The Will to Believe - William James

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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 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 
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 or . 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 . Options may be of several kinds. They may be -- 
1. or ; 2. or ; 3, 
or ; 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. , 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 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, -- 
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 
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 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 
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 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: 

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 way and 
of the way of believing in truth. The 
absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain 
to knowing truth, but we can when we have attained to 
knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may 
attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To is one 
thing, and to know for certain 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; 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 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 
. The certitude it 
brings involves an 
assensum> on the part of the truth envisaged, and on the 
side of the subject a , when once the 
object is mentally received, that leaves no possibility of 
doubt behind; and in the whole transaction nothing operates 
but the of the object and the 
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 
, 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 . 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 , 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 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 of his thought; for us the strength is 
in the outcome, the upshot, the . 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. ; 
and , -- 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 
truth> away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance 
of , 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 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 
, 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 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. 
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 , 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 , but in themselves indifferent? How can your 
pure intellect decide? If your heart does not 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 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 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. 
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, 
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 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. 
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 
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 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 
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 
be untrue>, we lose the good, , 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. 
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 to us, but a , 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 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 
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, 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. , 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 -- acting of 
course meanwhile more or less as if religion were 
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 
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 , 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 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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