William James was an American Apologist. An Apologist is a defender of faith. The term is most often used associated with Christian thinkers who defend the existence of God. William James was taking on a scientific world and risking his own reputation by defending the right to believe in things for which you do not and perhaps can never have direct evidence of. James wrote an essay called “The Will to Believe” that is central to his thinking and is so profound that it demands careful consideration even today.
Essentially James was challenging the philosophical position known as “Logical Positivism.” You and I and almost anyone likely to read this post is probably at heart a logical positivist without even knowing it. In fact for most of us anything other than logical positivism doesn’t make sense – or even terrifies us. Let me explain.
Logical Positivism is a theory of truth; in fact it is the theory of truth that underlies the scientific/modernist worldview. It dictates that something is only true if there is conclusive evidence that demonstrates it to be true. In other words truth has to prove itself before we believe it.
William James was arguing against Logical Positivism. Why do we think that conclusive evidence is the best way to tell what is true? And even more profoundly, is it even possible to wait for conclusive evidence before we believe in something? James thought not. Ultimately truth had to be a matter of faith. Even the position of Logical Positivism was a matter of faith in the end, because the idea that waiting for conclusive evidence is the best understanding of truth is itself taken on faith.
My understanding of what James was getting at is that there are some beliefs that are so fundamental that they have to be believed and acted upon without evidence. If you truly believed in absolutely nothing you couldn’t exist. And beyond that, if you could actually believe in nothing, then you would in reality believe that “you believed in nothing” and that itself is a belief. Once you believe in something then you can start using evidence against that belief to create a worldview, but you need to get the ball rolling with at least something and probably many things that you take on faith. One example that James used was the belief in God. The existence of God has been debated throughout all of history and it has not been solved yet. Still, you either have to believe in God, or believe in no God, or believe you don’t know one way or the other, or some variation of those. So in the end you have to believe in something, and what you believe will affect what you do and who you are.
What I find so profound about this is that most of us, especially if we are modernist (which we all are to a large extent) don’t think that we take anything on faith. We think that we have conclusive reasons to believe what we believe. We don’t think we believe, we think we know what is real. To continue with James’s example, if we believe in God we also believe that we have conclusive reasons for that; if we don’t believe in God we believe that we have conclusive reasons for that.
James was enamored with the idea that these deep beliefs don’t result from evidence, but are choices that we make and stake our lives on. We have all come to some worldview, some fundamental beliefs about what is real and what is important. It might have been handed to us by our culture, it might have been dictated by a religion, or it might have come from some experiences we have had in life – or more likely a combination of all of these. What I think James was saying, and what I also think is true, is that no matter what our worldview is at the very bottom of it there has to be at least one and maybe more presumptions about reality that we accept as true without conclusive evidence perhaps without even realizing it. We are, in the end, guessing at life.