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William James's 'The Will to Believe': How Belief Shapes How We Reason
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William James, one of a few philosophers who established pragmatism, tells us how everything we “rationalize” is based right off the bat from belief. And how facts can't be described as facts unless there was some faith previously existing.
A very valid point of view that could pretty much counterargument the conservatives famous slogan, “Facts do not care about your feelings.” Well, guess they do care about your feelings.
Every single thing that we try to rationalize, every single thing that we try to question in order to reach truth; has a hypothesis that is based on a previous belief that may have no clear evidence.
Before William tries to prove his point, he guides us to what he believes are options that we face when proving a hypothesis as true. He argues that some options are forced, some of them genuine, others more lived, and some others momentous or intellectually open.
William is an empiricist, meaning he believes that knowledge is acquired only through experience and senses; this means that he believes that “objective truth” is out of the question, and that being “rational” or “skeptic” are just ways of life based on the idea of negating any claim as truth. He says that being skeptic is also led by passion; it is the same as saying that, it is better and wiser to lean on the fear of being wrong than to lean on hope that it may be true. Skepticism is not intellect, but just a passion laying on its own law, the passion for seeking truth.
William asks the following questions:
Would you rather live a life based on fear of error, by always claiming anything as falsehood? Or live a life where you choose hope over fear? What makes you believe it is better to fall for falsehood through hope than through fear?
“Better risk loss of truth than chance of error.” - William James
William claims that science and its method of verification are in themselves guided by belief, and it might seem like if science ceased to care for truth at all; since truth is only truth when technically verified with something that interests science in the first place.
Just as Spinoza claims that “passions are stronger than reason,” William believes that “when one is in love with an idea or belief we naturally decline to touch any affirmative form that contradicts it.”
William argues many things to prove his point throughout his essay, one of them being that in a social organism, like a society, people rely on faith or belief to make the organism work as intended. Members of society need to achieve things, and the organisms are based on the belief and faith that everyone will do their part, even when laws are established. With this argument, he claims that faith can then help create the facts, and the things that we consider as truth. An army, a government, a business, a soccer team, are all examples of organisms that have this condition.
I really like William James’s essay, and as someone who has a hard time trying to describe herself as an empiricist or rationalist, I can perfectly say that I wouldn’t consider myself a true rationalist; because, even though I like to base my decisions and conclusions on “facts”; I believe that reason has its limits, and it can be prone to make fallacies. This is because people’s beliefs influence the premises of their arguments, and thus might influence the conclusions they get.
This can lead us to say that we often elaborate premises based on probabilities, the higher the probability of something the more we claim it as truth. This can be proven with the classic Aristotelian example:
All men are mortal
Socrates was a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal
This leads us to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal, because all men who came before him were mortal, and he was also a man. However, even if we know these two premises are true and the argument is valid, we may reach different conclusions based on how we interpret the premises themselves.
Do we really know that men are mortal? All we know on this argument is that “all men that came before Socrates were mortal”, and that is why we claim these premises as true. We are accepting them as true because experience has taught us that men are indeed mortal; there has been enough evidence, and therefore, there is a high probability that we can continue to claim that “all men are mortal” as a fact. Despite this, even though we, “reason,” we are still using “facts” which are based on beliefs that were obtained through our experiences.
This example might be hard to digest, but we could say something like this to make it clearer:
Many canines are pets
Wolves and dogs are canines
Therefore, some canines that are kept as pets are wolves and dogs.
Despite the fact that our premises are true and the argument is valid. We know that the conclusion is technically false, or at least unsound, because wolves cannot live in the same conditions as dogs. This is based on experience, which created the belief that “wolves can’t be pets”. However, this conclusion can clearly be stated this way instead, “wolves, until now, haven’t been proven to be able to live as pets,” changing the meaning of the full argument and our conclusions.
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