Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Will to Believe by William James

     William James produces a very strident response to William Clifford, and one that sounds much more modern to my ears.  The argument may be over religion, but it applies to much more than that.  James' essay is a rejection of the straight enlightenment program; it sounds more Nietzschean, more relativistic, and, frankly, more correct to me.  Consider the following remark in his introduction to this collection of essays:

"Something -- 'call it fate, chance, freedom, spontaneity, the devil, what you will" -- is still wrong and other and outside and unincluded, from your point of view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers.  Something is always mere fact and givenness; and there may be in the whole universe no one point of view extant from which this would not be found to be the case."(pg. 2)

This could have been written in the last 50 years.

Regarding The Will to Believe, he is offering a "defence of our right to adopt a believing atitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced."(pg, 8)

Here's another gem:

"When we look at certain facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional nature lay at the root of all our convictions.  When we look at others, it seems as if they could do nothing when the intellect had once had its say."(pg. 10)

I think strictly philosophical questions end up falling into the former category.  Matters of, say, arithmetic fall into the latter.

"We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight our thinking lives.  But 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."(pg. 13)

These remarks do not merely apply to religion; they apply to the metaphysical status of science. 
Just after that he makes a crucial remark:

"As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use"(pg. 10)

The point is that theories and facts we accept are formulated in the context of our interest.

He goes on:

"Why do so few 'scientists' even look at the evidence for telepathy, so called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now dead, once said to me, that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed.  It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits."(pg. 14)

Science, and even logic, have values.  Below the "law" mentioned below is the law of the continuity of nature:

"This very law which the logicians would impose upon us ... is based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all elements for which they, in their professional quality of logicians, can find no use.  Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions"(pg. 14)

We see here the hallmark of what I will be talking about in some future posts, pragmatism.
Here's another one:

"Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?  I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes.  I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experienceing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them ... as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out."(pg. 16)

"The much lauded objective evidence is never triumphantly there, it is a mere aspiration ... marking the infinitely remote ideal of our thinking life.  To claim that certain truths now possess it, is simply to say that when you think them true and they are true, then their evidence is objective.  But practically one's conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot."(pg. 17)

It's no good to say, "it's true since it works" because we chose the things we did precisely because they work; we aim for what works according to our values; our truths are nothing but an outgrowth of this kind of pragmatic strategy.  This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but we should not confuse this with the Truth with a capital "T".  He says,

"... the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be truth or no."(pg. 18)

Even if we have the truth we may not necessarily know it.

In conclusion I think that Blackburn, in Truth: A Guide, does not do justice to William James.  James' position takes on Clifford and offers a much more thoughtful approach to knowledge than William Clifford,  a view that realizes that we select truths from among what are "live" options for us, according to our own values; on this basis experiments are devised and results are interpreted.  I know that Blackburn takes a lot of this on later on in his book, but it seems he is not quite giving the relativist position a fair shake.

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