Science news at the speed of thought

The question of belief, part I

by Massimo Pigliucci Story Source July 19, 2012

So, following the advice of my fellow RS writer, Ian Pollock (in his latest “Picks”) I went back and downloaded two of the classical essays about faith and skepticism: William James’ “The Will to Believe” (1896) and William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” (1877). The former was actually in part a response to the latter. In this post I will tackle James, next time we’ll look at Clifford.

I must say upfront that — quite aside from my intellectual commitment to skepticism and instinctive abhorrence of anything smelling like faith — I found James’ essays surprisingly and insufferably vacuous and pretentious. Aesthetic judgment notwithstanding, let’s look at his so-called argument (I am using the word very charitably).

James starts out by lamenting that “I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically.” So, it’s interesting to see that his own students rejected his arguments as soon as they had “imbued” the logical spirit, i.e., as soon as they deployed reason in the service of their philosophical analysis. The perils of teaching critical thinking, I suppose.

James continues his essay by providing his readers with a series of preliminary building blocks for his argument, the centerpiece of which will come at the end of the piece. So, for instance, in section II he finds it “preposterous” to think that our opinions may be modified at will, and provides these examples: “Can we, by any effort of our will, or by any strength of wish that it were true, believe ourselves well and about when we are roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?” Well, no, we cannot. But that is quite plainly because we have overwhelming evidence of our rheumatism or of the amount of money in our pocket. Still, fair enough, the point is that one cannot simply will one’s beliefs in arbitrary directions (atheists say the same to incredulous believers, of course: I can’t just “accept” Jesus — my brain revolts at the idea).

James’ second building block comes in section III, where he claims — anticipating modern research in cognitive psychology, to be sure — that belief is not a simple matter of reasoning out the possibilities, but rather the result of “fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set. As a matter of fact we find ourselves believing, [but] we hardly know how or why.” Again, true enough. And in fact he goes on to suggest that often what we call reason is little more than cherry picking and rationalizing: “Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else.” [Of course, he had absolutely no empirical evidence on which to base his contention that this happens anywhere near 999/1000 cases, but that’s nitpicking...] Now, it is precisely because of this that philosophical reflection is important: the whole idea is to train one’s mind to spot rationalizations and avoid logical fallacies and cognitive biases. For that, it helps if you present your reasoning to others to see how they react — James’ own students refusal to go along with his program should have been telling him something.

The first big problem arises within that very section III, when James wishes to use his points so far to conclude that there is no difference between a skeptic and a believer: “If a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot. It is just one volition against another — we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.” I don’t think so, dear Will. Just because belief is a complex matter and people at times rationalize rather than reason, it does not follow that anyone’s wishful thinking is philosophically equivalent to a position of skepticism about the same. But more on this below.

Section IV is very short, and it essentially boils down to this statement: “The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision — just like deciding yes or no — and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” No, it isn’t. James is attempting to eliminate the option of moderate skepticism, forcing his readers into a dichotomous choice: you either say yes (to faith) or you don’t. If you pretend to suspend judgment because of lack of evidence, you are really just saying no. But belief can (and often is) a matter of degree, where yes and no are simply the extremes at the end of a continuum (for a Bayesian, they would be equivalent to assuming priors of 1 and 0, respectively). Moreover, not all beliefs are equally justified by the evidence (in Bayesian terms, the distribution of priors is not flat), so that it may make perfect sense to adopt an intermediate position if the agent judges that there is nothing (yet) that clearly tips one’s conclusions in one direction or another.

Section V starts with a net separation of the believer from the skeptic: “The postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to make, though the sceptic will not make it. We part company with him, therefore, absolutely, at this point.” But how on earth can James know there there is a truth, and that moreover our minds can attain it? And what “truth” are we talking about anyway? There are many possible truths concerning all sorts of subject matters, some of which may and others may not be attainable by human minds, so as a general principle this is sheer nonsense. But of course James is talking about religious truth, so we will proceed further and even more clearly let him hang himself with his twisted logic.

In section VI the author temporarily returns to reasonable philosophical grounds: “I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes. ... Apart from abstract propositions of comparison (such as two and two are the same as four), propositions which tell us nothing by themselves about concrete reality, we find no proposition ever regarded by any one as evidently certain that has not either been called a falsehood, or at least had its truth sincerely questioned by some one else.” Okay, this is consistent with James’ pragmatism, though it smells a bit too much of epistemic relativism (as much later Richard Rorty infamously extrapolated from pragmatist beginnings).

Section VII starts well, but then takes a pretty bad turn. Here is the reasonable bit: “We must know the truth; and we must avoid error — these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws.” He is correct here: although if we believe A to be true and it is indeed true, we may thus avoid the error of believing in B, which is not true, this doesn’t guarantee that we don’t end up also believing in all sorts of other erroneous notions: C, D, E, etc. From this, however, what James says next doesn’t follow at all: “We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. ... he who says, ‘Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!’ [a reference to Clifford] merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe.” Oh no, you didn’t! It is easy to see that truths and falsehoods are not in a symmetrical relation to each other at all (which is implied by James’ own earlier statement in this section). There are many more potentially false notions out there than true ones, for the simple reason that there is one universe (aside for the possibility of a multiverse, of course) while there are infinite ways in which the universe could be. That is why the skeptic’s position is more reasonable: because error lurks everywhere and truth is rare. Statistically speaking, this is a no brainer.

Indeed, in section VIII James seems to admit as much: “Wherever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come. In scientific questions, this is almost always the case; and even in human affairs in general, the need of acting is seldom so urgent that a false belief to act on is better than no belief at all.” So, the principle of cautious skepticism applies for all scientific questions (whew!) and in human affairs in general. Okay, then, where exactly does it not apply, and why?

We find that out in section IX: “Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. 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 [he of the infamous wager] calls our heart.” I was with James right until the end, and then he blew it. That’s right, science can provides us with facts, not values (pace Sam Harris), but that is why we’ve got philosophy. Philosophy, not religious, my dear Will!

In the same section James attempts to validate his faith in faith, but the examples are lacking: “Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.” Granted, those achievements are facilitated by one’s optimism in one’s abilities, but the outcome is in fact always a matter of the usual suspects: effort, skill, and luck. Faith, in James’ sense, simply doesn’t enter into it.

Finally, we get to section X, which is supposed to deliver the punchline. Prepare yourself to be sorely disappointed. James admits that “religion” is a pretty vague category, as there are countless religions and even more (contradictory) religious beliefs. So he needs to abstract things to a high degree if his defense of faith isn’t going to be too tied to any specific doctrine, on which he is not apparently willing to bet his (eternal) life. I am quoting the next bit in full because I do not wish to give the impression that I am shortchanging him:

“Religion says essentially two things. First, she says that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word. ‘Perfection is eternal’ — this phrase of Charles Secretan seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all. The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.”

Holy crap! Of course science cannot verify the first tenet of religion: it is meaningless! What exactly could one mean by the utterance that the best things are the more eternal and overlapping things, the things that say the final word? What word? Overlapping with what? How does anyone know anything about these “things”? What are these things?

And the following bit is absolutely precious: “We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve. It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married some one else?” Setting aside for a moment the potentially sexist tone of the remark, yes, the man would cut himself off from that “angel-possibility,” but the situation is not at all analogous to that of religion (not to mention that the man might conceivably be happier without any angels around — again, beware of false dichotomies!). The man knows pretty much what he is likely to gain or loose by his decision, and even by his indecision, but we still have not been told by James what exactly it is that we would lose by not believing. The chance of being thrown one last stone by the universe, perhaps? Thanks, I’ll pass.