Faith First

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 44 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Great post. I agree that we all have to live our life in a way that is somehow based on beliefs or norms. And it is almost terryfying to discover how unconscious we are about it. But there is something that came to my mind reading this post and also the last one. It is: We have to be careful not to mix inner and outer (maybe Wilber would put it that way). I mean: It is true that if you mix certain ingredients you get a certain result, it be a bomb or some medicine or whatever. That is… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

PS.sorry for being a bit unclear here, I will write again when I have time for a better description!

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

—-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.———— I find it hard to separate myself from the old Christian way of thinking, even though I do not believe in Christianity anymore. Laws were made around the Christian faith that I have to abide by. Christian thinking was… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

I spend my Sunday mornings worshipping the Spirit within humans with other like-minded people at a Spiritual Center, and I even watch a man from the same affiliated Spiritual Center out of Los Angeles online, because he talks about Hope with charisma. James is right that humans live life with several perceptions, even if we claim we don’t and that we have only one belief, which just isn’t true. If we ever crossed on a street corner and you asked me what I thought about Christianity, and how your thoughts create your life, I would refute Christianity venomously. Then I… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Thanks for this, Jeff. Yes, we are fundamentally making an assumption, and we can be sure that this assumption that we are making is incomplete. For example, we know for fact that we have changed our basic assumptions over the course of our lives a number of times, realizing the previous ones needed revision. Furthermore, humanity as a whole has changed its assumptions innumerable times. And every time that happens, on both the individual and collective levels, it brings about evolutionary changes. The built-in obsolescence of our assumptions and basic axioms is the beauty of the whole process, rather than… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

What is the different between spirituality vs. the creative imagination? If the spirituality is guessing at life, Assumption” ,then the discussion back to square one as if Brian mentioned before “it feeds the creative imagination, soothes life’s suffering, eases death’s unknowns, promises meaning in the face of indifference. There must be something beyond this actual world, beyond space and time, which we cannot detect with our senses. There must be a deeper world, which the intellect ponders and the emotions crave. Here is the opening for the transcendental temptation. Yes, says the imagination, these things are possible. It then takes… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Shizuka said: —There must be something beyond this actual world, beyond space and time, which we cannot detect with our senses. There must be a deeper world, which the intellect ponders and the emotions crave.— When I lost my first child, it was due to the placenta pulling away from the uterus. The doctor left me alone in a room and I started hemorrhaging. I died. What happened after that, I will never forget. It is still so vivid in my mind, as if it just happened today instead of 26 years ago. I remember watching myself from up above… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Just to be accurate, Lisa, in response to what you said earlier: “Our parent’s memory’s are in our DNA, when we are conceived their memories become ours. Everything we have ever been exposed to is in our DNA and we live life from those memories. Every time we learn something new, it is being recorded over old tape. Like the old cassette tapes you could record over, but when you played the new back sometimes you could hear the old stuff coming through the new stuff. The old never goes away.” There is no evidence that this is true. DNA… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

To Carl Your comments about DNA bring up the good-old nature/nurture question, which is totally relevant when we consider the sources of our conditioning and our unquestioned assumptions and beliefs. Where do the boundaries between genetic influences stop and cultural influences start? It’s very blurry, and therefore interesting to explore. Genetic research in recent years has shown, for example, that cultural changes can and do sometimes lead to genetic changes over only a few generations. For example, Darwin speculated that hairlessness of the human ape (that’s us!) developed through female preferences of hairless males as mates. Obviously, hairless males would… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Carl, Explain why it is when children are adopted out of their families that they grow up with characteristics of their biological parents. They like the same foods, have the same body posture, same diseases (all disease is caused from wrong beliefs), same type of friends, and so on. Then you have twins who are adopted out of their families and into separate families. Those twins like the same, foods, colors, clothes, friends, speak the same, have the same body posture, diseases, and even experience life the same. They even marry people who are like one of their biological parents,… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Lisa, these are not learned tendencies. They are biologically determined ones.

Carl
11 years ago

Igal, Your examples of the interaction of what Skinner called “genetic endowment” and “environmental history” are quite interesting. Even without culture (principles of variation and selection applied to collective or shared behavior), those interactions are always interesting. It becomes clear in such examples as individuals with sensory or physical capabilities based on their genetics (e.g., height) who then try activities that take advantage of those characteristics (e.g., basketball) and make contact with very positive consequences that make it more likely they will continue. Or musical prodigy. Or cognitive capabilities, and so on. One of my favorite examples of biological features… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Thanks, Carl, for this. Your comments brings another point to my mind: science has managed to unveil these mechanisms so precisely. But where is consciousness in all of this? The ruling paradigm is the scientific one. And our minds, being products of culture, are totally immersed in it. Even those of us who are spiritual — who, like Shizuka, feel that there must be something beyond this natural physical phenomena — see things very materially (I speak for myself, here, I don’t in anyway suggest that Shizuka or anyone else is necessarily seeing things in this manner). I have this… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

I think the problem I have with all this talk of “materialism” is that the very word seems to push consciousness out of the picture. It is dualistic, as in the primitive dualism of Aristotle’s “matter and form.” My experience is nothing but consciousness and the objects that arise in it, subjective or so-called objective (Skinner called them overt and covert). I certainly understand that the common day-to-day perception — whether influenced by science or by simple experience in life — seems to ignore the fact that there is only one field of awareness for any of us and that… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Carl, Thanks for this interesting question. But I do think you may have a very particular, and not so common, interpretation of the congruence between science and spirituality. The more common scientific understanding, as far as I understand it, is that only matter is real, and consciousness, to the extent that it exists, is an epiphenomenon, a sort of accidental by-product that no one knows how it really arose but surely, it was a fluke. Professor David Chalmers, a renowned philosopher of science, even coined the term “The Big Problem of Consciousness.” As far as I understand it, it says:… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Carl please explain what you mean.
They are biologically determined ones.

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

DNA
The genetic information carried in the molecule called DNA determines every inherited physical characteristic of every living thing. DNA—more formally known as deoxyribonucleic acid—is found inside almost every cell. It controls how the cell replicates and functions, and what traits are inherited from previous generations.

Carl
11 years ago

Lisa, what I mean is that DNA does not pass on what an individual has learned by means of interacting with his or her environment to effect its nervous system. It only passes on characteristics that have been determined genetically by its own genetic endowment combining with that of its sexual partner and subject to other events that can affect biological/DNA structure such as cosmic rays, toxic chemicals, etc. There is no data to my knowledge suggesting that individual learning is passed on via DNA.

Carl
11 years ago

Igal, I understand your point about being naive, that many scientists seem to have a problem with consciousness. That is why I was and continue to be a student of B.F. Skinner. He had no problem with it whatsoever. He applied the same natural science approach to measuring and understanding “covert” or “inner” or subjective behavior as so-called overt or “outer” behavior because he saw it ALL as simply behavior, events in time that can be measured as frequency over time and that we can understand by seeing their effect on the frequencies of other events or the effect of… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Carl, what explanation can you give that explains the behaviors, illnesses, and disease’s that adopted people have that are the same as their biological parents?

Carl
11 years ago

There is very good research on twins studies, as you have suggested, showing that biological characteristics (e.g., susceptibility to disease, physical stature and posture, and all kinds of other things are inherited. But these things are not individually learned things, they are either physical characteristics or neurological or other potentials for sensory, motor, endocrine, etc. sensitivities, etc. If you look closely, and certainly if you consult the scientific literature, you will find no reputable scientists claiming that individual learning is passed on via dna.

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Carl, thank you for answering my questions and being patient with me. Today, it is not uncommon for women to design their babies. You can request a blue eyed and blond hair girl or a green eyed brown hair boy. I have not heard of any women going into a sperm bank and requesting an average man in looks, intelligence, and health sperm, to get pregnant with. Women prefer sperm from a man who has higher education, very healthy, musical, and fairly good-looking and skin, hair, and eye color close to their own. The list goes on and on in… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Carl, I have not read Skinner’s work. My knowledge of him is based on reading articles in Time and Wikipedia, which is not much. It was enough to get a sense that he was a real path-breaker, and pioneer, a true genius, and that a lot of the bad rap that he got was unjustified and unfounded. Have you actually studied with him? As far as our specific discussion, my question would be: does he have a way of addressing, or acknowledging, the Mystery without reducing it to mechanistic explanations? If so, I will rush to read him right away.… Read more »

Carl Binder
11 years ago

Igal, Yes, I was a doctoral student with Skinner in the early 70’s and had the opportunity to have independent study courses with him for several semesters. Following that, I joined the global community of those involved with his Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and its practical applications. That has been the foundation of my professional life, both in education and in organizational management consulting. He did not have a way of referring to the Mystery. I’m not sure that it occupied much of his attention, as such. His notebooks, which span an amazing array of topics, were the product of… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Wow, Carl–this sounds awesome. He must have been a great man to be with. You’re lucky to have worked with him… One of the most inspiring things about some of the really great scientists is their incredible sense of wonder towards the perfection of creation. Einstein even said that both science and religion have a common goal–to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in their practitioners. But many of those scientist are decidedly, openly, and sometimes even fanatically materialistic–Richard Dawkins, for example. He expresses a deep sense of wonder at creation, but feels vehemently–almost violently–that any attempt to explain… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

So when we say that something or someone is “materialistic,” what do we mean? The concept seems inherently dualistic to me.

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Carl ,Thank you .I’m really intrigued by”subjective experience as content for scientific inquiry, seeing “covert” behavior such as imagination, feelings, and so on as part of the same field of experience and study as overt behavior. ”
Becuase I see the space ,possibility of evolution of consiousness and potential of the integration of science & spirituality.
“Unknown ,mistery” and “wonder.why?”are like soul mate;)

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Carl, you wrote: So when we say that something or someone is “materialistic,” what do we mean? I don’t know who you mean by “we”, but I’m glad you asked the question because it forces me to define for myself what I mean by the word. I think the first place to start is to define what my fundamental axiom, or belief system is, from which I speak. My belief system is fundamentally religious, in the sense that I do believe in the existence of a transcendental principle that precedes creation and is its source. Furthermore, I accept as axioms… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

I’ve been watching the comments since Jeff’s last post, leaving Carl to fend for himself. I also went back and looked at my comments over the last several months and noticed I’ve been beating my head against the same wall.

Yes spiritualists are dualists if they believe in spirits/intelligence/consciousness that exist independent of living bodies. I think we can agree on the reality of internal consciousness — but its the subject of external consciousness where I part ways with spiritualists.

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Brian, some could argue that the experience of consciousness as “internal” is, in fact dualistic, separating “inner” and “outer.” Where is that “internal” domain where consciousness “is”? In fact, you could resolve that dualism–first philosophically, but eventually experientially if you so desire–by analyzing your experience deeply, and then you may discover that both the “inner” and the “outer” phenomena really occur within the field of consciousness, and that it’s impossible to say where that field starts and where it ends.

That’s, at least, one possible perspective…

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Igal, I’m saying there is no “outer”. Only “inner” consciousness that exists as a function of the material brain/body. Hardly dualistic when I am asserting only one and denying the other.

Carl
11 years ago

My experience is that there is no consciousness separate from what arises within it, except when nothing is arising in it — the experience of the “ground of being” that we seem to recognize after we have been there, since to “experience” it would imply one who experiences it separate from the experience itself. I don’t think that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter, since I don’t really see how to separate them out. There is only consciousness, since no experience is without it, and the forms/things that arise within it. To me, science is about understanding the causal relationships… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

This might be a bit of a tangent, but I just happened on this quote from Skinner, from a note in 1989. “No account of what is happening inside the human body, no matter how complete, will explain the origins of human behavior. What happens within a body is not a beginning. By looking at how a clock is built, we can explain why it keeps good time, but not why keeping time is important, or how the clock came to be built in that way. We must ask the same questions about a person. Why do people do what… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Even though I agree what Carl wrote”There is only consciousness, since no experience is without it, and the forms/things that arise within it.” and I was intrigued by what Carl wrote”subjective experience as content for scientific inquiry, seeing “covert” behavior such as imagination, feelings, and so on as part of the same field of experience and study as overt behavior. ” Because of the possibility of “Why not?,may be inner experience can be as content for scientific inquiry.”. But I ‘stumble forward again in the face of as the matter of fact, Reality is different from feeling,thought, the dream,creative imagination.… Read more »

Igal Moria
Igal Moria
11 years ago

Brian,
So for you, consciousness is something that results from the activity of the brain and the nervous system. In this approach, matter precedes consciousness, then, right? So how did matter come into being in your view? Is it just a matter of chance occurrence?

Carl
11 years ago

Actually, from Skinner’s perspective, “inner” behavior is no different from “outer” behavior, except that in the case of the former only the individual can observe or measure it directly. But we can count and assign ratings on various dimensions to thoughts, feelings and images, which means we can calculate count of events over time (frequency, the best measure we have of probability of behavior) for those inner events. I know both clinicians and basic researchers who have studied the relationships between various sort of inner and outer events with feelings, thoughts, etc. and found these functional relationships to be very… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

In College, I noticed that what the Professor talks about in one class will be talked about in my next class, then the next, then the next, irrelevant to the class. Carl, are we bouncing off of each other thoughts? Are thoughts like radio waves and we are the receivers of those thoughts? Let me tell you this story about picking up thoughts that are not yours. There was a time I was having suicidal thoughts that were very disturbing to me. I love life, and could not fathom why I would have such thoughts. In a conversation with a… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Igal, To answer your question, in my view matter has always been and always will be. Consciousness arose from matter through evolved life forms.

Carl
11 years ago

Brian, What I think is interesting and a little odd about the discussion abut matter and consciousness is that we would not even be aware of matter were it not for the conscious field in which it arises. So to imagine matter without that consciousness is difficult, although I suppose we can visualize energy and hydrogen atoms without any field of consciousness within which to arise because we weren’t yet here. But it seems to me that what we know now, from our experience now, is that consciousness and its contents arise simultaneously, they co-originate. So I suppose it really… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Could it be so that there is knowledge and intuition, and that those two is not the same until the day that we know everything about the universe and creation? That intuition or inner experience is still some kind of guessing about the outer as long as we still dont know all answers? Therefore there is a split between what we already know and what is yet to be known, though spiritual experiences can bring intuitions about what we dont know yet. If we put in the theory of Gaia here, it makes sense or brings a picture to help… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Thank you Mette Mette wrote:”there is knowledge and intuition, and that those two is not the same until the day that we know everything about the universe and creation?“ and she wrote”That intuition or inner experience is still some kind of guessing about the outer as long as we still don’t know all answers? Therefore there is a split between what we already know and what is yet to be known, though spiritual experiences can bring intuitions about what we don’t know yet.” Yes,that’s why I wrote [“Unknown ,mystery” and “wonder.why?”are like soul mate;)] and I define that is “Love”,spirituality… Read more »

Chuck
Chuck
11 years ago

The word “Faith” carries a lot of baggage which some people intend it to carry but others don’t. Try substituting the term “paradigm” for faith and see if you argument doesn’t work better. I would argue that we do not need “faith” – with all the weird things that implies – in order to function, but we cannot function at all let alone investigate the world, without operating through a paradigm, whether we are aware of the paradigm or not. Paradigms (particularly cause & effect, aka Causality) are built into the animal nervous system. Logical Positivists, despite the claims of… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

It’s tantalizing to speculate how Wm James would come down today re: faith and God or if he as a freethinker might espouse that it’s possible to be Good without God.

??