Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Varietal or Generic? On William James’ “The Will to Believe.”

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 9 July 2010

For approximately a millennium, from the era of the first few Ecumenical Councils and through the Reformation, Christian faith was guided by a rather small number of established traditions.  This was not the case in the first few centuries of Christendom, as many competing views on core Christian teachings were vetted, and theologians sought ways of talking about new concepts and doctrines.  The result was not only the development of uniquely Christian ideas, such as the full humanity and divinity of Christ, but also the crystallization of a new theological language.  This new language gave new definitions to already existing philosophical terms and developed many new ones.  And as Christianity struggled to give precise definitions to such terms as hypostasis or ousia, among many others, strong traditions of Christian theology were established in part through the precision of language and clarity of thought.  Thus, the formation of traditional Christian theologies can be seen as the result of the polemic between the greatest thinkers that Christendom could produce.

A very similar process appears to have been restarted in the West, as post-Reformation Christendom fell apart into various creeds and theologumena.  And just as fitting definitions were sometimes elusive in antiquity, the language employed by modern thinkers is sometimes marked by a lack of clarity.  Apart from the issue of inclusivity—a type of thinking that purposefully avoids rigid definitions on the basis that someone is sure to disagree—some modern Christian theology often lacks definitions as if unintentionally.  Perhaps, this murkiness is due to a more intuitive understanding of faith that does not rely on reason as heavily as did the medieval scholastics.  More likely, however, this is due to a more simplistic approach to faith, rejection of the old dogmas, and a renewed process of finding “new and improved” definitions.  In this sense, in the last four hundred years Western Christian thought has been going through a process of discovering its own beliefs not unlike that of the first five centuries of Christendom.  Whether this is an ascent on the eternal spiral of human self-discovery, or the West’s attempt at reinventing the wheel is a topic for a different paper.  It suffices to say here that while some of the ideas born by modern Christian theologians do excite the taste with their freshness, many others fail to find their way out of the graveyard of ancient heresies.


Mulder: I want to believe.

(“X-Files: Conduit” [Season 1, episode 3, 1993])

A fascinating example of such lack of clarity of thought can be found in the writings of William James (1842-1910), an American psychologist, philosopher, and theologian, and a Gifford Lecturer.  Of course, James represents a type of theologian quite different from the Great Cappadocians or the Scholastics.  Nonetheless, through his lectures titled The Varieties of Religious Experience delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1900-02, James finds himself influencing modern Western religious thought alongside Karl Barth (Gifford Lecturer in 1936-38), Paul Tillich (1953-54), and Rudolf Bultmann (1954-55), to name only a few.

In his lecture The Will to Believe published in 1897, James attempts a rather convoluted way of violating the principles of Evidentialism in order to justify the otherwise-unjustifiable belief in God.  James’ mental contraption involves first treating the belief in God as a hypothesis, observing the emotional consequences of such an allowance, and then graduating the hypothesis into a legitimate belief based on the observed evidence proving the hypothesis’ truth.

While examining The Will to Believe doctrine in detail is not our intent, it nonetheless shows the core concern of some strands of Western thought—individual gratification above any notion of objective truth.  One’s beliefs are justified based merely on a positive emotional response that one gets from the act of believing.  Besides the obvious conundrum that in this system a belief in God is placed on the same level with a belief in the Jedi Force—both are capable of evoking positive emotions—and is therefore divorced from any notion of ontological truth, The Will to Believe doctrine has basic logical flaws that earned it a mock-name “The Wish to Believe.”  If one merely hypothesizes about the existence of God, such a hypothesis is not yet a belief and any emotional or empirical evidence that supports this hypothesis is not produced by a belief, but by a wish to believe, thus placing the entire machination into the realm of the subjective experience of the human mind, not communion with the living God.  And as such, any evidence produced by the mind in response to its wishes cannot be used to violate the principles of Evidentialism.

Such questionable logic is also employed in James’ presentation of his doctrine.  Laying the preliminary foundation, the Harvard professor asks his students:

Can we, by just willing it, believe that Abraham Lincoln’s existence is a myth, and that the portraits of him in McClure’s Magazine are all of some one else?  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?  We can say any of these things, but we are absolutely impotent to believe them… (97)

As convincing as these examples may appear at first glance, they are, nonetheless, flawed.  Of course, it is not the examples themselves that are of importance, but the fact that they are used as building blocks for James’ argumentation.  First, the examples are not of equal value: by the time James was addressing his audience in 1897, Lincoln had been dead for over two decades.  Unless one had had personal encounters with the sixteenth President of the United States, any belief in his existence would necessarily have been based on trust in the experience of others—whether an acquaintance or a reporter for the McClure’s Magazine. A belief in Lincoln’s existence, in this respect, is similar to a belief in the supposed fact that the Earth is round: most people can clearly see that the Earth is flat and have to trust someone else’s report that it is round; most people present at James’ lecture clearly could not see Lincoln in the classroom among them and had to trust others that his existence was not a myth.  As such, a belief based on trust is not always self-evident, and a fellow American, William Carpenter, who had died only a year before James’ lecture, published a booklet in 1885 titled One Hundred Proofs that the Earth Is Not a Globe, which incidentally was dedicated to Richard A. Proctor, a famous English astronomer.

“Roaring with rheumatism in bed,” on the other hand, is hardly a matter of trusting someone else’s account of our physiological condition.  However, being one of the founders of psychology as a science, James was well aware of the power of the mind and the effect that autosuggestion can have on our bodies.  An ill person may believe himself to be well, which may even help him get well, reports of which occurrences had been in just as wide a circulation as the reports of encounters with ghosts that James used in his scholarship.  On the other hand, a person who has no illness may believe that he is sick, which just might bring about some malady, or at least a very real experience of illness.

Moreover, patristic thought, in which James was also well-versed, speaks of people being sick with the illness of sin, and not believing in this fact, despite overwhelming evidence.  People believe themselves to be well, which makes it impossible for them to accept Christ as the Saviour—they do not believe that they need to be saved from anything.  Even more striking, many people live as if they will never die, despite strong evidence that the death rate among humans is near one hundred percent.  Clearly living with a terminal illness called “life,” many humans nonetheless believe themselves to be well, do not think about death, and seem to live in oblivion.

Finally, the last small example that James employs is probably the best for what he hopes to show.  Although 1+1 does not always equal 2, conventional arithmetic is used in the modern financial system (some “creative accounting practices” notwithstanding), and after handing two one-dollar bills to a grocer, James would be likely to get only about two dollars worth of groceries, quite regardless of what he chooses to believe.  This evidentiary truth, however, is irrelevant to the method that James proposes, since it is not only impossible to believe that the sum of two one-dollar bills is one hundred, but it is equally as ridiculous to propose a hypothesis to this effect, to see whether one might feel better about his financial situation or not.  In the words of James himself, such a hypothesis would be dead (96)—not because 1+1 cannot equal 100 in any known version of arithmetic, but because James is putting the cart before the horse.  An adult knows this hypothesis to be false because he already possesses previously obtained evidence to the contrary.  A child who does not already possess such evidence, on the other hand, may be easily convinced that 1+1 is anything one (including the child himself) wishes to falsely propose.  Those charged with educating children are well aware of this phenomenon.

Here we must pay attention to the fact that this lecture is not a transcript of a speech but a written essay that was delivered as a lecture at Harvard and subsequently published.  Perhaps, James’ students did not mind so much certain sloppiness in their professor’s argumentation, but here is another illustration of the same:

If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,—it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all.  As an hypothesis it is completely dead. (96)

Indeed, a modern American of Anglo-Saxon lineage may find no electric connection in the word “Mahdi.”  However, some may not connect with the word “Moshiach” either.  Of course, some will immediately recognize that “Moshiach” is an anglicized version of the Hebrew Mašía or Messiah.  Likewise, some will also recognize that Mahdi, or the “Guided One,” is a prophet who, according to Islamic eschatology, will come before the “Day of the Resurrection.”  So, let us replace the Arabic “Mahdi” with its English equivalent:

If I ask you to believe in the [prophet who will come before the Day of the Resurrection], the notion makes no electric connection with your nature…

Why, this is hardly so!  Many a Christian would be quite inclined to accept a hypothesis that a prophet will come before the eschatological end.  In other words, James’ example is based on nothing more than manipulations with a foreign word.  If we ask the reader to believe that Вашингтон was the first president of the United States, there may indeed be a lack of electricity in the air, until we reveal an “inconvenient truth” that Вашингтон is Russian for “Washington.”  Now sparks will fly!  The only thing this proves, we are afraid, is that James’ students may not have been versed in Islamic eschatology,—not exactly the point that James appears to be making.

There is another possibility: in the second half of the nineteenth century, three men claimed to have been Mahdi—a fact of which both James and his students probably were aware.  Báb in 1844, Muhammad Ahmad in 1882, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad around 1889—all claimed to have been the Mahdi.  Perhaps James meant to propose to his students a hypothesis that Muhammad Ahmad was the prophet?  It may be impossible to know for sure, but a hypothesis that specifically Ahmad was the prophet would be less alive than the general hypothesis that a prophet had appeared in the Middle East.  Although, to our taste, both are much more alive than any hypothesis that a prophet by the name of Joseph Smith had appeared in Pennsylvania, or that a prophet’s name was Ellen G. White.

Having rejected the hypothesis of a prophet in the Middle East as dead to his audience, James asserts that “to an Arab … the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive.  This follows,” James continues, “that deadness or liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to an individual thinker” (96).  Yet again we are presented with the mixing of categories in James’ thought process: the primary difference between white Americans and Arabs (or any other two groups of people) is cultural and social, rather than strictly and specifically individual.  Thus, if we were to speak of Americans generally rejecting the proposal to believe in the Mahdi, and Arabs generally being more open to such a proposal, then deadliness and liveness are not related to an individual thinker, but to an entire group of thinkers who are bound by the same culture, worldview, and faith.

One may note—quite correctly—that we have been splitting hairs in our treatment of James.  Yes, we have; but we must also remember that we are working with an academic presentation of a doctrine by an Ivy-League professor, which fact hardly makes such treatment of the work unwarranted.  It must also be noted that thus far we have only looked at James’ preliminary or preparatory arguments, without actually examining his doctrine.  But if such is the foundation that he is building (too much sand and not enough cement, we think), then is James’ hypothesis to us dead or alive?

*          *

In some ways, what James actually has to say is quite irrelevant in a truly religious context.  Unlike philosophy which seems to arrive at the idea of God through rational contemplation and in which framework a hypothesis-evidence-belief process can serve a useful purpose, religion (at least, Christianity) places evidence primary to belief.  The myrrh-bearers did not hypothesize that Christ was risen to test their emotional response.  Apparently, such a hypothesis was quite dead to them, in both its literal and figurative senses.  They came looking for a dead man, but found an empty tomb.  The hypothesis of Christ’s resurrection was also dead for Saul who was persecuting those for whom the hypothesis was alive (by the way, not Arabs, but fellow Jews).  Yet later Paul said: “I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim. 1:12), perhaps pointing to knowledge coming before belief.  Of course, not everyone who believes in Christ was blinded on the road to Damascus, but neither do most Christians overly concern themselves with testing out various hypotheses before believing (and in our view—regretfully so).

Much as the proposal that the Earth is a globe, Christian faith is usually accepted on the authority in the reports of those whom we trust.  In the most immediate sense, it is our parents, or perhaps pastors; but in the original sense, it is the saints, beginning with the Apostles, whose experience we trust as authoritative.  That experience, which we are all too often too lazy to replicate in our own lives, serves to us as the evidence necessary for our faith.  It is to the Gospel stories and to the lives of the saints of the Church (at least, in traditional Christianity) that we often turn for support when doubt begins to corrupt our belief.  And as with any set of data, it is important to consider the source.  For example, if we put our trust in the authority of Saint Teresa of Avila and other Western ecstatics, we might view theogamy (in the Merezhkovskian sense of the word) as an acceptable path of Christian mysticism.  On the other hand, turning to the authority of the Eastern Christian mystics, one would be compelled to reject theogamy (again, in the Merezhkovskian sense) as an unacceptable practice and to pursue other mystical experiences.

All of these distinctions, though quite pronounced in many well-known Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox works on this topic, get almost completely muddled in James’ Gifford lectures on religious mysticism.  This, we must concede, is not completely unwarranted.  James is covering extremely large areas of human experience, jumping over centuries and millennia, and leaping across continents.  Undoubtedly, James is well-aware of these limitations (see, for example, his laments about Catholic mysticism [357]), as well as of the fact that his treatment of mysticism is almost academic,—he admits to having a constitution that prevents him from enjoying mystical states of consciousness (332).

This passing remark linking the very possibility of mystical experiences to one’s physique and temperament (for such seems to be the definition of the word “constitution”), concocted with James’ definition of mystical states of consciousness as he presents it in his lectures, create a view of religious mysticism with which we cannot agree.  James defines mystical states of consciousness as those that have the following characteristics: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity (333-4).  All of these concepts are purely subjective, and James applies them quite loosely.  What is missing is any relation to anything religious.  A belief in anything above the top of one’s head (or below one’s feet) is not at all required in order to have an ineffably noetic transient experience that is loosely passive.  And it does indeed somewhat depend on one’s constitution whether that person is able or willing to follow through with such “mysticism.”

Any distinction between truly religious experiences and those produced by one’s imagination or even in a state of intoxication are completely absent in James’ analysis of the phenomenon.  In part, this lack of clarity may be due to the overwhelming lack of clarity in the entire corpus of James’ Gifford Lectures.  If “religion” is defined as “that” (41), does it make any difference that “that” is not even mentioned among the defining characteristics of the phenomenon in which James sees “the root and centre” of “personal religious experience” (332)?  Would it make any difference if “that” were mentioned?

Under James’ definition, the possibility of having an ineffable, noetic, transient, passive experience, which can thus be classified as mystical, cannot be denied an atheist, not to mention an agnostic.  It is at best unclear then just what would make such an experience be worthy of taking its place among the Varieties of Religious Experience.  Moreover, an American highschooler experimenting with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Saint Teresa in her Trasverberatio, and Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus—all, in James’ account, are having the same experience (mystical state of consciousness).  Undoubtedly, all are indeed experiencing many similar states: all are living and breathing and all are humans in a state of consciousness.  But to make no differentiation between entheogens (nitrous oxide in James’ lectures [339]), a self-induced orgasmic ecstatic trance, and what appears to be a genuine apparition, or at the least not to address the issue, is either an extreme case of a relativistic bias based on the supremacy of the subjective personal experience—the one factor that is present in all human experience of any kind—or James is exhibiting a desire to treat mysticism as a psychological issue, devoid of any religious properties.

To be sure, James is well-aware of the trademarks that can be used in analyzing mystical experiences.  He writes, for example, that mystical experiences in Yoga are achieved through “diet, posture, breathing, intellectual concentration, and moral discipline” (351)—ways that take time and effort, and are quite different from the “anaesthetic revelations” produced by nitrous oxide (339-40).  Yet, it seems that the end results are all the same to James—an absolutely subjective experience which is absolutely meaningful and authoritative only to the patient himself—breaks down the authority of rationalistic consciousness, and is not intrinsically authoritative to anyone else whatsoever (370).  In other words, this relativistic understanding of mysticism is indistinguishable from the common definition of the Delusional Disorder or Delirium, if we consider the characteristic of transiency.  And this is also something of which James appears to be aware, at least as he analyzes J. A. Symonds’ “mysticism” (338), yet James shies away from a more insightful treatment of the topic.

*          *          *

Scully: You believe it all, don’t you?

Mulder: Why wouldn’t I?

(“X-Files: Deep Throat” [Season 1, episode 1, 1993])

Insightful treatment of religious issues, including mysticism, was certainly to be found both before James’ lifetime and during it, but James makes no references to them.  Precise theological language, clear definitions, and the corpus of previously accomplished philosophical work continue to be present as prominent markers for both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought, but James appears not to be using them.  There is something undeniably alluring in this rejection of tradition and experience, and in starting anew, blazing a new trail.  In doing so, however, one risks ending up in the wrong neck of the woods and reducing the human religious quest to looking for a hypothesis that would make one happy; or proposing that one can easily become a mystic by taking a whiff of laughing gas.  Such “forward-looking” thinking turns religion from the experience of the ultimate reality into the ultimate self-deception.  This, however, is not religion to those who choose to define it more precisely than just “that.”

The varieties of human religious experience do in fact have much in common, but at the same time there are characteristics which make them varietal, rather than same.  In our view, these characteristics deserve much attention as they are fundamental to what we are as religious beings.  A belief in a hypostatic God, for example, shapes our life very differently from a belief in an impersonal force or in a nirvana.  Christ’s love for people, in a Buddhist context would be considered a passion which led Him to suffering, and if thus unacceptable.  Christians, on the other hand, find human sacrifices of Tibetan Buddhism or the Dalai Lama’s use of human skin for a prayer rug unacceptable.  Some may discount these differences as trivial; we view them as most profound.  Similarly, the differences within Christianity are not always skin-deep, as much as some may wish to believe it so.  These differences—which are not individual, but run deep through the various Christian creeds, groups, and denominations—profoundly affect worldviews, beliefs, and behaviors.  And it is the rigorous and insightful treatment of these differences that James’ work appears to be wanting.

*          *          *

James, William. “The Will to Believe.” Pelikan, Jaroslav. The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990. 95-114.

—, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Charleston, BiblioBazaar, 2007.


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