The Lure of the Will to Believe

In his famous 1896 lecture to the Harvard Club, The Will to Believe, the pragmatist William James makes a wonderful point about the hypocrisy of agnosticism. If you call yourself an agnostic, you tell yourself you are balanced midway between theism and atheism because you find too little reason to accept either position. But James calls your bluff. The issue isn’t what you claim to believe but how you choose to act on that belief. So do you act sometimes as a theist and sometimes as an atheist, perhaps attending religious services every other weekend just to establish a balance? Probably not. The agnostic likely lives as an atheist while waiting for evidence giving her reasons to believe, not the other way round. James concludes that living as a believer makes more sense than living as a doubter in the absence of convincing evidence either way, if for no other reason than that offered by Pascal in his famous wager.

A generation later, the philosopher of science Karl Popper warned of the dangers of premature commitment to any theory. In his famous falsifiability principle, Popper took two popular views to task, arguing that Freudians and Marxists see the world through such a distortive lens that they twist simple facts about reality into proofs of their viewpoints, deriving a false sense of certainty in the process because their theoretical framework explains everything, even contradictory indicators, in such a way as to verify their theories. In essence, they build a world on the foundations of their theory rather than building their theory upon the truths of the world.

In these opposing arguments, we see the essence of our problems in knowing what is true, good, or beautiful. If we wait for certainty, James warns, we will be paralyzed. Yet even in ignorance, we must act, so what counts as sufficient evidence for belief?

This question is difficult to answer, but not impossible. It requires some historical context, a clearer terminology, and a more thorough examination of the issues involved, all of which are presented in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification. 

James and Popper represent opposing answers to the problem. James, the pragmatist, sees truth as a verb. It is the motivator of action. It matters not one whit what we claim to know. What matters is only how we live. We proclaim truth, goodness, and beauty through our choices and grow in knowledge through their consequences. That is fine as far as it goes, but the pragmatist still faces her shadows, for how many consequences must she examine to determine her choices? In the long train of cause/effect, where can she cut the line? How long must she wait before deciding whether a life choice was good, a declaration true, or an aesthetic worthwhile?  And in the inevitable case of conflict with others whose differing experiences have produced different truths and alternative goods, how does she resolve conflict? Popper’s faith in science produces answers to these questions but raises others. Not all truths are open to the scientific method; not all are open to measurement and experiment. For instance, science, for all its power, must remain mute to all questions of moral goodness and all judgments of quality. Must we be silent to these issues that are so crucial to a full human life? In his defense, Popper is careful to admit that not all truths are discoverable by science, but he gives us precious little means to find those that aren’t.

We live in a moment in history when such issues beg for clarity, yet the moment not only submerges clarity but drowns it in cacophony. Certainty is not possible; clarity is.

Please feel free to comment. I’ll talk to you next week.

S. Del


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