In The Will to Believe, William James presents a justification of faith. His overall argument is that, to those for whom religious belief is a live option (that it is a viable choice and not entirely out of the question), it is also a forced and a momentous choice. That is, one cannot avoid choosing – to choose not to believe or to choose to suspend judgement is still a choice – and the consequences of choosing one or the other are great. I like this justification, but I wonder how it fits with the world we live in today where for someone who is open to religion there are many options between different religions that are viable. One of the keys to James’s argument is that there be only one or very few viable choices between religions, but today, I think people are willing to explore different spiritualities and practices.
But that’s not why I’m posting today. I’m posting because in this discussion about religious belief, James makes some very interesting claims about science and society. Here are a few quotes:
“A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. Science can tell us what exists; but to compare the worths, both of what exists and of what does not exist we must consult not science, but what Pascal calls our heart. Science herself consults her heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other goods which man’s heart in turn declares.”
“A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the cooperation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.”