“Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.” – William James
Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have remarked, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” Making a decision is difficult for many of us because most of the time we need to do so without having all the information necessary to make a choice that anticipates all outcomes and addresses all possible questions. I was reminded of this recently while giving my daughter a driving lesson. About to pull onto a busy road, she asked me whether it was safe to go. I evaluated the environment and, while a few vehicles were approaching some distance away in the right-hand lane, I anticipated that she had enough time to pull out safely and told her to go ahead. As she began to pull forward, I saw a large pickup speeding past the other cars in the left-hand lane rapidly approach our entry point. But it was too late–she was committed. She cut off the driver in the truck and after I uttered a choice word or two, she scolded me for my obviously faulty advice. After we both calmed down, I explained to her that driving often involves making split-second decisions and often having to adjust to a rapidly-changing situation. I later realized that the near accident was my fault, not because I misjudged the situation, but because I attempted to make the judgment at all. As the driver, the decision should have been hers and she should have gone when she judged it was safe.
In his fine book, The Metaphysical Club , Louis Menand describes William James (d. 1910) as a man who viewed the ability to make decisions in the teeth of risk and uncertainty as a mark of true character. James came to realize very early in life that for many of the choices we face, we lack conclusive reasons (and don’t have prospects for gathering them) and that to be human is to take risks about the things we believe. But James himself found it difficult to live with his own philosophy. Earning an M.D. from Harvard, James (whose his sister referred to as a “blob of mercury”) changed disciplines not once but three times moving from medicine, to psychology, to philosophy. It is no wonder then that his Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a project in which he attempts to develop a philosophy, Pragmatism, that attempts to find equal epistemic standing to both science and religion. Why settle for one when you can have both? By briefly examining Pragmatism, we can get a better handle on some of the essential concepts that drives existentialist thought and look at how that thought informs our understanding of religious belief.1
I claimed in previous essays that in many communities (confining my analysis to fairly traditional communities in the West) religious belief is grounded by way of an existential leap of faith. Fundamental to this move is the idea that a rationalist approach to belief—deciding to believe in God based on whether one determines there is enough evidence to do so—is itself a leap of faith but of the entirely wrong kind. Religious commitment is just that: a decision to commit oneself wholly to a person experientially not adhering to an idea intellectually. But what does one do with the apparent evidence that would seem to conflict with such a commitment?  Hasn’t science provided us with models of biological development and cosmology that undermine any rational belief in a divine being?  Hasn’t it demonstrated that miracles can’t occur, that belief in divine activity a delusion, that religious commitment is sociologically dangerous? Hasn’t science removed any explanatory role religion might play in a reasonable person’s worldview? If so, then the person that wishes to be rational (or at least believe that the scientific method is truth conducive) and still maintain religious beliefs is a bifurcated individual that lives in a world where reality has to live alongside fantasy.
James attempted to show that this decidedly is not the case. At the root of his argument was a rejection of the idea that the scope of the explanatory power of science and reason should take pride of place in our epistemology. In fact, James says, when it comes to understanding what it means to be human (or to use language I introduced in an earlier essay: to understand existence rather than essence), science is rather weak. He writes,
Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.2
William Barrett, who we met in an earlier essay, confirms that Existentialism essentially agrees with James here. Existentialist thought is essentially at odds with any thoroughgoing scientism—the view that the methods of the hard sciences can fully explain our essence as well as tell us what it all means. American philosophy is dominated by analytic philosophy (Barrett says "Logical Positivism" is another term for this) which has at its core science–the defining feature of modern culture. However analytic philosophy then goes on and attempts to establish the unsupportable idea that "science is the ultimate ruler of human life, which it never has been and psychologically never can be. Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaninglessness’ " 3
In order to understand this idea, we need to grasp a key concept in both Pragmatist and Existentialist thought. That is, that reason is epistemically limited. For James (and other Pragmatists like C.S. Pierce and Blaise Pascal), there are certain beliefs about which reason is unable to help us decide. There are ideas for which, either due to their complexity or nature, reason can play little or no role.  In these cases, we are forced to start with our intuitions and experiences and make judgments solely based on their overall value in holding them or the overall value in the means by which the judgment is made. For example, if a lifelong friend is accused—ostensibly on the basis of solid but inconclusive physical evidence–of a crime, say murder. You know your friend to be gentle, kindhearted, a lover of humanity, and not prone to rash action, you may choose to believe in his innocence even if the authorities claim they have strong but inconclusive evidence of his guilt. You maintain your friend’s innocence because of the experiences you’ve had and because you deem it more valuable to be loyal than to make a judgment when you are unable to draw a conclusion based on the evidence.
The key here is that adjudicating between the guilt or innocence of your friend is impossible solely based on the evidence. This is not a trivial point which we’ll return to momentarily. In this case, you draw a conclusion (make a decision) on other grounds—practical grounds—that have little to do with where you think the evidence leads. James argues that reason is just as inadequate a guide when it comes to religious matters. So to accept the pragmatist position, one first has to believe two key propositions. First, that adjudicating between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of atheism is not possible. Second, that given the truth of the first proposition, believing religious truth claims is still valuable.
The first proposition is essential to understanding the Pragmatist solution and without fully embracing it, Pragmatism appears to be grossly ad hoc. The Pragmatist does not need to deny the value of reason entirely. However for certain questions, reason is limited if not altogether irrelevant. Religion should be accepted because of it’s overall practical usefulness (consider Pascal’s famous “wager” argument). “If we pass from disbeliefs to positive beliefs, it seems to me that there is not even a formal inconsistency to be laid against our method.” says James. “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another….Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”4 In one step James not only provides a ground for religious belief but also for adjudicating between religious truth claims. If you want to decide which religion to believe in, you must first decide which beliefs are pragmatically live options for you.
Notice here that James isn’t considering the truth of the belief because such consideration is not possible. That is, we not only cannot determine the truth value of the claim “God exists” but we have no prospects for determining its truth. I don’t think James’ position is that knowing that God exists (or does not exist) is logically impossible. Only that given our current epistemic situation, it’s practically not viable. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen explores this possibility at the end of his excellent Metaphysics. He suggests that certain questions in metaphysics and theology may be beyond the intellectual capacity of humans. “If we cannot know why there is anything at all, or why there should be rational beings, or how thought and feeling are possible, or how our conviction that we have free will could possibly be true, why should that astonish us? What reason have we, what reason could we possibly have, for thinking that our intellectual abilities are equal to the task of answering these questions?”5 Perhaps questions about specific religious beliefs fall into this category and if so, religious belief, if it is to be held at all, won’t be grounded on reason.
When faced with the option of believing in religious truth claims, then, you have to decide what you will do with them. If your experience leads you to believe in a higher power or an ethical system that only makes sense on religion, then turning to reason to help you decide may be a fool’s errand. But decision-making in the Jamesian model appear to be intensely personal. And this leads to a consequence I’ve been flirting with in this series and one we’ll have to examine more closely later: if deciding to believe is a personal matter and not publicly falsifiable, either the believer should refrain from making public claims about the implication of those beliefs or the beliefs themselves have no public relevance.
A driver who chooses to believe that her vehicle may be able to fly (who can know, really?) either should leave the car in the garage or drive as if it can’t.
Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service
1. Purists will undoubtedly (and rightly) object to placing pragmatism under the broad rubric of existentialism. I will attempt to call out the distinctions in these views both in this essay and in future essays. I’m categorizing pragmatism as a form of existentialism—at least when it comes to religion–mainly because I think their similarities far outweigh their differences and for ease of exposition.
2. James, W. (1997). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Touchstone. (74)
3. Barrett, W. (1963). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books. (21)
4. James, 1997. (264-265)
5. Inwagen, P. v. (1993). Metaphysics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. (201)
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