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. So do you act sometimes as a theist and sometimes as an atheist, perhaps attending religious services every other week 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 declaration of truth. In his famous falsifiability principle, Popper took two popular theories 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 beliefs. In essence, they build a world on the foundations of their theory rather than building 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 justification to direct choice?

It is the kind of meta-question that is surprisingly difficult to frame, much less to answer, which is odd because we answer it a thousand times a day by the operation of preference in our ordinary experience. In truth, the sum content of our preferences is our answer, and so we proclaim our theory of truth, our personal moral outlook, and our aesthetic schema to ourselves and the world whether we intend to or not. All of this hinges on the answer to that initial issue of justification that must steer every motivation of preference.

James and Popper represent opposing answers to the problem. James, the pragmatist, sees truth as a verb. It is the spur to action. It matters not one whit what we claim to know. What matters is only how we live. We act out truth, goodness, and beauty in circumstances 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 (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”)? 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 trust 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 (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). 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.

James and Popper treat different kinds of truths, but then so do we. James properly uses belief as the operative term in preferences regarding matters of religious truth (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief“). A belief is a kind of commitment, an engagement of preference in matters not open to judgment, which is his core point. James argues for a leap into the unknowable, not as a sign of faith as Kierkegaard might, but as a pragmatic accommodation to psychological desire. Popper’s argument for falsifiability urges the scientist — and particularly the human scientist — to avoid just that kind of comfortable commitment to beliefs in those arenas in which a bit of healthy skepticism and openness to anomaly might produce knowledge. But in the blur of ordinary experience, how do we parse such distinctions, how do we decide what level of judgment or commitment of belief is called for? Each of us is a rational and moral agent and the freedom we detect in that agency carries its burden of responsibility. We should choose well. But what does that mean?

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.

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