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William James on Ethics and FaithReview - William James on Ethics and Faith
by Michael R. Slater
Cambridge University Press, 2009
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Mar 23rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 12)

Please excuse me if I use the "F" word often in this review. I realize that many people are afraid of that word and are disgusted by its frequent use in contemporary letters. Even tough-minded scientists like Jerry Coyne are quick to correct themselves if the "F" word sneaks out. In a recent Point of Inquiry podcast, Coyne, in talking about his book Why Evolution is True, says "most evolutionists take it [the evidence for evolution] on faith ... well, not faith...". He immediately corrects himself and restructures the sentence. It was as if he had used the other "f" word in a church or mosque. Faith is the "F" word that people either love or hate.

Much of the problem with the "f" word comes about because of a built in ambiguity which will be indicated in this review by Faith/faith: Faith = belief without compelling evidence; while faith = trust, or beliefs that are knowable in principle. When my Catholic acquaintance eats the wafer he has Faith that it will transubstantiate; when I go to start my car in the morning I have faith that it will start. If my car does not start it is possible in principle for me or a mechanic to determine what's wrong. If the wafer does not change to the flesh of Christ conversion is the only solution.

In science, James notes, we can afford to await the outcome of investigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases we are “forced,” in that we must come to some belief even if all the relevant evidence is not in. If I am on a isolated mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross the ledge. This question is not only forced, it is “momentous”: if I am wrong I may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success. In such a case, James asserts, I have the “right to believe” -- precisely because such a belief may help bring about the fact believed in. This is a case “where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (Source).

Is the proposition God exists true or false? this and other religious claims obviously require an analysis of the notion of truth. what does it mean to say of a proposition, statement, or belief that it is true? James's pragmatism, it is often stated, reduces truth to utility so that relgious propositions are true or false if they have utility; that is, make the believer a better person or add to overall human flourishing. Slater argues forcefully that this is a misunderstanding of James. Utility is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for truth. Slater's careful analysis of  truth yields a robust Jamesian flavour of the correspondence theory of truth. It follows that James's discussion of religion and religious propositions depends on utility plus correspondence to a mind- independent reality.

The current clash between religion and science turns on basic philosophical concerns with epistemology and ontology. Can we employ the scientific method of hypothesis, fact gathering, and falsification to religious claims? How does faith fit into the analysis? Slater begins his careful and charitable analysis by considering the Clifford/James debate. Clifford and others (Huxley, Russell, and contemporary scientists like Harris, Dawkins, and Stenger) hold that the only beliefs we are entitled to hold are those that are "sufficiently supported by empirical evidence." Slater presents James's cas against this intellectualist paradigm arguing that in some cases "the existence of certain objects, events and states of affairs is dependent upon our beliefs and actions." Belief in the reality of the physical world and its continuance, belief that the future will be like the past is under-supported by empirical evidence; hence relies on faith. James's faith-ladder is discussed: (53):

1.    there is nothing absurd in a certain view of the world being true, nothing self-contradictory;

2.    it might have been true under certain conditions;

3.    it may be true, even now;

4.    it is fit to be true;

5.    it ought to be true;

6.    it must be true; and

7.    it shall be true, at any rate for me.

Faith (James is interested in faith not Faith) says James is our right: (55)

Faith thus remains as one of the inalienable birthrights of our mind. Of course it must remain a practical, and not a dogmatic attitude. It must go with toleration of other faiths, with the search for the most probable, and with the full consciousness of responsibilities and risks ... it may be regarded as a formative factor in the universe, if we be integral parts thereof, and co-determinants, by our behavior, of what its total character may be.

Against James see Bertrand Russell: ["Free Thought and Official Propaganda," from his collection of essays, The Will to Doubt, Philosophical Library, 1958, pp. 22-23]

 We have had in recent years a brilliant example of the scientific temper of mind in the theory of relativity and its reception by the world. Einstein, a German-Swiss-Jew pacifist, was appointed to a research professorship by the German Government in the early days of the 1914-18 war; his predictions were verified by an English expedition which observed the eclipse of 1919, very soon after the Armistice. This theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word. He has not built a monument of infallible dogma to stand for all time. There are difficulties he cannot solve; his doctrines will have to be modified in their turn as they have modified Newton's. This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.

    What would have happened if Einstein had advanced something equally new in the sphere of religion or politics? English people would have found elements of Prussianism in his theory; anti-Semites would have regarded it as a Zionist plot; nationalists in all countries would have found it tainted by lily-livered pacifism, and proclaimed it a mere dodge for escaping military service. All the old-fashioned professors would have approached Scotland Yard to get the importation of his writings prohibited. Teachers favourable to him would have been dismissed. He, meantime, would have captured the Government of some backward country, where it would have become illegal to teach anything except his doctrine, which would have grown into a mysterious dogma not understood by anybody. Ultimately the truth or falsehood of his doctrine would be decided on the battlefield, without the collection of any fresh evidence for or against it. This method is the logical outcome of William James's will to believe.

  What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.

Slater shows how there is a bifurcation in James's analysis of the will to believe that leads to misunderstanding. James's doctrine "has two fundamental aims: it aims on the one hand to provide a justification for religious belief, while on the other it aims to account for its psychological basis." (65)

Part II provides a careful reading and analysis of "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" as well as the essay "Is Life Worth Living". James tries valiantly to make religious experience a subject worthy of study in a scientific arena. He seems to have a brute need for religion as Dennett remarks in Breaking the Spell where he quotes James: "Call this, if you like, my mystical germ. It is a very common germ. It creates the rank and file of believers. As it withstands in my case, so it will withstand in most cases, all purely atheistic criticism."

In Part III Slater describes, analyzes, and criticizes James's supernaturalism as developed most fully in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The value of religion for James is in its utility: making us better, less tormented by anxiety, more strong-willed, more moral. These claims are, of course, empirical and testable, and indeed there is research now which is trying to test these claims of utility. Slater closes his excellent, readable, insightful book: "his [James's] argument concerning the relationship between religion and morality and the role of religious faith in human flourishing are thought-provoking and worthy of serious reflection, even if they are not always sufficiently developed. ... As with other empirical questions, this one can be settled only by turning to actual human experience - and James would have it no other way." (236)


© 2010 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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