The philosophical ideas of the American Pragmatist William James were in many ways foundationally based on a profound realization he had about the nature of human life. James grew up in an eccentric family of Irish Americans in the late 19th century. His father, Henry James senior, was a converted Swedenborgian who wanted the best possible education for all of his children, although he seemed to have a hard time making up his mind determining what that education should be. So Henry dragged his children from American to Europe and back again following educational opportunities and the whims of his children. The first educational program that William James actually completed was a medical degree at Harvard. Still, of Henry’s five children, one, William, would become one of America’s greatest psychologists and philosophers and another, Henry Jr., would become one of America’s greatest novelists.
All of the James children were somewhat troubled and William was no exception. As a young man he suffered from frequent depression. During one occasion he was contemplating suicide when something occurred to him that would color all of his thinking. He realized that at a very fundamental level he was choosing what to believe and specifically, I imagine, he was choosing to believe that he had no choice in the matter of suicide. Realizing that belief was a choice he boldly decided to believe that he had a choice.
William still suffered from depression on and off for his entire life, but he had come to a profound understanding of human nature. Human life is an act of faith. At the bottom of it all, we all take something to be true on faith. Some may believe in God, some may believe in the power of reason, some may believe in science, but everyone has to believe in something. Even if you believe that “you don’t believe” or that “you don’t know” those are still based in belief, because underneath both is a belief that “not believing” or “not knowing” is the best way to believe. Human life is an act of faith. To live we have to believe in something. Any choice that we make reflects some belief – and the choice “not to make a choice” is also a choice. So there is no way out.
During the Modern Age it was increasingly believed that the discovery of the power of reason had taken humanity beyond the need for faith. We no longer need to believe in God or the word of the Bible. We now could use our capacity for thinking to come to an “objective” understanding of what is true. What happens if we look closely at the process of reason? Reason is the use of concepts to create an understanding of reality that allows us to explain, predict and control events. As reason and its particularly powerful application, science, developed through the second half of the last millennium humanity seemed to become increasingly better at explaining, predicting and controlling events.
But how do we know that our reasoned scientific explanations of reality are actually “real”? because they work. If a scientific theory or a reasoned idea about reality stops working we assume it is false and we come up with a better one. So at any given instant we are taking our scientific understanding on faith.
This belief in science was justified because there was a more fundamental belief in the scientific method. We believe in spite of the fact that many theories prove to be false that in general we are heading toward a more and more accurate representation of reality. That is why in the 20th century when reason and science played such prominent roles in events such as the Nazi Holocaust and the atomic bomb detonations on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people began to conclude that science wasn’t working. But the fact that it works is the only reason that we believe in it in the first place. If it doesn’t work, is it really true? Some had lost faith in science – not in its ability to predict and control events, but in its ability to lead humanity in a morally sound direction.
To my mind science alone is not enough. Science cannot be our spirituality. Science needs to be coupled with some other belief about the nature of reality that can provide a direction for moral decision making. You might be a scientist and a Christian, a scientist and a humanist, or a scientist and a Nazi. All of these will lead to very different results. I believe that William James was realizing that every human life as a matter of definition must be based on a fundamental belief in something. And ultimately that belief is a matter of faith that cannot be proved through prior evidence. Science, religion, humanism, existentialism, agnosticism, skepticism, cynicism, hedonism, idealism, atheism – something has to be the basis for life. Underneath it all we all believe in something and that belief is not something that can be proved through evidence and therefore it is simply a choice that we must make and take responsibility for.
Human life is a risk taken on faith.