explains] the pleasure is a stolen one. . . . It is sinful
because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind.
That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a
pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then
spread to the rest of the town. . . . It is ,wrong always,
everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon
insufficient evidence."

     3. Clifford's Veto, Psychological Causes of Belief. All
this strikes one as healthy, even when expressed, as by
Clifford, with somewhat too much of robustious pathos in the
voice.,; Free-will and simple wishing do seem, in the matter
of our credences, to be only fifth wheels to the coach. Yet
if any one should thereupon assume that intellectual insight
is what remains after wish and will and sentimental
preference have taken wing, or that pure reason is what then
settles our opinions, he would fly quite as directly in the
teeth of the facts.

     It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing
nature is unable to bring to life again But what has made
them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of
our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say
'willing nature,' I do not mean only such deliberate
volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot
now escape from, I mean all such factors of belief as fear
and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship,
the circumpressure of our caste and set. As a matter of fact
we find ourselves believing, we hardly know how or why. Mr.
Balfour gives the name of authority' to all those
influences, born of the intellectual climate, that make
hypotheses possible or impossible for us, alive or dead.
Here in this room, we all of us believe in molecules and the
conservation of energy, in democracy and necessary progress,
in Protestant Christianity and the duty of fighting for 'the
doctrine of the immortal Monroe,' all for no reasons worthy
of the name. We see into these matters with no more inner
clearness,. and probably with much less, than any
disbeliever in them might possess. His unconventionality
would probably have some grounds to show for its
conclusions; but for us, not insight, but the <prestige> of
the opinions, is what makes the spark shoot from them and
light up our sleeping magazines of faith. 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. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith,
and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our
belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth,
and that our minds and it are made for each other, -- what
is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our
social system backs us up? We want to have a truth; we want
to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions
must put us in a continually better and better position
towards it; and on this line we agree to fight out our
thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic skeptic asks us <how
we know> all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly
it cannot. It is just one volition against another, -- we
willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which
he, for his part, does not care to make.[3 ] As a rule we
disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.
Clifford's cosmic emotions find no use for Christian
feelings. Huxley belabors the bishops because there is no
use for sacerdotalism in his scheme of life. Newman, on the
contrary, goes over to Romanism, and finds all sorts of
reasons good for staying there, because a priestly system is
for him an organic need and delight. Why do so few
"scientists" even look at the evidence for telepathy, so-
called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now
dead, once said to me, that even if such a thing were true,
scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and
concealed. It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all
sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry
on their pursuits. But if this very man had been shown
something which as a scientist he might <do> with telepathy,
he might not only have examined the evidence, but even have
found it good enough. This very law which the logicians
would impose upon us -- if I may give the name of logicians
to those who would rule out our willing nature here -- is
based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all
elements form which they, in their professional quality of
logicians, can find no use.

     Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does
influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies
and volitions which run before and others which come after
belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the
fair; and they are not too late when the previous passional
work has been already in their own direction. Pascal's
argument, instead of being powerless, then seems a regular
clincher, and is the last stroke needed to make our faith in
masses and holy water complete. The state of things is
evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic,
whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that
really do produce our creeds.

     4. Thesis of the Essay. Our next duty, having
recognized this mixed-up state of affairs, is to ask whether
it be simply reprehensible and pathological, or whether, on
the contrary, we must treat it as a normal element in making
up our minds. The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this:
<Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must,
decide an o option between propositions, whenever it is a
genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on
intellectual grounds ; for to say, under such circumstances,
" Do not decide, but leave the question open," is itself a
passional decision, -- just like deciding yes or no, -- and
is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.> The
thesis thus abstractly expressed will, I trust, soon become
quite clear. But I must first indulge in a bit more of
preliminary work.

     5. Empiricism and Absolutism. It will be observed that
for the purposes of this discussion we are on 'dogmatic '
ground, -- ground, I mean, which leaves systematic
philosophical skepticism altogether out of account. The
postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of
our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to
make, though the skeptic will not make it. We part company
with him, therefore, absolutely, at this point. But the
faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may
be held in two ways. We may talk of the <empiricist> way and
of the <absolutist> way of believing in truth. The
absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain
to knowing truth, but we can <know> when we have attained to
knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may
attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To <know> is one
thing, and to know for certain <that> we know is another.
One may hold to the first being possible without the second;
hence the empiricists and the absolutists, although neither
of them is a skeptic in the usual philosophic sense of the
term, show very different degrees of dogmatism in their

     If we look at the history of opinions, we see that the
empiricist tendency has largely prevailed in science, while
in philosophy the absolutist tendency has had everything its
own way. The characteristic sort of happiness, indeed, which
philosophies yield has mainly consisted in the conviction
felt by each successive school or system that by it bottom-
certitude had been attained. "Other philosophies are
collections of opinions, mostly false; <my> philosophy gives
standing-ground forever," -- who does not recognize in this
the key-note of every system worthy of the name? A system,
to be a system at all, must come as a <closed> system,
reversible in this or that detail, perchance, but in its
essential features never!

     Scholastic orthodoxy, to which one must always go when
one wishes to find perfectly clear statement, has
beautifully elaborated this absolutist conviction in a
doctrine which it calls that of ' objective evidence.' If,
for example, I am unable to doubt that I now exist before
you, that two is less than three, or that if all men are
mortal then I am mortal too, it is because these things
illumine my intellect irresistibly. The final ground of this
objective evidence possessed by certain propositions is the
<adaequatio intellectus nostri cum re>. The certitude it
brings involves an <apititudinem ad extorquendum certum
assensum> on the part of the truth envisaged, and on the
side of the subject a <quietem in cognitione>, when once the
object is mentally received, that leaves no possibility of
doubt behind; and in the whole transaction nothing operates
but the <entitas ipsa> of the object and the <entitas ipsa>
of the mind. We slouchy modern thinkers dislike to talk in
Latin, -- indeed, we dislike to talk in set terms at all;
but at bottom our own state of mind is very much like this
whenever we uncritically abandon ourselves: You believe in
objective evidence, and I do. Of some things we feel that we
are certain: we know, and we know that we do know. There is
something that gives a click inside of us, a bell that
strikes twelve, when the hands of our mental clock have
swept the dial and meet over the meridian hour. The greatest
empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection:
when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible
popes. When the Cliffords tell us how sinful it is to be
Christians on such 'insufficient evidence,' insufficiency is
really the last thing they have in mind. For them the
evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other
way. They believe so completely in an anti-Christian order
of the universe that there is no living option: Christianity
is a dead hypothesis from the start.

     6. Objective Certitude and its Unattainability. But
now, since we are all such absolutists by instinct, what in
our quality of students of philosophy ought we to do about
the fact? Shall we espouse and endorse it? Or shall we treat
it as a weakness of our nature from which we must free
ourselves, if we can?

     I sincerely believe that the latter course is the only
one we can follow as reflective men. Objective evidence and
certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but
where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they
found? I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far
as my theory of human knowledge goes. I live, to be sure, by
the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and
thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions
grow more true; but to hold any one of them -- I absolutely
do not care which -- as if it never could be reinterpretable
or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken
attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy
will bear me out. There is but one indefectibly certain
truth, and that is the truth that pyrrhonistic skepticism
itself leaves standing, -- the truth that the present
phenomenon of consciousness exists. That, however, is the
bare starting-point of knowledge, the mere admission of a
stuff to be philosophized about. The various philosophies
are but so many attempts at expressing what this stuff
really is. And if we repair to our libraries what
disagreement do we discover! Where is a certainly true
answer found? Apart from abstract propositions of comparison
(such as two and two are the same as four), propositions
which tell us nothing by themselves about concrete reality,
we find no proposition ever regarded by any one as evidently
certain that has not either been called a falsehood, or at
least had its truth sincerely questioned by some one else.
The transcending of the axioms of geometry, not in play but
in earnest, by certain of our contemporaries (as Zollner and
Charles H. Hinton), and the rejection of the whole
Aristotelian logic by the Hegelians, are striking instances
in point.

     No concrete test of what is really true has ever been
agreed upon. Some make the criterion external to the moment
of perception, putting it either in revelation, the
<consensus gentium>, the instincts of the heart, or the
systematized experience of the race. Others make the
perceptive moment its own test, Descartes, for instance,
with his clear and distinct ideas guaranteed by the veracity
of God; Reid with his 'common-sense;' and Kant with his
forms of synthetic judgment <a priori>. The inconceivability
of the opposite; the capacity to be verified by sense; the
possession of complete organic unity or self-relation,
realized when a thing is its own other, -- are standards
which, in turn, have been used, The much lauded objective
evidence is never triumphantly there; it is a mere
aspiration or <Grenzbegriff>, marking the infinitely remote
ideal of our thinking life. To claim that certain truths now
possess it, is simply to say that when you think them true
and they <are> true, then their evidence is objective,
otherwise it is not. But practically one's conviction that
the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is
only one more subjective opinion added to the lot. For what
a contradictory array of opinions have objective evidence
and absolute certitude been claimed! The world is rational
through and through, -- its existence is an ultimate brute
fact; there is a personal God, -- a personal God is
inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world
immediately known, -- the mind can only know its own ideas;
a moral imperative exists, -- obligation is only the
resultant of desires; a permanent spiritual principle is in
every one, -- there are only shifting states of mind; there
is an endless chain of causes, -- there is an absolute first
cause; an eternal necessity, -- a freedom; a purpose, -- no
purpose; a primal One, -- a primal Many; a universal
continuity, -- an essential discontinuity in things; an
infinity, -- no infinity. There is this, -- there is that;
there is indeed nothing which some one has not thought
absolutely true, while his neighbor deemed it absolutely
false; and not an absolutist among them seems ever to have
considered that the trouble may all the time be essential,
and that the intellect, even with truth directly in its
grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it
be truth or no. When, indeed, one remembers that the most
striking practical application to life of the doctrine of
objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the
Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than
ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.

     But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we
give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not
thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still
pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we
gain an ever better position towards it by systematically
continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great
difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face. The
strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin,
the <terminus a quo> of his thought; for us the strength is
in the outcome, the upshot, the <terminus ad quem>. Not
where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It,
matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis
may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by
foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it;
but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it,
that is what he means b its being true.

     7. Two Different Sorts of Risks in Believing. One more
point, small but important, and our preliminaries are done.
There are two ways of looking at our duty in the. matter of
opinion, -- ways entirely different, and yet ways about
whose difference the theory of knowledge seems hitherto to
have shown very little concern. <We must know the truth>;
and <we must avoid error>, -- these are our first and great
commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways
of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable
laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the
truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from
believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by
merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in
escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D,
just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing
anything at all not even A. Believe truth! Shun error --
these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by
choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our
whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth
as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we
may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more
imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the
instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the
latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind
in suspense forever', rather than by closing it on
insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing
lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk Of
being in error is a very small matter when compared with the
blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many
times in your investigation rather than postpone
indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it
impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these
feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any
case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically
considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as
veracity, and he who says, "Better go without belief forever
than believe a lie!" merely shows his own preponderant
private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of
many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly
obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding
force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped;
but I can believe that worse things than being duped may
happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has
to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a
general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out
of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are
victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our
errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world
where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our
caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than
this excessive nervousness on their behalf At any rate, it
seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

     8. Some Risk Unavoidable. And now, after all this
introduction, let us go straight at our question. I have
said, and now repeat it, that not only as a matter of fact
do we find our passional nature influencing us in our
opinions, but that there are some options between opinions
in which this influence must be regarded both as an
inevitable and as a lawful determinant of our choice.

     I fear here that some of you my hearers will begin to
scent danger, and lend an inhospitable ear. Two first steps
of passion you have indeed had to admit as necessary, -- we
must think so as to avoid dupery, and -- we must think so as
to gain truth; but the surest path to those ideal
consummations, you will probably consider, is from now
onwards to take no further passional step.

     Well, of course, I agree as far as the facts will
allow. 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. In scientific questions,
this is almost always the case; and even in human affairs in
general, the need of acting is seldom so urgent that a false
belief to act on is better than no belief at all. Law
courts, indeed, have to decide on the best evidence
attainable for the moment, because a judge's duty is to make
law as well as to ascertain it, and (as a learned judge once
said to me) few cases are worth spending much time over: the
great thing is to have them decided on any acceptable
principle, and got out of the way. But in our dealings with
objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers, of
the truth; and decisions for the mere sake of deciding
promptly and getting on to the next business would be wholly
out of place. Throughout the breadth of physical nature
facts are what they are quite independently of us, and
seldom is there any such hurry about them that the risks of
being duped by believing a premature theory need be faced.
The questions here are always trivial options, the
hypotheses are hardly living (at any rate not living for us
spectators), the choice between believing truth or falsehood
is seldom forced. The attitude of skeptical balance is
therefore the absolutely wise one if we would escape
mistakes. What difference, indeed, does it make to most of
us whether we have or have not a theory of the Rontgen rays,
whether we believe or not in mind-stuff, or have a
conviction about the causality of conscious states? It makes
no difference. Such options are not forced on us. On every
account it is better not to make them, but still keep
weighing reasons Pro <et contra> with an indifferent hand.

     I speak, of course, here of the purely judging mind.
For purposes of discovery such indifference is to be less
highly recommended, and science would be far less advanced
than she is if the passionate desires of individuals to get
their own faiths confirmed had been kept out of the game.
See for example the sagacity which Spencer and Weismann now
display. On the other hand, if you want an absolute duffer
in an investigation, you must, after all, take the man who
has no interest whatever in its results: he is the warranted
incapable, the positive fool. The most useful investigator,
because the most sensitive observer, is always he whose
eager interest in one side of the question is balanced by an
equally keen nervousness lest he become deceived.[4 ]
Science has organized this nervousness into a regular
<technique>, her so-called method of verification; and she
has fallen so deeply in love with the method that one may
even say she has ceased to care for truth by itself at all.
It is only truth as technically verified that interests her.
The truth of truths might come in merely affirmative form,
and she would decline to touch it. Such truth as that, she
might repeat with Clifford, would be stolen in defiance of
her duty to mankind. Human passions, however, are stronger
than technical rules. " Le coeur a ses raisons," as Pascal
says, " que la raison ne connait pas;" and however
indifferent to all but the bare rules of the game the
umpire, the abstract intellect, may be, the concrete players
who furnish him the materials to judge of are usually, each
one of them, in love with some pet 'live hypothesis' of his
own. Let us agree, however, that wherever there is no forced
option, the dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet
hypothesis, saving us, as it does, from dupery at any rate,
ought to be our ideal.

     The question next arises: Are there not somewhere
forced options in our speculative questions, and can we (as
men who may be interested at least as much in positively
gaining truth as in merely escaping dupery) always wait with
impunity till the coercive evidence shall have arrived? It
seems <a priori> improbable that the truth should be so
nicely adjusted to our needs and powers as that. In the
great boarding-house of nature, the cakes and the butter and
the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so
clean. Indeed, we should view them with scientific suspicion
if they did.

     9. Faith May Bring Forth its Own Verification. <Moral
questions> immediately present themselves as questions whose
solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is
a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good,
or would be good if it did exist. Science can tell us what
exists; but to compare the <worths>, both of what exists and
of what does not exist, we must consult not science, but
what Pascal calls our heart. Science herself consults her
heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment
of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods
for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only
repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such
ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other
goods which man's heart in turn declares. The question of
having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by
our will. Are our moral preferences true or false, or are
they only odd biological phenomena, making things good or
bad for <us>, but in themselves indifferent? How can your
pure intellect decide? If your heart does not <want> a world
of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you
believe in one. Mephistophelian skepticism, indeed, will
satisfy the head's play-instincts much better than any
rigorous idealism can. Some men (even at the student age)
are so naturally cool-hearted that the moralistic hypothesis
never has for them any pungent life, and in their
supercilious presence the hot young moralist always feels
strangely ill at ease. The appearance of knowingness is on
their side, of <naivet‚> and gullibility on his. Yet, in the
inarticulate heart of him, he clings to it that he is not a
dupe, and that there is a realm in which (as Emerson says)
all their wit and intellectual superiority is no better than
the cunning of a fox. Moral skepticism can no more be
refuted or proved by logic than intellectual skepticism can.
When we stick to it that there <is> truth (be it of either
kind), we do so with our whole nature, and resolve to stand
or fall by the results. The skeptic with his whole nature
adopts the doubting attitude; but which of us is the wiser,
Omniscience only knows.

     Turn now from these wide questions of good to a certain
class of questions of fact, questions concerning personal
relations, states of mind between one man and another. <Do
you like me or not?> -- for example. Whether you do or not
depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-
way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show
you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in
your liking's existence is in such cases what makes your
liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an
inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have
done something apt, as the absolutists say, <ad extorquendum
assensum meum>, ten to one your liking never comes. How many
women's hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine
insistence of some man that they <must> love him! he will
not consent to the hypothesis that they cannot. The desire
for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special
truth's existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of
other sorts. Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but
the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live
hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for
their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them
in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a
claim, and creates its own verification.

     A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small,
is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty
with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do
theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-
operation of many independent persons, its existence as a
fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one
another of those immediately concerned. A government, an
army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic
team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is
nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole
train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be
looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can
count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he
makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any
one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-
full would rise at once with us, we should each severally
rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. 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>, that would be an insane
logic which should say that faith running ahead of
scientific evidence is the 'lowest kind of immorality' into
which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by
which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our

     10. Logical Conditions of Religious Belief. In truths
dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on
desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable

     But now, it will be said, these are all childish human
cases, and have nothing to do with great cosmical matters,
like the question of religious faith. Let us then pass on to
that. Religions differ so much in their accidents that in
discussing the religious question we must make it very
generic and broad. What then do we now mean by the religious
hypothesis? Science says things are; morality says some
things are better than other things; and religion says
essentially two things.

     First, she says 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. " Perfection is eternal," this phrase of Charles
Secretan seems a good way of putting this first affirmation
of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be
verified scientifically at all.

     The second affirmation of religion is that we are
better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to
be true.

     Now, let us consider what the logical elements of this
situation are <in case the religious hypothesis in both its
branches be really true>. (Of course, we must admit that
possibility at the outset. If we are to discuss the question
at all, it must involve a living option. If for any of you
religion be a hypothesis that cannot, by any living
possibility be true, then you need go no farther. I speak to
the 'saving remnant' alone.) So proceeding, we see, first,
that religion offers itself as a <momentous> option. We are
supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by
our nonbelief, a certain vital good. Secondly, religion is a
<forced> option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape
the issue by remaining skeptical and waiting for more light,
because, although we do avoid error in that way <if religion
be untrue>, we lose the good, <if it be true>, just as
certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve. It is as
if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman
to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she
would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not
cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as
decisively as if he went and married some one else?
Skepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option
of a certain particular kind of risk. <Better risk loss of
truth than chance of error>, -- that is' your faith-vetoer's
exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as
the believer is; he is backing the field against the
religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the
religious hypothesis against the field. To preach skepticism
to us as a duty until 'sufficient evidence' for religion be
found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in
presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our
fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to
our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against
all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion
laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme
wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what
proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse
than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and
I simply refuse obedience to the scientist's command to
imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is
important enough to give me the right to choose my own form
of risk. If religion be true and the evidence for it be
still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your
extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had
after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole
chance in life of getting upon the winning side, -- that
chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the
risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world
religiously might be prophetic and right.

     All this is on the supposition that it really may be
prophetic and right, and that, even to us who are discussing
the matter, religion is a live hypothesis which may be true.
Now, to most of us religion comes in a still further way
that makes a veto on our active faith even more illogical.
The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is
represented in our religions as having personal form. The
universe is no longer a mere <It> to us, but a <Thou>, if we
are religious; and any relation that may be possible from
person to person might be possible here. For instance,
although in one sense we are passive portions of the
universe, in another we show a curious autonomy, as if we
were small active centers on our own account. We feel, too,
as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own
active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld
from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way. To take a
trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of
gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every
concession, and believed no one's word without proof, would
cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social
rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn, -- so here,
one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and
try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or
not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his
only opportunity of making the gods' acquaintance. This
feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by
obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to
do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we
are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems
part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis. If
the hypothesis <were> true in all its parts, including this
one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making
willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some
participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically
required. I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to
accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or willfully
agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do
so for this plain reason, that <a rule of thinking which
would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds
of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be
an irrational rule>. That for me is the long and short of
the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds
of truth might materially be.

     I confess I do not see how this logic can be escaped.
But sad experience makes me fear that some of you may still
shrink from radically saying with me, <in abstractor> that
we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis
that is live enough to tempt our will. I suspect, however,
that if this is so, it is because you have got away from the
abstract logical point of view altogether, and are thinking
(perhaps without realizing it) of some particular religious
hypothesis which for you is dead. The freedom to 'believe
what we will' you apply to the case of some patent
superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith
defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you
believe something that you know ain't true." I can only
repeat that this is misapprehension. <In concreto>, the
freedom to believe can only cover living options which the
intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and
living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to
consider. When I look at the religious question as it really
puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the
possibilities which both practically and theoretically it
involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on
our heart, instincts, and courage, and <wait> -- acting of
course meanwhile more or less as if religion were <not>
true[5 ] -- till doomsday, or till such time as our
intellect and senses working together may have raked in
evidence enough, -- this command, I say, seems to me the
queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.
Were we scholastic absolutists, there might be more excuse.
If we had an infallible intellect with its objective
certitudes, we might feel ourselves disloyal to such a
perfect organ of knowledge in not trusting to it
exclusively, in not waiting for its releasing word. But if
we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls
to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then
it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so
solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we <may>
wait if we will, -- I hope you do not think that I am
denying that, -- but if we do so, we do so at our peril as
much as if we believed. In either case we <act>, taking our
life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the
other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the
contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's
mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the
intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit
of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is
soulless, and which is empiricism's glory; then only shall
we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical

     I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me
end by a quotation from him. " What do you think of
yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are
questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them.
They are riddles of the Sphinx, in some way or other we must
deal with them... In all important transactions of life we
have to a leap in the dark. . . . If we decide to leave the
riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our
answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make,
we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back
altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no
one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If
a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see
that any one can prove that <he> is mistaken. Each must act
as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for
him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling
snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now
and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still
we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we
shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether
there is any right one. What must we do? "Be strong and of a
good courage." Act for the best, hope for the best, and take
what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death
better."[6 ]

     1 [COPYRIGHT: (c) 1996, James Fieser (,
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     2 An Address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and
Brown Universities. Published in the New World, June, 1896.3
Compare the admirable page 310 in S. H. Hodpon's " Time and
Space," London, 1865.4 Compare Wilfrid Ward's Essay, "The
Wish to Believe," in his Witnesses to the Unseen, Macmillan
& Co., 1893.
5 Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to
believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to
act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole
defense of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action
required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no
way different from that dictated by the naturalistic
hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity,
better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is
a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I
myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis
gives to the world an expression which specifically
determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part
unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of
6 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, P. 353, 2d edition. London,


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