Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Will to Believe by William James

Part of the reason that the notion of volition in relation to belief has gained credibility must be due to the essay The Will to Believe. Here belief is presented as a pragmatic device to get over the angst of indecision that is a torment. Living in Keatsian negative capability just won’t do so we plump. John Watson
John Watson/Wikipedia in The Philosophical Basis of Religion (1907) writes with a brio equal to James:

Can we wonder if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of thdr mouths? The whole system of loyalties which grow up in the schools of science go dead against its toleration; so that it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptable-ness to the heart in its cup.

It fortifies my soul to know
That though I perish Truth is so

sings Clough, While Huxley exclaims: My only consolation lies in the reflection that, however bad our posterity may become, so far as they hold by the plain rule of not pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe, because it may be to their advantage so to pretend, they will not have reached the lowest depth of immorality. And that delicious enfant terrible Clifford writes; “ Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer. . . , Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away”

If we look at the normal manifestations of faith we can see that those who have had it from infancy in general pass through its three stages as sketched by Baron Von Hügel.
Von Hugel's stages
I surmise that there is a universal aspect to this which spans all the major traditions. Contra James when the second rationalising aspect of faith is dominant the temptation to plump for faith is an itch that often goes away leaving a shallow scientism in its place.

If James had understood that the cultivation of faith has an active and experimental aspect to it then this concept of a leap across the abyss would have been altered to a position that reflects reality. Those who never had or have lost their faith in God can surrender to a higher power by whatever name they call it and receive a response which does not come from themselves They have tried the application of will power and admit themselves to be powerless before their addiction. This is the core of the 12 step program and the ancient De Profundis clamavi ad te Domine

This may be scouted by sceptics who would claim that this is a mere projection. They really don’t believe in what works.

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