There are always people who decide that suspension of belief in any cause is the most intelligent response because it allows them the ability to never having to admit they were wrong or believe anything controversial. I have a few friends who are agnostic in this way, in which there is never any commitment to ANY ideological maxims – though they will criticize commitment to nearly any system of belief they come across. It is a safe game to play, because it is far easier to throw rocks at a belief system than it is to defend any system. Note that “agnosticism” as used in this context is meant not to mean a suspension of belief in God, but a suspension of belief in any ideology that has positive (to be distinguished, of course, from positivist) theories. Be it cowardice, laziness, or honest indecision, I believe it to be wrong to refuse to pick a ground, stand on it, and hold it until it is clear that you are incorrect and need to move elsewhere. I have yet to develop a sound personal theory on the matter, but William James’ Argument from Pragmatism (generally used to show that there is virtue in decision about God’s existence – on either side of the coin) gives a seminal thought on the reason:
The argument presented by William James (1842–1910) in his 1896 essay, “The Will to Believe”, extends far beyond the issue of the rationality of theistic belief to include various philosophical issues (for instance, whether to embrace determinism or indeterminism), and even matters of practical life. James’s argument, in its attack on the agnostic imperative (withhold belief whenever the evidence is insufficient), makes the general epistemological point that:
a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule. (James 1896, 28)
We might understand the agnostic imperative more fully as follows:
for all persons S and propositions p, if S believes that p is just as likely as not-p, then it is impermissible for S to believe either p or not-p.
If James is correct, then the agnostic imperative is false.
The foil of James’s essay was W.K. Clifford (1845–79). Clifford argued that:
…if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery. (Clifford 1879, 185–6)
Clifford presented evidentialism as a rule of morality: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford 1879, 186). If Clifford’s Rule of morality is correct, then any one who believes a proposition that she does not take to be more likely than not, is, thereby, immoral. It may be worthwhile to note that Clifford’s argument here is itself a moral pragmatic argument.
James’s primary concern in the “Will To Believe” essay is to argue that Clifford’s Rule is irrational. As James put it: “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” (James 1896: 28)
James contends that Clifford’s Rule is but one intellectual strategy open to us. A proponent of Clifford’s Rule advises, in effect, that one should avoid error at all costs, and thereby risk the loss of certain truths. But another strategy open to us is to seek truth by any means available, even at the risk of error. James champions the latter via the main argument of the “Will to Believe” essay. To facilitate matters eight definitions employed by James are paraphrased:
Hypothesis: something that may be believed.
Option: a decision between two hypotheses.
Living option: a decision between two live hypotheses.
Live hypothesis: something that is a real candidate for belief. A hypothesis is live, we might say, for a person just in case that person lacks compelling evidence disconfirming that hypothesis, and the hypothesis has an intuitive appeal for that person.
Momentous option: the option may never again present itself, or the decision cannot be easily reversed, or something of importance hangs on the choice. It is not a trivial matter.
Forced option: the decision cannot be avoided.
Genuine option: one that’s living, momentous, and forced.
Intellectually open: neither the evidence nor arguments conclusively decide the issue.
The main argument might be sketched as follows:
Two alternative intellectual strategies are available:
Strategy A: Risk a loss of truth and a loss of a vital good for the certainty of avoiding error.
Strategy B: Risk error for a chance at truth and a vital good.
Clifford’s Rule embodies Strategy A. But,
Strategy B is preferable to Strategy A because Strategy A would deny us access to certain possible kinds of truth. And,
Any intellectual strategy that denies access to possible truths is an inadequate strategy. Therefore,
Clifford’s Rule is unacceptable.
James asserts that “there are…cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (James 1896, 25). Among other examples James provides of this particular kind of truth is that of social cooperation:
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. (James 1896, 24)
And if James is right that there is a kind of proposition that has as a truth-maker its being believed, what we might call “dependent truths,” then proposition (9) looks well supported.
Of course, accepting proposition (11), and advancing an alternative strategy of seeking truth by any available means, even at the risk of error, does not entail that anything goes. And an important part of James’s essay restricts what legitimately might be believed in the absence of adequate evidence. Among the requirements suggested by James the most important is:
Only genuine options that are intellectually open are decidable on passional grounds.
James is not arguing against conforming one’s belief to the evidence, whenever there’s a preponderance of evidence. Nor is he arguing against the importance of evidence. His is an argument contra the prohibition of believing whenever the evidence is silent, a prohibition implied by Clifford’s Rule.
The requirement that an option is intellectually open may be redundant. If the evidence were compelling, or even strongly supportive of, say, hypothesis a, and you recognized this, it may be that you would find only a alive. Since you’re aware that the evidence strongly supports it, you would not find not-a living. In other words, to say that an option is living may imply that it is intellectually open. Nonetheless, let’s proceed as if aliveness and openness are logically distinct notions. Additionally, we might ask whether the property of intellectual openness is to be understood as the evidence is lacking, or as the evidence is in principle lacking. That is, is an option intellectually open when the evidence is indeterminate, or when it is essentially indeterminate? James’s argument requires only the former. The lack of adequate evidence is sufficient to render an option intellectually open. If more evidence appears so that one hypothesis is supported by a preponderance of the evidence, then a commitment to abide by the evidence is triggered.
The relevance of all of this to theistic belief, according to James, is that:
Religion says essentially two things. …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…. The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe [religion’s] first affirmation to be true… 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 It to us, but a Thou…. 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. (James 1896, 25–7)
James asserts that there are two affirmations of religion. By affirmation James means something like an abstract claim, devoid of much doctrinal content, and found in the major religions. The first affirmation is that the best things are the more eternal things, while the second is that we are better off even now if we believe the first affirmation. The first affirmation is particularly puzzling, since James does not assert that the best things are the eternal things; he says that the best things are the more eternal things. He explicates this affirmation with three metaphors and a slogan: “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 Secrétan seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion” (James 1896, 25). Two ideas are suggested by James’s explication: sovereignty and perfection. If we understand “more eternal” as a kind of necessity, or non-contingency, then perhaps the first affirmation may be understood as asserting that the best things are those things that cannot fail to be sovereign and perfect. This interpretation resolves much of the first affirmation’s puzzle. The plurality though is still puzzling. We can resolved this puzzle by recognizing that, although he does not explicitly call it a third affirmation, James asserts that “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 It to us, but a Thou” (James 1896, 26). If we take this as a third affirmation of religion (perhaps at the risk a charge of theistic parochialism), the possibility that the more eternal things are plural is foreclosed. Monotheism, in other words, and not polytheism is established by the third affirmation. Taken together, then, the first and the third affirmations of religion suggest that the supreme good in the universe is the existence of a personal being that is essentially perfect and sovereign. The second affirmation is that we are better off now by believing in the existence of this perfect being. At least in part, we would be better off now by believing the first affirmation because by doing so the possibility of a relationship with this being is established.
According to James, just as one is not likely to make friends if one is aloof, likewise one is not likely to become acquainted with the perfect being, if there is such, if one seeks that acquaintance only after sufficient evidence has been gathered. There are possible truths, James claims, belief of which is a necessary condition of obtaining evidence for them. Let’s call the class of propositions whose evidence is restricted to those who first believe “restricted propositions.” Dependent propositions and restricted propositions are James’s counterexamples to Clifford’s Rule. They are two examples of the kinds of truths that Clifford’s Rule would keep one from acknowledging. That is, Clifford’s Rule is problematic because following it would preclude access to restricted propositions and dependent propositions. The Cliffordian may be forever cut off from certain kinds of truth.
One might object that James has at best shown that theistic belief is momentous only if God exists. If God does not exist, and, as a consequence, the vital good of eternal life does not obtain, then no vital good is at stake. To answer this objection a Jamesian might focus on what James calls the second affirmation of religion—we are better off even now if we believe—and take that affirmation to include benefits that are available, via pro-belief, even if God does not exist. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James suggests that religious belief produces certain psychological benefits:
A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism…. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. (James 1902, 475)
In any case, given that theism is intellectually open and that it’s part of a genuine option, and given that there are vital goods attached to theistic belief, James says, the hope that it is true is a sufficient reason to believe. In addition this objection is easily evaded if we revise the notion of a genuine option by removing the requirement that an option is genuine only if momentous.
An objection commonly leveled against James’s argument is that “it constitutes an unrestricted license for wishful thinking… if our aim is to believe what is true, and not necessarily what we like, James’s universal permissiveness will not help us” (Hick 1990, 60). That is, hoping that a proposition is true is no reason to think that it is. This objection is unfair. As we have noted, James does not hold that the falsity of Clifford’s Rule implies that anything goes. Restricting the relevant permissibility class to propositions that are intellectually open and part of a genuine option provides ample protection against wishful thinking.
A more significant objection contends that James’s argument fails “to show that one can have a sufficient moral reason for self-inducing an epistemically unsupported belief” (Gale 1990, 283). This objection contends that there is a weighty moral duty to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence, and that this duty flows from moral personhood—to be a morally responsible person requires that one have good reasons for each of one’s beliefs. But to believe an epistemically unsupported proposition is to violate this duty and is thus, in effect, a denial of one’s own personhood. Or think of it another way, as intellectual beings, we have the dual goal of maximizing our stock of (significant) true beliefs and minimizing our stock of false ones. Clifford’s Rule derives its moral validity, one might contend, from that intellectual goal. And from Clifford’s Rule flows our duty to believe only those propositions that enjoy adequate evidential support. James’s argument would, if operative, thwart our intellectual goal by permitting us to violate Clifford’s Rule. Can a morally and intellectually responsible person ever have a moral duty to believe a proposition that lacks adequate evidence, a duty that outweighs the alleged Cliffordian duty of believing only those propositions that enjoy adequate support? To answer this, let’s employ what we might call the “ET” thought experiment. Suppose Clifford is abducted by very powerful and very smart extraterrestrials, which offer him a single chance of salvation for humankind—that he acquire and maintain belief in a proposition that lacks adequate evidential support, otherwise the destruction of humankind will result. Clifford adroitly points out that no one can just will belief. The ETs, devilish in their anticipation as well as their technology, provide Clifford with a supply of doxastic-producing pills, which when ingested produce the requisite belief for 24 hours. It’s obvious that Clifford would do no wrong by swallowing the pills and bringing about a belief lacking adequate evidential support. Moreover, since one is never irrational in doing one’s moral duty, not only would Clifford not be immoral, he would not even be irrational in bringing about and maintaining belief in a proposition lacking adequate evidential support. As we mentioned earlier, given the distinction between (A) having reason to think a certain proposition is true, and (B) having reason to induce a belief in that proposition, it may be that a particular proposition lacks sufficient evidential support, but that forming a belief in that proposition is the rational action to perform.
A very interesting objection to James’s argument is that it falls prey to the very principle it invokes against Clifford:
James writes: “A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there would be an irrational rule”. This may sound like sweet reason itself, but a moment’s reflection should convince us that it is nothing of the kind. Any rule whatever that restricts belief in any way might conceivably shut us off from some truths. (Wood 2002, 24)
According to James, Clifford’s Rule is problematic because, if followed, it would preclude access to restricted propositions and dependent propositions. According to this objection, this alleged flaw of Clifford’s Rule is true of any epistemic principle. Every epistemic principle that divides beliefs into those that are permissible and those that are not runs the risk of shutting off access to certain possible kinds of truth. James’s restriction of the permissible use of the passional nature only to when one faces a genuine option that’s intellectually open is just as guilty of the alleged flaw as is Clifford’s Rule. But an alleged flaw found in every possibility is no flaw. Hence, James’s objection to Clifford fails.
This objection is interesting since it is in one sense true. It’s obvious that any rule that restricts belief in any way might shut us off from certain truths. Still, while interesting, this objection is irrelevant. James’s argument is not predicated on the abstract proposition that “any rule whatever that restricts belief in any way might conceivably shut us off from some truths.” It is predicated on the principle that there are dependent propositions, and there are restricted propositions. His examples of social trust, and acquiring friends, and of social cooperation are intended to make that clear. If theism were true, then it is very likely that there would be dependent propositions and restricted propositions in that realm as well. Clifford’s Rule would preclude access to any restricted or dependent proposition, whether religious or not. James is not arguing against conforming one’s belief to the evidence, whenever there’s a preponderance of evidence. He is arguing against the prohibition of believing whenever the evidence is silent. Since James’s argument specifies the irrationality of Clifford’s Rule’s exclusion of dependent and restricted propositions, and not just the abstract possibility of some kind of true belief or other being excluded, it escapes this objection
(The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)