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William James, part 7: Agnosticism and the will to believe PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 29 November 2010 12:33

There is an agnostic sensibility that runs through William James – in this sense: he knows that any claim of knowledge based on religious experience could, in principle, be mistaken.

But it may be true, too. He's convinced that the fruits of "spiritual emotions" are morally helpful for humankind, notwithstanding that some fruits become rotten. He's probed mystical experiences – that sense of oneness with the Absolute – to see whether they can decide the case. They can for the individual concerned, he concludes. But, as he observes at the start of lecture 18, mysticism is "too private (and also too various) in its utterances to be able to claim a universal authority". So, in the final sections of the Varieties, the question of whether religious experiences point to objective truth becomes pressing. "Can philosophy stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man's sense of the divine?" he asks.

Well, first, you've got to ask what religious philosophy is. It seems obvious to him that it is secondary to religious experience because it is passion, not reason, that fundamentally drives such areas of human inquiry (and quite possibly all areas of human inquiry). Philosophy is necessary, but not sufficient.

In fact, he loathes what he elsewhere calls "vicious intellectualism" – the preference for concepts over reality. It's cultivated by the fantasy of an objective science – and is insidious because it turns you into a spectator of, not a participant in, life. It encourages speculation for speculation's sake, and like the bankers who engage in the financial equivalent, the result is ideological bubbles. They rise high in the intellectual firmament before they burst and crash back to earth. In the sphere of religion, James detects such "vicious intellectualism" most clearly in the attempts to demonstrate the existence of God as an a priori fact. The ontological and cosmological proofs are for those who wish to cleanse themselves of the "muddiness and accidentality" of the world.

Interestingly, he describes the recently beatified John Henry Newman as one such "vexed spirit". He charges the cardinal with a "disdain for sentiment", though I'm not sure that's fair. In fact, Newman seems quite close to James in certain respects, particularly in relation to what Newman called the "grammar of assent".

Newman makes a crucial distinction between "notional assent" and "real assent." To determine a belief using your philosophical head alone is to give notional assent. But when it comes to religious questions, that's an inadequate way to proceed because it engages only the rational part. Real assent requires more, Newman argues. It's a convergence of the full assortment of evidences and experiences we have – rational, emotional, observational, cultural. Each, in themselves, may not be wholly compelling. But added together, they support a belief that powerfully rings true. Newman likens it to a cable: a single strand is easily broken. But wound together, strands form a cable that is strong. So, real assent implies that God is not a hypothesis. Rather, belief in God is "an action more subtle and more comprehensive than the mere appreciation of syllogistic logic", Newman wrote.

This chimes well with the conclusions James draws in his essay, The Will to Believe, published a few years before the Varieties. It's a thoroughly misleading title, as the idea that you can will belief in God is "simply silly", James observes. Rather, the essay seeks to justify the beliefs individuals have "in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced". It could be said to be an essay about real assent.

James starts by defining religious beliefs. To count as such, they must be living and genuine options for the individual concerned, which is to say that they appeal to and are real possibilities for him or her. For example, though I'm an agnostic, Christianity is a living, genuine option for me – in a way that belief in the Egyptian sun god Ra could never be.

Religious beliefs are also momentous, which is to say that they'd change your outlook on life.

In The Will to Believe, James references Pascal's wager – the argument that belief in God is rational because, if true, the believer stands to make an infinite gain and, if false, nothing much is lost. James sees the wager for what it is, of course: the logic of "the gaming-table", as he describes it. But he is curious enough to wonder why a brilliant man like Pascal penned such an argument. He concludes that it made sense to the French philosopher and mathematician, in spite of the obvious objections, because Christianity was a living, genuine and momentous option for Pascal.

Seen in that light, the wager works like this. The panoply of Pascal's experiences and convictions were drawing him towards Christianity. But that weight of evidence "ran before" his rational mind, because Christianity demands real not notional assent. Moreover, as "the mere appreciation of syllogistic logic" cannot of itself decide the case, the wager was never meant to stand alone. (It was originally just a note in a private commonplace book.) What the wager represents is Pascal justifying his religious intuitions to his mathematic mind. It's one strand in the cable of his belief.

Understand the wager in this way, James concludes, and "instead of being powerless, [it] seems a regular clincher". It works for Pascal. It might for others. But it's never going to work for everyone. It doesn't work for James. But nonetheless, he respects Pascal's attempt to integrate his whole person into his desire – his will – to believe.

More generally, then, there will never be a universal, objective proof for, or against, God. Instead, there will be multiple, plural strands that work for individuals and groups when incorporated into their real assent.

And yet, James is still after objective truth. He is a pragmatist, in the sense that he aligns truth with what works. But he is not an ironic pragmatist: he holds out the hope that what works, works because it is, in some sense, true. But in what sense? In the final blogpost, we'll ask whether James ever found a clincher that worked for him, or if he was left a perpetual agnostic.

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.

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