UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

William James and the will to believe Ornstein, Jack Hervey


The problem considered in this thesis is whether or not there is an ethics of belief. The notion that it could be right or wrong to believe something is examined. William James, in The Will To Believe, advocated the right to believe, in certain cases, whatever most tempts one's will. William Kingdon Clifford had earlier argued in The Ethics Of Belief that it is always wrong to believe anything for which the evidence is insufficient. I have argued that belief is not an action that can be executed or refrained from at will but is the acceptance of something as being true. As such, it is not possible for us to believe what most appeals to us unless we deem it true. If 'belief’ is used in any other sense than 'deem true', the true-false distinction is vitiated. Since belief is not an action and is therefore not voluntary, the ethics of belief cannot apply to what is believed. The right or wrong of belief applies to the attitude we adopt to a certain proposition or to the manner in which we acquire our beliefs. The distinction is made between belief-cultivation and inquiry. A detailed analysis of The Will To Believe is then undertaken. The claim that religion is a hypothesis which we can verify is questioned. It seems that before one can 'test' the hypothesis, one must believe it already — thus there is really no test at all. The contrasts between science and religion are presented -- explanation being the main concern of the former and consolation that of the latter. The following six claims are called into question: 1) the decision regarding the truth or falsity of religion is forced and momentous, 2) no test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon, 3) there is a striking similarity between the potential religious believer and the scientific investigator, 4) the universe must have a purpose, 5) in religion, faith creates its own verification, 6) to believe in religion requires hope and courage while to doubt or disbelieve indicates fear and cowardice. It is concluded that even if religious belief influences or changes our actions and reactions, this is proof not of the truth of religion but of its utility, which may be helpful or harmful to the individual and to society. My thesis, in short, is that insofar as we attempt to proportion belief to our desires and not to the evidence, we risk losing the true-false distinction altogether. We thus risk loss of communication with others. And effective communication, I submit, is essential to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge — the raison d'etre of philosophy.

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