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Machines Like Us

The question of belief, part I

Thursday, 19 July 2012
by Massimo Pigliucci

So, following the advice of my fellow RS writer, Ian Pollock (in his latest “Picks”) I went back and downloaded two of the classical essays about faith and skepticism: William James’ “The Will to Believe” (1896) and William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” (1877). The former was actually in part a response to the latter. In this post I will tackle James, next time we’ll look at Clifford.

I must say upfront that — quite aside from my intellectual commitment to skepticism and instinctive abhorrence of anything smelling like faith — I found James’ essays surprisingly and insufferably vacuous and pretentious. Aesthetic judgment notwithstanding, let’s look at his so-called argument (I am using the word very charitably).

James starts out by lamenting that “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 to be lawful philosophically.” So, it’s interesting to see that his own students rejected his arguments as soon as they had “imbued” the logical spirit, i.e., as soon as they deployed reason in the service of their philosophical analysis. The perils of teaching critical thinking, I suppose.

James continues his essay by providing his readers with a series of preliminary building blocks for his argument, the centerpiece of which will come at the end of the piece. So, for instance, in section II he finds it “preposterous” to think that our opinions may be modified at will, and provides these examples: “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?” Well, no, we cannot. But that is quite plainly because we have overwhelming evidence of our rheumatism or of the amount of money in our pocket. Still, fair enough, the point is that one cannot simply will one’s beliefs in arbitrary directions (atheists say the same to incredulous believers, of course: I can’t just “accept” Jesus — my brain revolts at the idea).

James’ second building block comes in section III, where he claims — anticipating modern research in cognitive psychology, to be sure — that belief is not a simple matter of reasoning out the possibilities, but rather the result of “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, [but] we hardly know how or why.” Again, true enough. And in fact he goes on to suggest that often what we call reason is little more than cherry picking and rationalizing: “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 criticised by some one else.” [Of course, he had absolutely no empirical evidence on which to base his contention that this happens anywhere near 999/1000 cases, but that’s nitpicking...] Now, it is precisely because of this that philosophical reflection is important: the whole idea is to train one’s mind to spot rationalizations and avoid logical fallacies and cognitive biases. For that, it helps if you present your reasoning to others to see how they react — James’ own students refusal to go along with his program should have been telling him something.

The first big problem arises within that very section III, when James wishes to use his points so far to conclude that there is no difference between a skeptic and a believer: “If a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how 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.” I don’t think so, dear Will. Just because belief is a complex matter and people at times rationalize rather than reason, it does not follow that anyone’s wishful thinking is philosophically equivalent to a position of skepticism about the same. But more on this below.